We talked to Rachel Street of the HGTV pilot, “Philly Street Flippin’.”
Flip or Flop, Flip the House, Flipping Out, Flipping Vegas, Flip or Flop Atlanta, Flipping Boston. It was only a matter of time before our area joined the flippin’ frenzy as the setting for a television show dedicated to the dream of flipping houses for fun and profit.
In late July, HGTV previewed “Philly Street Flippin’” featuring Chester County local, Rachel Street, who did just that and starred in the TV pilot about it.
We talked to her about how she got to be in a show named after herself and featuring her passion.
First question, of course, is how did you get this great TV gig?
The producers found me on social media—I’d been posting about my projects—and then came to Philly for a meeting. They filmed a short video, following me working as a realtor and contractor. After a few months, we were lucky enough to do the pilot for “Philly Street Flippin’.”
Before working in Philly, you lived in Chester County. What’s your connection to our area?
Well, Chester County is where I was born, raised and went to school—at Westtown School.
Just after I was born, my parents bought a dilapidated, old farmhouse in Chester County, which is also where my father grew up. They restored the original house, expanding it, sourcing historically accurate materials from local shops and antique dealers, and researching other historic homes.*
Later they added a big vegetable garden and barn, along with horses, chickens, dogs, cats and rabbits. On weekends we got up early to take care of the crops and animals, helped out around the farm, put up fences, drove tractors. Living in the country meant we built hay forts, rode bareback through the hills of East Nantmeal and with the Pickering Pony Club, and played in swimming holes in French Creek.
My dad and I rode dirt bikes together, made furniture and built forts. Before dinner, my sister and I cut fresh asparagus while my mom made pies from the strawberries we picked.
There’s nothing like farm life to teach kids about hard, physical work! For girls, it’s really important to feel confident and strong in their own skin. I loved it!
Can you tell us about your background—leaving the farm and becoming a realtor, general contractor and designer? How did that evolve?
It’s a round-about path, starting in a very different place—literally and figuratively.
I loved music and studied opera in college, then moved to Italy to work as an opera singer. But it was hard to make a living in music, so I moved back to the States.
When I returned to Chester County and worked with my father—a commercial mortgage broker—I got my real estate license and studied to be an appraiser. That’s when I started buying houses on the side to rent them out—mostly houses that needed work, since I couldn’t afford renovated properties.
Growing up on the farm and having been a tomboy, I was used to working with my hands and with different tools, so I did most of the work myself or with friends. And because I loved design, I’d experiment with different ideas in my projects. People got really excited seeing something that wasn’t a plain white box!
Meanwhile, my father fell ill and into a coma. My life changed overnight. Suddenly I was responsible for the family business. When he passed away on Christmas Eve, I’d lost my father and my career. The short version is that I grew from someone nervous about answering the phone to negotiating deals, and eventually closing out his business.
The silver lining was that I sold the property I’d worked on and made a good profit. My new business idea was born!
I was ready for a change, so I began working with Space & Company in Center City, a boutique woman-owned real estate firm. A few months later, I opened my own construction company, Hestia Construction, LLC.
Now I work as a realtor and contractor, choosing a few interesting properties to renovate and sell.
What’s your approach for a renovation project?
My business is more about quality than quantity. I try to offer something different from what’s on the market by doing design-driven renovations that preserve some history of the homes.
Growing up in a historic home with parents passionate about design and quality, I came to love homes with a story. So I preserve the interesting original details and mix them with modern elements to create unique spaces for people to enjoy.
The project in the TV pilot, on Tasker Street, is in my own neighborhood. I met the family who lived there for many years, and wanted to do a quality renovation that would honor their history and make the new owners (who’d be my neighbors!) happy.
So I restored the old door, made here in South Philadelphia, and kept the original façade. The original floor plan didn’t work for a modern home—too many small rooms—so we opened it up and exposed the brick to bring in some Philly row-home character.
Each home I work on is a labor of love, so I try to come up with new designs, thinking how each room can be used, and adding fun features for the new owners—like unusual design elements and hiding spots. In fact, at closing on one of my properties I told the owners where the secret hiding spot was in their new home!
On the pilot episode, we saw a unique way you keep yourself occupied while you work. Care to share?
Yes, I sing while I work. With my opera background—my first career—and performing all over Italy and Spain for three years, singing is still part of me. Now I mostly sing for the people who work with me, whether they enjoy it or not! Mostly they just make fun of me, as you saw on the show.
