Summer at Tett House

It’s been quite a while since my last post (January 1st.)

At the time, I was feeling discouraged and overwhelmed and very blue… a deep, full-bodied azure, as a matter of fact. I didn’t feel much like writing.

I plugged away as gamely as I could through the grey, cheerless months of January, February, and March. There were multiple changes in our lives and many distractions – some positive, some not. The long, dark winter slowly, slowly seeped into a short, cold spring. I felt like I, and everyone around me, was desperate for some sunshine.

I don’t know if there’s anything better than summer in Eastern Ontario, with its scattering of lakes on the Rideau System, and majestic pines and wildflowers growing out of the bedrock of the Canadian Shield. Tett House sits perched on one of these imposing rocky cliffs, with water and trees on every side. Living here, I feel as if we are at the very heart of every season as it passes.

And summer is one of the best.

In summer, the lilacs come out,

and the deer visit.

The time for sunset bonfires and ‘smores begins,

and I start making homemade iced tea with fresh mint and lemon.

When the storm windows come off in late spring, and we open the French doors to the porch, Tett House comes alive.

When I fell in love with this place, I fell hard, and its large screened-in porch is largely responsible for that. That porch is what made me realize this was more than just a real estate crush… this was a long-term commitment territory.

When we first saw it, the porch was sort of a leftover postscript to the rest of the house, but it had a lot of potential. The previous owners left some boring, Golden Girls-style wicker out there and I wasn’t having any of it. I had a vision of something cozier and maybe kind of old-fashioned, but in the best sense. I wanted to create a space that you escape to with a book, or a glass of wine, where you gather with friends and listen to music.

When we first moved in, the porch became a place to put a few pieces of stray furniture. It was the only place of calm in our stormy move, when everything was in chaos. Our cat liked it, too.

Decorating the porch was a bit of a challenge because it’s not enclosed, only screened-in. This meant that any furniture we put out there had to be resilient and able to withstand changes in the weather. It also had to suit the age and style of the home… a modern “outdoor living room” set from Home Depot wasn’t going to cut it.

My first stroke of luck was acquiring a pair of vintage rocking chairs from a friend who was moving and could no longer use them. They were a little worn and a little chipped and they were exactly what I was looking for.

Next, I found the perfect round pedestal table online and some very affordable indoor/outdoor rattan chairs from IKEA.

It was really starting to come together, but I still didn’t have my pièce de résistance. I needed a cozy reading corner… someplace I could curl up with a good book or fall asleep on a lazy day. The final piece of the puzzle was equal parts Kijiji and thrift shop, where I picked up a secondhand daybed and handmade quilt and bedding, respectively.

The porch is my favourite room in the house, of course, although it’s not even really a room. It’s that magical place where you can be both inside and outside at the same time. It’s a place for dreaming, for reading, for dining, and – since the daybed was set up – for napping.

The floor is slanted to an alarming degree. Things get damp in there, when it rains. There are sometimes ants, and once I interrupted a snacking squirrel, but when the weather is fine, it’s the only place I want to be in the world.

To read the story of our move to Tett House from the beginning click here.

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 wiring, 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 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.