When This Old House host Kevin O'Connor takes the main stage at the Philadelphia Home Show this weekend, he'll represent the O.G. of home-renovation shows. The Maplewood, N.J., native has hosted the contractor- and tradesperson-driven PBS program for 15 years, following hosts Steve Thomas (1989-2003) and Bob Vila (1979-89).
At 39, Boston-based This Old House is the same age as the Property Brothers — not the HGTV show, but the identical twin hosts, Drew and Jonathan Scott. The bros' show flips a house each 43 minutes. TOH renovates two houses per season.
Still, for a slower-moving older show, TOH has a huge following: two spin-offs, a magazine, an impressive digital platform, and millions of viewers.
O'Connor came to the franchise in 2002 as a homeowner on PBS's Ask This Old House. (Spin-off This Old House Trade School airs on the CW.) Back then, he was a bank vice president, and he and his wife, Kathleen, were struggling to remove wallpaper in their 1894 Queen Anne Victorian. After Ask came to the rescue, it came back — to offer O'Connor the host job. The rest is TV home-renovation history.
Here, O'Connor talks with Lauren McCutcheon about his unexpected career, what he does at home shows, his FAQs, and his very own home-repair list.
When This Old House came to me about the hosting job, I had no TV background, and no interest in TV. In high school, I wasn't in the theater club. I joked I wasn't even in a home movie. If someone else from another show had come to me about of the blue and asked, "Do you want to be on TV?" I can pretty much definitely say I'd say no. But I love This Old House. I grew up watching it. I'd always wanted to renovate houses, to do the things I saw on the show.
I love the framing stage, when we tear stuff down and have to rebuild it. We tear out the walls of an old kitchen, pantry or living room to make a great room, or we do an addition and put a family room off the back of the house. You see a lot of progress really quickly.
I'm a framing kind of carpenter. When you get to the finesse, to the fine stuff, that's when you can tell I'm an amateur.
Everyone on our crew is a real contractor: Tom Silva, Roger Cook, Norm Abram. These guys are running their own companies — and still do. They're all pros. I like to think I'm the homeowner. The host job is to be the proxy for the homeowner, to ask the questions a homeowner would ask these guys.
I've learned a ton. You can't help but learn how to swim if they throw you into the deep end.
I don't give out much advice. Why would Kevin O'Connor ever give out advice when Tom Silva could give that advice?
We're two different animals. Folks doing the other shows tend to be people who want to be on television first. They have a passion for performance. If someone had offered them a leading role in this or that, they would have taken that instead.
I do probably 10 home shows a year and quite a bit of speaking on the road.
They have no interest in coming anymore, and I have no interest in bringing them. These shows are always on the weekends, when our 12-year-old and twin 8-year-olds have other things to do.
I hang out. I stop in the booths that interest me. I was at one not that long ago, a guy had a mechanical trellis system. With the hint of rain, they mechanism closed to create a flat, waterproof surface. I spent 45 minutes talking to that guy.
I also shamelessly go over to the massage booth and sit in one of those goofy chairs. But sometimes I don't get very far: People stop me to talk.
I get two questions more than anything else: The question I get about the show most of the time is, "How do you pick your houses?" This is a polite way to say: How do I get my house in front of you guys?
The vast majority of the homes that we work on are homes that are submitted to us via email or our website submission page. We get [3,000] to 5,000 of those submissions a month. Obviously we only get to feature a few.
More often than not, it's about wet basements. People in this country have been chasing wet basements for hundreds of years. For hundreds of years, basements were built to store fruit and vegetables and furnaces. Now people want to live in them. Basements get wet because that's what happens when you dig a hole and live in it.
About five or six years ago, we moved from our Queen Anne to a different house, a 1950s saltbox. We kept the old house as a rental. Our house now does not have the great character of our old house, but it has the right number of bedrooms, a big backyard for football and baseball, a garage for my tools, and it's near where our friends are. Sometimes, you buy what's available.
I have a honey-do list as long as anyone else. There's an outlet in our living room with piece of cardboard over it with a skull and crossbones drawn on, so my kids don't touch it, and two tables I need to fix, and projects in my garage, and stuff outside. It's a love-hate relationship. I enjoy the tools, but it's a question of time and resources. I travel a lot and have three little kids.
So, I don't always do it myself, but I like to know I could, if I had to.