I found my dream home in the country. Then the nightmare began

I found my dream home in the country. Then the nightmare began

In the fall of 2015, my husband Trevor and I were driving east on the 401, with our eight-year-old son Oliver in the back seat, to visit relatives in the Ottawa Valley.

“Let’s take a different way,” Trevor said. “I want to show you something.”

We pulled off the highway and took a detour through Frontenac County. Trevor took us into Bedford Mills, a ghost town with a population of fewer than 10, located a three-and-a-half-hour drive east of Toronto. The town consists of a handful of cabins, a restored church and an 1830s stone mill, which stands guard over a pond and a waterfall called Buttermilk Falls, like something out of a gothic novel. My husband’s a photographer and he’d first spotted the mill when we drove through the area a few months earlier. I’d been sleeping in the car. He thought it might be a cool place to take pictures.

Even in the stark greyness of a fall afternoon, it was a beautiful spot. We got out of the car and took pictures until Oliver sighed with boredom. Then we looked up. Across the water, atop a craggy limestone cliff, there stood an old yellow house with a big white veranda, which peered down at us through a forest of pine trees. It was the kind of place I’d wanted to live in my whole life: old, beautiful, surrounded by water and trees. And a little spooky.

“Look at that house,” I said, pointing. “Imagine living there.” We drove up a steep driveway, and it was even more charming up close. On the deserted property, there was an old carriage house and a bell that rang with a satisfyingly loud gong. We took some more photos, then went back to the car and drove away.

I couldn’t get the house out of my mind. For years, our family had been living in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom detached in Brampton that we loved. But finances were tight and it was bigger than we needed. We struggled with our work-life balance. I’d been a stay-at-home mom for eight years and had recently gone back to school at Sheridan College for decorating and visual design. Trevor wanted to leave his job at a printing company and commit to his photography business full time. We wanted to redefine our goals as a family.

We talked about moving elsewhere in the GTA, but assumed that it wouldn’t happen for a few years. I started looking at places online, mostly out of curiosity. One day, I saw a listing for an historic home in eastern Ontario. It was beautiful. I immediately sent the link to Trevor, referring to it as “my” house.

Trevor said he thought it was the yellow house on the cliff we’d seen months before in Bedford Mills. I was taken aback at the suggestion. It couldn’t be the same house–could it? I looked closely and searched on Google Maps, and sure enough, it was the same place. I decided I needed to see it.

I contacted the realtor, who sent me information about the property. It was more than 130 years old, roughly 2,000 square feet, with four bedrooms and two baths, and sat on a woodsy six-acre lot. It was also of local significance. In the late 19th century, Benjamin Tett Jr., the son of a prominent landowner and politician, built the house for his new bride, Charlotte. I immediately christened the place “Tett House” and started loving it even more. It was listed for $459,000, which seemed shockingly low compared to Toronto prices.

A few weeks later, I made the drive out to Frontenac County to view the place in person. The owners didn’t live on the property, so there were no appliances and hardly any furniture. It was a lonely place. I could feel its sadness, but I could also imagine its potential. I’m an avid reader and I’ve always wanted to live in a bookish home, something romantic and a little mysterious, in the woods near a body of water. Preferably with its own name. Tett House checked all those boxes.

My spirits fell, however, when I realized it could never happen. The place clearly needed a lot of work—the wiring, the windows, the floors, the furnace. Trevor and I are not DIY people. We also don’t have an unlimited budget to take on that type of renovation. As I walked off the property, I rang the bell again and said goodbye forever. I was heartbroken.

In the fall of 2016, Trevor and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. In that decade, we hadn’t been away together for longer than a weekend. We decided to spend a week in Old Quebec City. Our time there was beautiful and romantic. We realized how much we’d been trapped by the routine of daily life, how much we’d turned away from what inspired us. We didn’t know exactly what our next step was, but we were on the watch for it.

And then Tett House found us, yet again.

One day in early 2017, I searched a few Ontario listings online. I assumed Tett House had been sold long ago, but there it was again, my beautiful yellow home, high on the hill.

I had goosebumps. The roof had been reshingled and a white picket fence had been erected out front. And the price had dropped by $70,000, to $389,000. How many more times did I need to be hit over the head with this? Trevor suggested we make a trip out to see the house with Oliver. This was getting serious.

We ended up visiting three times in six weeks. The first time was to get Trevor and Oliver’s approval. The second time, we brought a contractor. The third, an inspector. It was imperative to us that we fully understood the scope—and cost—of the renovations required, and any potential issues that might affect such an old house. Our decision hinged on having the budget to make the necessary repairs.