What’s your best advice for armchair flippers?
My advice is just get started! The sooner you get into real estate, the better! Philadelphia is one of the cheapest big cities, so there’s still room to grow. Plus there’s so much information online and lots of classes about using tools or learning about real estate.
The biggest challenge is finding the courage to start. From there it’s all about building your team. You don’t need to be an expert in everything, but you do need to know where to turn for help.
What’s next for you?
Of course I’m hoping the show becomes a series, so we can bring you more episodes of “Philly Street Flippin’.” Otherwise, I’m busy finding and renovating properties—looking for new challenges and interesting projects.
And I also started a team—The Street Group—at my real estate company. That keeps me busy training my realtors in both construction and real estate, to offer a well-informed approach to our clients. We help people buying, selling and investing in Philadelphia and the western suburbs—from the hills of East Nantmeal to the Main Line!
Here’s hoping we get to see more of Rachel and “Philly Street Flippin’”!
Contact Rachel Street at The Street Group at Space & Company, 215-625-3650; SpaceAndCompany.com.
*Editor’s Note: Rachel’s home is featured in “Home of the Month” in this issue.
“Changing America one kitchen at a time” is Alison Victoria’s mission as HGTV host on Kitchen Crashers. Since 2011, Alison has trolled the aisles of home improvement stores to find homeowners who will let her help transform their kitchen. And the show features a remarkable range of designs, from bubblegum pink floors in an L.A. boutique to a Native American themed cabin in Park City. We asked her to talk about the show and kitchen designs.
We’ve read you’re not really interested in cooking. So how did you come to host a kitchen design show?
Kitchens are the hub of the home, and as an interior designer it felt like the most natural space for a show. Everyone dreams of having a new kitchen … and in three days?? Even better!
How do you go from finding homeowners in a store to working with them on TV?
We have the cameras with us at the home improvement store, so when the initial shock settles down I get a feel for the person or the couple and if the energy is good and the kitchen is bad we go home with them. It could be months from the time I meet them to the day I come back to crash. It takes time for me to design the space and for us to order everything. So many people think I go back the very next day. If that was true I would be pretty damn impressed with myself. But it’s reality TV, people, and this show is as real as it gets.
What were your toughest, wackiest, most time-consuming projects?
I haven’t really had anything wacky, unless you count that one time a client asked me to design his mistresses’ house. Time-consuming-wise, the Silverton Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas was one of the longest and most rewarding projects I’ve done thus far.
Can you share some unlikely places you find design elements?
I find design inspiration in everything I do. Whether I’m shopping for clothes or on vacation. I can’t not see or notice design. It’s just part of me.
How do you steer homeowners away from costly mistakes and things they’ll tire of too soon?
When it comes to the kitchen you want to make sure you’re making timeless selections. Kitchens are expensive, and you want it to last and stay “on trend” for 10 years or more, so stick with neutrals for your hardscape selections. Play around with paint colors, backsplash options and cabinet hardware where you won’t break the bank if you want to change them out down the road.
About trends: Will white kitchens, granite counters and stainless steel endure? What trends are over?
White will always be on trend. It’s timeless, classic, clean and versatile. Cabinet profile-wise, a shaker style will never do you wrong. The style can go from shabby chic to clean-line modern depending on the finish or color. Granite is and always will be on trend. The beauty and purity of a natural stone won’t ever be lost in design. And believe it or not, so many granites out there can compare their strength to that of the new manufactured stones. Stainless steel better not go anywhere!
These trends better never come back—soffits and avocado green anything!
Even those who aren’t hard-core HGTV fans have likely heard of the Property Brothers, Jonathan and Drew Scott. These identical twins—a realtor and a licensed contractor—help couples find, buy, remodel and transform extreme fixer-uppers into their ultimate dream homes on time and on budget, using CGI (computer generated images) to show images of what could be. If you missed them at January’s Philadelphia Home + Garden Show, catch one of their TV shows, Property Brothers, Buying & Selling, Brother vs. Brother. They were kind enough to share some home improvement advice with us.
Everyone wants to update their living space. What’s the easiest way to do that?
We can’t stress enough how important decluttering is in a space. You have to make sure that your furniture pieces aren’t too big for the room and that your paint palette isn’t too dark, as that makes a space feel smaller.
When renovating, what part of the home do people tend to neglect the most?
