Do-it-yourselfer passes along tips for home restoration

Supporting the notion that people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, home improvement novice Ron Tanner bought an uninhabitable dump of a place in Baltimore in February 2000, restored it from the basement up, then wrote a book about it to inspire DIY-ers everywhere.

Tanner was at Main Street Bagels on Sunday to present a slide show about his experiences and the lessons he and his wife, Jill Eicher, learned by “doing it yourself” with no prior knowledge of what that meant.

His book is titled, “From Animal House To Our House: A Love Story.”

It has been nearly 12 years since Tanner and Eicher ­— they married in 2003 — bought the dilapidated, three-story, 4,500-square-foot home in Baltimore.

I caught up with Tanner to talk to him about what he was thinking when buying a condemned, old fraternity house and what tips he may have for other DIY-ers out there.

Mawdsley: Thanks for your time, Ron. First off, I’m curious. How much did a condemned, 4,500-square-foot home in Baltimore sell for when you got it in 2000?

Tanner: $125,000. Another couple wanted it. It’s a whole chapter of the book. The property had sat for a year, and then two couples got into it at the same time. We’ve put in about $200,000, and now it’s worth between $500,000 and $600,000. We did about 99 percent of the work ourselves.

Mawdsley: I mean, it was uninhabitable and dangerous. Something must have stood out to you when you looked at it. What was it?

Tanner: What (Jill) really loved was the butler’s pantry. It was so unique, and she just said, ‘This is a great house.’ I think what I liked most was the tower. It’s what I always wanted in a house. I also loved the layout of the first floor. It just goes on and on. ... But I said to Jill, ‘This building is too far gone,’ and she totally blindsided me and said, ‘This is it.’

Mawdsley: How did you even start a project of this size?

Tanner: We did the whole house in phases. The first thing was to get rid of the chipping paint and plastering all the walls and ceilings. It took me a year. Then, we started getting into the specific rooms. We didn’t really get a handle on the house until the third or fourth year. The first three years was stabilizing, and the second three years was updating, and the third three years was finishing the work. Now, we are in the fourth three-year phase, where we are finalizing all the details.

Mawdsley: What’s your favorite room in the house?

Tanner: It’s got to be the library. It’s such a cool library, and it has the best view in the house, actually the neighborhood, we think. It’s three stories up. To sit up there and a read a book is just a joy. To stand up there and watch it snow, God is it cool.

Mawdsley: What is the oldest item in the home?

Tanner: A 1799 cherry, highpost bed from Maryland. We got it at an auction. It’s kind of rickety, but it’s really cool.

Mawdsley: What are your top three tips to ‘Do It Yourself-ers’ on home repairs of any magnitude?

Tanner: First, make a plan and talk it out. That’s really important. Second, if you’re doing a whole house renovation, you have to have one room that’s the safe room that’s clean to retreat to. In extension to that, stabilize the places you need most. One of the conditions of Jill moving in was to finish the closets so we could put things away. She was right. I thought it was ridiculous, but once we had the linen closets and clothes closets clean, we had places to put things away. Third, take a break. We learned to take one day a week off. We just went out and looked for stuff we thought we needed. Not shopping, but going to antique stores, flea markets ­— things we liked to do but that contributed to the house.

Mawdsley: When did you decide to write a book about this experience?

Tanner: I never had any intention to write a book about it. My friends told me I should really write a book about it. Fortunately, I had been writing letters to friends about the house, and I keep copies of all the letters I wrote, so that was like a journal. I had a record and timeline of all the stuff we’d done. When I started writing the book, it had been about six or seven years (since buying the home). It was a hard book to write.

Mawdsley: You are out touring the country talking about preservation and your experience restoring an old home. What places in the country are most interested in preservation?

Tanner: Probably the most preservation-minded cities are Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. They have some of the oldest preservation initiatives. They are historic, coastal towns. That said, it’s fair to say every town I’ve been in, the preservationists are really hard-working and are just limited by funding. I’m just having a blast meeting preservationists is every town and seeing what they are up to. It’s heartening and encouraging.


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