Hudson Valley Revival: Inside HGTV’s “Small Town Potential”

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The home that Davina Thomasula is about to renovate has sadly seen better days, but she can already see that its best days may be yet to come. Thomasula looks past the yellowed paint, the hopelessly outdated kitchen, and sagging back porch to see all of the home’s potential.

It’s projects like this that make her day—and have led her to share her renovation transformations on the HGTV show, “Small Town Potential,” cohosted by her life partner, contractor Kristin Leitheuser. (New episodes air weekly on HGTV and the show is also available to stream on Max).

“The days are full, and I feel really lucky that I get to wake up every day and do what I love,” says Thomasula. “I never dreamed in a million years that I would be able to do that every day and make a living out of it.” The real estate agent and designer not only loves what she does, but she’s also quite fond of the region where she and Leitheuser live. Thomasula is also a co-owner of Goodnight Kenny, a cocktail bar in Poughkeepsie, and a partner in Sorry Charlie, a bar opening this summer in Kingston.

Davina Thomasula, a real estate agent and designer, with Donald Leitheuser of Washington Hollow Renovations, in an episode of “Small Town Potential” on HGTV.

“Small Town Potential” focuses on homes in the Hudson Valley. The show, which launched last June, follows Thomasula, an agent with Sotheby’s Four Seasons, as she takes prospective clients to local listings and provides advice on which simple renovations can transform a so-so house into a dream home. That’s when the fun starts.

Leitheuser, who works with her father at Washington Hollow Renovations, is responsible for the demo, alterations, and crafting beautiful built-ins, while post-renovation Thomasula stages the home to showcase its full potential. As well as helping buyers find the right place to live, the duo also renovates and stages homes for local sellers to help them get top dollar.

Local Character

For fans of home renovation shows, there’s a lot to like about the upbeat duo, their attention to detail and their delight at the new homeowners’ oohs and aahs. For those who live in the Hudson Valley, it’s also fun to see the obvious delight the show’s stars take in their (and our) surroundings. “We fell in love with this area,” says Thomasula, who lived in Poughkeepsie before moving to Kingston about four years ago. “The Hudson Valley is a huge character on the show because it is such a beautiful, peaceful place to live.”

The series allows Thomasula and Leitheuser the chance to serve as unofficial ambassadors for the region. In every episode they visit local businesses, highlighting each location’s finer features and favorite haunts. They might stop for pancakes at the Phoenicia Diner, score antiques at a Hyde Park consignment shop, or take homebuyers art shopping at Kingston’s Greenkill Gallery. The locations they visit in each episode are based on the prospective homeowner’s interest.

“When you’re working with people, it is not just about the house, it’s the lifestyle,” says Thomasula. “People want to be in a certain area because certain things are appealing to them. You want to show the personality of each area and highlight which things might be of interest to them. So it’s really about whoever I’m working with. If they love art, here’s some great places to find art.”

Thomasula sold real estate in New York City before buying a small Poughkeepsie saltbox in 2018. “From there I kind of just got the bug and fell in love with real estate and started working with clients up here,” she says. “A lot of my clients came up from the city and then I was working with a lot of local people here. I just started selling houses.”

While rehabbing the Poughkeepsie house she posted some renovation footage on Instagram and that led to the eight-episode MAX show. “When we were renovating our house in Poughkeepsie, I started capturing it and sharing a little bit on Instagram,” says Thomasula. “One of my friends on Instagram reached out, and they were a producer and they happened to be in the Hudson Valley filming a cooking show. And they asked if we could just go on camera for a few minutes. And from there it took about five years to get to TV. It’s been quite a long process.”

Davina Thomasula and Kristin Leitheuser

The series allows Thomasula and Leitheuser the chance to serve as unofficial ambassadors for the Hudson Valley. In every episode they visit local businesses, highlighting each location’s finer features and favorite haunts.

Part of the delay was the pandemic. The pilot for the eight-episode show was filmed a few years ago. “That pilot ended up in the season,” she says. “Then the other episodes we ended up filming within a five-month period.” It was a dizzying five months in which the duo filmed seven episodes while continuing to show, sell, renovate, and stage homes. Not to mention the learning curve of being on camera.

“In the beginning, it’s very uncomfortable because we’d never done anything like that before,” Thomasula says. “But once you get to the second month of filming, you start forgetting that they’re there. You get used to it and you’re more natural and you can kind of ignore them in a way. But I remember going home at night and sometimes I would freak out, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, is my microphone still on?’”

Thomasula describes the filming experience as adult summer camp. “We made a lot of really great friends,” she says. “The experience was life-changing. It pushed us beyond our limits and anything that we thought we’d ever do, and we got to share it with people. While filming you get really close really quickly with people because you’re in such an intimate setting for months working together for long hours. So I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I made friends I’ll have for a lifetime, I think it was great.”

Don’t Fall in Love with a Dream House

Thomasula also buys homes to fix up and sell. It’s tempting to buy every good prospect in the listings, but it’s not practical, so she’s proceeding slowly. The new Kingston home is only her second rehab purchase. Walking inside, she’s not too concerned about the features that need TLC—the leaking roof, the too-steep stairs, the awkward spaces. Those things can be fixed. She looks past the crumbling porch to see a backyard so wooded it seems like a serene slice of forest. French doors and a new deck will make the most of that. “The backyard is stunning,” she says. “That was the one thing I loved the most about the house.”

As an architect draws up plans, Thomasula assembles the crew that will transform the two-bedroom, one-bath house into a three-bedroom, two-bath house. It’s easy to become emotionally invested in houses after putting so much effort into them, and the goodbyes are sometimes difficult.

“You put all this hard work and sweat into a space,” Thomasula says. “Finally, when somebody can enjoy it, it is such a really good feeling. I want it to go to a family or somebody who loves it as much as I do. I try not to fall in love with the house during the process, but it’s impossible. I fall in love every time.”

Watching the transformations that result from her brand of TLC makes for satisfying home renovation television—especially when the new homebuyers could be your next neighbors. 

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