She does it herself.
In a world where most of us struggle to figure out how to stop the toilet from running, Nicole Curtis is cutting a swath through the historic districts of Minneapolis and Detroit, fixing what’s broken, putting back what was once there and adding architectural features that should have been there in the first place.
This Detroit-born whirlwind of restoration is the star of “Rehab Addict.” But she was rehabbing long before DIY decided to put her on television. She grew up loving history and, in particular, the history of houses.
“My dad’s a walking encyclopedia. My whole family is very into history. I come from Detroit, which is flooded in history, and I’m proud to be an American. Everything has a history to somebody somewhere,” she said, and that’s what she tries to keep intact as she buys, rehabs and sells old houses.
“People look at them as sticks and stones” nowadays, she said, a commodity to be bought and sold and flipped.
“A house brings back a flood of memories. Until the last decade or two, we were in our homes for 30 to 40 years. It wasn’t just a house to somebody,” Curtis said. It was a home.
That’s not so much how we live today, she said, with people hopping from job to job and on to other communities. But the people she sells to are looking for that sense of permanency and history, she said, and they always find her and the houses she has restored.
“I make my houses affordable. I make people fall in love with houses again. They’re not staged like a modern house. They’re staged to feel homey and comfy. Anyone can go in and flip a house and put an IKEA kitchen in, and it will sell. I can do that in my sleep.”
But that kind of sleep would give her nightmares, so she does things in a different way.
“I challenge people every day. I really use all salvage materials,” she said, whether it’s chipping glass block out of a bathroom, rescuing damaged tiles, or selling old toilets to put a little more money in the renovation kitty so she can go to a salvage yard and buy an antique light fixture.
Because she saves and restores and stands behind her work, her customers know they can come back to her if they have a problem.
“People know my houses. If you have a question a year from now, it’s not hard to track me down. There’s no BS, this is what I do.”
And she wants more people to do this. She knows she can’t save every old house by herself. If you hop on Facebook and type in her name, you’ll find an active community of Curtis disciples who alert her to endangered buildings and who seek information on how to do a restoration right.
“My goal is to make you think before you act,” she said, and figure out what you could save instead of sending everything to the landfill.
Curtis is in the unusual position of being a real estate agent who also does restoration work. She’s in a good position to find the creaky old houses that need her special touch. She does the work and the buyers find her and her restored gems.
“These are all my properties,” she said, which gives her complete freedom on what she does but adds a dash of urgency since her money is tied up in the house.
“With my first house, I bought an old house and it needed work. The show is off my real life. It’s just kind of what I do. Nothing I do is separate. It’s all wrapped into one. And it’s all self taught.”
Want to know how to lay a tile floor? Then attend a free tile workshop at your local building center.
Want to know how to wire a light? Pay attention when the electrician you hired is rewiring your dining room chandelier.
Curtis said she didn’t build her network of construction workers by chance. She added them one by one as she figured who suited her building style.
“I took workshops, met with neighbors ... wherever I could find knowledge. I had to go out there and find those things. I always tell people, ‘If you are always communicating about what you love and what you do, the right people will find you.’ It took me a long time to find the right ones to work with.
“Even now, every new project I bid out. I get at least five bids for every single job. It’s the way I meet new people and many different talents. I don’t do that if I stay in the same group forever. Then I work alongside them. I wouldn’t hire someone,” she said, who wouldn’t let her ask questions.
“That’s how I learned everything. I brought in a plumber and I asked him, ‘How did you do that?’ Not because I can master it and do it myself, but I’m paying for the knowledge. I ask questions about everything. I want to learn about everything I can. I have an interest in everything everyone does. I like to know what people do. If you do it in the right manner, people love to talk about what they do. Just don’t micromanage them. I’m respectful. I’m inquisitive.”
And she’s a maniac about doing it the right way historically. Yes, that can cost more.
“It’s more expensive and it takes more time,” Curtis said. “But I’m a real estate agent and I’m savvy about what I buy. I’m very, very frugal. I know to a dime where my budget is.”
She keeps that budget in check by swinging the sledgehammer herself.
“I do all my own demo. I do whatever I can because I reuse everything. I restore the windows that are in there.”
That can save money, she said, because instead of paying $7,000 for new windows, she can restore her windows for $2,000. “And it’s the right thing to do for the house.”
There are splurges, of course, like spending a few thousand dollars to restore stained glass windows.
“It’s yin and yang on every budget.”
When she worked on her own house, she pulled off her old garage doors to have more efficient ones installed. But she couldn’t just toss the old doors so she hauled them down to the basement and installed them down there.
“If anyone ever thinks I have a plan ...” she said with a laugh. “I do things on the fly.”
The one thing she knew about the old garage doors is that they’re weren’t going in the garbage.
“The basement thing, I would have never put money in that basement, but it was a safe haven for my doors.”
And not just her doors get that kind of treatment.
“I garbage pick every day. Any given week I pick up things from the garbage. Broken furniture is my favorite because most of the time it’s a quick fix. I have a 4,000 square foot home that’s filled with everything out of the garbage, but I’m OK with it. I staged the entire house off my garbage finds and Craig’s List.”
You may not be able to do all that Nicole Curtis can do, but you can help, and it’s her mission to get you on board with historic restoration.
“My job is to plant the seed. I can’t save every house,” she said, but her 33,000 followers on Facebook can help do the job. “I say one comment and that makes a huge difference. I can only educate and help others educate, and keep carrying on.”
So if you’re ready to join the Nicole Curtis crew, here’s some good tips for getting started:
- Clean your house. “It sounds so silly. But I was out showing houses yesterday and I thought, ‘Why don’t people clean their homes?’ When you clean and maintain your home,” she said, it’s in better working order.
- Change out your light fixtures for something more suitable to the house.
- Change a kitchen faucet. It’s low cost for a high impact.
- Paint. “That’s easy, easy, easy.”
- Research. If you’re going to tackle something you haven’t tried before, google it. Even google something as basic as painting, Curtis said, and you’ll find tips to help accomplish the job.
- Set yourself to mastering it and make it your new passion. But know your limits. “If you can die from doing it wrong, please don’t take it on yourself.” Translation: Leave rewiring the house to an electrician.
- Start with something small so you don’t get discouraged. “Limit it to something that takes an hour tops. I don’t want people to get frustrated right away.”