Olivebridge Cottage: From Bad to Worse (and Worse and Worse and Worse)

Have you mentally recovered from the last post about Olivebridge Cottage yet? If you thought things could only go up from there, I hate to tell you that you are so sorely mistaken because this house is the worst. Happy Wednesday!

So far, we have a host of structural issues ranging from somewhat serious to super duper serious (try not to get lost in my jargon), evidence of multiple infestations that wreaked havoc not only on structure but also electrical and insulation, code violations for days, severe mold problems, one very ugly and increasingly torn apart house, two blindsided homeowners, and one grumpy and dejected blogger guy who was me.

bedroomwall

Where we left off, we knew we were looking at reframing this entire wall, the bottom of which was completely rotted after sitting under an improperly installed deck thing for years. Those two tall narrow windows are in the bedroom, and over to the left (mostly out of frame) there’s a third one that’s part of the full bath.

diningsliders

We also knew we had to reframe this adjacent wall, which had similar rot issues due to the deck. I guess it looks almost OK from the outside, but the sill plate was completely rotted and most of the studs were compromised as well, to say nothing of the under-sized header creating the rough opening for the sliders and the foundation being entirely below the ground and everything just being a total fucking mess.

bedroomwindow2

Lemons, meet lemonade? Since this bedroom wall also had its own host of issues, I proposed that while we were doing all this framing work, maybe we should steal the sliders and put them in the bedroom, and then steal these windows and put them in the dining room, and then steal some other windows to take the place of those two tall skinny ones in the first picture, because they were dumb and nobody liked them anyway. Musical windows. The homeowners did not want to try to recreate the little deck thing outside of the dining area and we all agreed that the space remaining there was a gross mosquito-ridden cesspool anyway, so waking up and being able to open your nice big sliders and walk out onto a nice big platform deck outside the bedroom seemed more appealing.

bedroomwindow3

So that is what we did. It was kind of exciting even in the midst of all these other things that were really not exciting.

diningroomwallreframing

Out came the sliders. Up went some temporary support for the roof. Out came the old rotted framing.

anchorbolts

Ahhh, nothing like a brand new pressure-treated sill plate, properly anchored to a CMU foundation, amiright? Just say yes. In bleak times like this you take what you can get in terms of excitement and reason to carry on.

diningwindow

The new-old window from the bedroom actually worked VERY well in the dining room. Centering it on the wall looked a billion times better than the off-center sliders, and it framed the view of that postmodern toilet sculpture really beautifully.

diningwindow2

Framed, almost sheathed, almost back in business. See how the bottom plate of the wall is just peeking up over the dirt, though? That’s not good. By code you should have at least 8″ of foundation above grade, so this area will need some excavation and some way to redirect water away from it, because otherwise it all flows down here and causes the house to rot to pieces. Ask me how I know.

bedroomsliders1

Love when a whole wall is torn off a house. It looks like a dollhouse? Like a dollhouse from hell? So we sistered in a new pressure-treated sill plate, took out the old framing, and framed it in for the huge sliders. Fun fun fun fun fun.

bedroomsliders2

Also a nice change! This area also needed some excavation and grading to get the bottom of the framing out from essentially being underground.

1

Then we moved on to the really bad wall. Shudder. Same story, different day, some creative framing work I don’t even want to remember.

2

We stole the old kitchen window and two smaller windows from the front enclosed porch, which are different styles but the same height and look fine together. Between the new sliders and these new windows, the little bedroom got a nice big upgrade in terms of views, light, and how furniture can be arranged…so that was good? The roof was so crazy sloped in here—look at that piece of wood between the header and the top plate! Oy. To distract from it, I thought maybe we’d use vertical beadboard in this room, up until about 8″ from the ceiling and drywall the rest of the wall up. That way the molding that finished off the top of the beadboard would be a straight line and the rest would read as “character.” Not ideal, but there’s only so much you can do when working with parts of an existing structure.

3

Better? I like it a lot better.

OK, I’m out of good news. Hope you rejoiced in that bright moment of kind-of-almost-progress.

sunkenLRdemo

Back in the living room, remember this mess? We’d already figured out that we had to redo the roof over the enclosed porch, and we also knew that the posts supporting what was originally an exterior wall of the house weren’t sufficient—basically everything you see here was a big structural mess. Demo continued to go along swimmingly:

diningstairs1

Look at how these stairs are built. Drywall screws, 2x4s, and a prayer. WHY. It’s not like this is even such a problem so much as it’s just incredibly weird and annoying and very evident that whoever did this work was even dumber than me.

diningroomstairframing2

Naturally, underneath the stairs things looked like this. I’m not even going to list all the things that are wrong because everything is wrong.

bathroomframing1

Here’s what’s on the other side of the shower wall in the bathroom! Is it even worth explaining? Or trying to understand? There are some original 2×4 studs supplemented with some 2×3 studs, some of which are attached to some other wood but some of which are kind of just floating and then used as nailers to screw very heavy cement board to which is holding up hundreds of pounds of tile and thinset and grout. All manner of creature had been hiding out around the tub, evidently, because they left the nests to prove it.

OH YEAH AND A CARCASS. What is it with me and houses that have dead bodies near bathtubs? On the bright side, this corpse was a squirrel but on the not-bright side, I had to find it this time. I’ll spare you the photographic evidence.

eatenframing

As a final “fuck you” before dying in the wall, this badass squirrel tried to make the house collapse.

eatenelectric

Or catch on fire.

Honestly, at this point? TOTALLY understand where that squirrel was coming from. Big up, my brother. You did your best.

kitchendiningfloorframing

Then it got worse, because it wasn’t super apparent until I pulled up the carpeting that the living room floor was sagging really severely in the middle. Like, a few inches over only a 12′ span! Not only did it look horrible, but it would also make laying new flooring (which at the time was supposed to be an engineered hardwood) sort of impossible. Something told me (can’t imagine what!) that this was probably due to some other awful underlying cause that nobody had noticed, because in this house where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It’s always worst case scenario at Olivebridge Cottage.

LRjoists1

At first glance, the condition of these joists seemed kind of alright! The sill plate looked to be fairly new pressure-treated lumber and the joists were too.

LRjoists2

Then I looked closer. Yikes! That’s the end of an original joist, totally destroyed by what I assume were termites. But that’s not that big of a deal, because look!! Somebody already sistered in new joists. IS SOMETHING HERE ACTUALLY…KIND OF OK?!?!

LRjoists3

Don’t get crazy, of course it isn’t. Whoever made this repair evidently decided only sistering in a few of the joists was worth the effort, leaving most of them still super rotted and failing. If the major sag in the floor had been from normal settling and just a funny quirk of this house, it would have been OK, but this is really the result of this floor system no longer being up to the task of, ya know, supporting weight and stuff. Kind of important.

Oh, and upon closer investigation? Those joists that were “sistered in”? ONLY SPANNED HALF THE ROOM. To do it properly and actually reinforce the old joists, the new joists would have had to span the length of the entire joist—from sill to sill. I guess conceivably it might be OK to terminate the sistered joist halfway, but then I think you’d need some kind of beam running perpendicularly underneath to support everything…I’m no engineer but any idiot can tell that this is SO JACKED UP OMG GET ME OUT OF HERE

LRjoists

Because the crawlspace has only a few inches of clearance between the ground and the joists, the only way to get at the joists was to pull up the subfloor. You can kind of make out in this picture how the sistered-in joists aren’t really doing what they’re supposed to do…maybe because they’re roughly 5 feet long on a 13 foot span.

Roofline1

Because we were now looking at a new roof for the enclosed porch part of the living room, new wiring, new insulation, new joists—basically new everything—at some point in there it seemed to make much more sense to take the opportunity to change the house in more visible, valuable ways than just trying to rebuild a heartier version of what was there. The living room itself was really small, with a huge hearth, doors, stairs, and openings on every wall, which made it a huge design challenge from the get-go. Like, where am I supposed to put a couch in this room where it won’t either block something or look horrible? I never really found the answer, because the new plan became to rip down the enclosed porch roof and half of the living room roof, pocket a new structural beam up to the ridge, and run new rafters down the front elevation to match the pitch of the kitchen/dining section of the house. Like so:

rendering-5_18

At this point we are also re-siding the house due to all of the layers of exterior wood rot, so obviously I was also advocating that we paint this sucker black. Our original inspiration for this project was modern Scandinavian cottages, of which we were mainly looking at interiors because we weren’t planning to really touch the exterior of this house, but then every plan we made fell to pieces because this house was a piece of garbage.

I love a black house. Leave me alone.

