When Michael Ruhlman and his wife fell in love with a huge Cleveland Heights home built in 1901, "houselust" blinded them to the fact that it would require "all new ...

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“House: A Memoir”


by Michael Ruhlman
Viking, 243 pp., $24.95

When Michael Ruhlman and his wife fell in love with a huge Cleveland Heights home built in 1901, “houselust” blinded them to the fact that it would require “all new plumbing, all new electrical wiring, with virtually every interior surface and exterior surface in need of scraping, sanding, or cleaning, then priming and painting.”

The myriad nightmares of purchasing and remodeling, however, proved to be a story Ruhlman, the author of five successful nonfiction books, couldn’t pass up. He joins company with best-seller writers Peter Mayle in France, Frances Mayes in Italy and many other less-well-known authors worldwide, whose chronicles of turning a fixer-upper into a dream home make for so much universally popular reading.

In “House,” many familiar characters appear: the shady real-estate agent, the difficult owners, the thorough inspector, the pessimistic architect (“I hope you didn’t pay a lot for this house” ), the maddening contractors who won’t return phone calls but submit prompt invoices. Ruhlman, a timely payer of bills, is slow to hit on purposely withholding checks, which eventually triggers contact from the evasive individuals.

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Surprises occur, too: Unexplained noises cause Ruhlman to wonder if the house is haunted, a pile of animal (?) bones falls out of a wall as it’s demolished, a neighbor mentions hearing spooky screams. Ruhlman, suffering second thoughts, tries to hide his rising panic from his wife, a former photographer now turned full-time, frustrated mommy who must also oversee renovations (read: deal with endless delays and mistakes) while Ruhlman is away all day, writing.

Much that can go wrong does. Carpet arrives late. On moving day, it rains. And even when the family’s installed in the attic, warm enough while midwinter work progresses below, Ruhlman longs for running water, to sleep in a bed in a real bedroom, to cook in a kitchen instead of “making jelly sandwiches on a cutting board on the floor.” Tribulations pay off, though. This home will allow Ruhlman, his wife and children to walk to their daily activities. Once it’s finally “a house rather than a project,” the stresses, doubts and arguments it caused can be recognized as yet more bills paid in full, a good — if demanding — investment.