The master bedroom is typically the last room to be considered for a reno because the focus is always on the ‘entertaining’ areas. That’s kinda crazy to me because the homeowner should have a wonderful, relaxing oasis to kick back in at the end of the day. We always put everybody else’s needs ahead of our own. That needs to stop. Put in that amazing soaker tub. How about a fireplace in the master? Or even a massive walk-in closet to admire your shoe collection.
Is there a remodeling project that should generally be done by a professional?
Anytime you’re doing major electrical, plumbing or structural ... use a professional. These are areas where one small mistake could cost thousands of dollars or worse yet put the occupant’s life in danger.
What project can most homeowners tackle themselves?
If you’re tired of staring at a boring blank wall in your living room, take on a fun weekend project to install a reclaimed wood feature. You can buy a reclaimed wood veneer product that comes with adhesive on the back. Or to save some money, you can buy real reclaimed wood that has been processed and is ready to install. Or to save even MORE money, you can find real rough reclaimed wood and prep it yourself with a wire brush. It’s a beautiful feature and fairly easy to install.
Do you have a favorite type of home improvement project?
We absolutely love outdoor living spaces. It’s a great way to add livable square footage without doing an actual addition. Nothing beats kicking back with friends around a fire pit.
What’s the best part about what you do?
The most rewarding part is when homeowners throw their arms around us and say thank you for helping them do what they would never have been able to do on their own. Oh, and the demolition part is a lot of fun too.
If homeowners need to tackle one project at a time, what’s the best place to start—what room or what project?
Start with the areas that will make your life easier. Kitchen if you like to entertain or always prepare family meals. Basement with bathroom if you need more space for the kids. Expanded laundry if you’re struggling to keep up.
What’s your best tip for staying within budget?
Organization is key. Plan everything in advance. Look for deals on all materials and fixtures well before you need them. Otherwise you are at the mercy of the retail price at that time.
What’s your best advice for finding the right home?
Location. You can do anything you want to improve a home ... but you can’t upgrade your community. So never turn a blind eye to things like an airport or train in behind the property.
There are signs that the time has come. Here are a few.
Let’s face it—in an ideal world, we’d all love to upgrade our kitchens every few years or so to reflect our changing lifestyles and changing kitchen styles. But the reality is that most of us can’t afford that daydream, nor is it the green way to go. Which brings us to this important question: When is it time?
Are your cabinets falling off their hinges? Are you storing your roasting pan in the oven? Do you stumble down to the basement to retrieve your waffle iron? Do your lighting fixtures look like they belong on the set of The Partridge Family?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you already know the time is now! But let’s consider other reasons for transporting your kitchen into the 21st century.
For Your Consideration
Since these days the kitchen is the center of our home—where our families and friends gather to cook, work and unwind—it’s important that the space be functional, efficient and aesthetically pleasing.
Before 1990, most kitchens were designed with a sole chef—mom—and a sole purpose—cooking—in mind. But today’s kitchen needs to serve more than one cook as well as a variety of purposes.
Whether filleting a flounder, checking Facebook or playing Friday night poker with the Joneses, the kitchen is the place to be.
Here are some things to consider when evaluating the state of your most used and useful room:
1. Are the major elements deteriorating?
2. Is the space efficient?
3. Is the room functional for your family?
4. Does it make you smile?
5. Could it be greener?
6. Are you planning to sell soon?
NEWS FLASH—Your kitchen wasn’t meant to last forever! Cabinets, counter tops, hardware, fixtures, lighting and flooring are not eternal. Sooner or later, they’re all gonna go! And that’s a sign that an update is in your future.
But don’t despair. There are a variety of workable solutions available, and consulting with a design expert (we’ve provided a few names below) makes the job much easier and the outcome even better.
Main Street Cabinet’s Skip Rudderow says, even when working with a budget, a creative kitchen designer can craft cabinetry to look like it belongs in your home. Simplifying the cabinet design will also help control the budget—for example a Shaker design kitchen generally costs less than a Tuscan design.
Energy-hogging appliances are a great reason to make a change that can save on monthly utility bills. More efficient appliances can also help to reduce your carbon footprint. GreenAmerica.org and NRDC.org (The National Resources Defense Council) are two nonprofit groups that offer online tips to consider when shopping for appliances.
Be careful when making your selection, though. Expensive isn’t always better. Bells and whistles you don’t need can cost you more in the long run when they break.