Anyway. It’s not like the house in that rendering is about to win any architectural awards, but I still think it’s sort of cute in its own way and gave the house an actual living room without changing the footprint. Everyone was pretty much on board with this and it felt kind of exciting.

LRsillplate

Until it didn’t. Here’s a fun little glimpse of the foundation under the living room. Notice anything? How about the fact that the sill plate and rim joist have actually migrated a couple inches beyond the outer limits of the foundation, leaving them…floating? How about the enormous hole made by rodents right through both of these essential pieces of structural framing?

LRfoundation

How about the fact that the ENTIRE FOUNDATION is what you see here? That’s a single row of cinderblocks resting on some bluestone rubble, right on the earth. No mortar. Not footings. No anchor bolts, or…anything. HOW this house was even standing was kind of a miracle.

LRfoundation2

Moving down the wall, things just got worse. Note that you’re also seeing black tar paper over the studs—zero insulation, zero sheathing.

LRfoundation3

Hot holy damn.

livingroomdemo2

I give up. I have no more words to say, no more feels to feel.

livingroomdemo

I think this is the image that I see when I imagine how hell looks. Then we figured out that that 8-foot span of window had a single 2×4 for a header and that entire wall was a combo of bad foundation, rot, no sheathing, no insulation, eaten electrical, and hell started to look more like this:

livingroomdemo3

Which got cleaned up to look like this:

livingroomdemo4

Annnnnnnnnd, everything is terrible.

At this point, it’s probably plainly obvious to you (and me, and the contractors, and my dogs, and…well, anyone) that this house is more or less the definition of a “tear-down.” It should be noted that I do NOT say that lightly, because I’m the sort of person who thinks everything can be saved. So why were we still doing all this stuff?

It’s a complicated answer, which I’ll try to uncomplicated a little. Firstly, because at this point we actually hadn’t spent that much money, and the building department had continued to give us the go-ahead every time I called them to explain how the renovation had expanded beyond the work detailed in my original permit application. Secondly, tearing down a house is a big deal, particularly when the homeowners didn’t buy a tear-down—or, more accurately, didn’t know they were buying a tear-down. They bought a house, and paid for it accordingly. TV shows would have you believe that basically any money you put into a house becomes equity that you’ll then see a great big return on if/when you sell, but there are limits to that.

Out of respect for the homeowners’ privacy, it should be noted that the figures in the example below are fictitious—they do NOT represent the actual costs associated with this renovation. I’m only listing numbers to illustrate a hypothetical—because costs on all of this stuff vary dramatically depending on where you are, the costs of this particular renovation aren’t as relevant as the bigger picture. Here goes…

Say houses in your area generally sell for between $300,000-$500,000. Say you buy a house for $350,000, and hire contractors to do a $75,000 renovation, bringing your investment to $425,000—which is OK, you figure, because you’ll have a really nice property that you’ll be able to sell in a few years for probably close to that $500,000 upper limit.  But then you start to renovate—paying people to do so, as many (most?) people do—and the problems pile on and pile on and pile on. When the issues start rolling in, you do what pretty much anyone would do and have them fixed so you can move onto the rest of your plans. Then the problems don’t stop, and before you know it you’ve spent $35,000 of your $75,000 renovation budget just finding issues, fixing them, and finding more issues, bringing your total investment to $385,000, and all you have to show for it is a complete disaster, and a house with a TON of problems that may or may not be fixable. So what do you do?

Tearing down the house and rebuilding it is, of course, the most simple solution…but now you are $385,000 in the hole and will probably be at least $400,000 deep after you demolish and dispose of the thing. Then you have to hire an architect to design you a new house (call that $20,000), pull a permit for that house that may or may not be approved by the town’s building and zoning department—whose zoning rules have changed in the 60+ years since your house was built—and find a builder to build the thing from the ground up for about a year (the year during which you thought you’d be living in your house and must find other accommodations). Of course, now you need new everything, because you no longer have a house at all, just a piece of land. New design, new well, new septic, new foundation, new rat slab, new framing, new sheathing, new roof, new walls, new ceilings, new electrical, new plumbing, new HVAC, new insulation, new finishes…new everything.

The house you now have to tear down is 1,800 square feet, and the town is allowing you to expand the footprint 200 square feet—bringing you to a 2,000 square foot house. Even at a modest $130/square foot of new construction cost, your new house is going to cost $260,000 to construct, meaning that after the initial purchase, the initial kind-of-renovation, the architect’s work, and now the new construction cost, you’ve spend $665,000 on a property that’s worth maybe $475,000—perhaps less because that cost per square foot doesn’t exactly buy you high-end finishes. You think that maybe pre-fab is the way to go, but after quite a bit of research you realize that those suckers are actually quite expensive and typically pretty little, so that idea gets more or less shelved.

It’s not like you can make this decision unilaterally, either, because your mortgage, assuming you have one, is tied to the house you bought—it’s extremely important to review the terms of your mortgage documents carefully and consult qualified legal guideance to ensure that you aren’t violating the terms of your mortgage. At worst, a complete tear-down could result in the bank needing back all that money that you borrowed because the house that they essentially own no longer exists! So now you’re out of pocket on your 20% down payment ($70,000) the initial renovation ($35,000), the new design ($20,000) the demolition ($15,000) the new construction ($260,000) and the remainder of your mortgage ($280,000), which means you’re $680,000 deep on a house that’s not going to appraise for over $475,000 anytime soon. OUCH.

On top of that, you bought this house. You love this house. The idea of tearing down this house is almost unfathomable because you would be legitimately very sad to see this house that you love and bought end up in a landfill. And even if the process of renovating is slated to cost $125,000 on top of what you’ve already spent, that means you’re $230,000 out of pocket with 30 years to pay off the other $280,000, which isn’t great but also isn’t so bad considering the severity of how shitty your situation is.

exterior3

So we kept trucking. Kind of. Sort of. Until everything came to a halt.

Diary time!

Day 15: Continued all clean-up and organization on interior, pulled up flooring in sunken living room. Adriana visited and we talked plans.

Day 16: Dump run, continued demo on exterior and deck space and moved indoors to work on sunken living room.

Day 17: Finished demo in sunken living room, de-nailed beadboard, and took up half of living room carpeting.

Day 18: Dump run. Pulled up all carpeting in living room and organized wood. Cleaned up front yard and got wood ready for reuse. Demo’d existing stairs. Loaded truck for dump.

Day 19: Dump run.

Day 20: Got dump truck serviced. Continued demo in living room and diagnosed issues with living room floor sagging—shit. Discovered more major mice/squirrel damage including damage to framing and electrical. Pulled affected electrical—lucky house hasn’t burned down.

Day 21: Worked on exterior demo and moved all things out of bedroom for framing. Edwin came and we installed sill plate on dining room wall. Discussed what to do about kitchen floor and construction of “addition.” Demo’d interior bedroom wall and removed all siding and exterior sheathing in prep for framing in sliding doors tomorrow.

Day 22: Demo’d siding from dining room wall and removed eaves overhang and shiplap sheathing. Edwin and Edgar came and we all worked on framing in new dining room window. Installed window and moved on to sliding doors in bedroom. Sheathed bedroom door and will sheath dining room wall tomorrow. Both changes look AMAZING.

Day 23: Lowe’s run for sheathing and Tyvek supplies. Demo’d cinderblocks on dining room wall and assisted with sheathing. Worked on cleaning up site.

Day 24: Met with Carl to plan excavation job. Some site cleanup.

Day 25: Demo’d concrete block from front of dining room wall to prepare for new sheathing. Demo’d interior of bedroom wall and insulation. Removed old siding and sheathing from wall to be reframed tomorrow.

Day 26: Helped reframe bedroom/bathroom wall and figure out new windows. Dump run in Edwin’s truck. Came back and finished framing dining room wall and did site clean up for a while. Went to Lowe’s to source window option for kitchen. Loaded car for stuff to take to Habitat for Humanity Restore tomorrow morning.

Day 27: Habitat for Humanity run to drop stuff and scout windows.

Day 28: Contract amendments.

Day 29: Met with chimney guy. Did some interior clean-up.

Day 30: Picked up windows from ReStore, door from Door Jamb, and delivered to site. Consulted with Edwin and Edgar on plan of attack for living room floor and foundation issues.


169 Comments

  1. I can’t post an image but you know the meme with the manatee looking at a little girl and saying “burn it down, child. Burn it all down.”

    Yes, child, yes.

    I hope the homeowners bring good gin and mixers everytime they see you…

    • I was going to say that I am glad no one suggested burning it down. :)

    • Ha! I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that meme, but yup. All I needed in my life was a manatee!

