Tony DiOrio wanted a rustic home, but his heart sank when his real estate agent drove him up to a log house in 1999.
"It was not really what I was thinking of," DiOrio recalled. "The whole thing was slathered with this obnoxious brown paint."
But something clicked when he stepped inside.
"I knew I was home," he said. "I could see where all my furniture went."
In the years since he bought the home, DiOrio has extensively renovated the property, figuring out how to do a lot of the work himself because he couldn't always afford to hire contractors. Along the way, he started a website, bearfortlodge.com, to share his hard-won lessons with the community of log home owners.
There are an estimated 1.5 million log homes in the nation, including many historic buildings dating to the 19th century, according to Roland Sweet, editor in chief of Log Home Living magazine and author of "Log Home Secrets of Success."
Owners "tend to be individualists, people who want something a little different," Sweet said. The houses are certainly not for everyone, but their owners love the rustic atmosphere, with the overtones of self-reliance and natural living.
In his book, Sweet call logs the only building material "that people romanticize, rhapsodize and fantasize about."
Along with their rustic charm, log homes have some green credibility because they're built from a sustainable, renewable source and because the cellular structure of the wood has insulating properties.
In northern New Jersey, log houses can be found in the northern reaches of Passaic County, especially in the lake communities. Many were built in the 1930s and 1940s as weekend or summer homes for New York City residents. They're priced at roughly $150,000 to $400,000 - in line with other homes of similar size and location, according to the Ringwood real estate agent Orly Steinberg. Larger and lakeside homes, of course, fetch higher prices.
Most started out as two-bedroom, one-bath cabins, though some homeowners have expanded them or turned a sleeping loft into another bedroom, Steinberg said.
DiOrio's is larger - about 2,400 square feet, with four bedrooms, on a hilly, wooded 2-acre lot.
The house apparently started life as a hunting lodge for well-off men from New York City. During Prohibition, it may have been a speakeasy; it later was a bar (there is still a bar in the great room).
"I wouldn't say it was a seedy place, but it began to have a reputation," DiOrio said. Later, it was turned into a private home.
Log homes require no more maintenance than other wood homes, Sweet said. But if you think they're maintenance-free - because, after all, no one maintains trees - think again.
"Logs need protection because they aren't trees any more than leather is a cow," Sweet writes in his book.
The two biggest enemies of log homes are moisture and bugs, especially termites, carpenter ants and carpenter bees. To protect the wood from rain and sun, log homes are often designed with overhanging roofs or porches. And there are coatings that protect the logs from bugs and moisture.
At the log house, his first job was to blast the paint off the exterior with ground-up corncobs. Unlike sand, the corncob powder is soft enough that it wouldn't damage the American Chestnut wood, which was harvested from a species that was wiped out in a blight decades ago. He also created his own mortar recipe to replace the chinking between the logs.
He repaired parts of logs that had rotted out. And he built his own copper bathtub and rigged the plumbing to go with it.
"I never would have been able to do this had I had to pay someone," said DiOrio, who works in the pharmaceutical industry from a home office. "There are some things you're going to have to learn."
Nonetheless, even DiOrio occasionally decides a task is beyond his limits. For example, he's hiring a stonemason to repair the large outdoor fireplace in his yard, rather than risk damaging it.
DiOrio's work has made his log home handsome enough for fashion shoots and even a music video for Colbie Caillat's song "Fallin' for You." (The plot: the singer leaves the log house to drive to the city to see her sweetheart, just as he is leaving his apartment to drive out to the country to see her.)
"It's been a lot of work," DiOrio said. "And there's still a lot of work to do."
To share what he's learned with other log home owners, he started the website in 2006. Although he takes a few ads, it's a labor of love, not a moneymaker.
"I wanted to empower people with information," he said. "If you can picture it, you've just got to go for it. If you don't know how to do it, you will learn. I try to take the complexity out of it."
Even if homeowners decide they can't handle a job themselves, DiOrio hopes his website will give them enough information so they know what to ask a contractor.
"I've met so many amazing people through the website," DiOrio said. "Some of them are working on homes built in the mid-1800s." One of the calls came from the Forbes House Museum near Boston, which has a 1923 reproduction of Lincoln's birthplace on its grounds, and wants DiOrio's ideas on restoring it.
Claire Cesaletti became a friend of DiOrio's after she discovered the website. She and her husband, a lawyer, bought a 1948 log house in Rockaway Township in 2004. The house needed extensive work on the septic and electrical systems before they could move in. They've since expanded it with a large addition - not quite finished - that includes a den, master bedroom and laundry/mud room.
Like DiOrio, Cesaletti and her husband did a lot of the work themselves. They saved money by acquiring windows, doors, a wood stove and even logs on Craigslist.
"I love the house, and I'd do it again," Cesaletti said. "I like the natural look of it and the simplicity of the design."