Q&A with ‘This Old House’ host Kevin O’Connor
If you ask “This Old House” host Kevin O’Connor to recall his worst do-it-yourself mishap — which we did — he would tell you that putting his foot through the same ceiling twice was definitely a low point. And when we asked him if he narrates to an invisible crew as he tackles his own home improvement projects, he had this to say:
“I find myself turning to the expert to ask questions, only not getting answers back.”
If you now think that O’Connor doesn’t take home improvement seriously, think again. The Boston-based host, who has been the face of “This Old House” since 2003, is so passionate about it that he and his wife bought a completely rundown home, gutted and renovated it — and did it with success and enthusiasm.
HellaWella recently spoke with O’Connor about his DIY tips, green recommendations and what happens when a finance guy emails a long-running home improvement show for some wallpaper advice.
HW: When did your interest in home improvement start?
O’Connor: I think my passion for it — or I should say working with my hands — really grabbed my attention at a young age. My dad is a civil engineer, and I have a couple other engineers in the family. So when we were growing up we liked to build things. We would spend our days building go carts and tree houses, and when we got older and we had to get summer jobs or had college breaks, we would go to my dad’s job sites.
And then I got to the point where I was starting to look for my own house, and my wife and I were looking for a fixer-upper. We just sort of dove in headfirst. We bought this rundown, old two-family that really needed to be gutted. And it was that house that caused me to contact ‘This Old House.’ Which was sort of natural for me to do because I grew up watching the show. I’m embarrassed to say, but I was the guy in college when the roommates came back, they would have to wrestle the remote out of my hand because they wanted to turn on the local sports and I would be watching ‘This Old House.’
HW: After you bought your house, how soon after did you contact the show?
O’Connor: It was probably within two months. This house was built in the 1890s, and it hadn’t been touched in probably about 50 or 60 years when we came upon it. And we had to take off wallpaper over all of this old horsehair plaster wall, and unfortunately it wasn’t just a layer of wallpaper. It was three, sometimes four layers of wallpaper on top of each other. My wife and I were scraping like crazy. We literally said: “There has to be a magic bullet out there. In this stage in humanity, there has to be a secret formula.” So we emailed ‘This Old House,’ thinking they would be the perfect [solution]. And unbeknownst to us, they just started a new show, which was a spinoff of ‘This Old House,’ [whereby] people send in questions and experts go out, ring your doorbell and they solve your problem in a day or so. And so our innocent question about the wallpaper turned out to be picked up by a producer, and a couple weeks later they called the house and asked if they could film a segment.
HW: How soon after the show came to your home were you offered the job as host?
O’Connor: I think it was another two months after that. We had no idea they were looking for a host. There was no sort of public announcement that the former host, Steve Thomas, was moving on. About two months later when they called back, we were both shocked and a little confused. When they offered the job, it was sort of mind-blowing.
It just doesn’t happen in this industry. I don’t think there are many other shows out there that this could happen on. It’s just how ‘This Old House’ is. It’s in their DNA. It’s how all the other guys came to the program. Nobody was a professional television personality. They all sort of are who they are, and they all happen to be on TV — almost in their spare time. So it’s really one of the few television programs that have that DNA that would even allow something like my story to occur.
HW: Time for some home improvement advice: What are easy ways to improve your home?
O’Connor: [Start with] curb appeal — the landscaping, the exterior-type stuff. Anybody can work a shovel and plant a plant and tend to the yard. You can’t screw it up or flood things or electrocute yourself. And it also has the biggest impact when people first come upon your house. After that, improve the inside of your house along the same lines. Make sure it doesn’t look rundown or dirty. Fresh coats of paint are a great easy, cheap way. And just tend to things. It’s amazing how many times you walk in, the first thing you grab is the door handle and it’s loose, the windows don’t have the locks on them. Keeping up the place and tending to the maintenance stuff spruces up a place really quickly and really easily.
HW: And if you had the money and the time, and you could only remodel one room, which would be your best investment?
