I found this book while looking for books related to old house repair and renovation fueled by a memory of a fascinating book I read as a child where a bunch of kids explored an old abandoned mansion. There is something very romantic about the idea of exploring an old abandoned place and, thus, this book sounded very interesting. Another reason this book genre resonated with me is because we own a house and know the pains and joys of everything that comes with that, including repairing when something breaks down.
All of us who met today are homeowners and/or know other homeowners who’ve had the “pleasure” of gutting areas of our house that needed repair or renovation. Some of the more interesting stories that came up were about people who flipped houses as a living while attending uni, people who’ve gutted an entire room from scratch and redone it spectacularly, and people’s learning experiences with DIY house projects that were far more difficult than anticipated. The latter we’ve all experienced at some point. Wide eyed and bushy tailed, we gleefully tackle a project with perfectionism in mind and tons of energy; by the time the project is done we’re hot, tired, and don’t even care that the trim is so crooked a ruler would slide off it -“good enough for me”!
SPOILERS AHEAD: So the idea of knowingly going in to a buy a house that’s so run down that it’s condemned by the city is mind-boggling! But that’s exactly what this guy proceeds to do. I still think $65,000 is way too much for a house in such a terrible state of disrepair, especially in Akron, Ohio. However, it was an extremely large house akin to a mansion, so perhaps it wasn’t as bad a deal as I thought. The fact that the previous owners were trying to hold out for more seemed absolutely ridiculous. And the idea that the previous owners only accepted because the house was condemned by the city, and then failed to inform the potential buyers, is a horrifying thought, especially for homeowners like ourselves! The whole process of buying that property seemed rather weird for us. Firstly, if the property was condemned by the city, why was this not found by the realtor? We did discuss the possibility that the condemnation notice was so recently sent to the owners that it had not yet been filed with the city. We also discussed that failing to inform the buyer probably breached city, state, and federal laws, and the previous owners would have very likely been sued. Secondly, even after having a strong binding contract put in place by the previous owners for the sole reason of trying to hide that the property was condemned, they tried to aggressively wiggle out of it in order to sell to a higher bidder. But I guess that’s why having the contract was actually a godsend for the author and his family, and I use the term liberally since I would never have bought such a run down house but since it was his absolute desire, the word seemed appropriate.
The author is a journalist by trade, and it shows in the way he weaves the story of his growing family with the process of buying and rebuilding his falling down house into a beautiful and engaging story. He peppers in just enough humor and personal experiences to dilute any technical details about remodeling that might bore the reader, without losing focus. His retelling of how he first met his neighbor while on the roof, exchanging pleasant conversation while his leg fell through and assuring the neighbor he was okay, was laugh-out-loud hilarious. His story of how a racoon used to run across his roof at exactly 5.28 pm (or something similar) everyday and sounded just like a human sounded absolutely ridiculous but had me laughing hard. His clashes with his wife, who was obviously a very understanding woman given that she was okay with sleeping in a bedroom with holes in its ceiling, make him seem remarkably human, as are his honest dialogs about his fears and doubts about being a father. However, we also discussed how he acknowledges that he sees his father’s workaholic ways in him but does not actually do anything about it. We also discussed how he was willing to acknowledge that he needed time away from his family and the home renovation project provided the perfect excuse for him to do it without feeling guilty. I sometimes wondered if the project was a coping mechanism (albeit not as healthy as it should have been) for dealing with the pain that affected his family due to the miscarriages.
Being women ourselves, we appreciated the short chapters that were written by the author’s wife, that gave us some perspective on what life must have been like for her, from the moving into a house that needed some serious renovation, dealing with trying to make at least one area in the house safe for her daycare work, and most importantly, trying to battle through the sadness and pain of her miscarriages while her husband was coping in ways that didn’t include her. We all agreed that we could have used several more of those chapters – however, it is his book, so I can understand why her perspective was more sparse.
We also discussed how we approached the book and what presumptions we had going into it. Most of us said we dived in with no real presumptions, but one person said they went into it thinking it was a book of fiction, thinking it was a major coincidence that a friend of hers had lived in Akron, Ohio near a falling-down mansion inhabited by a famous author. I think it clicked while she was reading the book. But it is interesting approaching books with different perspectives – how would you approach a fiction book if you thought it was a non-fiction one and vice versa? I can give some perspective on the former. I initially thought Kite Runner was a true story. But the odd coincidences and 2-D stereotypical characterizations made me seriously incredulous, wondering if the author had greatly exaggerated. It was only a little later that I found out it was fiction and everything made more sense. As for this book, when I first read it I half expected it to be kind of boring and was surprised at the quality of the writing. I was also disappointed that he wasn’t renovating a castle-like mansion, but a far more modern one, but I got over that disappointment pretty quickly as I got sucked into the book.
There were a few disappointments we talked about. One was the lack of before and after pictures in the book itself, although we appreciated the blueprint layout of the house (I did wonder if having that was wise as it provides the perfect map for a burglar). Then again, he used to give tours to random people who walked in off the street. Fortunately, the author did put up a few pics on his website: http://www.davidgiffels.com/gallery.html. I’ve compiled them here for easy viewing:
As stated previously, the dearth of chapters from his wife’s perspective was disappointing. But even more disappointing was that by the end of the book he hadn’t finished restoring the house. Understandable, but still disappointing. According to more recent interviews he’s been at it for 12 years!
Before I finish this post, I’d like to put in a plug for the lovely location we had our book club meeting at last night: Mead’s Corner. It’s got a lovely college student hangout ambiance, it’s non-profit and some proceeds go to charities, they have a lovely and detailed website with helpful parking and contact details, their gelato is delicious, and they reserve tables for free! Plus, they occasionally have live bands play on weekends. As someone I know likes to say “It’s a thinking man’s pub” – no alcohol though, sorry.
I’ll end this post with a link to a couple of interesting articles, including a wonderful video that shows some of the rooms in his house beautifully restored:
A New York Times Interview with David Giffels: Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Solvent
Author Pens Home Restoration on the CBS Early Show:
Wallstreet Journal interview with author: Use a Machete and Shower Less: Five ‘Manly’ Ways to Go Green
Blog Post by Dinusha Warusavitharana