A Conversation with Amy Matthews

Amy Matthews, the current host of DIY Network's "Sweat Equity" and "This New House", chats with Bob about family, favorite projects, sustainability, and more.

Amy Matthews

Photo: DIY Networks

[Editor's Note:  Bob Vila's interview with Amy Matthews took place the day before she was expecting to deliver her baby.  We knew the pair would have plenty to talk about—both having a common love of home remodeling and renovation, extensive hands-on experience in the home improvement category, and highly respected television careers. And so begins. . . a conversation with DIY Network's Amy Matthews, host of "Sweat Equity" and "This New House."]

Bob Vila: The first thing that I want to ask you is about becoming a licensed contractor.  How did that happen? What kind of training did you have to go through?

Amy Matthews: Well, like most people, I started out on the job learning everything from the people I worked with. It was a watch game. But my dad was also an incredible DIYer.  Actually he just refinished a buffet in my house (because I’m pregnant) and I was reminded where I get my meticulous nature from—it’s genetically inherited.  So I grew up watching him tackle every project that he didn’t have to hire someone else to do and it was a great inspiration growing up.  Of course, I didn’t think I’d be doing it for my livelihood.

And then I auditioned for one of the new shows on DIY Network, which at the time was Bathroom Renovations. When it started, I didn’t have my license yet. I was working and obviously very well versed in home improvement, but I really found that I wanted to be at the top of my game and decided to get a contractor’s license in my home state of Minnesota.  It’s kind of like taking your SATs here—there’s a lot of studying and a lot of bookwork that goes into it.  But as you know, most of what you do is practical application that you learn on the job.  So to me, it was a combination of the book studies, going through the testing process and getting the license.

Bob Vila: And you did this in the last five years?

Amy Matthews: I think it was 2005, so either five or six years ago.  And with shows like Sweat Equity where I get to delve into every part of home improvement, and This New House where we explore new home innovations and technologies, I feel like I never stop learning.  Getting my license was kind of a good platform but every day is something new—that’s what I love most about what I do.

Bob Vila:  The entire length and breadth of my career on television, whether it was This Old House or producing and hosting the Home Again series for all those years, I always said it was like being paid to go to graduate school. Every show involved learning experiences as well as the benefit of research from your production staff.  And then there’s all the other things that we used to do, like touring factories and learning how various components and products actually get manufactured. So it can be a lot of fun.

Amy Matthews:  Totally.

Bob Vila: And I do share the same kind of builder background as you. My father was just the same. And actually, I had a grandmother who was not a contractor, but she loved houses and built three of them in her lifetime.

Amy Matthews: I love it.

Bob Vila: And now my son, who’s 35, is running a successful contracting business in Manhattan. So to a certain degree, it probably is genetic.

Amy Matthews: Yes. It’s in the genes, for sure!  I think one of the best things we can do as professionals in the business is keep that “beginner’s” mind, to continually ask questions and learn.  I think any time you get to the place where you think you know everything, you realize how little you do know.  Obviously I have preferences on what I believe are best ways to tackle a project, but talk to five different contractors and you’re likely to get five different answers. I guess you could say there is no black and white.

Bob Vila: What about women in do-it-yourself?  This was always a question that would be asked of me and, in my demographics, it was generally 50/50—a pretty even split between men and women taking on home improvement projects. You know, I think even more than half were women.  Do you still see that in your own experience?

Amy Matthews:  I do, for sure.  But it definitely depends on the homeowners that I’m working with. Everybody’s got a different level of interest in certain parts of the project. A lot of it does depend on background.  Were they raised in a family of DIYers?  Did they pick up certain skills when they were young, or later when they purchased their first house?  Or is it something so unfamiliar to them that they’re just kind of scared of tools? And that goes for both guys and gals, you know?  We know that women have this huge buying power in the home improvement market. And whether it’s the ‘honey-do list’ or them going out and tackling the job themselves, women are driving so much of the sales in home improvement and renovations today that it’s amazing.

