HGTV’s “Home Town” is a runaway hit. Show stars Ben and Erin Napier aren’t just restoring historic homes in Laurel, MS—they’ve also become major players in the town’s comeback tale.
The popular renovation program has inspired a few viewers to research home-flipping opportunities in Central Mississippi—while other viewers have tried to get cast on “Home Town.”
But what is it really like to be featured on the show?
Rhonda Phillips scored an appearance on Season 4, which recently ended. A dean of the Honors College at Indiana’s Purdue University and professor of agricultural economics, Phillips grew up in Bassfield—not far from Laurel—which initially sparked her interest in “Home Town.”
She appreciated the Napiers’ efforts not only in renovating old homes but also in sprucing up the faded Southern town. Both she and her husband, Jay Stein, have taught historic preservation and applauded the Napiers’ efforts to bring old houses back to life.
Phillips, whose episode aired in March, filled us in on her experiences on the hit show. (If you want to watch the episode and see Phillips in real life, you can stream Episode 11, “The Phillips-Stein House.”)
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The journey to ‘Home Town’
“When I first saw the show, I absolutely loved it,” Phillips says. She felt it wasn’t a typical home improvement show. “This is about trying to make the town a better place, but to also recapture the beauty of some of the older homes that had been laid to waste.”
It took a severe winter storm in Indiana in February 2019 to point her mind southward.
“I lived away for a long time,” Phillips says of her rural hometown, about an hour from Laurel, where her mother still lives. She set her mind on buying a home in Laurel and having it renovated by the Napiers.
“I talked to my spouse. We decided to go for it. … We wanted to be part of the renovations and revitalization,” says Phillips. “This is home, this is connection, this is where I’m from. I just felt like it was a good time.”
Step 1: She went to the HGTV site and contacted the show.
The process to get on the show took months and involved phone interviews as well as a written essay. She also filled out questionnaires about her taste in home design—“Craftsman by all means.”
Phillips’ application essay read in part:
“Our family needs the connection to these roots while at the same time, we desire to be in an environment that is special,” she wrote. “We have lived in a variety of towns and cities throughout the years and are seeking what Laurel offers—a unique and special place to finally call home.”
Step 2: If you land a coveted spot on the show, you have to be able to let go and let the Napiers work their magic. No second-guessing.
Participants must agree to not see the house until the end of the process, says Phillips. “After you have all the contracts signed, and they know what your preferences are, they do the design. You take a leap of faith.”
Once they signed the contract, the renovation went full speed ahead. For those who’ve ever tackled a renovation on their own, speed is usually not associated with the process.
The rapid nature of the renovations is one big benefit of appearing on TV.
“It was fast. They bring the whole team to a project. That itself is exciting,” says Phillips. Filming took place from the fall through December of last year.
“I knew it would be a magical transformation,” says Phillips.
First day of filming
Prior to Day 1, Phillips had been staying with her mother. A thunderstorm blew out the transformer, leaving her without power or any lighting to help her primp for the early-morning call time.
“I was sitting in my car putting my makeup on,” she recalls.
Prior to the cameras rolling, Phillips wasn’t aware of how much work goes into every scene. Even though it’s a reality show, a scene may have to be reshot because of background noise or bad lighting.
“There would be multiple retakes,” she says.“One scene could take hours to make. I never really realized that before. It is long days of filming.”
During the walk-through of the creaky Conner house—the home Phillips didn’t pick—she admits the retakes got to her.
“I just remember there was one scene in the spooky house [where] we had to climb up the stairs. It was so hot up there, and I thought, ‘I am really ready for that scene to be over.’”
Spending a ton of time filming in the home from 1880s didn’t endear the place to Phillips.
“They couldn’t drag me into the attic again,” she says.
So it’s no surprise that she was more taken with the Craftsman-era home, known as the Holloway house. The four-bedroom, two-bathroom home from 1920 was on the market for $65,000. With renovations, the all-in cost was an estimated $165,000, well within the couple’s budget of $185,000.
“The homeowner pays for the house and the renovations,” says Phillips, noting that the Napiers make the renovation affordable by performing a lot of the work themselves.
However, there were plenty of challenges with the cute cottage she picked.
“It was just a sad remnant of its former self,” she says.
While many original details remained in the run-down interiors, one kitchen feature stood out, and not in a good way.
“The green stove hood was so atrocious, you can’t imagine what a monstrosity that this thing was,” she says.
Fans of the show know the next step is for the couple to announce their pick. While these meetings are usually held in a coffee shop, for Phillips there was a fun (and personal) surprise: a rendezvous with the Napiers at a historic train depot.
“They know my husband and I are into historic preservation,” she says. “They really do take into consideration what you do and what you like.”
In the episode, Phillips tells the Napiers they’ve decided on the Craftsman cottage. At that point, they had to bid farewell to the old home and wait until the “Home Town” team completed the renovation.
“I had a high level of trust,” she says. “The house that we picked was in such bad shape, if anybody could fix it, it would be them and their team. And they did.”
Exit stage left
With the couple out of the picture, the overhaul begins and we see the work on the show itself.
The awful green vent above the stove is removed. The vintage kitchen sink is moved to the future laundry room. In a horrific twist not visible upon initial inspection, the Napiers discover Styrofoam was used to patch some of the walls.
Ben and Erin reuse a few of the home’s original doors they had found in a shed on the property. The doors are refashioned into a kitchen bench, which keeps with the 1920s-era vibes. Using reclaimed timber from trees that fell during Hurricane Katrina, Ben builds a storage bench for the entry.
Rather than create new trim, the team repurposed wood from the house, knowing the couple wanted to preserve as much of the original wood as possible.
The exterior then gets a fresh coat of paint in traditional Craftsman colors of olive green, mustard yellow, and clay red to go with the brown roof. For finishing touches, Erin selects period floral curtains by 1920s-era designer William Morris.
Ready for a reveal
The big reveal is the one moment with no retakes allowed. The idea is to fully capture the emotions as people see their newly redone home for the first time.
“The element of surprise was real,” Phillips says. “I was a nervous wreck. You look up and see it for the first time. It was better than I thought [it would be] in some ways. For me and my husband, we were over the top about it. It was transformed.”
Focusing on preservation, the design is taken from the 1920s. The final product is a painstakingly restored timepiece, full of vintage details. While the home is staged with furniture from local sellers, some items are specially made for the home, including the bench Ben crafted.
“You go through, you have a master list to see if there are pieces you want to keep,” Phillips says. The master bedroom and dining room furniture stayed.
“My goal is to keep it to look almost exactly like it was staged,” she says. Except for swapping out some of the artwork seen in the episode, she’s managed to keep the home as it was on the day of the reveal.
The ‘Home Town’ aftermath
After the season wraps, the show traditionally holds a party for all the participants from that season—a fete “with a lot of food,” she says. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there was no party for Season 4 participants—yet. Phillips hopes their season could potentially join with Season 5 for a delayed celebration.
The couple have five grown children who live all over the world, and only two of them have seen their “Home Town” retreat in person.
“We’ll have a family reunion there at some point,” Phillips says. The couple don’t live in Laurel full time quite yet, but do visit the area every few weeks.
Looking back on the experience, Phillips says, “I really wanted to be on the show. Because I felt it would be special and a lot of fun, and I was right about both of those.”