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Thursday, April 5, 2012

How I survived buying the house from hell.

We had just sold all of our rental properties in Florida. We quit our jobs, sold all our stuff, and said our goodbyes. Hawaii was our destination, to the happiness we once had there. A home in Hawaii had just been purchased. It turned out to be the home from hell, full of ghoulish nightmares and hidden dark secrets. It nearly killed me. It almost burned to the ground.  The home inspector was blind. I was a fool. This house became an anchor around my neck. Read on if you dare - and cue the scary music.

We had practically bought it sight unseen. After we sold our last rental property, I realized that we had enough to return to Hawaii. At first, I was overwhelmed at the prices. This was late 2004 and the housing market was climbing to all new highs every day. We had just sold everything and we were completely cash.  We had kept our Florida jobs because I knew we would need the income from them to qualify for the Hawaii mortgage. So we felt a little pressure to purchase a home before we left Florida behind. We were certainly dismayed to see the prices in Hawaii. When we had last lived there, the prices were in the mid 300’s. Now 700 was a very common number. How could we possibly afford this? It just didn’t seem practical to spend so much on just housing. That’s when I got an idea, “What if we bought a multifamily property?” We talked to our agent and told him to up the price range but now only search for multifamily properties. Our plan was simple, find a home where the rent would pay more than half the mortgage. We were trying to think outside the box, and it seemed the perfect solution.

Did he own any hell houses? 
 Our agent was great. He quickly found there were lots of multifamily properties that had not risen with the rest of the market. The average buyer wasn’t looking for extra work. I was!  We soon found a great property on a very large lot bordering forest land. It was located in Kailua, but against the mountains.  Best of all, it had not one but two rentals. A main home with 4 bedrooms and 3 baths, a cottage with 3 bedrooms and two baths and a garage apartment with an efficiency apartment. Our agent estimated $1700 in monthly income. We were thrilled. When we looked at the mortgage and the income, it would be more than affordable. So we bought sight unseen. I went out for a quick inspection. I took a red-eye both ways and barely got my feet on Hawaii soil before I had to return to work the next day. The inspector did not seem to find anything major and the house was huge. It was almost 5000 square feet on a half acre, in Kaliua. Most lots here are one eight of an acre. I remember thinking the land was worth the asking price. I am so stupid!

This was under my son's pillow

 So we moved in a few months later. At first the only problem we had was an infestation of Hawaiian centipedes. I was a bit afraid of these things. They move like a snake, are about twelve inches long, and their bite can mean going to the hospital. Our new home was full of them. My son found one under his pillow. But one call to a pest control company and problem solved.

I began to realize the roof was in awful shape. This became crystal clear when a man from a roofing company fell though the roof while he was inspecting it for me. Seeing his feet stick out of the ceiling, kicking back and forth, should have been a harbinger for the pain that was to come. But I was distracted. I was in the final stages of purchasing our physical therapy business. In the weeks to come, I would spend all my time coming to terms with the failings of the previous owners, the stealing, the theft of insurance monies, and the eventual firing of the receptionist. In my free time, I was attempting to paint, patch and repair our new home. There were odd smells in the bathrooms. There were funny noises in the attic. Once or twice I could swear I smelled smoke.  But I was distracted and thrilled to be realizing our life’s dream.

You have to understand, we had spent the previous 5 years of our life wishing we could be back in Hawaii. We had worked hard and now we had made it. We were thrilled!. I had even found tenants for the two rentals. A rare, good surprise came when we went to rent out the cottage. I went on Craigslist to scope out our competition. I quickly learned that our rent estimates were low. We could easily get $2500 per month. So I took photos and placed an ad. 50 people showed up the first day. I rented it the same day. Unbelievable! In Florida it took me 2 months to find a tenant. Kailua has no apartment complexes, just homes, and very few for rent. So our low rent (yes, $2500 is much better than the $3200 average) plus the fact that we accepted pets made it very desirable. We found a single Air force colonel who wanted a 2 year lease. Perfect! Things were really rolling now.

