It was a crumbling Parkdale rooming house, populated by drug users and squatters and available on the cheap. We were cash-strapped, desperate to move and hemmed in by a hot market. Five years, three contractors and $1.1 million later, our home reno nightmare is finally over

Julian Humphreys, Catherine Jheon and their kids in the dining room of their renovated Parkdale home

I was at work when my husband, Julian, called, sounding breathless. “I just saw a house,” he blurted, “and I think we should put in an offer. Today.” It was a three-storey detached Victorian on a corner lot, a few streets from where we lived at the time in Parkdale. He said neighbours apparently called it “the grande dame” for its size and stateliness, and he had often admired it as he cycled past on his way to High Park. I punched the address into Google Street View. The place was huge, with red-brick exterior, gorgeous clay tiles covering the second storey, a wide front porch, sizable backyard and two parking spots. It was on a west-facing lot with tall sunflowers and a beautiful lilac bush out front. Julian said that the place was being used as a rooming house and that he’d managed to take a tour—no small feat since it was full of tenants. It needed a bit of love, but our agent, a part-time contractor, had deemed the structure sound. The basement and the attic were both usable, bringing the total living space to almost 4,000 square feet. And, he added, lowering his voice conspiratorially, it looked like we could have it at a discount.

This was November 2010, and Julian and I were living in a handsome but cramped two-bedroom detached with our two-year-old son on Elm Grove Avenue. That house had been a flip job, hastily renovated by the previous owner, and we had bought impulsively, anxious to upsize from our 900-square-foot condo. We soon discovered that it had a slew of issues, the main one being the rats that congregated in our crawl space, scratching and scurrying at all hours and providing fresh fodder for our nightmares. We wanted out.

In September, we had learned that I was pregnant with our second child and we accelerated our plans. We needed a place with at least three bedrooms. Unfortunately, that dream was becoming increasingly unrealistic for a young family without a lot of money. Julian had just finished his PhD in education and was teaching part-time at Humber; I was an editor for the Food Network’s website and preparing to go on maternity leave. Still, we scoured the listings every day, searching for a fixer-upper that we could renovate ourselves to save money. We weren’t particularly handy, but we’d seen all the home reno shows, and it seemed like everyone in the city was doing it. How hard could it be?

Our budget was $560,000, but nothing came on the market at that price, so our enterprising young agent, eager to kick-start her business, began knocking on doors in the neighbourhood. Eventually, she met an elderly couple who explained that they owned several properties, including the grande dame, which they’d consider selling. They suggested $480,000, based on their most recent Municipal Property Assessment Corporation report, seemingly unaware of Toronto’s scorching market and the fact that MPAC generally assesses below market value. We needed to move fast, Julian said, before they put it on the market.

That night, six hours after Julian had called me at work, we submitted a bid of $480,000 without conditions. To our surprise, the owners refused it outright, evidently realizing they’d under-quoted us. We pushed our offer to our limit of $560,000, and they accepted. I was thrilled. Then the adrenalin wore off, and the gravity of what we’d done sank in. We had just spent more than a half a million dollars on a house I had never seen.

It was four weeks before we could finally go inside. The sellers had been unresponsive to our repeated requests for access. Before we visited, Julian sat me down and asked that I try to focus on potential. I smiled, patted my growing belly and told him not to worry. Everything was going to be fine.

We brought along our son, who was excited to see his new room, and some friends—a contractor, an architect, a designer and her three-year-old daughter. As we approached the house, it became obvious that it had been badly neglected. The roof needed to be replaced—the majority of the shingles were in tatters and there were a few bare patches. The fence at the side of the house would’ve fallen over with a little push. The front porch was populated with rusty appliances, broken furniture and piles of miscellaneous junk. Julian took my hand and squeezed it gently. We walked through the front door, which was ajar. The main hallway was narrow and lined with more flotsam. Every surface appeared to be coated in grime. We stepped gingerly through to the kitchen, careful not to touch anything. The sink was full of dirty dishes and the brown linoleum floor looked like it hadn’t been swept in years.

I cautiously waddled down the stairs to the basement into a sea of filth—dirty clothes, crushed beer cans, takeout containers with rotting remnants, cigarette butts.

There was an overflowing litter box and cat feces smeared all over the floor. The sour stink of cat piss made me gag.

Julian, seeing the panic in my eyes, began to expound on the virtues of the handsome stove in the corner—“And look at the high ceilings!” he said. That’s when I noticed him: at the far end of the room, a man, lying on his back on a stained mattress, his face covered by a grungy sleeping bag. He had a tourniquet around his arm and a syringe was lying by his side. I shushed Julian and stabbed a finger in the man’s direction. Silence. What do you do with a dead body? After a few seconds, our contractor friend bravely walked over and gently nudged him. The man groaned and rolled over. We quietly tiptoed upstairs.