      I’m not really a gin drinker, but they’ve supplied a couple bottles of wine to ease the pain! :)

  2. I don’t know if you answered this somewhere, but was an inspection done on this house? And I do know that inspections don’t find everything. It’s painful to see this and I can imagine the stress of owning this house!

    • Heidi!
      I was going to say the same thing and add on questions. Aren’t at least some of these things consider hidden flaws and would allow the homeowner to get some financial settlement from the previous homeowners?
      Daniel I love your blog. I have been reading it for years. Keep on the good work.

    • I’m not sure I’ve addressed it in a post (my bad, but we’ll talk about it!) but YES they did have an inspection. I didn’t see the inspection report until after I took this job—it did point to various things that were wrong, but I’d still say the report should have been more thorough. I think the biggest issue was that issues were pointed out, but it was never explained to the homeowners that they could indicate larger problems—for example, the inspection report notes some rot to the bottom of some of the siding, but the homeowners weren’t aware that that could mean more significant issues like rot and mold that actually extended up the wall, or termites, both of which were issues at various times with this house. Still, inspections are tricky because they’re not allowed to investigate beyond what’s plainly visible, which in this house wasn’t a lot. The majority of these issues couldn’t have been found by a simple visual inspection because previous renovation and repair attempts had done a good job of covering them up.

  3. ok Daniel…..my God….don’t I remember this place in the beginning…and you were maybe going to move the woodstove?….yikes almighty..my brain just exploded…

    but as Nora Ephron always said…”it’s going to be beautiful, just not necessarily in your lifetime”

    hang in there.

    • That wood stove! Such a mess. The chimney vent was all messed up and corroded and it was installed WAY to close to combustibles to meet code. The bluestone hearth it was on was all popping up because the mortar had been laid directly onto the plywood subfloor instead of cement backer…we thought we’d try to reinstall it after the renovation/rebuilding, but it wasn’t worth it. :/

  4. The story of this house makes me want to go back to bed.

    • trust me, me too! This was several months ago and even just writing about it brings back so many shitty feelings. These were some difficult times!

  5. Holy cow. This is like an episode of Holmes on Homes, but worse. Excited for the next installment…and I hope it all ends up working out at least okay-ish for you and the homeowners!

    • I know, right? Everyone who entered this house during this period said it was hands-down the worst house they’d ever seen, and I can’t say I disagree! Each issue on its own is not THAT abnormal, but seeing them ALL in one house was kind of extraordinary, even by TV standards!

  6. “…it framed the view of that postmodern toilet sculpture really beautifully.”
    I cannot imagine buying a place, thinking it needs some updates, and realizing it should have never passed ANY sort of inspection and should have never been purchased. Ouch ouch ouch.

    AND you should have shared the dead squirrel. At this point, is it more horrifying than everything else? I think not.

  7. The next installment of this story needs to come quickly because I can’t stand the suspense.

  8. I really feel terrible for all of you. This is the kind of thing that can ruin someone’s life, financially and emotionally. I don’t see any silver lining except that they are lucky to have you as their contractor because you care. I’m stressed about the word “halt” and why that happened. You’re in a tough spot because you’re a good guy who wants to restore old houses and they must have gotten very upset with you during all this as the bearer of bad news. I’ve watched faux versions of this situation that nauseate me on “Love It or List It” where Hillary gets a good yelling at from unhappy clients–ha, let her walk a mile in your shoes. I really hope the sun comes out soon for this house and all involved.

    • This, all of this.

      As I read the post, I had a sinking feeling that this house wasn’t salvageable. Awful, just awful.

      • It IS awful! But to your point, Wendy—I’m VERY lucky that these homeowners have been truly amazing throughout this whole saga, and never once have pointed the finger at me as if I caused this. Honestly, they were better about that than I was! Rationally I KNEW none of this was my fault—that I didn’t build, renovate, or sell this house—but when you’re the one uncovering it….I don’t know, something weird happens psychologically where it starts to feel like your fault. It’s horrible. This was far and away the most emotionally difficult period of my professional life, and I’m just very lucky to have had clients through it that were rational, trusting, and good at keeping things in perspective. This was around the time that they actually offered to pay me more and urged me to stay on the project when I was more or less ready to walk away, and we continue to be on great terms and are even scheming future projects together. I know how easily it could have gone the other way, though, and I just feel so lucky that it didn’t. :)

      • I’m stressed by the “halt” too.

  9. Oh bollocks. Half way through reading this I kept thinking, “Why don’t they just bulldoze this money pit and start from scratch?” Thank you for the explanation as to why it isn’t so easy. I can’t imagine the tears shed over this house. Those poor homeowners.

  10. Daniel will respond, no doubt, but he did answer the inspection question–yes, the house had been inspected. But believe it or not, a lot of this utter fookery would not have been revealed in a regular house inspection as I understand it. Unless I am wrong, an inspector can’t really move or touch anything, just look at what is visible.

    The more interesting question is, second, how did this house pass any inspection mid-build, and first, who built it? That’s what I keep coming back to. Drywall screws for fasteners on stairs? And the foundation–cinderblocks and rubble? What was the person who was doing this thinking? Were they mentally impaired? Angry? Stealing from dumpsters to build a house? What? This house never should have passed out of the original builder’s hands as a lawfully certified dwelling. If I were the current owners, I’d hunt this person down. At this point a book deal or reality show is the only sensible way to recoup loss. “Join us as Jen and Jerry go on a mission to find…”

    I recall that these clients were friends of Daniel’s, which maybe explains why he didn’t walk away from this mess a long while ago.

    We’ve been treated to a cliffhanger ending, but I am thinking that either someone slapped a big condemned sticker on this, or stop work order, or one night of rain just caused it to collapse. I hope we don’t have to wait long!

    • Thanks for answering, Kiki. I’ve had two inspections that didn’t find certain things–things in the walls as you say. Nothing like this, though! I like your idea for the reality show or book.

      • Everything about this house makes me cringe. Since the house doesn’t have a crawlspace, most all of these problems would have been invisible to the home inspector. Though all the layers of siding and rot were probably visible in some way, I doubt they could have foreseen many of the issues with the sill plate and foundation. The rot and rodent issues would also have been hard to spot, too, as I don’t believe there is any attic space.

        Ugh, ugh, ugh. This house gives me all the bad feels. And the ending on this post is NOT helping.

    • You are all correct! Yes, the house was inspected. Kiki and Natalie hit the nail on the head—home inspections are visual inspections only, so anything lurking behind walls or being covered by anything (in this case, siding, flooring, roofing, drywall, depending on where you looked!) basically goes unchecked. That said, in fairness to the building inspector, various issues were brought up in the report, but the potential consequences of those issues were never explained to these first-time homeowners, who honestly just didn’t know what they didn’t know. This is why I always recommend using a home inspection is ONLY a first precaution, but having a contractor, plumber, and electrician also inspect the house so that you can make the most informed decision possible.

      Anyway, Kiki—from my understanding, this house was originally a 12’x20′ cabin, which became the space that we’re now calling the living room. Everything else was additions, which is definitely part of the problem. The original cabin was not intended to be a year-round dwelling, and was built like shit, basically, because I guess that’s just what they did at the time. Over time, the house was added onto, winterized, plumbed…then the previous owners (AKA the lover of drywall screws) did some very poorly executed renovations in the 90s and I think that pretty much brings us up to speed!

      Regardless of whether or not they’re friends of mine (they are and were—less so, believe it or not—at the time), this was strictly a professional arrangement—we’ve always been very careful about keeping those boundaries intact. I put the offer to the homeowners on multiple occasions to terminate our contract and help them hire somebody else, and they always wanted me to stay on the job, so I did! Even though this was a VERY difficult period and this is a VERY challenging project (particularly in the context of my limited experience), I think it would have felt worse to pass it off to somebody else and not see things through to completion. I’m lucky that my clients were able to see that for me, even when I couldn’t see it for myself, and encouraged me to stay. It’s been an incredible learning experience on so many different levels that I really, truly am grateful to have had.

      (btw, amazingly NONE of those things you listed at the end happened!)

  11. Oh my god I feel so unbelievably anxious having just read that. It’s like all my worst fears about buying a house come to life. Poor you. Poor homeowners. Just, oh my god. And that last line of your post… I’m scared because I know it probably gets worse!!! Ahhhhh!!!!

