You probably know Nicole Curtis as host of the DIY Network’s Rehab Addict, which follows the Detroit native as she brings historic houses in Michigan and Minnesota back to their former glory. Instead of tearing down the oft-dilapidated structures and replacing them with modern builds, Curtis painstakingly restores each one, paying homage to the decade in which it was originally constructed and filling it with refurbished fixtures and antique furnishings. In short, “I find and buy the houses, make the plans, stage the homes, and then sell them,” she notes. (And to ensure the newly restored homes live on for another hundred years, each comes with deed restrictions preventing its new owners from chopping up or tearing it down.)
The self-taught and hands-on real estate investor has bought, flipped, and sold more properties than she can count, averaging three or four per year (not including the scores she’s consulted on). Rehab Addict premiered in 2010, but she began building her real estate empire long before, when she purchased her first home at 18. “That house was an absolute mess, but I loved it,” she recalls. “I’d go in right now and destroy everything in that house because it was so horrible!” she laughs. “What took me years and years and years to redo then, I could do now in about a week or two.”
Currently in the works, the eighth season of her hit show is slated to air in the fall—though its exact premiere date has yet to be set. “There is no production schedule...I produce the project and we only have one camera guy,” she admits. “I woke up this morning and my son’s dad is in town, so I said, ‘Okay, we’re shooting today—everyone go to work!'”
Aside from her thriving career behind the hammer and on the small screen, the 40-year-old dynamo is the author of Better than New—a New York Times bestseller that chronicles her life’s struggles and triumphs—and a tireless advocate for infant mental health and pediatric cancer research. (Her philanthropic open houses, which allow fans to preview a home that she’s remodeling in exchange for a small donation, have raised thousands for families in need.) “Saving houses is such a minimal part of what I do,” she asserts.
Her proudest role, however, centers around her number one priority: her kids. “The houses are going to go, but if my children turn out bad, there’s no success that can make up for that,” says the mother of two boys, Ethan, 19, and Harper, who is almost two. “But if they turn out great, everything else can go to hell in a handbasket and it’s fine.”
Here the Rehab Addict talks her favorite real estate project of all time, shares a nifty renovation trick involving Crock-Pots, and reveals the secret to creating a happy home.
Did you grow up wanting to build houses? Have you always been an avid DYIer?
I don’t think I wanted to build houses—I wanted to live in big houses and be successful. I didn’t have a trust fund; I didn’t have any money sitting around. So for everything I needed, I just took the scraps that no one else wanted and made them my own. My family was in the garbage business, and people throw out great stuff!
Describe your personal style and design philosophy.
My houses look like designer homes, but they’re comfortable. People love to stay at our houses when they’re in town because they know that they’re real. There are down comforters and featherbeds, everything. Even when I was broke, I found a way to design my homes so that they were comfortable and elegant—and most of all, with kids, washable. There’s nothing in my house that can’t go into a washer and be cleaned.
I joke that I should have trademarked edison bulbs, barn sides, and subway tiles, because they’re everywhere now. I used to have to special order those bulbs and make my own light fixtures, and go to every farm store you can imagine to get barn sides to make barn doors, but these days you can probably go to your local drugstore and get both. And I remember the network executives saying, “Nicole, you have to design a bathroom that doesn’t have subway tiles—you can’t use them in every bathroom!” But now everyone does. I’m burnt out on my own design look!
What’s your top go-to hunting ground for discarded treasures?
Craigslist. I think it’s a great outlet. But if I get on there, I’m sucked in, and all of a sudden every antique that is available ends up in my garage. I don’t go to estate sales as much because I have garages full of stuff. People drop stuff off all the time, like we’re the orphanage for antique furniture.
What’s the story behind how you got your own show?
It was a freak thing—right time, right place. My real estate photo was online and a production assistant was scrolling through websites trying to find a real estate agent to go on another show, and they found me. They called and I went in, and of course, instead of just shutting my mouth and saying, “Oh yeah, I can say whatever you want,” I didn’t. I didn’t like what they were doing to a house, and I said something. And from there, it just went. They had never heard of an investor restoring historical homes and not doing open floor plans. I was this anomaly.
Name your favorite project to date.
I would say that the one that still gives me goosebumps is my Campbell Street house in Detroit, the burned duplex. That’s the one where I had no idea what I was doing and I really put everything on the line. It’s phenomenal. Every house that I have is still staged like you saw it on TV, because it’s all my furniture. So when you walk in there it’s like you step back through time.
What can fans expect to see in season 8?
We’re featuring multiple houses this season. This time we’re going to have a couple of houses thrown in there—just some fun little ones that I found. But it’s still me being stupid and telling people how to do something, not just going in and showing them the before and after. They actually take something from the series and learn it, which is always surprising to me. I’m still this random, silly person from Detroit who swears on TV and hits herself with a hammer—not on purpose, by accident—and makes it work!
How’s filming coming along?
For the first time in a long time, I’m excited—I’m having a lot of fun. I was off camera for almost two years; I had to take a break—I was burnt out. The politics of saving old houses and filming a TV show and everything that goes with it is a lot. It’s not a fake production set—there are no home owners allowing us to use their house for a week. It took its toll, doing that for seven years straight. Sometimes I think, “Oh my gosh, we’re never going to finish this house—and then I see the “before” pictures and realize how far we’ve come. And then I’m motivated again and we get back to work.
