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Millionacres Spotlight: An Interview with Anthony Carrino

Anthony Carrino is probably known to viewers as part of HGTV's Kitchen Cousins and other popular shows. He recently joined forces with venture-backed Welcome Homes as their VP of Design. In this interview, we chat about open floor plans, the elevation of the laundry room in home design, and things investors need to keep in mind in this market.

Transcript

Deidre Woollard: [MUSIC] All right. I'm Deidre Woollard, an Editor over at Millionacres, and I'm here today with Anthony Carrino. He's probably best known to viewers as part of HGTV's Kitchen Cousins and other popular shows. He recently joined forces with venture-backed Welcome Homes, which is the first online platform to buy and build a newly-constructed home. So as the VP of Design at Welcome Homes, he is responsible for offering customers exterior and interior design options. In addition to his role at Welcome Homes, he runs a digital series on YouTube called The Build, which is really fantastic, and it's focused on teaching homeowners how to successfully execute a home renovation. Thank you for joining me.

Anthony Carrino: I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Deidre Woollard: Well, let's start off by talking kitchens because I feel like the open kitchen is maybe over. We've been stuck in a pandemic, things are changing in our homes. What are you seeing in terms of kitchens?

Anthony Carrino: So at least for me and for my design perspective, I hope the open kitchen is not over. I'm a big fan of it. I still love it. I think it really works well in the home. [LAUGHTER] I always say, "The kitchen is the heart of the home," is the most cliched saying when it comes to homes, but it's that way for a reason because it's the truth. When you think of the kitchen as the hub of the home, do you really want it segmented off on its own, and whoever the person is or people that are in that kitchen, they don't get to be a part of whatever else is going on in the home. For me, for my money, I'm an open kitchen guy.

Deidre Woollard: Well, I hope eventually, we'll all get to entertain again because the kitchen is always fantastic when you've got an open kitchen and people gather around. [laughs]

Anthony Carrino: Deidre, I finished my firehouse renovation and did not even get to have a house warming party. Believe me when I tell you, I'm dying to be able to have gatherings again.

Deidre Woollard: [laughs] I think we all are.

Anthony Carrino: Yeah.

Deidre Woollard: So open kitchens, yes. How about open floor plans in general? We're seeing everybody try to section off for Zoom rooms right now. Is that temporary?

Anthony Carrino: A hundred percent. So is it temporary? I don't think so, no. I don't think necessarily because COVID will continue, but I think because of COVID, we have found this new normal, which is people are just as productive at home as they are in the office. I think corporate America has realized that letting people plan their day the way they see fit so long as things get done works, and they get to not spend quite as much money on corporate real estate. That's a different issue, I guess for a different conversation. [LAUGHTER] But suffice it to say, I think that a headquarters, if you will, will still exist. I just think it's going to be able to be smaller, you're going to be able to go in certain days a week. I think the work from home environment will continue for the foreseeable future. I always have this answer when I have this particular conversation in two-parts because people who live in cities and apartments have one answer, and people who live in suburbs and homes have another answer. When you have enough square footage and have multiple rooms, there is no reason you can't have an open concept part of your home and close concepts [LAUGHTER] part of your home. You have bedrooms that are closed off, bathrooms that are closed off, you can have an office, it depends on how much square footage you're buying. Typically speaking, when you're in an urban environment, you generally don't have that luxury. You're in a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom, both of those bedrooms are occupied. Three-bedroom, again, you're occupied. If you're fortunate enough to have a guestroom and you can pull double duty, that's great. In terms of those urban dwellers who can't necessarily find a dedicated space, I'm a big proponent of taking an extra 15 minutes at the top and bottom of your day and really setting up a dedicated workspace, setting your intention for the day so that you're productive. It's one of those things that like if your laptop is always hanging out by you, one, you're always doing some work on it, but it's never really focused work, and then when is it personal time. Very much like you have to be thoughtful about design and the way you go about laying out a home. I think you have to be thoughtful when it comes to, it's time for work and it's for me to put work away and be with my family, or take personal time or whatever is that thing over here is.

Deidre Woollard: Yeah, I think that's totally true. It's all been a blur. [LAUGHTER]

Anthony Carrino: Yeah.

Deidre Woollard: Maybe I think we'll just blur together now.

Anthony Carrino: Time is no longer a contract that works for me, I don't.

Deidre Woollard: [LAUGHTER] Exactly. Another trend that I've seen too is that people are so much more comfortable now buying things online during the pandemic that they wouldn't have before, like furniture. It sound like Wayfair, huge year for them because people all of a sudden felt comfortable buying their couch online which they wouldn't before.