  12. O my, I saw on Instagram you THOUGHT you might have developed PTSD from working on this project. It would be a miracle if you didn’t. Maybe it’s some kind of initiation process for young people who are foolish and hopeful enough to think they can design houses for people and who think they would enjoy doing that, making the world prettier and more enjoyable. I was there once with a similar project and guess what; I did develop PTSD after that project. It sounds kind of stupid to think you have something that war veterans develop after living in a warzone.
    Anyhow, my clients were superstressed about the whole thing, that definitely didn’t help.
    I am glad your clients are different and I hope it all is/ will be resolved in a satisfactory way for all of you. And that they really really love the area, because they now are -kind of- married to it.
    But you know, it could have been worse, in that respect I always like to think of the engagements cemented with $100.000+ rings that get cancelled. Then a mistake that costs a few thousand dollars doesn’t sound so bad anymore.

    • PS in hindsight I now have a great tip, whenever you ho looking at a house bring (one or a few) marbles. A very easy non-invasive way to tell if the floors are sagging or anything like that.

      • Ha! I didn’t really develop actual PTSD, but writing these posts or even looking at pictures from this period is shockingly intense. This was all happening a while ago too, mind you…and it still makes me kind of sick to my stomach just to look at it or think about it or write about it.

        But hey! I remain foolish and hopeful, happy to be doing what I’m doing, and incredibly grateful to a couple of amazing clients that have been on this rollercoaster with me for the past year. We’re all alive, we’re all on good terms, and soon they’ll have a pretty awesome house that I hope they love and enjoy for years and years to come. :)

  13. Well I might not sleep until the next post! We’ve had our own version of house hell, with a condo association that ‘borrowed’ from the reserve fund instead of raising fees 30 years ago and now is refilling it from our pockets. But this story is way beyond that! I just can’t even handle it.
    p.s. best line: ‘it framed the view of that postmodern toilet sculpture really beautifully.’

    • Yikes! Sorry to hear that!! But yeah…it could always be worse!! Glad to have provided an example of that, hahaha

  14. Just one question :-) Did they bought it cheap?

    • Depends how you look at it, I guess. In the context of single family dwellings in the USA? Yes. In the context of this area, not really? That’s part of why this was all so difficult…they really did not think they were buying a house with a lot of major issues, so trying to salvage this from an investment standpoint has been an ongoing challenge, in large part because the initial purchase cost was just way too high considering what they were able to salvage and have had to spend in order to make it livable. Sucks. :/

      • :-( This!
        I remember they wanted just a few cosmetic changes, and look at this now…
        How is the law there – can you call inspection before buying, just to check things?

      • Responding to Marta’s question re: records: Most code inspection/building departments in the US are pretty nice about letting the public come down and look through their records. Unfortunately, on older residential houses like this, the original work probably wasn’t permitted (because permits either weren’t required at the time or just weren’t pulled!). Even when they did pull permits back then, they were pretty short, and often didn’t include any details about stuff like the foundation or construction methods.

        Also, there wouldn’t be anything on file to show how any improvements might have broken down over the years. Termites don’t pull permits.

  15. Good gods, wow!

    My dad had a general contracting business and I’ve heard many a horror story, but none quite as bad as this. Looking forward to hearing more though, because I can’t look away from a train wreck!

    • I know! I’m not a contractor and my experience is pretty limited, so it made me feel slightly better that everyone (contractors, building inspector, engineers, excavators…) said this was hands-down the worst condition they’d ever seen a single house in. It’s pretty extraordinary!

  16. As an architect who has had my share of nasty surprises … oh, honey. I’m so so sorry.

    All I can say is, keep your head down and moving forward as you can. You’re handling it beautifully.

    • Thanks, Jill. That means a lot! Luckily things have improved by leaps and bounds…otherwise I don’t think I’d even be able to talk about this!

  17. I am so excited that you are back!! A new post! I wondered where you had been all this time and after reading about this project, I hope that you are sleeping it off somewhere:-) I mean, wow, there are so many holes in places where there aren’t supposed to be any! I cannot wait for your next update! Stay strong Daniel!

    • Oh man, I wish I had been sleeping it off! Maybe soon. Still working on this, but there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel. :)

  18. Daniel, don’t play with me. You know I want to see that dead squirrel.

  19. Oh, lordy. This helps put things into perspective as I slog through endless skimcoating, paint chipping, and a thousand other tasks in a room I’m starting to suspect will never be done. (not to mention the rest of the house) But I am starting to worry that this boondoggle will cause you to lose your joie de maisons, which would be a very sad thing. Since the story thus far all takes place last year it seems that you survived, but still. On tenterhooks for the next installment!

    • Hey, the fact that you have walls to skim-coat already gives you a one-up!

      Don’t fear! I don’t go down without a fight and things are allllll ok! What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I guess!

  20. Its moments like this when I wish the squirrel had just finished it and set the place ablaze (with the house empty of people and belongings of course). So sad, I feel for these folks, and for you and your contractors because there is just nothing to do but carry on. The property looks beautiful, and once completed the owners will be so much better (and safer) off, even if its a slightly scaled back version of what they were hoping for.

  21. I am without words, but am filled with feelings empathy and sympathy for you and the owners of this train wreck.

    Hug?

  22. Sending good wishes!!

  23. Daniel, omfg, there are no freaking words!!!! I feel so bad for you having to call up the home owners all the time with bad news. I really hope this story has a happy ending. I’m also wondering if we will ever see an update on Bluestone Cottage

    • It should have a happy ending! It’s just taking a long time to get there—much much much longer than this project was supposed to take when I took the job. Unfortunately there is only one of me…we will get back to Bluestone, but honestly the progress has been minimal because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to effectively work on both houses at once (and mine, which makes 3), which has truly been the hardest part of all of this. I hate (HATE. HATE. HATE. HATE.) that Bluestone isn’t done, but I’m trying to just do the best I can with what I’m handed and not destroy myself with guilt over it. I remain totally committed to that house, though, and am trying very hard to keep in perspective that finishing it beautifully on a very delayed timeline is better than letting it rot into the ground as it was before I bought it. It’ll be OK. :)

    • I’ve been wondering about Bluestone Cottage as well. As I last remember it, though, the exterior was largely done & there WERE the planters (plants should have filled in a bit), so @ least it’s not an aesthetic violation when you drive past. We’ll be patient.

  24. Aw yeah. Had to stop reading halfway through ’cause I felt the panic attack coming.

  25. I have my own Overbrook cottage. We called it Fungalow. You know, Fun and Bungalow. Yes I know, I know, we tempted the gods of construction. Anyway… $75,000 into fixing our little cottage with me playing the role of Daniel on my own reno, and I had to throw in the towel, because unlike you, my balls are not the size of small dogs.

    And before anyone asks..an inspection did not reveal the extent of the damage to the foundation (slab) on my Fungalow because it was hidden by the flooring.

    Anyway, I am going to be doing a prefab mostly because I can’t take anymore uncertainty (we are 1 month into that design process with Connect Homes). But unlike Overbrook, the city will approve a much larger structure 3500sf instead of 800sf and although it means that in order to pay for it I will have to rent it and never get to live in the home that was supposed to be my fully paid off forever home…the alternative was having to sell it and loose my life savings because now I had taken a house and destroyed it and would only be able to sell for land value minus the $14k they want to demo the house.

    Who knew homeownership/renovation could be so so so… I am at a loss for what this situation should be called.

    The homeowners are lucky to have you. Keep on trucking Daniel. Your posts make me laugh.

    • I’m so sorry for your loss of your dream house! <3

    • This is so so sad. I feel sorry for your clients. :(

      Your last year must have been a horrible year. Fight on! It can only get better! <3

    • Oh, Bonnie, I’m so sorry to hear this! Devastating. I’ll be thinking of you and hoping for the best moving forward. If it’s anything like this job, after that initial NIGHTMARE period, things will go pretty smoothly, with relatively few frustrations and heartbreaks. Shoot me an email if I can help in any way. Even just to commiserate. <3

  26. I’m so sorry for all of you at each of these horrid twists and turns but I seriously adore you.
    “Honestly, at this point? TOTALLY understand where that squirrel was coming from. Big up, my brother. You did your best.”

  27. If I could post an image…it would just be Chrissy Teigan’s face at the Golden Globes.

  28. You’re leading with all these positive little anecdotes and I’m sitting here shaking my head saying “Naw, dawg, naw, where’s that foundation, I’m sure it’s there, where is it, come o- THERE IT IS!” Wishing you all the luck.

  29. What a cliff hanger and what a terrible awful no good situation. I sure hope there is some semi-decent closure for you and the home owners coming up at some point… but I am afraid I am being too optimistic.

