New Year at Tett House – The Cost of Making Magic

When it comes to living in Tett House, every once in awhile Trevor and I have moments of overwhelm and regret. Not always at the same time, which helps. One person can usually bolster the other one up. Sometimes, we find ourselves saying things like, “Why did we do this?” or (only half-jokingly), “How soon can we put this place back on the market, recoup our costs and our sanity?”

The answer, of course is never. You don’t make the kind of investment in time and money and heart and soul that we have made, just to flip a property. At this point, we’ve kind of made a deal with the gods to stick it out, whether we like it or not.

But, there are also moments when we both feel like we have nothing left to give. (This feeling is backed up by our renovation budget.) Moments when hard work, uncertainty, and the latest repair bill push us to the dark edge of our dream… the one you never look at too closely when you’re at the beginning of your adventure.

Yesterday, December 31, 2018, was one of those moments. I woke up in the morning after a mostly sleepless night of obsessing over all the unfinished Tett House projects hanging over our heads. Trevor had just said, “Good morning,” when I dissolved into tears. “I feel like this house has bested us,” I sobbed. “And I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Trevor said simply,  “I feel the same way.”  He reached out to hold my hand and we just sat there while I cried for, like, 20 minutes. Neither of us had the capacity to comfort the other.

What prompted this despair, you might well ask? Well… I’m sorry to say, but we found a mouse in the pantry the night before. You wouldn’t think a single mouse would be the breaking point, would you? Not when we’ve been catching mice off and on since we moved in. It’s a house in the country, you might be saying to yourself. They should expect to have a few mice. And you’d be right. We did expect it.

It wasn’t just the mouse. Obviously.

When we bought this house, we worked with professionals, and thought we were financially and emotionally prepared for the major work that had to be done. What we expected to undertake was challenging enough, but we were up to it. We had the momentum of excitement and love for the house to propell us through the many projects we had planned. But, try as you might, you can’t be prepared for everything. Because LIFE.

We weren’t prepared for our well to be vandalized, or the creepy knowledge that someone had visited the property with a motive to poison the water source… a motive that had nothing to do with us, and a serious crime that brings a serious charge. I am grateful every day my son never drank or bathed in that water and that none of us are sick because of it. But I will never feel 100% safe again.

We weren’t prepared for the underhandedness of the previous owners, who lied and covered things up and violated their contract with us on so many levels, costing us thousands of dollars.

We weren’t prepared for the incompetence of our lawyer and our bank manager, again to the detriment of our finances.

We weren’t prepared for the multitude of little wrinkles to be ironed out following all the work on the house:  minor plumbing issues, carpentry repairs, defective smoke alarms that went off randomly in the middle of the night for weeks until we could get them replaced.

We weren’t prepared for ticks, not knowing the South Frontenac area is a hot spot for them. Our son was bitten early on and had to undergo a round of heavy-duty antibiotics.

We weren’t prepared for bats in the house: eight in total, three within the first month after we moved in. Always in the middle of the night (of course.) Our cat caught a couple and then had to be put in soft quarantine in case of rabies. Rabies! Pest and animal control have been working on sealing the interior and exterior of our home over the past year, but we still catch mice on a regular basis. We have to hide this from our son, who’s OK with most things, but is distinctly creeped out by mice.

We weren’t prepared for the large, dead trees (x 4) that needed to come down, for insurance purposes, because they were either over-hanging the road, or too close to our house.

We weren’t prepared to excavate our backyard to put in a new drain field, because the old owners chose not to update the septic system properly. We weren’t prepared to discover that the new tank they had installed was initially the wrong size and didn’t have a permit.

We weren’t prepared for the ants and the wasps and the cluster flies. OMG, the cluster flies with their incessant buzzing and that final, frenzied death spin. (Many thanks to Greenshield for getting those under control for us.)

We weren’t prepared to have a mason come to repair our fireplace mantels and tell us the chimney was falling in.

We weren’t prepared for the sheer amount of leaves we have to rake every autumn (25+ bags.)

We weren’t prepared for the cost of propane to heat a house this old in the winter.

We weren’t prepared for vegetation in the pond to choke our water pump and cause our water to turn a gross shade of brown and smell even grosser. Fortunately, this was just a glitch and is now sorted out. But I stressed for weeks about our contractors having to go out on the icy pond to pull the pump apparatus out of the water.

As a decorator, Tett House was going to be my big project, my pièce de résistance. I wasn’t prepared to have to go back to work with it not even close to being finished, and no more budget left to work with. And I wasn’t expecting to get laid off only a few months after being hired at a dream job.

I feel like I’ve just done a lot of complaining. But all of this has happened within the last 18 months ! As you can see, it wasn’t just the mouse in the pantry. It was the fact that I am now scared of the house I initially fell in love with. Each step we started out taking on solid ground has ended in quicksand. So, where the hell do we go from here?

After I stopped crying all over Trevor, he wrung out his shirt, and I made myself a cup of tea, which everyone knows is the answer to everything. I decided to go for a walk and get some fresh air. I needed to remind myself why we were so drawn to this spot; why we left everything and everyone in our old life behind to start fresh in new surroundings.

It was an overcast day, but warm for the end of December. A little damp, a little soggy. This is what I saw.

The view of the old Bedford Mill from my backyard:

Buttermilk Falls, from Devils Lake:

Tett House, from across the Bedford Mills pond:

And the path home, through the forest:

That’s a lot of magic for a crappy, grey, mid-winter day.

When I was a kid, I read a book called The Ship That Flew,  in which a boy finds a magic toy ship in a shop, only he doesn’t realize it’s magic. He just knows there is something special about it, and he tentatively approaches the old man proprietor about buying it. The old man, as it turns out, is Odin, the Norse God of Wisdom, and knowing the ship’s significance, Odin says, “It would cost all the money you have in the world — and a bit over.”

I feel like this is where we are at now, with Tett House. You don’t just get all this magic for free. It costs all that you have… and a bit over.

Happy New Year.

Read previous post here.

(To start our blog at the beginning, go to Part 1.)

 

Tett House – Post-Chaos Clean-Up

As much as we wanted to move in after most of the big repairs had been completed, our new life at Tett House could only begin after a massive clean up had taken place. For the better part of two months, we bounced around between a truly awful AirBnB rental, and both our parents’ homes. We tried to stay upbeat.

