Meet HGTV’s “Richmond Rehabbers”
By Joan Tupponce
Breese and Josh Romano are all about creating memories, not only for their family, but also for the families who buy the homes they renovate. And, if all goes well with their HGTV pilot episode of Richmond Rehabbers airing this month, they will be creating those memories in front of a nationwide audience in a continuing series.
“This is like finding a needle in the haystack,” says Josh of the chances the show will get picked up for a full season. “Even if you have a pilot, it doesn’t mean it will get aired. It’s a one in a million shot.”
The couple is trying not to follow in the footsteps of Joanna and Chip Gaines from the popular show, Fixer Upper. They know that ground has already been covered. The Romanos want their own personality and style to shine through. They want to showcase their work and Richmond, their hometown. “I love the history behind a house,” says Josh, who owns Cobblestone Development Group in Richmond. “That’s important to me. And I’m very proud of the City of Richmond. It has a sense of community.”
Even though they may be headed toward fame on HGTV, it’s the couple’s love for each other and the passion they have for their work that is the real story behind their success.
It Started with a Blind Date
Both Breese and Josh grew up in Richmond – Breese in the West End near the University of Richmond and Josh in Chesterfield. She graduated from The Steward School and he from Monacan High School. Both eventually found their way toward real estate.
“I was a single mom with two little ones [Riley is seven and Hazel is four now], and I thought about going into nursing school,” Breese says. “A friend talked me into getting my real estate license, and that’s how Josh and I met.”
Josh founded Cobblestone in 2013 with a credit card. “I had lost my job, and didn’t have any income,” he says. “I started with one house. I was renovating houses to sell them. I always had a passion for doing that type of work. The charm of a home is what gets me excited.”
Breese had heard about this wonderful guy, Josh, but didn’t know who he was. A friend set the two up on a date, and “since then, we haven’t spent a day apart,” Josh says.
Both had been in previous relationships, and knew what they did and didn’t want moving forward. So they decided to lay it all out on that first date. “We were very honest about what we wanted,” Breese says. “Turns out, it was each other.”
Josh wanted to commit early on because of Breese’s two children. “I didn’t believe in coming in and out of kids’ lives,” he says. “So I asked her to marry me very quickly.”
The couple had their first date on August 2, 2015, and got engaged on October 24. They married one month later.
They talked about planning a big wedding, but on a getaway weekend with the kids to Charleston, they decided to forego the wedding and get married right in South Carolina. They pulled together a ceremony, found a dress and a photographer, got their rings, and bought Breese’s bouquet from a local grocery store – all within forty-eight hours.
It was a learning experience for Josh, especially when it came to picking out their wedding rings. “Breese didn’t like the ring I originally got her,” Josh says, shooting a sly grin at his wife. “I had to take it back and get her another one.”
“I told him I liked it, but I didn’t want to get married in a ring we picked out randomly,” Breese says. “I wanted a ring I could wear forever because sentimentally, we bought it to last forever.”
The couple had their ceremony on the beach at Kiawah Island. “It was just us and our two kids,” Breese says, adding that luckily the concierge at one of the hotels was also ordained and could perform the ceremony. “It was wonderful.”
They decided not to tell their parents they were getting married until after the ceremony. “Our mothers were not so thrilled [to have missed the ceremony], but they were happy for us,” Josh says.
Building a Family and a Business
Josh decided if they were going to be partners in life, they should also be partners in their work. “We have big ambitions,” he says, noting that he does the design/build/renovate component and Breese designs the interiors.
Even though she doesn’t have a degree in design, clients confirm she has a gift for it. “Breese has tremendous attention to detail when it comes to the finer points of finishing a home,” says Pam Martin, who bought a 1949 brick-and-slate Cape Cod on West Grace Street the couple had renovated. “She has a fabulous eye for what would look good. She knows the art of the home.”
When she was young, Breese would sift through her grandmother’s copies of House Beautiful and Veranda, ripping out the pages of designs she liked.
Each of the homes the couple renovates is different. To date, they have done about twenty projects together since they got married, and are on track to do thirty-five projects this year. “We are not building the same house over and over,” Breese says. “We are taking old homes around Richmond and bringing them back to life.”
The couple presells many of their homes so they can work through the renovation with their clients who will be living in the house. “We like to come up with new, fresh ideas,” Josh says. “That’s the fun part.”
The first house they renovated together was a single-story Tudor-style home on West Grace Street. “It wasn’t in good shape at all,” Breese says. “It was sad.” The couple finished the basement and turned the attic into a master suite, taking the home from 1,200-square feet to 2,200-square feet.