    • Your optimism should be well-placed! Good things to come :)

      • I’m assuming, from your assurances, that the next post will reveal that, in removing the cinder blocks, you discovered that some prohibition-era bootleggers hidden their ill-gotten gains under the shoddy foundation. Because after all this, you and the owners deserve to find hidden treasure.

  30. HOLY MOLY. I don’t know what else to say but you are going to be a changed man after this experience (hopefully for the better). Is there a way that I can send these clients a fruit basket or maybe a bottle of wine? They must be just devastated.

    And I’m with Jenna et al – I would have liked a picture of the squirrel corpse.

    • As readers of this blog we could crowdfund the neccesary legal fees? I’m willing to commit. Maybe someone else here has legal experience in this particular field and is willing to make a good deal?

      • Kala—Yes, I’ve learned A LOT through this experience…about houses, about myself, about working with clients, about being part of a team…I’m lucky to have had this experience, as painful as it was at times!

        Simone—that’s VERY kind but, thankfully, not necessary, and I’d never ask readers for that sort of thing. Luckily one of the clients is an attorney and has a good handle on how to deal with this. But thank you. :)

  31. The sellers couldn’t just be sued for putting that on the market as anything but a teardown? Maybe you mentioned that before and I forgot. What with the horribleness topped by threat to life and limb I would think it would be worth the legal fees.

    • Honestly, this is really not something I know a lot about. The clients here did consider legal action, but unfortunately after the time and fees associated with that, and what they realistically stood to gain, it just was not worth it. In some ways they had a very good case, but in other ways I think this falls into the “buyer beware” concept that comes with any home purchase, and just very unfortunately ended up being a huge factor in this one.

      • I guess there is something to be said for having the worst experience of your life at the beginning of your career, everything from now on in will look like smooth sailing in comparison. Waiting with baited breath for the outcome.

      • I actually went through that once. It can be done, but you have to be pretty quick in filing suit. Basically if the seller sold the house ‘in bad faith’ it is possible to get your money back, sort of. But it’s incredibly risky and you don’t get reno costs back. The person who should get looked at, from what you have told us Daniel, is the seller’s agent.

  32. Eating my lunch while reading this and halfway through the post I had to stop. Eating, that is. I couldn’t swallow. I realized I was holding my breath to see what new catastrophe would befall you. Then the foundation was revealed. Good Grief!!!!! Pushed my plate away and finished reading with a heavy heart. You poor thing! We are all pulling for you. Those homeowners couldn’t be luckier to have someone who didn’t throw in the shovel and say “F’it, it’s your problem”. You are the BEST!

    • Thank you! This has been a real test of patience, my sanity, and my loyalty to my clients, but hopefully all worth it in the end. :)

  33. Is there any legal action you could take against the former homeowners or the people who did this work? Was it not properly inspected at the time of building? Did the former owners get duped by a bad contractor or did they DIY this place into the ground?

    • That’s a difficult question with difficult answers that I don’t know if we’ll ever know, but basically from my understanding the time and fees associated with trying to take legal action were just not practical when put up against what the homeowners actually stood to gain from taking that course. I HIGHLY doubt that this house ever had a permit pulled before mine, and so previous work had gone un-inspected…which clearly was not a good thing, regardless of whether the homeowners or a very bad contractor were doing the work.

  34. AT WHAT POINT DO YOU JUST BURN IT ALL DOWN AND PARK A CAMPER ON THE BURNT RUINS.

    • I WISH I KNEW! It’s all so complicated, truly. I still don’t know the right answer, and I feel like I’ve seen about as bad as a house can get.

  35. I could just cry for your friends at the volume of catastrophes they’ve been hit with. I’m going to go hug my house with its leaky roof, wonky walls and crappy floors for not being the nightmare of Olive! Good luck and don’t make us wait too long for the next instalment.

  36. Ha! So that’s where my post-modern toilet sculpture went. Last I saw it was in my dining room where it lived for six months. Keep your head down but your chin up and you’ll get through this, and then you will be so so so so much smarter for the effort! There’s a silver lining somewhere in everything.

  37. I am so sorry you’re dealing with all of this, and it’s insane to see the level of negligence? ignorance? lack of skills? that maybe caused some of these issues, but thank you for sharing. I hope you (and the owners of course) land on a solution or path forward you’re comfortable with.

  38. I couldn’t help but go back to the original Olivebridge Cottage post… so full of excitement for what lies ahead. I feel so sorry for one-year ago Daniel and the horrors that await! Also, the house looked more beautiful in its original condition than I remembered – you’d never guess what lurked beneath! Please tell us there is a happy ending.

    • There is! Well, hopefully there is. I don’t want to jinx it! :)

      It is pretty amazing, right? One thing I haven’t stopped thinking about with this job is that I purchased a condemned house for $19,000 that, by pretty much all counts, was in MUCH better condition than this one, despite how it looked cosmetically. It’s pretty amazing what serious issues can be lurking behind decent-looking finishes.

  39. I don’t know how you keep going with this house, but you’re doing a great job. Thanks for the update! Glad I’m nowhere near able to buy a house…

  40. Ah Daniel, I have missed you and you never cease to disappoint. I was having a panic attack reading this and said to myself: “Tear it down!” Then you explained.

    If votes are taken, I vote for the black house. I love them too. Which is why I felt so at ease visiting Salem, Mass.

    My vision of hell has been replaced by yours.

  41. My question as well……………..are there any legal things that can be done for these new homeowners? Seems such a shame if there isn’t. All I can say is thank God you are documenting this entire process so well. Just in case it goes to court :( In the meantime Daniel, I feel for you and the homeowners, I really do. You seem to be dealing with all this crap as well as anyone can, so way to go.

    • Honestly, I really don’t know the answer the that question! My understanding is that technically, yes—they had some legal options that were explored (part of why I didn’t blog about this house for a while…I wasn’t trying to get sued!!), but at the end of the day they just weren’t worth pursuing. It sucks! Truly, truly sucks.

  42. This has taken my dreams of renovating an old, historic home and lit them on fire (which I think is the general consensus regarding this house, if not for the financial conundrum it would present).

    • I totally hear where you’re coming from, Liz, but that’s honestly one of the saddest parts of working on and documenting this house! I really don’t want anyone to mistake this mess for a “historic house,” because it really isn’t…evidently the original parts were built in the 1950s, and in fairness were not built to be a true house…just a little cabin out in a rural area. I’d never call this an old house—in my mind, old houses are well constructed out of old-growth lumber, and built to stand the test of time AND look great doing it. These problems come from EXTREMELY sub-par construction (even by the standards of the time when it was built) and years of negligence and poor decisions afterwards, which I don’t think is representative of the vast majority of old homes. I’m so happy and grateful to live in my solid, beautifully constructed, gorgeously finished old home, which definitely needed (and still needs) a lot of work, but nothing compared to this. Every house really is different…this one is just a lemon, plain and simple. Hopefully future posts about it will help clear up what could have been done differently to avoid this kind of situation, but these are pretty extraordinary circumstances that are rare to find all at once in a single house, old or not.

    • Yes don’t be scared Liz!!! I love my 95 year old house and although it has its issues (wonky floors, oh yeah) it’s sound overall. Plus it’s been my (super limited) experience, at least in the parts of the US I’ve lived in, that older houses typically have basements or at least bigger crawlspaces, so although you might still have surprise nasty plumbing/electrical/other issues lurking in the walls, at least you can get an engineer in for a good structural inspection of the foundation etc. (and those are usually among the most expensive problems to fix).

    • Old houses, if they have lasted this long, are likely to be very well-built. My 1872 house was a fairly ordinary one for it’s time and doesn’t look like much from the outside now (layers of Insulbrick and cheapie vinyl windows added in the 80s, all of which I will remove at some point). But I am constantly impressed by the workmanship and quality of the materials. Plaster is a superior material to drywall, the old woodwork, the proportions of the rooms, even though it all needs lots of work, this quality is just not available today. There were plenty of later ‘renovations’ that were badly done or ugly, but stripping those away, the basics are good. I’ve gained a lot of respect for those long-ago workers. It’s newer construction that often is not so good. I know a few people who bought in new developments, and the houses are crap. They look bright shiny and perfect, but the houses are made with cheap materials and lots of shortcuts; with leaks, mold, all sorts of issues. Old houses definitely need a lot of work and love, but if the basics are still good (as per advice from the inspector, a structural engineer, and other pros), it’s completely worth it. Hold on to that dream!

  43. This is some serious Mike Holmes shit right here. Is it possible that he might wish to scoot down to upstate NY and film a two-part ep?

    I would cry/poo/cry-poo if this happened to me. Those poor clients.

