It's no secret that the DIY movement is on fire, but lesser known is how it's igniting change for the greater good. Nicole Curtis, the self-taught expert from TV's Rehab Addict and author of the just released book Better Than New, is a truly inspirational figure in the rebuilding of neglected homes and communities. And to encourage others in her path she is working with Bernzomatic to offer grants to talented, community-minded makers. I had the opportunity to speak to Nicole about how she started her rehabbing career and how it has lead to her many achievements along the way. I must mention that I really enjoyed our conversation; Nicole is just great and if I wind up doing the projects I've daydreamed about taking on, she gets the credit for giving me the confidence.
Here is what Nicole had to say:
What lead to you discovering your talents for DIY?
It really all started with my first house purchases, I just had to figure it all out.
How old were you when you bought your first house?
Eighteen. At eighteen you don't have any money, you don't really have anything, so I had to work with what I found.
You had to be resourceful.
Exactly. So I just got really creative. And now even twenty-two years later I have the money to do it and I'm saying "No, it's more fun getting in there and doing everything myself." So that's really what started it. And most people...you know if you buy your first house and you have money to go out and buy furniture and you have money to have somebody paint it, that's just what you do. If you don't, you have to be pretty savvy and that's where I had to figure it all out as I went along. And then as I got older, those projects got easier and I moved onto bigger and better things, and the houses went from a small paint job or small plumbing job to total reconstruction, and that's where I am now.
When I was in Canada over the summer I caught your TV show, Rehab Addict, and I binge-watched about four episodes one afternoon. Your show stood out for me among some of the home reno shows that seem a bit contrived, you were clearly genuine about what you were doing. You were doing the work.
The thing with the show and everything I do is that I actually own the houses, they are actually my work. They don't get stripped when the show is over and they're not passed onto someone else. It's all mine and it works really well because of that. I don't have time to script or stage a TV show, the show is about following my construction career through these houses that noboby else wanted, mostly around my hometown of Detroit. And that's what we're doing now. You can't go in and script something like that because you have no idea what lies ahead in that project. I never know what I'm going to run into. And that's been the fun part too, it doesn't really get old for me because every single house brings something different.
It's great for aspiring DIYers to see you jumping into each challenge, however difficult, and you're not making cookie cutter houses.
No and that's the fun part with all these old houses in all of these great cities, that they're so different. And of course nobody wants it when it's a hot mess. But when I get done people say 'Wow, I would really love to live in something like this.' So I hope it's really given somebody a zest and a different opinion, that an old house isn't a problem, it's a treasure. I've never bought a house in a desirable neighbourhood in the city, we always buy where they're forgotten. And that's the cool thing is that it starts a kind of wildfire; once we're in the neighborhood then other investors are thinking "Oh, she's onto something", but really I'm not, I just like the houses, you know? But they assume and it just goes from there, which is so awesome to see. Because that's what it's really all about. I loved all these old houses but they were in areas of the city where there weren't any stores, there weren't any people, so drawing people back to those areas has been the coolest thing.
So there's been a rebuilding of communities as a result of you taking on these houses that everyone else gave up on.
Well I live in these areas, I live in these houses and it's no fun without people. I'm a very social person, I like to talk to the neighbours every morning. And when there's no neighbours, it's lonely. So it really started as a push for me to say 'Hey, there's this really cute boarded up house on my street, come check it out and I can tell you exactly what to do with it.' Our first property in Minneapolis, we had five boarded up houses on our street, we were two of the houses that had people living in them, so it was really about drawing people in. And that's been the great thing about Bernzomatic, they're doing these community grants again, last year we did it, giving $38,000 for community projects. I appreciate companies like this because I know how hard it is to get money for community projects.
The saving grace for me is that we've had the success with the show, and that's brought the endorsements in and people saying 'We want to be involved with that." But twenty years ago we didn't have that backing and I knew firsthand that if we wanted to get $500 for that playground we were taking back cans or doing some crazy fundraiser.
The thing that I tell everyone is don't doubt that you have the ability or the power to do something until you try it. Because I didn't know anything about houses, I didn't know anything about construction, nothing when I started at this. I think that's the good part, though, because if I had any idea of what it took to be in this business I don't know if I would have done it! (Laughs) Now it's second nature, but I went into it blindly.
We've had a lot of work done in our house and there were varying levels of skill with the builders, and many times I thought "Hey, I could do that. And maybe even do it better. Because I care and you don't!"
This is what got me started, shelling out cold hard cash for work, and then I'd see them do it and think, "Why did I just pay you to do that? I can figure that out." It's interesting though, sometimes I think my skills set was probably better honed twenty years ago, because I was doing everything myself every single minute of the day, and now I'm doing more delegating because we have so many projects, huge projects now. So I couldn't possibly do them all myself right now. Our first house took me six years to do. Obviously now TV isn't going to give me six years to do a house! (Laughs)
It's really cool that people are getting back into doing things themselves. Again, just like you said, sometimes you find you have a skill for something that you had no idea about. I started painting murals because my son was four or five at the time and really into Spiderman and I thought "I'll give this a try", and wound up painting a whole comic-book-themed mural in his room. And before that I didn't think I had those artistic skills to do that. And if it doesn't work out you learn from it and move on!
That's great inspiration, especially these days when money is in short supply for so many of us but we still have dreams, we want to live in beautiful homes...
And that's actually how I got started, I was a young single mom, trying to put myself through school, and I didn't want to live in an apartment that was blank walls. I wanted a nice house and I knew that I had to get in there. And my book (Better Than New)... I wrote a book not about design because I have no clue, but to say, Hey, there was one year where I made $6000 for the whole year, and somehow I got by on that. And I had dreams of owning my own home, and dreams of doing this for a living, and everyone told me there's no way you're every going to pull it off.
No encouragement whatsoever?
No, they thought I was absolutely crazy!
Well to persevere with everything against you, you must have had a real burning passion for it.
I had a feeling that if just kept going at it I should get this done, and thank God I did. I wanted to have everything that everyone else did but I didn't have the means to do it, so I had to create it.
Excellent message! Thanks so much, Nicole.
If you are a maker based in the United States, Bernzomatic and Nicole Curtis are inviting makers across the country to enter the Find Your Fire Community Grants Program.
The maker movement continues to expand, and more than 135 million adults consider themselves makers. Bernzomatic, the leader in handheld torches, will award up to $15,000 in grants funding to community minded maker projects. Whether it’s a STEAM project that can’t get off the ground, a MakerSpace remodel to benefit a school or even a drone created for good, the program invites people to enter their project ideas for a chance to win big.
Submissions are open now, and here’s how readers can enter:
- How: Visit Bernzomatic.com/Grants to upload your maker project details. The project must benefit the community and use a torch in some way.
- When: Entries are accepted now through Oct. 31. Ten finalists will be announced and public voting begins Dec. 1.
- Prize: Three winners with the most votes will receive a $15,000, $7,500 or $5,000 grant plus Bernzomatic tools. Seven runner ups receive $1,500 in grant support. The grand prize winner with the most votes is awarded a consultation and working day with Nicole Curtis.
If you're not already a maker or DIYer but have always wanted to try your hand at creating or improving something, follow Nicole's lead and just get in there and see what happens!