On the second floor, we encountered more cat feces, more garbage, more mounds of random stuff.

The upstairs kitchen was covered in anti-capitalist graffiti.

The bathtub was filled with a mysterious black liquid, the sight of which caused our son to start bawling.

Julian and I reassured him that we would clean everything up and that he wouldn’t have to bathe in it. Eventually he calmed down. Then, as we made our way to the attic, we noticed a sweet burnt-plastic odour in the air.

At the top of the stairs, we saw two people sitting cross-legged on a mattress. “Hi, we’re the new owners,” Julian said, cheerfully. My designer friend leaned in. “They are smoking crack,” she whisper-hissed. I pulled my son close and shouted at Julian: “Get us out of here!”

Once we were outside, Julian confessed he was surprised at how much worse the house looked than when he had toured it. He wondered whether the tenants, angry at being evicted, had vandalized it. And yet, despite the post-apocalyptic vibe inside, Julian was optimistic. “Don’t worry, we’ll make the place beautiful,” he told me. Our friends were undaunted, too. I realized they were right. Beneath the grime, dust, junk and assorted drug paraphernalia was a potentially stunning home. We bought a crack house, we joked, but it was our crack house. We would restore the grande dame to its former glory.

We sold our two-bedroom rat trap for $635,000, put $200,000 down on the new place and ported our mortgage over. We had planned on living there during the reno, but I started having nightmares about my unborn baby inhaling crack fumes and my son playing with syringes in the backyard. And our contractor friend had advised us against living in a construction zone, having seen marriages implode amid the mess.

Luckily, we still owned the two-bedroom condo at King and Bathurst. I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of the soon-to-be four of us sharing 900 square feet, but I figured it would only be for a few months. We remortgaged the condo, freeing up $260,000, the maximum the bank would lend us. That amount constituted our total budget for the reno, which wasn’t enough. Julian had interviewed 40 contractors, taking fastidious notes on a spreadsheet, and they all said that for a full gut job like ours, each floor would cost $100,000. Since we were planning to do all four floors, we were short by about $140,000. We banked on Julian’s impressive research skills to help cut costs, and he worked part-time, so he could provide some of the labour. We pressed ahead.

On January 1, 2011, the owners told us they had given the tenants the legally mandated two months’ written notice to vacate. On March 1, our closing date, we visited. Our purchase agreement stipulated “broom-swept condition,” and we were excited to see what the place looked like empty. To our disappointment, it was still teeming with crap. And the original tenants had been replaced by new ones. In one bedroom we encountered a half-dressed, fully dazed young woman; in another, a hostile-looking young man who stroked his two mangy mutts menacingly until we left his room. In the attic, we met a greasy, long-haired hipster named Jack. We explained to everyone that we were the new owners, the place was no longer a rooming house and that they needed to leave immediately. They all refused. We learned that none of them had been paying rent—and they saw no reason to vacate simply because we’d asked. The previous owners’ eagerness to sell started to make sense.

The squatters called the local tenants’ rights association. We called the police, who arrived and spoke to the squatters. Then they visited the sellers, who produced a half-completed rental application from Jack dated after the sale of the house. It was unsigned and legally meaningless, but since the document showed some communication between Jack and the sellers, the police said it could be enough to delay the eviction. We pushed our closing date by two weeks.

Our agent was acting on behalf of the sellers and us, but she was on vacation and not responding to emails. We threatened to withdraw our offer, but the sellers didn’t seem to care either way. We were in a financial pinch, carrying two mortgages, and needed to get the reno started so we could put the condo on the market as soon as possible. Plus, I was eight months pregnant and in no mood for delays. On March 18, we closed on the property.

We considered cutting the electricity, changing the locks or just starting the demolition with the tenants inside, but it didn’t feel right. We decided to give them an additional two months’ notice. The next day, Jack called Julian and said that they would vacate for $15,000 in cash. We laughed. It was ludicrous: we didn’t have enough for the reno—much less a five-figure bribe. We didn’t even own a car. But we were stuck, and maybe he knew it. Jack was the only one with rights, however tenuous, to the place; the others were technically his guests, so if Jack agreed to leave, then his guests would, too. Julian talked Jack down to $3,000. We figured it would be less expensive than delaying for two more months. In early April, Julian met Jack in the back alley of the Parkdale Public Library and handed him an envelope containing 150 $20 bills. In return, Jack signed a piece of paper confirming he would vacate the house within 24 hours. That night, we mulled over nightmare scenarios. What if Jack refused to leave and told police our document was forged? We’d be out $3,000 and still no further ahead. The next day, we visited the house and found him gone, although his two guests remained. We called the cops, who politely escorted them out of the house. Finally, five weeks after closing, our house was actually ours.