Early estimates put renovation costs at $75,000. The house needed to be completely rewired. It needed insulation, plaster and drywall repair, among 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. The dirt-floor fieldstone basement had been my biggest concern, but our inspector declared the foundation solid and well-supported. We planned to replace the oil furnace and oil tank with propane. At least the upstairs bathroom, kitchen, roof, fence, septic tank, well and filtration system were all new.

We did a water quality test and an evaluation of wastewater flow, which are super important on a rural property with a well and a septic system. Everything came up clear, clean and safe.

Back home in Toronto, it was a seller’s market, and our home had increased in value by $100,000 in the preceding four months. If we sold quickly, we could easily afford all the renovations at Tett House and even pay off a big chunk of the mortgage. This move had the potential to completely change our lives.

We met with our bank manager. He said, “You’ve got this.” So, we went for it.

Trevor and I weren’t strangers to real estate. Tett House would be our third home, and we’d always placed huge importance on transparency during the negotiation process. We’d been lucky to purchase from really nice people, so nothing could have prepared us for what we went through this time around. We immediately knew two things about the owners of Tett House. First, they were jerks. Second, they were totally shameless about it. In fact, let’s call them the Jerks.

The Jerks had a reputation in Bedford Mills for treating tradespeople poorly, and nobody wanted to work with them. As the realtors prepared our offer, we consulted with local contractors, and several of them refused to come to the house until they realized someone else was buying it.

During our negotiations, the Jerks misrepresented the condition of the home’s utilities: the heating, the electrical system, the septic drain field. They refused to clear out the junk they were legally responsible for. Most significantly, a title search by our lawyer revealed that the Jerks falsely claimed to own an old boathouse and waterfront access on the property, and tried to include them in the sale. In fact, that land was registered to someone else: a man named Barry, who lived at the old stone mill at the foot of Buttermilk Falls.

In desperation and disbelief, we reached out to Barry. Tett House and the old mill had once been owned by the same family, and there were some complicated grandfather clauses tied to both properties. Barry and his wife had the only copy of the land survey. Barry was thrilled to learn his neighbours were leaving and that a new family might bring Tett House back to life. He confirmed that the boathouse and waterfront access belonged to him.

Although they had no documentation to support their claims, the Jerks continued to insist that they owned Barry’s waterfront property and boathouse. They refused to adjust their price or the legal property boundaries. Negotiations dragged on, and the Jerks insisted on trying to sell Barry’s land as part of the transaction. Days passed, until the midnight signing deadline loomed. In the final moments, we ended up in a bitter standoff, with me in tears on the phone with our realtor. The Jerks wouldn’t budge. Finally, having known all along that they couldn’t sell what they didn’t own, the Jerks pulled the disputed land from the contract, with only 15 minutes to spare.

Trevor later confessed to me that in this moment, he had a “gut check,” a red flag, an instinct to walk away. He ignored it. We’d already come so far. We’d invested weeks of planning and several weekends driving out to Bedford Mills. We’d already spent over $1,000 on consultations with inspectors and contractors. We also loved the house. So we signed the purchase agreement.

The closing date for Tett House was in mid-May 2017, specifically the Friday before the Victoria Day long weekend. That gave four weeks to stage and sell our Brampton home, then complete all the renovations at our new place.

When selling a property in the GTA, there’s a lot of pressure to have your place looking like something on HGTV. We had a long list of repairs, upgrades and purges to do before our house could go on the market. With the help of some incredible friends and professionals, in a few very short but stressful weeks, we somehow managed to get everything finished and staged.

It was an intense and rushed process, but entirely worth it. Seemingly overnight, houses in our neighbourhood were being snapped up at $100,000 to $150,000 over asking. And then, suddenly, ours was one of them. It was on the market for less than a week. We felt validated and confident that we’d done the right thing.

Until the fallout.

A lot of people dream of buying a big old house in the country and leaving the city behind. But there’s a reason it remains just a dream for so many, because turning it into a reality is emotionally exhausting. There’s a lot of second-guessing and self-doubt. There’s wondering if you can handle a rural property when the only wilderness you’ve experienced is an unmown suburban lawn. There’s leaving behind the proximity of your hometown, the landmarks and memories of your childhood—and your sister, who lives a short drive away. There are all of your friends who can’t quite hide the fact that they think you’re crazy. Because of all the negotiation drama with the Jerks, it was only later that we started telling people about Tett House, and we encountered two very distinct reactions. Some people were like, “That’s awesome, I’m coming to visit!” Others smiled politely while trying to understand why the hell we were moving to a house in the middle of nowhere.

And finally, though Oliver had initially endorsed our move, having fallen in love with his new bedroom and big backyard, he collapsed in tears under the pressure of impending change. One evening, at bedtime, I lay down with him for three hours while he cried inconsolably. “Why are we leaving? We have a nice house,” he said. “I love my friends. We have everything here.” I had no answers and eventually started sobbing, too. At that point, I was pretty sure we were carpe diem–ing our way into a huge mistake.