Several years of vacancy and neglect are not kind to a home that is 130+ years old, and the necessary but invasive upgrades had left Tett House in pretty rough shape.

The vandalized well problem had pushed our renovation timeline back by nearly eight weeks. We had to move out of our old place long before everything was completed, which meant all of our stuff was in the house while the messiest work was being conducted. Not only was every surface coated in drywall dust, and splatters of insulation and patching compound, but so was every bin, every box, every piece of exposed furniture.

For example… this is what the front hall looked like when we bought the house: a little worn, a little dusty, but what old house can’t use a little polishing?

This is what the front hall looked like after plumbing and electrical upgrades, insulating, drywalling, painting, and about a dozen tradespeople working in and out of the house at any given time… plus random storage of our belongings, because we couldn’t move in on time.

It was a daunting task, but so much of our journey up to this point had been daunting that all we could do was roll up our sleeves and get at it. This was us on Day 1.

Every available space was piled high with boxes and furniture. All had initially been organized neatly according to room, but necessity required our contractors to push them out of the way or relocate them based on wherever they were working at the time.

Living Room:

Dining Room:

Upstairs Hall and Landing:

I think it’s safe to say we were exhausted before we even began. The warm and stately house we’d fallen in love with was unrecognizable in all the chaos.

We worked room by room, reorganizing our belongings and then cleaning the floors, the baseboards, the walls, the fixtures. Anyone who’s done any renovation work knows that drywall dust (the worst!) gets into EVERY nook and cranny… and old houses have A LOT of nooks and crannies. Just when you think you’ve gotten it all, it continues to fall gently but imperceptibly like invisible snow for weeks afterwards, settling back onto your furniture, and leaving behind a fine white powder that turns frustratingly to paste when met with a too-damp cloth.

Every box, had to be wiped down and vacuumed before opening. I wore holes in my cleaning rags, earned bruises and backaches. While some rooms needed to be cleaned, others had to be prepped for paint and primer and THEN cleaned. I scrubbed the floorboards on my hands and knees.

As clean-up gained momentum, so did we.

One of my favourite little projects was the restoration of a chandelier that came with the house. Clearly not an antique, the fixture was loaded with dust and appeared too dirty to have much value. I couldn’t even tell what finish it was. At the time, cleaning it almost seemed more trouble than it was worth.

My mother didn’t agree; she insisted we bring the chandelier to her house, where she helped me rescue and repurpose what ended up being a nice little showpiece.

After removing all the dangles, I was able to clean the candelabra frame and brackets. My mom painstakingly washed each chandel-earring in hot soapy water, followed by a vinegar and water bath, carefully labelling their location and laying them out to dry on tea towels.

I’m so glad she talked me into keeping that chandelier, and putting in the extra elbow grease. It ultimately became one of those special little before-and-after moments that gave us inspiration to keep working toward our vision. And in the beginning, those moments were few and far between.

Another project was sealing and painting the interior of all the beautiful original wood cabinetry in the house. On the outside, the handmade cupboards were warm and lovely, but on the inside were stains and cracks and in some cases, a graveyard for dead bugs. They smelled musty. We wanted the cabinetry to be functional as well as decorative, and Brodie Burt of CL Paintworks did an amazing job for us.

Brodie also weatherproofed our picket fence, which was decent but sort of nondescript before he stained it a crisp country white.

One by one, our contractors packed up their tools and materials, shook our hands, and said good-bye. The biggest and most immediate projects had been addressed and we finally had our white picket fence. Things were beginning to fall into place and we were on the cusp of coming home to Tett House.

(To start our blog at the beginning, go to Part 1.)

Finding Tett House, Part 10 – Renovation Reveal

By the time we moved into Tett House – two months later than expected – a LOT of work had been done on the home. It was a mess; but it was also finally functional according to modern standards, and had been brought up to current safety and building codes.

When you move into an interesting and kind of spooky old house that needs renovating, people express a lot of curiosity. Friends and family want to “see what you’ve done to the place,” and it’s a little like being on one of those homeowner shows on HGTV. Everybody wants to see the big reveal. And I get it, because *I* want to see the big reveal!  But there’s nothing aesthetically satisfying or dramatic about working on stuff like wiring and hot water tanks. There’s no “feel-good” moment after someone pours diesel down your well.

As a visual designer (Hearth & Gable Interiors), Tett House was going to be my pet project. I had big plans, and a big imagination… unfortunately, due to the clean-up and repair of our vandalized well, and then a costly septic issue, we weren’t exactly left with a big budget. I also didn’t anticipate the anxiety hangover I experienced following that stressful time. After all the major repairs and expenses, I’m not ashamed to say I took a good long break and focused on unpacking, one box at a time. It moved forward at a pace you might expect.

I’ve made peace with the fact that my decorating goals are going to take longer than I’d hoped to achieve. Like, it’s a year later, and I’m only just picking paint colours now. But for everyone who’s been curious to see “Before & After” shots… here they are. The un-sexiest (and most realistic) home renovation reveal ever!

RE-WIRING:  Before

Every room in the house had its walls and floors ripped open like this.

I had so many misgivings about a lighting fixture this size.

RE-WIRING:  After.

Check out that smokin’ hot new electrical panel. OK, maybe “smokin’ hot” isn’t the best way to describe updated writing, but you get where I’m going with this.

INSULATION:

Every exterior wall was drilled with holes from the inside and filled with spray foam insulation. Then the holes had to be patched.

Two worlds collide:  when foam insulation leaks out of your new exterior junction box.

We insulated the crawl space, too. I don’t remember how much we paid the contractor to go down there, but I feel like it wasn’t enough.

FURNACE: Before

The old oil furnace had seen better days, although the tank was fairly new.  We removed them both…

     

… and replaced them with a shiny new propane furnace with air conditioning. Those ducts are to die for.

Removing the oil tank created so much more living space!

Thanks to whomever vandalized our well, we also had to get a new hot water tank. Can you tell the difference? Neither can I.  #everygirlsdream

        

FLOOR REPAIR:  Before

OK, this was kind of a cool project. We had an old stovepipe hole that needed to be repaired. Not that looking down into the basement at our new furnace wasn’t an uplifting experience, we just didn’t want our son or our cat unexpectedly falling into a pit.

