‘Love It Or List It’ homeowners sue over Raleigh renovation

HGTV’s “Love It or List It” hosts Hilary Farr and David Visentin.
HGTV’s “Love It or List It” hosts Hilary Farr and David Visentin. HGTV

A Chatham County couple turned to HGTV network’s “Love It Or List It” last year when they were considering renovating a rental property they had in Raleigh and moving into it with teenage foster children.

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Deena Murphy and Timothy Sullivan had done several home renovation projects before and knew such an undertaking could be time-consuming.

The two decided to turn to a designer, and as regular viewers of HGTV, a cable channel devoted to all things home and garden, Murphy and Sullivan poked around on the Web and found themselves drawn to a “Love It Or List It” advertisement.

The show, which bills itself as “a Hit TV series,” tries to entice “homeowners whose home, for whatever reason, doesn’t suit their needs anymore.” Then in an hourlong show, viewers see a crew renovate the home, show the couple other homes in the area geared to a big reveal at the end: Will the couple love the redesigned home or list it for sale?

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Murphy and Sullivan contend in a lawsuit filed in Durham County Superior Court that the program’s “big reveal” in their case, revealed big problems for which they hope to be compensated.

The lawsuit was filed against Big Coat TV – the Canadian-based company that produces the show, and Aaron Fitz Construction, a North Carolina contractor hired to do the renovations.

The couple contend that not only were they victims of shoddy work, they also suffered from a breach of contract, unfair trade practices in violation of North Carolina’s general contractor laws and a “bizarre” business model that creates an “inherent conflict of interest” for a production company that makes most of its money on TV advertising.

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James White, the Chapel Hill attorney representing Murphy and Sullivan, said this past week that the couple signed a confidentiality agreement with the show and he had recommended they not talk outside the courtroom about their case.

“We are aware of the lawsuit,” Maria Armstrong, CEO and executive producer of Big Coat Productions/Big Coat TV, said in a statement. “Because this matter involves ongoing litigation, our attorneys have advised us and we feel that making a comment would be inappropriate at this time. However, we do intend to vigorously defend what we consider to be false allegations.”

The lawsuit offers a glimpse into what’s often advertised as “reality TV” and the amount of staging entailed.

“The show is scripted, with ‘roles’ and reactions assigned to the various performers and participants, including the homeowners,” the lawsuit states.

The “Love It Or List It” hosts are Hilary Farr, who is touted as an international home designer who has done projects throughout the world, and David Visentin, a Canadian real estate agent.

Eric Eremita is portrayed as the general contractor, but the suit says he is not licensed to work in North Carolina. Before joining “Love It Or List It,” Eremita worked as a contractor on Staten Island, N.Y., and caught the eye of HGTV while competing on its “Brother vs. Brother” show in which twins Jonathan and Drew Scott compete against each other on home improvement projects with teams they have compiled.

“These characters are actors or television personalities playing a role for the camera,” the lawsuit contends, “and in this case none of them played more than a casual role in the actual renovation process.”

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Murphy and Sullivan, or Deena and Sully as they are referred to on episode 152 of “Love It Or List It,” were selected for the series in April 2015.

Sullivan owned the house at 7212 Catamount Court in North Raleigh and had been leasing it as a rental property before contacting the show.

As part of the agreement with Big Coat, the lawsuit contends, the couple would “deposit” $140,000 with the production company and would use the money only to pay for work performed by Aaron Fitz, the Triangle-based contractor, or its subcontractors. Efforts to reach Aaron Fitzgerald, the owner of the contracting company, were unsuccessful.

Aaron Fitz was not the couple’s choice, and they voiced their concerns about below average ratings they had seen for the company on Angie’s List.

Between July 30 and Sept. 24, when the “big reveal” was to be taped, Big Coat disbursed $85,786.50 to Aaron Fitz.

Not only does the suit allege that Big Coat acted as a general contractor, it questions why payments agreed to under the terms of the contract were not distributed.

The couple contend that renovation design work used by the show was a scaled down version of plans the couple had gotten before contacting the show from Werx-Design Build and Thomas W. Deloach Jr., a general contractor licensed in North Carolina.

The couple allege that “Love It Or List It” did not use a licensed architect to develop renovation plans, that they never were shown houses on the market by any North Carolina licensed real estate agent who had the ability to broker the sale of those homes and were left to put up with “disastrous work done by Big Coat and its subcontractors.”

The floor in the home was “irreparably damaged,” they contend, and duct work left holes in the floor “through which vermin could enter the house.” They complain of low-grade industrial carpeting, unpainted surfaces and windows painted shut.

“Big Coat’s purported agreement,” the lawsuit contends, “admits that it is in the business of television production, not construction. ... The homeowners’ funds essentially pay the cost of creating a stage set for this television series.”

Chip and Joanna Gaines, hosts of the wildly popular HGTV’s “Fixer Upper”, talked with the media prior to making their appearance Saturday at the Greater Kansas City Home Show at Bartle Hall.