Despite your love for restoring old homes and furnishings, is there ever an instance when saying “out with the old—in with the new” rings true?
Most definitely! I am all about safety, and with old houses there’s still a lot of lead hazards, and people don’t realize it. You need to do take necessary precautions to abate dangerous materials. For instance, we resurface every closet tub, because when you put a bath in a tub and the finish has gone away, the lead is exposed. So essentially, you’re taking a hot lead bath. I warn people about that all the time. And there’s never a need for asbestos in a house. Everything that we keep is natural, like a solid wood floor, stone or porcelain tile.
Name a cool trick every home builder or DIYer should know.
Using Crock-Pots to strip paint off hardware! For years, I would scrub and sand and torch hardware to get paint off. And then somebody said, “Nicole, you just have to throw it in a Crock-Pot with boiling water and it gets the paint off in two hours.” This was stuff that I would be soaking for weeks and spent hours and hours scrubbing. I thought, “Son of a bitch, I wish I would’ve learned that a long time ago!” Now there are Crock-Pots all over my sites all the time. I’m not sure why no one’s asked me to sponsor Crock-Pot yet...
What’s to your secret to creating a happy home?
A house has to be lived in. I always live in the houses that I redo eventually. I work such random hours—I worked up until four days before I delivered my second baby—so it’s not strange to find me sleeping in one of the houses. I’ve slept in every single one we’ve ever redone, with the exception of the Minnehaha House. We move from house to house, because when you have a little one and you have a tiny dog you can do that. I’ve never lived in a house that I didn’t rebuild. They’ve all had my personal touch. I couldn’t imagine just going and buying a house and not doing anything to it. My problem here in Detroit lately is that the homes are so fabulous and I feel such good energy in them, that I can’t bring myself to sell them!
Design your homes so that your kids are happy—they feel safe and secure, like it’s a sanctuary. I have the most beautiful formal dining room, but there’s paint all over my hardwood floors because we sit down on the floor and finger paint. So many homes I walk into are sterile, and I think that’s ugly. There have to be family photos. I’ve never bought a piece of artwork to go on a wall—I’ve either made it or it’s one of my kid’s photos. When people are in my house, they spend the most time in one of my hallways because it has all of our pictures throughout the years, and they love it.
Talk about your advocacy work on infant mental health and pediatric cancer research. Why have you have chosen to champion those particular causes?
I have the chance to speak for these kids who don’t have anyone speaking for them. Even though we’re not in a recession anymore and everything is going great, our kids are not flourishing. Our education standards are getting lower and our kids are struggling even more. The depression and suicide rate in teens is not decreasing. As far as pediatric cancer, Bobby’s daughter has been battling stage four neuroblastoma for three years, and that’s really opened my eyes. When your child has cancer, your whole world stops. People lose their homes. It’s
heart-wrenching. So that’s where we’ve stepped in. When we do our fundraisers, we’re not paying medical bills—we’re helping people pay their mortgages and keep their electricity on. We do a t-shirt sale every Christmas and raise so much money—every dime that goes into my foundation goes right back out to help families.
What advice would you offer moms struggling to balance a career and parenting?
There is no balance—that’s some BS that somebody told you to make you feel bad. I think women are always scared that if they don’t seize their careers right at that moment, it’s not going to be there for them later on. That’s why I tell them that there’s time for your career, but your babies are only going to be babies for a couple of years. So if you don’t have to work or you can work part-time, that’s what I would do. I have always budgeted whatever I could to stay at home as much as possible. I’ve never driven a brand-new car or carried a Chanel purse. If I have money to spend on that stuff, then I can work fewer hours and I can be home with my kids. I really don’t know of any mom who is going to look back in 20 years and say, “I’m so glad I pushed for that and worked 80 hours that week instead of being home.”
Women think they’re not doing something right because they aren’t able to get this balance that everyone talks about. They never give themselves enough credit. (There’s a reason the film Bad Moms was such a big hit last year!) But all that matters is that your kids are happy. It’s okay to have a dirty house. I played with my kids today instead of cleaning. My life is not balanced at all. It’s more out of whack than most people would assume!
Name a few other truths about yourself many of your fans might be surprised to hear.
People see me as this strong woman; they assume that I’m career-driven. But those who really know me would say otherwise. I’m still a small-town girl. I can get up and speak in front of thousands of people, but I’ve suffered from anxiety my entire life. I still have those insecurities. And when I say, “Oh my gosh, I was in the middle of a panic attack,” people think I’m kidding. It’s always surprising to people that there are moments when I bite the inside of my teeth just to get through it. Sometimes I don’t feel confident walking in and working a room.
Also, I’ve never been one of those people who can toot their own horn. It would take you almost breaking my arm off if you didn’t know I was on TV to find out that I am. I’ve never ever introduced myself that way—it’s something I hate to lead with. When people ask what I do, I say I have a small construction business.
I’m content with where I’m at right now. If this is where my career ended and I had to figure out how to budget for the rest of my life, I think I could. That’s the part that makes me so happy and so satisfied with what I’ve chosen to do. I went exactly the opposite way that any normal real estate investor would’ve gone, and somehow I made it work!
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