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‘Extreme Makeover’ left Ariz. family drowning in unforeseen expenses

SHARE ‘Extreme Makeover’ left Ariz. family drowning in unforeseen expenses

Among the amenities created during the extreme makeover of the Okvath family home in Gilbert. Ariz., was a finely crafted storybook of young Kassandra Okvath and her battle with cancer. Its pages cast the 9-year-old girl as a butterfly who was losing color on her wings. While away at a healing place, the story went, some of her friends spruced up her tree, making it as beautiful as she would be when she got better.

The story mirrored what happened on a 2005 episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." The popular ABC show follows a formula: It takes a hard-luck family who requests help and builds a dream house in five days.

Kassandra's letter to producers was decidedly different: She wanted the show to make over the cancer ward in Tucson, Ariz., where she had been a patient. The producers, touched by her caring nature, decided to also surprise the family with a two-story mansion.

The task used 1,600 contractors and volunteers and captured the attention of the state. An estimated 4,000 people stood in the winter rain and cold for the unveiling of the home. Cameras captured the Okvaths crying and smiling, giving the show a happy ending.

But the fairy tale soon turned grim.

The next chapters had the family straining under the weight of unexpected utility and tax bills. The story would include a foreclosure proceeding that brought the dream home within hours of being auctioned off on the steps of the county courthouse.

Four years later, the Okvaths find themselves scrambling for cash. Some months, they pick which bills to pay. Their cellular phones and cable television have been turned off at various times this year.

The Okvaths put the home up for sale this past summer and are hoping to get a clean start, possibly in another state.

"It's been frustrating," said Nichol Okvath, Kassandra's mother. "When the cameras go off, it's just a different . . . " She interrupted herself.

"Everybody thinks everything's happily ever after."

Kassandra rebounds

A bright spot in the family's life has been the health of Kassandra. The little girl, who looked so frail in photos shown on TV, appears strong and happy. Now 13, she has become a gymnast again.

But the family's finances and spirits are in need of rehabilitation.

"A lot of people think we're rich, but we have nothing," Nichol said. "We live paycheck to paycheck. We have no cushion anymore."

The show created a built-in cushion. Home builder Taylor Woodrow picked up the mortgage, allowing the Okvaths to own the home outright. It also paid property taxes and $500 toward the electricity bills each month for the first year.

But Nichol and her husband, Bryan, knew pretty quickly that the house was too much for them to afford.

"We told the media (that) we'll never move, this is the house of our dreams," she said. "But then we sat down and went through the numbers. (It was) three to four years, and then we can't live here anymore. We'll stay here as long as we can, and then we'll have to sell it."

A strain from the start

When ABC picked them to be on the show, the Okvaths were leasing the original home because they didn't want Kassandra to spend what could have been her final days in an apartment.

"We wanted her to know what having a home is," Nichol said.

During her seven-month treatment that began in October 2003, Kassandra's home was the cancer ward at the University Medical Center in Tucson.

On Sunday nights, Nichol said, the family would gather around her bed to watch "Extreme Makeover."

"It's one of my favorite memories" of that time, she recalled.

In her letter to "Extreme Makeover," Kassandra asked that a crew spruce up the drab walls of the ward. Her letter touched producers.

Kassandra and her family were sent to the Tucson hospital, along with a team of animators from Walt Disney Studios. With the family gone, the crew demolished their house and began its patented expedited remodel.

"Let's just hope we get it right," host Ty Pennington told viewers.

Before the Okvaths left for Tucson, they signed a rental agreement with "Extreme Makeover" producers, who said they might do some minor improvements. The agreement stipulated that producers had to return the house in the same or better condition.

The Okvaths, as tenants in the home, did not have the authority to approve its demolition and remodel. But producers paid the owner, who transferred ownership of the home to the Okvaths by the end of March 2005.

Size matters

The sheer size of the home -- 5,300 square feet -- was one of the initial causes of trouble for the Okvaths.

Bryan Okvath wasn't working at the time the show was filmed. He was in a downward spiral of depression, Nichol said, brought on by his father's death from cancer and his daughter's diagnosis.

With Bryan between jobs, Kassandra qualified for AHCCCS, the state's health insurance for indigents. Being covered by the state insurance program meant the family could earn a maximum of about $5,000 a month, according to state forms.

Routine bills ate up most of the family's monthly income, Nichol said. Although they no longer had rent or a house payment, utility bills soared past the $500 that the homebuilder paid each month for the first year. The first few bills were about $800, she said. By the summer, they were reaching $1,200.

The property taxes on the home quintupled. For the first-time homeowners, it was an unexpected expense.

Loan money is gone

The Okvaths used their house as collateral for a loan. In 2006, Nichol took out a $405,000 loan. It was an adjustable-rate mortgage, and the payments became too much for the family to handle.

The home went into foreclosure in July 2008 and was scheduled to be sold at auction. But the sale was canceled after the Okvaths sold a pair of vehicles and made a $14,000 payment, Nichol said.

The cash from the home-equity loan has all been spent, she said.

The Okvaths put the house on the market in 2007. They listed it at $1.8 million, then dropped it to $1.4 million before taking it off the market.

The Okvaths put the home up for sale again last August, asking $1.3 million. They lowered the price in October to $800,000. That figure still allows them to pay back their loan and buy another home free and clear. They also might rent, Nichol said.

One part of the makeover worked out well. The renovation of the University Medical Center's cancer ward, which included drawings of Disney characters in rooms, still looks as it did when it was completed, hospital spokeswoman Katie Riley said.

Nichol hopes the family is out of the home by January.

"It will break my heart. I'll probably cry for a while," she said.

But the sadness will be tempered by recalling the frustrations, financial and otherwise.