The first tragedy hit when the roofing material was delivered. The roofers had started the process of removing the shake roof and replacing it with a shingle roof.  They piled everything on one part of the roof and left it overnight. At 6:00 pm, we heard a giant splitting sound. It turned out, the home did not have trusses. Instead it was built local-style with beams leaning on one another and nothing providing structural support. So the beams were now cracked and the garage was dipping down. The roofer took responsibility, and had a contractor come out and fix the damage. He showed me how none of the home was structurally secure and that all the beams were at risk for collapse. I had a sick feeling. Then he showed me the extensive termite damage. In the coming weeks we would learn that all the fascia was full of termite holes. Hawaii has a terrible termite problem. I felt crushed. We had the home inspected. Surely there was recourse. But we had bought the home ‘as-is’ and it was therefore our problem. After getting estimates for the repairs, I realized I could not afford to pay someone to do this. I rolled up my sleeves and learned how to sister joists and repair the innards of our roof. I paid the roofer extra to replace all the ruined fascia. I even learned the art of using Bondo to repair surface termite damage. I did it all myself and saved tens of thousands. It's expensive to hire people in Hawaii.

Our new tenant. 

 It was midnight. I couldn’t sleep. It sounded like squirrels were running across the roof, over and over. Finally I realized 2 things, the sound was inside the attic and Hawaii does not have squirrels. Yes, it was rats. I had lived a sheltered life until that night. I could honestly say, I had lived in many nice, vermin-free homes. Now, I had purchased the most expensive home in my life, and it was rat infested. I could not sleep. I left home at 5:00am the next day to head to the local hardware store. I had no idea how to remove rats. I grabbed things off the shelves with skulls and crossbones. The more skulls, the more I wanted it. A hardware man approached me, looked into my now full cart, and said, “Boy, you look like you have problems.” This was the understatement of the century. My Hawaii dream was not looking so hot. He instructed me to only use glue traps for my rodent friends. He assured me this was the easiest solution. He was wrong.

I ventured into the attic, armed with 20 or so glue traps. The concept is to place the traps along beams and joists, where the rats walk, so they stumble on the glue and become trapped. Sounded perfect! As I climbed back down from the attic and replaced the trap door, I informed my wife I could not eat in our home. I was certain they were everywhere. So we left the traps to work their magic.
Even this guy bothers me.

When we retuned, there was a terrible sound in the attic. My adrenalin began to flow. “What the hell was making that noise?” I asked, knowing the answer but hoping I was wrong. It sounded exactly like a freshly caught trout flopping on the floor of your boat. If the trout weighed 80 lbs. I could picture its claws and fangs. Its beady eyes.  My heart raced. I ordered my family to the other side of the home and got a hoe from the garage. The choice of a hoe should indicate my desperation! 

I realized I had to climb a ladder and enter a completely dark attic with with a garden tool. I had no idea where the 80 lb. rat was. He had friends. I was scared out of my mind as I eased the access panel back. Suddenly, the rat and the 8 inch glue trap fell to the floor in front of me. Based on the blood, he had been trying to bite his leg off. Yuck! He was as large as a small cat. A sewer rat. I am going to spare you what happened next. All I can say is that I never before felt so close to our Neanderthal relatives. It was primeval.  Also, it was very much like a movie I once saw about an axe murderer. I learned three things. One, rats scream when you hit them. Yes, they really do!  Two, they bleed when you hit them with a hoe. Three, one and two combined to make me violently ill. And when I am about to be ill, I curse loudly. My poor wife was huddled on the other side of the house with our children. What she must have thought hearing all those sounds punctuated by my cursing and the rat screaming.  Gruesome! I  had to clean the walls and floors before I would let her leave her hiding place. Actually, I needed to overcome my nausea and that was just an excuse. I apologize if what you just read sickened you. It sickened me so much I can never see any movie or cartoon that contains a rodent. Mickey mouse gives me twitches. All in all I forcibly removed 20 rodents. They had come in through holes the roofer did not seem to notice. He was probably too worried about the rest of my roof collapsing to think about filling tiny holes. But I filled them and removed the rats. Our home has been rat free ever since, but my mental scars will always be there. Unfortunately, the story does not end there.

About a week after killing my last rat, I was in the attic checking the baited traps. Our attic to this day is filled with wire traps baited with dog food. If you are a rat and you happen into my attic, you will regret it. I heard a strange sound as I was crawling on the narrow beams. It sounded like something from Star Wars, like the death star warming up.  I turned to see blue light arcing across the attic. Electricity. Turns out, the rats left a us a little present. They feasted on the wiring. Yes, I know you are wondering why. Well, I have no idea why, but they did.  This causes arcing and worse, fire. The burn marks in the attic showed me where fires had actually started. This was scary! We had to fix it. We called our insurance company. They sent an electrician out to assess the damage. The bad news was, home owners policies do not cover rat damage and it would cost ten thousand to replace all the wiring. The only good thing the agent said was that our policy would cover a fire. Isn't that funny? 