Julian hired a former neighbour, a fit, relatively handy actor, to assist with the demolition. Together, they hauled out 20 tons of furniture, mattresses, dirty linens, books, litter boxes, feces, garbage and rotten food. They ripped out the plaster and lath, wiring, insulation, bathtubs, cabinets, the fireplace and much more. After three weeks, the place was gutted to the studs.

We had applied for building permits, but the city was trying to harmonize zoning bylaws across several municipalities, and the process was delayed. Our neighbour was under the impression that we’d hired him for the construction phase, and he was keen to start building without a permit. My by-the-book husband didn’t want to keep him on for the building portion, so he insisted we wait, without fully explaining why. The tension between them grew. Julian began questioning our neighbour’s every move, more out of curiosity than concern, and one day our neighbour decided he’d been undermined one too many times and stormed off, leaving us not only without a permit but also without a contractor.

Finally, in May 2011, the permits came through. Julian consulted his spreadsheet of contractors and narrowed it down to three candidates. He went outside to mull over his choices. That’s when a man pulled up on his 10-speed bicycle and started chatting with Julian. His name was Robert. He was in his 50s, wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt, jean cut-offs, a rumpled hat and white running shoes. He was missing a few key teeth and didn’t like wearing socks or, as he later informed us, underwear. Robert didn’t own a car and spent his time collecting stray pieces of metal, wood and other junk he’d find on the street. Yet, despite his alarming appearance, he was charming and knowledgeable. He told Julian that he had a degree in structural engineering, and he proposed sensible ideas, like adding skylights to the attic and relocating the furnace to create space for a two-bedroom basement suite. Hey, he said, I could do it myself. Julian wasn’t so sure. Then Robert mentioned he was cheap—only $35 an hour. The next day, Julian checked Robert’s references, which were neither glowing nor damning. We hired him, figuring we could always replace him if things didn’t go well.

Robert started the next day. The first step was to underpin the basement, which required digging it out from the inside. Julian biked over to check on the progress and discovered that our front porch was gone.

It had been in fine shape, and we’d had no plans to demolish it. Julian was apoplectic. Robert flashed his gappy grin and explained that he had borrowed a Bobcat from a guy doing a reno up the street (“for cheap!” he said), and the porch’s removal opened up a hole in the foundation wide enough to drive the Bobcat through. The clay in the basement floor was very hard, he said—“The hardest I’ve ever seen!”—and using the machine would be way quicker than doing it by hand. “Believe me, believe me,” he said, “I just saved you a bundle of money.” We didn’t like his rogue decision making, but if it meant we’d be saving money, we could live with it. Somehow, he convinced us to trust him. The clay did seem extra hard.

Julian visited the site every day and was never sure who was working on the house. He’d often find Robert and his crew—a rotating cast of labourers he hired from the coffee shop down the street—standing around yakking. One day, the only progress Julian could detect was a huge pile of soil moved from one spot to another. He asked for a progress report, but Robert held up his palms. “These hands,” he said, turning them over for inspection, “are like Michelangelo’s.” He was annoyed that we couldn’t appreciate his artistry. A few weeks after we hired Robert, we made the overdue decision to fire him.

Before we had the chance, Robert called with some bad news. He had lost control of the Bobcat, he said, and a four-foot section of the foundation had caved in.

Julian biked over in a panic to find Robert and his crew clustered around a hole big enough to accommodate a SmartCar. They had jammed steel beams in to keep the house from collapsing. A neighbour had called the city, and an inspector arrived to assess the damage. He warned us he would condemn the house if we didn’t act immediately and gave us instructions on shoring up the foundation.

We needed to move fast. We contacted a few contractors, but no one wanted to take on a project that might collapse at any moment. Robert had us in a complete bind: he had created a disaster from which only he could extricate us. We were nearly halfway through our $260,000 budget, had an incomplete basement, a decimated porch, and the other floors hadn’t even been touched. Part of me wished the whole place would just cave in.

It was around this time that Julian started having panic attacks. We were both stressed, but Julian felt it most acutely. He was haunted by a pervading sense of dread and would wake up every night at 4 a.m. and cycle through shock, anger, resentment and acceptance before falling back to sleep. Our sleep patterns weren’t helped by the fact that we had a newborn. The only bright spot: our shared animus toward Robert kept us allied. We became closer than ever.

