When you see “Bargain Mansions” host Tamara Day on television swinging sledgehammers, grinding metal, and installing sheetrock, it’s not just her construction and design skills on display.
It’s also a reflection of a do-it-yourself mindset that was instilled in Day as a child growing up on a small town family farm. Hiring outside professionals for home projects wasn’t an option, which meant Day, her parents, and her siblings would roll up their sleeves together.
“I grew up with the mentality of ‘You fix it and you figure it out,’” Day said, recalling her youth in Salina, Kansas. “As I’ve grown up, I’ve never been afraid of projects and I’ve always been willing to just get it done because that was what you did.”
As a young child, Day remembers an ongoing series of big home projects. She and her siblings were always helping hands in the family’s renovation and construction work. Even punishments incorporated some DIY training.
“I remember I got sent to time-out for something, and while I was sitting on the staircase, I had to put wood putty in all the nail holes,” Day laughed. “I think that farm mentality has been a huge benefit to me in my career because I’ve seen things break, I’ve broken things, and then I’ve just figured out how to fix them.”
The confidence to break, fix, and build things is now a core part of the mission with her HGTV show, “Bargain Mansions.” Now finished with filming its second season, the show follows Day as she uncovers neglected, large houses in the Kansas City metro area and transforms them into glamorous homes.
Now a proud mother of four, Day’s journey to national television and DIY fame, however, wasn’t a straight line.
A winding path to Day’s dreams
While she may have cultivated a gritty, do-it-yourself mindset on the farm, Day didn’t consider a career in construction and design until after college, she said. Without a clear career path for herself, Day earned a communications degree from Kansas State University and took up creatively unfulfilling sales jobs.
“I didn’t realize those were opportunities for me growing up on a farm,” she said. “I didn’t know a designer. I didn’t know somebody who does construction. I didn’t know those were an option.”
It wasn’t until Day and her husband Bill purchased a fixer upper home for the family just before the 2008 financial crisis. As with many homeowners, the Days were hit hard by the economic downturn and the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“We had purchased our house before everything crashed — it was a foreclosure and in really rough shape,” Day said. “We were mid-construction when the world came crashing down.”
But rather than wallow in defeat, Day tapped into her self-determination to transform her family’s situation.
“I just took on the project myself,” she said. “I knew how to do a lot of things, so I just hired subcontractors to do each category that needed done and said, ‘Don’t bring a second hand. I’ll be the second hand. I’ll carry your bag. I’ll do whatever you need.’ So, I worked day and night to finish our house.”
After finishing construction, however, Day faced another challenge: affordably furnishing the completed home. Again, Day employed a frugal, do-it-yourself approach.
With a finished but unfurnished home and a handful of young kiddos, Day began scouring Kansas City area garage and estate sales to find furniture. After lugging the pieces home, Day would refinish them to fit the home’s style.
Over time, friends, neighbors and colleagues began seeing Day’s talent for creating beautiful pieces of furniture.
“People started wanting to buy the vintage stuff I was doing and so I started doing open houses in my house twice a year where everything on the entire first floor was for sale,” Day said. “We’d just promote it through flyers at preschools, coffee shops, the grocery store, word of mouth, and social media. … We’d have about a thousand people come through in a weekend and [they] would clear out the house.”
After a few years of custom furniture and interior design consulting, Day eventually was discovered by Kansas City-based production company Conveyor Media. Recognizing her skills to transform spaces, the company was excited by the prospect of sharing Day’s talents with a national audience.
Day, however, still recalls her skepticism before the first meeting with the show’s producers.
“I felt the odds of this not being a scam is low,” she said. “I was just anticipating it being a waste of my time and I didn’t really put much into the first meeting because there’s nothing else like this in Kansas City.”
Five years later, Day now has filmed 28 episodes of “Bargain Mansions” that reach a national audience through HGTV’s DIY Network. Covering anything from home improvement to landscaping, the DIY Network is in more than 53 million homes across the United States.
“My youngest son told me that I have the coolest job of anyone he actually knows, except for (former Kansas City Royals first baseman) Eric Hosmer,” Day said. “It constantly surprises me when somebody says I’m inspiring them and that they are being impacted by what I’m doing. It’s been a huge blessing in my life, in my children’s lives, and my husband’s as well because they get to see that there’s really no limit to your dreams.”
Crafting her own style
In addition to a can-do attitude and solid work-ethic, life in rural Kansas helped cultivate Day’s design style.
“My appreciation for design comes from the lack of design in my own home growing up,” she said. “I remember babysitting for families, and I’d go in and say, ‘Someday I’m going to have a house like this.’”
While her parents were keen to fix or build most anything on the farm, aesthetics were often an afterthought, Day said. That lack of design has shaped not only her style but also a penchant for thriftiness.
“My parents were spending their money on sheetrock and two-by-fours — they didn’t have highly designed spaces,” she said. “There was hand-me-down furniture and that sort of aesthetic in our homes. They were always very cozy and homey when I was little, but that made me really appreciate beautiful spaces.”
Thanks to such experiences, Day’s style has evolved to become what she calls “laidback luxury.”
“It’s affordable, attainable but aspirational,” she said of her style. “We all have something special that we love and want to incorporate into our design. Maybe there’s an item that you just really aspire to have be a part of your home, but just because you put that one fancy item in your home doesn’t mean that everything else has to be at that same level. Having a mixture of things that are attainable is important and makes it something that a family can live in.”
A mission beyond design
An unexpected joy from her television show is the positive impact it’s having on young women, Day said. Too often, girls are pigeonholed into societally imposed interests and careers, she said. Through “Bargain Mansions,” Day hopes to empower women to work toward their dreams whatever they are.
I get messages from moms and little girls all the time just saying ‘Wow, I want to be like you,’” Day said. “It’s been eye-opening to me what a difference it makes to them.”
Just as she initially steered away from a male-dominated industry of construction, Day hopes to now serve as an example to girls and women that they can thrive in the industry.
“When I grew up, I didn’t know that I could swing a sledgehammer. I didn’t know that girls could be in construction. It just was not on my radar growing up,” she said. “So to hear from little girls that this show is giving them the confidence is really awesome. Having a mindset of anything’s possible and not being afraid of messing up is really important.”
Follow more of Tamara’s renovations on Instagram: @growing_days