washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Jonathan Yardley

Fixer-Downer

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page C02

HOUSE

A Memoir

By Michael Ruhlman

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Viking. 243 pp. $24.95

In September 2001, Michael Ruhlman and his wife, Donna, took possession of a 100-year-old house in Cleveland Heights, one of Cleveland's older and more desirable neighborhoods. The house "was huge for us -- roughly thirty-six hundred square feet spread over three floors (not even counting the basement)" and had been on the market for nine months. The explanation was simple: It was the very definition of fixer-upper. The Realtor who took them to it was nothing if not candid:

"Electric's a big problem. It'll cost five thousand just to get it up to code, minimum. Plumbing, I don't know what kind of shape it's in, but you've seen the condition of the house -- it hasn't been well taken care of. Another ten at least for plumbing repair, if you're not doing anything major. . . . You know you want a new kitchen -- you can do it for thirty, if you're frugal and don't get greedy for designer appliances. Bath renovations, figure another twenty. Should probably put in central air if you're planning to use the third floor -- I did our house for ten. Then there's general fixing up, redoing floors and walls, taking care of structural violations. Off the top of my head, just to fix it up, bring it up to code, make it nice but nothing fancy, plan on a hundred grand easy."

Anyone who has bought an old house or even thought about buying one has heard words similar to those or has had similar thoughts racing through his or her head. Having done it myself three times, with varying degrees of renovation (including one total gutting), I know exactly how the Ruhlmans felt as they contemplated the house -- as they peered through the damage to the vision of the perfect house they knew it could become -- and the $325,000 that the elderly owner and her two strange sons were asking for it.

Finally they got it for $245,000, hired a contractor and went to work. They figured on "a total rehab price on the house of $135,000 -- amazingly, just what we could afford!" But the contractor came in at "an initial estimate" of $82,500. It is at this point that the reader's eyes brighten: At last, it seems, we are going to have a book about house renovation or house construction in which the author actually gives hard figures -- unlike, say, Tracy Kidder's book "House," which gives construction costs but declines to divulge the price of the land and the architect's fees, both of which presumably were high. If writers want to write about things that cost money, they ought to tell their readers how much money is involved. Yet when push comes to shove, Ruhlman dodges the issue: "When spring arrived, Carl delivered the final bill. The work was done." Period.

One can only conclude that Ruhlman, who at the time was a "late-thirties, self-employed writer walking a continuous financial tightrope," ended up spending more than he and his wife (a freelance photographer) could afford and doesn't want to disclose the grand total. This may preserve a measure of the author's privacy, but when one considers that Ruhlman later goes into embarrassingly specific detail about how the house nearly wrecked his marriage, that scarcely seems an issue.

Whatever the explanation for Ruhlman's sudden silence on money matters, "House" follows the pattern of the only one of his other five books that I have read, "Wooden Boats" (2001). There is a good deal of interesting information in it and an occasional perceptive insight, but there's also a lot of overly self-conscious prose and what hard-news reporters at a paper where I once worked liked to call "thumb-sucking" -- writing that's more air than substance. Ruhlman doesn't idealize the contractors and workers the way he idealized the boat builders in "Wooden Boats," but here as there he gives rather full rein to his sentimental streak and ultimately serves up just a bit too much of a goopy thing.

Ruhlman loves his native city and returned to Cleveland several years ago after sojourns in other places. His wife accompanied him there rather involuntarily, and her feelings about the city finally erupted after work on the house was just about complete. Though it's worth asking why she didn't make her feelings fully known before the house was purchased and renovated, her grievance -- "You say you'd be happy to die here in Cleveland? Well, I wouldn't be, and I won't" -- will ring true to any spouse who neglected to slam on the brakes before being dragged into a commitment she or he didn't want.

To call that house a big commitment is an understatement. If the Ruhlmans ending up spending, say, around $400,000 on it, people accustomed to Washington houses would envy them for getting away on the cheap -- Washington friends, he says, often tell him how much they envy Cleveland's real-estate prices -- but any way you look at it, that's a lot of money. There was also, in the Ruhlmans' case, the psychological and physical commitment involved in taking the house down to its barest bones -- "gut to studs" is the builders' phrase for it -- during what turned out to be a four-month ordeal, part of which was spent living with their two young children on the completed third floor while the workmen sawed and hammered away below.

Having lived in the basement of the house in which these words are written -- for three weeks and with two dogs -- while the upper floors were sanded and painted and otherwise improved, I can empathize with Ruhlman when he recalls life on the third floor: "Our appliances for the next weeks and months would be a toaster oven, a microwave and an electric frypan. For refrigeration we'd rely on a large cooler. The kids' stuff could be unpacked, but Donna and I would live mainly out of boxes till the master bedroom was done months from now." Living under duress is taxing, to say the least, so it's no great surprise that the marriage came under stress.

From which, you'll be glad to hear, it has by now recovered. Though "House" might have been more interesting had the renovation driven the Ruhlmans to divorce court, one doubts that the book would have been written. Indeed, a question that nags at the back of the mind is whether the house would have been bought if there weren't a book to be written about it. When Ruhlman reports in detail conversations that took place ages ago with the Realtor, with the contractors, with the stonemason, one can't help wondering if he had his tape recorder on all the time, if the down payment on the house came not from the family bank account but from the advance on this book.

None of that really matters, but readers would do well to bear in mind the writer's time-worn motto: It's all grist for the mill. Fair enough. There's some interesting stuff here about house renovation (and some less interesting thumb-sucking about "the continuum of a house" and the like), so whether the cart (the book) came before the horse (the house) doesn't really matter. But when Ruhlman starts in on blow-by-blow accounts of his domestic disagreements, one is reminded that in this day and age we have washers and dryers; it isn't necessary to hang all the laundry out on the line.


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