Olivebridge Cottage: Little House of Horrors

It’s been quite a while since we talked about the renovation of Olivebridge Cottage—that little vacation house I was hired to renovate back in the spring for a couple of NYC-based clients. I’ve hinted at stuff here and there, but to be honest I’ve had a very hard time figuring out exactly how to tell this story.

I was hired to basically do a kitchen renovation and some cosmetic upgrades to bring this little 1,100 square foot house up to snuff. How hard could that be?! It was supposed to take about 6-8 weeks, at which point I’d hand over the keys to the happy homeowners, collect a nice little paycheck to keep other projects/myself afloat, serve up a cute and satisfying before-and-after on the blog, and move on with my life.

Instead, I’m 10 months into this project—longer if you count the weeks I spent on the design work before the physical demo work began. Even though this hasn’t been reflected in my blog content, this project has occupied more of my time than anything else I’ve been doing over that same period. So what the hell happened? And how do I account for it all here? That was a particularly difficult question to answer during the periods of this project where wasn’t even sure where things were headed!

So…I kind of sat on it all until I knew. Sometimes I forget as a blogger that the story doesn’t go away or lose utility just because it isn’t rehashed immediately—and in this case, I think it’ll be better because the teller finally has a reasonably good sense of the ending. So I hope it’s cool if we pretty much pick up where we left off on this, because skipping gory details for the sake of concision has never really been my style, anyway.


So where did we leave off? This looks about right! I spent the first week on site demo-ing out the old kitchen and enormous half-bathroom and utility space to make room for the new open kitchen/dining space. The homeowners and I had settled on a design we were all happy with, and a budget that was optimistic but doable for the scope of work we were intending to do.

There were quite a few surprises that week, and none of them good. The house had clearly been altered over the years by somebody who evidently never thought to crack a book on the subject, leaving a variety of structural concerns in his wake. There was a lot of mold, everywhere, despite a very pricey remediation that had allegedly occurred only a few months prior (but very obviously had not). There was evidence of an extensive rodent infestation that had caused serious damage to at least the insulation if not even more serious things. And then, the rot. This structural, exterior wall that hadn’t been framed correctly in the first place, supporting half the load of the roof above it, had also rotted away to a point that would not pass code even if we’d wanted to leave it as-is, but moreover was a mold-ridden health and structural hazard that didn’t leave us any options that I can deduce beyond rebuilding it.

That was the first 6 days. Did I mention it’s been 10 months? Yeah.


First, we had to pull out the old plumbing. I don’t mess with that. Everything was bad, basically—the galvanized pipe in the photo above was the drain line for the kitchen sink and laundry machine, which drained into…I don’t even know. There’s a main drain that goes to the septic system, but this one basically came out the side wall of the house and directly into the ground, presumably into some kind of dry well. It’s best not to think too hard about it. At least there wasn’t a garbage disposal.


Since we decided to ditch the half-bathroom, all that plumbing needed to go, too! This was kind of exciting…the old plumbing had clearly just been added onto, cut out, added onto some more—creating a lot of half-corroded joints and areas primed for a burst. It’s nice to simplify systems like this! New plumbing will be run with PEX and PVC.


Getting the plumbing out of the way allowed me to start removing the old subfloor. It was rotted, it was super uneven, it varied in thickness from space to space…it had to go.


See that beam running perpendicular to the joists, to support them? Yeah, that thing had been cut in half with the installation of the half-bath and never fixed, rendering it more or less useless. The entire floor in this area of the house was pretty severely slanted, the under-sized joists showed significant signs of rot, there was no central support, leading it to bow…disaster! We’d hoped we could just shim up a new subfloor, but the damage was too extensive for that solution to be a lasting one—in other words, the floor might look OK for a while but would continue to shift and sink and move, which is not really what you want a year after a major renovation.


The subfloor and all the framing under the half-bath (about 1/3rd of the space) was…a total mess. Essentially the whole floor system under the half-bath was build on some super shoddy and actively rotting 2×4 framing, resting on the dirt in the crawlspace, all built with drywall screws. It’s actually kind of amazing that parts of the adjacent floor hadn’t collapsed given how sloppily they’d been “supported” by the newer floor system of under the half-bath. Jeez.



In preparation for reframing, I removed the aluminum siding on exterior of the rotted kitchen wall. This wasn’t a huge loss, since the rest of the house is sided with vertical wood tongue-in-groove boards and this section was not. That kind of tongue-and-groove is only about $1.50 per square foot, so the bright side of this was that we’d be able to have the exterior match without spending too much money.


Underneath the siding was…more siding! This stuff is horrible. It’s a fiberboard kind of material that was used a lot in the 60s and 70s, often with a fake brick or stone pattern on the outside, which has the same kind of texture as asphalt roofing shingles. It is NOT a good thing to have between siding and sheathing, since any water that gets in essentially gets sucked up like a sponge and then sits and rots the structural components of a house. Yuck! I love how at some point they painted it white but didn’t bother to remove the shutters. Ha!


The whole wall was so disintegrated. This enormous hole was the result of Edwin half-heartedly putting his fist through it.


The underside of the eaves (which were covered in aluminum that had just been installed on top of 1/2″ plywood) had to be removed to get access to the top parts of the wall framing, and luckily things looked great. Kidding! It was horrible! So much rot! So much water damage! The ends of the original 2×4 rafters were all rotted! DAMNIT.


Oh, by the way! These were nailed to the concrete foundation and supporting the siding. That’s called termite damage, right there! Instead of just letting part of the concrete foundation show and keeping wood off the ground, someone decided to run untreated wood down the foundation and into the ground. In case you’re short on common sense, this is just a big old invitation for pests and water damage.


So, we set about reframing the whole kitchen wall. Fun times! The left corner had sunk so much that we had to jack it up about 2″ to get something resembling level.


That’s not horrifying at all, right? Totally normal? Great.

At some point in there, the clients and I decided that while we were at it, we might as well put in a bigger kitchen window. The old kitchen window was only 3×3 feet and looked sort of dinky both inside and out. These unexpected repairs at least had bright spots because they also presented an opportunity to change things that we’d taken as givens at the beginning of the project.


We framed as much of the wall as we could without knowing the dimensions of the new window, and then moved on to the floor. The old 2×6 joists all got removed to be replaced by 2x12s—SO much stronger! The space is only about 12 feet wide, so this also allowed us to get away without having a beam run under the joists to support them.

Oh yeah, that blue thing is the pump for the well! The well is literally right under the kitchen. I guess this is what happens when a house keeps getting added on to? So bizarre.


For reasons unknown, the old floor was framed a good 8 inches higher than it needed to be, so we decided to lower it. Silver linings! This meant higher ceilings and fewer steps up to the kitchen/dining space, both good things.


Edwin and Edgar rocked it out. The foundation (oh, we’ll get there…) was SEVERELY out of whack, so every joist had to be carefully notched to make things level. Here you can get a better sense of how needlessly high the old floor was—so odd.


Looky there! It felt good to see this floor looking so fresh and level. I’m not scared off by old lumber (I’m used to it!) but I really hate rot and poor workmanship.


The excitement was short-lived. Very short-lived. This is the condition of the wall opposite of the one that we’d just rebuilt. This shit is bad, folks! Also, see how there’s water-stained plywood above the concrete block of the foundation? That was sitting completely below grade. Helllllo, rot and water infiltration! See that bit of blue stuff on the far left of the photo above? That’s insulation in the wall of the adjacent bathroom, peaking through because everything that should have been covering it was completely rotted. See how it also has gnaw marks all over it? Thanks, chipmunks.


Here’s the sill plate! That’s the piece of wood that sits on top of the foundation that supports…everything else. Terrific.

So…I guess we’re reframing another wall. That makes 2 major exterior walls, and an entire floor! THIS WAS NOT THE PLAN.

The homeowners were aware of what was going on throughout all of this, by the way. Our original budget was dependent on things going really smoothly and using materials that were really inexpensive, so all of this stuff hurt. Nothing thusfar was hideously expensive or difficult or time-consuming (it seems like it would be, but it wasn’t), but still—it was a lot more than we’d prepared ourselves for.


This second major wall that I’m now talking about re-framing (the one with the sliders) was a little more complicated than the first, mainly because of this super weird deck outside of it. The deck was being held up by some posts but mainly by ledger boards screwed into the sides of the house—so to get access to this wall to replace it, the deck had to go. This was just fine with everyone because it was kind of stupid and pointless and tiny.


Could NOT have seen that one coming! Or maybe I could have. Jeez. What you’re looking at is new decking boards toward the top of the photo that were laid directly on top of rotting decking boards below. There literally aren’t enough eye-rolls in the world.


Naturally, the baseboard around the perimeter of this deck thing was also covering major rot to the bottom of the siding.


