By Holly Crocco
Full disclosure: I have known Michelle Leo since August 2001, when we both found ourselves moving into Hulbert Hall at SUNY Oneonta for our freshman year of college. We were also both mass communication majors and ended up have multiple classes together.
Fast-forward 21 years later and you can understand why, when I got a text from her saying, “Hey, HGTV is gonna help me find and renovate a house to my liking and I need a side-kick for filming, will you be my wingman?” my response was a resounding, “Heck, yeah!”
Michelle was born and bred in Pawling, and after spending a few years experiencing the hustle-bustle in lower Westchester, she knew it was time come back up to the Hudson Valley.
An HGTV junkie, she learned that the network was holding a “casting” to find people looking to buy homes in the Hudson Valley for a new show that was in its infancy.
“I submitted an application and the producer called me the next morning to discuss,” she said. “It felt like renovation fate!”
“Small Town Potential” is the brainchild of real estate agent and designer Davina Thomasula and her partner and contractor Kristin Leitheuser, who live in Kingston. The eight-episode season follows several families and individuals as they find the perfect house to renovate and call home – all in the Hudson Valley.
According to HGTV, “In each episode, Davina will devise a timeless design plan complemented by the area’s natural surroundings that Kristin will bring to life with the help of her dad and building partner, Don.”
The show features homes from Pawling, to Marlboro, to Kingston – and other communities throughout the region.
As for Michelle, after living in a one-bedroom condo for almost 10 years, she knew she wanted three bedrooms and an airy, open space.
“I planned to turn one of the bedrooms into an office for my remote work days,” she said. “I love to cook and have friends and family over, so a big, open kitchen was a must. I was also looking for a house with some unique character that I could make my own. I’m not afraid of projects, but I was prepared to leave the big projects to the pros.”
Michelle also likes to hike and kayak, bike along the rail trail, frequent local farmers’ markets and antique/flea markets, and is a puppy-raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which has a canine development center in Patterson. This means a decent yard and accessibility to local recreational opportunities was also important in selecting a house.
Davina took Michelle and I to look at three houses – in Pawling, Poughkeepsie and Highland – all with great potential.
“House hunting was difficult,” said Michelle. “It was a very challenging market with so much more to compromise on post-COVID – cost, location, repairs needed, etc. The hardest part about remodeling was finding someone I trusted to understand my needs and do a great job.”
It was definitely an experience of a lifetime as Michelle and I found out what it was like to be on set and filming with a major television network while we house hunted. It took place during the dog days of summer 2022, and we couldn’t run the air conditioning in the car as we patrolled the neighborhoods because it provided too much background noise that was picked up on our mics. And the homes obviously didn’t have air conditioning since they were unoccupied.
I, for one, was sweating from my eyebrows. Michelle and Davina may deny it, but I’m sure they were, too.
“Filming was equal parts awkward and fun,” said Michelle. “Having three cameras follow your every move can definitely be uncomfortable, until it becomes routine and you don’t even notice them anymore. The funniest part was all the behind-the-scenes antics… Like how in every shot there are nearly 10 people in the room that you never see. At one point, the producer yelled, ‘Cut!’ and the sound guy came crawling out of a pantry closet he was hiding in so he wasn’t seen on camera.”
After considering her “check list” for a new home, as well as budget, commute and – of course – space for her dogs to run, Michelle made her selection and it was time to hand her trust over to Davina, Kristin, Don and the rest of the contracting crew to use their vision and talent to turn the house into her dream home.
Michelle was not allowed to see it until the big reveal.
The crew even covered up the windows from the inside in case we attempted to do a drive-by in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse. Not that the thought ever crossed our minds…
Michelle stayed with her parents, who still live in the house she grew up in, throughout the home-buying and renovating process.
Growing up in Pawling, Michelle said she “under-appreciated small town living as a kid,” and as an adult, found herself exploring the area with fresh eyes and perspective.
“I love watching new businesses pop up and establish themselves in the neighborhood,” said the 2001 Pawling High School graduate. “Plus, the accessibility to all major highways and airports that can get you anywhere you want to go is fantastic. And most of my family lives within a one-hour radius, which is so convenient.”
“Small Town Potential” debuts this month and will air Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV. To keep up with the show, follow @HGTV and #SmallTownPotential on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok; and follow @davinathomasula and @kristin2_1 on Instagram.