If you have a large family or do a lot of entertaining, consider replacing your conventional oven with a convection or double-tier to save cooking time. A trash compacter may also be a useful timesaver. And here’s a tip from the pros—updating your appliances before they go is always a better idea. Remember Murphy’s Law? You don’t want your oven or fridge konking out on the day of your next big party.
The first step in evaluating functionality is to assess your family’s unique needs. Identify what’s working and what changes could make your lives easier—such as lighting, storage and counter, eating and work space.
Minor upgrades can go a long way towards making your kitchen the haven it’s meant to be. An improvement could be as simple as a new piece of furniture for storing clutter or adding a moveable island for more counter space.
Custom cabinetry can also enhance space and functionality because it fits with no fillers and is designed just for your needs. Tray cabinets, spice racks, knife drawers and pull-out boxes are just some features that can be individualized for you, says Dave Dilworth of Dilworth’s Custom Design.
Considering the amount of time you spend in the kitchen, it’s a room that should make you smile. If you take a walk of shame every time you enter, it’s overdue for a change.
Replacing just one of the many elements in your kitchen could make a huge difference in how it makes you feel. A simple change can breathe new life and comfort into your tired space.
Transitional style—with clean lines and a hint of modern design—is returning to popularity say Michael Walsh of Wall and Walsh and Trez Pomilo of Sugarbridge Kitchen and Bath. And it’s a perennial favorite among families.
It’s not easy being green, but if you’d like to reduce your carbon footprint, the kitchen is a great place to start. If it’s time for a new fridge, consider the Thermador—energy efficient and it will extend the life of your groceries!
Incorporating reclaimed or recycled materials can add warmth and interest to both traditional and modern design. Sabine Illias of Narberth replaced conventional cabinetry with early-1800s door panels for vertical storage. Eliminating bulky cabinets made room for a gorgeous triple window! Search online for local architectural salvage and vintage furniture shops for ideas.
For countertops, Alex Hall of Creative Nook recommends granite versus man-made materials like quartz. He says that less than one percent of the earth’s supply of granite has been harvested.
The quickest way to add resale value to your home is to update the kitchen, but DON’T PANIC! Adding value doesn’t mean a complete renovation. Updating fixtures, hardware and paint may be enough to give the room a cleaner, modern look. Andy Madsen of Madsen Kitchens saved a recent client more than $20,000 by recommending just that.
Before the client’s home went on the market, dark cabinets were painted creamy white, outdated hardware and fixtures were replaced with brushed nickel and Formica countertops made way for Corian. The house sold in a week!
When upgrading your appliances, note that not all buyers will want to pay for innovative gadgetry. Look at general trends in your neighborhood before deciding and invest in eco-friendly products with universal appeal.
Designer tip: If you’ve recently purchased a home, consider living with your kitchen at least six months before making any drastic changes. You may learn to love it!
Back to our friends the Joneses … You don’t have to keep up with them anymore. Having a kitchen that works for you and your family is all that matters. Bon appétit!
- Appliances: integrated, energy-efficient
- Fixtures/hardware: chrome, brushed nickel, brass
- Backsplashes: subway tile
- Countertops: marble, soapstone, granite, quartz
- Range hood: with outside venting
- Walls: cream, white, pale gray
- Flooring: heated, hardwood, porcelain
- Islands: moveable with storage
- Seating: built-in and face-to-face
- Cabinets/Pantry: light woods, whites, grays; pull-out and vertical shelving
- Lighting: pendent or chandelier over sink and island; recessed lighting under cabinets; industrial style
- Extras: microwave drawer, warming drawer, charging stations, beverage bar
To find out more, contact:
Alex Hall, Creative Nook, Paoli, 610-644-6665
Dave Dilworth, Dilworth’s Custom Design, Phoenixville, 610-917-9119
Andy Madsen, Madsen Kitchens, Broomall, 610-356-4800
Skip Rudderow, Main Street Cabinet, Newtown Square, 610-325-5500
Trez Pomilo, Sugarbridge Kitchen & Bath, Paoli, 484-318-8367
Michael Walsh, Wall and Walsh, 610-789-8530
I'm going to tell you the end of the story first: I'm happily-ever-after happy with my new kitchen.
Now for the middle chapters of this tale of a new kitchen: I doubted my decisions, bickered with my husband (when he doubted my decisions), and spent countless nights tallying what we spent on takeout.
But let’s start at the beginning of the story. Our kitchen was falling apart. Every dollar we spent replacing broken hinges and chipped floor tiles smacked of the “good money after bad” adage. As an avid cook and food writer—I write County Lines’ Brandywine Table column—I’d developed a clear vision of my ideal kitchen.