At the same time I was getting this news, I had uncovered the scheme by our billing company to steal our co-payments. I remember thinking “So ten thousand for lost billing and another ten for the rats.” So I had a lot of problems. Luckily, I was introduced to an electrician named Rodney who said for two thousand cash he would rewire the attic. Rodney has been my best friend ever since and he just had a baby boy. He is a 5 foot tall Filipino/Chinese guy who is always willing to work on the side and  does a great job.

I felt like this guy
Now this is where the story is going to sound a little ridiculous. It was April. We were still recovering from the rats, the roof, and the electrical issues. My business was getting worse and I was spiraling down mentally. Then it started to rain. Now, I don’t mean the kind of hard rain we get in Florida that lasts 30 minutes and is accompanied by lightning. This was very different. It would come down in buckets and it lasted all day long, day after day. I have never before seen rain like this. It was biblical rain. I made so many Noah jokes that people stopped laughing. There were floods, rock slides, and disasters. The roads were closed all the time due to mudslides and boulders. 

Then my wife called me at work in a state of panic. She told me the colonel’s shoes were floating in our rental house. “What?”  Her home had flooded. I raced home and  saw the problem. The first story slab was below grade. Water, when it moves, will always find the lowest point. In this case, with the ground 8 inches higher than the slab, that low place was my tenants first floor. I had to  dig a trench lower than the house to allow it to drain off. I worked all night with a pick, a shovel, and halogen work lights. I dug until 2:00am.  It was a 200' trench, It worked. I spent the next few weeks pulling tons of dirt away from the home and building an extensive French drain system. That rain lasted for 40 days on Oahu. Many people had flooding and damage. We repaired all the damage and permanently fixed our drainage issues.

This house has caused me a lot of worry. Many times, I wanted to abandon Hawaii and move back to Florida in defeat. But we knew it would be hard to sell a home like ours, especially before we did all the work. Many times, I saw the house as a chain forcing me to work in my PT clinic. I saw the home as keeping us from doing what we wanted. The mortgage was huge. The payments were scary. We were very dependent on our tenants paying their rent on time. Sometimes, we had bad tenants. We had demanding ones. We had ones that woke us up. It's not easy. But we never gave up.

So, I could go on and on. We had to eventually gut the entire house. I did most all the work myself. I removed everything to the concrete blocks. My wife and I hung the drywall ceilings together. We found a friend  that helped me with all the plumbing. In the end, the only solution was to rebuild everything. We conquered the moldy smells by replacing the showers. One day, my wife came home to find huge piles of dirt where the floor had been. I had to rebuild the drains on one side of the home to repair the improper drainage. Piece by piece, brick by brick, it's all new. In the end, I spent about 50K on materials and labor. I improved the entire home and brought it up to a new standard. It took me the better part of 9 months. I worked non-stop every weekend and most every  hour  I wasn’t at work. I lost weight, but I finished it. It's now a nice home. I have a new kitchen and new appliances. Where the original home had bare concrete walls, it now has smooth finished drywall and crown molding. I was even able to refinance it recently and take advantage of the ultra low interest rates.

So where does this all leave me? Was this a cautionary tale of why you should never own a home? No. I do like my home. With our refinancing, our tenants pay more than just our interest, they pay part of the principal. I live here for free. But also, I love the location. We live next to forest land and endless trails. We leave our front door and hike for hours in two directions. I collect a very good income from our tenants. One day, that could be my retirement. The part of the house we live in is comfortable and spacious. We could never rent an equivalent home. So, it took seven years and lots of labor. I had to learn to survive  centipedes, rodents, fires, floods, electrical failures and termite mounds. Did I mention the 5 foot termite hill behind a wall? Ok, too much! It was actually pretty cool though. I think more than anything, our home was well earned. We have pretty much rebuilt it. I am no longer afraid of rats or centipedes. Termite damage is no big deal. All things I used to think, “How do people survive that?”

I have been through it. I can survive all of it.

That’s something!


1 comment:

  1. Termites?


    (Yeah, I live in Florida, why did you ask? :wink: