Bargain Block's Keith Bynum & Evan Thomas On How To Design A Home On A Budget - Exclusive Interview

Home renovation shows are hugely popular, and it's easy to see why. Whether you're an architecture buff, aspiring DIY renovator or designer, or you just want to veg out with a relatively low-drama show with a guaranteed happy ending, these shows offer a satisfying experience. What they don't always offer, however, is relatability — more often than not, renovation shows aim to be aspirational rather than purely practical. And while it can be fun watching talented designers build extravagant dream homes with seemingly unlimited budgets and resources at their disposal, it's not terribly helpful for those of us looking for realistic inspiration for our own homes.

"Bargain Block" is a happy exception to this pattern. In this hit HGTV show, builder Evan Thomas and designer Keith Bynum take on the daunting task of making once-thriving but now abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit livable and comfortable again. Rather than building new homes from scratch or targeting their renovations to homeowners with deep pockets, they strive for stylish yet financially sustainable renovations of starter houses for first-time homeowners. Their creative strategies for making a lot of visual impact without a lot of resources are not just fun to watch, but they also offer a glimmer of hope for budget-watching design aficionados. In an exclusive interview, Thomas and Bynum chatted to us about the upcoming third season of "Bargain Block" and some of their inspirations.

A series of random opportunities brought them to Detroit

Evan, first of all, you have an unusual background that includes a doctorate in physics. How do you go from being a physicist to being a builder?

Evan Thomas: Yeah, that was a bit of a transition. Basically, what was happening is that while I was in graduate school, Keith and I were living together in Colorado. He was renovating a house up in the mountains. We were also renovating a house that we were living in. I was helping him on the weekends and stuff like that. We got through both of those renovations.

Right as I was graduating is when those were finishing. When I graduated, I had this option of ... Do I apply to a bunch of jobs and try and find a job in an industry that relates to my degree? Or Keith had this idea of going to Detroit and trying the housing market there. Ultimately, I decided to do that. It was a leap of faith. I guess it worked out.

I was rather curious — you guys were living in Colorado when you took up an interest in revitalizing Detroit. Where did that come from? What inspired that?

Keith Bynum: It was actually accidentally inspired by social media. I have no idea who this person is now, actually. But years ago, I was following this person on Instagram that did house renovations. He had a story in the middle of the night, at 3:00 a.m. I saw it in the morning. It said, "Flying to Detroit to go look at houses." Then, a couple of days later, he had a story that said, "Bought 10 houses." That put it on the radar.

This was probably 2015. I kept looking at Detroit; I did more and more research. Finally, in January, on my birthday in 2017, I flew out here, like he did, on a red-eye. I saw eight houses. We put offers in on two. We got one of them. That is how it started. It was a random connection. It was like fate put it all together. It was weird.

Seeing homeowners react to their new homes is a special joy

Keith, tell me about your journey into design. From a design perspective, what do you find most interesting about renovating entry-level properties like you're doing now?

Keith Bynum: It's the excitement that a home buyer has. I love seeing people react to the fact that this is ... The house that's under contract now is $120,000. It's one of the prettier houses of the season. The design inspiration was the future. But playing on how to elevate found items or trash that we turned into art or whatever ... I've pushed into that a lot for this season to try to hone that with a touch of elegance. It's been a fun journey to explore. Seeing people light up, walking into these spaces — that drives it forward even more.

When you're looking for houses to buy and restore, what do you look for? And what do you try to avoid?

Bynum: At this point, if it's abandoned, we're going to look at it.

Thomas: We will avoid houses ... [if] the entire roof is caved in, then —

Bynum: Right. We will probably skip on that. Or let's say there's a giant hole in a foundation, or the foundation has collapsed or something like that, then we might pass on that. Beyond those, we're pretty much open to whatever.

Thomas: There's this joke around the city. It's like, "All right, if Keith and Evan won't do it, then it's time to demo it." The city's like, "Are y'all going to take it? If not, we're going to demo." We're like, "All right. Go ahead and do that one." We've had to turn down a couple 'cause the roofs are completely collapsed or big holes in the foundation. [It's] crazy.

Even dilapidated old homes offer design inspiration

Another person who's played a big role in your show is Shea Whitfield. She's been helping you find and buy and sell houses. How did you get to know her?

Thomas: We were introduced through a friend. It was like when you meet somebody, and it's an instant connection. I don't know where it was from, but somewhere, energetically, she was supposed to find me. It was instant. We had a great immediate connection. Then, when we started working with her, it was better.

Our entire business depends on a good realtor. Everything is make or break by that. We sell houses. She has the big role to fill; she does a great job of it. But being able to communicate directly and get through tough things ... We just had a rough closing — it was 122 days. Knowing that she's there pushing every single day to get it done has been really helpful.

When you first step into a house, before you start renovating it, what are the first things that you think about and look for?

Bynum: There's moments of inspiration that come from what original things are left. The houses, especially this season, were so bad that [there] was not a lot left. These houses were the worst of the worst. But everything still has a little bit of inspiration.

Fireplaces play a big role in this particular season. There's a lot of beautiful fireplaces that we've kept and hardwood floors that are in fabulous shape, where we found six-inch plank that ... I haven't seen six-inch plank ever. It was stunning. We got to refinish that. Those are beautiful moments that make it exciting. It's like, "Ooh, what tile are we going to save today?" We saved a good amount of tile this season. That's fun. 

Their advice for would-be renovators: Know your limits

You're about to start the third season of "Bargain Block." Can you share how the show and your approach to renovation have evolved since you started?

Thomas: We have gotten into a groove with our team. The business has grown. We're able to have a larger team that can help us. How that translates on screen is that you get houses that are better designed. They're more fully designed houses. They take the theme [and] it's fully executed.

We also have gotten better at organizing and project management and making sure that all the boxes are checked when they need to be checked. When you're doing construction for television, sometimes it can get crazy. You have to have everything organized. You have to make sure that you're not skipping over something that you're going to pay for in the future.

Can you share any advice for first-time home buyers looking to purchase a fixer-upper? What should people look for? What should they avoid, especially if cost is an issue?

Thomas: If you're a first-time home buyer who does not have renovation experience, then definitely look for something that is more of a light reno. Look for things that are more cosmetic. The house is fully functional, but maybe I want to change out a backsplash or paint some cabinets or something like that, as opposed to a full gut, which is going to be a lot more money. It's going to test your patience. You're going to have to know what you're doing more.

Season 3 of "Bargain Block" premieres Wednesday, August 23, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HGTV and is available to stream the next day on Max®.

This interview has been edited for clarity.