When I first met Katie Herbert, she was fashionably dressed and running the Development and Business Affairs department of a Toronto-based TV production company. Within two years of that meeting, I heard through the grapevine that Katie had married, quit the TV biz, had her first child and started her own property development business. This is where we would normally start hating the woman a little bit and wondering how she could achieve so much in such a short time! But because she’s just so darn nice, down-to-earth and professional, the satisfaction of a good old-fashioned jealous loathing is denied me.
It turns out that what I didn’t know when we first met was that when Katie, as an 18-year-old, began working in the TV industry at the BBC back in England, she had a plan. By 19 years old, she had bought her first ‘fixer-upper’ and her life-long love affair with renovating had begun.
Was Katie’s move from media executive to full-time renovator in Canada a sound business decision? Let’s look at the statistics.
As most Canadians live in homes somewhere between 20 and 69 years old, the 2016 Canadian Census identified about 920,500 housing units that were in need of major work. And, according to the 2019 HomeStars Reno Report, Canadians are staying in their homes longer, with 64% of all respondents surveyed indicating that they will consider renovating within the next year.
I think we can congratulate Katie on her career move. The renovation industry, particularly in a city like Toronto, is a booming business. With Toronto’s residential architectural history ranging from Victorians of the late 1800s to the semi-detached homes of the early 1900s and the post-WWII bungalows of the 1940s and 50s, there is no shortage of work for a good renovator/property developer.
Katie’s Herbert Homes, is in its eighth successful year of business. She tells me: “on day one I was not a contractor, so I did a lot of listening and watching”. She also did something very unusual. When she hired trades to work on her first few projects, she had one big condition: they had to accept that she was going to be there, by their sides all the time, watching, asking questions and learning. She was essentially paying them not only to work on her projects but to be a part of her self-directed apprenticeship. And that is where she learned a new language: the language of building and renovation.
Having grown up in the building industry myself, I know that construction and renovation has a vocabulary all its own. If you speak the language, you are more readily taken seriously. For a woman on a construction site in Canada, where in 2020, only 5% of skilled trades workers are women, being taken seriously can be an issue. Over the last eight years, Katie has profitably renovated dozens of houses. The fact that she is hands-on and able to do a considerable part of the work herself has helped her bottom line immeasurably, but because of her efforts to learn elements of other trades, she knows enough to know when it’s right and when it’s wrong. She has gone from watching and listening to becoming a self-titled ‘Renovation Expert’.
That designation is fitting for a woman who wears the tool belt for work and not for show! She also designs her own reno projects, executes the permit drawings and HVAC design, and is now a licensed general contractor. With the term general contractor open to interpretation, Renovation Expert may make a lot more sense. It’s worth noting that in some jurisdictions, like Ontario, there are few, if any, requirements for persons wanting to set up shop and adopt the title, so buyer beware!
With ‘before and afters’ like these, it’s clear that Katie has put together a team of tradespeople that she can rely on. When we discussed how she found her trades she explained, “Curating a team is key. Good people attract good people, and my job is to be good to my trades and be reliable. If I tell them that they are needed on-site on Wednesday, then I make sure that the house is clean and clear, and materials are ready for them on Wednesday. It’s also important to have trades that are not looking past me when I come on-site, looking for the man in charge! In fact, when I start working with a new trade, I often just use initials on my emails. Then, when they walk on-site and see me as the boss, it might take a minute for them to adjust but I have had very few problems because they see how hard I work. Women are natural multi-taskers; I’m disciplined and I am on site making quick decisions and building relationships with my teams”.
With results like these beautiful homes in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood, clearly Katie is not an outsider in the construction world. And who can fault her eye for design? She believes that her design sense, again self-taught, benefits from her being a woman. “Women have the ability to visualize themselves in the finished product; to envision how it will function”. It is easy to see that Katie Herbert is in this for the long haul. Her designs are eye-catching but at the same time sensible and her construction standards are top-notch. She is becoming known for creating homes that are coveted in hot Toronto neighbourhoods. And, given that in the last two years Katie has also become a familiar face to TV reno show fans as the host of Handmade Hotels on Makeful, her profile continues to grow along with her expertise
Katie acknowledges that the current COVID-19 situation has impacted her future plans, but her business continues to steadily build. She recently hired her first full-time employee, which will free her up to focus on her company’s gradual growth as well as provide flexibility for the ‘mom time’ she enjoys. And it’s all paying off. She is beginning to see evidence that the Herbert Homes brand as a development company is gaining traction. She has clients now following her projects closely and waiting with bated breath for them to come onto the market.
Because of her design, construction and project management expertise, I had to ask Katie for her advice for neophytes about to take on their first reno project. So here is some sage wisdom from Renovation Expert Katie Herbert:
- Make YouTube and Google your best friends! Do your research and don’t pretend to know what you don’t know.
- Learn the language. If you don’t know a reference, look it up!
- Set ground rules with your contractor and/or trades. Right from the beginning, spell out what your expectations are regarding times for meetings, ways of working together, progress and budget updates.
- Don’t be intimidated and don’t let yourself be bullied!
- Accept that there are multiple ways of doing any one task or project.
- Construction is based on common sense; it’s rational and not emotional.
- Be respectful of your trades’ knowledge, but also stick to your guns to get what you want
To catch Katie’s TV show, go to Handmade Hotels on Makeful
If you are interested in reading more about the hot topic of renovation, have a look at the following stories on Houseporn.ca:
All photos are courtesy of Herbert Homes.
Theresa Kowall-Shipp is a TV producer, director and writer. Her interest in design and architecture grew from exposure to her family’s construction and architectural woodworking firm and producing or directing dozens of hours of design TV.