First, I wanted a classic kitchen that harmonized with my 1902 Arts and Crafts house. Second, since my family and I cook, entertain, do homework, pay bills and hang out in the kitchen, I wanted a flexible space with areas that were not overly task-specific. Built in spice racks and pull-out drawers for small appliances look nice, but in my previous kitchen, I found them too limiting.
And finally, I wanted the design, materials and appliances to reflect the way I really cook and to stand up to heavy use without losing their good looks—and without requiring much effort from me. In short, I wanted to spend more time with a whisk than a scrub brush.
While our galley-style kitchen was plenty big in terms of square footage, we wanted to use the space more efficiently. That meant moving and enlarging the doorway between kitchen and dining room, improving traffic flow and allowing light from one room to enhance light in the other. Just the beginning of our long wish list.
We also needed more usable counter space, not the narrow stretches between two medium-sized sinks we had. To work in a seven-foot-long counter that could serve as both a workspace and a serving area convenient to the table, we broke with conventional design wisdom. Instead of situating the sink under a window, we moved it to face a cabinet wall. We also chucked the two sinks in favor of one large, deep one with no divider, making cleanup of even a roasting pan easy, if not quite pleasurable.
For the cabinets, we went with maple, painted cream in a style I describe as “dressed up” Shaker. Because the inset door panels have few grooves, they met my easy-to-clean criterion. We also ordered a capacious, freestanding pantry with a eucalyptus stain that resembles a piece of furniture. It lends the kitchen a dining-room type of elegance.
But what’s inside the cabinets thrills the cook in me. Two large shallow drawers roomy enough for all my utensils flank the range, while deeper drawers below them accommodate all sizes of pots and pans. Most of the cabinets have adjustable shelves (highly appealing to a compulsive re-arranger like me). Just as important, the cabinets hold bulky, heavy small appliances, e.g., the stand mixer I frequently use but didn’t want crowding the counter.
My favorite part of the cabinetry is the cookbook shelf above the window over the long stretch of counter. A voracious cookbook reader and collector, I dreamed of large shelf to hold my 30 or so favorite books. Truthfully, I requested shelves on one entire wall, but the budget answered with a resounding “NO!”
The choice to put in Carrera marble countertops is one I’ll defend to my dying day. Many kitchen designers advise against marble in heavily-used kitchens because marble is porous, staining easily. Even though marble violated my minimal effort rule (I’d have to wipe tomato sauce splatters immediately and seal it every year or two), I could no more resist its beauty than I could a wedge of my mother-in-law’s coconut cake.
Little Details, Big Improvements
In my previous kitchen, the overhead fluorescent lights made me feel that I was under police scrutiny every time I diced an onion. For the redo, we lit in “layers,” using a combination of recessed ceiling lights, wrought-iron and glass pendants, and a small chandelier. An over-the-sink task light as well as under-cabinet lights make cooking and cleanup easy as store-bought pie.
We installed a porcelain tile floor that resembles the flagstone patio just outside the kitchen. It was inexpensive (the only item under budget), does not show dirt, needs no polishing, and unlike real flagstone, resists splintering. A dream!
On the sink side, the backsplash is a crackle-finish, celery-hued subway tile, again a timeless look with little maintenance. Behind the range, we put in a Pennsylvania fieldstone wall, reminiscent of our home’s exterior.
The challenge to any cook choosing appliances is to differentiate her culinary aspirations from her real-life dinner escapades. I like to think of myself as a person who steams fish and vegetables six nights a week and bakes her own bread every Saturday morning. This person needs a steamer basket built into her counter and an oven with a bread-proofing feature. The person I really am needs neither, and she’s the one I fought to listen to at the appliance store.
The knowledgeable appliance salesperson also helped me to balance my needs and wants while sticking to my budget. By the way, you’ll save money if you purchase your appliances from one place and if possible, from one manufacturer. Be aware, though, that just because a company makes a crackerjack dishwasher doesn’t guarantee that its ovens or refrigerators fulfill your needs.
Hours went into researching what I considered the most important appliances: the cooktop and ovens. I knew I wanted dual-fuel (gas cooktop with electric oven), and for years, high-end cooktops, ranges and double wall ovens danced in my kitchen dreams. But how often had I simultaneously used the double ovens I had (2-3 times per year) and would I really use six burners, most with high BTUS? (No.)