FLOOR REPAIR:  After

Our carpenter was a magician who found old boards under the stairs and used them to patch the hole.

*Flooring Footnote:  The hardwood throughout the house remains pretty raw. Although the original boards are strong and in good condition, the finish is in rough shape. Most of our floors look like this, or worse. Full disclosure:  sometimes I’m into it, sometimes not.

WATER SYSTEM:  Before

Somehow, we inherited the bad karma of the home’s former owners, and lonely and vulnerable, our water source was a target for the disenchanted.

WATER SYSTEM:  After

This baby is on lock-down…

… and our water now comes from the lake, with an elaborate new filtration system, and I never, ever, ever want to talk about that experience ever again. (You can read about it here.)

           

BACKYARD & SEPTIC DRAIN-FIELD:  Before

Our backyard is very simple – gently sloping grass, lots of trees, and one heck of a view. After moving in, one of the few things we were able to enjoy early on was this pretty little fire pit my husband built from a kit.

We spent quite a few afternoons and evenings enjoying a beverage or five with a beautiful sunset.

This year in early spring, sewage started flooding our backyard. We discovered the previous owners of the house had not adequately updated the septic system (nor gotten a permit for the existing tank) and our yard had to be excavated for a new drain field. These were good times.

Hooray! No more pee water in our backyard.

BACKYARD & SEPTIC DRAIN-FIELD:  After

The yard has been re-graded nicely, but the newly seeded grass came back as mostly clover… Of the four-leaf variety, I’m hoping.

And this is our fire pit. It’s still dismantled and the grass unmown because my husband threw his back out, so back off, haters.

Well, there you have it:  a series of the most uninspiring but absolutely necessary renovations you could ever expect to see. But, I will say this…

Our house is warm and dry in the winter, and cool on the hottest days of summer.

All lighting and appliances run safely on properly grounded outlets and junction boxes, and we have a generator for emergencies.

Our water is clean and safe to drink.

And boon of all boons, our backyard no longer smells like poop.

We’re still working hard to make Tett House our home. I’ve already established some cosy nooks and corners, going from this:

to this:

And this:

to this:

From the moment I saw it, I knew Tett House was my forever home. Every step we take is an adventure, and every new project, a gift.

We are grateful to the following local businesses and contractors for their tireless efforts and support. We truly had the best, kindest, and hardest working people on our team:

McNichols Electrical & Plumbing

Erica Grey (XCG Consulting Environmental Engineers)

Scott Blair & team (Scott Blair Contracting)

WC Gas Works

Levac Propane

Comfort Zone Insulation

Thompson’s Septic & Gravel

(To start our story at the beginning, click here for Part 1.)

Finding Tett House, Part 9 – Trial by Water

Disclaimer:  This is not a fun post. It’s long, probably convoluted, and I’m afraid there aren’t many pictures, but I promise you, our story starts to get better after this.  It’s a hugely important part of the Tett House narrative, and it has to be told, so bear with me.

The day we got the key to Tett House (see Part 8) we discovered our well had been vandalized and contaminated with diesel.

We didn’t know all the details right away, and had to go through many channels before we had all the answers, but it was ultimately confirmed by each professional we consulted. Shortly before we moved in, someone poured a jerry can of diesel down the well.

What a housewarming gift. I would have infinitely preferred brownies baked by a new neighbour. Except we really didn’t have any neighbours. Trevor, Oliver & I were spending our first weekend in our new house in a new community, but we were in trouble and we knew no one. We couldn’t drink the water or brush our teeth with it. We couldn’t bathe in it. We weren’t sure if it was OK to flush the toilets, or even stay in the house. Joey, our new plumber and electrician, was the only person we could think of to call, as he had accompanied us on our last visit to the home two weeks before.

Our first morning at Tett House.

Joey stopped in as a favour on a Saturday night after having ice cream in town with his family. To say we were grateful is a radical understatement. He ran the water in the kitchen and could smell what we all thought was gasoline right away. He said immediately, “This wasn’t like this two weeks ago.”

He used a portable meter to test the water for hydrocarbons, confirmed a positive reading, and expressed his concern that someone had vandalized the well on purpose. He told us we needed to have the water specially tested by a laboratory and then contact the Ministry of the Environment for further instructions. He also advised us to call our lawyer. At the time, we couldn’t tell for sure if someone had poisoned our well or we had unknowingly bought a contaminated property. We soon found that neither scenario was going to be easy or cheap to address.

Trevor and I felt like we were in the middle of a nightmare. It was the May 24 long weekend, and we had to find somewhere to stay, but all the local hotels were booked up. We also had 4 different sets of contractors ready to start work after the holiday, and five major appliances scheduled for delivery over the next two weeks.

Everyone and everything had to be put on hold. Our whole world seemed to grind to a halt, and yet it was also spinning out of control so quickly, it was making us sick.

What do you do when someone vandalizes the well on your newly purchased property? No one could tell us. We discovered that we were in a largely unprecedented situation. Our realtor didn’t know. Our realtor’s boss didn’t know. Our lawyer didn’t know. Our new insurance broker didn’t know. Joey the plumber didn’t know. A well technician I called for advice didn’t know.

Well. We are now in the unenviable position of being able to tell you exactly what to do when someone vandalizes your well. Yay, us!

First, we had to call some of my relatives, who lived an hour away, and ask them to take us in for the weekend. It was midnight by the time we got there, tired and stressed.

We had to take samples of the water to a lab in Ottawa and pay for a special and expensive test that isolates hydrocarbons. It took several days, but came back positive for high levels of diesel.

We contacted the Ministry of the Environment, who advised us to hire an environmental consultant, and told us to report to our local health unit.

We found an amazing consultant who guided us every step of the way. She was incredibly sensitive to our situation, as well as very knowledgable and professional. She told us the first thing we had to do was identify whether the diesel was in the water due to a contaminated aquifer (underground) or whether it was, in fact, an act of vandalism.

We had to hire a company of well technicians to pump the well dry, remove and clean the pump, scrub the well-casing, and properly dispose of the polluted water. After this, the fresh water coming in from underground had to be immediately tested. If it was clean, the contamination wasn’t environmental. But, if it tested positive for diesel as well, then we’d be looking at a bigger problem. Then, a series of test drills would have to be made in all directions (at our expense) until the source of contamination was found, which could run up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and effectively bankrupt us.

