There are a lot of ways to destroy a chimney—and most of them are satisfying—but Mina Hawk (née Starsiak) says you’re really only supposed to stick with one. “A brick at a time,” says Mina, over coffee/La Croix at Calvin Fletcher’s coffee shop in Fletcher Place. “We allllll went to college. We allllll understand gravity.”
But during a recent day of shooting the second season of Good Bones, the HGTV home-renovation show she headlines with her mother, Karen E Laine, Mina suddenly found herself dealing with a second, considerably more dramatic method. “Spoiler alert,” says Mina, sounding as if she’s still trying to convince herself she saw this. “Tad just pushes it over.”
Tad is Mina’s college-aged little brother and the guy in charge of the Good Bones demolition crew. Tad’s gift is for breaking things. But here, Tad has made what Mina clearly regards as a questionable decision. “Tad is on the roof, sees the chimney wobbling, and pushes it over. It goes straight through the roof. Huuuuuge hole,” says Mina, sounding either scolding or impressed; I can’t actually tell which. For her part, Karen is more delighted. “We were all like, ‘That was really cool! But shit!’”
This is more or less a standard afternoon on the set of Good Bones, currently shooting a second season that premieres in May. Good Bones differs from many home-renovation shows in two key departments: 1. Significant increase in angry falling towers of brick, and 2. Mina and Karen
handle nearly everything themselves.
“The nature of home-renovation shows is changing,” says Mina after a day of shooting on East Street. “It used to be you had a host who popped into a kitchen and said, ‘Oooh, look at this, blah blah blah.’ Now it’s more based on real business, real people. For us, there’s a personal aspect. We have all the skin in the game.”
She means that financially—it turns out a TV contract doesn’t necessarily come with sacks of cash. “Early on, for the talent, there is very little money in TV,” Karen says, adding that each house requires an investment from them of about $180,000. Every penny of profit, she says, goes into the next house because they are now doing 10 to 13 renos in six to nine months instead of two or four a year. What’s more, they’re doing this without formal training. When Good Bones began development in 2013 (originally under the name of the duo’s Fountain Square renovation company, Two Chicks and a Hammer), Karen, 56, was a practicing defense attorney, and Mina, 32, a practicing waitress at Pizzology. As their work evolved from side hustle to livelihood, they needed to develop new sets of skills—lots of new sets of skills. And through a combination of instruction manuals, online videos, and deadline necessity, Karen and Mina have learned how to knock down all but the bones of a burned-out house, obliterate termites, install functional plumbing, put up drywall, operate a bulldozer, run a business, navigate the deadening labyrinth of building codes and permits, and select the most aesthetically satisfying shades of trim colors and bathroom grout. “Most of it we learned along the way,” says Mina. “I read the directions for flooring and putting up light fixtures. I watched YouTube to figure out how to tile.” As for the demolition? “Well, no one has to teach you how to break shit,” she says.
Setting aside the fact that there’s a safe way and a foolish way to demo a house, self-taught home renovation in some of the city’s bleaker neighborhoods is not exactly the path of least resistance. But they work this way not just because it’s the pace at which they’re most comfortable, but because it plays into their grander altruistic goal: injecting energy, revitalization, and bursts of color into the burned and blighted parts of their hometown. “If we take the worst house on a block and make it the best house on the block,” says Karen, “we’ve changed the entire block.” And if they can do it with two or three houses? They can change an entire neighborhood.
Here’s the foundation of Good Bones.
Mina, the freckled daughter, is responsible for orchestrating projects, visualizing floorplans, staging demo contests with Tad, and keeping the various crews and contractors on schedule, which she does, most awesomely, in a gray tank-top that announces I’M THE BOSS.
Karen is more holistic, speaking of houses in terms of genders and moods (each is a “her” or a “him” and can be “sad”), and feels compelled to salvage something from each tear-down—rocks from the backyard, or, in one case, some godawful Wisconsin-themed deer-and-ducks wood paneling that she resolves to refashion into less-godawful art. (“You know what we’re gonna do with this?” Karen asks. “Nothing?” responds Mina.)
Each episode finds the duo buying a house for which the term “fixer-upper” is generous. The places are usually more like passingly inhabitable shells with severe structural integrity issues, magnificent colonies of mold, and what appear to be thriving termite societies.
The pilot episode involved the discovery of a basement freezer that had been sealed without power for about six months, and it gets opened, but I’m not going to spoil what was in there. Rimshot. (But if you must know, head to the end of the story.) The houses’ bad parts come down—which often means projects are less “renovation” than “reusing the skeleton”—and Karen, Mina, Tad, and a crew of five, plus a wealth of local contractors and suppliers, give them new life in about four months.
The mother-daughter dynamic adds a feisty layer of relatable family tension and is also pretty hilarious. (During this interview, Mina makes gagging noises about something inappropriate her mother has just said, twice.) Their genuine interest in cultivating significant change to the near-south side also sets Good Bones apart from the gaggle of home-renovation programs. The women say HGTV is invested in showing what’s in the America between New York and L.A, and making Indianapolis a character on the show. The city—and especially Fountain Square, its theater, and the Cultural Trail—gets a lot of scenic magic-light love, and most of the furnishings, finishes, and art the women use are local. “There are all these small shops that are doing fine,” says Karen. “They don’t need us, but we have the chance to put them on a national stage. We get to elevate everyone around us.”