As soon as Robert had secured the foundation, we met him at a coffee shop on Queen and fired him. He didn’t go quietly. He wanted to stay and complete the rest of the house, or, as he called it, the “cream” of the project. He pulled out his tattered black log book and told us we owed him $20,000—on top of the $30,000 we’d already handed over. We countered with a list itemizing the $100,000 we had paid to make up for his incompetence. In the end, we gave him roughly $6,000, just to be rid of him.

Finally, Julian called in a professional. Peter was reliable, organized, patient and came with glowing references. He was the contractor we should have hired from the start—in fact, Julian had already interviewed him twice but we had passed because he was charging market rate. Peter said that it would cost $360,000 to finish the project. We had only $80,000 left, and with Julian working part-time and me on mat leave, no bank would lend us more. Desperate, we pimped out our newborn daughter for some modelling gigs, which added a whopping $250 to our budget. We explained our dilemma to our mortgage broker, Tom. He thought that our house would appreciate quickly, post-reno, and agreed to personally lend us $280,000 at five per cent interest. We were relieved. But Tom didn’t transfer us the cash; instead, he gave his word that the money would be there when we needed it. We signed the contract with Peter and the reno resumed.

With a professional at the helm, progress was fast. Peter’s crew framed the house in a few weeks. They ordered windows, sprayed insulation and transformed the basement from a sludgy mud pit to a cozy oasis with heated floors. Before long, we needed Tom’s cash infusion. Julian called him. Tom apologized but said it was too big a risk. He said he could afford to lend us half, but that was it. We were ruined. If we couldn’t pay Peter, work on our place, still far from habitable, would grind to a halt.

That evening, back at the condo, Julian and I discussed our options and came to the realization that we had no choice but to sell. There were tears. Then the phone rang. It was Julian’s godfather, Richard, who lives in England, calling to say he was in town. This was rare: Richard had only been to Canada once before. He wanted to know if we were free for dinner. Richard was a very successful entrepreneur and a father figure to Julian, who grew up without a dad. The following night, over dinner at Terroni on Queen, we filled Richard in on our nightmare. He was stunned. He asked to see the house, so Julian took him for a tour. When Julian returned, he told me that Richard had offered to lend us the money, on the same terms as our mortgage broker. I remember my knees buckled, and I almost fell over with relief.

Over the following weeks, Julian’s panic attacks abated. Peter was a godsend—part contractor extraordinaire, part therapist. He was gracious and patient, and took extra care to explain every step of the process. We had minor irritations—the city’s committee of adjustment nearly denied a variance for our enlarged basement walkout, Robert’s handiwork—but it was nothing compared to what we’d been through. We took the sellers to small claims court and, since they had allowed the condition of the house to deteriorate before closing, won $5,000.

On April 20, 2012, a year and a half after we purchased the house, we finally moved in. My mom moved into the two-bedroom basement suite and the four of us took over the top three floors. It was unrecognizable from its former self. Big windows in every room, radiant in-floor heating throughout, a gorgeous custom-designed kitchen with marble countertops, bright, spacious bedrooms for the kids, a master bedroom with a deck and a walk-in closet, and an airy attic office for Julian. The only things that remain of the original are the exterior brick, the front door and the stained glass. The total cash outlay was $1.12 million, half of it for the purchase, the rest for the reno.

The last few years have been nerve-racking. We have a $580,000 mortgage and still owe $150,000 to Richard. For a long time we doubted we’d ever get our money back. But a renovated semi down the street, once owned by the same couple who sold us our house, just went for $2.1 million. So for now things look okay. We watch closely for news of interest rate hikes or attempts to cool the market. One major shakeup and we’re back to nightly panic attacks.

We realize that our story could’ve ended up much differently. We’ve learned a harsh lesson: there’s no way to shortcut a reno; they cost a lot, period. If we had just listened to the advice of realtors, architects, designers, tradespeople and many friends, we would have avoided considerable stress and, well, $100,000 in debt. We were the victims of a shoddy contractor and bad luck, but also of our own colossal ignorance and hubris.

Today, we get stopped all the time by people from the neighbourhood who want to talk about our house—the mayhem that went on here has become Parkdale lore—and people love listening, wide-eyed about what we’ve been through. We love the house and it feels like home, though we still get reminders of its past life. Just the other day a ragged-looking guy knocked on the door asking if there were rooms available. Not at the moment, I said, though if the market tanks, I suppose that’s always an option.