Hammering Out a Better Neighborhood

Mina Starsiak and Karen E Laine strip a home down to the bones.
Mina Starsiak, left, and her mother, Karen E Laine, take a home interior down to the bones. Photo by Marc Lebryk

When Mina Starsiak, BGS’07, and her mother, Karen E Laine, JD’92, bought a fixer-upper home in the Fountain Square neighborhood just south of downtown Indianapolis in 2007, they knew they had a lot to learn. But they’d seen others take on home rehabilitation projects and felt confident that they could make it work.

The project turned out beautifully, and the mother/daughter team found the process to be fascinating, fun, profitable, and eminently satisfying. Fountain Square had a lot of neglected and dilapidated homes, but also a neighborhood feel they found both appealing and in need of the kind of renovation they were learning how to do. They formed a business with the wink-wink name of Two Chicks and a Hammer and started buying houses and building a good reputation.

A talent scout for High Noon Entertainment ran across the Two Chicks Facebook page while looking for another company, and, intrigued by the name and description of what they do, contacted the women. High Noon shot the pilot show.

When HGTV asked if they’d be interested in possibly making a reality show about their work, they eagerly said yes. “How could you say no to that?” asks Laine, a graduate of the McKinney School of Law and an independent practicing attorney.

Neither woman ever imagined getting into the home rehabilitation business, let alone television.

“It’s a lot of work,” Laine says. “There is a whole skillset about being on television and a steep learning curve. I think we’ve done an adequate job of catching on.”

More than adequate in the cable television network’s view. After airing the pilot episode of Two Chicks and a Hammer in May 2015, the network ordered 10 hour-long episodes. They were shot over the summer and fall of 2015 and began airing March 2016 under a new name, Good Bones. The Indianapolis residents still embrace their company name of Two Chicks and a Hammer but are comfortable with the name change of the television show, which ties the physical challenges of their hands-on approach to avowed good bones (“strong peasant stock”) to the sturdy infrastructure of the neighborhood they work in (“great people, great location, great amenities”).

‘Two Chicks’ Are Born

Starsiak admits to feeling a little ill at ease after earning her bachelor’s degree in general studies with minors in business and sociology at IU Bloomington.

“A lot of my friends were moving straight into their careers, and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “It was nice that I could explore areas of education that I wanted to and still get a good degree. One of my favorite classes was my business-law class. I remember the professor doing a rundown of ‘if you save this much and start an IRA or mutual fund, this is where you will be in 20 or 30 years.’”

Starsiak was working as a waitress when she decided she needed to start putting her free time and money into a practical investment: a home.

“We have a different business model. We like to buy the worst house on the block and turn it into the best house on the block,” says Karen E Laine. Photo by Marc Lebryk.

“I wanted a project,” she says. She had already identified the Fountain Square area when she consulted with her mother, who just happened to be looking for a new place to plant her law office. Laine found a large house on Carrollton Avenue “in the $37,000 range,” and the two obtained a home-renovation loan.

“That’s what parents do. We co-sign on the first house,” Laine says. In the process, she found a $55,000 house in Fountain Square that, with less rehabilitation and repair needed, would work well as a charmingly unstuffy law office.

“Once I’d been in the neighborhood awhile I realized how good this place is,” Laine says. “What I liked initially was our neighbors. It’s very diverse here. There are different kinds of people who live here. Working class people whose parents lived here; artsy, musical types. Yuppies. Just a rich fabric of ideas. The common thread was the neighborliness. People watch out for each other here. I quickly felt like I was in a neighborhood.”

By asking a lot of questions and getting a lot of advice, the women began evaluating the cost of real estate acquisition, the cost of renovation, and the reasonable expectation of profit. But they also factored in the intangible reward of not just making money but helping to revive a historic neighborhood.

“We have a different business model,” Laine says. “We like to buy the worst house on the block and make it the best house on the block. We figure if there are three or four people on the block, we can fix up the worst house and tip the scale on that street. If we can get two houses in a bad block, that’s even better.

“One of the things we learned very quickly was to strip the house right down to the studs and redo everything—the electrical, the plumbing, everything,” she says. “We haven’t done a single house yet that doesn’t have termite damage. But that’s just another reason to take it down to the studs. I would not want to sell a house to someone that I wouldn’t live in. Our goal is sound, functional homes.

“This is where Mina’s genius comes in. She can squeeze so much into a 1,200-square-foot home it’s amazing.”

Starsiak nods and picks up on the theme.

