In early 2018, Buck and Jane Morrow were driving home from visiting family in Texas when they spotted Baylor University from the highway. The sight of the school alerted them that they were in Waco, TX, home to HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, of the megahit home design series “Fixer Upper.” And so they made a split-second, life-altering decision to pull off the exit and check out the small city popularized by the show.
“We drove around a little bit and thought this is a really nice place,” says Buck, 74, a semiretired mining engineer. They shopped at the Gaineses’ home goods store Magnolia Market at the Silos. “It looked really pleasant.”
Once the Morrows returned home to their cattle ranch in Castle Rock, CO, Buck promptly forgot about the small, Texas city. But Jane, 64, didn’t. A few months later, she showed him an online listing for a five-bedroom, four-bathroom, Tuscan-style house she liked just outside of Waco. She persuaded her husband to travel there to see the home, in McGregor, TX, and they wound up buying the place and moving to the Waco metro area.
The Morrows certainly aren’t alone. Waco was a sleepy, struggling, small city before the Gaineses exploded onto HGTV in 2013. When Waco crossed the minds of most folks, if it ever did, it was for the deadly, government standoff with the cult leader David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in 1993. Before that it was mostly just a rest stop between Austin and Dallas, with lots of boarded-up storefronts downtown.
With the success of “Fixer Upper,” the Gaineses have successfully turned their home renovation brand, rustic aesthetic, and the city itself into household names. By just about any measurable standard, the place is now booming. And the city has changed in both good ways—and in bad for locals. It begs the question: Are the Gaineses Waco’s savior—or its destroyer?
Certainly not everyone in Waco is a fan of their hometown’s newfound fame. The Gaines phenomenon has led to swarms of tourists descending on the city. And out-of-towners with seemingly unlimited budgets are driving up real estate prices to new heights, leading to higher property taxes for longtime Waco dwellers.
And the hoopla likely hasn’t even come close to its peak. “Fixer Upper” may have ended its HGTV run in 2018, after five seasons, but the pair are slated to debut their own Chip and Jo network this year. The Gaineses are in heavy expansion mode, and the Waco economy is going along for the ride.
New restaurants, bars, and stores are opening in previously empty buildings. The Silos, the Gaineses’ mini empire featuring their home goods store, gardening shop, and bakery, are bringing folks into the community to spend their money. Folks queue up out the door of the couple’s restaurant, Magnolia Table, or head to their newly opened coffee shop near the Silos; a Magnolia boutique hotel is set to open in 2021. And there are other changes, too, including the expansion of SpaceX’s rocket-making plant as well as a new Sherwin-Williams distribution center.
But there’s a literal cost to all this growth: average home prices shot up nearly 52.1% from 2015 through 2019 in McLennan County, which includes Waco, according to local broker Camille Johnson, who runs Camille Johnson Realtors. That’s a tough pill for many longtime residents to swallow, particularly if they’re making area wages.
Home prices are still low, though, compared with the rest of the country, making it an attractive destination for out-of-towners. The median home list price in the metro is just $225,050 in December—compared with $300,000 nationally, according to realtor.com®’s December data.
The show “is what got us to stop, but it’s not why we bought in Waco,” says Buck Morrow, who was hoping to escape the cold weather. “We could not afford this house in Colorado. This house would be at least double or two-and-a-half-times more.”
Another Gaines effect: More buyers, many finding inspiration from the show, are seeking their own fixer-uppers, says Johnson. In the process, they’re revitalizing many of the city’s older neighborhoods particularly in the central area.
“This couple has transformed this city, almost single-handedly,” Johnson says. “We used to struggle to get people to come [here]. … The show has changed the whole way the country looks at Waco.”
Not everyone is keen on the ‘Fixer Upper’ effect
The harsh truth is that with prices shooting up so rapidly, it’s harder for locals—first-time home buyers as well as repeat buyers—to find properties they can afford. These days they’re competing with outsiders selling their expensive homes in places like California and New York and then bidding up whatever’s on the market.
“Prices are up all over town,” says local real estate agent Amanda Nesbitt of Kelly Realtors. In some areas, they’ve spiked 25% to 30% in the past three years alone. And properties priced at $500,000 have went from rare to fairly common.
About 25% to 30% of her clients are now hailing from out of state, largely from cities in Colorado, California, and Oregon, seeking a slower pace of life and more affordable housing. Investors have also descended.
“A lot of homeowners, especially retirees, are not happy about the Chip and Joanna effect. They’re on a fixed income,” says Charles Delaney, a real estate professor at Baylor University. He’s lived in the city for more than 30 years. “It is a financial burden [just] to meet the additional property taxes.”
The average taxable amount of property values in the city of Waco rose from $129,349 in 2017, $141,982 in 2018, and $154,974 in 2019, according to county tax records. That’s a nearly 9.8% rise from 2017 to 2018 and almost 9.2% from 2018 to 2019. Meanwhile, home list prices rose only 7.8% and 6.1% nationally over the same period, according to realtor.com data.
Some folks blame the homes the Gaineses have fixed up for the show, which have gone back on the market for very high prices for the boost in taxes. They can be listed for well over $1 million, although homes priced that high in Waco tend to sit on the market for a while, undergo price cuts, and have a hard time attracting buyers.
“There’s a very large outcry over those homes increasing people’s taxes,” says associate real estate broker Matthew McLeod of Synergy Realtors in Waco. He’s represented some of these “Fixer Upper” homes, including at least one that was ultimately taken off the market.
Waco’s battered reputation
Waco didn’t have much to brag about, besides Baylor University and its Big 12 football team, before the Gaineses. There was a tornado in 1953 that tore through the downtown, killing 114 people, injuring hundreds, and destroying scores of businesses. Then there was the contract killer who mistakenly murdered the wrong teenager and her two friends by Lake Waco in 1982. Most recently, an epic 2015 biker brawl resulted in nine deaths, 20 wounded, and nearly 200 arrests.
But the city is still, perhaps, best known for one thing: the tragic 51-day standoff in 1993 between federal agents and the Branch Davidians, a religious cult. It would culminate in nearly 80 deaths, when the group’s 77-acre compound on the outskirts of the city was engulfed in flames. Many of the dead were children.
“The Branch Davidians were the face of Waco in the ’90s and probably after that,” says Baylor professor Delaney.
The siege tarnished Waco’s image and became synonymous with the city itself. It took its toll on the local housing market. Homes took longer to sell and prices were lower, says real estate broker Johnson.
“We were the Wild West for a very long time … well into the 20th century,” says Delaney. “Things have really calmed down.”
In some ways, modern-day Waco seems to strike a balance between its twin legacies—the darkness of David Koresh and the boundless optimism of Chip and Joanna Gaines. And, strangely enough, some tourists are drawn to both.
“The women want to eat at Magnolia and see the silos. The men strike a deal with their wives and say [yes], if we can go to Mount Carmel,” says David Thibodeau, 50, of Bangor, ME, referring to the site of the Branch Davidian compound. He was one of the only survivors of the siege, and is the author of “A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story.” It was turned into a six-part TV series.
“It’s like it’s been reborn,” Thibodeau says of the city.