I’m happy to report that I found a fabulous compromise: the GE Café 30-inch dual-fuel range. I can’t rank its attributes, so I’ll just sum them up: commercial model good looks, large central burner with a griddle accessory, four burner (two with high BTUs), a huge oven that runs true to temperature, and an extra baking drawer with separate temperature control.
We put the new cooktop and oven to the test when we cooked Thanksgiving dinner for 27 (some people brought side dishes but still …), and they earned my respect.
The GE Café French door refrigerator was another pick because it can accommodate wide trays I use when entertaining. Its shelves and freezer drawers are easy to adjust and remove for cleaning. And the water dispenser on the outside—previous models featured only inside dispensers—means we all drink more water. Another good thing.
For the dishwasher, I chose a Bosch 500 series with an excellent energy efficiency rating, important since I often wash two loads a day. The one appliance I nearly jettisoned—until my husband convinced me otherwise—is a microwave. While I don’t cook in the Sharp microwave drawer, I have to say I often rely on it to reheat and defrost. Because it’s an under-counter model, safely removing hot items is no problem.
Our kitchen redo suffered from all the usual setbacks—underfunding, overbudgeting, takeout burnout. But now that the pilot light’s on, I’m feeling like my hero, New York Times food writer Melissa Clark: I’m in the kitchen with a good appetite. -CL-
Tips from the Experts
Kitchen renovations are one of the biggest—and most expensive—home improvement projects many of us will ever undertake, and it’s unlikely that we’ll have the experience more than once or twice. So what we learn rarely benefits us. There are, however, trained experts who have weathered the kitchen design and renovation process many, many times. We’ve asked a few to share their collective wisdom.
Waterbury Kitchen & Bath’s Katy Wolfington recommends stainless steel sinks. She calls them “the lowest maintenance of all sinks and they’re timeless” and advises against “white porcelain sinks that chip easily and are hard to keep clean (as pretty as they are).” She also recommends stained finishes versus a painted finish for cabinetry. “Stained cabinets tend to last longer than paint and painted finishes, especially white or any light color, tend to show dirt more and are harder to keep clean.”
“High-end appliances are well worth the investment,” says David Cerami, HomeTech Renovations.“A Wolf range, for example, uses quality cast iron that’s easier to clean and more durable, so it lasts longer. Same thing with dishwashers with stainless steel interiors requiring less maintenance (just a little Lime-A-Way). And some synthetic countertops are very low maintenance, too—no sealing, no staining or knife marks.”
For easy-care kitchen floors, tile is a top pick of Creative Nook’s Alex Hall. “Use larger tiles, with thin grout lines, and a darker grout (no white grout to show stains) and care for your floors will be low on your list of chores. Sealing makes most grout even easier to care for. And if quality porcelain tiles are installed properly, no need to worry about cracks if your spouse drops a pot on them.”
Ron Laudens lager, Muhly KBA, Inc. recommends “customizing kitchen work areas for clients, using special features to provide easy access and storage for work areas to help keep the kitchen clean and organized—anything from pull down shelves in high wall cabinetry to toe-kick vacuums to eliminate the need to bend over with the dust pan to clean up after food spills.”
Top tips from Andy Madsen, Madsen Kitchen & Bath: “Install your microwave under the counter for less spilling and lower risk of steam in the face. Extend your counter material up an inch or so to eliminate that nasty joint between counter and backsplash that’s a dirt trap and a mess to clean. Invest in a new touch-operated faucet for all those times your hands are full, and install a good water purifier so there’s no more hauling bottled water home.”
A local family gets its 30 minutes of fame on HGTV's top-rated show.
In 1999, HGTV first aired the television show House Hunters. In the dozen years since, the show has skyrocketed in popularity. In fact, it’s the network’s highest-rated show, with an estimated 1.6 million viewers tuning in to each episode.
House Hunters takes viewers behind the scenes as couples tour three houses for sale. Focusing on the emotional experience of finding and purchasing a new home, each episode shows the process as buyers search for their perfect house.
Just last summer, Kirsten Werner, a contributor to County Lines Magazine, and her soon-to-be family (Werner got engaged this past Christmas to Jared Leonard, who has two children) were selected for the show. The filming took place over five days as the couple toured properties in Glen Mills, Chadds Ford and West Chester.
County Lines editor Jo Anne Durako recently sat down with Kirsten Werner to learn more about her experience on the show.
