Kevin O’Connor got his start as host of “This Old House” after he submitted a question to the show’s website asking for advice on how to remove wallpaper. Unknown to him, the popular PBS program was producing the first episodes of a spin-off, “Ask this Old House,” and he and his wife were selected to appear on air. The affable O’Connor made such an impression on the producers that he was invited to replace departing “This Old House” host Steve Thomas in 2003.
Though he was working as a senior vice president at Bank of America at the time, he had grown up with a father who was a civil engineer and had worked on construction sites in college. Today, he continues to guide viewers through the home renovation and restoration process on the program that has made home improvement look easy since 1979.
O’Connor will visit Richmond March 3 and 4 for the Richmond Home and Garden Show at the Richmond Raceway Complex. He will deliver a presentation at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 3 and again at and 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 4. We caught up with him by phone to talk about home renovation and the enduring popularity of the show.
R•Home: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about buying a home that needs extensive renovations?
Kevin O'Connor: It’s going take longer and going to cost more than you expect. It just comes with the territory. There are so many unknowns with an existing house and that increases when it’s an older house. … But there should be nothing to stop you from diving in. People can generally do a lot more than they think they can. Just be intrepid and have at it. You can always bring in a professional after you have started and get stuck. …I think there are so many resources out there … people can do more than they think they can.
R•Home: How do you choose the projects that are featured on the show?
O'Connor: Everything comes to us through the mailbag, or these days through our website, from fans of the show. We get 4,000 to 5,000 submissions per month — way more than we can address.
R•Home: Has the show changed since you took over in 2003 as the popularity of DIYTV has increased?
O'Connor: In one respect I’ve seen a lot of changes with the show editorially because we have embraced a lot of new technology… The biggest driver has been the awareness or desire of homeowners for energy-efficiency with new ways to build and new products and materials. ‘This Old House’ has embraced all of that stuff and it’s been a natural progression. It is not in response to the genre being filled with other shows. …
[But], as all of these other shows have cropped up, in many ways we haven’t changed at all. It’s still the same crew of guys. It’s remarkable, they are still some of the best builders out there. None of them have ever left their full-time jobs … they all think of themselves primarily as contractors.
We haven’t chased any of the fads … we are, in some respects, still doing what we did in that first season in 1979: taking an old house and showing people how to restore it authentically using some of the best craftsmanship around. That is certainly what out audience expects of us.
R•Home: What are some of the biggest renovation and construction mistakes you have uncovered while filming the show?
O'Connor: There are so many of them. We come cross some of the craziest stuff. There seems to be this sense that if something ends up behind the wall, they can do whatever they want and hide it behind a wall. We will open up a wall and find crazy wiring schemes, bad plumbing… we see tons of that.
We also see weird decisions. People who decided, for whatever reason, not to do the full-blown renovation. On a current project in Arlington, Massachusetts, the house has a beautiful oak door that is original to the house. We took it down to be reconditioned and the oak panel on the bottom of the door was beat up… it turned out it was a piece of cheap veneer that was stapled to the original oak panel — the original part of the doors was still there. If you could imagine 50 years ago someone didn't know how to fix it and did that as a quick fix.
R•Home: What will you be talking about at the Richmond Home and Garden Show?
O'Connor: I will be up on stage giving a presentation and will be talking about our current season, sharing some behind-the-scenes stories. We just finished a beautiful Arts and Crafts house built in 1909 and I will talk about everything we did to it. I will also give a sneak peek at our second project for the season, which has not aired yet. It is a brick house in Detroit, built in 1929. It has great bones but did not look so great inside — it had been vacant for four years. The owners bought it at auction.
I will also turn it over to the audience and encourage people to bring questions about their homes.
R•Home: What is your dream house?
O'Connor: I was a hard-core Victorian guy for many years, but I am starting to find that I like a shingle style, coastal style house. But also possibly a very simple farmhouse. A pure-form Greek revival farmhouse might be my dream house right now. It changes every few years, just like fashion.