Like, major major. This is the kind of thing that can really only get worse over time.


Under the steps was this cute fire hazard! That’s a duct tape electrical junction and NM cable that’s not rated for exterior use. Peachy.


Plywood half underground, all below a very wet deck, ledger board screwed into the studs and without any flashing, rot for days…do I need to keep going? This is bad.


Oh, look! You can reach your whole hand through the exterior of the house and into the crawlspace below the bedroom! The bottoms of the studs are all totally rotted! The sill plate is all rotted! Everything is terrible!


Cute, Olivebridge Cottage.


Super duper cute.


This is what it looks like when a house is basically mulch. At least it’s composting itself?

So…clearly THAT needs to be redone, too. This one extra sucked because part of this wall is the bathroom, and we really did not want to be renovating that bathroom, which cosmetically and functionally was OK. After some head-scratching, we figured we could remove the siding and sheathing and repair it all from the exterior.


One of the things the homeowners really wanted to do was make this part of the living room function better. This kind of addition is clearly the result of an old porch being enclosed. The ceiling height at the front is really low (really too low to reframe the floor to be the same level as the rest of the living room), but we figured it would be drastically improved by removing the supporting posts and putting a structural beam in its place. That shouldn’t be that big of a deal! Just take the posts out, temporarily support the roof, insert the beam and a couple of built-up posts on each end—it should have been a one day project where the major cost was the price of the LVL beams.


“Should have been.” HA. One thing nobody really noticed is that the “beam” here (which is really just the original top plate of that wall, without any other support aside from the posts) was made to look like a solid beam because it was sheathed in 1-by lumber. The same was true of the posts! 4x4s masquerading as 6x6s! This isn’t great. In a different climate, maybe, sure, but here we have to worry about crazy heavy snow loads that can lead to something like this collapsing!

Oh yeah, all that dust appears to be some kind of pest (carpenter ants? termites?) eating their way through the foam insulation in the living room ceiling. Delicious. I’m sure that’s contributing greatly to this house’s energy efficiency.


The ceiling in here was, unsurprisingly, a piece of shit. The entire flimsy roof was being supported by those white rafters (too small, too spaced apart) toe-nailed into the original fascia. The roof itself was a layer of corrugated fiberglass with a bunch of tar thrown on top and a layer of EPDM rubber on top of that, held down with drywall screws (!!!!!!!). On the interior, there was an area of drywall that had been patched in with a piece of masonite, and underneath of that was a huge squirrel nest! As in, squirrels had literally eaten their way through the ceiling and a previous owner had fixed the issue by slapping up a 1/4″ piece of masonite to cover it.


See that little sliver of daylight? See all that crap between the studs and stuff? See the acorn clinging to the original fascia board that’s supporting an entire low-slope roof? Lord DELIVER me from this madness.


From what I can tell, the squirrels/chipmunks/whatever had gnawed their way into the house through some bad siding and framing, and been living it up in this ceiling.


Aside from the yuck factor…this is—you guessed it!—NOT GOOD. Just some live electrical cable missing all of its rubber insulation. That stuff is there for a reason! Fire is the reason!


Even where the electrical wasn’t totally eaten, there were illegal junctions hiding up in that ceiling, too. Just a little tape, right? Just because it works doesn’t mean it’s safe! SOBS.


Not cool, Olivebridge Cottage. Not at all cool.

I know this might all read as kind of funny or so-awful-it’s-funny but at the time it wasn’t funny! I’m pretty good at taking things in stride, but it SUCKED having to call the homeowners everyday (sometimes more than once!) to report that we’d found some other awful thing wrong with their house. Not that the alternative of not knowing and potentially having the house burn down or collapse or consume its occupants in black mold was a great option, either, but sometimes you just wish you didn’t know about this kind of stuff. Ugh! Timeline, blown. Budget, blown. Expectations, dashed. Life, horrible.

At this point, we had to change approaches a little. We were trying so hard to stick to the original goals and timeline, so the basic strategy was to find a problem, quickly come up with a solution, and then quickly fix it. It’s not as though that totally wasn’t working, but given how many problems there clearly were, it seemed as though a more efficient long-term approach would be…an investigatory period. No more fixing before figuring out all the things that need it. At this point my priority became more about the long-term health and safety of the house than installing a cute kitchen and slapping up some paint. Gulp. What’s that thing they say? Seek and you will find?

Diary time!

Day 7: Dump run in AM. Met the plumber at house to disconnect old plumbing work. Returned to the dump, continued demo of kitchen/dining area and loaded truck for dump run tomorrow morning.
Day 8: Dump run. Removed trim in master bedroom and hallway, de-nailed, piled up. Demo’d ceiling in sunken living room. Met with Edwin about floors in dining/kitchen and plans for sunken living room. Removed aluminum siding on kitchen wall in prep for re-framing tomorrow morning.
Day 9: Edwin and Edgar went to Home Depot in morning for supplies. Met at site. Demo’d rest of kitchen wall and began new framing. Had to lift right side 1.5″ to level out roofline. Will try to find larger window tomorrow. Framed as much as possible before new window is found and sheathed in OSB. Will Tyvek tomorrow.
Day 10: Dump run in morning. Met Edwin and Edgar at site where they had removed all framing and subfloor from dining/kitchen. Discovered that other exterior wall must also be re-framed and window header replaced on other wall. Also discovered that we can drop floor roughly 8 inches! Edwin and Edgar had to leave early. I finished cleaning the crawlspace, organized, cleaned yard of debris, and loaded truck for dump run in AM. Went to the Door Jamb to look at kitchen window options.
Day 11: Edwin and Edgar completed work on framing kitchen/dining floor. Talked plans for reframing sunken living room roof. I worked on removing siding on bedroom/bathroom walls and demo-ing small deck to prep for reframing dining room wall with sliders.
Day 12: Continued demo on back wall and exposed framing below second bedroom. Sitting below grade—I think we will need to excavate area behind house to bring grade down several inches and create pitch away from structure. Demo’d deck and loaded truck for dump. Assessed condition of sill under bedroom and bathroom. Rot is very extensive…will likely need to reframe entire wall.
Day 13: Dump run.
Day 14: Cleaned up and organized kitchen/dining area, second bedroom, bathroom, and worked on cleaning up main living room and sunken part. Loaded truck for dump.

About Daniel Kanter

Hi, I'm Daniel, and I love houses! I'm a serial renovator, DIY-er, and dog-cuddler based in Kingston, New York. Follow along as I bring my 1865 Greek Revival back to life and tackle my 30s to varying degrees of success. Welcome!

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  1. 2.22.16
    m said:

    I literally needed a cup of tea and a klonopin while reading that. Could you please address the reasons that the current owners didn’t get the property inspected before purchasing it (or if they did, can you tell us wtf happened)?

    Also, please hurry and post the next chapter.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Yes! there was a home inspection, but I’ll elaborate next time about why that wasn’t enough in this case and what might have been done differently! it’s a little complicated and this post was just getting too long!

    • 2.22.16
      Pam said:

      I have never in my life read a blog post that made me THISCLOSE to a nervous breakdown. I need to know that these people are okay. ARE THEY OKAY!? I’m so worried for their poor souls. I’m also terrified that our home inspector missed something and we’re going to simultaneously catch on fire and fall through the floors of our house tonight.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Everyone is OK! Nerves, bank accounts, and feelings of zen are pretty stretched thin, but everyone is surviving! :)

    • 2.22.16
      mollysusie said:

      Home Inspectors are not allowed to “damage” the house by moving anything, some are even afraid to shift a drop ceiling panel to look up inside, so basically if a problem is hidden by siding, trim, a patch, etc a home inspector won’t look behind it to see. Although they should have gone into the crawl space and noted the shoddy construction of the floors, as well as the roof.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Yep, you’re exactly right! The story is a bit more complicated (there were warning signs, for sure) so we’ll get into that next time, I think. There are good lessons in all of this—it’s just very unfortunate that my clients (and in some ways me!) had to learn them the hard way.

    • 2.23.16
      Adrien said:

      Depending on the jurisdiction and the conditions of the sale of the property, you can bring a claim against the seller of the property for the defects that could not be found by a reasonably diligent home inspector (even if the seller themselves had no idea – but they can turn around and sue the person who sold them the house and so forth).

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Thanks, Adrien. That’s something these homeowners looked into, but ultimately it wouldn’t have been worth it. Sucks!

    • 2.22.16
      Linda said:

      I thought the same thing! It’s criminal what a mess this place is. I have no doubt the final outcome will be safe for the homeowners but I am so sorry for you (and the homeowners).

  2. 2.22.16
    Niki said:

    Day 14 of a 10+ month project… yikes. Yikes. I don’t know how you managed.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Some days, me neither! This was such a particularly insane moment in my life—glad to be past it, hope to never be there again!

