Six Years Later – Part 1

When we first bought Tett House, we had big plans to renovate and restore it.

As someone who studied Visual Design and Interior Decorating, I couldn’t wait to get started! I love old houses, and it was my dream to one day live in one and make it my own. Tett House, in its relaxed and somewhat shabby elegance, seemed like the perfect fit. Our goal was to retain and repair the home’s original features and add modern conveniences to improve it, but not compromise its integrity or ambience. We knew it would probably be a lifelong project, especially given that we are not DIY-ers and could not do the work ourselves.

Photo by Trevor Connell Photography

If you’ve been following this blog, you already know our story: the day we got the key to Tett House, we discovered that someone had vandalized the well. Since we knew no one in the area, it was likely done out of spite directed at the previous owners, who had not been (*ahem*) popular locally. It was a hugely stressful and expensive problem to correct, and delayed our moving in by almost two months. A year later, the new septic system which had been improperly completed (again – thank you, former owners) backed up onto our property, resulting in Stressful & Expensive Experience No. 2, pun very much intended.

As you can imagine, our interior renovation budget was completely drained. We could not make any of the exciting updates we’d planned, necessary or aesthetic. It was a bitter blow..

Consequently, for the last six years, we’ve been living in a house that has some raw, unfinished spaces and rooms that don’t function as well as we need them to. Among other challenges, this has made Tett House hard to organize and difficult to clean. We still have damaged sections of original hardwood floor, stacked storage bins, patched walls. Sometimes I can accept this for what it is; at other times, it drives me crazy.

This year, after six years in the house, we were finally able to start on some updates!

The room we needed to renovate the most was our main floor washroom. Tett House has two washrooms, one up, one down. The upstairs bath is just that… it’s a sweet Bed & Breakfast-style bathroom, with a toilet, sink, and tub. It’s totally charming and was newly updated when we moved in, so we didn’t need to renovate it. But… it has no shower.

Our only shower was in the downstairs washroom, which badly needed an overhaul. The tile was cracking and there were pieces missing. The baseboards were falling off. The vanity was old and cheap and smelled funny, with cupboard doors that sagged crookedly on their hinges. A hideous light fixture, bargain-basement washroom accessories, and dubiously plumbed toilet were the icing on this very ugly urinal cake. But the biggest problem was the shower – our only one, remember. It was an iron-stained enclosure that felt like a dark cave, and was impossible to keep clean. Trevor, who is 6’4″, couldn’t even fit in it. The water from the shower head hit him right at chest-level, and he had to stoop and bend like a pretzel to use it.

He’s been doing that for six years, my friends. SIX YEARS.

The main floor washroom had some redeeming features however: 1) It was a good-sized space with a high ceiling, so there was some flexibility in layout and design, and, 2) It had an original built-in corner cabinet, which adds warmth and a nice architectural detail. (Because the room used to be adjoined with the dining room, we believe it was once a library or office, which would account for the woodwork.)

Our plan was to install a spacious walk-in shower, with no curb or curtain, on one side of the washroom, and a new toilet and vanity on the other. These two zones would be separated by a large piece of shower glass with black grid. The idea was for the space to somehow feel like both a spa AND a powder room. We had no clue if it was going to work.

This was one of our inspiration photos, even though our bathroom space was a lot different in size, shape, and appearance:

Photo: Adam Albright, as featured on bhg.com

I was nervous about starting this washroom reno, even though I knew whatever we ended up with was going to be WAY better than what we had. Like every project we’ve tackled so far at Tett House, though, it wasn’t without its surprises. Anyone who’s read this blog knows how many “unsexy” reno’s and repairs we’ve done… there are no glamorous “Before & After” pics of a new water filtration system or septic drain field. *le sigh* You can read my salty “Renovation Reveal” for more.

SURPRISE #1: The washroom was built on top of a broken old cistern in the cellar. Before we could even begin the demo, we had to install additional support in the basement and shore up the main floor of the house. Turns out, there was a reason that old tile was cracking and breaking. Our contractor opened the floor up, repaired beams, added joists, and in some cases removed and repositioned stones in the foundation. He basically rebuilt the entire corner of the house.

SURPRISE #2: The crumbling tile had been laid on top of the original hardwood floor, not stuck down. Unfortunately, there was old water damage on a large section of the hardwood, so we couldn’t restore it. But we kept all the pieces for future projects!

SURPRISE #3: Three years ago, we discovered flying squirrels in our house and spent the winter of 2020 (humanely) evicting them. Now, as our contractor ripped out the walls down to the lath and plaster, he found the nest in the wall where they had been living. It was fully 3 ft. high. Beside it was a slightly smaller inactive mouse nest, and it may be presumed both families lived happily side by side until their human landlords kicked them out. (Hey, Disney, call me for the film rights to this super cute story. We could use a cool million.) The contractor said you could tell the difference in housing because flying squirrels import their building products whereas the mice use local materials. Evidently, when we had Tett House insulated, the spray foam guys missed a section.

We were not prepared for how long this renovation would take. I think our original expectation was around six weeks. Seems reasonable, right? The demolition began in earnest on April 12. We had one working washroom upstairs, and from that point on, we all took turns bathing in the freestanding tub. I didn’t mind it, but for my tree of a husband, and growing teenage son, it was a tight fit.

We ended up doing that for over three months.

Our renovation unfolds in Part 2, coming soon!

Summer at Tett House

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

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

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

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

And summer is one of the best.

In summer, the lilacs come out,

and the deer visit.

The time for sunset bonfires and ‘smores begins,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year at Tett House – The Cost of Making Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t just the mouse. Obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view of the old Bedford Mill from my backyard:

Buttermilk Falls, from Devils Lake:

Tett House, from across the Bedford Mills pond:

And the path home, through the forest:

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

Read previous post here.

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

 

Tett House – Post-Chaos Clean-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Room:

Dining Room:

Upstairs Hall and Landing:

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

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

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

As clean-up gained momentum, so did we.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Tett House, Part 10 – Renovation Reveal

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

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

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

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

RE-WIRING:  Before

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

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

RE-WIRING:  After.

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

INSULATION:

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

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

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

FURNACE: Before

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

     

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

Removing the oil tank created so much more living space!

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

        

FLOOR REPAIR:  Before

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

FLOOR REPAIR:  After

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

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

WATER SYSTEM:  Before

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

WATER SYSTEM:  After

This baby is on lock-down…

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

           

BACKYARD & SEPTIC DRAIN-FIELD:  Before

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

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

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

Hooray! No more pee water in our backyard.

BACKYARD & SEPTIC DRAIN-FIELD:  After

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

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

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

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

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

Our water is clean and safe to drink.

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

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

to this:

And this:

to this:

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

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

McNichols Electrical & Plumbing

Erica Grey (XCG Consulting Environmental Engineers)

Scott Blair & team (Scott Blair Contracting)

WC Gas Works

Levac Propane

Comfort Zone Insulation

Thompson’s Septic & Gravel

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

Finding Tett House, Part 9 – Trial by Water

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

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

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

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

Our first morning at Tett House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Surface well water sample, featuring yucky, floaty things.

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

IF IT EVER DID.

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

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

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

But, I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for Part 10.

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

Finding Tett House, Part 6 – The Purge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… taking us from this:

… to this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

               

… to amazeballs:

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


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

See Part 7

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

 

 

Finding Tett House, Part 4 – Signposts & Billboards

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

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

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

Tett House had found me – again.

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

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


Oliver playing in the secret staircase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We jumped.

Read Part 5