Anthony Carrino: Yeah.

Deidre Woollard: Do you think people are doing that for design too? Are people picking out like tile or countertops without actually seeing them in person?

Anthony Carrino: I know in the design community, I've had a number of conversations around this, we're all just ordering a lot more samples. There's no world where I'm not going to touch and feel something that I'm going to be specking for myself or for a client. I think the ability to order things online is fantastic for your home, from a design perspective, but I would love to see what Wayfair's return and exchange numbers look like. [laughs] There was a lot of that going on. I can say, for example, with respect to Welcome Homes and what I'm doing with them, as we have customers sign up and go through our online process, once they have made their selections, they're going to get a big, beautiful sample box from us with a bunch of tactile, actual, physical materials, countertops, cabinet samples, the finishes on your faucets, tiles in your bathrooms because it's important. Screens read at all different color temperatures, scale is a real thing, so if you're not hiring a professional designer and you don't have a working relationship, a level of trust that's inherent or been built, I would suggest that spending that extra two dollars, five dollars, seven dollars whatever they charge for the sample from whatever website you're looking at, I would recommend doing it.

Deidre Woollard: That makes sense. So talk to me a little bit more about your job with Welcome Homes and what you're doing in terms of the design aspect.

Anthony Carrino: Yes. So Welcome Homes, I got introduced to these guys by someone in my network who is in the startup world. They were looking for some conversation surrounding construction and design; it's what I've said my whole career doing. By my second or third call with Alec Hartman, who's the CEO, I asked Alec if I can come work for him. That's how much I like the company and what they're doing. We had a few very short conversations, and we knew that it was going to be a great working relationship. They brought me on as Vice President of Design, and that means that I'm basically specking all the pretty things that are going to be going into these homes. To give people a bit of an idea of how Welcome Homes works, we're basically the first and only completely online residential homebuying tool. You can go on our website, you can purchase your land if you don't already have it. Now, you can also use a standard real estate agent and let us know when you have land. If you already own land, we'll put a house on that for you. But suffice it to say, you have a plot of land or you've selected it from our website, and then you can pick one of our house models, and then you can pick a number of exterior options, kitchen options, bathroom options to really personalize that space for you, along with a whole list of upgrades to really tailor that home to the way that you want to use it. The idea of being here is that building or renovating, for that matter, and I say this loving doing my Build TV stuff, is a stressful and anxiety-ridden process for those that aren't in this business, and that's fair. This is the part that HGTV doesn't tell anybody. There's no world where you're going to know the level of minutia that's taken me 20 years. I'm still learning everyday, and the idea here is to really make it attainable for people to become a homebuilder in the sense that order your house from us, and we will build it for you in six months, we're handing you the keys. I know that's possible because the size homes we're looking at building, I've done in six months before. It is an achievable thing with good organization and an experienced team behind it. Alec and the rest of the co-founders certainly know how to put people in positions, we're growing like crazy. Overall, I'm just really, really excited to be a part of the team and seeing this whole thing come to fruition.

Deidre Woollard: It's an amazing time for homebuilders. I don't know if you keep an eye on the existing home sales, but the inventory levels are just so low.

Anthony Carrino: I've never been at this low, I don't think.

Deidre Woollard: Never. I've been studying it for years. Never been this low, and so there's just so much interest and so much demand for homebuilding right now. Partly, there's not inventory out there, and partly, a lot of people really don't want to renovate.

Anthony Carrino: Yeah, and on top of it, Deidre, I think the other part of this equation that really needs focus is labor. It is hard to get a general contractor these days, especially for a smaller project. That's not meant to be derogatory on any scale, but when guys are looking at building a home, a full house versus renovating your bathroom, which one do you think they're going to pick to do? It's difficult all the way around. I think if you're looking to go buy an existing home, you need to have your docks in a row. There's no more, "Let's grab a coffee in a bagel and cruise around on Saturday and go to open houses." Obviously, COVID aside, but you can't just go look anymore. You've got to be ready to put an offer in. I'm sitting up here in the Catskills right now. I was fortunate enough to buy this property pre-COVID. I was looking for two years with my fiancee. A buddy of mine started looking up here three months after we closed, he lost five properties to bidding wars before he was able to get something up in Hudson, so it's really nuts.

Deidre Woollard: It is really nuts. I have a friend who's going through the same process, and it's like you have to make the decision almost instantly. You have to walk through the house and then decide if you're ready.