  3. 2.22.16
    Catbird Farm said:

    A question that might be naive, but, wasn’t there a home inspection done prior to the sale? And if so, wouldn’t at least some of these issues have been apparent to a professional inspector? I know they can’t rip up carpet or poke holes, but surely there would have been some more superficial signs that all was not well beneath the skin?

    Also, curious how the homeowners were handling all of this catastrophic news. I feel so bad for all of you, but (and I do apologize for this) it makes for a great story! I love your long posts and can’t wait for more updates. I’m sure this little house is so relieved to have been rescued from the long-term abuse she was subjected to. :-)

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Short answers: yes, there was a home inspection, and yes, some of the issues were at least somewhat apparent! I actually didn’t have the home inspection report until after the house was purchased and I was hired to renovate it—with those reports there’s a lot left to Best Case/Worst Case kinds of analyzing that I think could have been better explained prior to the purchase.

      Particularly under the circumstances, the homeowners have been real troopers! I tried to maintain very clear lines of communication and present them with as many options as I could come up with, but ultimately so much of this stuff is out of your hands when it comes to safety and inspections once a permit is pulled. They’ve been very understanding and I think have made all the right decisions as we’ve moved forward with this project that was totalllllly not what they were prepared for.

  4. 2.22.16
    Gregg said:

    It’s like a real life version of the Money Pit.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      I think it’s worse!

  5. 2.22.16
    Lisette said:

    Bloody hell, (pardon my Français) what rotten luck, to find the cottage in such a terrible state at every turn! My heart goes out to the owners, and of course to you, Daniel, for all the despair that the discoveries and delays this has caused. Hope things are on track to a fabulous reveal before too long?

  6. 2.22.16
    Ross said:

    Olivebridge Cottage is, obviously, THE poster child for the old adage:

    1) Things will ALWAYS take longer.
    2) Things will ALWAYS cost more.

    Lord. What a friggin’ mess.

    I am all for preservation but I just assumed that the post would end with images of a huge bulldozer smashing the whole disaster to the ground.

    • 2.22.16
      Simone said:

      As my husband says about these things: you have quality, time and budget, choose one (that’s important) and drop the others. So true.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      SO true! I always say good, fast, and cheap: choose 2!

    • 2.22.16
      DH said:

      a mantra that has served me well over the years! (though, I’m with Daniel – you can choose two)

      I have to tell clients all the time – you can have a really nice rug, and have it fast, but you’re going to pay for it. Adding 100% – 150% rush fees and priority airfreight adds up REAL fast…

  7. 2.22.16
    Laura F said:

    I just have to ask: Did they have an inspection before they bought the house? This sounds so, so stressful. I hope the worst is over for them and for you, and that they’ll get to enjoy their new home soon.

  8. 2.22.16
    Sam said:

    So basically the best course of action for this house is a gallon of kerosene and a match?

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Basically, yes. :)

    • 2.27.16
      jrochest said:

      Seriously — once you found rot in the walls and a wood foundation sitting directly on dirt I’d have decided to demo the house and put a mobile on the lot while we built a new one.

  9. 2.22.16
    Sally said:

    Wow. This is like a lifetime of renovation woes all wrapped up in one single project. Sorry! Poor homeowners. They are very lucky to have you there. Bad news is bad news, no matter who delivers it. Having a contractor you trust who can help troubleshoot solutions is priceless. And of course, none of this is the worst that could happen. The worst would have been if the homeowners had decided to put off what they thought was a quick kitchen renovation, spent a few years in that cottage, breathing in mold and rodent droppings and quite *strongly* possible, dealing with a life-threatening catastrophe like a fire.

    Even if there had been no fire in the first year, I doubt they’d have passed one summer peacefully there, with mold smell and critter infestation.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Very true! The only thing that’s made me feel better about this whole thing is thinking about the alternatives. It’s hard not to feel somewhat responsible (even irrationally) when you’re the one uncovering all of this, but there really isn’t any consolation in *not* uncovering it and allowing the house to continue to be occupied with so many health and safety hazards.

  10. 2.22.16
    Simone said:

    O my Daniel, I’ve been there and it is really really heartbreaking. And having to call the owners (again and again). Boy that must have weighed on you. I hope it didn’t cast too much gloom over the last year. I hope things are starting to get finished by now and are superhappy with the result.
    PS if anybody has plans for buying an existing house, about people making assesments, get someone who knows their stuff, pay them per hour, get credentials or ask a good local builder to advise you on one. Skimp on that and you end up with a situation like this!!!

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Thanks, Simone! YES—calling the owners to report bad news time and time again was absolutely the worst, and felt terrible. From so many months out I still can’t really think of anything I should have done better or differently, but at the time it just felt like so much failure on my part even though, obviously, I didn’t cause this stuff to happen. I’m very glad to have that behind me.

      And yes, your advice is right on. I think people feel like spending money on a house prior to a purchase (or even an offer) is a waste, and I suppose sometimes it is, but good and thorough inspections and estimates are probably the best defenses against winding up in this kind of situation!

    • 2.22.16
      Simone said:

      I once had a project, an old elementary school remodel. The owners had a contracter friend pop by who gave some numbers of certain costs off the top of his head, that was used for the budget. And they had another person drop by -for 250 euro’s all in- to check up on the technical state of the house. Based on that the expensive school was bought and I was asked to make a design. After three weeks all the monkeys that the two “experts” had not noticed were dancing around, virtually no insulation, no planning permission to use it as a house (technically it was still a school), rotten windows (the ones that were not rotten were single glass), and no foundation at all (it is a stone building built on clay). The planned 10 weeks became 9 months (with all that that entails), and the budget was blown completely.
      As we say here: “Cheap costs you a lot of money”

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Yikes!! I hear ya! Come work on this one with me, haha!

  11. 2.22.16
    Heidi said:

    I’m also wondering about the inspection. And if it would have been better to start from scratch? It doesn’t seem like any of the house won’t be rebuilt at this point! I’m so sorry for the owners and you.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Objectively, YES—it would have been better to start from scratch! Unfortunately we just didn’t know that, and the owners certainly didn’t upon purchase, which is the real issue. There are so many complicating factors when it comes to tearing down a house to start new, so we all had to negotiate that together. I promise, all will be explained! :)

  12. 2.22.16
    miranda said:

    I guess at this point, the house is a tear down. So sad, because I love tiny spaces like this. I’m sure it can be duplicated with improvements.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Sort of, yeah! The bright spot is that the house could stand to be improved in a lot of ways that weren’t really possible/practical given our earlier budgetary and time constraints, but when you HAVE to rebuild something, at least you can rebuild it better than it was before!

  13. 2.22.16

    Such a mess. But I’m taking heart in the fact that you survived somehow to tell the tale. Does this mean it’s got a happy ending? And I also had the thought that someone else mentioned: would it have made more sense to tear the whole thing down and rebuild from scratch?

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      It should have a happy ending, yes! The project is still very much in progress so hopefully I’m not jinxing anything!

  14. 2.22.16
    Bonnie said:

    I enjoy all the gory details as much as the next person, but wow. I’m a little sick in my stomach.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Me too!

  15. 2.22.16
    kim said:

    I think the homeowners deserve a lot of kudos for sticking with this disaster. I’m the type of person who feels sorry for a house that has fallen into the wrong hands, as this cottage clearly has, and the decision of the owners (and Daniel) to keep truckin’ makes me happy for this little property. It’s like it was the older dog or cat stuck at the rescue league waiting for someone to see past its “flaws” and someone finally did and at the end of the story there’s going to be so much tail wagging and face licks and stuff.

    • 2.22.16
      Simone said:

      You know that kind of romanticism is really expensive.

    • 2.22.16
      kim said:

      I sure do. I’ve got two houses’ worth of expensive romanticism. Don’t regret either one.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      same! :)

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Yes, they do! They’ve handled all of these hurdles (and more, just wait!) with grace and good humor, and I’m so grateful for that.

  16. 2.22.16
    Kate said:

    Wow. This is just the biggest headache. Basically everyone’s nightmare when buying a house :O But I am so hooked on the story! Can’t wait to see what you do with the place. Hopefully it gets better from here…?

  17. 2.22.16
    Sterling said:

    Holy. Shit. Literally recoiled at the “junctions” in the deck and ceiling. Who DOES that? I’m going to jump ahead to month two-three and assume that you ended up tearing this down and starting fresh, because at this point we’re at a total rewire, a total replumb, doubtless a crumbling foundation that you discovered because you set a cup of coffee down and half of it broke off! Seriously, palpitations. I work in real estate and this is a nightmare. I feel so bad for your clients, it’s a damn shame more of this wasn’t found in the inspection, but sometimes that happens. Not all inspectors are created equal, and some are far more thorough than others, but they should have gone under the house and seen the drain to nowhere, wood rot and galvanized. Interested to hear that part of the story in more detail. Glad the owners found a designer with the ability to scale up!