Jo Anne Durako: First, Kirsten, how did you get on the show?
Kirsten Werner: I get that question a lot! Honestly, I just applied online one night after a glass (or two) of wine, not thinking I had a chance in a million of being selected. About a week later, my phone rang and I saw it was someone with a Los Angeles area code. I remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t know anyone from California,’ and I was genuinely shocked when I answered and it was the show’s producer.
JD: What prompted you to apply?
KW: Well, I confess I’m not sure I’d really thought it all through before I applied online! I suppose, having watched the show for years, I was bored with seeing so many cookie-cutter, new-construction homes on the show. I’d been house hunting for more than a year, and wanted the opposite ... something unique, historic and full of character. I figured I couldn’t be the only person who felt that way, and after seeing dozens of great old houses during my search, I thought others might want to see these unique homes, too.
JD: What made you start house hunting?
KW: My previous house was so great I was reluctant to move. It’s an early-1800s mill cottage along the Chester Creek, surrounded by woods, with an old springhouse and small barn, perfect for me when I bought it in 2007. I spent the last five years restoring and renovating it, inside and out. But the house is four stories with original curved staircases to each level. When my parents visit and stay overnight, their trip to the guest room on the top floor meant a lot of stairs for their older knees! And, honestly, I’d finished all the projects there, and I think I was ready for the next challenge.
JD: How did Jared fit into all this?
KW: I’d been looking for a new house for the last couple of years, even before I met Jared. Just ask my realtor ... I’ve seen a LOT of houses! So when Jared and I fell in love, it really only changed how I viewed the houses, not the search. Jared has a 12-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, and an eight-year-old son, Davis, so now I was considering things like school districts and space for playrooms.
Jared’s house is about the same size as my previous house, and the kids were sharing a bedroom because of space constraints. So we knew selling both houses and moving was the best option. And it would let us make the new house ‘ours’ as a family.
JD: What kind of house were you looking for?
KW: In a word: old. Both Jared and I were living in 200-year-old houses before we found our ‘new’ home. We wanted a house with character and history. They asked us a lot on House Hunters about our ‘must haves’ and our ‘deal breakers.’ A wood-burning fireplace, stone construction, and enough space for the kids to have their own bedrooms were the must-haves. And a house set back from the road—that’s actually hard to find in a centuries-old house. Oh, and I really wanted some acreage. I work for Natural Lands Trust, whose mission is to preserve and care for open space, so I wanted to bring that love of land and nature to my home.
JD: Take us inside some of the houses you saw ... what were they like?
KW: Well, I’m not allowed to say anything that would reveal which house we chose ... you have to watch the show on Monday, February 4, at 10 p.m. to find that out! My realtor, Ian Bunch of Brandywine Fine Properties, arranged with the owners for filming the houses you’ll see on the show.
The three houses we toured on the show were so different from each other. One was like a little storybook cottage in the woods. It has a peaked roof, dormer windows, and picture-perfect landscaping. An addition had been added about 30 years ago, which really expanded the living space. But the kitchen was small and outdated. I’ve gutted kitchens in my previous three houses and had hoped to avoid doing it again.
The next house was an old stone 19th-century farmhouse with hardwood floors and five fireplaces. I fell in love with the nine-acre lot, but Jared was concerned we’d be taking on more work than I realized with such a large property. The kids fell in love with the in-ground pool.
Walking into the third house was like stepping into a time capsule. More than 200 years old, it had been lovingly cared for to preserve the historical features like the wide-plank floors, wrought-iron hardware, and thick plaster walls. While it needed some work, it was under our budget so we had room for updating. But the lot was only an acre, and none of it was really usable as a yard for the kids.
JD: Speaking of the kids, how did they react to all of this?
KW: They both were very excited to be on TV! As far as the house search itself, I was worried they’d be upset about their dad’s home being sold and reluctant about the whole process, but they really got into it!
They weren’t filmed at the houses we viewed, but they were there behind the scenes—and were so well behaved given the long, 10-hour days. They had fun exploring the houses and giving us their opinions. And they really love the house we chose. I’ve moved in already; Jared and the kids will move at the end of the school year, but they already refer to it as ‘our house.’
JD: What were the best and worst parts of filming the show?
KW: The worst part was trying to stay cool in 100-degree weather. The producer warned us there’d be long days of shooting, but I didn’t factor in the heat. We filmed in August and lots of shots were outdoors ... driving up to the house, walking to the front door, exploring the yard ... we were drenched with sweat in minutes.