Anthony Carrino: Properties in the Catskills, at one point were going site on seeing. People were buying off of Zillow which is again, I think another value proposition that checks in the favor of Welcome Homes, because building a home is not a small task, people tend not to think that it's possible, but with us coming into the picture now, this is attainable for folks. If you really are looking for a home, buying that raw piece of land and wondering how do I get a septic system on there? How do I dig well water? How do I pave a driveway, clear a lot? Filling some foundation. You don't need to worry about that, I worry about that, my team worries about that. You get to worry about the fun stuff? What do you want the outside of the house to look like? Which kitchen style do you want to pick from? Doing the things that we love to do when we think about all things home like I like to call them, all those pretty things that we've really curated so that you don't have this overwhelming sense of what phosphate goes with, what backsplash goes with, what goes with what cabinetry. We've curated kitchen packages that you can say, I would like package 1, or 2, or 3 so that you know everything has been thoughtfully decided upon, has been designed by a professional designer, and we'll all work together within your home and any selection you make thereafter, will all work with everything else that you've chosen.

Deidre Woollard: Well, you made a really good point there about people wanting to focus on the pretty things because nobody wants to know about the septic, nobody [laughs] wants to have to deal with the electrical, and the terrible things that can happen there. It's not the fun part.

Anthony Carrino: My mother always told me I loved to play in the dirt as a kid and I just don't think I ever grew out of it. It's just one of those things. I've always been a nuts-and-bolts guy, my mind works in both the design world and the construction world. I love seeing it on paper, and then making it all come into reality, and it's an absolute blast to do it. Yeah, let me handle that part of it for you, let the crew Welcome Homes handle that part of it for you, and we'll have you in your home in six months.

Deidre Woollard: Nice, I wanted to ask you a little bit about construction in general because one of the things I've noticed, you talked about the general contractors, it's very hard to get them right now. I've also heard from home builders in general that the aging of the construction of the labor workforce is a problem. Is that something that you've been seeing as well?

Anthony Carrino: It's so real, it's not even funny. I talk to my GC who's working up here with me who's a longtime friend of mine, we talk about this every day. This guy has been in business for 25 years, he had to take his ads down for help because he was just throwing money out the window. He'd have people say that they had a whole bunch of experience come work for him for two weeks, not show up. Work for him for a day, not show up. Tile guy, I know who's been in the business for 20 years, I called him to come and do my house for me, he's like, hey man, I'm done, it's just not worth it anymore. We're not seeing any younger guys fill those shoes, so the trades is a real thing. I've been saying for a long time, the doctors and lawyers of today, those are the plumbers, electricians, and contractors tomorrow. I really encourage anybody who's got the want or will to work with their hands to really look into it. It's going to be a serious moneymaker for people, and if people don't get into it, I think we're going to have a very big problem at a certain point.

Deidre Woollard: I would agree with that because these are the industries so far we haven't been able to see technology disrupt. [OVERLAPPING]

Anthony Carrino: I so agree with you. I'm a top tech guy, I love it. I joined a start-up that's tech focused that combines with construction, but we're still building in a traditional way. I don't think modular's there yet, I think it's coming, but modular is just a smart use of space. It's not technology in the computer robotics sense, you're building on an assembly line, you're building in a controlled environment, but you still need people with real skills to be able to do those jobs. It's something I think about a lot, it's something I talk to folks in my network about a lot and it's something [LAUGHTER] I do not have a solution for yet.

Deidre Woollard: I feel the same way, especially when it comes to plumbing because of the infrastructure problems that we're going to have in the country as a whole. There's just so much that needs to be done and we don't seem to be building that next-generation who's going to have those ideas when it comes to the built world?

Anthony Carrino: Yeah, that's really well said. It's interesting and like I said, I just don't have an answer for. I stutter on my words with it because it's something I'm very passionate about. I love this industry, I love working with my hands, but it's something you just don't see as many people getting into. I think we just focus on you got to go to college, and not realizing in the long term what it was going to do to the built environment.

Deidre Woollard: Yeah, it's very true. Let's pivot a little bit and talk some more about some design trends. I wanted to talk about closets just because I'm a minimalist, but most people are not [LAUGHTER]. We're seeing the demand for self-storage keeps going up, I'm seeing more walk-in closets. What are you seeing in terms of space?