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      You got it! We actually didn’t totally tear it down, but yes—the work became MUCH more extensive to the point that we really might as well have.

    • 2.23.16
      Sterling said:

      I sense this is going to be followed by a pithy post about following your instincts and danger signs in home buying. At least the gut reno gives you peace of mind, if not peace of wallet. Hope these folks were able to bear the added cost without too much pain.

  18. 2.22.16
    Samantha said:

    The description of the house construction makes me think that a family just built this house piecemeal as a summer cabin, not really getting anyone professional to do any work, and probably not even getting permits for it. I’ve seen this before. I feel so bad for Olivebridge’s owners, but I hope in the end they get everything they wanted. They’ll deserve it after this fiasco!

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Yeah, that’s probably somewhat what happened. My understanding is that somebody bought a lot of land in this area and constructed a bunch of 12×20 foot hunting cabins (info I wish everyone had before we got started!), which is what this started out as, and then continually got added onto to various degrees of quality. Not good!

    • 4.15.16
      Melinda said:

      I call these kind of houses beer-thirty houses, you know where the owner starts the weekend with a honey do list and works until it’s beer thirty, then everything gets buried. Honey I’m done!!

      I’ll admit I laughed, I laughed a lot. I’ve been there, not quite the same as your dilemma, but I’ve definitely been there. The Owner’s are lucky to have you. I predict happy satisfaction all the way around. I’d love to have you on my team. Now I’m going to share this as a cautionary tale and I’ll admit to put things in another perspective for others going through a build. It’s not easy to be in your position, your doing it with alot of integrity and grace unde fire. Loved reading about this, can’t wait to see the finished pictures.

  19. 2.22.16
    Alma Miranda said:

    This is a time when I have been rendered speechless. And I thought my 1952 house had been bad. I felt your grief while reading this terrible story. Would it not have been better to tear the house down?

  20. 2.22.16
    Kari said:

    I’m hyperventilating. Dear Jesus, help. Cannot wait for the next post.

  21. 2.22.16
    Janine said:

    I am so glad that Olivebridge Cottage landed in the hands of you, Edwin & Edgar, and the two owners because it sounds like you’re all dedicated to making the house safe first, pretty second. I feel so bad for you and the owners, because this obviously was so shocking to uncover. I can’t imagine how much it costs to uncover problems like this, and all I can think is that I’m grateful it’s not their primary residence.

    I agree with the first commenter: pass me a klonopin. And you can have a valium, and the owners can have a valium, and EVERYONE GETS VALIUM. Valium for all the renovators!!!

    Looking forward to part two: we found a skeleton in the foundation and it was Jimmy Hoffa and here’s my top ten list for how to manage a renovation when the FBI are involved.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      EVERYONE GETS A VALIUM! If only I wielded that kind of power!! haha

      Amazingly, no skeletons. We’re not done, though, so maybe there’s still time!

    • 2.23.16
      Lori said:

      Your comment seriously has me laughing out loud. Valium for everyone, including the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa, may he rest in peace!

    • 2.26.16
      Kelsey said:

      Daniel, you have the best commenters on the entire internet.

  22. 2.22.16
    Lindsay said:

    Every time I would scroll a little further down to read, I would utter another “oh no…” and my eyes would widen yet again at the corresponding photo. I can’t even comprehend dealing with all of that. Thank you for chronicling it for us, though. It made for an amazing read over my Monday morning coffee. Looking forward to the rest of the story!

  23. 2.22.16
    furpants said:

    This is so sad and hilarious and would make a great mini-series on HGTV.

    About 4 days in, I probably would have casually arranged to leave some of that house “mulch” in a pile under those exposed wires, had a relaxing smoke with the guys and dropped our cigarette butts on the pile before heading home early one day. I think we could all take up smoking for a day to make that happen.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      If arson was a possibility with no repercussions, you BET I woulda enacted a similar scheme!

    • 2.23.16
      furpants said:

      It’s only a crime if you get caught ;-)

  24. 2.22.16
    Sharon said:

    As Norm on This Old House used to say, “They don’t build ’em like they used to. And that’s a good thing.”

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Awww, haha. One of my anxieties about posting about this house is that I don’t want it to seem like this is what you buy when buying an old house! I’ve been in plenty of old houses that are beautifully constructed and in great shape, often with quality that I think surpasses the longevity we’re likely to see out of new builds. I don’t think any of this house predates the 1950s, though, which I think is a big distinction—construction practices really degraded in the postwar era, and I think people are right to be cautious about houses constructed in the postwar period. On top of that, this house wasn’t even built to the (low) standards applied to residential construction at THAT time, so it’s not terribly surprising that decades of poor workmanship in the years following would result in this!

    • 2.23.16
      S@sha said:

      Aww, This Old House… now that’s the show you should be on. Forget HGTV. You’re too good for HGTV. Most of their programming is crap these days. Whereas old-school This Old House was so great. I wonder if Norm Abrams reads blogs? If so, I hope he reads this one.

    • 2.23.16
      Rossie said:

      Hi Daniel,
      I agree with you: houses (though not all, of course) built from 1950 to 1980 in the Catskills are often slapdash and shoddy. Decline in quality of building material, relative non-supervision by building inspectors but most of all a culture of weekend work buy homeowners (usually from Long Island — why?) who were never builders. Over the years I’ve bought a few houses here in the mountains and I always buy an old wreck where it would make no sense to ask for a home inspection. Anything pre-1900 is, in my opinion, built solidly and is a pleasure to properly renovate. Your readers should not be frightened of an “old wreck” rather they will come to appreciate the quality of a house built to last.

  25. 2.22.16
    Susan in the UK said:

    Daniel, I’m imagining the excitement of working on a new project, agreeing the design with the owners, turning up for work on the first day full of the plans and then finding yourself pitch forked into renovator’s hell, working on what’s got to be the worst building imaginable. Does it even qualify for the title ‘building’? Garden sheds get better built than that!

    The only consolation for us, your devoted readers and renovators by proxy, is that you, Edwin and Edgar appear to be alive and well and relatively sane after such a terrible experience. Leastways, you write as if you’re still sane. I hope the poor owners are too.

    I’m a firm believer that nothing learned is ever wasted . Just think how much your skill and knowledge have increased during this project. I would say that, having experienced the horrors of Olivebridge Cottage, you’ll never again experience anything as bad but… may be that would be tempting fate, so I’ll hastily rewind and erase that thought.

    I’m looking forward to the next episode, though not without some trepidation because I almost forgot to breathe during this one, so horribly fascinated was I.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      “Does it even qualify ashore the title “building”?” is exactly how I felt for the first few months of this project! This is coming from someone who bought a condemned and VERY derelict 100-ish year old house for 19K, which by all real measures was in better shape than this one, despite cosmetic appearances. Same goes for my garage, and probably—yes—most garden sheds! This was really a disaster in all ways I can imagine. You’ve only read a part of it…it gets worse! I really can’t imagine working on anything worse, haha.

      But YES. Everyone is alive, well, relatively happy, and this is moving toward a very nice (and cool, I hope!) conclusion.

  26. 2.22.16
    Rebecca said:

    “The ceiling in here was, unsurprisingly, a piece of shit.”

    And this is why I love your blog.

    • 2.22.16
      Emily said:


  27. 2.22.16
    Shannon said:

    Jesus H Christ. Feel like I need to lay my head on the table to breathe, blink, and take all that in. I’m not sure who I feel more sorry for, you or the homeowners. Good luck. Hope it’s coming along better now.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Pick me! Haha, just kidding. I had to deal with it, but they had to pay for it…I’ll take dealing with it any day!

  28. 2.22.16
    nadine said:

    Back in the day (yes I’m older than dirt) there were many city dwellers that purchased property “up in the country”. They would come up on weekends and build a weekend house. Mostly having no idea what they were doing. Building codes and inspectors were far and few between. This sounds very much like this situation. At one time I had rented a house with the same kind of sewer deal. Only the toilets went in the septic tank. The house was up a mountain with houses below. Get the picture? Daniel I am a big fan of yours for many years, while my heart breaks for the homeowners, I hope you were compensated for everything you went thru. None of my business I know but you have been thru ALOT in the past couple of years. And yes we are all waiting to hear THE END OF THIS STORY!

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      YEP! I think that’s very similar to what happened here. Rural area, 1950s construction—hunting cabin built without permits and then slowly winterized and added onto over the years. Recipe for disaster!

      I’m a good guy, but not good enough to do this stuff for free! I’ve been paid throughout, including the homeowners at one point requesting that I get a raise. :)

  29. 2.22.16
    adam said:

    Was a complete tear down ever considered?

