Ken Vance

Houseboat broker Ken Vance stands in front of one of his boats on Lake Cumberland.

“Lights, camera, action” are words that have become connected to most of what we watch on TV. It’s particularly true with HGTV.

HGTV is the one channel that comes closest to offering viewers a landscape of nonpolitical programming with a feel-good touch that has led to not “must-see-TV” but “want-to-see TV.”

I watch a lot of HGTV.

Much of it deals with home renovations and property purchases. I especially enjoy families looking for “affordable” beachfront homes, but some have million-dollar budgets and are seeking their own private island. Anything near water is in demand.

You can imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when an HGTV segment featured Lakefront Bargain Hunt on Lake Cumberland. It had my attention. The usual theme for these shows is to show prospective buyers three or four homes overlooking the lake. In the end, the buyers choose the one that best fits their needs.

This HGTV show went a step further, however. The homes here didn’t overlook the lake. They were on it.

Houseboats were being sold.

And the salesman was Ken Vance.

Vance was a few years behind me in school growing up in Elizabethtown, but his older brother graduated with me and was a best friend. And now here was Vance, surrounded by beautiful houseboats on one of Kentucky’s premier lakes. The show came and went, leaving me glad I had actually known someone who appeared on HGTV.

As time passed, I often wondered how Vance pulled it off. How did he make the connection? What went on behind the cameras?

Finally, I contacted him and asked how it all came together.

“I had been in auto sales for several years when I was contacted by a former associate of mine who was one of the owners at the time of State Dock on Lake Cumberland,” Vance said. “Their company had decided to enter the houseboat and cruiser brokerage business. I fit their needs and have been a broker operating Elite Boat Sales since 2005.”

But Vance didn’t just sell boats. He lived on one for years.

“I’ve been an avid boater for more than 30 years, going from a small runabout to my present 40-foot Carver Motor Yacht,” he said.

Most of Vance’s boating has been on Lake Cumberland in the Jamestown Marina and State Dock vicinity, but his job has allowed him to take river trips he would never do if he were still in automobile sales.

Vance has navigated waterways including Lake Barkley to Wolf Creek Dam, Kentucky Lake to Knoxville, Tenn., Louisville to Cincinnati, and even Kentucky Lake to Mobile, Ala., via the Tombigbee Waterway, and then continuing to Tampa, Fla.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to sell and send boats all over the USA,” he said. “I even sold three houseboats that went to Russia. Lake Cumberland has truly lived up to its reputation as the Houseboat Capital of the World.”

Vance said he received several inquiries through the years about a reality show that involved the adventures and lifestyles of houseboating.

“Most were not what I would call a good reflection on our industry,” he said.

There was one, however, that caught his attention.

In August 2014, Vance was contacted by a New York City production company that wanted to produce a segment for HGTV titled “Lakefront Bargain Hunt.”

“Their idea was a show featuring a prospective buyer searching for and buying a houseboat,” he said. “The parameter and demographics were to show houseboats to a family with children. As luck would have it, I sold a boat to the ideal family less than six months prior. ...

“A lot of viewers may not know, but these types of shows are all a re-enactment of the already completed shopping and buying process.”

Vance selected four houseboats for the HGTV show, one being a boat the family had previously purchased.

He sent the production company pictures and links to the boats on his website with prices ranging from $239,000 to $289,000. A few weeks later, a production crew arrived at State Dock and began filming.

“They brought in a director, producer, associate producer, two cameramen, sound man, stagers and three other assistants,” Vance said. “Two days later, a crew of three arrived to do drone shots out over the water and other locations in the area.”

The production crew each day filmed boats, homes overlooking the lake, water skiing and conversations with the “prospective buyer.” After four days, HGTV had what it wanted.

It was great exposure for State Dock and the Lake Cumberland area, and the experience left Vance with the untold secrets that go on behind the scenes of shows like this.

“We had to wear the same outfits for several days to make it look like it all happened on the same day,” he said with a laugh. “And when our family looked at the houseboat they had previously bought, they remarked how much they liked the wood flooring. Truth was, they had recently installed those floors right after they purchased the boat prior to filming.”

A lot of staging was done for the show, according to Vance.

“They purchased props in the area for the show and then returned them to the stores after filming, giving the excuse they didn’t work for them,” he said. “I thought that was most bizarre.”

The show initially aired Memorial Day 2015, but like many of these shows they have a shelf life of several years.

“It convinced me what you see as a finished product is not quite all the truth, being a reality show,” Vance said. “But it was a great experience that many do not ever get to be a part of.”

Get up, get out and get going!

– Gary West’s column runs monthly in the Daily News. He can be reached by emailing


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