Get Real About Restoration and DIY Realities with HGTV's Nicole Curtis
From DIY newbie to HGTV sensation, Nicole Curtis has worked hard to show the world what a little elbow grease can really do for old, historic houses on the popular show "Rehab Addict." As an advocate for the preservation of historical, inner-city structures, Curtis takes on the seemingly impossible, working to revive homes that have been written off as lost causes.
A self-taught home restoration artist, Curtis encourages homeowners to take a second look at their old properties before gutting them and renovating them from scratch, providing great tips and insight into how to approach a restoration project for someone just starting out.
Empowering women everywhere to take on their own DIY projects, Nicole Curtis gives advice to those with little to no construction exposure who want to get started the world of DIY.
As she gears up for her seventh season of "Rehab Addict" to premiere this month, Curtis has been keeping busy by teaming up with Bernzomatic's "Find Your Fire" community grants program. Luckily she was able to squeeze in some time to talk to us about it.
You’re teaming up with Bernzomatic for the new “Find Your Fire” community grants program. What can you tell us about that?
Yeah, it’s a really cool program right now where people across America get to do something as simple as a few minutes online and have a chance to win $10,000 for their neighborhood community project, and this is different from any other neighborhood grant proposal because it’s easy ,and being someone who’s worked in the inner cities and the neighborhoods for over 20 years, getting funding is the biggest challenge we face. It’s not getting volunteers. It’s not getting materials. It’s actually the money to make things happen. So, Bernzomatic has made it easy, like so easy that it just takes a few minutes, and then people upload it and they actually can have their project voted on by everyone in America.
How can our readers get involved in the program?
So, they go to Bernzomatic.com/grants. It’s that simple. And then they just follow along. There’s a beauty shot of me. I should have finger-pointed like “here,” “there,” and “there” for people to make it easier, but it’s really one page. They click the link, and they go right to it.
Does the program focus specifically on restoration projects?
Basically yes—rebuilding, rehabbing. The gig is anything they can do with a blowtorch. So, you think about something like that, revamping, but really there’s so much ideas out there. It’s not for somebody to say “Oh I need a new kitchen,” but if they need a new kitchen in a community center, that’s a whole different thing. So it’s—they have to think that it has to benefit others. It’s not time to be selfish and try to win 10 grand—you’re not gonna get it.
What makes you so passionate about restoration projects?
Ya know what, I’ve always worked in the cities; I love old homes, and our oldest homes are at the epicenters of every city because cities were built from the inside out, so if you think about the first few streets downtown will have the oldest houses, and if you go block by block out, the houses get younger and younger. And it has been the last trend since the flight from the cities in the seventies and eighties. Ya know, we just, we need more people in the inner cities across the country. I mean obviously New York and Chicago are some exceptions that people always are in the cities, but really just seeing the older homes and seeing the programs that just need a lot of help, and that’s what I love seeing and doing and helping out with.
Now let’s talk about “Rehab Addict.” What are some things we can look forward to this season?
Season seven, I mean it’s the same old thing. I’m never gonna change up. I mean, we are kicking off our seventh season, and I have seven, eight more years of experience underneath my belt then when I first started, but it’s the same idea. It’s me with a small crew, revamping some kickass old house, and this one is one of those where people keep telling me “Nicole, it was beyond repair. We had to demo it. No one wanted it.” And the house that we’re doing, starting November fifth, only has three walls left up—no interior walls, no windows, no mechanics, no roof, no windows, nothing. So, if we can rebuild this one—this is the true testament to tell everyone that doubts what I say they can do with old houses, that anything you can imagine can be done, and ya know just the same old stuff. I learn something new every day, ya know the usual adventures. I trip; I fall; I curse; I cry—all those good things, but very cool stuff back in Detroit, and this one is 1876, this house.
From what I’ve read, this is the Ransom-Gillis House that you’re restoring?
Yeah, this is the Ransom-Gillis House, which everyone always wants to know how I name my houses, and traditionally they’re named because of the street they’re on, but this one we actually know the history of. This has been a very well-documented home in the city of Detroit, so we know the story of it, so the original owners of the house were Ransom-Gillis. That’s why it’s called that.