That has been the goal for about 10 years. In 2007, fresh out of college, Mina bought a house at 23rd Street and Carrollton Avenue that required what the real estate agents call “a good bit of love.” Karen cosigned, and the two got to work fixing it up. A few months later, they bought a second place, in Fountain Square, for Karen to use as a law office, and did the same. By the fourth house, Mina thought they had a business.
The outfit became Two Chicks and a Hammer, and it kept a steady but slow pace, rehabbing 22 homes between 2008 and 2013. Business was stable, but hardly enough to pull Mina and Karen from their day jobs. That changed in 2013, when an HGTV talent scout came across them on Facebook. “We were like, ‘This is gonna be fun, and they’re gonna pay us a little bit of money to do what we do anyway,’” says Mina. “We were definitely naïve.”
Shooting became their 9-to-5, and running the business fell to nights and weekends. Two Chicks went from rehabbing one or two houses a year to 10 per season, which required adding a staff of five. Mina and Karen both took out mortgages and hit up family for investment. Life invaded, too: When Karen’s husband began a process that ended in a cancer diagnosis, she filmed right through his surgery and recovery while going to all of his treatments. “Once we got the show, we didn’t have a choice,” says Mina. “There was no more talking about the hurdles. It was, ‘Just do it.’”
They shot the pilot in the fall of 2014 and began filming the first season the following June. In May 2016, production began on season two. But at each step, the production company, Denver–based High Noon Entertainment, which also produces Fixer Upper, warned them against high hopes. Don’t get excited, they said. HGTV might not pick this up. Later: Don’t get excited. They might not greenlight the second season. “I appreciate them managing expectations,” says Mina, “but I’m a planner.”
Luckily, the show is a success. More than 13 million viewers watched the first season of Good Bones, making it one of HGTV’s top-rated programs. Social media response is “overwhelmingly positive,” says Mina.
Social media also gives the impression that the women are hobnobbing with HGTV royalty, based on such enviable posts as their Twitter repartee with Fixer Upper sweetheart Chip Gaines and their visit to the Gaines’ Magnolia Farms in Texas. But as it happens, TV does not necessarily equate to fame or fat checks; the ladies aren’t flown around for banquets or parties, for instance, and they went to Magnolia Farms on a side trip from a Fort Worth conference, not by special invitation. “Most of our communication with other HGTV folks is through social media,” says Karen. “HGTV is a really big company, and we are just a small part of it.”
On some work locations, they’re still operating without what high-level television executives call “indoor plumbing.” The show—and the Two Chicks business—remain a work in progress. “We don’t have enough to afford Porta Potties at all of our job sites,” says Mina. “Where we were working today, there’s a sliver of about a foot and a half along the side of the house and a fence, and everyone goes to the back corner. That’s where everyone pees.”
All of which begs the question of what compels two ladies to spend their days bowling over crack houses when they could, with obviously little effort, be doing something under a roof. Here’s where things turn relatively serious.
“It’s important to me to stay in the neighborhood where we live,” Karen says. “If you do one house in one ZIP code, and another in another ZIP code, you don’t have any effect on the neighborhood.” What if hopping around would be more profitable? “It’s more than that,” she says. “We can’t have people come to us and say, ‘Will you buy my house?’ unless we have a reputation for caring about the neighborhood. [Fountain Square] is our chosen home.”
Karen isn’t finished. “Where there’s a neighborhood that has every other house blighted, and there are squatters and drug dealers, that’s bad for our city. If we can make a difference and earn a living, why wouldn’t we?” To her side, Mina has a look that falls somewhere between adoring daughter and Yeah, dude, this happens all the time. “She was actually standing in the bed of our truck, preaching to the five employees today,” says Mina, turning to her mother. “You were literally up on a pedestal.”
Ironically, the Fountain Square revival they’re helping to foster is making them less equipped to operate in Fountain Square. Before the show, they could buy a 1,000-square-foot North Square place for $15,000. This year, a home of similar size and condition sold for $50,000. Both women say they couldn’t afford their current houses if they tried to buy them now. Other companies, they say, are moving in, and not always with the most ethical of house-flipping approaches. “We’re always the ones on the edge,” says Karen. “But that’s how you change a neighborhood. You take a risk.”
Those risks are paying off, though the women keep their excitement in check. Their current project—which looks like a cotton-candy teal fairy cottage on East Street, with fish-scale accents and two front doors—is something of a novelty in that they are keeping it for office space. More and more often, neighbors at their job sites ask for help on their own properties or their families’ houses, a word-of-mouth approach the women rely on to build their brand. And yes, they still take on local clients, although HGTV likes to feature full-home remodels, not leaving much time for small projects.
Karen credits her daughter with being a genius at rolling profits into the next property and finding investors. The duo hopes they will become self-sustaining by the end of season two. “We’re not rich yet,” laughs Karen. “I’m still deeply in debt.” Which she doesn’t worry about, because if the goal was money, she probably would have stuck with her law practice.
Best case scenario is that in a year, they are contracted for another season or two—and have inspired others to action, whether fixing up a bad house on the block or something easier. “Everybody can do something,” Karen says, sitting forward in her chair. “If all I can do is walk down the alley and pick up the trash, or turn on my porch light so my neighborhood looks more inviting, I’ve done something.”
Cut to Mina, staring. “You are so soapboxy today!” she says. When 13 million people are listening, why not?
Oh, yeah, the hell-freezer. Everyone stood around for a while staring at the ghastly, gelatinous contents and trying, mostly successfully, not to throw up, until Karen put on a pair of gloves and started extracting the vile mess herself. Obviously.