Houseblogs Unite Fixer-Uppers Worldwide
NEW YORK (AP) _ Agent Jack Bauer of ``24,″ you’ve got nothing on John Ahlen. You wanna talk about a REALLY harrowing day?
``Our weekend was one death-match after another,″ Ahlen wrote his blogosphere friends this week _ a virtual ``Carnival of Pain.″ Of his nemesis, he wrote, ``I had to fight dirty ... I threw sand in its eye, knee-capped it with a pipe, and stabbed it in the face.″
Welcome to the entertaining world of home improvement blogs.
Yes, Ahlen’s nemesis is merely his stubborn old house near Atkins, Ark., a Queen Anne Victorian he’s dubbed ``The Devil Queen″ _ or on tough days, ``the house of pure evil.″ And he’s just one of hundreds of ``housebloggers″ who swap tales of stripping paint, restoring windows, installing fixtures, varnishing, scraping, caulking, sawing, hammering, shaving and drilling.
As with all worlds brought together by the Internet, it doesn’t matter where you are. You can be at your villa in Morocco, commenting on the stain a fellow blogger has chosen for his floor boards in Wisconsin. You can be in your tiny studio in New York City, getting advice from Australia about the backsplash in your kitchen.
And the best thing? ``Nobody thinks you’re crazy,″ says Jeannie Olson, author of the ``House in Progress″ blog and editor of a whole community of blogs. When you buy a run-down house that needs years of renovation, says Olson, ``people you know think you’re completely insane. You lose your social life.″ But in the blogosphere, you have a home.
``This is where you can really vent, find commiseration, find motivation,″ she says. ``And you get such great ideas from people!″
And friendship _ virtual, maybe, but also quite real. When Olson and her husband, Aaron, had their first child eight months ago, they posted a delivery-room video of newborn Grace. It was only natural, since readers were well acquainted with their first ``baby″ _ their house in the Albany Park section of Chicago.
Housebloggers point to Bill Chapman as the pioneer. Chapman made his first online journal entry in 1999 _ ``no one was using the word ‘blog’ yet″ _ the day he and his wife closed on Enon Hall, a Dutch colonial on four acres in Lancaster County, Va. that was deeded to an ancestor of Chapman’s in 1762.
Seven years of renovation later, Chapman’s journal on EnonHall.com gets 800 unique visits a day; his forum has 170 registered users. ``We get e-mails from people saying, ’You’re doing something we’ve always dreamed of doing,‴ Chapman says.
He, too, gets comfort at tough times from his virtual family. When Tropical Storm Ernesto hit Virginia earlier this month, it took its toll on the house. Demoralized, Chapman, 43, didn’t post an entry for a while. Readers expressed concern: ``Hey _ hope you didn’t fall off the scaffold!″ It was enough to lift Chapman’s spirits and get him back online.
You don’t need four acres _ or even a mortgage _ to have a popular houseblog. New Yorker Alex Bandon has about 550 square feet _ pretty typical for a one-bedroom rental in the city. But her blog, ``The Shelter Life,″ has had 20,000 visitors since she began it this summer, she says.
Bandon, 39, says it’s hard to document whether interest in home improvement has increased, or whether it’s just that, as in so many areas, people have found each other on the Web. But it would seem the recent residential real estate boom _ now cooling from its record-setting pace _ has added to the number of people interested in fixing up their homes.
``The fact that you can find people who are doing exactly what you’re doing _ that’s new, and that’s exciting,″ says Bandon, who’s likely to wake up on a summer weekend morning and decide to forgo the beach for a day working on her kitchen. Or look up at the ceiling and suddenly gasp, ``Hey _ what about a chandelier?″
And Bandon _ a writer and senior editor at This Old House magazine, affiliated with the popular and long-running ``This Old House″ home improvement show on PBS (her blog is featured on their site) _ loves the response she gets from other women. Like her, they realize you don’t need to be a guy to handle a power tool.
Bridging the gender gap is also important to Olson, who with her husband founded houseblogs.net three years ago (they also teach learning and development at Northwestern University.) ``Women write, ’You’ve motivated me to pick up a drill,‴ she says.
One can imagine they’d be inspired: This is a thoughtful, eloquent woman who, when you call her, says she’s ``just hauling some storm windows.″ And who, during normal conversation, suddenly utters a line like ``Our joists are too shallow _ we have to sister them.″
There are now 358 blogs on houseblogs.net. Among them: bloggers from Australia, Estonia, France and even Morocco, where an American family is designing and building a guest house in Marrakesh. There’s also a guy renovating a former missile base in upstate New York that he bought on eBay.
``Devil Queen″ author Ahlen, a 30-year-old legislative analyst, checks about a dozen fellow blogs each day. He’s particularly grateful to the people at ``Nightmare on Elm Street,″ who sent him an extra set of Victorian doorknobs, and to Gary at ``This Old Crack House,″ who sent him some wood plugs for his floor. He also enjoys following the stories.
``It’s like reading a novel,″ he says.
A novel, perhaps, with no ending. ``There’s a debate on houseblogs over whether anything is ever ‘finished,’ says Olson. One day, maybe seven years down the road, she says, she and Aaron will look at each other and decide their project is done.
But for now, she says, ``there’s really no end in sight.″