And what are some of the unique challenges that may apply to this house that wouldn’t apply to others of that time period. I know you mentioned its very bare bones—no windows…
Ya know, actually, if the house had been maintained, the house would still be in perfect condition, and that’s what people don’t understand about old houses. The reason they look so decrepit is that no one maintained them. So, it’s basically like if you left the car windows down on your car for 30 years straight, your car’s pretty much going to deteriorate right in front of your eyes. Your seats are going to be wet; everything like that.
So, the bummer for this house is that people abandoned it, and then other people came in and stole everything out of it, so it’s just been a challenge because there’s only—there were five original tiles left in the house: five, out of 11 fireplaces. There were three windows with original trim, out of 40. There weren’t any floors. When I say there weren’t any floors, it’s not just like hardwood floors, but its floor joists. So, if you stood in the basement and looked up, you’d see the sky. So, there were actually originally three floors in the house—the first floor, the second floor, and the third floor, servant’s floor—all gone. So, the original—I have one original photo that I’ve been working off of, which is a lot of fun because it’s grainy, it’s old, it’s from 1876, and when you blow it up, you make a guess of what’s there and go with it.
At DoItYourself.com, we’ve got a lot of readers who are interested in restoration themselves, particularly homeowners. For homeowners who are looking to buy older houses, how can they renovate to modern standards while still respecting the character of the existing structure?
It’s so easy. People think that it’s not, and the biggest thing that I always tell people: take your time. Don’t rush into an old house. Don’t grab the first contractor that walks in because the first contractor that walks in probably has zero experience in old houses. You have to find somebody that’s like “Yeap, all I do is houses from 1920.” “All I do is houses from 1930.” That’s the biggest mistake I see, and when people get over budget in old houses, it’s because they’re using the wrong resources. So, if you take your time, first look at it—ya know, if you want to insulate the walls and somebody says, “Well you need to tear down all the plaster,” you need to throw that person out of your house because they’re gonna throw you way over budget and cause you a lot of stress, a lot of extra work when you can insulate an old house without damaging one wall. So, it’s very important to investigate things like that, and ya know—really, any old house, I can make energy efficient. I can redo the windows; I can redo the wiring; I can redo the plumbing, without really busting any walls open at all.
So basically, if you still have the old bones of an old house, you can keep your budget to a minimum. You just need to make sure you’re using the right people. And, don’t listen to what your neighbors say and this person says and that person says. You have to do your own research because what’s true in somebody else’s house is not going to be true to yours. The good thing about old houses, and sometimes the bad thing, is that they’re very unique. Each one was usually architecturally designed and built, unless you’re in a neighborhood where a lot of them rose at the same time and they used kit houses, but for the most part, ya know, every house they run into, there’s something different, so I can’t go off, like, well I’ve seen this before, I can do it now. I just—I take one little step at a time in all the houses.
What got you into restoration specifically?
I was broke. No. I just—I started with my first house, and I couldn’t afford to have anyone else come in and do it. I was always an antique history buff because of my family, but my first house—ya know, it need work, and honestly I didn’t even know how to paint a room at that time, so I just had to take it slow. We didn’t have internet back then, and I relied heavily on magazines and going in and driving the people at my local hardware [store] absolutely insane asking all these questions. They were like “Ya know, we don’t work on commission for questions,” but just kinda learning as I went, and then when I really got into it and I saw all the money people wasted, that was the big thing for me was the waste. They’d be, ya know, putting in Pergo floors over solid Oak floors because somebody told them they couldn’t be refinished, and they could. For $400 you can refinish; you just spent $2,000 on a ugly floor that once you get it wet it’s gonna get ruined. Your dogs are gonna trash it. You’re gonna have to replace it in two years. So, I think the best thing for old houses is that I’m cheap, I’m frugal, and I want everything done right. So, I kinda was a good thing to come along for those because I save everything.
You said you learned as you went along. You didn’t come from a DIY background or a construction background?
No, I mean my parents, ya know, my parents are cheap too. Uh, but no, I mean we did everything on our houses ourselves, but I didn’t take any vocational training or college courses. It always amazes me because I have all these kids in high school right now that follow me, and they’ll say “OK Nicole, what classes do we need to sign up for college to do what you do?” I’m like, I have no clue. I have half a degree in elementary ed, so ya know, I think the biggest thing for any person doing DIY is to have patience and the zest to learn because you have to be able to be patient and be willing to learn because if you go into a project thinking, “Well, I know how to do this; it’s gonna be a no-brainer,” you are gonna be upside down, fast. Because even with all my experience, I did something the other day, and I’m like well that completely was a flop; I need to redo it. So, everything is a new challenge for me.