Anthony Carrino: The storage units, I don't know. I just never got that. If it doesn't fit in the house, you're never going to go back and decide, oh, I definitely need to put that in my new home. Get rid of it, sell it. There's apps for that now. What do I see in terms of closets? Walk-in closets are considered a luxury, so when they fit the floorplan, they're always included, hard yes for me. I like it from an organization standpoint. For example, my fiance and I share a closet up here because it's a large enough closet so we were able to not have to use more space for less storage, meaning two separate closets and all the additional wall space that's required when you frame those up, it just eats into your overall floor plan. For me, when I think about closets, I think about how people use their home during the space planning phase of a project. I also just think about good space planning in general, there's no reason to put closets for closets' sake but there's no reason to not have a larger closet. It's hard to answer in the sense that it's a very personal thing. I think when it comes to the closet itself, most times when people are buying an existing home, you're stuck with what you have, and then you fit the custom closets solution of your choice into what's there. If you're building a custom home, then it's completely your choice. I do tend to see people go with larger closets when it's available to them.

Deidre Woollard: Interesting. What about pantries? Because all of a sudden I think the toilet paper problems of 2020 [LAUGHTER], have got everybody suddenly wanting [LAUGHTER] a bigger pantry. Is that also something that you're seeing with the designs that you are looking at?

Anthony Carrino: With my designs, I tend to design the pantry into the cabinetry itself, because I really like that uniform look and efficient use of space. I think a dedicated room in the house for that much food storage it's just a waste of space, that's more of a personal design ethos for myself. If I'm going to go out and buy six cases of toilet paper because of COVID, that's definitely going to go in the garage. I like to design pantries that are 18-24 inches wide, and have a pullout, or have double doors, and it's part of the cabinetry itself, and allows for nice a seamless kitchen experience. I don't like having it in a separate room.

Deidre Woollard: How do you feel about the laundry room? Because I've noticed there's been the escalation of the laundry room, it used to be in the basement or in a corner somewhere. Now the laundry room it's really beautiful space in a lot of homes.

Anthony Carrino: The laundry room, I'm a big proponent of. That is a great space to have a well-designed space for not just having that basement afterthought as you said so well. I think that has a lot to do with the advancements of the washers and dryers, and the technology therein. For example, with the Welcome Home stuff, we've got a dedicated laundry room built-in, and as an upgrade, you can add one of the Samsung at-home dry cleaning units. You have a shirt that needs a refresh but doesn't necessarily need to go in the washer, you don't have time to get to the dry cleaner, put it on a hanger, hang it in there, close the door 20 minutes, it steams, and fluffs, and freshens, and de-bacteria, whatever it does [laughs]. But having that level of technology and the ability to have all these different appliances at home, coupled with wanting to get the mess out of sight, I think is really where you see the advent of the laundry room. Plus the fact when you have a well thought out laundry room in your space plan, you can get those much closer to the areas that you would want to be doing laundry, instead of carrying clothes and sheets down two flights of stairs into a basement, into a cold area, a damp area, this is now a nice conditioned space, close to where things are getting dirty [laughs] , if you will, to minimize the amount of carrying that you've got to do from here to there.

Deidre Woollard: I love that. In terms of Welcome Homes, when you're thinking about the outdoor spaces, are you customizing those to the plot or how does that work?

Anthony Carrino: There's a sun deck off the back of our latest model, and that is a standard size. Any additional landscaping from there is customized to the lot because obviously no two pieces of land are the same, but when we do place the house on the lot, we do take into account some study and what is going to be best for positioning that house. Obviously, those also have to do with getting approvals from zoning, and planning, and board of health, and all the rest of it that I'm sure your viewers and listeners are familiar with, who are in the real estate world. But suffice it to say we are trying to optimize for a sun angle and making a really pleasant experience in that backyard space. One of the things I'm most excited about for the backyard is our kitchen upgrade, which I don't know if you're familiar with this Canadian company called Urban Bonfire, they're my absolute go-to in outdoor kitchens, marine grade powder coated aluminum, all 304 stainless on the legs and any operable hardware. Gone are the days where you have to compromise the design of your outdoor kitchen. Meaning, as customers, you're used to getting in your house, that's how custom you can get in the backyard now, and I think a lot of that is due to these guys. It's an unbelievable product.

Deidre Woollard: That sounds gorgeous. I noticed that we're talking here and you're in the barn of your Catskills place, and I saw that you're going to put that on Airbnb. What can you tell me about that, is this your first Airbnb?

Anthony Carrino: It will be when my fiance moved in with me about two years ago now. COVID delayed the wedding otherwise. Anyway, she moved in with me two years ago now. She had a condo over on in Jersey City and we were deciding what to do with that and I said, why don't we test it on Airbnb and see how it goes. We had it up there for about a month before she got a long term tenant that had a nice price tag attached to it, so we'd be foolish not to take it. But the lesson there was, it went really well. As long as you're diligent about communication and you set yourself up for success, meaning you have a good cleaning company that you can call for quick turnarounds, utilize technology in the right way. By that, I mean, like I am a big fan of the Schlage encode door locks. The people who are Airbnbing your property don't need to put an app on their phone. It's a four digit pin. You can set it to be like the last four digits of their cell phone numbers so they don't forget it. These are little stupid things that I like to focus on for personalization and for the avoidance of having them to have to contact me. But it went really well. In the Catskills, I mean, the market is on fire for Airbnbs and if you can stay in a traditional barn with the gambrel roof that was built in 1965 that was just newly renovated, I mean, we're really excited to get this up on the website and see what it does. Just as soon as I get the Stonehouse done, we'll be getting this thing live.

