We all have some relic taking up space in our homes. Maybe it’s a great-aunt’s armoire, or a box of old letters and photographs. Often the stuff sits in an attic or in the back of a closet, waiting for us to figure out what to do with it.
Two home improvement shows — “Home Again with the Fords,” premiering on HGTV on Feb. 2, and “Legacy List with Matt Paxton,” which began its second season on PBS earlier this month — aim to tell us what to do, with two very distinct messages.
Leanne Ford, the interior designer who co-stars in “Home Again” with her brother, Steve Ford, 43, a contractor, has little patience for all these heirlooms. In a show about people renovating old family properties, she gives us license to let them go.
“My theory on the family heirloom is that our moms give it to us because they don’t want it and they don’t know what to do with it and they keep on passing it down,” said Ms. Ford, 39, during a telephone interview with her brother. “You need to give yourself permission to get rid of things that are taking up space.”
But on “Legacy List,” which follows homeowners as they downsize, Matt Paxton, 45, a decluttering expert and a staple on the A&E show “Hoarders,” takes a more hands-off approach. If you don’t know what to do with that box of memorabilia in the attic, leave it there.
“Punt on the stuff you’re struggling with,” Mr. Paxton said. “Someday life will force you to go through that box again, and you’ll do it and that’s when it will be time.” (Reader, take note: The hoarding expert just gave us a pass to keep the clutter.)
While both shows were conceived before the pandemic, they now air at a moment when many Americans are sorting through lifetimes’ of belongings, either because of loss, as the Covid-19 death toll approaches 400,000, or because they’re moving. Nearly nine million people relocated between March and October 2020, according to a report by the National Association of Realtors, and a Neighbors survey predicts that Americans will be even more mobile in 2021.
Even before the pandemic, “we did see this trend of people trying to leave the bigger cities and go home to where they had more roots,” said Scott Feeley, the president of High Noon Entertainment, which produced “Home Again.” “The pandemic has just intensified that movement.”
“Home Again,” which replaces the siblings’ previous HGTV show, “Restored by the Fords,” follows a different Pittsburgh family in each episode as they reclaim the family homestead — their grandparents’ house, their childhood home, the family farm — and renovate it.
Ms. Ford infuses the properties with her signature look — modern, cozy and a little bit rock n’ roll — and updates outmoded spaces for a new era. “There is definitely a cathartic experience of turning a space into your own,” she said.
In one episode, Ms. Ford, with the help of her reluctant brother, handpaints a checkerboard pattern onto the old pine floors of a mudroom, bringing new life to the aging wood. In a nod to the pandemic, she installs a mudroom sink so the homeowners can wash their hands when they enter the house.
Ms. Ford sees the show as emblematic of a larger movement. In uncertain times, Americans are searching for something familiar, and she is no exception. This summer, she moved back to Pittsburgh with her husband and young daughter, buying a house built in 1900 on several acres, about 30 minutes from where she grew up.
“So many of my friends, we were all off to New York and L.A. and doing our thing when we realized, ‘Wait, we don’t really have to do this,’ ” Ms. Ford said. “There is something very beautiful about being home and being content to be there.”
Where “Home Again” focuses on the bones of a house, “Legacy List” considers its contents, rewarding pack rats for saving the family treasure. In each episode, Mr. Paxton helps homeowners locate belongings tucked away in attics or basements so they can preserve them.
“The things that matter are almost never financially valuable items,” said Mr. Paxton, who struggled to clear out his own house last year when he moved to a house in Atlanta that was half the size.
He said he underestimated the emotional toll involved in culling a lifetime of sentimental items, but also realized that he had been wise to hold on to keepsakes from his father, who died about 20 years ago. “Thank God I didn’t throw them away 20 years ago,” he said. “I used to feel guilty that I didn’t throw them away. I can now go through these things and share them with my sons. They’re now old enough to appreciate these things.”
He showed his three sons, all artists, paintings his father had made, hanging two in his new house. He found and kept the comb his father used to brush his bald head. But one item baffled him. In a box labeled in his own handwriting, Mr. Paxton found a whittled stick wrapped in newspaper from 2001, the year his father died. “I guess this meant a lot to me when I packed it,” he said. “There were no notes. I don’t know why I saved it. I have no memories of it. Sometimes you’re going to find a treasure, and sometimes you’re going to find a stick.” He tossed the stick.
For those of us reluctant to let our sentimental stuff go, “Legacy List” gives us a reprieve.
In one episode, Linda Crichlow White, 71, and Eric White, 70, are preparing to sell the Washington D.C., home where they raised their children. Mr. Paxton helps the couple, both librarians, sort through their collection of family photos, letters, diaries, newspaper clippings and documents that tell an intimate story of one Black family in America, but also offer a window into Black American history from as far back as 1898. One photograph included a formerly enslaved ancestor. Another showed the first integrated Coast Guard ship, on which Mr. White’s father served during World War II.
The couple’s collection is an example of historically relevant gems that may lurk in those boxes. Ms. White, president of the D.C. chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, amassed most of her collection when she cleared out a cousin’s house in 2006, and has been organizing it ever since, collecting items from other relatives as well. Over the years, she has enlisted the help of organizers, historians and archivists to find homes for the trove of memorabilia, eventually donating materials to Northeastern University, the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“Be careful what you throw away,” Ms. White said in a telephone interview. “You never know what might be of some value down the road.”