It was a terrifying prospect. It took several weeks to get the work initiated and undertaken, which felt like years, as we endured sleepless night after sleepless night, and days of lengthy phone calls and consultations. Trevor stayed back at our house in the GTA, working and taking Oliver to school, while I made the 3.5 hour drive back and forth to Tett House 2 – 3 times a week.


Surface well water sample, featuring yucky, floaty things.

Fortunately, the aquifers were found to be clean and the underground water fresh. The diesel had all been floating at the top of the well, and it was a clear case of vandalism. However, hydrocarbons had gotten into the cracks and fissures of the well casing and continued to leach into the water. At these low levels, the water was no longer an environmental problem, but it still wasn’t safe for human use or consumption. We found ourselves with a well that was still out of commission, but unable to dig a new well, in case of cross-contamination. Our environmental consultant told us it could take as long as five years for the well water to “rehabilitate,” if it ever did.

IF IT EVER DID.

Needless to say, we did not have five years. Our other house was closing in about 10 days, and at this point, none of the renovations we’d scheduled at Tett House had been completed.

So… what do you do when you no longer have a viable water source in your new home? You call Joey at McNichols Electrical & Plumbing again, of course.

Oh, but before that, you call your local OPP and file a criminal report. Poisoning someone’s well is a serious charge, although we had no expectation of ever finding out who did it. We did discover, however, that the previous homeowners had either cheated or pissed off a substantial number of people long before we’d had the (mis)fortune of dealing with them. Someone had obviously decided to get their personal revenge, not realizing an entirely new family was moving into the house. The officer we spoke with called it “Lanark County Justice,” and then apologized for this being our first experience in the community.

But, I digress.

Since Tett House is surrounded by a pond on one side and a lake on the other, Joey set us up with a lake water system and new filtration unit. This could be a temporary or a permanent solution, depending on how clean the well water would be in a few years. Because the house is atop a cliff, it involved running 350 feet of heated line uphill from the pond to the house. Good times.

The next step in this complicated process (feeling overwhelmed yet?) was “shocking” and flushing out all the pipes in the house. This was a huge undertaking and one that carried no guarantee of success. If any diesel remained, the entire plumbing system would need to be replaced. Meanwhile, any water-yielding appliances in the house (hot water tank, etc.) had to be removed because of the contamination.

Now, I know you’re thinking, “Could this story get any more tedious and complicated?”  Well, in fact, it CAN. As with swimming pools, “shocking” the plumbing is a process that normally involves disinfecting with chlorine. But, as it turns out, diesel and chlorine are combustible, so this was not a method that was open to us. Our environmental consultant had to do more research to find a less hazardous, environmentally-friendly, cleaning material.

We were lucky. Shocking the plumbing worked. The new lake water system and its filtration equipment worked. We added a reverse osmosis filter in the kitchen, just for good measure. Our final step was to have the water lab-tested for everything from e.coli to benzene. And diesel, of course, and every flavour of hydrocarbon in between. Everything came back completely safe and “non-detect” for any contamination. We got the results exactly two months from the day we first got the key to the house. The water from our tap was cold and crisp and clear and tasted like a benediction. I wept. I think I had aged 10 years in 8 weeks.

Oh, and there’s one last, very important thing I can tell you about what happens when you buy a new house and find out someone vandalized the well just before you moved in… Legally, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. You’re financially on the hook for everything. And if you’re eligible to make an insurance claim, it’s a very tiny drop in a very large bucket.

This was our introduction to our new life at Tett House.

Click here for Part 10.

(To start our story at the beginning, click here for Part 1.)

Finding Tett House, Part 8 – Closing Day Chaos

A plume of steam rose up from the kitchen sink where I was running hot water. It smelled strongly of gasoline. I rinsed my cleaning rag, wiped the counter, and it left a greasy film. My hands were oily and smelled like I’d been filling up my car at the local Esso.

“Don’t drink the water!” I called out to my husband and son. “Something’s not right.”

It was just after 9:00 pm on the Friday before Victoria Day long weekend last year. We got the key to Tett House that very day, and had been in the house for less than an hour.

Our realtor had been reluctant for us to close on a Friday, in case anything went wrong, but Trevor & I were confident that we had done our due diligence.

We sold our old house quickly at the height of a booming market. We were grateful and relieved. We had a month between closing dates, so that we could do the upgrades and repairs necessary to make Tett House livable. It had been inspected. The well-water had been tested. The septic system had been pumped and assessed. Our plumbing technician had joined us on our final visit to the house, two weeks before we got the key. Electrical, insulation, and HVAC contractors were lined up to start work. Financing was confirmed with the bank and our lawyer was ready to go.

We really should have taken the advice from our realtor about the Friday thing. Everything went wrong that day. I mean: Every. Damn. Thing.

Official Timeline of Closing Day Chaos:

1)  That morning, our bank messed up the paperwork for the transfer of funds. It took the service manager over two hours to correct her mistake. Since we had to drive 4-1/2 hours from the GTA to Smiths Falls and pick up the key before 5:00 pm – and drop off a trailer full of furniture at Tett House – this put us precariously behind.

2)  En route along the 401, our lawyer called. The bank had transferred the wrong amount of money and we were $10,000 short of the purchase price. The banking officer said we had “violated our contract,” but refused to elaborate. We were shocked and embarrassed, but no one had any answers for us. It’s a long story, but in the end our bank confirmed they had made another mistake that apparently no one had the authority to investigate or correct at the time.

It was 3:15 pm when we got to Tett House. We had 1 hour and 45 minutes to come up with $10,000 before the end of that business day.

3)  We hurriedly dropped off our trailer at Tett House. Our realtor met us there and confirmed that the previous owners had not cleared out the 2-storey carriage house, as per the purchase agreement. I just want to remind you what the carriage house looked like inside:

A few weeks before, we’d met with our lawyer about this issue. Having already experienced what the previous owners were like (see Part 5) Trevor and I weren’t confident they were going to honour their legal obligation to empty the space. If it wasn’t cleared out, our lawyer said, we should call him right away, and he would hold back several thousand dollars from the purchase price to cover the cost of having it professionally dealt with.