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Yes, it was. At this point, I don’t think we were all mentally there yet, but the next couple of weeks of work had us at least considering it. I’ll save it for another post because it’s complicated…ultimately we did something of a hybrid that’s worked out OK. :)

  30. 2.22.16
    Jeanna said:

    Oh my gosh, what a story :( I’m wondering if some of it should have been completely torn down to start fresh instead of repairing it. I am beginning to see a tale of much gloom and doom. But it seems you have survived it, so that’s a plus!

  31. 2.22.16
    Clare said:

    On the running-timber-into-the-ground part: we bought an old cottage, and the back (closed in porch) was single brick covered with weatherboards. Gate in the fence had its hinges attached to the weatherboards, latched onto the fence on the other side. We had the settlement from hell, and thus noone was living in the place for over a year. At one point, nine months after our supposed settlement date, we went round to the house for reasons I can’t remember. Went to go in through the back. Unlatched the gate and the back of the house fell off.

    Seriously. Nothing was attaching the weatherboards to the brick anymore, and they had only been upright because the gate/fence was sort of wedging them in place/ propping them up. Turns the genius who had put the weatherboards on had run the supports to which the weatherboards were attached right into the dirt. AND had used untreated pine, which is like, *comical* in our part of the country (where termites eat outdoor furniture and wooden toys). Termites had largely ignored the native timber weatherboards, and just gone straight up the delicious untreated supports behind the boards. We caught them just as they were starting on the roof beams. Because we hadn’t settled yet, we made the seller repair the back wall. Making it clear that no supports were to be run into the ground this time, and he was to use termite-proofed timber. Got a phone call from him, when he has there with his (dodgy) workman saying “We”ve finished attaching the weatherboards above the concrete foundation like you asked. But it looks kind of funny,if you ask me. We could totally fit one more board along the bottom and it would cover all the cement and go right to the garden bed. Shall we do that?” “NOOOOOOO!”

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Can you believe people serious consider that?? This timber was also untreated (as was all of the siding, run directly into the dirt and in some places a good 6 inches below grade) and I seriously cannot fathom what the thought process was. Insanity!

  32. 2.22.16
    Abbie said:

    Wow…this is bad. Just super terrible bad. I know you’re committed to preserving the character of the old space, but at what point do you break even on a tear down and rebuild? It’s like the beginning of an episode of “This Old House” when they say, “Is this house even worth saving?”

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Actually, for this house, I wasn’t committed to preserving anything, really! Salvageable material, yes (more from an environmental standpoint than anything else) but this house was built over time between about the 1950s and 1990s…drywall walls, vinyl windows, some new production beadboard…that’s kind of it? That was one of the fun things about this project—that it WASN’T the type of house that calls for any real preservation or restoration. Of course, that also ended up meaning that it was a piece of garbage!

      But yes, figuring out when to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH LET’S TEAR IT DOWN was a really difficult process for reasons I’ll elaborate on more down the line. There are emotional, financial, practical, temporal, and legal reasons why that decision is tough to make!

  33. 2.22.16
    lc said:

    Even though you haven’t said much about this project in months it was clear you were having Experiences. So interesting to hear what came next, thank you for sharing all the gory details. While it clearly hasn’t been fun, this is is the stuff makes MN so interesting. In so many house renovation stories they say “after a 6-month intensive renovation everything was done and we were able to move in and start decorating!”. That’s not how it really is for most of us. If you have an older fixer-upper, there are always some of these issues, if not the full gamut that you’ve faced here. Truly, it’s a marvel what people will do with little knowledge and no building inspectors.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Experiences! I was having Experiences. So. Many. Experiences with this house.

      I’m glad you’re OK with all the rehashing! I’m sure it turns lots of people off to my blog but I despise sugar-coating…I want to hear it all! Good, bad, and ugly…and this house has at least the last two in spades!

    • 2.22.16
      Cindi M said:

      I’m fine with rehashing all the gory details and printing as much photographic evidence as your lawyers, wisely, allow. And glad you’re doing it now rather than make me wonder, from post to post, if you, Edgar or Edwin survived. Hope you kept your respirator mask, steel toed shoes and protective clothing on!

    • 2.23.16
      pericolosa said:

      People turned off by rehashing or lack of sugar coating are the same people you don’t want or need reading your blog. You want readers who can handle the truth.

      The good, bad and ugly are what make you who you are, and your blog what it is. Be true to yourself. Be true to the house. And to the cottage(s). Anything else would be wrong. And a disservice to society. We need more truth-tellers, people who can speak truth to power ”“ whether they be the homeowners or anyone.

      And I don’t mean that being true to a building means you should aim to preserve or replicate all original decisions, as you’ve discussed in the context of what you’ve recently done to the back of your house.

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      hey thanks! One of the fun things about blogging is that nobody forces me to cut this all down to 23 minutes of air time. As many gory details as I want! :)

    • 2.24.16
      Ashli said:

      I come for the rehashing, too! If I was just looking for picture perfect scenes, I’d buy a magazine. You get into the nitty gritty that makes the beautiful end product possible, and you have the ability to make something as horrifying (as this project obviously has been) enjoyable and often humorous to read. I don’t think I’d have kept reading otherwise.

      You just do you.

    • 2.27.16
      Luna said:

      Hear hear! to all of the above.

  34. 2.22.16
    Paula said:

    Three guys and a dump run?

  35. 2.22.16
    NestFan said:

    Reading this, somewhere around the part about the deck work, I realized a tear down was in order. I do hope that was done. But then, I may be thinking that from some foreshadowing of that decision that you have indicated in earlier posts when mentioning this job but avoiding discussing the cottage much. A new simple cottage, even a prefab (there are some cool modern prefab builders out there that would make for a great vacation house), would be better and cheaper than anything you can do to this poorly-built house. I do have the idea it isn’t just the add-ons, but the original construction of the entire cottage that was shoddy. I am so hoping for the owners sake that we will eventually hear of the tear down in later posts.

    I hate to say it, but the oddness of the additions, the way the porch was enclosed but not making for a comfortable living room, with the sunken floor and posts, and the odd stairs and rest of the odd layout, makes me think this sort of shoddy construction could have been anticipated. I couldn’t see ever wanting to buy it from the original photos, the spaces just didn’t hang together well. Though I did look up the real estate photos from the original sale to your clients, and saw that the sellers or relators had done their best to disguise it with staging as a usable house.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      No, it’s quite alright! I think you’re right on all counts—and if this house had been marketed and sold as a tear-down, it would have saved a lot of heartache (and money).

      With regards to the house, I have a lot of mixed feelings, but as the person tasked with designing/decorating it, I tend to agree. There were a lot of odd, disjointed spaces and a weird layout that made it very difficult to figure out how to elegantly and practically design it. Hopefully the ensuing work has fixed a lot of those issues, though!

  36. 2.22.16
    Liz said:

    OMG – I’m only halfway done reading through this post and I’m getting nervous palpitations. I’m at the point of the rot by the deck… just OMG.

  37. 2.22.16
    Angela said:

    This is what I will refer to when I start to feel sorry for myself about any of my home renovation projects. The fact that you have kept on truckin’ through these issues is exactly why I love your blog, it always inspires me to get up and work on something I had abandoned because it got to hard or I lost steam… can hardly wait to hear the rest on this saga.

  38. 2.22.16
    Tasha said:

    Please post again soon Daniel! I’m dying to know what happens! My gut reaction at this point is to tear it down and start again, but I want to know what happens! :) ps as a fellow home renovator I can totally empathise

  39. 2.22.16
    Adrien said:

    How dramatic!

    My heart goes out you and the owners of this wreck of a shack.

    At what point do you decide that it isn’t worth investing any money into it and decide to knock it down?

    I surmise this isn’t the end of the story, where you mentioned that the well was underneath the house, where the propane tank is up against the building, where the roof in the old part looks like it’s sagging, where the roof to the addition is essence ribbed plastic, where the condition of the septic tank is likely abysmal (and probably makeshift as well)…

    A (cute) prefab construction might be the way to go on this one!


    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      It’s not the end of the story! Lots to come. You’re on the right track…kinda :)

  40. 2.22.16
    Miranda said:

    I am amazed this house continued to stand – I am so glad the homeowners found you to do this work, because had they not I worry this would have collapsed on them while they lived in it! Oye. I’m really happy they’ve been receptive to all of the changes and your mutual understanding to adjust the timeline/budget to get the house back into fully, livable, SAFE, conditions. I hope the next time you update us on the cottage it’s with much better news! No more surprises :)

  41. 2.22.16
    Rachel said:

    I’ve been spoiled a little and have seen glimpses of what has happened to the cottage on your Instagram but it’s so much crazier now that you have explained the discovery of everything! Poor homeowners! It might be a little easier to pretend this all isn’t there or to never know, but I know I would rather know and fix it to have that peace of mind and not deal with the problems later on down the road.

