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The allure of ‘House Hunters International’

Whether it’s the Seychelles islands, Bangkok or the French countryside, this real estate fairy tale unfolds in the same fashion: a buyer looks at three houses and, like Goldilocks, picks the one that’s just right.

In this corner of reality TV, there are no gut-wrenching financing issues, no mortgage worries or closing negotiations, no tedious weekends full of overpriced open houses. This is HGTV’s surprise hit program “House Hunters International,” where travelogue meets fantasy for a happy ending.

A spinoff of HGTV’s “House Hunters,” the 5-year-old show has surprised network executives with its strong ratings, which run neck and neck with its popular original series, and follows a similar format, except for traveling well beyond America’s borders. Even more impressive is that the international version has risen to the top of the network’s ratings during a decidedly down domestic real estate market.

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The world is a big place, and there’s apparently no shortage of housing for those with a budget that falls between middle class and super rich. The show has more than 330 episodes under its belt, with plenty more on the way, and its locales are as varied and exotic as the globe itself.

While seeming to favor Europe and Central America, house hunters have traveled to Kenya, Botswana, Egypt, Israel, New Zealand, Iceland, China and Vietnam — countries on every continent, except Antarctica. But sometimes, the real world intrudes on their reality venture. The show recently was slated to shoot in Syria, but concerns over protests and violence canceled the plan.

“It’s everybody’s dream to own a home, therefore it’s a perfect vehicle for a reality TV show,” says Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York. “‘House Hunters International’ appeals to people on a fantastic level. Getting a home in someplace special, an exotic part of the world, is a deluxe dream come true.”

As any real estate shopper knows, it takes looking at a lot more than three places to find a home. And this, of course, is one of the fantasy elements of the entire “House Hunters” brand: Buy a home in 30 minutes, no sweat! The myriad complexities of buying a home internationally are stripped away — or edited out.

“When we started doing the series, we wanted to tell the real stories of regular people trying to make these moves, not just people with tons of money that want to buy a second home in Belize,” says John Bertholon, executive producer at Leopard Films, which has produced the last 100 or so episodes. “We really try to concentrate on getting to know the people, the situation that they’re coming out of, understanding the stakes.”

The show works primarily with English-speaking buyers, who sometimes are American. The international shoppers provide an additional window into the world beyond America’s borders: There was the young Irishman who opened a bagel shop in Sofia, Bulgaria; the South African couple who left for Noosa, Australia; and, an Israeli woman whose list of must-haves for a Tel Aviv apartment included a bomb shelter.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in interest in how people live overseas — there’s a greater fascination,” says Freddy James, senior vice president of HGTV Program Development and Production. “It’s also part of the dream. Everyone has the if-they-could-live-under-the-Tuscan-sun dream.”

Or their Hong Kong dream, or their Amsterdam dream, or their Rio de Janeiro dream.

The dream usually seems to cost at least several hundred thousand dollars, but easily ventures into the millions of dollars as well — as with the couple who sold their Honolulu condo and had $2 million to shop for a beachfront property in Fiji. (Not everyone buys on the show, some rent.)

Leopard Films produces about a show every week, sometimes more. Bertholon compares his production company to the Pentagon, sending teams out all over the world. They use 10 to 15 director/producers, each of whom travels with a cameraperson and soundperson, sometimes using local production talent.

In most cases, they also hire “a fixer,” someone who knows the language, the lay of the land and, Bertholon says, “hopefully, has some clue as to how television works.” The shooting also includes a return visit to the buyer, which could be four days or four months later.

How television works — reality shows in particular — means if things seem a bit rehearsed, they are. Buyers usually know which property they want before the cameras are ever turned on.

“Most of the time it’s a house the client already decided they wanted,” says Nadia Villarreal, a Realtor with Sotheby’s International Realty who appeared on the domestic version of the show about eight years ago. “It’s already happened. You just kind of go back and re-create the process with the camera.”

The formula seems to be working its ratings magic. Over the last month, the show has averaged roughly 1.5 million viewers per episode — a very respectable figure for a reality show on a basic cable network.

“I watch every episode I can,” Patricia Ann McNair, an Illinois-based writer and professor, said in an email. “It is like imagining my life in various incarnations. ‘If I were rich, I’d...’ ‘If I could live anywhere....’ ‘When we retire, we...’”

Being invested in the proceedings is what Scott Burau, a project manager at Deloitte LLC in Los Angeles, finds addictive about the show.

“We know that the house is too small or too far from the city center or in a state of disrepair, and yet these fools have decided to make it their home!” Burau said via email; he watches episode after episode with his partner, who manages downtown’s Eastern Columbia Lofts. “It just doesn’t get old.”

With retirement about 15 years in the future, McNair and her husband, a British-born artist, consider an international move a genuine possibility.

“I am lucky to have a partner who is not fearful of making such a move,” she writes. “Give me an old stone sink and thick wooden beams with an outbuilding that used to be used for milking over a shower surrounded by marble any day.”

That’s a fantasy many viewers can indulge in — from the safety of their couches.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com


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