Our realtor immediately called the lawyer to inform him of the violation of contract.

4)  The lawyer didn’t hold back the money.

While driving to the lawyer’s office, Trevor made arrangements on the phone with another bank to front the missing $10,000, while I endured urgently apologetic calls from our mortgage broker who admitted they fucked up, big time. We picked up a cashier’s cheque at Scotiabank, who totally saved our butts (and where Trevor hugged the banking manager) and then piled back in the car. We got to our lawyer’s office with minutes to spare.

I’ll say it again:  our lawyer didn’t hold back the money.

And we didn’t find this out until later, but he also miscalculated the property taxes, making us responsible for several hundred unpaid dollars left outstanding by the previous owners.

We really, really should have taken the advice from our realtor about the Friday thing.

Following this staggering series of set-backs, we rushed to our insurance broker’s office to submit some final signed documents, but they had already closed. Our realtor, Trevor, Oliver and I sat down on the steps of the insurance office, exhausted and shaky. We hadn’t eaten since about 7:00 am and not one thing had gone the way it was supposed to. I thought of our old life, and the uncertainty of our new one. “God, I hope this is going to be worth it,” I said with a smile, and then burst into tears. People walking by on the sidewalk cast sympathetic glances.  I felt utterly demoralized. But at least, we had the key. Tett House was finally ours. The worst was over, we thought.

We had dinner, and then went back to the house where we intended to spend the weekend. It was almost 8:30. We unpacked the trailer and assembled some basic articles of furniture we brought with us:  our bed, a table, some chairs. I decided to wipe down the kitchen cupboards and put away the few dishes we’d brought.

I ran the hot water. It was laced with oil and smelled like gasoline. Our bad day wasn’t over; it had just begun.

Click here for Part 9.

(To start our story at the beginning, click here for Part 1)

Finding Tett House, Part 7 – Fallout

Once we sold our house, and the conditions of the Tett House purchase started to fall into place, our world stopped spinning for a short time.

It had truly been a whirlwind experience up until that point. Throughout the real estate process, the negotiations, the purge, the reno’s, we had been breathless and excited, and slightly intoxicated by our own daring. Isn’t this what people dream of doing – buying a big old house in the country, leaving the city and all of that traffic and corporate bullshit behind?  Carpe Diem, am I right?

Yes!

But.

(You knew there had to be a but.)

There’s a reason that it stays just a dream for so many… because turning it into a reality is really scary and here’s what all those TED Talks don’t tell you:  the Fallout is real.

The Fallout comes in many forms. It creeps in as second-guessing and self-doubt. It shows up as regret, establishing itself in your newly staged home, which you suddenly love more than ever because it looks so good, but now fruitlessly realize belongs to someone else.

Fallout makes you wonder if you can truly handle a rural property on the edge of a forested cliff, because the only wilderness you’ve known in the suburbs is an unmown lawn with too many dandelions.

Fallout reminds you that you’re leaving behind the close proximity of your home town:  the landmarks and memories of your childhood, and your sister, who still lives there.

One evening, I found myself driving to the only corner store in the small village where I grew up and, and I bought a piece of licorice, by way of saying goodbye. I ended up parking my car in some stranger’s driveway, with a Twizzler in my hand, bawling my eyes out.

  

Fallout shows up on the faces of friends who can’t quite hide the fact they think you’re crazy. And not the good crazy, either. I’m talking, cray-cray. It was late in the game when we finally started telling people about Tett House, and we encountered two very distinct reactions:  the people who were all like, “OMG THAT’S SO AWESOME I’M COMING TO VISIT,” and the ones whose smiles froze onto their faces while they pretended to understand just what in god’s name we were doing.

We didn’t mind. Underneath our bravado was the gnawing suspicion our brand of crazy was legit.

Fallout also makes an entrance as your parents, torn between supporting you, and feeling saddened because you already live several hours away and are now moving several hours further. Fallout further reveals itself in the reaction your mother has when she finds out you’re turning the extra bedroom in your new house into a home office instead of a guest room.

Fallout grandstands as people who claim to be hurt or offended that they were “left out” of what was ultimately a hugely personal decision for your family. A lack of respect and understanding for the privacy and logistics of our choice led to some irrevocable changes in our old world.

The most challenging Fallout is the one that tiptoes in as your child at bedtime. One night, after weeks of enthusiastically endorsing our move by falling in love with the new house, and raving over his new bedroom and large backyard, our son Oliver suddenly collapsed in tears under the pressure of impending change.  I lay down with him until almost midnight while he cried inconsolably and said, “Why are we leaving? We have a nice house. I love my friends. We have everything we want here. Why?” I had no answers for him, and eventually found myself sobbing as well. At that point, I was pretty convinced we were Carpe Diem-ing our way into making the biggest mistake of our lives.

We weren’t just moving; we were leaving behind an entire life.

And as it turned out, the Fallout had only just begun.

Click here for Part 8.

(To start our story at the beginning, click here for Part 1)

Finding Tett House, Part 6 – The Purge

By March of 2017, we had officially purchased Tett House, although there were a number of things that still needed to be ironed out. Aside from our immediate families, and one or two close friends, we told no one. Finances still needed to be confirmed, our current home needed to be sold, employment would have to be addressed. And there was still a chance everything could fall spectacularly apart. It had all happened so fast, and we decided there were too many uncertainties to share the news just yet.

Tett House was closing in May, so we needed to list our current home ASAP. Selling a house in the GTA is no small undertaking. The stakes are really high and so is the pressure to have your home looking like something from HGTV. I wish I was exaggerating.

Before we could even consider putting the house on the market, we needed to do some basic, but long-overdue renovations in a very short period of time. We also had a large basement that had accumulated a lot of STUFF over time, and desperately needed to purge. Tett House had very little storage. Anything that wasn’t necessary or used on a regular basis would have to go.

We had loved and enjoyed our home very much, but there were a few areas that  badly needed updating. We had approximately a month to accomplish the following:

1) Kitchen: Re-do backsplash, install new stove top and new fixtures, repair and paint kitchen ceiling

2) Bathroom:  Re-construct and re-tile shower, replace fixtures, partially re-wire lighting, repair and paint ceiling and walls

3) Entrances (Front & Side):  Re-construct side steps, repair walkway, paint doors and steps

4) Completely purge the basement, pare down furnishings, clean and stage the house

We were lucky to find a friendly contractor who came to our rescue and to whom I will always be indebted for his advice and good nature. A close friend of ours is a professional painter (Holla – Andrew Sharpe!) and he also jumped right in to generously help us prepare our home within such a tight time frame.

