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From Dream House to Nightmare in less than a year

upside down house

We thought we had found our dream house. On paper, it ticked off all the boxes on our wish list (except one). It was the right combination of size, features and location and fit within our budget. Sure, we knew it needed some work. But it wasn’t until after we had moved in and started making minor repairs that we realized the extensive rehabilitation this house required. The dream quickly became a nightmare and came close to costing us everything.

In a previous post, I explained the four mistakes that we made when we purchased this house. The biggest mistake, of course, was not getting a full home inspection. Instead, we hired a former home inspector to walk through the house with us before we submitted our offer. No doubt a full home inspection could have identified some issues, but no home inspector would have peeled back enough layers to uncover everything wrong with this house.

The roof

The home inspector pointed out that the roof needed to be re-shingled and that was the first thing we had done after moving in.  That was when we learned that the roof over the family room addition was only 3/8 thick instead of 5/8.  Bringing the roof up to code added significant cost to the project.

Air conditioning and insulation

The large window unit at the side of the dormer upstairs did not work.  We found that out shortly after moving in.  The house has hot water radiant heat, a system we wanted to keep, so I researched separate air conditioning systems. 

Around the same time we had the roof done, we also had an air handler installed in the side attic upstairs.  In order to run the duct work, the HVAC contractors required us to remove the drywall from the knee wall.  That was when we learned that the insulation was installed against the roof deck with no ventilation.  I consulted with the roofing contractor who told me that we needed to fix the insulation and ventilation or risk voiding the warranty on the roof. We had invested in 35 year shingles, so we definitely did not want to lose the warranty.  So that summer, I gutted the entire second floor setting in motion a downward spiral.

We had already spent more than the equity we had set aside from the sale of our old house.  We were in debt.  Now, with no insulation upstairs, it was more expensive to cool our house in the summer.  And the cost to heat the house in the winter would be astronomical.  High utility bills combined with the cost of financing the air conditioning saw us sinking further and further in debt. And that was before we could even consider the expense of putting our house back together.


We knew when we moved in that the electrical work wasn’t pretty.  There were issues with the plugs in the kitchen– the microwave kept tripping the breaker.  I traced that circuit and the fixtures added up to at least 15 (when 12 is the maximum).  The fridge and microwave were both on this overloaded circuit (the fridge has to be on its own) so it was no surprise that the breaker would trip if the fridge was running.  And that was not the only overloaded circuit.  The scary thing is that the previous owner had apparently worked as an electrical contractor.

The addition

The addition was a huge selling point for us.  It was about the size of our old house and consisted of a family room and a home office.  Before moving our computer and book cases into the room, I thought I’d freshen up the paint.  I refer to the chain of events that followed as The Snowball Effect because I ended up gutting this room. There were issues with the insulation and vapor barrier.  There were issues with the electrical.  And it was apparent that these issues were not confined to this one room.  The entire addition would have the same problems.

As we took a closer look at the addition, we realized that it would be best to tear it down and rebuild it.  The floor joists are only 2×6.  Part of the crawl space is completely inaccessible, having a solid foundation with no ventilation, while another part of the crawl space is wide open.  The patio door does not fit properly in its opening and doors leading to the attached gazebo are drafty and ugly. 

We also learned that the addition was once a garage that stood elsewhere on the property.  When he severed the lot, the previous owner disassembled the garage and reused the materials to build the addition.  A proper home inspection would have uncovered the problems in the addition, but we focused our attention on the old part of the house instead. We assumed that the previous owner would have had to pull the proper permits for an addition of that size. It’s not like he could have built such a prominent structure in secret. 

Had we known that within a year we would be planning to rebuild the addition, we would never have bought the house.

What happens when an “existing survey” doesn’t exist

In our offer to purchase we specified that the survey would be included with the house. The owner amended that clause to “existing survey.”  We never received the survey. It was not in the lawyer’s paperwork. When I contacted the lawyer, he responded with an email (in all caps, no less) that the contract specified “existing survey”.  If no survey existed, the seller would not have to provide one.

We asked our real estate agent to contact the seller’s agent. We wanted to know the location of the septic tank and, oh yeah, while you’re at it, ask about the survey. It took about a year of back-and-forth to get any answers– a ridiculous amount of time. 

The sellers’ agent told our agent that the sellers told him that the septic tank was out back to the right and that they had left the survey in the kitchen drawer. The only thing the sellers left in the kitchen drawer was a letter describing how they fed the raccoons peanut butter sandwiches by hand. No survey. But after a year it was our word against theirs and even our own lawyer was not on our side.

After paying for our own survey in 2008, we have reason to believe that the previous owner was being deliberately deceptive because the addition violates required setbacks from the property lines. But it was within our first year here that we decided that we would eventually rebuild the addition. 

Can we have a “do-over?”

Wouldn’t it be nice if a house came with a money back guarantee.  “If not completely satisfied with your purchase, simply return it for a full refund.”    Within a couple months of moving in, we were in debt and we were looking at much more work than we had ever anticipated.  Within the first year, we knew we were going to have to tear down and rebuild the addition.  Our entire second floor was gutted.  Our daughter’s nursery was set up in the living room.  She was just over a year old when we moved in and did not have her own bedroom until she was seven, when we were finally able to afford to finish upstairs.  I want a do-over.

Unfortunately, there are no do-overs in real estate.  I can look back at all the “coulda woulda shoulda’s” all day long.  I can point the finger of blame at myself, our home inspector, our lawyer, the previous owner and the neighbors who didn’t report the previous owner for building an illegal addition.  None of that will change anything.  Yes, our dream house became a nightmare but we’ve been gradually fixing the problems.  As we look forward to rebuilding the addition in the fall of 2014, we might finally have the dream house we thought we bought ten years ago.

What nightmares have you discovered in your house?  Share your stories in the comments. 



  1. Complete Electrical Solutions

    Not as bad as your! Just minor but we need to customize everything since its a small house.We need to add wiring’s for air-cons,motors etc.

    • Thumb&Hammer

      Here’s hoping you don’t find any nasty surprises.
      I miss my small house. Sure, we had to be creative when it came to storage and use of space, but the smaller scale meant more economical renovations.

  2. John @ AZ DIY Guy

    Wow. That is a killer story. We’ve run into a lot of similar issues, just on a smaller scale. We’re in a money pit too. We uncovered all kinds of horrible stuff, remodeling a familyroom addition and keep uncovering more as we go.

  3. cynical

    Some of your “nightmares” are underwhelming. Our house had plenty of issues when we bought it too. Sadly we couldnt afford to buy our “dream house”, it was just what fit our budget. No house is perfect.

    • Thumb and Hammer

      Thank you for your comment. While I agree that “no house is perfect” I don’t believe you are being completely fair by dismissing our experience as “underwhelming.”

      First, it wasn’t just one issue, it was the combination and accumulation of issues that created our “nightmare.”

      Second, no matter how negative the situation, it is easy to point to someone else whose situation is worse. To illustrate with a completely different example: if John has been out of work for a month, you can point to Bill who has been out of work for a year. But that doesn’t make John any less unemployed.

      Third, one person’s “nightmare” may not be a nightmare to someone else. Someone with greater financial resources would probably shrug off our problems, but for us, they caused significant financial difficulty.

      Finally, that “no house is perfect” is exactly the point of this post. In fact, that’s the point of this website.

      You mention that your house had plenty of issues, too. Would you be willing to share your experience on a podcast episode? If so, please contact me by clicking on “contact” in the footer of this page.


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