Free design tips from a Pittsburgh DIY star for your home

Pittsburgher Ally Mahon flips old Pittsburgh houses on a new DIY network show, and she offers up some design advice for your place.

Courtesy of RIVR Media
Rossilynne Culgan

Pittsburgher Ally Mahon is taking her passion for flipping Pittsburgh homes to a national stage on a new DIY Network show called “Vintage Rehab.”

“I’ve been obsessed with old homes for years. Years and years ago, I always wanted to flip old houses and renovate them,” she said.

So she started working on her own house, her family’s houses and her friends’ houses. Then, she got a real estate license and began working in Lawrenceville — at exactly the right time.

“I totally lucked out. It was before the Pittsburgh flipping scene caught fire, and I started in Lawrenceville,” Mahon said. “I got to ride the wave of exciting new renovations down there.”

Her work caught the attention of WPXI, which aired a story about her work in 2014. That caught the attention of production companies who saw the broadcast and started calling her.

Now, her eight-episode show airs Wednesday evenings on the DIY Network (showtimes here), shining a spotlight on Mahon’s work across Pittsburgh. The show premiered earlier this month with a feature about her work on a 1920s craftsman-style bungalow in Squirrel Hill.

Courtesy of RIVR Media

Mahon hopes Pittsburgh’s “down-to-earth, very relatable” character shines through on the show — and, of course, “how great our old houses are.”

“My goal is to really focus on Pittsburgh shining and looking great,” she said.

Though Mahon would prefer sweatpants, the network sent in a stylist from New York to style her outfits for the show. One outfit, featured in the trailer, is reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter, one of Mahon’s favorite icons (who also has a Pittsburgh history).

Rosie the Riveter vibes.

Rosie the Riveter vibes.

Courtesy of RIVR Media

She’s also a real estate agent at Northwood Realty Services’ Hampton office and lives in nearby Shaler with her husband Buddy and kids Riley, Seamus and Maddy. With her career in real estate, she’s seen her share of houses. So what’s her favorite style?

“I’ll be honest, it’s usually whatever I’m working on at the time,” she said, whether it’s Victorian, art deco, colonial, cape cod, mid-century modern, tudor or farmhouse.

In a Q-and-A with The Incline, Mahon lended her design expertise to Pittsburghers, and whether you’re buying or renting, there’s plenty of wisdom to be found in her advice.

Design advice from a DIY star

Q: Help! I just bought a fixer upper. Where do I start?

A: You want to get an idea of what it it is you’re trying to accomplish. You want to figure out how to get the most function out of the house. That’s really what it is — combining form and function.

Once you have your game plan, you want to reach out to contractors. Ask your contractor a thousand questions. Make sure you work well together. Ultimately when they’re done, you’re living with whatever work has been done in your house.

Q: In old homes, there are often layers upon layers — wood paneling covering original walls, shag carpet covering wood floors, drop ceilings covering woodwork. How do you strip away those layers?

A: We deal with that in almost every project. In one of the shows, my guys were demoing a wall and behind the wall was a stunning, huge, gorgeous pocket door, and we never knew it was there. You don’t want to be too invasive … but I will say, you’d be amazed, especially with woodwork. You have to have a little bit of vision and definitely some elbow grease.

Q: Why are old homes so special?

A: It’s cliche but it’s true. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. These houses had been built by people who had been learning their trades from an early age — carpenters, plasterers, masons. If you can get an old home that has good bones, which almost all of them do, and modernize it to your taste, you get the best of both worlds. Plus, they’re just way more charming.

Q: How do you find the right color for your space?

A: If you know anyone who’s good with colors, ask. Paint is pretty cheap, so don’t be afraid to try a couple out. I have a couple rules of thumb: In bathrooms, always go lighter, unless you’re doing a feature wall. The other thing I would say just keep in mind the overall feel that you want; the color will really reflect whatever mood you want to set.

Q: In Pittsburgh, industrial buildings are being turned into condos and apartments. How do you design a house in what used to be a warehouse?

A: The fun thing with the industrial is it also goes hand in hand with the rustic, which I think is ironic because they’re often polar opposites. A way to warm up a space that has an industrial, factory-like setting is to do a lot of wood elements and definitely some textiles. The more dimension the better, people want to have something to look at. You can have a nice stark clean space and still have dimension.

Q: What’s your No. 1 piece of design advice?

A: Embrace the imperfections. It’s so easy to walk into these old houses and pick out everything negative but some of those negatives are what make it unique. Every scratch in the floor was earned.