  42. 2.22.16
    JC said:

    OMG Daniel. I just want to give you hugs and massages for dealing with this absolute nightmare.

    I had a similar discovery on my own house a few years ago, but nothing quite as alarming. I have a large attached garage, where the 28 foot long exterior wall was completely rotted (like in your first photo). This wall holds up the entire length of the garage roof, and in the winter, several thousands of pounds of snow (as much as 2 feet thick coverage at times). I had quite the ordeal rebuilding the entire wall (by myself). There are two posts about it on my blog if you want to commiserate.

    In the long run, all these uncovered horrors will be good fixes to maintain the integrity of the home, but right now it’s all just very overwhelming and discouraging. It’s almost at the point where you need to gut all the exterior walls of the house just to check for more rot and infestation.

    Hopefully things will get back on track soon, and all the repairs will make for a nicer end product.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      I’ll take hugs and massages any day!

      YIKES on the garage! Good on you for fixing it up—I’ll check out the posts!!

  43. 2.22.16
    Bonnie said:

    I have a house so much like this. In the last 2 years I spent $75k on fixing things (new roof, new sewer line, ripping out mold infested bathroom, replacing termite eaten supports, etc., etc., etc..) only to find out that 1/2 the slab foundation needs replacing and that the whole addition is 4 inches to big for the setback required. I have finally decided to tear it down and put up a new house.

    Glad to know I am not alone, but sorry to hear about their troubles. I hope they think of this as a great learning experience as I do.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      UGH, I feel ya, Bonnie! That’s devastating. I hope the new house is everything you want and dream of, and problem free! Let me know if I can help.

  44. 2.22.16
    Jill said:

    *Hold me tight* – does this story have a happy ending?

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      I hope so!!

  45. 2.22.16
    leatitia said:

    At this point I’m thinking, building a whole new house is gonna be less expensive than fixing that horrible rotten scary house.

  46. 2.22.16
    Stacy said:

    Dear God. I am rarely left speechless, but here I am…taking a Klonopin on your behalf! I cannot WAIT to see how this story ends!!!

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Don’t be greedy…share that shit!

  47. 2.22.16
    Rose said:

    Are the county building inspectors now going to expect the entire structure be brought up to current code? That usually happens once inspection shows major violations. This is a nightmare.

    This is the real deal with all the sugar coating pulled off the general contracting profession. Yikes.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Oh, we’ll get there about the building inspector…but yeah. Basically.

  48. 2.22.16
    Katie said:

    Do the homeowners have any recourse at this point? It seems like they were sold a total lemon. The previous homeowners had to have known that this house was in such bad shape. All it would take is to prove that the previous owner never got a permit (because it’s obvious they did not) for the “work” that they did. Based on what you said in a previous post: “The previous owner was a contractor of some sort who did some pretty heavy renovations in the 80s/90s—some of them good, some of them not so good.” It seems like this person knowingly cut corners and then knowingly sold an unsafe house to another person.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      I’m kind of the wrong person to ask (neither a lawyer nor real estate agent) but my understanding is basically that YES they had a recourse but after investigating their options, it just wasn’t worth it. After the months of litigation and lawyer fees and all of that, anything they stood to gain would be basically wiped out…it’s horrible, but true.

  49. 2.22.16
    Susan said:

    I would knock this house to the ground and start over. Srsly. What a sh*t-show!

  50. 2.22.16
    'col said:

    I can’t even. Never have I so much can’t. I imagine it got to the point where you were all asking “Is this real? Is this my life now?” Hillarible. I’m so sorry.

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Oh, months! Months of thinking those exact thoughts! Then I even got really sick and was convinced that the house was literally going to kill me, and I had the same thoughts.

  51. 2.22.16
    doorot said:

    Oh wow. Just wow…

  52. 2.22.16
    Zoe said:

    Like all of your other readers/commenters, this post gave me some serious anxiety. Certainly as you have read in the comments, we MUST hear about the to-tear-down or not-tear-down debate. I don’t know how you ever learn to trust this house again. But I do love a good dirty, filthy story of betrayal…and maybe redemption????

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      We’ll get to all of it! It’s been quite a trip with this house.

  53. 2.22.16
    Emily said:

    This sounds like what happened with our house! Only kind of joking. :(

  54. 2.22.16
    Ali said:

    Well that escalated quickly! :O :O :O

    It would be great if there were enough money to completely demolish and rebuild exactly as it was but in a much better construction? Shit… This is B A D :/

  55. 2.22.16
    Simone said:

    So basicly the previous owners had built a hut (or a ground floor treehouse) and decided to sell it as real estate?

    • 2.22.16
      Daniel said:

      Well, kind of. I think they bought it in the late 80s so there was already a few decades of mess behind them.

  56. 2.22.16
    Southern Gal said:


    Seriously , my jaw kept dropping and dropping …
    How luck for the owners that you know what’s what… Sorry you have had to go thru all of this

    Can NOT wait for the next episode of THE REVENGE OF THE COTTAGE ;o

  57. 2.22.16
    Rebecca NYC said:

    Forgive me if this question has already be asked: was there any point where it would have made more sense to take the house down and start from scratch with a new build? Is it more a permit issue? I always wonder when I read horror stories like this. Glad you are all surviving pretty much unscathed. I know my wine bill would have increased proportionately with the repair bills!!

    • 2.23.16
      Kara said:

      It probably would have, and maybe that’s where the story is headed. However, there are many obstacles to tearing a house down, especially if it was not purchased with that intent – the first being that a house cannot be demolished if it carries a mortgage.

    • 2.23.16
      Veronica said:

      I think tearing it down to a framed wall is legal, it happens here (Northern California) all the time to avoid new construction fees/taxes versus the minimal renovation permits. I would think they could have done similar it just sounds like once they realised that, it was to late and they’d already spent to much time/money rehabbing what they’d discovered.

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Ding ding ding! I don’t really know about it (not a situation I’ve ever personally been in, luckily!) but that was definitely one of the clients’ biggest anxieties. Buying out a mortgage in order to then spend another ton of money rebuilding? Yikes.

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Hey Rebecca! This will be covered more in future posts, but yes—that option was discussed. It’s a complicated thing financially, legally, and emotionally—remember that these homeowners bought this house because they loved it! Wrapping your mind around demolishing something you just spent a lot of money on AND love without the on-the-ground experience of tearing it apart and/or knowing the potential repercussions of finding this stuff (first time homeowners, no renovation experience) is a really tough thing. All in all, I think they negotiated those waters very well, but it was definitely a difficult thing to navigate.

  58. 2.22.16
    Rosemary said:

    I’m quite new to your blog, only having discovered it a few months ago. I was immediately drawn to it and I read all the archives aaaaaall the way back to your university residence days. Somehow I’ve missed the part where you are now a contractor, actually rebuilding houses for a living! How did this come about? Are you still frequenting thrift stores and designing home interiors as well? This project seems huge!!

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Ha! Well, I’m not a contractor! I don’t really call myself a designer, either, although I’ve been very lucky over the years to have secured enough work doing interior decor and (very) light renovations. Part of my hope in moving out of NYC and living up here full-time was that it would allow me to take on bigger projects that would involve more than just choosing furniture and paint colors (which to be totally honest, is my least favorite part of that kind of work!), so even though this project ended up being WAY more than I bargained for, this house was supposed to be a step up from the types of jobs I’ve done professionally outside of working on my own house. But yes! I definitely still frequent thrift stores for myself and for client projects and design the interiors of the houses I’m working on—there’s just a lot that comes before that stuff now! :)

  59. 2.22.16
    Sabrina said:

    Oh lord. I have been thinking something like this must have happened.

    When we bought our 90 year old house, we didn’t even bother with an inspection and told the seller we would buy it for a lower price as-is, because we knew he would have a bunch of seller concessions if we did get an inspection. It was a good call, because most of what would have been found by an inspector was cheap (bad siding that needed replacing, and super shitty flooring repairs that would have passed inspection, but totally hinted at the horror underneath), and all the crap that wouldn’t have been found/noticed was what was expensive. No access to the crawlspace meant disconnected shower drains dumping into the ground, rotted joists, a lack of subfloor (yay for hardwoods nailed directly to joists!) and more were not expected, but also not super surprising and we had a bit of cash to deal with tearing out all the super floors, putting in a few new joists, a new subfloor, and buying new hardwoods, getting a bunch of HVAC work done, etc. Eventually, the entire house will be new, but we are doing is slowly. Luckily, any type of charm that was originally in the house was totally taken out by previous owners (for example, they ripped out BEAUTIFUL kitchen cabinets from the 20’s and installed super shitty ones that are a joke) so we don’t feel bad about basically tearing it apart and putting it back together again… and adding new charm along that road.

