This Raleigh-based contractor turned her DIY spirit into a brand and career as a content creator and builder.
by Ilina Ewen photography by Taylor McDonald
At just 8 years old in her home in Virginia, Brittany Bailey helped her dad rewire a socket — something new for both of them. “My dad wasn’t discouraged because he didn’t know how to do it, he just took an electrical class,” she says. “That mentality, that I can learn anything, stuck with me.” Today, Bailey is a Raleigh-based general contractor and DIY influencer who reaches about 500,000 people a month through her website, YouTube and social media as Pretty Handy Girl.
The electrical project was not the first, or biggest, project that she’d helped her parents with. A few years earlier, her parents had embarked upon an ambitious home renovation to make room for their growing family: adding a second story, among other improvements. Neither of her parents were contractors, “but they shared the we’ll-just-figure-it-out spirit and embraced the DIY life,” says Bailey.
Over the course of about two years, her parents did most of the work themselves, all while living in the home with two young daughters (and one on the way). The undertaking was eventful even beyond the typical pitfalls of such a big project. Partway through construction, for example, the second-story addition roof collapsed during a snowstorm, the debris just missing young Bailey.
“I remember saying, Mom, the sky is falling!” says Bailey. She recalls her mother, several months pregnant, standing on a two-story extension ladder spackling and drywalling: “It was a sight to behold.” Her parents encouraged their girls to learn and help alongside them. “I come from a family of people who don’t like to be told what to do, and I was raised to believe I could do anything,” she says.
That spirit stuck with her. Bailey is the sort who considers painting a bedroom the perfect date-night activity: “You’re confined to one room and just talk!” She earned a BFA in illustration and a minor in art therapy from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, then worked as a graphic designer. Bailey settled in Raleigh in 2001 with her husband and ran her own graphic design business. But she was always tinkering, fixing things and building things. Unlike many of the couples they knew, “I was always the handy one, fixing toilets and everything else,” she says. “I’ve never asked for jewelry for gifts. I want power tools.”
This dynamic made her want to empower other women to take on DIY projects. One time, Bailey was building storage for a friend’s mudroom; the friend suggested she start a business teaching workshops to women on how to use power tools and fix things around the house. Excited about this new venture, she told her husband her plans. “He completely squashed my idea — because he thought I could reach more people with a blog,” Bailey says. “I literally started the next day.”
That was 2010, a time when blogging was relatively new, and “mommy blogs” were garnering all the attention, not gritty DIY content. But Bailey found a small but growing community of women who were sharing tips on framing and other construction endeavors.
She shared what she knew on her blog, then on YouTube; now she has more than 2,000 tutorial videos online. Her how-tos range from fixing wood rot to sewing to using reclaimed wood to build a barn door. And she had a full-circle moment with those early DIY memories when, at eight months pregnant with her second son, she squeezed into a tub alongside the plumber to fix a leak — and her water broke.
Today, running Pretty Handy Girl is a full-time job. Bailey empowers her followers, most of them women, to use power tools and do home projects themselves. “I am so passionate about sharing content and teaching people skills,” she says. “I’ve found a lot of people like me who are DIYers and interested in learning to do things.”
One pivotal Pretty Handy Girl project started as a cosmetic kitchen remodel. But peeling back old tile uncovered layers of subfloor water damage and mold. So she pulled on her steel-toed Chelsea work boots, rolled up her sleeves and gutted the kitchen. “We went from having a kitchen to having no kitchen,” says Bailey. She filed for permits and managed the plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople who helped her finish the project. And that project launched the next phase of her DIY identity, as a general contractor.
The City of Raleigh building inspector who signed off on the remodel planted the seed. “He said to me, There aren’t enough women in this business, and you’d make a great GC,” says Bailey. (In North Carolina, only 4% of general contractors are women.) By 2016, she earned her license, and since then, she has taken on full-home renovations. “Being a GC meant I could start investing in real estate and do the work myself,” Bailey says. “I knew what it entailed and I knew I could do it.”
She chronicled one such renovation in an online series called “Saving Etta.” Bailey bought the circa-1900 Allen House on S. Person Street to rehabilitate it and avoid potential demolition. Once again, she hoped to just make minor updates, but surprises sprung up: piecemeal additions to untangle, black mold and a roof that was improperly installed. “It became quickly apparent that this would be beyond cosmetic. The plumber I hired joked that he had matches in the truck,” she laughs. But Bailey was undeterred.
“I called in an architect, Meg McLaurin, who basically said we need to tear off all the additions,” Bailey says. “That gave me permission to just say yes, let’s do it.” Most of Bailey’s subcontractors had never worked with a female general contractor before. “I hired the ones who showed me respect as the GC on the project and didn’t speak to me like I was inferior,” she says. “My subs were my cheerleaders and teachers and wanted to see me succeed. They saw my vision and ran with it.”
In the end, Bailey managed to save most of the home’s original footprint and added on another 1,600 square feet. “I was learning every step of the process,” she says. “Had I known how much work it would be, I wouldn’t have bought the house. I owe so much to my subs for making sure I got to the finish line.”
“Brittany likes to do things the right way — she’s not afraid of something new and will learn either how to do the job correctly herself or sub it out,” says electrician Harvey Washington of JBW Electric, who worked with Bailey on the project. “Brittany doesn’t let being a woman in a male-dominant trade bother her because at the end of the day, her work speaks loud and clear.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.