The work started in the kitchen. Our contractor ripped out the kitschy ’80s backsplash and replaced it with marble “brick” tile…

… taking us from this:

… to this:

Even though our renovations were fairly simple ones, it was difficult not having a space to cook or gather or eat in. We became regulars at drive-thrus and local restaurants for several weeks while our kitchen was either shrink-wrapped or looked like a dumpster-dive:

What can I say? We got used to making toast in the powder room.

Meanwhile, a separate contractor started ripping out our side steps and walkway to build new ones.

Before the kitchen was completely finished, work started on our main upstairs bathroom.

Since we were partially re-constructing and fully re-tiling our only bathtub and shower, we mentally prepared to be a bit stinky for a few days. These are the sacrifices you make when renovating, am I right?

I wish I had photos of what that bathroom looked like when we first moved in. Or maybe I don’t, because it was pretty bad. It had super ugly honey-oak cabinetry and PEACH walls. The tiles were a corresponding pale peach with flowered accents, and an ’80s step-up tub. I called it my “Golden Girls” washroom, only without Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia, it was a real dud. Early on, Trevor & I had painted the cupboards and trim white, and the walls a pewter grey (this was before the grey trend and everyone thought I was crazy.) It worked to update the space somewhat, but we’d never had the chance to replace the worn out tile, with its stained and crumbling old grout.

The tub/shower also had awkward and unsafe recessed glass shelving that I was eager to get rid of. I re-designed the surround to accommodate a single full-length ledge with new waterproof lighting. Not being a fan of large wall tiles, I chose fresh, white beveled subway tile in a slightly elongated size.

Over the course of about 10 days, our Golden Girls grotto went from gross:

… to worse:                                                          … to full-on Helter Skelter:

               

… to amazeballs:

Of course we had the work inspected by only the finest of professionals.


While the dust was still settling, Trevor & I ruthlessly purged our belongings. We were  ashamed and alarmed by the useless amount of stuff we’d been holding onto that was just taking up space. All in all, we threw away 49 bags of garbage, 46 bags of recycling, sold Oliver’s old baby gear, donated almost 20 bags/boxes of clothes and toys, and then held a yard sale.

Oliver sold lemonade and and iced tea and cookies and his old toys. He turned a tidy profit, and then gave a bunch of it to charity.

In the middle of our massive purge, I met with a cleaning woman to help us prepare our house for staging. She was an older, no-nonsense Polish lady who let me know she was coming over to see exactly what she was getting into. The renovations had just been finished and the house was at its worst… full of drywall dust and tile dust, and strewn with boxes. I will never forget her expression of horror.

She clearly didn’t think we’d have the place ready in time for her to come back and clean. We were down to the 11th hour before the house had to be listed.  The real estate market had heated up to a fever pitch, and we had to act fast. I assured her we would be organized and ready, and practically begged her on bended knee to take the job. Finally, reluctantly, she agreed. If I’d have had time to breathe a sigh of relief, I would have.

A few days later, when she returned to clean, she was astounded. Trevor & I had worked day and night until all final traces of chaos and renovations were gone.  “You’ve been vorking very hart,” she told me admiringly, and I felt truly vindicated. There is no higher compliment than an Eastern European woman saying you’re a hard worker, believe me. We’d always flattered ourselves that our home usually looked pretty attractive (when it wasn’t a construction zone.) But by the time she worked her magic, it was positively sparkling.

 

It was all worth it. Somehow, almost overnight, it had become a seller’s market, and houses around us were being snapped up for $100,000 – $150,000 over asking price. Ours was ready to be listed, and our agent already had a potential buyer in her pocket. We were proud and anxious and terrified and excited.

See Part 7

(Previous posts:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

 

 

Finding Tett House, Part 5 – Negotiations From Hell

When it came to real estate transactions, Trevor and I had always been lucky.

Our first house was a little “granny” house on a corner lot in an old neighbourhood.

The family we bought it from were SO NICE… they invited us over and served us tea on the porch. They bequeathed to us a daybed and a handy step stool and free cable for two years. Just before we moved in, they held a BBQ for us in their backyard so we could meet all of our new neighbours. They even left their contact information and never, ever got upset, even when we had to call very late at night one time to ask, “Can you tell us where the water shut-off is again?”

Buying our second house was a very similar experience.

The woman who owned it had raised her family there and was ready to retire. She was an impeccable record-keeper and left us a tidy accordion file full of alphabetized instruction manuals, warranties, and general paperwork for every service or appliance in the home. She left blueprints and architectural drawings for additions on the home from the 1980s. She gave us a contact sheet for all our neighours, and also one for tradespeople she’d hired for work or repairs. She and I remain Facebook friends to this day.

I guess you could say, we were spoiled.

Tett House was going to be the third home we had purchased.

Third time’s a charm, right? It turns out that’s only true if the people you’re dealing with aren’t total jerks.

When our family decided to put an offer in on Tett House, we were all excited and terrified. The owners of the house at the time weren’t officially working with a realtor, although they had been formerly. The negotiation process started off the way it normally does, with insurance and maintenance inquiries, a home inspection that turned up a few surprises, etc. It seemed like the whole thing would unfold like your average real estate transaction. Until the legal title search.

(To keep things as uncomplicated as possible, henceforth, the former owners of Tett House will be referred to as the “Jerks,” or, alternately, “Total Jerks.”)

The Total Jerk owners of Tett House claimed that a certain picturesque, but unusable boathouse on Bedford Mills pond belonged to the Tett House property. Additional water access to the pond was also included in the real estate listing, described as a “kayak launch.” However, when our lawyer pulled the PIN (Property Identification Number) for the land, he discovered these areas in fact belonged to the neighbour, Barry – the owner of the mill. Remember Barry? I told you in my last post to remember Barry.

This is the crumbling boathouse. It has been painted and photographed A LOT, but that is the extent of its purpose, being evidently housed by beavers and other wildlife.