    I think in buying an old house, especially one that has had multiple owners, you have to expect that stupid shit has been done. You should basically figure what you had to do to this house is what you have to do to every old house, and then be super pleasantly surprised when all you have to do is half of this! Low expectations mean you aren’t disappointed!

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Makes sense! That’s more or less how I felt about my condemned house—I already knew it needed pretty much everything, so there haven’t been many surprises! The horrible thing about this situation is that these clients did have an inspection and thought they were buying a house in good working order, ya know? I wouldn’t even consider this house “old,” which I think is part of why this happened…both because the house was built like shit but also because homebuyers don’t generally associate this magnitude of problems with relatively recent construction. Sigh!

  60. 2.22.16

    There’s a certain point where I telephone the guy with the bulldozer because it is cheaper and solves more problems.

    “Just some live electrical cable missing all of its rubber insulation…” Some of that actually looked like antenna wire, so it shouldn’t have been carrying any current. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t being used to run the dryer and hot water in this instance, but it SHOULDN’T have been.

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      No, I promise, it was regular 14/2 romex! Going to live outlets and lighting. No bueno!

  61. 2.22.16
    Luna Blackhill said:


    Isn’t (or wasn’t, since this happened a while ago i think) there a way to “accidentally” destroy this house and blame it on an unavoidable circumstance? (aliens, bigfoot or a crazy ax murder come to mind).

    Big hugs to you for dealing with this project (and judging from your past work, I am certain that the final result will be EXCELLENT).

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Ha! There were definitely days I considered emptying my gas tank and lighting a match!

  62. 2.23.16
    Sez said:

    You poor lost soul”¦. How could you possibly take it? For 10 months!?”¦”¦ Daniel, reading your crazy post has frazzled my nerves and jangled my cerebellum. You poor lost soul”¦. how could you possibly take it? For 10 months!?! ”¦..So I went to my calm down, and cheer me up faves to share with you.

    A Scene from A Plumbing we will go by the Three Stooges, “This house has sho gone crazy” (Daniel, I thought this was apt) https://youtu.be/zK9QUlJLNTA
    I have watched this like a billion times and it still cracks me up, I hope it can cheer you up from your depths of your despair”¦… Daniel, this episode has some of the funniest, crazy (shoddy building) comedy you will EVER see. Daniel I hope it cracks you up (in a good way, for I would hate for that compost (oops! Olivebridge Cottage) to make you go crackers.
    The whole episode A Plumbing we will go by the Three Stooges 17 mins) https://youtu.be/6HJqx8aITHo

    By the way I have read every post and love, love, love your Manhatten Nest. My favourite piece you have written was without a doubt Crossfit for Renovators: Concrete Demo. That piece was so enthralling, soooo entertaining. Loved it.
    Daniel you are my hero and here is a musical cheerup.”Hero and dream lover, by Mariah Carey audition (worst auditions ever, so bad it is bloody brilliant) https://youtu.be/W1AUbSIzghU?list=RDW1AUbSIzghU this might help you stop sobbing after Olivebridge Cottage has broken you spirit and will to live..
    Lots of love to you Daniel and your adorable dogs Sez xox

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Aw, thank you for the kind words, Sez! So sweet.

      I’ve stopped sobbing by now, really! Actually, I don’t think I ever really sobbed, but this project sure took an emotional toll! Things have gotten much brighter with it now, though, really. :)

  63. 2.23.16
    Ilse said:

    I’m hoping the next chapter will be ‘we bulldozed the house and started over’.

  64. 2.23.16
    Erin said:

    This post gave me nightmares

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      me too!

  65. 2.23.16
    Kelsey said:

    I have never read something that gave me so much anxiety! I am so looking forward to more posts about this house — it really needed you!

  66. 2.23.16

    Oh, man. I was so sad to get to the end of this. It’s horrifying, but I have been so curious about this project. I could tell it wasn’t exactly going well…ahem. :)

  67. 2.23.16
    Joy said:

    The first post is like the first scene in a horror movie: Sunlight, happiness, so much potential.

    “They’re not living there while this is going on, so I basically have the freedom to tear it all apart and put it back together again.” (from the very first post)

    No one knew what was coming!

    What’s going to happen? The suspense is killing me. This should be a movie.

  68. 2.23.16
    Kara said:

    “This is what it looks like when a house is basically mulch. At least it’s composting itself?”

    I had to stop reading to point out this little gem. And because it is all so horrifying. Ok, I’m going back in.

  69. 2.23.16
    Lori said:


    I am only halfway through this post but needed to stop and say that I am ABSOLUTELY RIVETED. WITH HORROR.


  70. 2.23.16
    Rona said:

    Oh my GOD. The poor owners!

    ‘Seek and you shall find’? How can there be more of this travesty?? Was the whole thing in fact constructed of smallpox and asbestos? Jesus.

    Gripping read but yeesh, I’m so damned sorry for you all.

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Think of all the things that can be wrong with a house, make them worse, and that’s how there can be more!

    • 3.4.16
      Rona said:

      Oh good lord. D:

  71. 2.23.16

    So much better that the dangerous stuff was found, instead of the owners just living with it! #safetyfirst

  72. 2.23.16
    Lori said:

    Ok, I have to admit that I spoiled myself for what happened next with some dedicated Instagram stalking, but holy hell, I cannot believe what a shitshow that house turned into. Like, I knew it had to be bad, but seeing it is another thing entirely! Hooooooly crap.

    I’m glad you’ve all survived the ordeal with sanity (relatively) intact and now you’re on the fun part. I feel so horrible for you all and I can’t even imagine how much money’s been spent to make this right. As a homeowner, chills down my spine, man. What a nightmare.

  73. 2.23.16
    Lori said:

    P.S. I love your long detailed posts that are unstinting in their bluntness. I am still a little pissed at HGTV for giving me the impression that fixing up a house would be easy, or at least a lot less hard and time consuming than it actually is. Oh well, at least I’ve learned a lot in the process and know better now?

  74. 2.23.16
    Emily said:

    I wish you would get an HGTV show.

    • 2.23.16
      Joy said:

      Netflix show! That way we can binge watch all the way to the end where there is peace and white walls…

  75. 2.23.16
    Meg said:

    I’m just glad you don’t own this stinker. I’m sure the ultimate home will be fine (after you pour a new foundation and completely build a new house). While I know you won’t walk away (in part because the owners are paying you not to), ultimately the financial stress of this doesn’t rest on your shoulders. I feel bad for the owners that they missed the warning signs during the inspection, but I don’t know them. Even though I don’t really know you (I’ve been reading since you actually lived in Manhattan), I would be so sad for you if this was actually your home.

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Oh, absolutely. This job has been hard on me in a lot of ways, but thankfully financially isn’t really one of them. Even working very, very closely with the owners throughout all of it, I still don’t know how they maintained their composure! Trying to salvage this piece of real estate as a decent and sensible investment is really difficult, and they’ve taken all of it in stride tremendously well.

  76. 2.23.16
    Sara said:

    My god. I knew something ominous was happening since you hadn’t really been mentioning any updates on Olivebridge, but this is really so much worse than I had imagined. You all are really such troopers and everyone involved deserves a nice vacation at the end of all this bad news and stress.

    We are about to close on a 75+ year old house that needs extensive work and even though we’ve done LOTS of homework and had structural engineers and several various inspectors out to look it over, reading this makes me terrified that we somehow haven’t done enough and we’ll end up in a similar situation. This is probably every homebuyer’s worst nightmare.

    • 2.23.16
      Daniel said:

      Don’t fear, Sara! It sounds like you’ve done all the right things (and then some!). All houses have a few surprises up their sleeves, but having so much of a house be truly unsalvageable and beyond the point of reasonable repair work is pretty rare—particularly to discover it after the type of legwork you’ve done. Be excited!! And best of luck for a smooth closing! It’ll all be fine. :)

  77. 2.23.16
    Becca said:

    Daniel, I’m glad you lived to tell the tale. Literally. You could all have been killed in the process of finding out what was wrong with the place. Shameful.

  78. 2.23.16
    kmkat said:

    I think the original owner and *builder* must have gotten a tremendous deal on dry wall screws, since he used them for EVERYTHING. Reading this post is the literal experience of schadenfreude, and I feel guilty that you and the owners are having to live through the entire thing.

  79. 2.23.16
    Diane said:

    What a freakin’ sideshow. Kind of exhausting to read but then I thought that twenty years from now, they will tell the story to their grand-kids and you will be the hero. Your knowledge base is so good and your work ethic is excellent. I am relieved for them that they had you and not some damn shyster who uses drywall screws and duct tape. I am an optimist. It can be fixed.

