HGTV’s renovation show “Home Town” is a certified hit. Now in its fourth season, the program focuses on the renovation work of Ben and Erin Napier. The couple have rehabbed approximately 50 older homes in their hometown of Laurel, MS.
Buzz on the husband and wife team is sizzling. We see homes in Laurel make appearances in our weekly look at the nation’s most popular homes. The Napiers sell merchandise from their local stores and have a spinoff show titled “Home Town Takeover” in the works. They even recently landed on the cover of People magazine!
The success is the result of the couple’s work before the lights and cameras started rolling.
“We’ve been involved in downtown revitalization and historic preservation efforts in our town since we finished college at Ole Miss, got married, and moved to my hometown of Laurel in 2008,” Erin told the blog Hooked on Houses.
A few years later, their work began to receive notice. The couple renovated a Craftsman-style home downtown, which was later featured on Southern Weddings’ Instagram feed. HGTV spotted the photos and contacted the couple in 2014 to see if they’d consider performing another renovation—this time for TV.
The rest is home improvement TV history.
The duo have become the biggest and most well-known boosters for the city of Laurel.
And if a couple renovating homes while simultaneously boosting the profile of a small town has a familiar ring, it’s no accident. Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper” revived Waco, TX, and became national celebrities in the process. The Gaineses’ HGTV show became so wildly successful, they’re now ready to launch their own television network.
Erin revealed that Chip and Jo helped mentor them every step of the way,
How has the show changed Laurel? Is it the next Waco? We talked with a few locals about the impact of “Home Town” on this modest central Mississippi town, population 18,000.
A short history of Laurel
Laurel was established in 1882 as a lumber town, and the founding families “crafted the town from scratch,” says Ross Tucker, president of the Jones County Chamber of Commerce. Manufacturing related to the timber trade popped up. Thomas Edison’s apprentice, William H. Mason, was brought in to turn Laurel’s wood pulp into the international engineered wood company now known as Masonite.
Laurel became a thriving cultural and industrial hub and boasts the state’s oldest art museum, the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. And its beautiful city park system was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr., who designed the grounds of the White House and the Jefferson Memorial.
But by the 1990s the lumber trade was long gone and the downtown was abandoned. Early efforts at urban renewal and a pedestrian mall had “failed miserably,” according to Tucker.
A new wave of Southern entrepreneurs has reversed the tide over the past decade or so.
“You got this resurgence of can-do people who decided to come back here. Erin and Ben were part of that group,” says Tucker.
Their efforts, along with others who established the Laurel Main Street organization (which focuses on revitalizing the town), have breathed new life into Laurel.
“To have the impact of a nationally recognized TV show and the impact it has brought into the community is profound,” Tucker says.
Before the show’s success, “we haven’t had a traditional attraction for tourism. Now people are coming through. … They want to see where the show was filmed,” he says. They also want to eat, shop, and stay downtown—a boon for local businesses.
Sweet homes, Mississippi
The signs of revitalization are also visible in the housing market. Right now, about 150 homes are on the market in Laurel—but bargain hunters should be aware that “Home Town” has already had an effect on the housing stock. The ultralow-priced gems once easily uncovered are few and far between.
“When I first moved here 15 years ago, I was aghast that they were selling these historical homes for just nothing,” real estate agent Nedra Carter says. “They were beautiful homes, but they were just deteriorating.”
She recalls seeing young families begin restoring and overhauling homes.
Prices reflect the resurgent demand. “A house that would have sold for $30,000 when they started the show is now up in the $70,000 range,” says Carter.
She’s also noticed an increased interest in home purchases near the historic downtown, where most of the home renovations filmed on “Home Town” take place.
“If something does come available [in the downtown], we have a lot of people scramble and get it,” explains Carter, who’s had potential clients call from as far away as California, Virginia, and Minnesota. “They like the hometown feeling they’re seeing on the show.”
Home buyers are also enamored with the math. The cost of living here is said to be about 20% below the national average. The median list price in Laurel currently sits just below $100,000, so it’s easy to see why budget-conscious home buyers can’t help but entertain the idea of living in Laurel.
The weekly show serves as an hour-long ad for the charming city.
“In many ways, they’re catalysts,” Rhonda Phillips says about the reality TV couple.
Phillips is the dean of Honors College and professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. She and her husband, Jay Stein, appeared on Season 4 of the show.
“There’s always been some special things about Laurel,” says Phillips, who grew up nearby. Drawn to the area because of the show, she and her husband now own a historic Craftsman beautifully restored by the Napiers.
Flipping out in Laurel
Also drawn in by the show, Jill Mangone-Russo up and moved to Laurel a year ago. She had lived and worked in Arizona for the past 20 years, raised her kids there, and started a new career in house flipping. Then she watched “Home Town” and was smitten.
“That was my first introduction to Laurel, and then I started looking at homes,” she says.
If buying a house in a town you’ve seen only on TV seems out of the ordinary, she says, the Napiers have had that same effect on viewers far and wide.
“As soon as I saw what they were doing, my first thought was, ‘Oh this town is going to blow up,’” Mangone-Russo says.
The home she bought was “a diamond in the rough,” she says. “It was dilapidated, in really bad shape, with holes through the roof. The house had to be completely renovated.”
Built in 1910, it’s listed on the Mississippi Historical Registry and was owned by William Carroll Gartin, Laurel’s mayor in the 1960s and a three-term lieutenant governor of Mississippi.
“I like projects. I’ve caught this bug. You just love to turn a run-down old house into a beautiful showplace,” she says. “That TV show gets you going.”
The nine-month project is at the finish line, and she’s just listed the property for $169,000. When it sells, she wants to buy another fixer-upper and start all over again, preferably in the same neighborhood.
If you’d like to follow Mangone-Russo’s trail, there are still some excellent options for sale in the area.
For DIY-ers, a tiny, two-bedroom home listed for $65,000 is a big renovation project. Need proof? It was considered a possible option on a recent episode of “Home Town,” according to the listing.
But if you’d rather move right in and leave the work to someone else, there’s a turnkey cottage located in the downtown historic district available for $112,000. Just tell ’em the Napiers sent you.