O’Connor: Kitchen, hands down. I don’t think there’s any dispute about it. I think it’s been proven by all the empirical work done by the real estate industry. These days, that’s where we spend our time. We live in the kitchen. It’s where the meals are prepared and eaten. It’s where we host our guests for parties and entertaining. It’s fairly intimidating and expensive, [but] when someone walks into the house and sees a nice, smart-looking kitchen, it makes the best, first impression. So I think it works both in terms of if you’re preparing your house for sale, if you want to impress outsiders and getting the best satisfaction yourself.
HW: What places do you find people neglect the most in their homes?
O’Connor: They neglect the places they can’t see and the places they don’t go. And that means the basement and the attic, the roof, and any of the nasty little nooks and crevices that are mostly out of sight. It’s sort of amazing how many people are aware that they have rot, but they don’t see it everyday so they pay no attention to it. Or the gutter that leaks down the side of the house, but it’s two stories up and they sort of just groan and look at it but never do anything about it. If it’s not in your face every day, people have no problem ignoring it. The old adage, out of sight out of mind, holds true. And unfortunately those places — the basement, the attic, spaces behind the walls — they should not be ignored. They’re where the functions of the house are going on — not the living necessarily, but the workings of the house. And you don’t want to ignore those because you’re going to pay a penalty.
HW: Do you have any tips for budding DIYers?
O’Connor: The thing I tell most people is to take your time; there’s no rush. I think it’s important that you live in a space long before you actually start to change it to understand how you use the house. Taking your time before you begin is probably the best to save yourself money, because the fastest way to waste money is to have to do something twice. The other tip I would give is I think most people can do a lot more than they give themselves credit for. Be intrepid, dive in. Very often, you’re at risk of nothing. It may not look good, it may not turn out the way you want, but that’s a very small downside. Have at it, get your hands dirty, give it a try.
HW: What should you never try on your own unless you have the expertise?
O’Connor: I think the list is different for different people. The one thing I don’t think anybody should work on is anything in the house that deals with combustion — you don’t want to tune up or fix up your own furnace or boiler. And that’s just because you can screw it up, and the result can be deadly. The next thing I go to is electric. I think people can handle electric generally speaking, but you need to be very careful about it. It’s easy to avoid mistakes by shutting down the circuits. But certainly if you don’t feel comfortable, leave it to a pro, and even if you do feel comfortable, generally stay out of the service panel. And after electric, I would go to plumbing. And again, I think a lot of people can handle plumbing. Even if you do screw up in a royal way, you’re probably just going to get wet as opposed to shocked or electrocuted to death as you might with electricity. And you can avoid a lot of that by shutting off the main and turning on different parts of the pipe that you’re working on discreetly. That’s my order: Definitely not for combustion items, maybe not for electric, possibly not for plumbing. Everything else is fair game.
HW: What are the latest trends in energy saving and green building?
O’Connor: I’m a little biased myself because I think green is hard to define. And some people are focused on sustainable use of materials, other people are concerned about indoor air quality, others are focused on energy efficiency. I myself focus on the energy efficiency part. It has become top of mind given national-type debates for better of for worse. But we’re also coming to a critical point with some of the technologies starting to perform for the first time and becoming affordable, and I think the prices of solar electricity is the first on that list. In many states, people can buy solar for little money. The payback period everyone’s focused on has shortened in states where there are subsidies. I think one of the most exciting things out there right now in both green and energy efficiency is this idea of power purchase agreements, which are basically equivalent to leasing a car versus buying a car. It allows people to get solar on their roof for little to no money down, lock in a pretty affordable rate of electricity and insulate themselves from increasing electricity prices.
And there are a lot of other improvements in energy efficiency that aren’t as sexy, but are just as important. The basic efficiency of our old-fashioned boilers and furnaces are reaching mid- to high-90s, percentage-wise, in terms of efficiency — and that’s just phenomenal. It’s a remarkable development for homeowners who are just trying to heat their houses.
HW: Have you incorporated any green technologies into your own home?
