Yes, that is an Airstream in my living room

Special to The Times

As the trucks from "Monster House" pulled up in front of my Agoura Hills house, little did I know that within one week, I would spy, cheat, barter, cajole, be humiliated and sweat before millions of viewers on national TV. All for the prize of living in a home destined to be known as the Family Vacation House.

The Discovery Channel's "Monster House" takes a themed remodel to an extreme. I had applied for a log cabin makeover, but the producers wanted to save that idea, so I suggested an all-American approach. When the designer saw the house, he decided to send us on a permanent vacation.

It never occurred to me that I could end up camping indoors for the rest of my life.

Before "the reveal" -- to borrow TV jargon for the moment when cameras pan between the results and the homeowners' reaction -- I need to make "the confession." After my family of four was sent to live in a trailer (talk about foreshadowing) in the front yard for five days, our basic survival instincts kicked in. Big time.

Imagine if you could hear hammering, hollering and pounding and see barrels filled with who-knows-what being carted into your house but haven't an inkling what five builders are doing in the five days they consider your house their own. By the end of Day 1, my husband, Eric, and I had to know more.

If you want to maintain any sense of dignity when fellow passengers recognize you at the airport, you should avoid the following behaviors. I now realize my insatiable curiosity made for pretty good television, and I wonder: Did the producers unscramble some secret code on the application I'd filled out via the Internet only three weeks before? Had I checked the boxes that said "willing to look like a complete idiot" and "gullible to a fault"?

On that first night of exile, Eric scaled a neighbor's fence to sneak into a field behind our house to get as close as he could to our high back fence. He thrust the video camera high over his head to see if he could record anything. The resulting videotape zoomed in and out of blackness. I never laughed so hard in my life.

I became a dumpster diver, rummaging through the huge trash bin, desperate for clues. Did I mention that dignity and grace are not my strengths? My ever-helpful neighbors -- who really are my best friends when not swept up in the excitement of being bit players on a reality show -- discarded items in the bin that misled us. When I spotted redwood, I mistakenly thought my backyard pergola was being redone.

By Day 2, I was bent on finding out something. But I forgot what should be another axiom for surviving any reality show: Trust no one. In the presence of TV cameras, people will turn on you faster than you can be hit by food poisoning. Neighbors on both sides of my house pointed out that you could clearly see my backyard by straddling the sink of their second-story bathrooms and peering out a tiny window. Egged on by my next-door neighbor, Suzie Boots, I sneaked a peek, which made me only want to get closer.

So I climbed the Boots' pool slide to look over the fence, only to have a staffer document my snooping with a Polaroid camera after Boots ratted me out. And, surprise, surprise, the camera angle was far from flattering. The lecture on camera was only the beginning of my humiliation.The show struck back by tarping off the back of the house. Even the neighbors grumbled that they couldn't see anything after that.

On Day 3, which happened to be my birthday, a somber city inspector pulled me aside with horrifying news. There were major problems with the build. The show's builders cut a hole through the kitchen wall and sliced through a water pipe, he said. The steel that lined the kitchen walls was not up to code and could easily catch on fire. Everything would have to be ripped out.

And there was more: They'd discovered that the slab under our house was uneven, which meant we would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it right. On and on he went, rattling off a laundry list of calamities.

Sick with panic, all I could think of was getting to the privacy of the trailer so I could call my husband. About this time, show host and "monster foreman" Steve Watson walked up and said, "This is what you get for sneaking a peek -- happy birthday." When it didn't register, the crew had to spell it out for me by saying, "It's a joke, Melissa." Hidden cameras filmed away. My husband had been a major instigator. Thanks, dear.

Still, that didn't stop us. On the final day of the build, I knew something big was going down. We deduced this from the many powwows and cameramen slinking around, following the builders at a distance. Eric put on my daughters' toy spy headset and stuck the microphone out the trailer window to try to hear what was going on.

Pay dirt. I laughed so hard, I almost gave us away. He could plainly hear that one of the builders was about to get booted off the show for not doing his share of the work. It turns out he was also trying to sneak out early and still get his share of the prizes, $4,000 in tools for completing the job within the five-day window. I wished we would have used the Spy Gear Listening Device earlier in the week.

My neighbors had devised a "Monster" pool with a $5 per-square buy-in to bet on all the crazy things that might end up in our house. From a grid filled with 99 items, they could bet on whether a license plate (a winner) or Mt. Rushmore (thankfully, a loser) would end up as our decor. One neighbor said, "What about a trailer?" I laughed and replied, "They'd never do a trailer inside." Little did I know.

The neighborhood became so involved that for the first time, the 2-year-old show decided to let 60-some neighbors watch the reveal on a live feed. My street threw a festive vacation-themed potluck and everyone came dressed as tourists.

In the end, our house was transformed into a monster campground. Our new entertainment center was the back of a 1965 Airstream trailer with a plasma TV in place of the window. Our fireplace was faced with river rock. The dining room included a built-in camper loft that you enter from the kitchen and a pull-down dining room table shaped like the back of an RV. Our kitchen was redecorated to look like it is inside a trailer.

It looks far cooler than it sounds. Really.

In the year since the reveal, our indoor campground has become something of a mini-curiosity. We've hosted two birthday sleepovers, one Girl Scout camp-in, a kindergarten tour and untold walk-ins.

I remain grateful for the quality workmanship, for city inspectors who made sure the work would hold up once the cameras went away and to the show for coming up with an inspired theme. Notice I didn't say chic.

We've changed only two things. I hated the boar's head over the fireplace, with its creepy animal eyes that gave me the willies. When our 20-year-old neighbor asked for it, he got it the night of the reveal. We also repainted a purple living room wall orange so it would better match the new forest wallpaper.

And we instituted a new house rule. You'll never hear a "trailer trash" joke in our house.

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Melissa Stephan is an Agoura Hills writer. She can be reached at home@latimes.com.

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