Unfortunately construction and DIY projects can be seen as a bit of a men’s club. What advice do you have for women who are looking to get involved in DIY but just honestly don’t know where to start?
Yeah, I don’t ever see this as a men’s club because all my friends—they’re always the ones working on their houses, and I swear to this. But, women just need to take a look around anywhere, and if you can lift it, you can do it. I mean, I always say I need a guy on my job site because I can’t carry a piece of drywall by myself, but for the most part, there’s really nothing women can’t do. It really still confuses me, and I scrunch up my face when people say that because I’m like, who thinks that way anymore? Ya know, I do everything. I mean, I’m working with Bernzomatic, and ya know, the first time I saw Bernzomatic torches, my mom came to my first house, and we couldn’t get the toilet out. She’s like, “I’m going to buy a torch.” If you knew my mom, that means she is going to buy a torch, and then she’s going to sit there for nine hours and torch something out. But, um, it’s just really something I grew up with, so it was never a foreign idea to me. But, women can take a look around anywhere.
I had somebody write on my page yesterday like “Nicole, how do you deal with the sexist stereotypes when you go into a home improvement store.” Ya know, I don’t think it’s so much anyone being sexist. I think it’s, sometimes men are still men, and they still want to ask a woman in an aisle if they need help. “Can I help you with anything?” I don’t think women should be offended by it, but just say “Thank you, I think I have this.” But, when I go into a home improvement store and someone offers to help me, I’m like yeah, tell me where this is, ‘cause I gotta go. I think women just need to take a deep breath sometimes and be like, ya know what, the only person you have to prove anything to is to yourself, and that’s it. And that’s something I learned because I’m reaching 40, fast. At 20, I still didn’t realize that.
But, I think they can do around, and learn, and try it. I mean, if it’s not gonna kill you, just give it a try. Always be careful and wear your safety goggles and your gloves and everything because I didn’t in the beginning, and I have so many scars because I’m funny, but honestly I just keep telling women, don’t be scared off by it. Try it. Worst case scenario, you fail, and you have to hire someone to do it, but best case scenario, you learn how to do it, you feel really kickass after you’re done, and you saved a lot of money.
So what is the most prized tool in your toolbox? Or what is the one thing you would recommend for any beginning DIYer to have right off the bat?
Uh, honestly, it’s really never the tools that make a good DIY person, and I say this over and over again and everyone fails to believe me, but it’s really—you just gotta be able to take a risk and breathe. Ya know, I always have—like yesterday I was running around like, where is a hammer? Does anyone have a hammer? [Laughs] Of course I did not have a hammer with me, but I found something, and I made it a hammer. I mean, basically my go-to—I always have a heat source—he blowtorches I always have on me because I have to remove a lot of paint. I have a lot of things that are always painted shut, closed shut, stuck to something. I always have a drill. It doesn’t have to be anything expensive—a hammer, a claw. And I always have one of these little, like, boxes of every kind of fastener you can imagine, like screws, nails, doo-dads—that’s what we call them. But, just kind of simple stuff gets the job done. You don’t have to have a lot of fancy stuff to get started.
OK, the last question I have to ask is whether you have a past project that is particularly close to your heart or that you are particularly proud of?
Ya know, every time I finish a house my crew laughs at me because when I do my final, on-air camera thing I always say this is my favorite house yet. And they’re like “You always say that.” But it’s true. Each one I fall in love with. Ya know, I wrote on my Facebook page just yesterday, it’s really hard when I get done with a house because I become really attached to them. It’s something that people that don’t understand if you don’t work on houses, but with your crowd, the DIY people, they get done with a project, they didn’t know how to do it in the beginning, they stressed about it, they sweated about it, they got in there, they got it done. I mean you have this attachment to it—you don’t want to give it up. Imagine that on a large scale where it’s a whole house. I mean, the next couple of weeks are going to be a little difficult for me, but they are all my favorites and I think because, ya know, I walk around on the streets and people come up and they’ll say their favorite house. I mean, they’re attached to the houses too, which is quite funny, and uh, it’s very cool to watch. It’s cool to watch the world fall in love with old houses that other people don’t deem historical, but everyone knows that they have a story.