Star of TV's 'Rehab Addict' says rehabbing homes saved her life

Unlike most of us, there is pretty much nothing that will stop Nicole Curtis from taking on a home renovation. So what if the foundation’s cracked, the walls termite-ridden, or it bears the scars of a major fire? The petite dynamo and host of HGTV and DIY’s long running hit “Rehab Addict” has seen and done it all in her 20-plus years revamping and restoring vintage homes between Detroit and Minneapolis.

“The only thing that’s a deal breaker is the price,” she says. “Everything else I can deal with.”

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In her new book, “Better Than New: Lessons I’ve Learned From Saving Old Houses,” Curtis, 40, frankly reveals her life struggles — two-time single mother, former Hooters’ waitress, broke more times than she can count — against the backdrop of various house restorations. The result is decidedly unlike the lightweight primers we’ve come to expect from other TV design stars. We caught up with Curtis to ask her a few questions about design, and life:

What’s a common mistake that people make when taking on a house rehab?

Putting their wants before the needs of the house. You know, putting granite counters all over the kitchen and bath instead of replacing the roof shingles. I’m an investor first — I love saving old homes but I need to make a living — so return is a big thing for me. You need to take care of the important things first: plumbing, electrical, and roofing take priority over making something pretty.

So many contractors and impatient homeowners will just rip out so many things instead of trying to restore them. What’s something that’s worth trying to save?

Tile! I see that all the time and I really have to wonder why. The thing is, buyers will buy what you sell them, what you show them. There are designers who make a lot of money telling people what they want. But why would you want what everyone else has? Old houses are so unique and interesting and the old tile is often in great shape. It really disappoints me when they tear it out — part of the heart of the house is gone.

Is there a design element that you’d be happy to never see again?

Slate bathrooms and kitchens! Oh, and glass tile! — if I see one more glass tile border in an early 1900s house I’m going to scream. It’s like taking a Rolls-Royce apart and putting in Prius parts. It’s just wrong.

I expected you to say negative things in your book about your time working at Hooters, but you didn’t. 

You know, that was my growing-up period, my sorority — I didn’t have a college experience of going away and being in a sorority. People think Hooters would be filled with catty women and be ultra-competitive, but it wasn’t like that. It was filled with intelligent, beautiful women who worked really hard, and there was a lot of bonding going on. As a matter of fact, I just saw two women I worked with there and it was like no time had passed. I could pick up the phone right now and any one of them would be there for me. It was a really cool experience.

In the book you write, “The best way to get through hell is to keep on moving.” 

Years ago, I was having a bad time and I was sitting there in my pajamas crying, and a friend was there and said “C’mon, get up, we’re going for a walk.” Now I’ve got mascara running down my face and I’m a mess, but she said, “You have to keep moving, now, let’s go!” And that was really helpful. If I wasn’t so physically active, I probably wouldn’t get out of bed some days. You have to get fired back up — just get up and move. 

You work in a field populated with men; how do you deal with sexism?

You know, I don’t actually like to say that it’s populated by men. The way I see it, I’m not in a man’s field; every woman in my family can tear apart something and put it back together. Do I run into it? All the time. But I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older to just … brush it off. I mean, try being at the airport, rushing around, with a screaming baby strapped to you — that’s when they look at you like you have half a brain! [Laughs] At the end of the day, I write the check, you know? In that way, it’s my world.

Your life has taken some dramatic turns thus far. If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?

Just breathe and trust yourself. And keep your focus on being a mom. The most amount of self-doubt I ever experienced was when I was a young mom. A lot of people assumed I wasn’t a good mom, but I was, even though I didn’t really believe it back then. I should have trusted myself more. I’d tell myself, just focus on being a mom and don’t worry about other people judging you — just keep doing what you’re doing because you’re on the right track.

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