They had us using powder to keep our faces from shining, but it was a lost cause. In between takes, we’d stand by an air conditioning vent. But sometimes the sound engineer wanted the air conditioning turned off because it created background noise. And one of the houses we looked at had no air conditioning ... not even window units. Nothing like having beads of perspiration all over your face in high definition!
The best part had to be how much we all laughed during the process. For example, they had us wear hidden microphones with battery packs. This meant that, no matter where we were, the sound engineer, Frank, could hear everything we said or did. It was weird at first, but after a few hours we decided to have fun with it. Our goal was to make Frank laugh. We’d crack jokes and get goofy ... and it wasn’t hard to be silly after 10 hours of filming!
JD: Was the show scripted?
KW: That’s another question I’m often asked. I think people are starting to look at so-called ‘reality’ television with a more skeptical eye. No, House Hunters isn’t scripted. Everything we said and did was genuine.
However, the producer would often try to tease out areas of conflict ... viewers like to see a couple argue! I think it was frustrating to the producer how similar Jared and I are when it comes to what we like and dislike in a house, so she was forced to make an awful lot out of the few areas where we disagreed. She’d bring them up again and again, prompting us to repeat ourselves, and encouraged us to make very strong statements instead of moderate ones. If we walked into a room and said, ‘Gee, this is a bit dated, isn’t it?’ she’d yell ‘Cut!’ and coach us to be less timid. I felt pretty conflicted being too negative about someone else’s home on national TV!
JD: Did you say anything you regret?
KW: Gosh ... probably, though I haven’t seen ‘our’ episode yet so I’m not sure what made it into the final cut. What you see when you watch the show on TV is 30 minutes of footage, minus commercials. But they shoot about 50 hours of footage! Each ‘scene’ consists of multiple ‘takes.’ They’ll say, ‘OK, that was great, now let’s film you walking into the house from a different angle,’ or ‘Not bad, but you were both talking at once. Let’s do it over.’ After the fifth or sixth take—especially toward the end of the day—we were getting punchy, so who knows what I said! Jared and I both love to laugh and have fun. Hopefully, the editing won’t change the context or make it seem we were being dead serious when we were really just joking around.
As fairly regular viewers of the show, we often want to throw a shoe at the TV and yell, ‘Seriously? It’s only paint!’ when a couple bases their decision on the house’s wall colors, or we place bets on how often a couple says ‘stainless steel appliances,’ ‘granite countertops,’ or ‘man cave’ in a single episode. So we made a pact we’d steer clear of those kinds of comments. But I’m sure we said a few things that will make viewers roll their eyes! I guess that’s part of the fun in watching the show.
JD: What was the most surprising part of the experience?
KW: I was surprised at how close we got to the crew in just a few days’ time. There are only three people from the show that flew out for filming: the producer, a sound engineer, and a cameraperson. On the last of the five days of filming, our producer, Kathryn, sat down with Jared and me for a final on-camera interview. She asked us how it had been to share the experience of looking for a house together and what was next for us as a couple. We both waxed a little sentimental, I suppose, in our answers. I remarked on the difference between the first part of my house-hunting journey—when I was looking as a single woman—and the latter part with Jared by my side. Jared talked about how the home buying process made him all the more certain he’d found the person to share the rest of his life. Kathryn actually had tears in her eyes at the end of the interview! She’s a sweetheart ... everyone on the crew was wonderful.
JD: Now that the experience is over, would you do it again?
KW: I think so, although it added stress in an already busy time. The filming schedule dictated our schedules. For example, at the end there’s always a short segment where they catch up with the homeowners in their new house. We had to cancel and reschedule the moving company to work around filming dates.
I thought they’d give us a few months to settle in to the new house, paint, and unpack boxes. No, they showed up the day after the move! We got up before dawn that final day of filming to slap a few paintings on the walls, roll out some rugs, and give the house a hurried cleaning. It was a whirlwind! I guess I’d have to ask Jared, but I think we’d both do it again just because it was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for us and the kids.
The producers e-mailed recently and mentioned something about another episode—more of a ‘where are they now?’ version where they come back to see what we’ve done with the house.
We plan on getting married on the property, so they even asked about a House Hunters Wedding Special. They were kidding ... I think! -CL-
HGTV has scheduled the air date for Kirsten and Jared’s House Hunters episode for February 4, 10 p.m. Eastern time. Check your local listings.