Facts You Didn’t Know About This Old House

‘This Old House’ is one of the oldest reality television series currently still on the air, and is considered to be the father of all home renovation shows that have become so popular these days. The show was first aired back in 1979, and recently reached its 41st season in May 2020 with more than a thousand episodes.

As one of the oldest shows in reality television, it’s changed ownership to various production companies through the years, and no less than three hosts have presented the show. It typically follows the renovation of two houses per season, generally improving old homes with long histories.

Unlike some of the newer home improvement shows, ‘This Old House’ is more dedicated to revealing the secrets of all the trades involved in renovations than focusing on the entertainment value, and as such it’s gained an expansive audience of DIY enthusiasts.

The show’s popular success afforded it 17 Emmy Awards and an impressive 82 nominations, going on to inspire numerous spin-off shows, which include ‘Ask This Old House’, as well as ‘This Old House: Classic’ which takes a look back at the vintage footage of the earliest seasons. The show also became the subject of several parody sitcoms, and has even published a dedicated magazine which features a great deal of the same content most people would now find on the ‘This Old House’s’ website.

It became an instant hit, and despite the scepticism so many had about a home renovation show, it keeps going to this day more than four decades later, as popular as it ever was. For a show this old, one might think that it hides enough secrets to put the Pentagon out of business, but many viewers would be surprised to know that the show is one of the most legitimate in production.

Everything you see on camera is as real as life, but despite the open honesty presented by ‘This Old House’, there are many intriguing facts about it few viewers would know.

Fateful Inception

‘This Old House’s’ inception is an intriguing story that happened because of a chance discovery made by an already accomplished producer, and very nearly never reached our screens.

It all started when Russel Morash, the creator behind one of America’s first-ever cooking shows, ‘The French Chef’, drove through Boston, Massachusetts one fateful winter’s day. There he discovered a group of people gathering at a construction site, craning to see the progress unfold from behind a wooden wall. Intrigued by the fact that people would risk the cold of a snowy day amidst the Boston winter to look in on something seemingly mundane, Morash believed he could create a home renovation show that would entertain thousands in the warmth and comfort of their living rooms.

With his experience at selling Julia Child’s cooking show, Morash went to work on creating the initial idea behind ‘This Old House’, and to his good fortune, the daring venture eventually paid off for him.

Morash believed that the insights and wisdom of expert tradesmen would be of greater value to the audience than the performance of even suitable actors, and thus Morash sought out such men who would become the stars of the show. The first pilot episode, which unfortunately never aired, featured the renovation of an old Victorian-era house located in Boston’s Dorchester suburb, which the crew renovated at a total cost of $30,000.

Despite not turning the proper profit or covering all the expenses once the property gwas sold, Morash was satisfied that the show became a success, and grew into a popular hit with its fans.

All The Scepticism

When Morash first pitched the idea to the producing executives, it met with plenty of doubt.

Initially, the producers doubted the entertainment value that a few tradesmen on camera would have, especially because the American economy faced a recession, and an energy crisis, in retrospect exactly the reasons why renovations or updates were undertaken by so many, rather than selling and buying, or building anew.

When the first episode aired on 20 February, the massive success the show achieved in a very short period saw everyone set their scepticism aside.

Then, once ‘This Old House’ became popular, contractors and tradesmen became suspicious of the negative impact the show would have on their work, believing it might inspire people to start doing everything from plumbing to roofing by themselves.

Since the show’s primary focus aimed to share all the details and the processes of the several different trades that go into renovating a home, many tradesmen grew afraid that the show would reveal their secrets on national television.

While the show inspired a radical boom in the DIY culture of America, fortunately it had the opposite effect on the trade industry. Instead, according to the show’s experts and producers, it provided the audience with insight and inspiration into renovations.

This allowed them to know what they wanted and plan for the renovation long before picking their contractors, thus making the contractors’ jobs somewhat easier.

Vila Was Second Choice

Choosing the presenter of a reality television show can often be a crucial choice, since it could mean the difference between success and failure, and for ‘This Old House’ it was no different. Imagine what ‘Survivors’ and ‘Fear Factor’ would have been like without iconic presenters.

While these shows had a winning concept, the wrong presenters may have completely changed the outcome of their ratings.

As such, it comes as no surprise to learn that ‘This Old House’ originally contracted a different presenter. Initially, the show intended to use Estelle Bond Guralnick, a seasoned reporter from ‘The Boston Globe’, but because she was less commanding than Bob Vila during the pilot episode, producers decided not to retain her.

Luckily, Estelle did not hold a grudge, and had no hard feelings against the producers. She stated in an interview with a locally based publication, ‘Boston’, that Morash felt bad about informing her of the producers’ choice, but since she kept busy with other projects, life went on for her.

Regardless, the producers knew what they were doing, since Vila appealed to the audience and quickly became a household name.

This Old House

Vila would have been part of the panel of experts employed on the show, but his natural presence in front of the camera convinced the creators that he would be a better-suited single presenter, a wise choice, as his talent allowed Vila to keep his position for ten years.

Plaided Norm

Plaid shirts, aside from the usual construction overalls, became a common appearance among construction workers in the eighties. While many might consider it a random trend, some would be surprised about the origins of this phenomenon, as hard as it is to believe this choice in styling drew inspiration from a popular reality television show.

One of the iconic features of ‘This Old House’ was the regular appearance of Norm Abram, a carpenter Morash originally hired to complete the renovations of his own farmhouse. Norm later became a star of the show, appearing in episodes wearing the plaid shirts many construction workers later adopted as suitable work fashion.

