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A Local Realtor and a Milton Couple Appear on HGTV's 'House Hunters'


Published April 18, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 28, 2023 at 4:57 p.m.

Kaitlynn and Ian Donahue at their lake house in North Hero - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Kaitlynn and Ian Donahue at their lake house in North Hero

Kaitlynn and Ian Donahue wanted a second home close to Lake Champlain that they could use to get away, host friends or rent out for extra income. Starting the search in late summer last year, they expected to deal with limited options in the tight market and high asking prices, even for buildings in terrible condition.

The Milton couple didn't expect that millions of television viewers would end up watching them during the process.

The Donahues star in an episode of the popular HGTV cable series "House Hunters" that aired April 13. The 30-minute show follows home buyers as a real estate agent helps them find the perfect property, usually touring three places that meet their criteria before they pick a top choice.

"House Hunters" producers reached out via email to the Donahues' agent, Leland Ryea III of Rockstar Real Estate Collective in Essex, and asked if he had any enticing clients who would want to appear on screen. "We encourage you to apply," they wrote.

He had shown the Donahues three or four houses at that point and thought they reflected the concept of the show.

"Lake Champlain always makes a good story," Ryea said. "Everybody wants to live on the lake, especially if you live in Vermont, so that was a big part of it. I think that Ian and Kaitlynn are both very normal people, which allows consumers to relate."

Leland Ryea III of Rockstar Real Estate Collective in Essex - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Leland Ryea III of Rockstar Real Estate Collective in Essex

Their normalness fit the aspirational-but-attainable appeal of "House Hunters," Ryea said. "It's just that American dream kind of thing."

Kaitlynn, 34, works as a speech language pathologist for South Burlington High School and coaches the varsity girls' cross-country team. Ian, 36, is a mechanical engineer for a Burlington-based heating, ventilation and air conditioning consulting company that designs systems primarily for commercial clients. They met in college in upstate New York, bought their house in Milton in 2014 and married three years later.

The Donahues said they were prepared to spend up to $500,000 for a year-round second house — not a camp or unheated cabin — with lake access. They've done major renovations to their Milton home themselves, and Kaitlynn hoped to avoid that with the new abode.

They often looked at available houses as a hobby but got serious when they saw an opportune listing on the Zillow real estate website. The Donahues left an online inquiry and heard back from Ryea, who showed them the property.

The house was in terrible condition yet cost a bundle despite that, and it wasn't near the water, Ian said. But the couple immediately connected with Ryea. They discovered that they lived minutes from each other in Milton. Ryea and his wife have a lake house near Sand Bar State Park, where they like to hang out with family and friends, just as the Donahues envisioned.

"He was so laid-back and chill," Kaitlynn said of Ryea. "There was absolutely no pressure whatsoever to decide on anything. It was almost like we were friends, like we had been friends for a while."

Ian appreciated that Ryea had walked through that first house before the buyers arrived and alerted them to possible concerns, he said. "I thought that was a very smart move by him," Ian continued. "He's honest, and it's not a quick-sale-type thing."

The living room at the Donahues' home in North Hero - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • The living room at the Donahues' home in North Hero

Ryea still has no idea why the "House Hunters" producers came to him. He asked other local agents if they received similar solicitations. None had, he said.

Ryea called Ian first to float the idea of house hunting in front of a national audience. Ian hesitated. "I didn't have any desire to be on TV," he said.

Then Ian called Kaitlynn, who had the opposite reaction: "I absolutely want to be on TV!" she recalled telling him. "Yes, let's do it."

The Donahues and Ryea had separate initial interviews with the show's producers over Zoom and several "screen tests" over video calls. They filled out reams of paperwork and answered questions about themselves, their marriage, their finances and their home desires.

Ryea said he knew the Donahues would make the cut. Not only was their home quest unique and compelling, but they also have dynamic personalities and a palpable rapport, he said.

Kaitlynn brought enthusiasm and loved aspects of each prospective home, Ryea said. "And Ian knew what to look out for. If there was something concerning, he treated it very much like an inspector."

Representatives of Discovery, the entertainment behemoth that owns HGTV, declined Seven Days' request for an interview with a "House Hunters" producer or behind-the-scenes information about the Vermont episode. Before his interview with Seven Days, Ryea shared the company's restrictions on the details he could reveal about the show.

"House Hunters" employs a classic reality TV format, shadowing home buyers as they walk through properties and cutting to on-camera revelations about their impressions of the places they see.

"Being in front of the camera is a very odd experience," Ryea said. "To treat a camera like a person is very, very difficult, especially in the beginning. I think during the course of many hours — and I won't say how many, but we'll say a day's worth of recording — you become comfortable."

Ryea, 37, had some performance chops going in. He and his wife, who are expecting their first child in June, play classic rock, pop and country music in the band Before This Time.

He and the Donahues said the warmth of the director and crew from Pie Town Productions, which creates "House Hunters" for HGTV, helped ease any awkwardness. After long days of filming and chatting during downtime while the team set up shots, they consider them friends.

The Donahues received specific instructions about how to appear on camera, down to the clothes they wore: no bright colors, no patterns, no logos.

A bedroom at the Donahues' home in North Hero - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • A bedroom at the Donahues' home in North Hero

"Ian and I had to go out and basically buy a whole new wardrobe," Kaitlynn said. "We would lay out all of our options. Our director would come and say, 'Yes, no, no, no, yes, no, yes.' We kept all our receipts. It was actually astounding how many restrictions there were."

The director encouraged them to act naturally and do what they typically do. They had to reshoot a scene when Ian came home from work while Kaitlynn was emptying the dishwasher. She greeted him, and he responded, with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, "Can I help you with the dishwasher?"

They laugh about it now. "It's my favorite story," Kaitlynn said.

They also had to voice their thoughts about everything they noticed as they walked through houses — the weird color of a ceiling fan and the stains on a bedroom carpet. Ian's sense of humor came out when, for example, he dryly commented on the big windows surrounding an area for a hot tub in one house.

Cookie, their 8-year-old shih tzu-bichon frise mix, appears in several scenes, too.

"The feeling I had when it ended, I was so sad, knowing that I would never see these people again," Kaitlynn said. "It was such an amazing experience, far beyond what I think we both ever imagined."

After editing of the show wrapped, the producers told Ryea they'd like to work with him again if other clients would make worthy "House Hunters." Buyers who are interested in having a TV crew chronicle their search should get in touch, he said.

By the end of their episode (spoiler alert!), the Donahues had found their perfect property: a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house on a private road in North Hero for $353,000. It does need work. The couple has already ripped out and started to redo a bathroom and has plans to replace the siding.

"It felt like a home to us immediately," Ian said. "We could immediately picture ourselves living in this location."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Screen Tested | A local Realtor and a Milton couple appear on HGTV's "House Hunters""

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