By Donna M. Owens, Special to The Baltimore Sun
February 18, 2011
For some couples, togetherness means a romantic dinner or snuggling on the couch.
For Megan and Jacob Rubinstein, it's meant hammers, nails, tearing down walls … and having a camera crew follow you around for months while you do it.
The Elkton couple, along with their two young children, will star in the new cable TV reality series, "Renovation Rookies," which premieres Saturday on the DIY Network.
Each season, the show will chronicle a family as its members tackle major renovation projects. Think hands-on labor and potential pitfalls along the way, including bossy contractors and over-stretched budgets.
The first season kicks off with a five-episode arc featuring the Rubinsteins, who met at Drexel University in Philadelphia and married in 2004. Three years later, the couple relocated to Maryland.
"The job I found right out of college brought us down here," says Jacob Rubinstein, 31, an engineer who grew up outside Philadelphia. "When we were first looking for houses, we happened upon this part of Elkton and really loved it, but couldn't afford it at the time."
After their son, Connor, now 4, was born, the Rubinsteins began searching for a larger home for their growing family, which now includes 2-year-old daughter Abby.
"We came back to this area and were lucky enough to find a place that had everything we wanted that we could afford," says Jacob Rubinstein.
In 2007, the couple purchased their dream home: a 1950s rancher with three bedrooms, one bath and a large unfinished basement. The 1,600-square-foot house had great potential, but it needed updates.
"We watch the DIY Network. We said, 'We could be on one of those shows,'" recalls Megan Rubinstein, a 32-year-old freelance Web designer and stay-at-home mom who is originally from Connecticut.
"We went onto the [show] website first, then did a paper application and later submitted a home video," says Jacob Rubinstein. "It was pretty much on a whim."
That impromptu decision led to the good news that they'd been selected by producers; lots of back-and-forth about schedules; and ultimately, the opportunity to fix their old house and get their 15 minutes of fame in the process.
For five months, beginning in August, a small camera crew trailed the family for days at a time, as the couple launched back-to-back renovations.
The slew of projects ranged from a new laundry/mudroom and updated kitchen to the addition of a full bath in the basement and improvements to the exterior.
"It was learning as you go," notes Megan Rubinstein, who says she hails from a family of do-it-yourselfers. "We got a couple of books and friends we could go to for advice. Basically, we were doing projects with a little bit of knowledge and learning lessons."
First up on the list was renovating the bug-infested laundry room. There were challenges aplenty, including termite attacks and flooding after a torrential downpour.
For their next endeavor, the couple extended a breezeway and replaced the exterior siding with stucco. Their surprise guests? Rabid bats.
In another episode, frustrated with having just one bathroom, the duo decide to build a brand-new bath in the basement.
But before they did that, they needed to pry off tiles that might have asbestos, fix water damage and install new plumbing. By the time the Rubinsteins were done, friendly reinforcements were called in to help complete the task.
If it sounds tough — well, it was. While the couple weren't strangers to renovating, they were amateurs who'd never attempted anything of this magnitude.
Add to that the pressure of tapings, two little ones underfoot, Jacob's real job plus graduate courses — and it wasn't exactly a walk in the park.
"It was hard on the kids, because they really didn't understand, but fortunately Jacob's parents are nearby," says Megan Rubinstein. "They were so wonderful in terms of watching them when we couldn't."
Her husband agrees that family, friends and understanding colleagues were crucial during the process. "We could not have done this without them," he says.
But even that support wasn't much consolation when the Rubinsteins encountered sudden mishaps — like the time the entire family came down with a case of the stomach flu. And yes, the cameras were rolling.
Still, they forged ahead.
"The first episode, we were really nervous, but the crew was great," says Megan Rubinstein, who acknowledges feeling a tad self-conscious about how she'd look on television. "They made us feel really comfortable."
"We kind of forgot they were even there," Jacob Rubinstein says of the crew, noting that he had no vanity and sported "holey T-shirts" and work pants that were falling apart.
"We're not too bashful," he adds. "Actually, we're kind of opinionated."
Then a pause, and his wife interjects.
"We're controlling," she says, chuckling.
But neither could control what happened when they finally got around to the biggest job — the kitchen.
Imagine five layers of flooring, exploding pipes and a frantic race against the clock to get the base cabinets set before the granite team arrived. And that's just part of the story.
Viewers will have to tune in for the rest.
The Rubinsteins will be watching, too. The couple, who plan to host a viewing party this weekend, have had only a peek at one episode. They've also seen a few preview commercials.
"I really am interested to see how we are portrayed," says Jacob Rubinstein. "What aren't they gonna show? What are things they'll skew for a little drama?"
While they hope for a (mostly) flattering depiction, the Rubinsteins say they didn't do this for fame or fortune. While the couple was compensated for their time, they did have to purchase their own materials and supplies.
Whether we'll see them stealing kisses in the aisles of Home Depot or Lowe's is anyone's guess, but they did enjoy the camaraderie.
"We worked really well together," says Megan Rubinstein. "We learned about our work styles, and what each other's capabilities and desires are."
And someday, when the kids are older, their folks will haul out the DVDs and show them the series.
"I think we made the right decision to do this," says Jacob Rubinstein, who notes that they haven't had the house reappraised since the improvements but believe its value has increased.
"We were definitely pleased with the results," he says. "When we walk into the laundry room, we can say, 'We actually built this.'"
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