We weren’t just moving. We were leaving behind an entire life.

Our realtor didn’t want us to close Tett House on a Friday in case anything went wrong—especially the Friday before a long weekend, when most businesses are closed and banking officers, lawyers and other professionals wouldn’t be available. But Trevor and I were confident we’d done our due diligence. Financing was confirmed with our bank in Toronto and our lawyer in Smith Falls had all the paperwork ready. Electrical, insulation and HVAC contractors were lined up to start work immediately after the holiday. Two weeks before closing, we met with Joey, our local plumbing and electrical technician. We’d already tested the well water and septic tank. Joey checked the water pressure and the filtration unit one last time. Everything was good to go.

We really should’ve taken the advice from our realtor about not closing on a Friday. On that day, we drove up to Bedford Mills with a trailer full of basic furniture, planning to spend the long weekend at Tett House. Before we could access the home, however, we’d need to stop at our lawyer’s office in Smiths Falls to finalize the transaction and pick up the key.

Due to personnel changes, the bank messed up the entire transaction, from botching the paperwork to transferring the wrong amount of money, forcing us to come up with $10,000 at the last minute. This happened while we were driving on the 401. We had an hour and a half to arrange financing with another bank in our new community, without any connections there at all. The Jerks had violated our real estate contract by leaving the carriage house full of junk. In the event of this happening, our lawyer was supposed to hold several thousand dollars back from the purchase, but he didn’t. We also found out that he’d miscalculated the property taxes, making us responsible for several hundred dollars left outstanding by the Jerks.

The financial transaction went through at 5 p.m., just as the bank and the lawyer’s office were closing. Our lawyer handed us the key. After this series of setbacks, we rushed to our new insurance broker, whose office was just down the street, to submit some final documents, but their door was already locked. Trevor, Oliver and I sat down on the steps of the broker’s office, exhausted and shaky. We hadn’t eaten since about 7 a.m. I thought of our old life, and the uncertainty of our new one. I forced a smile and said, “God, I hope this is going to be worth it,” then burst into tears. I felt demoralized. But at least we had the key. Tett House was finally ours. The worst was over—or so we thought.

We had dinner at a local pub, then drove 45 minutes from Smiths Falls back to Tett House. It was almost 8:30 p.m. We unpacked a table, our bed and some chairs from the trailer. I decided to wipe down the kitchen cupboards and put away the few dishes we’d brought. A plume of steam rose up as I ran the hot water. It smelled strongly of gasoline. I rinsed my cleaning rag, wiped the counter, and it left a greasy film. My hands were laced with oil. Trevor was just about to run a bath for Oliver.

“Don’t drink the water!” I called out to them. “Something’s not right.”

Our bad day wasn’t over. It had just begun.

Trevor, Oliver and I were spending our first weekend in our new home in a new community, but we were in trouble and we knew no one. We didn’t know if it was safe to even stay in the house. Joey the electrician was the only person we could think of to contact. It was after-hours on a long weekend and he was in town having ice cream with his family, but Joey came over right away.

He ran the water in the kitchen and, right away, could smell what we all thought was gasoline. “This wasn’t like this when I was here two weeks ago,” he said.

Then Joey used a portable meter to test the water for hydrocarbons, confirmed a positive reading, and expressed his concern that the well had been vandalized. He told us we needed to have the water specially tested by a laboratory and then contact the Ministry of the Environment.

Trevor and I felt like we were in a nightmare. It was the May long weekend and we had to find somewhere to stay, but all the local hotels were booked up. We also had four different contractors ready to start work and five major appliances scheduled for delivery after the weekend.

“Don’t go to a hotel,” said Joey, whose wife, toddler and three-month-old were waiting in his truck as he consulted with us. “Come and stay at my house.”

We hugged and thanked Joey, but of course didn’t take him up on his generous offer. My aunt and uncle, who lived an hour away in Carleton Place, kindly agreed to put us up for the rest of the weekend. Fortunately, we had a month before our house in the GTA closed. We called all our contractors and asked them to stand down until we knew exactly what was going on.

What do you do when someone vandalizes the well on your newly purchased property? No one could tell us. 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 didn’t know. A well technician I called for advice didn’t know.

The Ministry of the Environment advised us to hire an environmental consultant. The next two months were a blur of tests and technicians. I was driving back and forth from the GTA three times a week, often in the same day, to oversee the cleanup process. It was long, tricky and expensive. The well had to be pumped dry, the polluted water had to be properly disposed of, the plumbing in the house had to be shocked. Water-yielding appliances, such as the hot-water tank, had to be removed and replaced. We couldn’t dig a new well due to possible recontamination. But since Tett House is surrounded by lakes on both sides, our hero, Joey, set us up with a lake-water system and new filtration unit. Because the house is atop a cliff, this involved running 350 feet of heated line uphill from the pond to the house.

