"It's the best thing that ever happened to my career."

Thse are the words of the master of television home-improvement shows, Bob Vila, after the split six years ago with PBS, where he had hosted "This Old House" for 10 years.He is quick to come to the defense of Sears, which sponsors his 6-year-old "Home Again" show and for which he is spokesman for a variety of home-improvement products. "Sears was the white knight in all of this," Vila asserts. "Sears had nothing to do with it," he added, referring to his departure from "This Old House."

"My departure was prompted by flaws in that (PBS) system. I was caught between a rock and a hard place," he said, recalling how he was told to break a contract with a small home center chain after a big supporter (another home improvement firm) threatened to withdraw its support of the PBS station. Vila quit instead of breaking the contract.

Now, with "Bob Vila's Home Again" finishing its sixth season in syndication to 140 stations, a series of five regional travel books - "Bob Vila's Guide to Historic Houses of America" published by Morrow two years ago - and the new A&E "Bob Vila's Guide to Historic Homes of America," Vila is more than ever a household name. He is also a correspondent on the "Today Show."

He says the new show, unlike A&E's "America's Castles," is "more my style, down-home - kind of `Travels With Bob.' There's nothing scholarly about me," he joked.

"I've gotten into the most wonderful houses in America," he says of his new series, which will premiere in February. The six-hour series, in three segments, includes homes in the East and Northeast, the South and the Midwest and West.

The last segment, on the Midwest and West, will feature two Frank Lloyd Wright houses, including Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. The portion on the West will feature California footage from Robinson Jeffers' Tor House in Carmel, the Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey and Filoli in Woodside.

Donald Degn is home editor of the Monterey County Herald in Monterey, Calif.