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September 27, 2012

Bergenfield family's 'Extreme Makeover' dream come true turns into a burden

From: - ‎Sep 27, 2012‎


Six years ago, ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” drew crowds and tears as local contractors transformed a Bergenfield split-level into an elegant, state-of-the-art home, complete with solar panels and an interactive control system for the Llanes family.

Today, the home is for sale, its tall blue doors locked, the phone line disconnected. The Llaneses are moving south, seeking the support of their extended families, a calmer life and lower taxes.

“We are very sorry to leave the house,” said father Vicente “Vic” Llanes, speaking Wednesday from Virginia Beach, Va., where the family is staying with relatives. “We were happy, but things change.”

They are not the first “Extreme Makeover” family whose new home was too outsized for their lives. Reports have emerged in recent years of former projects across the country in foreclosure, as families struggled to sustain their grand new residences. The change comes as the Llanes family faces several challenges: worsening disabilities, children leaving the nest, and an increasingly expensive home far from their extended family.

Vic, 48, is blind; his two daughters, Carrie, 19, and Guen, 26, have lost their sight to aniridia, the same degenerative disease afflicting their father. His son, Zeb, 22, was born deaf, after Maria Llanes contracted German measles during pregnancy.

Maria, 45, is not disabled, but is in remission from thyroid cancer. She works as a physical therapist in New York City.

“We kind of landed up there for work reasons, but our family is down South,” Maria said. “There is a point in your life when you want to be with your family.”

The Llanes family came from the Philippines in 1997, and bought 141 New Bridge Road in 2002 for $232,000, with a $223,706 mortgage, public records show. Vic’s mother, Isabel, who is also blind, lived with them in the narrow split-level.

The First Baptist Church of Hackensack lobbied to bring “Extreme Makeover” to the Llanes family, and in May 2006, a camera crew, builders from Chatham-based Pinnacle Cos. and hundreds of volunteers showed up at their front door.

A week later, the family returned to a bigger home with more than $100,000 in technology, ranging from reading systems for the blind and deaf to a home computer system named “Rosie,” for the robot maid on “The Jetsons.”

“It is such a well-built house,” Maria said. Vic called the technology “icing on the cake.”

But with improvements come costs — higher taxes and maintenance. Like many “Extreme Makeover” renovations, the Llanes home risked becoming a victim of its own success.

A Sandpoint, Idaho, family refinanced twice before their new home was foreclosed on in 2009, the series’ first known foreclosure. A Lake City, Ga., family filed for bankruptcy in 2008 to stave off foreclosure on its towering four-bedroom home built by the show in 2005. The Okvaths, of Arizona, lasted four years in their “Extreme Makeover” home before they put it on the market, unable to pay its utility bills and taxes.

There are at least a dozen more, documented in local and national newspapers.

In 2007, acting Gov. Richard Codey signed a law that allowed municipalities to give disabled recipients of charitable renovations a five-year tax abatement on their property improvements.

The law also helped an Irvington family whose home was destroyed by fire and rebuilt by “Extreme Makeover.” Beverly Turner housed 12 disabled, adopted, and foster children in a ramshackle house — the renovation was at the time the largest in the show’s history.

Bergenfield’s council approved the ordinance giving the Llanes family a tax break. Mayor Timothy Driscoll recalls a conversation with Vic Llanes from around that time: “He was concerned at the time that there would be a problem at the end of five years,” Driscoll said.

In 2002, 141 New Bridge was assessed at $117,300. Last year, it was assessed at $443,800 — well above Bergenfield’s average home value. Today, the home is listed for $449,000.

The family paid $6,488 in taxes in 2007 and over $13,000 in 2011, records show. The real estate listing puts 2012 taxes at more than $15,000.

The Llaneses have been paying full taxes for a year, they said. They know selling the home could be tough in the current market. “We’re hoping,” Maria said.

“If you take this house, you put in thousands of dollars worth of electronics, you make it even more expensive,” Driscoll said. “It really is a shame.”

ABC has said they tried to keep maintenance costs low on the houses built by “Extreme Makeover,” but in the end, that responsibility rests with the homeowner.

“I don’t have any data on how frequently or infrequently it happens,” said ABC representative Patrick Preblick, of families leaving their homes. An email to Endemol USA, the show’s production company, was not returned Thursday.

The network canceled “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” last year. In nine seasons, the show built more than 200 homes around the country, earning awards and celebrity appearances.

Maria Llanes said finances and family pressures weren’t the only factors pushing them to sell — the weather didn’t help either.

“It is so cold up there,” Maria said, laughing.

Daughter Guen is now married and lives in North Carolina with her two children. Family members have been pressuring them to leave New Jersey, especially since Carrie, the youngest, graduated from Bergenfield High School last year, and Isabel moved to a nursing home. But the move will be an adjustment, both parents say.

“We can start again,” Vic said. “Maria wants something a little more laid back, not the New York hustle and bustle.”

“It will definitely be a much simpler life,” Maria said. “We will all miss Bergenfield, but everybody will adjust.”


© 2012 North Jersey Media Group