I know women who are stay-at-home moms who have essentially refinished their homes.  Their husbands, of course, love it because they’re like, “I come home and there’s a new floor in the basement.”  And there are women who are interested in more of the design aspects, where the guy will get out there with his friends and, you know, dig the egress window.  It really depends on the people.  And I think that’s what it should be in DIY home improvement—finding what you like to do, what you have an interest in, and going with that.

Bob Vila:  Because that’s what you’re going to be good at. What kind of DIY projects do you think are the most popular right now?

Amy Matthews: Kitchens and baths are still kind of driving the market in terms of what people want to change in their homes. I think it’s because those two rooms are the most challenging in terms of plumbing, electrical, appliances, fixtures—all the things that generally scare people. But they are also the two rooms that are the most used and the ones that can add the most equity to a home.

Curb appeal is also huge. I have had more people, especially with Sweat Equity, focusing on back or front yard improvements. That “indoors-outdoors” philosophy of making their exterior living more enjoyable, like creating outdoor kitchens or a backyard oasis—someplace that’s really luxurious in their own backyard.

So, I’d say those are still the top three that I see people gravitating toward.

Bob Vila:  What are some of your favorite projects?

Amy Matthews:  As far as what type of projects, or what I personally enjoy doing?

Bob Vila:  Your personal projects. Do you like to hang wallpaper? Do you like to put down flooring? Do you like to frame walls and do rough plumbing?  What home improvements do you enjoy doing most?

Amy Matthews:  I actually do love some of the rough plumbing. I love when the walls are stripped bare, when you’re down to the studs, and you can see inside the walls. I love walking through a project with someone who really doesn’t know how things work and explain the basics, like advantages of PEX—a cross-linked polyethylene—over copper pipe. That’s a fun process for me.  But I think my favorite projects are in the finishing work.  I love laying hardwood flooring. I love tiling.  I am one of the most meticulous, anal tilers out there!  And I just love projects that can absolutely transform a space and bring some personality to it.  Those are my favorites.

Bob Vila:  What do you think about all the amateur architecture that gets produced by many of the home improvement programs today?

Amy Matthews:  Well, I think a lot of it is for shock value, unfortunately.  We’re a reality TV nation so we love watching crazy things happen.  And that doesn’t mean that we like the end result.  We just want to watch someone freak out when they see their walls covered in daisies by a designer who wanted to do something for shock value.

Bob Vila:  No, it’s one thing when it’s interior design.  I’m thinking more about renovations where the improvements don’t respect the character of the house, like covering window sills in a stone building with applied boards to give it a totally different look.  Or creating an elaborate cedar deck where a small porch entryway originally existed.

Amy Matthews:  Well, I have strong feelings about sustainability.  I’m not impressed with things that have a quick transformation that I know are not going to last.  I don’t care what your budget is.  To me, quality is more important than quantity, speed or shock value. I always think “how would I do this in my own house,” and use that as my guide.

Bob Vila:  One of my pet peeves is the demolition derby approach to remodeling where all of a sudden people are just going nuts with sledgehammers.  As a contractor you know there are serious safety issues during demolition, things that have to do with engineering, electric, plumbing, and load-bearing walls.  What can you take down? What needs to remain for structural stability?  And then there’s the whole recycling ethic which seems to be missing in action in a lot of these programs. Everything just goes into the dumpster.  I’d like to see more people promoting recycling and reuse.

I got involved in a project with Bobby and Mary Kennedy outside of New York City where they were trying to salvage a house that had become a sick house.  It had a flood in the basement while it was empty and the whole thing became a big Petri dish of black mold and stuff.  The family salvaged what material they could and reused it in the home’s reconstruction.  Material being recycled like that is something that I’d like to see more and more.  What do you think?