  44. Holy Hell. Hang in there! Walking through the cost comparison of the tear down decision was super helpful/interesting. Hope things start looking up soon!

  45. Holy moley Daniel is this the next Serial????
    Hoping the next installment has better news!

    • hahaha, does that make me Sarah Koenig? Or Gutierrez? Or Adnan? I don’t even know.

      Yes. This is the new Serial. Spread the word! Blog traffic will go nuts! :)

  46. Ditto what previous commenters have said! The suspense is worse than the story itself! Arrrrg! MUST KNOW HOW THIS TURNS OUT!
    Can’t believe what you’ve all been through/are going through :(

  47. I am thinking that this was someone’s weekend vacation house–built without a lot of money, time or commitment.

  48. holy fuck! no words.

  49. No wonder you were so ready to be rid of 2015, Daniel. Between this, Bluestone Cottage setbacks and your personal life and health, I totally understand why your blogging was thin last year. Here’s hoping that 2016 is already treating you better. There’s nowhere to go but up!

    • Thanks, Tisha. You’re very perceptive! It was, indeed, an extremely difficult year…and I certainly don’t write about all of it here! Luckily 2016 HAS been worlds better—VERY busy but in the good way, not in the awful way of 2015. Now I’m just trying to bring things into some semblance of balance, because I don’t want 2016 to be as thin blogging-wise as 2015 was!

      • So good to hear! Balance is oftentimes elusive, but being in a place where it feels like a realistic goal is probably a big relief.

  50. ‘So we kept trucking. Kind of. Sort of. Until everything came to a halt.’

    OH THE DREAD in that sentence… waiting with bated breath…

  51. Usually I laugh through even your grimmest posts because you’re such an entertaining writer, but this time I just read in silence. Unbelievable. The re-placed windows look GOOD, though!

  52. The suspense! I love to see the new pieces of wood that you already installed, they fill me with relief. I agree with some of the comments made already about looking into legal actions. I have a law degree, and my gut feeling says something must be possible. Here (in Belgium) liability of builders and architects lasts for 40years and every house is registered with a full history of owners etc. The inspection might not have revealed anything, but I would doublecheck what the standard of care is. Those foundations and exterior rot are very apparent. If that doesn’t stick, you can try to prove that the previous homeowners knew about the severe structural problems when making the sale which would make them “ill willed” and could also mean they are liable to at least some extent for leading the new owners astray when closing the deal. Any way I’m not familiar with the law in the state/country on the subject, but they should at least consult a (contract/construction law) lawyer. This is just too crazy.

  53. This was us, two years ago. Bought a house, got a joke of an inspection (in retrospect) and ended up with a total gut-job, rebuild it from the ground up renovation. The same month we had our first kid. I really feel for these people. That was probably one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. Two years out and the house is beautiful and new and soon to be not ours because we wanted to recoup our losses (thank you crazy real estate market, I guess). Best of luck to the owners.

    • Man, Kayce…you feel for them, I feel for you. Glad to hear you all lived to tell the tale, and that you’re able to recover from it. Gives me hope! Best of luck to all of you. :)

  54. Bless you with all the best juju this universe can offer. I keep thinking of that obligatory “we need to spend more money” phone call Chip and Joanna have to make in each episode of Fixer Upper, and it makes me laugh. This drama is not the drama that is created for television! So, yeah… Kudos for surviving this.

    And yet, this post also leaves me terrified. My husband and I close on our “new” house tomorrow. We are buying a 1930 stucco tudor that has been left relatively untouched. It needs tons of work, and I’m so afraid that we’re going to rip off the kitchen linoleum to reveal what you found in the living room. Pray for me!

  55. Oh my god! Daniel! So awful! I can’t believe you are still alive! Are you writing this to us from the afterlife?

  56. Cement blocks on stone rubble as a foundation? Whoever built this thing in the first place was criminally incompetent…what a horror.

    And yes, inspectors can only report on what they see — although they can also be willfully blind, as mine was.

  57. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again you have a great sense of writing. Pull that reader in and then tease them about the next chapter that they’ll have to wait to read. So cruel. And yes, everyone wants to see that DAMN SQUIRREL, especially our friend Sky. Haha!

  58. My two current obsessions; How to Get Away With Murder… and Olivebridge Cottage. The latter of which has more plot twists and surprises….and seemingly corpses! I have no doubt that it will look AMAZING when it’s finished. The rendering of the new living room area looks gorgeous… and the window move was a genius idea! Can’t wait for the next installment.

    p.s I’m not suggesting that you murdered anyone/thing ;)

  59. This cottage is going to be SO amazing once it’s finished. I just know it!

  60. I never knew renovation could be so suspenseful. I am grateful mine isn’t (see what a service you’re doing us all, by making our problems look tiny?). In a way, the new owners are getting a teardown and rebuild, just one room at a time instead of all at once. It looks like it’s going to be about 85% new, which, if you do the math, turns out to be a bargain for a new place. Right? Ray of sunshine?

  61. Did the owners buy this house without getting it inspected? Did you address that already, and I just missed it? I’ve bought/had inspected several houses over the past few years, some turning up similar issues going on here, and I’ve walked away from the deals. Whaaaat happened here?

  62. Thank you for not posting the squirrel. Poor little thing–walled up like Fortunato in the Poe story.

    Anyway, the pictures make me think of that car commercial, with the car that is up to its windows in post-Katrina flooding. The classified ad for the car says “all new upholstery!” I suppose the ad for this house can say: “all-organic flooring, floor-to-ceiling views, tons of fresh air!”

    I feel terrible for the homeowners. I hope it all will turn out well in the end and not go all George R. R. Martin.

  63. I am encouraged by your comments here, Daniel; mentioning things like – after the nightmare period things went smoother, etc. Because after reading this post, the only escalation I could imagine was that you found the mouth to Hell and the end of human civilization was nigh.

    Poor owners, poor you, poor *house*!

    On a side note, the location looks splendid. Although the photos of the house were horrifying, the woods looked beautiful.

  64. Err, it’s time to bring in the lawyers! I see above that lawyers were consulted…but it’s time for a second opinion!

    There was presumably an inspector who… well, missed a few things.
    And a homeowner who… didn’t disclose a few things!

    Also, there’s presumably a homeowner’s insurance policy.

    The homeowners are not in a good situation, but there are some protections. I wouldn’t try to handle this myself if I were them.

  65. Dear Daniel. Dear, dear, Daniel.

    I haven’t read any of the comments, because I read every word of your long post. I’m just writing a note of solidarity really. All I can say is, the owners are lucky to have you in the midst of this chaos, because no matter what, you will stick it out. I think this has always been evident from all the other projects you have worked on. Still, this one reads like the latest Stephen King novel . . .

    My thoughts are with you! Make sure you eat right, sleep enough!

    You know – the usual: look after yourself!

  66. I want to get all of us commenting here to get on a bus to Kingston with picnic baskets, hardhats and wine and help you out. Also, it’s amazing how much you’ve learned since I first started reading this blog and today I learned that “sistering” doesn’t mean entering into a polygamist marriage. You have lots of people who care about you here!

    • Ditto what Maritza said. I’d be on that bus to help you and show that bad, bad, sad, sad ‘house’ some love and careful attention right alongside you & your crew. Meantime, we are all sending supportive energy your way, and keeping our fingers crossed that there are no more horrible surprises!

  67. I admit I burst into horrified laughter at the shot of the living room “window” post-demolition. You know, that kind of laughter that’s half Schadenfreude and half tears? Not that I take joy in your sadness. But that photo, man. Hell is right. I can’t even imagine where this goes next. Can’t wait to read the next installment!

  68. Oh dear. It’s everyone’s worst nightmare come to life. I understand the rationale for keeping what’s there, though. I just sympathize. So sorry for you and the home owners. The story is riveting, though. Please keep us posted!

  69. I’m beginning to think this house is not just built with a prayer or two. For it to have remain standing this long defies reasons and gravity. It must have a guardian angel, one who brought the owners and you to it. When you guys are done, the house will surely treat it’s new owners the way they deserved for all the love they have given it. So looking forward to read the next installment on how you bring it back from its doom to hell status. And big hug to you for soldiering on in the face of all this series of disastrous discoveries, what a nightmare!

  70. I’ll echo what nella said above – the silver lining for you is that nothing (hopefully) will be this awful again. When I opened my business, one of my first orders was a NIGHTMARE. Awful customer, huge project in terms of time, materials, skill, size, logistics, etc. and I was doing it all alone for the first time. I got through it and knew that nothing else would ever challenge me as much as that did. After that I knew I could handle anything.