And this is a photo of the “kayak launch” lifted directly from the real estate listing:

We engaged in some back-and-forth communication with the Jerks of Tett House via various professionals. Our exchanges went something like this:

Us:  Yeah, so… Our lawyer did a title search and it turns out you guys don’t own the boathouse on the pond.

Jerks:  Yes, we do. Our lawyer says we do.

Us:  Okay, if you could just go ahead and share the documents to prove that, that would be great.

Jerks:  We don’t have documentation. But our lawyer says it’s ours.

Us:  Can he provide legal verification, given that he operates as a lawyer?

Jerks:  No. We just believe him. And we think you and your lawyer should believe him, too, even though our claims are legally unsubstantiated.

Us:

The professional people involved couldn’t help us. The lawyers engaged themselves in a half-hearted title search mystery stalemate that neither seemed particularly interested in solving.

Ultimately, we ended up reaching out to our (future) neighbour, Barry, who had the only existing copy of the survey, along with other historic memorabilia.

Barry has been living at the mill for something like 25 years, and he had no time for the Total Jerk owners of Tett House. When I emailed him to ask if he could share any information about the house, here’s what Barry had to say about the Jerks:

“Hi, I can tell you that I feel the present owner ruined it [with] cheap inappropriate “improvements” He is a “flipper” almost as much a scumbag as most real estate agents. He also illegally cut down trees so he could view the mill. ALL the waterfront around the mill pond belongs to the mill not that house. I have the surveys.”

(The opinions about real estate agents expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of this blogger!)

But otherwise… a truly glowing recommendation, right? Yikes. Needless to say, I was a little intimidated about meeting Barry, but I needn’t have been. Barry was thrilled that the Jerks were leaving, and happy to see a family moving into the home again at last. He sorted out all of our questions about boundaries – including some complicated grandfathered clauses tied to his unique property.

We conceded his ownership of the boathouse and he generously granted us courtesy use of the pond’s waterfront. Barry is also a passionate naturalist and eco-science guy, so he instructed us NOT TO CUT DOWN ANY MORE TREES. Being tree lovers ourselves, we were more than happy to oblige.

As our realtor prepared the purchase agreement, the Jerks of Tett House continued to insist the boathouse property was theirs. Trevor and I had to request that every boathouse reference be stricken from the contract, so as to prevent future legal disputes. Further challenges of arbitration included, but were not limited to:

1)  Discovering one of the contractors we wanted to hire refused to work on the house until he found out that he’d be working for new people (us) and not the Jerks.

2)  The Jerks’ refusal to make certain repairs – some basic, others more serious – deemed their legal responsibility, based on the home inspector’s criteria.

3)  Finding out the home’s “updated electrical work” had been last “updated” in the 1940s or ‘50s, and the entire house had to be re-wired with grounded outlets and junction boxes (a massive and expensive undertaking.)

4)  Previous work had been done in the basement, necessitating important legal documentation. The Jerks refused to provide us with these documents, requiring us to search the public records system and pay to obtain them ourselves.

5)  We had expressed an interest in purchasing a few antique items the Jerks were keen to sell. Despite several requests, they never told us the value of any of the pieces, so eventually we suggested negotiating them into the sale of the home. This offended the Jerks, who said they had believed “in good faith” that we had already committed to buying the antiques. Apparently, they planned to simply quote us a price and we were expected to pay it, unquestioned.

6)  We requested the cleaning and junk removal of a large garage on the property. Considered a “Carriage House,” only by those blessed with the most vivid of imaginations, this building contained an inaccessible 2nd floor with an abandoned living space, open to the elements and littered with broken glass, furniture and general debris.

We had a standard real estate clean-up clause written into the contract, which was to be fulfilled by the Jerk owners before the closing date. (More on this later.)

As we hammered out the final purchase agreement, the Jerks continued to insist the property had waterfront access on Bedford Mills pond, right up until the very last minute.  In the final moments of mediation hell, we and the Total Jerk owners of Tett House ended up in a bitter stand-off, with me in tears, and they wrapped in an entitled cocoon of their own asshole-ness.

We were fifteen minutes from the negotiation deadline, when everything would be declared null and void and we’d have to start the negotiation all over again from scratch. Having known all along that they couldn’t sell what they didn’t own, the Jerks suddenly deleted the kayak launch from the contract. That conversation went something like this:

Us:  So, the property just went from having two points of water access on the pond, to zero?

Jerks:  Yup.

Us:  We should probably renegotiate the purchase price, then. And address your possibly fraudulent real estate listing?

Jerks:  Nope.

Even though they had misrepresented the property, withheld information, and been less than cooperative on a variety of issues; even though the work that needed to be done on the house was now greater than we had initially been led to believe, the Jerks refused to adjust the sale price. By the end of this process, we were asking our realtors if the Jerks really even wanted to sell the house. Anybody else would have walked away by this point. But I was still desperately in love with Tett House, further strengthened by the conviction that the place needed to be rescued – by me – from evil jerk villains. (I read a lot of books.)

In the end, we said, to hell with it. We’d come that far, we’d already committed time and money… we wanted the house. So, we decided to suck it up. We stopped trying to reason with the unreasonable, and signed the papers. Tett House would be ours, and we wanted the Total Jerk owners – now officially promoted to TOTAL ASSHOLES – out of our lives as soon as possible so we wouldn’t have to deal with them any longer than was absolutely necessary.

Turns out, they left a legacy. A stinky one.

As assholes are wont to do, I suppose.

*sigh*

Original outhouse at Tett House. (This was not the stinky legacy.)

Read Part 6

Previous posts:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Finding Tett House, Part 4 – Signposts & Billboards

I’m a real estate junkie. I love houses and I’m nosy about them, too – especially ones that I like. But I knew Tett House was gone and I had to find a new favourite, even though I knew I would  never see another house with that kind of charm and magnetism.

Just over a year ago (mid-January, 2017) I made a cup of tea and casually logged onto realtor.ca to stalk houses look at listings across southern Ontario. I had no way of knowing the GTA was just a few weeks away from an unexpected and precipitous boom in the market.

After entering and adjusting my search parameters, a group of random homes popped up and among them, I was astonished to see once more the listing for MY house… that beautiful but unfinished yellow house on the hill. The house I thought was lost and gone forever, sold to other people who would never, ever, ever love it the way that I already loved it.

