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Old Houses, Innovative Thinking: An Interview with Bob Vila

June 22, 2015 | By

Can you imagine being a houseguest of Bob Vila, America’s original TV handyman, and getting stuck in the bathroom when the door wouldn’t open?

That happened at his Florida home recently, he says, just showing the rest of us that we’re not the only ones who fall behind on those pesky small repair projects.

In the eight years since the final episode of Home Again was filmed, Vila, now 68, has been expanding his brand online through BobVila.com, offering how-to videos, articles, and archived shows to a new generation of DIYers.

The Home Story caught up with Vila last week in New York, where he’s putting the final touches on a new mobile app and launching Bob Vila Academy, a subscription-based instructional video series on BobVila.com.

Here’s what he shared about home repair jobs you should and should not tackle on your own, house flipping strategies, and what’s next for Bob Vila.

Bob Vila Over the Years

The Home Story: Do you live in an old house? And what kind of projects are you doing now?

BV: I have a couple of old houses in my life right now. The one in Massachusetts is over 200 years old. The one in Florida is a mere 70 years old. I tackle almost any home project if I have the time. That includes wood working projects. But I dread having to do any project that involves plumbing because I’m not a fan of plumbing projects.

THS: Where do you get the inspiration for your projects?

BV: I wouldn’t say it’s as much inspiration as observation. You need to take a close look at your surroundings on a regular basis. For example, I have a guest room in my Florida house and the bathroom door sticks. If you have a guest trapped in the bathroom and they can’t get out, and this happened recently where they banged on the door until someone heard them, that project should go on your list.

THS: I’ve read that you grew up in a house in Florida that your father built. Did you pass on the love of fixing and remodeling homes to your own children?

BV: I have a son and two daughters. My son had his own little workbench when he was 4 or 5 that we kept down in the basement of this big old Victorian. Today, he is a homebuilder and property developer.

My daughters are not necessarily as handy with tools but have related interests. My youngest daughter, who just got her MBA from Columbia, is interested in the real estate and housing market and is creating a web-based business called Flip to help people who are stuck in a lease figure out how to monetize the lease and recycle it.

So, the basic answer is yes. My son picked it up from me, and I certainly picked it up from my father. I grew up in a house he built between 1945 and 1948, when I was 2 years old. It was the years after World War II when materials were scarce. That’s why it took him a relatively long time to build what is essentially a two-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow.

THS: For those who didn’t have that exposure to tools and home projects growing up, what are the basic tools needed?

BV: The basic toolkit question comes up fairly often, and I’ve always said, “Just keep it simple.” You’ll want to invest maybe $100 for things like a 16-oz. claw hammer, some good quality screwdrivers and pliers, an adjustable wrench, a tape measure, gloves, and eye goggles — that sort of stuff. Those will get you through a variety of small projects.

If you’re going to do projects outdoors, you might want to invest in some cordless power tools. You can get some wonderful kits today that combine a power saw with a drill driver to allow you to work outdoors on projects like a fence or shed without having long extension cords.

THS: What are improvement jobs you should or should not attempt?

BV: Most people can probably handle simple upgrades like replacing kitchen hardware, or adding a shelf or a whole set of shelves, especially if you’re working in a closet or a mudroom where if you really screw it up you can just close the door.

But painting is not something for the impatient because it requires a great deal of preparation work: cleaning, washing, sanding, filling holes, all that sort of stuff, before you get to the brushes and the rollers.

In terms of what to avoid, I always say, “If it’s life-threatening, don’t do it.” That applies to working with the power, working with electrical projects, and working with other aspects of the house like the heating plant or the roof, which requires climbing way up high where you might not be comfortable. Those are the kinds of jobs best left for the professionals. 

THS: Some readers may remember your appearances on Home Improvement with Tim Allen (as Tim “The Toolman” Taylor) during the ’90s. What was that like?

