Toronto writer pens account of nightmare purchase

by Justin da Rosa on 31 May 2017
Swipes at homeless people, “pimping” (her words, not ours) out her daughter as a model to cover reno costs, hiring an unqualified “contractor” who refused to wear underwear – this story has everything.

In a Toronto Life story entitled “We bought a crack house” -- that, within hours of publication, incited internet rage from people crying foul about the author’s entitlement and treatment of homelessness and mental illness – Catherine Jheon recalled the harrowing tale of the time she and her partner decided to buy a Parkdale rooming house.

In November 2010 the couple purchased the 4,000 square foot, three story detached Victorian in Toronto for $560,000. They knew it would require a costly and time-consuming renovation, but they had faith in the knowledge they had acquired from home reno shows to pull it off.

What ensued quickly turned their home buying dream into a nightmare. These are some of the most … interesting … parts of the story.

Forgoing a proper tour, the couple was surprised by the state of the home

Jheon, along with her husband, young son, and a few friends, toured the house following the purchase.

The place overflowed with garbage and grime, but it was the current tenants that were the most off-putting for the couple.

“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,” Jheon writes. “He had a tourniquet around his arm and a syringe was lying by his side.”

During the tour they were met with the smell of cat feces and a “sweet burnt-plastic” odour.

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

Luckily, they still had a place to live while renovating

“Luckily, we still owned the two-bedroom condo at King and Bathurst,” Jheon writes. “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.”

Some have pointed out the judgemental view of raising a family in a 900 square foot condo is something thousands of Torontonians would appreciate.

Trouble with the tenants leads to bribe

The couple visited the house on the closing date and were met by a bevy of new tenants.

“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,” Jheon writes. “In the attic, we met a greasy, long-haired hipster named Jack.”

The tenants – despite neither having official rental agreements nor paying actual rent – refused to leave. That is until the couple gave into a $3,000 bribe – which had been haggled down from the original request for $15,000.

Hiring the wrong contractor

“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,” Jheon writes. “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 was cheap, charging only $35 an hour. What could go wrong?

First, he decided – without consultation – to demolish the front porch so he could fit a Bobcat in to aid in excavating the basement.

After weeks of Robert providing no actual renovations, the couple decided 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.”

In all, Robert cost the couple $100,000 in damages. But, hey, at least he only cost $35 an hour.

Money trouble

They finally decided to hire a competent (and, you know, certified professional) contractor named Peter. Peter claimed the rest of the reno would cost $360,000 to complete. The couple had $80,000.

“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,” Jheon writes. “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.”

However, when the time came to cash in on that promised loan, the broker could only pony-up half of the agreed-upon figure.

Luckily, a wealthy uncle came to town just in the nick of time to offer a loan at the same terms.

A lesson learned

“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,” Jheon concludes. “We were the victims of a shoddy contractor and bad luck, but also of our own colossal ignorance and hubris.”

In total, the project cost $1.12 million.

To read the full account, click here.

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