Their favorite homes to renovate are the American Foursquare homes often found in Northside. This style, popular in the early 1900s, was a mail-order home a family could purchase from a company such as Sears. “All of those in Northside are falling apart now,” Breese says. “They are beautiful homes. Their bones are great. They have tall ceilings, big wide trim, and front porches.”
Josh, who has renovated thirty-five houses in Northside, likes the fact that these homes were built by “guys who were building them for their families,” he says. “The whole community comes together. It’s not like they are just slapped together.”
The couple wants to bring back that sense of community and importance of family to the neighborhoods where they work. “That is a big part of what we do when we get into these homes,” Breese says. “It’s important to us that your home be a place to enjoy and relax.”
Renovating a house should not be a stressor for the buyer, Josh adds. “Life is stressful enough. We always ask people questions about how they live and interact. We spend lots of time working with families with young kids, asking them where they spend their time in the house.”
That information is used to “make the home family-friendly,” Breese says.
Their sense of community extends to their vendors, most of which are local businesses and artists. “We buy from mom-and-pop stores,” Josh says. “We’re not buying from big box stores.”
It was the Richmond community that inspired Josh to start his business. He named his firm for the cobblestones in the city’s streets. “I think of all the people who have walked over the cobblestones,” he says. The couple is still inspired to do as much for the city and its residents as possible. “It’s why we do this,” Breese says. “We couldn’t be more proud of this city.”
Next Came the Big Break
Screaming Flea Productions out of Seattle, Washington, heard about the couple and their projects through the Romanos’ friends, Sara and Matt Paxton. Matt was the longtime host of the show Hoarders, which is also produced by Screaming Flea. “It was a one-year process,” Josh says of getting the okay to shoot the pilot. “We did Skype interviews, and then the production company came for four days to shoot a three-and-a-half minute teaser. HGTV picked it up and said the network wanted us to do a pilot.”
For John Feld, senior vice president of original programming and production, HGTV, DIY Network, and Great American Country, it wasn’t so much that the couple was different from others in their business. “It’s that Josh and Breese complemented the programming that has continued to prove immensely successful for HGTV,” he says.
“Couples passionate about real estate and home renovation strongly resonate with our audience. We expect Josh and Breese to do well with our viewers.”
Feld likes finding talent in every part of the country. “Richmond has always been a great source of potential talent for us,” he says.
HGTV will probably air the pilot two to three times before making a decision regarding series pickup. “We look for solid ratings and audience retention when making that decision,” Feld says.
The couple hopes the show will be an honest reflection of who they are. “We said we are not going to be anything but ourselves,” Breese says. “We want to portray the company very accurately. There won’t be any unnecessary drama.”
Producers Jason Brewer and Robert Rosales have been “amazing,” she adds. “They never once gave us any attitude.”
Josh sees this as a destined path for the couple. “I believe everything happens for a reason,” he says. “I think when you are an entrepreneur and come from where we come from, it’s a testament of endurance. It’s challenging and humbling. We are good people, and we hope to show the world you can do it the right way and be successful. Hopefully others will feel validated or inspired.”
The couple has a great time working together, and that shows in their work and on film. “It’s very much a family environment,” Breese says. “Josh’s father John, whom we call Pops, works with us doing all the permits. He’s in the show, and he is quite the character.”
The couple takes their commitment to clients and their work very seriously, but they don’t always take each other seriously. Even in a serious situation, they can find something humorous. “I’m known for my one-liners,” Josh says, adding, “I loved the experience of shooting the pilot. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. It restored my appreciation for the work. I have more respect for my men and more understanding.”
And the best part of the gig, he says, “I get to spend time with my wife.”
The show, which followed the progression of the renovation from start to finish, began taping in September and wrapped up in early January. “The people purchasing the house were also involved,” Breese says. “It was a young couple in their thirties with a 5-year-old daughter.”
Filming the show required Josh and Breese to work ten to twelve hours a day while still running their own company. Sometimes they had help with the children, but often Breese would have to leave the job site to pick up the kids and get them settled in. “We are all very close. I take Riley to work with me a lot on the weekends,” Josh says. “I take him to meetings. He also loves going to Dave and Busters.”
The kids enjoy trips to the James River, Maymont, and the Science Museum of Virginia. “Those two kids are Josh’s biggest fans,” Breese says. “And I’m their biggest fan,” Josh says.
Because of their work, the couple doesn’t always have a big chunk of time to spend with the kids. They always try to carve out at least thirty minutes of quality time before bed. “Sitting down to dinner is a big deal for us,” Breese says.
The four often pile into the couple’s queen size bed to watch movies together. “We have all the Disney movies,” Breese says.
Josh and Breese complement each other in their work and at home, their client Pam Martin says. “Theirs is a nice love story.”