“The funny thing is that I’m not so artistically inclined,” she says. “It’s more of a math thing than anything to do with the creative part of my brain. I see how much space I have, and then I start visualizing what can go where and how I can best use the space I have to work with.”

Urban Renewal

It’s an understatement to point out that people in the neighborhood have noticed the quality of the more than 20 renovations. Their impact as singles, couples, and families have pounced on the renovated homes when put on the market by Two Chicks.

“When I first moved here from New Orleans 11 years ago, two-thirds of the houses were abandoned and half the houses that had been rehabbed were not done well at all,” says Will Herndon, a manager at the Revolucion cantina in the commercial center of Fountain Square. “For people like us, the challenge was just fixing other people’s stupidity. But the Two Chicks—everybody knows them and loves what they are doing. They do things right. They make things better instead of worse.”

Mother and daughter started their business by renovating homes in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis. Photo by Marc Lebryk.

On the pilot episode on HGTV, we learn that on a few properties, the business made around $40,000 after buying, renovating, and selling specific homes.

“There is no normal profit,” Laine explains later. “Forty thousand is definitely on the high end. We have not lost money yet, but we also have made as little as $2,000.”

If running their business wasn’t consuming enough, the challenge of being the focus of a television series just added a layer of “all work, all the time.”

“We’ve been filming Monday through Friday and doing business stuff before and after,” Starsiak says. “I might start out the day working out of my home in my big, fluffy housecoat, making phone calls and arranging work, and I’ll have contractors pass through, and it’s like nothing anymore.”

Like everyone who has ever worked on a film or television production set, Starsiak and Laine have learned to roll with the set-up time, delays, and production demands.

“Just getting B-roll [supplemental or alternative footage mixed in with the main shot] takes an amazing amount of time. They might get four or five takes of me leaving my house and walking down the street,” Starsiak says.

“I like it best when there’s something where you only have one shot,” Laine adds.

“Like a demolition,” Starsiak explains. “It only happens once, so you only have one chance to get it right.”

“You learn to think, where should the camera be? What is the point of this part of the story? Does it address the story line?” Laine says. “It is true that I love using all the tools. Saws. The jackhammer. Jacking up a house off a basement. I got to float some concrete the other day and that was fun.”

Walking the Talk

After considerable trial-and-error on what they could do themselves and what they needed to pass on, they hired Caliber Construction of Indianapolis as their general contractor. Laine laughs that, as they operate in what is largely a man’s world, they play the charm card with the workers but back it up with specific and detailed knowledge of what needs to be done, as well as ideas about how to do it.

“I grew up in a family where we did things ourselves, and Mina inherited that attitude,” Laine says. “My dad always made sure we could change the oil in our cars and fix a flat, things like that. Self-sufficiency was the lay of the land.”

For Good Bones, HGTV asked the Two Chicks to step up their renovation output from a typical three houses a year to 10 houses in six months. Although they’ve expanded their territory from Fountain Square exclusively to include the adjacent Bates-Hendricks neighborhood, they also broke from their model of owning all of their projects to take on three renovation projects for other homeowners to meet the television program’s production demands.

Starsiak, the design guru, doesn’t try to replicate period-specific features as much as she looks to create modern living spaces with features contemporary owners want, such as space for a washer, drier, and dishwasher—all items that weren’t in the plans for homes built a century ago.

Laine took a sabbatical from her legal work to give her more time to devote to Good Bones. She kept up on pending legal work but demurs on plans for the future, whether Good Bones continues on or not. “Game time decision,” she says, dropping a football reference. “The business is definitely Mina’s career.

“We made a decision some time ago that we are not going to move from the area until we can’t buy any more houses,” Laine says. “And I hope that day comes when enough people see this business model and say ‘I can do that, too.’ I can prevent dilapidated houses from being torn down. I can get people to move into my neighborhood.

“And no matter what happens with the television show,” Laine adds, “there’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that this showcases our neighborhood, and it’s an opportunity to show off what a great city Indianapolis is.”

“Our only complaint right now is that we’re so busy we don’t really get to see the neighbors who made us fall in love with this place,” Starsiak says. “We work all day, and we come home at night, and we go to bed. And then we get up in the morning and start working again. You go through a roller-coaster of emotions, or at least I do. Some days are just fun and other days you’re really tired and you think, this will all pay off someday. Hard work always pays off, right?”

This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine, a magazine for members of the IU Alumni Association. View current and past issues of the IUAM.

Written By
Mike Leonard
Mike Leonard is a former columnist and higher education writer for the Bloomington Herald-Times. He later served as executive editor of Bloom magazine.