    • That’s really how I feel about this one, Kara! The amount I’ve learned in such a short period, and the number of challenges faced on this particular project, has made me feel so much more knowledgeable and qualified…and yes, I really cannot even fathom another house presenting SO many issues, so I feel like I can handle whatever is thrown at me next! BRING IT!

  71. By far, my favorite blog to follow. When I know there’s a new post, I get myself a cup of coffee and settle in for a good read. This would make such a great book – visuals and all. Part novel, part handy guide, part picture book. It’d be awesome.

    This is also the only blog where after reading it in my Feedly thread, I hop over to the actual site to read through the comments and your responses – almost as entertaining as the blog post! (Really, it’s a way to make the story last just a little bit longer until the next post)

    Thanks for taking the time to share it all with us.

  72. PS: Olivebridge Cottage needs its own link on the right side!

  73. I do feel for you, truly I do, as well as the owners, of course. I do have faith that it will all work out in the end and hopefully, the pain will lessen over time.
    What many people don’t understand is that a home inspection is so limiting and as you say, Daniel, focuses only on what is visible. Their popularity has been partly fuelled by the inspection industry itself as well as the real estate industry yet to avoid any recourse or liability, their commitment and responsibility to what they inspect is so limited, the inspection is usually riddled with phrases such as “recommend further investigation by professional *blank*” making it somewhat impotent!
    So what can you do? Hire the “professional” first instead. Most people don’t realize that this is an option or that we exist! There are firms that have the experience, often engineering companies, in structural integrity as well as other areas. For instance, our firm specializes in forensic inspection of building envelopes, foundations and structure. We don’t walk through the house turning on lights, stove elements, taps and flushing toilets but we do crawl through basements, remove insulation (and replace it), inspect soffits, and attics, checking for telltale signs of infestation, water damage and the integrity of the build in general. As ‘flippers’ ourselves (I hate that word as it doesn’t convey the character we rebuild and joy we pass on to new homeowners), these are the most important factors of the property to consider; everything else is secondary.
    The public needs to know that there are other options beyond those promoted by the inspection industry. An ‘oil lube and 25-point inspection’ on your car is not the same as a qualified mechanic spending a couple of hours on it in a shop. And we’re speaking about houses costing hundreds of thousands more!
    Can’t wait for the updates. You’ll get through it!

  74. THIS. I installed a dimmer with a LOT of trouble the other day, so I sort of cannot even begin to fathom how you are doing all of this. I’ve been following your blog since Brooklyn and I am blown away by the amount of knowledge you have amassed in a relatively short amount of time. These homeowners are SO LUCKY to have you on their side. Someone else mentioned that you truly care about the outcome of the home for your own sense of accomplishment and for the homeowners. Not many contractors are like that. I cannot wait to see the next installment of Nightmare Cottage because you literally can’t make this ish up.

    What’s crazy though, even after all these posts, I am over here like “TEAM DANIEL! HE IS GOING TO DO IT!” Never once doubted the abilities of an internet stranger. So, I have zero advice or input other than to say you are pretty kick ass. Oh and also? Since watching you renovate your own house, it really makes me want to buy something in Kingston and have you come renovate/restore it for me.

    BRB LOOKING UP REAL ESTATE LISTINGS.

  75. So, it sounds like this “house” was built with no slab or real foundation. Since you aren’t tearing it down, I’m guessing your guys are building a foundation underneath it to support it.

    So, I think the moral here is don’t buy a home that wasn’t built as a house – this was never a house. A thrown up cabin, added onto in half-assed ways over the years buy owners who build like toddlers do. There are lots of these in rural areas. My sister lived in (rented) just such a hunting-cabin-turned-(not-really)-into-a-house in just such an area not far outside of a major city in California. I visited in the winter, and what a joy (not) it was to stay there.

    While one could have pursued mentions of rot in the inspection report, given how much an inspector can’t see, I think one would do better to focus on learning a bit about historical construction in the area one is looking in. I’m guessing a lot of locals know about these cabins now passed off as houses, in general if not which houses specifically. But the odd add-ons are a tell-tale sign. It pays to rent in and get to know an area and its housing history before buying there, whether rural or urban.

    Glad there appears to be a happy house ending coming for your friends/clients at the end of this. Wouldn’t surprise me if they sell in a few years in order to be able to forget the pain that it was though.

  76. Trial by fire dude, wow. I had to take a moment of silence and just sit and stare when you showed the “foundation.” I mean…wow. WOW.

    No wonder 2015 sucked so much. I know I keep saying that, but geez. I read through all the comments & responses, and I guess the bright side is that after this, all future construction/reno issues will really be put into perspective, and as sucky as it was, you learned a ton from the experience.

    I want to send you, like, a case of bourbon or something as congratulations for surviving, especially with your sense of humor intact.

    P.S. The door/window switch looks fantastic!

  77. Wow. Daniel you are a real trooper. This is so…I don’t know? Devastating? Frustrating? All of the above. I’m reading these comments about the home inspection and it’s TERRIFYING to me. First of all that this house sounds like it could’ve been knocked over if you leaned on the wrong wall or collapsed under you at any moment!

    As someone that’s hoping to buy their first home in the near future, how do I avoid buying such a nightmare? It sounds like visual inspections are not enough but also the norm. Do you just get lucky? EEK!

    • As a lover of old houses, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo. In my current house, I have had to deal with foundation issues, roof issues, wood rot issues caused by the roof issues, rot issues caused or hidden by the vinyl siding which we’re paying a king’s ransom to remove. Most of this (except what was uncovered when the vinyl was removed) was known at the time of my inspection and was factored into the purchase price/repairs were paid for by the seller, so none of it is particularly upsetting to me.

      For a soon-to-be homebuyer, my advice to you would be:
      1) Get a REALLY good realtor who is very experienced because they will know what to make of an inspection report, plus they will have a good stable of reliable people who do work for them as part of closings (inspectors, contractors, plumbers, electricians) and who don’t want to get on their bad side because really good realtors throw a lot of business at said inspectors, contractors, plumbers and electricians. My realtor has been absolutely instrumental in getting a really jacked-up situation with our new roof fixed. We would be out many thousands of dollars if the roofer wasn’t so afraid of losing her referrals.
      2) Ask your inspector a lot of questions once you get the report. Ask them what a problem indicates. Ask directly (and in writing, if you can email) if they see any symptoms of serious structural issues.
      3) If you have a feeling that there may be a problem, get an engineer in to evaluate it and tell you what would need to be done to fix it, and then get your realtor to get a trusted contractor to bid on the job — and ask the sellers to fix it using your realtor’s person.
      4) Be very hesitant to buy a house that is sheathed in vinyl. All sorts of ugliness can lurk under it, and simply not removing it doesn’t resolve any of those hidden problems. Problems are not limited to what might be happening to the clapboard; vinyl siding can temporarily hide roofing problems and other wood rot that is structural in nature. Under ours we found a rotting sill plate, a rotted porch column, and other undesirable things.

      All of this makes buying a house sound really scary, but it’s not that bad. Every house has problems and so you have to roll with the punches sometimes, but with a decent realtor and a decent inspector, your house should not end up being reduced to a pile of rubble.

  78. A few observations….a first time homebuyer should have been STRONGLY advised by a reputable REALTOR to have the discoveries by the inspector reviewed by the builder/general contractor that would be making the renovations. What on earth made them think they didn’t need a licensed builder to coordinate the project? I would have expected a builder to convey an opinion before even writing an offer. In my state (Michigan) sellers are required to disclose whether improvements or modifications to the home have been made WITHOUT a permit. Is this not the case there? So many red flags and I commend you on your devotion to your friends/clients, but when people try to save money by going about things without hiring professionals and wonder why things cost more, I have to shake my head.

  79. I feel like if you were from Boston, the homeowners were nicknamed Jay, and that house was a sunfish, this is what’s your conversations would sound like:

  80. Inspectors will tell you that they can only inspect what they can see, and that is true. However, there are multiple signs that a foundation has failed or is in the process of failing, and those should have, at a minimum, triggered the inspector to note some telltale signs and for the realtor or inspector to suggest an opinion by an engineer. There really had to have been visible signs to an inspector who is skilled in the trade of inspecting to know that there were structural issues that severe.

    For example, the inspector should have noticed the divot in the floor even if it was under a rug, which would have been a major clue that there was a huge problem with the foundation. I had foundation issues as evidenced by something that was happening with one of the walls, and although the inspector couldn’t say much more than that (one of the walls has some cracks and has shifted away from 90 degrees), it was enough for my realtor to know that we needed to bring in an engineer to evaluate further. The realtor may also share some liability. The homeowner is not expected to take a description of a symptom of a problem (jargon about something happening to a wall) and then diagnose the problem him or herself. That is the job of the inspector to explain and the realtor to point out in inspection report (if for no other reason than any major problems that impact the value of the home should trigger a discussion with the buyer about whether to ask for repairs or ask for money instead of repairs).