Amy Matthews:  I’m with you 110 percent on that.  In fact, one of the things that I like to focus on with my homeowners on Sweat Equity is the reuse/recycle mentality.  I have a really great relationship with Habitat for Humanity here in the Twin Cities, and also in nearby Wisconsin.  In the St. Croix Valley area, there’s a gentlemen that runs a Habitat ReStore that is one of my favorite stops.  It’s the perfect place for a homeowner who’s doing a remodel to find perfectly usable refurbished and salvaged materials at incredibly discounted prices.  A definite win-win for the homeowner.

If you’re doing a big remodel, you’re going to spend a couple hundred dollars just on a dumpster, so it makes a lot of sense to see what might be recycled or reused.  And I do try to help people rethink their renovations, to see that everything doesn’t have to be brand new to work.  To look at some old cabinets and go, “I can actually trim these out, refinish them maybe with paint or some gel stain, and they’ll look fabulous.” Before ripping things out, look at what you have and how it might be made new again with some simple DIY.

Amy Matthews

Photo: DIY Network

Bob Vila:  I did a lot of that throughout the years in all of my programs.  But, I remember in particular a Craftsman bungalow in Studio City that we did where we went to a great deal of trouble to find, you know, recycled cabinets that would match things that were already there.  I understand you live in a Craftsman bungalow yourself?

Amy Matthews:  I do.  I love my little house.  I’ve been there about seven years.  It’s gone through lots of changes—both life and renovation changes.  And it’s a great place.

Bob Vila:  What have you done for the nursery?

Amy Matthews:  Oh, the nursery.  Well, it’s hilarious because it’s a small house.  It only has two bedrooms on the first floor.  I refinished the basement just several years ago. And the office, which is now the baby room, was a disaster. And I thought, “There’s an infant that has to live in here!”  I went through all the paperwork, cleaned it out and started fresh, and now it is fabulous.

We don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl and I didn’t want to have a sex-specific color.  I was never going to paint it pink or blue anyway, but I wanted to do something a little modern, kind of edgy but really comfortable, with great bright colors.  And I tried to find things on different trips around the country or internationally and pull those into the house so that everything has a story.  And now this baby room is just—I don’t know.  It’s got such personality.  It has a really calming, soothing atmosphere.

There’s a great rug that we found in Jackson Hole on a trip that’s got a Santa Fe feel. There’s really cool shelving that I just redid for the closet. (You know, in Craftsman bungalows or old houses, you’ve got to maximize the space. There’s just none of it to be had, so every inch counts).  And then we’re putting together some really cool photos for the baby room from both my husband and I, our stories of our travels and things. So we love it. We love it. It feels good.

Bob Vila: Did you use low-VOC paints and natural materials?

Amy Matthews:  For sure. In fact, we registered for baby stuff on Babyearth.com, which is all about eco-friendly products. I’m big on using things that do not reduce the indoor air quality in your home. So everything came from this great place—organic cottons and all this good stuff—because at the end of the day, it’s the air you’re breathing.  You don’t want to bring in a mattress that’s off-gassing formaldehyde or something.

So I thought, “All right, let’s just use the mentality that I used through the rest of house and bring in a clean atmosphere.” Now it looks bright and cheery and all of the building materials that went into were thoughtfully chosen.

Bob Vila:  I’ve got one last question. Do you have a workshop in your bungalow?

Amy Matthews: I have my utility room downstairs, which is usually a workshop.  And it is filled with so much stuff, including my triathlon bike and every can of paint and tool that I own. So the goal is—as we transition the house to a house with a baby—we’re going to trick out the garage into a nice new workspace. That is on the list.

Bob Vila: Good. Listen, thank you for doing this. And I just want to wish you all the best in the next few days. You’re entering into the most wonderful part of life.

Amy Matthews: Well, thank you. And congrats on the first grandchild.

Bob Vila: Thanks. It’s the greatest.

For more, see our slide show recapping Amy’s “5 Tips to Successful DIY.”

Amy Matthews’ “Sweat Equity” airs on DIY Network weekdays at 12:30 p.m. ET and Thursday’s from 2- 5 p.m. ET.  You can also see her on “This New House,” Fridays at 11 a.m. ET.  Check local listings for additional show times, or visit DIYNetworks.com.