Once everything was successfully installed, 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. Everything came back completely safe and clear of any contamination. We got the results almost 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.

It isn’t often that vandalism is your good news story, but in this situation, it was our best-case scenario. If the well had been contaminated by an underground leak, we would’ve been financially responsible for the drilling required to find the spill. And you can’t live on or sell a contaminated property, so we would’ve been homeless and forced into bankruptcy. The possibility of losing everything we had was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever had to face, and it was weeks into the process before criminal activity could be confirmed. According to the Canadian Criminal Code, it was considered an act of terrorism, an indictable offence. We had to file a report with the police, who believed some disgruntled local had targeted the previous owners out of animosity or revenge. “Lanark County Justice,” they called it. Ultimately, we would never know who the culprit was. But we did know it would be a long time before we felt safe living in the house.

In the end, we found out exactly what happens when you buy a home with a vandalized well. Legally, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. You’re financially on the hook for nearly everything. For us, the final price tag was close to $50,000. And if you’re eligible to make an insurance claim, the payout is a drop in a large bucket—because we were able to prove the well was vandalized, insurance covered a small fraction of the cost.

By the time we were finally able to move into Tett House, in August 2017, the well contamination had pushed our renovation timeline back by nearly eight weeks. We had to move out of our old place long before everything was completed. For the better part of two months, we bounced around between a truly awful Airbnb rental, hotels, my aunt and uncle’s house, and both our parents’ homes. In the meantime, our furnishings and boxes were at Tett House, being shunted and shuffled from room to room while contractors worked away. Everything got coated in drywall dust, spatters of insulation and patching compound. Nothing could be unpacked or organized until everything had been thoroughly cleaned. Our new life could only begin after a massive cleanup. We were exhausted before we even began.

It was rigorous work to clean and organize everything, but on the bright side, Tett House was finally functional according to modern standards, and had been brought up to current safety and building codes.

A lot of people said, “At least the worst is over.” That may have been true, but our first year at Tett House involved a series of inconveniences and adjustments: minor plumbing issues, continuous repairs, defective smoke alarms that went off randomly in the middle of the night. We had cluster flies, ants, wasps, mice. Oliver was bitten by a tick. Then we had bats in the house. Then our cat caught a bat and had to be quarantined for rabies. We hired a mason for some fireplace mantel repairs and were told the chimney was crumbling. Our insurance company dictated that we remove four large, old trees to make sure they didn’t fall on someone or something. The bills piled up at an alarming rate in that first year. Our initial projected costs of $75,000 had more than doubled.

In the spring of 2018, our back lawn flooded with sewage. That’s how we found out the Jerks hadn’t updated the septic system properly. When they put in a new septic tank, without a permit, they forgot to install a drainage bed, so the wastewater ended up on the property. We had to excavate the entire backyard and put in a new septic drain field. When the administrator from our local health unit came to inspect the area and issue a septic permit, she said, “I remember talking to you last year. Weren’t you the ones who had your water poisoned?”

We’re now two and a half years into our adventure at Tett House. When Covid-19 hit, our isolated country home suddenly became a locus of safety. The remoteness has made self-isolation simple, and many of our friends have reached out to say they wished they were in a rural setting. Otherwise, things have become more settled. Oliver loves his new school, which is small and community-based, and although we miss our old friends, we’ve made some new ones. Deer visit us almost daily, there are swans on the pond and our neighbours make maple syrup with the sap from our trees.

My in-laws also moved to the area, so for the first time, Oliver has grandparents who live close by. Trevor’s career in photography and media is flourishing and I work at a local home goods boutique and creative studio. I continue to explore my creative dreams in writing, photography and visual design. Our property is surrounded by a natural landscape of lakes and trees that inspire us with beauty and magic every day of every season.

Perhaps in response to the challenges we’ve faced, I’ve focused on creating restful spaces in our home: reading nooks, cozy corners. Little pockets of respite. Turns out, this just means a lot of throw pillows. Trevor and I still sometimes have moments of doubt, times when we both feel like we have nothing left to give. The feeling is compounded by our depleted budget. Occasionally, we find ourselves saying things like, “Remind me why we did 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 that kind of investment in time and money, and heart and soul, just to flip a property. At this point, we’re committed to building a home here, for better or worse, and so far, it keeps getting better. Sure, I wish some things hadn’t happened, but I’m still thankful that my husband decided to take that detour through Frontenac County, where we spotted that lonely yellow house on the hill.