    Finally, the way it has been described, things were patched over by the previous owners. That could be evidence that the sellers knew there were serious issues and tried to hide them — something that they could be held liable for. In my state, they could be held liable for treble (triple) damages in that situation — so if the resultant hidden defects cost $15,000 to repair, there could be a judgment against them for $45,000 plus attorneys and court fees.

  81. Billions of blue blistering barnacles (this is how we Belgians curse according to Captain Haddock)…
    I don’t know how you’re still sane after all this misery, Daniel…

  82. If the previous homeowners weren’t the ones who did the add ons, and they just lived there and didn’t bother to inquire into the walls, it would be hard to show they were aware of the condition of the house. They may have been, they may not have been. As people who worked and ran businesses in NYC, they bought this place really cheap over 20 years ago (all this stuff can be found on google), and likely used it as a weekend getaway. They may have known it was a piece of junk when they bought it, they may have figured it out over the years, or they might not have bothered to find out if they used it as it was and never tried to make improvements. If they had leaks and just patched them up rather than fix what was behind them, is that negligent, or is it just doing what many (most?) people do – I threw some patch on, the leak stopped, I painted over the stain, I forgot about it.

    They tried to sell the place for half of 2010 and half of 2012 (at much higher prices than was ultimately paid.) Everybody involved was happy to finally have a buyer, I’m sure. I disagree with Daniel – you should not trust your real estate agent. You should find your own independent inspector and contractors. Many inspectors do exactly what this one did – note things, but don’t educate the purchaser of their service about true conditions – because the realtors would not refer people to them if they did. The realtors get paid when there is a sale. Good inspections stop many sales. I have had both kinds of inspections, realtor-referrred ones and independent ones, and I know the difference. (Not that there aren’t some good realtors out there, but how would you know yours is?) Trust no one, and hire people independently, I say. Yes, a good contractor and/or an engineer would have been a good investment here before purchasing. Though truly the staging in the listing photos made the place look so good, you would not have suspected you were buying a wreck.

  83. So for your readers who are scared of buying old houses, I think one of the lessons is to check if permits have ever been pulled in your city for work on the house. Since it appears no permits were ever issued for any additions to the house that had clearly been “rehabbed” in the 90s, that could have been a big red flag. If it looks like work was done in 90s, then the work probably was done in the 90s, and if properly inspected, wouldn’t there be a permit? I live in a city with a lot of old houses, and our city inspectors won’t let a sale go through on uninspected additions, so most major projects get permits in my city (not saying people don’t redo a bathroom without an inspection, but they generally can’t add a bathroom without an inspection). If the previously additions were permitted, then you likely wouldn’t be looking at a house with all these structural problems (though termites/carpenter ants and animal infestations can still happen).

    • Good points, Meg. Checking permits is important. Other things to look for are homes that have had only one or two owners, and places that obviously haven’t been changed much over time. The more ‘updates’ a house has had, the more opportunities for shitty workmanship to be hidden in the walls. Another big thing is mature landscaping. You want to see trees, shrubs, walkways and stuff that have been in place for a while and look to be in good shape. Generally a homeowner who maintains a nice yard is also going to take care of things like leaks, cracks, annual termite inspections and such.

  84. OH MY GOD! Ohhh My God! OHHH MYYY GOOOD!

  85. Daniel, I have to say that reading about this house is Deja vu all over again. We bought a 1914 farmhouse over 30 years ago, and many of your findings are bringing back painful memories. You are a trooper.

  86. Daniel, I know this is terrifying for everyone involved but I have to say from a writing perspective I am in the edge of my seat. Writing is your second job after renivation and design, but the writing is so good for this story. I know this is all a moment in time and I have faith this is going to work out beautifully (in your lifetime) for you and the owners. But I want to show appreciation for a story captivatingly told!

  87. Oh you’re killing us – when’s the next installment? These cliffhangers are the worst!
    Can’t wait to see what happened!

  88. RUN FORREST, RUN!!!!! I have been following for a while and have seen the other probs, but this post made a giant ball of anxiety bubble up into my chest. I can’t even. I just…. Can’t. I love a fixer upper, but this is like a living nightmare. High fives and chest bumps for staying with it – and for not being institutionalized, let’s be real… Gah.

  89. This post is the kind of thing that makes me pass the computer to my partner in mute horror. Oh, Daniel. I’m so glad to know that this part is actually in the past (for you and the homeowners) and reassured by the thought of better things to come. But I think your readership has spoken, and we want to see Mummy Squirrel.

    Seriously, I am so glad that you blog. This is one of my favourite corners of the internet.

  90. I had another thought going back to the realtor. Surely that home, and I use that term lightly, had a “reputation” among the local real estate community. My guess, others may have looked into purchasing and walked away. A realtor knows this. I do fault the greedy realtor. They are the one who arranges for an inspection and knows exactly what needed to happen….find an unsuspecting first-time home buyer, take the money and run. Mission accomplished.

  91. While I’m enjoying (sorry, Daniel) reading the horror story of Olivebridge cottage, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on with Bluestone cottage at the moment?

  92. “it framed the view of that postmodern toilet sculpture really beautifully.”

    Daniel, you make me laugh through the pain of reading your posts every time. I wish they’d come more often but I can clearly see why they cannot!

    The homeowners are lucky to have you working on this project for them!

  93. I have no words other than this just seems like a nightmare that you just can’t wake up from. Dear God, I hope this really does have a happy ending because you deserve to have something positive to look at after all you’ve been through with this thing! If nothing else, Bluestone Cottage is going to be a piece of chocolate cake with mocha frosting after this.

  94. The part I love is that we’re only to Day 30 here. Lots more for Daniel to report. Praying for “better.”

  95. oh. my. goodness.

    amazing writing & my favorite is your attitude and transparency about the whole thing. i’d just cry in the corner but you’re clearly just a roll up my sleeves, tackle it head on and that’s so refreshing. i love it. cannot wait for the next installment!!!

  96. I’m still utterly amazed no one ever caught a whiff of this shoddy work back when it was done! From what I’ve read most places in the US seem to have a pretty strict permit system so it’s hard for me to imagine how they could’ve built as much as the original cabin without a permit – and if they illegally did so, how no one ratted on them.
    In Europe (at least in the part I live in) you need a permit for anything that exceeds a size of 3x3x3 m (roughly a 10-foot cube), i.e. a garden shed and even for a garden shed you need to notify the authorities in writing. And if you build without a permit you can be almost sure that someone WILL find out about it and report it. Granted, you can knock out load-bearing walls without anyone noticing (until the wall about starts to sag and crack, it was a 2-foot brick wall in that case) but I doubt you can do much unpermitted exterior work without getting in trouble.

  97. Have you ever read “House” by Tracy Kidder? I see a book in your future.
    (Your diaries will come in handy!)

  98. I miss you! Thanks so much for sharing your crazy, awesome life and projects with us!

  99. Just wow. I was literally thinking “why don’t they just pull it down and start again?!”, so thanks for breaking down the costs – I had no idea. Those poor owners.

  100. Daniel, I have a question totes unrelated to this post but prompted by my rereading today to one of your Bluestone cottage posts. You mentioned you think its unnecessary for all paint to be stripped from weatherboards before repainting and Im curious if you take the same approach to door trims/frames (Interior). My door frames have about 5 coats of paints and I’m scraping all the loose stuff off and wondering if I can then just get away with a good primer then enamel. It’s a 1950’s built fibro, (I’m in Australia) not exactly historically worthy of spending heaps of time on but I still want it to look good.
    Amazing work on this by the way, after reading of the nightmare this has been for you, I have totally forgiven the lack of new blog posts! As long as you never stop blogging, I’m happy :-)

    • Sorry for the slow reply, just catching up! My basic rule with stripping paint is ONLY when necessary—it’s a horribly messy and suppppper time-consuming process, and I think most products tend to weaken and dry out the wood, which isn’t so great anyway. Especially in an older house, I actually prefer when painted trim has a few layers of paint—to me it just looks more authentic to the age and has a way of softening details a bit which I personally find kind of nice! So yes—scrape what’s loose, maybe sand down old drips, fill holes, etc. and then just a good primer (I like oil-based or shellac-base for this kind of thing) and paint!

  101. So, whatever happened with this little charmer!? Did you finally go screaming into the woods!?

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