I sat down with Nicole Curtis, the self-taught star of “Rehab Addict” (DIY Network and HGTV), a sage of salvage, and an advocate for saving old houses in Detroit and Minneapolis, to get her take on New England’s vintage housing stock:
Why is it important to restore homes?
The most important thing is that these homes are one of a kind. We’re never going to be able to rebuild them. We don’t have the tradespeople anymore to do it, we don’t have the materials that these houses were built out of, and you know, like anything else, once it’s gone it’s gone. As the economy gets better, more money floods into our cities, people start tearing stuff down at an astronomical rate. I’ll drive by in the morning and [stare] at a beautiful old home, and by evening, it’s gone.
Do you have tips for someone thinking about buying a home to restore?
Don’t be scared of buying an old home. Be intrigued, be excited that you are buying something of the highest quality. It just has a few bumps and bruises along the way. At 100 years old, I’m not going to look perfect, but I’m still going to have all my wits about me. I might lack a little muscle tone, but I’ll still have the strength.
Old homes are the best quality build you could ever imagine, and there are so many wonderful ways to add modern amenities to an old home. I love old woodwork, but I still want to have cooling in my house. I will make many sacrifices to keep everything I want in an old house, [but] every year the technology gets bette; I can add so many cool features by running them behind walls.
At what point is restoration not an option?
I can run new electrical, plumbing, heating, and cooling throughout an entire old house with minimal damage, maybe reworking one wall or something. When people look at an old house, they’re not asking the right questions [to the right people]. I have long blond hair; I’m not going to go to the person who cuts my dog’s hair. Unfortunately, with old homes, people recruit a friend of a friend who builds new houses, and they come and they say: “Oh, we can’t do this. You can’t add new electrical. You can’t add a bathroom. It’s going to be too much.” And that’s just not true.
Years ago, when I started in the building trades, people told me: “There’s no way you’re ever going to be able to do what you want to do.” My favorite words are “Watch me.”
What are some must-have products when it comes to restoring old homes?
Definitely a case of really great wine, because I always say celebrate small successes in any home repair. If you’re a novice and you’re just starting out, don’t go in and demo a whole room at once. Start with small things and paint a wall. The best tools you can have are mental. Everyone always gives me a weird look when I say that, but if you lack patience and tolerance and a hunger for learning new things, you’re never going to make it. You [also] want a quality tool kit. You don’t want the cute little thing that someone gave you for Christmas when you got your first house. I have the same hammer I probably got 20 years ago, same saw, everything else. Everything in life should always be quality: friends, dogs, and tools.
Do you have any advice on restoring homes here in New England?
You guys have so many houses that I drool over cause you’re dealing with something that’s not a 100 years old — that’s a newbie — you have 200, 300. When I started out, I’m dating myself, we didn’t have the Internet where I could just Google everything. There are old-house catalogs online now, and that’s my greatest resource. Find somebody else who has an old home similar to yours and knock on the door. Old-house people are very passionate.
All the houses that I get are so far beyond what normal people say are “so beyond repair,” but I’ve found the way to do it is just walking the neighborhood, checking on other houses. Historical societies are still alive and kicking, and nobody would love to help you out more.
Where else can readers go for more information?
I am very, very active on social media. I’m doing great tips and behind-the-scenes at Mitsubishicomfort.com. It’s basically searching, searching, searching. I think researching your old home is like researching your family tree; it’s that exciting and it’s that interesting.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.