O’Connor: I have done a lot in terms of efficiency. Sealing up the house in terms of air infiltration is critical, like putting the proper caulking around windows and weatherstripping around doors. Have I done those? Yes. Weather-responsive thermostats that actually control your heating, yes. One of the first things I did when I moved into this house was I insulated the attic and the bottom of the roof with expanding foam insulation. And just adding insulation to your house can make a huge difference. You really can’t have too much insulation. Converting over incandescent lights to alternatives, not necessarily everywhere, but certainly throughout the house. We’ve assessed our power usage using a whole-house monitoring system. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there. A lot of it can be done easily and cheaply, and on top of all that, changing your behavior is just a great way to save energy.
HW: And you find that you’re saving money?
O’Connor: When I have 8 ins. of expanding foam insulation to the underside of my roof, yes, I know I’m saving money. And I could pull up the bills and prove it to you but I’ve done this enough, we’ve modeled it, we’ve actually employed this stuff enough that I just know it works. And I’m doing it partly to save on the fuel costs, but I’m also doing it because it makes the place more comfortable, and I know it’s the smart thing to do. I just know I’m getting a return for my investment by doing stuff like that.
HW: Everyone is wary of getting into the housing market these days. Do you think people are reluctant to buy?
O’Connor: I have a friend who is single and she rents. She calls me for financial advice because of my finance background. For years, I told her to buy a house. I have completely changed my advice to this person. Now I tell her, ‘Just keep renting.’ There’s nothing wrong with renting, and it’s partly because I’ve changed my own thinking and partly because the world has changed. I do see people holding back, saying I’m going to keep renting or I’m going to live with what I have because I have to or because I’m nervous about what’s going on out there. And even on the show when we work with determined clients, we do see them trying to do more with less. I don’t know if it’s fair to proclaim the age of wretched excess over, but I see hints of that. I just see people being more sensible about what they do and what they build.
HW: And if people do decide to buy an existing home, what do you think are some of the deal breakers?
O’Connor: Depending on your appetite, there could be none. I bought a place that was really rundown that most people didn’t want to go anywhere near, and that was a benefit to me. So with that caveat, I would say for most people, the thing that should put the fear of God in them is if there’s any sign of a bad foundation — that’s a big problem. It could mean bad things for the rest of the house that you can’t see. It’s really difficult to work on a foundation that’s in trouble because you may have to actually get access to it from the outside. Structural things are a lot harder to fix and deal with than cosmetics, which is really much more rare. Sick Home Syndrome, where [there are] reports of toxicity in the house or mold behind the walls or radon problems that you might not be able to get a handle on, would scare me. Other than that, one person’s blemish and rotted walls are another person’s opportunity.
HW: Tell us about your worst DIY mishap and greatest success?
O’Connor: I can remember one on the last house. It was a two-family, and we took the attic space, which was virtually unfinished, and we converted it to living space. So I was up in the attic and I stripped everything down to the studs and the joists. We had already done lots of work and I was walking around on the joists in the attic. I slipped and put my foot through the ceiling and broke through the plaster. And that was very frustrating, but only a fraction of how frustrating it was when I fixed it and then did it again a month later. So putting my foot through the same ceiling twice was a low point.
My biggest success was the house that I worked on. It wasn’t one individual project, but when we finished that house that we had spent seven years doing ourselves, room by room. We bought it when we didn’t have kids, and by the time we were done we had three. That was a huge success. So it got me the job, and that was cool and great, but what I take from it is the idea of ‘I can do it.’ With enough help, good advice and determination, I can do it.
HW: What would older Kevin O’Connor say to younger Kevin O’Connor?
O’Connor: That’s a good one. I think he’d probably say, ‘Hurry up, time is short.’
HW: You said to take your time.
O’Connor: Wise guy. The world is full of opportunities. I think I’m giving you the advice I would give my children: Be bold and just get to it. And I think that’s what I would tell a younger me. Just grab it and go. Get moving.
Check out O’Connor’s book “The Best Homes from THIS OLD HOUSE,” in which he shares 10 of the show’s best transformations from the past decade.