Tett House had found me – again.

I still remember the significance of this… the thrill of realizing this was more than just a coincidence. The house was practically throwing itself at us. (If you haven’t already, please go back and read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 leading up to this point, so that you can understand the significance.) I had actual goosebumps. Our family was at a crossroads, and this was clearly a signpost. Moreover, additional work had been done on house, and, miraculously, the price had dropped. How many more times did I need to be hit over the head with this? Obviously, zero. But the question was, how many times did Trevor need to be hit over the head?

Turns out it was zero for him, too. After emailing him the latest listing, he suggested we make a trip out to see the house together… with our son, Oliver. This was getting serious. We contacted the realtor and made plans to drive out and see it that very weekend.


Oliver playing in the secret staircase.

All in all, I think we visited the place three times within a span of 6 weeks. The first time was to get Trevor and Oliver’s approval – check. The second time, we brought a contractor. The third time, an inspector. It was imperative to both Trevor and I that we fully understood the scope – and cost – of the renovations required, and any potential issues affecting a house over 130 years old. Our biggest hesitation hinged on having the budget to make the necessary repairs.

It was pretty much as we expected. The house needed to be completely re-wired. It needed insulation, plaster and drywall repair, and other cosmetic updates. There were no laundry facilities, so we’d need to plumb and convert one of the tiny upstairs bedrooms. And it needed all new appliances, as there were none currently in the home. The fieldstone basement had been my biggest concern, but the inspector declared the foundation solid and well-supported, although it needed to be better sealed against mice and other critters. The oil furnace wouldn’t need replacing for several years, and the oil tank was new. In fact, the bathroom and kitchen reno’s, the roof, the fence, the septic tank, the well and water filtration system were all new. We were nervous and intimidated by our own daring, but also vastly encouraged. This is how the house looked when we visited:

In between these visits, the stars in their courses were aligning and three very important things happened:

1)  Our realtor took a sample of water from the house and sent it off for testing. It came back as excellent in quality and very safe to drink. (Remember this.)

2)  I decided to contact Barry, the man who owns the Mill across the pond from Tett House. I reached out to him sort of impulsively, thinking he might have information about the property that we would find interesting. Remember this, too, because boy, was I ever right. Connecting with Barry ended up being an excellent argument in favour of following your gut instincts.

3)  Our realtor friend contacted us. Several months earlier (out of the blue) she had offered to conduct an appraisal of our current home. At the time, we had been very satisfied with the figure, and filed it happily under “Things That Are Good to Know.” Now she was calling to say that the assessment was no longer valid. Unusual changes were happening with property values in our neighbourhood; in only four months, our home’s selling price had increased by an additional $100,000.

So, what I had initially thought to be a polite little signpost was turning out to be a goddamned billboard with flood lights and flashing neon arrows saying, “THIS WAY, YOU STUPID *FUCKING* MORONS.”

The Universe had our attention. We were listening. We met with our bank manager. He said, “You’ve got this,” and took us to the cliff edge of our financial destiny.

We jumped.

Read Part 5

Finding Tett House, Part 3 – The Spirit of Adventure

It’s amazing how a holiday or change of scene can give you a new perspective. (This is probably why so many corporations are stingy about vacation time — too many of their employees would quit!)  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In spite of all the serendipity discovering the place (see Part 1 and Part 2) I’d made up my mind that Tett House could never be mine. Someone else would buy it and wreck it with bastardized “improvements,” or someone wouldn’t buy it, and it would crumble further and forgotten into obscurity. Neither fate exactly filled me with joy.

One day in the summer months of 2016, I searched for the real estate link, and it was gone. I assumed the house had been sold. I felt sad, and realized that I had still been holding on to some far-fetched dream that owning it might become a reality someday. But now, it seemed the home was irrevocably in the hands of others, so the best I could hope for was that they would treat it well.

In the meantime, Trevor & I were approaching our 10th wedding anniversary in the fall. We had been hoping to return to Scotland where we got married.

This was our wedding day at Dalhousie Castle in October, 2006. Look how cute we were!

Also, here is a completely gratuitous picture of my husband in a kilt. Because hot.

And one of me in my wedding dress, because I loved this dress, and yes, those are feathers.

Moving on…

Sadly, changes in finances had dashed our hopes and Scotland was now out of the question. We decided instead to visit the most beautiful old-world city in our own country – Vieux-Québec.

Aside from the odd weekend over the years to mostly local destinations, we had not been on a trip together since our honeymoon. Trevor had not even taken more than a day or two off in a row in almost 5 years. The strain was starting to show, and we both looked forward to our trip with excitement.

Our time in Old Quebec was beautiful and romantic. We were at liberty and leisure to explore the city on foot. We made no set plans, preferring instead to wander aimlessly, taking photographs, and making discoveries. There was no schedule. We ate when we got hungry, paused when we needed a rest, and shopped when we found something wonderful.

We weren’t just exploring the area, we were immersing ourselves in new sights and sounds, food and drink, art and beauty. Our boutique hotel had excellent service and delightful breakfasts. Outdoors, the leaves were changing, but the sun was warm. Delicious scents wafted out of the open doors and windows of restaurants and bakeries, inspiring us to a perpetual state of snackery. The clop-clop of horses gave me thrills of enchantment that were only satisfied when we took a carriage ride, and then promptly extinguished by the overpowering smell of manure (the horses poop in a bag!)

Our favourite day was spent on Île d’Orléans, picnicking on the shores of the St. Lawrence.

We were surrounded by art and architecture and nature and French culture, and we loved every second of it.

We let our imaginations and our senses run wild.

We didn’t fully realize it at the time, but by indulging our sense of adventure, our lives had crossed a new threshold. Once you rediscover your wings, you don’t fly back into the cage and allow somebody to clip them. We returned to our “regular” life and everything looked different. We realized how much we had been missing in the routine of our daily lives, how much we had turned away from what inspired us, in order to tackle the tedium of ever-increasing responsibilities and obligation.

Suddenly, we no longer felt compelled to maintain situations or relationships that had become imbalanced, burdensome, and stressful. Everything had changed. We didn’t know exactly what our next step was, but we were on the watch for it.

And then Tett House came back on the market.

(Read Part 4)