Deidre Woollard: The Stonehouse that's on Build TV on YouTube and I've noticed you going through some of the different design decisions and everything like that. I'm wondering if you could talk about how you made some of those decisions. Is that property going to be for you to live in or is that another investment property?

Anthony Carrino: The Stonehouse is very much our mountain retreat. I've been coming to the Catskills for over a decade. It's my happy place. We go hiking, we have a dog who loves to run and chase every animal that pops its head out of the field next door to us. Yes, it's very much for peace of mind on the weekends up here. As far as design decisions, I've been in this business for a little over 20 years now and through that time, you use a lot of product. You use stuff that you really love, you use stuff you wish you never found. Both the firehouse, which was season one of the build and now the Stonehouse these are tried-and-true products that I know and love that are both high-quality in terms of their craftsmanship and how long they are going to last me and cost of ownership, as well as their aesthetic value, how beautiful they are in the home, how much they speak to me and my fiance, how we use our home, how we cook, how we interact, how we entertain. When I select Kohler as my fixtures or I choose Miller for appliances, this comes with 20 years of, when it's my turn to do my home, this is what I'm putting there, when it's my turn to do my home, this is what I'm putting over there. One of the best parts about that for me, just to pivot back to welcome again, is that I get to do the same thing with these guys. Now, I have 20 years of experience like I just said with all these products and instead of someone having to go out and hire a designer and figure all this stuff out for themselves, I am specking a lot of the stuff that are my tried and true, the things that I would put in my home, that I have put in my home so that people can have real peace of mind that they're buying a quality home when they work with us. It's really interesting how I think, I've just been looking back and reflecting a lot lately because obviously going to welcome homes is a new chapter for me and having my own construction development firm with my father to tripping into HGTV in the Ellen show, starting to Build TV and now coming here, how each chapter builds on the one before and how you never really realize that until you're in the next thing. You are always just thinking about like what is next? What am I going to do? How am I going to make things work? Then you trip into a company that's doing great things like this and your skill set is perfectly suited and you can really put it to use for a lot of people's benefits so I'm really excited about that.

Deidre Woollard: I love that. I feel like that's very true for a lot of people and also for a lot of investors. Real estate investors tend to go from one project to another and you never know how the lessons you learn on when are going to impact the next one.

Anthony Carrino: Hundred percent. Oh my God, I remember 2008. I cut the ribbon on my largest project ever, 37,000 square feet, 22 condominium units, 14 parking spaces and a commercial unit the day Lehman went under. We had $7 million loan out with the bank and 22 condos we had to sell. This whole gray side of the beard is dedicated for that two years [LAUGHTER]. But you look back and you're like, oh my god, every time a lesson comes back from that time, I know it immediately. I know what's going on here. I'm taking a right, I'm not going left. It's amazing how those things keep coming back around, keep coming back around.

Deidre Woollard: Awesome. As we wrap up, what advice would you give to real estate investors maybe who are starting out on their first flip or their first buy-and-hold rental property?

Anthony Carrino: Flip is a dirty words to me. There's a connotation that things are not done to a level of quality. Being fast does not mean that you're not doing things with quality. It just means that you're organized and you've got your ducks in a row. That's more semantics than anything else. As far as advice, when you work with a private client, design is very personal and you're really focused on that client. You're trying to speak to a broader audience so if you're not in a situation like welcome homes where people can choose their level of finish on the website and you've got to produce something that you want someone to move into, I would say with very neutral tones, you want to be in your whites and grays. As much as it pains me to tell people to use less color and take less chances and be less bold, that's really what you want to do when you're speaking to that many people especially from a rental standpoint. You don't know what people want when they're going to move in and if they don't have the ability to choose it, you've got to go with what most people like.

Deidre Woollard: Good advice. Well, thank you so much for your time today. Just a reminder to anyone watching, you can catch season two of The Build on YouTube and checkout the welcome homes online home builder at welcomehomes.com.

Anthony Carrino: Thanks so much for all your time. Appreciate it.

Deidre Woollard: Thank you. [MUSIC]

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