  80. 2.24.16
    Linda said:

    I once owned an old duplex that I rented out to students. When one student moved out he pointed out a wet place on one wooden floor (everything was made of wood) with mold growing. I had some people out and eventually found out that the duplex had been an army barracks from WWII and moved to the current lot. Someone had put the support beams under the floor backwards. Rain had forced dirt under the floor and moisture got in. If I had had enough money, and building agreements from the very tough Austin city planners, I would have torn the whole thing down and started again. I got it repaired and continued to rent to students who didn’t care about that or the tree rat invasions in the attic. Thank God I eventually sold it. You never know what lurks under foundations, especially raised ones.

  81. 2.24.16
    Emily said:

    Reading this post was actually more stressful and mind-boggling than an episode of How To Make a Murderer, I swear!!! Cannot wait for the next post, so glad you survived the 20 months even if you all probably did age 15 years from the stress

  82. 2.24.16
    nella said:

    And you alone (plus Edwin and Edgar) have lived to tell the tale. I think now you could do anything.

  83. 2.24.16
    patty blaettler said:

    My parents had a house up in northeast PA. Arson was all the rage in their neck of the woods.

  84. 2.24.16
    Mom said:

    As a Daniel’s mom and a lawyer there are two comments I have. One, there is a long known legal concept that you’ve probably heard called “caveat emptor”–from the latin, meaning buyer beware. Never was there a home more fitting for the use of this phrase. Having said that, however, the buyers and their realtor, took a lot of meaningful steps most of us would have and still ended up in this “mess”. Second, while Daniel gave fleeting mention to being sick and being convinced the house was making him sick this was a really SCARY time. He was just recovering from Round 1 of Mono and got really, really sick. His doc sent him to an infectious disease specialist who took loads of his blood and was testing him for crazy things like the Hantavirus. NO BUENO! as Daniel is fond of saying, but a mom’s worse nightmare. Luckily it didn’t turn out to be anything that crazy but for awhile there we thought Olivebridge was killing him mentally and physically. Heartbreaking, the toll it was taking. Now pass me one of those Klonopin. Oh, never mind, I have my own. Keeping it real.

    • 2.24.16
      Adrien said:

      I used to be very skeptical when people said that stress could make you sick. But after experiencing extreme stress at the beginning of my professional life (in a profession where it was easy to take on other people’s problems as my own) and in my personal life, I began to see the correlation between stress levels (conscious and unconscious) and my body’s ability to fight off infection (an inverse correlation, of course!) but also for the mind to keep itself if a place of relative wellness despite adversity.

      In spite of all that, the takeaway from that time is the realization of my some of my biggest achievements so far. I am certain that orchestrating a resolution to this mess will feature quite high on Daniel’s ever-growing list!

      “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
      – Sigmund Freud

  85. 2.24.16
    gretaclark said:

    We broke a contract on a house because our inspector reported a cracked foundation. The owner of that house just turned around and sold it to someone else. Those new owners were NOT happy when they found that out, but I guess there was nothing they could do.

  86. 2.24.16
    I llen said:

    After reading this, I just this minute canceled an appointment to view a home on the water that had been built in the 30s. I have built and lived in only new homes since I bought my first in 1977. I considered this an omen.

    • 2.25.16
      Daniel said:

      Awww, that makes me kind of sad! Obviously you should do what’s the best fit for you, but I don’t want this project to come off as being representative of old houses! The oldest parts of this house are probably from the 1950s (so not really that old), and built extremely poorly in the first place as it was never intended to really be a house—more of a 3-season hunting cabin, as I understand it. I’ve always found that homes built in the 20s and 30s are, by and large, really nicely constructed and built to last. Every home (including brand new ones! sometimes, especially new ones since they haven’t been time-tested!) has its own challenges and issues…I’ve personally NEVER seen a house with this many problems and with the kind of due-diligence that I personally think should precede any sale (old or new), it’s possible (probable?) that this whole thing could have been avoided.

  87. 2.24.16
    anne said:

    but the part where you were like, “hey, it’s mulching itself!” I DIE! You stuck around and didn’t run screaming into the sunset…or maybe you did. You just came back! and I love reading your blog.

  88. 2.25.16

    What a tale! I can’t wait to find out the next installment.
    When we renovated our house, it was pretty straightforward. I didn’t realize how many things could go wrong until we bought a pair of 17th century apartments in a historic district in the south of France. We have to preserve everything, which is fine because we’re into antiques and all that–it’s why we bought the place. But there was no electricity or running water in the 1600s, and everything got added ad hoc, like your hunting cabin. We are redoing the wiring and plumbing, but strange things have happened. Rather than run the wires above the floorboards then up the walls in a visible case, we asked that they be put IN the walls. Not easy, when some of the walls are made of stone, 2 feet thick. And other walls are barely holding on. Some of the plaster fell off, exposing the original 1600s wall below, made of straw and lime! Freaking 500-year-old straw walls!!! And the main electricity box had started to melt. So we arrived just in time.
    Anyway, there are doors leading to who knows where that had been hiding behind wallpaper, and the remains of previous renovations over the past 500 years. But no rot, thank goodness!

    • 2.25.16
      Daniel said:

      That’s awesome! I’d love to work on something that old, how exciting!

    • 3.17.16
      Luna said:

      I have the very project for you if you feel the urge to live in southern France, Thick stone walls covered in mud and straw and (failing) lime plaster…

    • 2.26.16
      kim said:

      Ok, I just checked out your blog. Unnh, kink buttons hit on many levels. I’m, um, going to be spending some time there.

  89. 2.25.16
    Melissa said:

    Oh Daniel, all that is missing is flames coming from the taps. After my xanax and klonopin kicks in (maybe even an Ativan), I’m going to revisit the before – before pics… I’m not sure if it’s the sweet materials (who knew that they could even disintegrate) or the choppy layout with mini windows but I’m not loving the “cottage”, even before the layers of horror were exposed. I’m hoping the trooper homeowners’ love of the house transitioned into a love of demo, resulting in a clean prefab build with huge windows and a coffee maker. Hugs and endless Rx to everyone involved.

  90. 2.27.16
    Luna said:

    I guess you could say that the cottage has ‘shook you to the foundations’ but that it has ‘built’ a wealth of knowledge, and character… and muscle.
    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  91. 2.27.16
    Courtney said:

    I have a stomach ache due to secondary trauma from this! Good luck and I will send positive thoughts to you all. I was just stressing about reorganizing my kitchen cupboards, this put that in perspective.

  92. 2.29.16
    bean said:

    Why do I have the urge to quote from Job 1:9-12? I think the house spirit needs a name–since it has clearly been malevolent and apparently drove previous owners crazy enough to do some of the de-construction whose outcomes can be seen in these photographs?

    Or, maybe, someone angered the domovoi, and it turned into a barabashka? Perhaps setting out an offering of food and drink would help?

    I will guess that the house spirit went on the rampage when someone cut its backbone to put that bathroom in. That pretty much doomed the house to falling down–and I think that would annoy any house spirit pretty badly. Maybe some white sage?

  93. 3.1.16
    Kate said:

    I’m late to the comment party but it took me a few seconds to realize that the end of this sentence, “Just because it works doesn’t mean it’s safe! SOBS,” was actually you sobbing and not saying “SONS OF B&*$%^#*@&!$&$!!!” Because I definitely was! That was a stressful READ; kudos to you for actually living through it. Your homeowners are so lucky to have you working on their project! Good work as always, Daniel!

    • 3.2.16
      Daniel said:

      Hahahahaha! Totally unintentional, but both interpretations are correct, I guess!

  94. 3.1.16
    Luna said:

    I read that SOBS the way you did Kate!

  95. 3.3.16
    Emily said:

    Do you have any idea of the timeline on which you’ll give us more episodes of the story? Not trying to put pressure – just temper my anticipation!

    • 3.7.16
      Daniel said:

      I was aiming for something around a post about it per week, but stuff (namely, working on the actual project!) keeps getting in the damn way! These posts take a while to write…all I can do is keep plugging away at them when I have a minute!

  96. 3.8.16
    Heather said:

    I am so sorry!!

  97. 3.8.16
    Heather said:

    I am so sorry!!

  98. 3.23.16
    Kat said:

    I mean…this is going to be the BEST before and after ever…because this before is bananas!! PS your mom is the best, LOVE her comment.

  99. 3.30.16
    Angela said:

    oh dear god. this is terrifying

  100. 4.24.16
    Rita May said:

    I quoted you and added a link back to your blog post about the pantry.
    You can see it here on my Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/Rita.MayDays

    • 4.25.16
      Daniel said:

      Aww, thanks! :)

  101. 5.24.16

    This house seems to be something straight out of my nightmares! I almost had a meltdown just reading this and it’s not even my property! Despite all the problems I am sure this house will be so beautiful when it’s all said and done! Thanks for the updates! :)