BV: The pilot was so obviously a takeoff on Bob Vila and This Old House that they reached out to me and invited me out to do a guest appearance. I had a very positive reaction to the whole thing. I thought it was fun. I think I was invited on the show three times, and mentioned on other episodes, as Tim’s nemesis.

One of the most interesting aspects about the whole thing was that it created a new audience for me. I had been on TV for 10 or 15 years when this came around, and all of the sudden there were a whole bunch of young people between 10 and 15 who were aware of me who went on to watch my programs, come to my website, and have a relationship with my brand that I hope has been helpful to them as they have progressed to becoming homeowners and do-it-yourselfers.

THS: What’s different about home improvement projects now then, say, 30 years ago?

BV: People have developed an interest in respecting historic architecture that didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago, and I’d like to think I’ve played a role in that. We were fortunate with the timing of the original This Old House in the late ’70s because we came on the crest of the whole wave of interest in antique houses that was totally tied to the celebration of the bicentennial in 1976.

Over the course of my career in media, I’ve seen a lot of interest in architectural preservation. And not just in 200-year-old houses, but in houses that are 50 or 100 years old. The industry has caught up to where you can find replicas of all kinds of building products that are appropriate to any particular style, whether it’s gingerbread Victorian or an arts and crafts house. It’s a totally different world.

THS: How about energy efficiency products, are there simple ideas people overlook?

BV: We have so many options now in terms of thermostatic controls for HVAC equipment that will allow you to really conserve energy and money by not just turning the system down when you’re away at work or at night but by also helping you diagnose any problem areas. There’s a company called Nest that’s a pioneer in this direction.

There’s also a serious interest developing in alternative energy, in solar and wind power, and what Elon Musk, the Tesla developer, is doing to develop battery systems for homes. I think you’re going to see a lot of revolutionary ideas becoming reality just in this coming decade. I think it’s very exciting.

THS: Have you done any net-zero projects?

BV: That term did not exist when we did a house in Quechee, VT, that was kind of high-tech in terms of smart energy controls and smart everything.

Now remember, I haven’t done a house project on television for the past eight years, and there’s been a lot of movement in that direction. We’re living right now in an era when half the people in this country don’t really understand or believe that global climate change is a reality.

But I think the young people who are entering the housing market are very much aware of the realities that our country faces, and that the world faces, and they’re very attuned to living a lifestyle that’s responsible from that perspective.

So it’s not just about water conservation and energy use. It’s about how we build houses — what materials we use, how much space we really need, and what we do outdoors. These are all different aspects of housing.

THS: A lot of younger buyers are interested in “flipping.” What tips do you have for them?

BV: For most people, buying a home is the single most important investment they’ll ever make, so they should look at it as an investment strategy, not just shelter. That means you need to understand the neighborhood you’re buying in, the market you’re buying in, whether you’re buying at the bottom or the top, in order to do whatever improvements you have to do and still sell it and not lose money. You also need to establish a budget and stick to it.

This subject is close to me right now because my daughter-in-law purchased a house six months ago and did a bunch of improvements and just sold it at a nice profit. I’m not sure she would have the same experience again now because markets are cyclical. If you come in at one point and you get a property for a good price and you’re in the rising part of that curve, then you’re fine.

So if the spread isn’t there, don’t do it. The only reason to buy a house and think about flipping it is to turn a profit.

THS: What’s next for Bob Vila and BobVila.com?

BV: We’re launching the Bob Vila Academy, where we’ll have step-by-step how-to videos with credible instructors. We’ll have different types of projects, like creating a concrete countertop or creating a wall sconce. That will be by subscription.

We’re also introducing new mobile capabilities in mid-July. We’re very excited about that.

THS: So you’re not retiring, not slowing down?

BV: No. I do like to play a little bit of golf occasionally, and I do spend the winter at home in Florida. I’m briefly in New York because that’s where my business is based and a lot of my activities are based and where one of my kids lives. But I’ll be heading to Massachusetts in a few days to spend the summer out there.

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