Norm’s fashion sense took the world of construction by storm, and soon many tradesmen started wearing iconic plaid, most probably because people now associated the attire with construction workers. However, while some believe it was simply Norm’s idea, it was actually the producers who made the decision.

Abram thought that he would appear more on the background, carrying ladders and equipment around, but due to Morash’s suggestion of putting Norm in plaid and making him a primary interest, Abram became a hit with fans. His attire and memorable look even inspired several look-alike competitions, where dozens of spectacled and plaided men lined up to compete.

Hidden Brand Names

While television advertising and sponsorships might be a lucrative business, during the earlier years of ‘This Old House’ it posed more of a problem than a profitable venture. Advertising can be tricky, thus making a mistake could lead to copyright infringements and eventual lawsuits.

Even worse, in an industry where so many products are available for purchase, counting everything from the crew’s hardware to the timber, tiles and other consumables used for repairs and renovations, it seems almost inevitable.

One homeowner who applied to appear on the show had difficulty with the directives of the producers, who tried to avoid lawsuits at all costs – if the homeowner happened to mention a brand name, the entire scene had to be re-filmed.

For a long time, cast and crew members followed instructions to keep logos and brand names hidden, often applying products in reverse so that the logo never appeared on film. Remarkably, filming of the earlier seasons was so meticulous that the series effectively avoided any lawsuits.

This went on for several years until TOH changed the format  to allow sponsorships and donations from popular brands, who received a special thanks in the end credits of each episode.

This Old House

Why Bob Vila Resigned From The Show

In 1989, Bob resigned from the show, forcing producers to replace him with a new presenter, Steve Thomas. Thomas left in 2003, and since then the still current host, Kevin O’ Connor, took the reins.

While many fans missed Bob’s expertise and natural talent as a presenter, they would be shocked to learn exactly why he left the show. When Vila started working for ‘This Old House’, he earned $200 per appearance, and after a decade of presenting his payment was raised to $800. Naturally, being dissatisfied with the payment the producers offered him, Vila sought out more profitable ventures.

However, after appearing in a commercial for ‘Rickel Home Centers’, a competitor of ‘Home Depot’, one of the show’s chief sponsors, ‘This Old House’s’ producers had no choice but to let him go. Of course, Vila was not too upset with their, and his decision.

In an interview with ‘Wall Street Journal’, Vila stated that he is a capitalist at heart, and compared his time with ‘This Old House’ similar to the days he spent volunteering for the Peace Corps. Vila was in high demand, and quickly moved on to seek more profitable ventures.

The Selection Process

A recurring inquiry that fans have about the show includes the selection process used to decide which houses they will renovate, involving numerous properties throughout the forty-plus seasons it has been on the air, which range over a variety of styles and circumstances.

Naturally, a popular show would receive an astounding number of applications, which ranges up to 5000 submissions a month.

Since the show only chooses, at max, two houses a season, the odds of being selected remain very limited, especially since what makes the process even more exclusive is the fact that the homeowners must agree to fund the entire project, and even if the producers acquire donations, the homeowner must also agree to pay taxes on these items.

A potential application also requires a few additional, complicated documents, including a description of the house, what renovations the homeowner intends to make, as well as a detailed budget.

While it makes the show seem greedy, it nonetheless makes the selection process much easier, and thorough from the start, limiting possible future disagreements. It also explains why the show most recently focuses on renovating million-dollar homes.

The Show Is Scripted

Sadly, there is one truth about the show that reduces its reality credit, which involves a script.

As unfortunate as it is, some parts of the show are scripted, but the producers are not ashamed to admit it. Since the show focuses primarily on providing the audience with informative facts, and not exaggerated drama and intrigue like other reality shows, certain points in the cast’s dialogue requires fact-checking to ensure they convey the truth.

Not to mention, earlier seasons required meticulous editing to keep brand names out of the conversation. Also, the show features actual people, the homeowners selected for each season’s renovations, who quite often are not natural-born personalities in front of the camera.

In such cases, the homeowners receive pre-written dialogues, or scripts, to memorise before their interactions with crew members are captured on film. Likewise, the presenter of the show also receives a written narrative since twiddling your thumb while precious film and time get wasted doesn’t auger well for the budget.

Before you are disappointed about this, keep in mind that improvisation only works for comedians. Even the most exciting reality shows need a little spice, not to say accuracy in the dialogue to keep the viewers glued to the screen.

Novelty and Strange Laws

Aside from learning about home renovation, gaining crucial tips, a few trade secrets, and bountiful inspiration, one of the most interesting things one can learn on the show include the strange novelty laws often mentioned by the cast of ‘This Old House’.

These laws include several odd regulations that simply make one wonder what kind of law enforcement agency would go about enforcing these rules. While questionable, and maybe the right kind of loopholes an insurance company would look for, it’s still something new to learn. A few honourable mentions include a law passed in Kansas, which prevented people from stacking plates in their kitchen cabinets higher than eight.

In Oregon and Minneapolis, Minnesota, people were not allowed to dry china dishes with a cloth – they were only allowed to air-dry them. In Florida, a law prevented people from breaking more than three dishes a day – how was that policed, you might say!?.

The only law mentioned that sounds logical originates in Freeport, Illinois, where people are not allowed to throw dishes out of an apartment or house’s windows. While these laws sound silly, it adds a little piece of entertainment to show.

Despite being one of the oldest reality renovation shows on air today, ‘This Old House’ remains a favourite of many, especially people looking for inspiration to renovate their homes.

While none of these uncovered secrets is sensitive, we hope you learned something new today, and look forward to watching the next instalment of ‘This Old House’, in anticipation of all sorts of revelations, some practical and possibly some a little silly, but no less informative.

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