Bob Vila, she ain’t. With spitfire intensity and a wolf-mother protectiveness toward ugly, abandoned houses, the DIY Network’s Nicole Curtis is a fresh firecracker in the banal world of TV home improvement. After the premiere season of Rehab Addict, during which she restored a 1916 Arts and Crafts-style home on Minnehaha Creek, fans were hooked on the keeping-it-real, soap-opera drama of a single-mother freelance home rehabber. For season three, which debuts this winter, she’s taking on another marquee Minneapolis project: rescuing a condemned home in the blighted Central neighborhood. Just before the work began, we caught up with Curtis to talk about the hammer-swinging life.
Okay, so male viewers are dying to know: are you single?
Let’s just say I’m off the market.
Is he a handyman, too?
Not at all. It’s kind of a running joke: people always assume I’m dating the contractor, but I always end up with very un-handy men.
You’re from Lake Orion, a tiny town outside of Detroit, where your family had a garbage business. How does that translate into an obsession with home rehab?
My dad is a history enthusiast; we were always restoring furniture. But here’s the real inspiration: my great grandmother had an 1890s home that sold when I was in high school. I remember screaming, “Why isn’t anyone buying this house?” My family just let it go. So this whole thing is the result of that post-traumatic stress. I was heart-broken.
Detroit is like the spiritual capital of all-things rehab. The ultimate fixer-upper, if you will. Do you consider the city a muse?
Detroit definitely empowers me. On the weekends, my family would pile into the car and drive through the city while my dad told us the story of all these historic neighborhoods.
I feel like it’s my job to put the truth about Detroit out there. As soon as I say “Detroit,” people make a face. But there are so many beautiful sections. I went back recently to rehab some old mansions.
How did you connect with the DIY network?
I came to Minneapolis about four years ago, got my real-estate license, went into the antiques business, and supported myself that first year selling on Craigslist. Then I bought the house I currently live in, and picked up two others.
Coincidentally, there was this really horrific Glamour Shots photo of me on my website, and when a production assistant at Magnetic Productions was scanning for blond real-estate agents for the show, they saw it. So I met up with them, and they told me they’d just replaced the original kitchen in a 1920s with a modern one. I said, “Oh, that’s horrible.”
How did they react to that?
No one ever just tells you the truth in Minnesota. They’re too nice. But when I told them that I do this all day long, and I wouldn’t put that crap in my homes, the owner of the company said, “Okay, I’ll bring a crew and watch you work.” I got a tryout.
Is being a woman—especially a petite, blond woman—in the home-improvement world as big a deal as I think it is?
Some days it might as well be 1925 around here. There are still men that want to speak with my husband. There are people who will explain projects word-for-word to me. My own family is very male-dominated—my grandpa is 87-years-old, and he’s just now coming around. Up until the last few years, he was always trying to marry me off. I’d go to his house, and he’d say, “Oh, I’ll have one of the boys do that.” Now I go there, and he has a to-do list waiting for me.
Our culture has never seemed so DIY driven as it is now: urban homesteading, at-home cooks, home-brewed beer. It seems like people don’t want to just hire an expert, they want to hire a coach.
Right. I think we’re in this DIY state because everyone’s broke. The bottom line is that if our economy were flourishing, nobody would be doing this on their own. I want to be a coach and a cheerleader. The more I can share my knowledge, the more houses I can save.
How has the struggling housing market affected peoples’ attitudes toward renovation?
We were a disposable economy for so long. Real estate is about investing in something and then having that investment returned to you in 30 years, not 30 seconds. I don’t chase the dollar.
Do you still believe buying a house is a good investment?
It’s always a good investment. But you have to buy wisely.
What’s the current project?
I’m working with the City of Minneapolis right now on what they call the “Director’s List”: houses scheduled to be demo-ed. I bought a house on the condemned list, and am focusing season three on renovating it. It’s a no-money deal for me; just for the love of the house and my belief that if you save one house, it really fires up the neighborhood.
Every city in the United States has these lists. The easiest solution is to just bulldoze the houses, but it costs about $20,000 to do that and then the property never makes another dime; it’s gone.
Using Minneapolis as the model, I’m asking cities to reject the federal money for demolition and to let us keep the houses. We start here in the next couple weeks. It’s on like Donkey Kong.