Couple Accidentally Bought a Collapsing Mansion and Turned It Into the Perfect Home
| LAST UPDATE 11/08/2021
Cal and Claire knew that a DIY home renovation was a big commitment. But after it was too late to change their minds, they realized that the house they'd invested in was falling apart. They decided to take the plunge anyway, and turn it into their dream home.
Cal and Claire
When Cal and Claire first met at the French Alps, neither could have expected the adventure they were going to start together. Both working the slopes during ski season, the pair quickly fell for each other.
"The Alps have a special place in our heart," they both shared, reminiscing on the early days of their relationship. During this period they went on frequent trips with their colleagues and had plenty of BBQs during the spring, loving their jobs in the Alps. But eventually, it was time to move on.
House Flipping and Auctions
They couldn’t stay on the slopes forever, and when Claire was accepted into medical school and chose not to go, they knew they had to start making plans for the future. After some time pondering what to do, they figured that flipping houses seemed like a good opportunity. But little did they know what they were getting into...
Because their house flipping journey would not quite go as planned. After spending a few weeks researching and scouting out properties, they found what they thought was the perfect flat in Glasgow. Here you can even see a photo of the auction catalog. But as they soon discovered, it wasn’t the property they thought they had bid on.
An Accidental Bid
Because as it turned out, there were two extra properties that were not part of the catalog, and Cal found himself bidding on one of the latter! Throughout the process, the hapless young man had been “bidding” on the Glasgow flat, with no idea that his bids were actually placed elsewhere.
Claire explained it bluntly, “When he thought he was bidding on a 2 bedroom flat in East Pollokshields, Glasgow, he was actually bidding on the 2nd unit up for sale at Jameswood Villa, in Sandbank, Dunoon." Needless to say, they soon realized their mistake.
Visiting Their Antique Mansion
At first, the young couple decided that all they could do was suck it up and make the most of an unfortunate situation. After all, they wanted to be house flippers. And the Jameswood Villa, a dilapidated mansion on Scotland's Cowal peninsula, was certainly in need of some TLC.
After all, it was well over a century old! "This amazing photo was taken in 1910 and shows Jameswood Villa in all its former glory," they said of a photo they had of the property. "It’s the leftmost building, with the car parked outside." It didn’t seem all bad… until they visited the site in person.
But before they made the trip to the little village on the Cowal peninsula, they began making plans based on the information they had. The mansion was two stories separated into four apartments, so there was a lot of space to make use of. Not to mention, the backyard looked enormous.
There was so much potential in the space, and they figured they could build a shed and a patio or two, and have their own barbeque and fire pit. The bones of the old mansion might just work after all. But would they have enough time to make it happen?
More Than They Bargained For
The fact of the matter is that neither Cal nor Claire really knew what they were getting into until they took a look at the place. The catalog that had auctioned the Jameswood Villa mentioned that it needed "upgrading throughout," but according to the couple it "needed a little more than just upgrading."
The first time they saw the property they were shocked by what appeared to be a jungle growing around the building. As you can see above, the garden was "so overgrown it was hard to get to the front door." It was immediately obvious that they had their work cut out for them. That is if they weren’t scared off already.
Looking Around the Back
As they moved further through the property, things only got more daunting. Here you can see the backyard of the Jameswood property, but here’s the catch - that wasn’t what it looked like when Claire and Cal arrived. This was the view after six weeks of cleaning up!
That’s right, six weeks just to ensure that they could get in and out of the house more easily. How could they be so misled? Well as it turned out, the photo they had seen after their auction was more than eight years old. It wasn’t even close to the state of the villa when they purchased it.
As they moved further and further through the property, inspecting its condition as well as they could, it became clear why this 120-year old mansion had been the same price as a 2-bedroom flat. Claire and Cal noted "a partially collapsed front wall, bay window, and roof," and that was just in the front of the house.
It was in such a state that the whole building had been condemned. "Jameswood had been condemned for serious structural problems," they shared. Sure, the exterior was falling apart, but they had higher hopes for the interior. But they were about to be disappointed, again.
One look at the picture below is enough to understand that the interior's condition wasn’t promising either - maybe even less so than the exterior. Entire walls and portions of the ceiling had crumbled into dust, broken furniture and debris were strewn everywhere - the list went on and on.
There were even crows’ nests built into the rubble! And keep in mind, this was just the first room of the house. There were four partitioned apartments in the building and the rest of the property was likely to be the same. They had their work cut out for them, and there was no backing out since they had already signed a contract.
What Was Left?
If you were wondering about what furnishings remained in the Jameswood Villa, let Claire and Cal explain. "The apartments had been left fully furnished... with soggy, moldy couches and mattresses, broken furniture, and decades-old appliances," they said.
It quickly became clear that the leftover furniture was largely unusable, so the two house flippers set to work rounding up the soggy old furniture. The next few days were spent making innumerable trips to the nearby dump. And once everything was cleared out, they realized why the furniture was so ruined.
Holes in the Ceilings, Holes in the Floor
The true state of the house continued to reveal itself, particularly when they examined the ceilings and floors of the home and realized something horrifying - they were full of large holes that had been letting rain into the building for god knows how long! That was why the already damaged furniture had been so soggy.
In the beginning, Cal and Claire had considered staying in one of the rooms while they worked on renovations. But it was clear that this wasn’t an option, as it could be a threat to both their health and safety. So they parked up a caravan outside, ready to tackle what was going to be the biggest project of their lives so far.
Water, Water, Everywhere!
While most of the property hadn’t been very accommodating, at least there was a full bathtub waiting for them! But all jokes aside, it seemed the holes throughout the building had caused more problems than they realized, including intense mold in almost every room.
And to make matters worse, those holes weren’t the only source of dampness and mold throughout the property. It appeared that the drainage system at Jameswood Villa had faulted, causing water overflow throughout the grounds. It seemed that the more they examined the property, the worse their prospects became.
What Kept it Standing?
If put in a similar situation, many of us would have simply demolished the building and constructed a new dwelling on the land. But unfortunately, this wasn’t an option for the young couple. Cal and Claire couldn’t afford to build from scratch, so the only way forward seemed to be a full renovation.
But still, others advised against it. One structural engineer, with the support of the local council, suggested that they demolish the building and start anew. The couple refused, saying "[It] isn't the quick flip we imagined our first building project to be together, but it is a challenge we are excited to undertake."
Setting Future Goals
Despite their financial restrictions, Cal and Claire had no plans to cut corners or play it cheap. And most importantly, they wanted the entire build to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, which meant, “thoughtfully choosing materials while thinking about where they came from."
"We would also have to choose quality products that stood the test of time," the couple explained. "We wanted to keep, and reinstate the original beauty and character of our 120-year-old Victorian Villa, while also making this energy-hungry building more energy-efficient, and equipped for modern living."
Throwing it All Out
Their goals were certainly noble, but were they realistic? After all, every day up to that point they seemed to be getting more out of their depth. But the two young lovebirds were dedicated to their plan, and with the help of their loved ones they had every intention of seeing it through.
So with some helping hands, Cal and Claire set to clearing out the rest of their new home. Even with the majority of broken, water-logged furniture, they still had to see to the pieces of broken walls and ceiling, as well as miscellaneous detritus that littered the floor.
Removing and Replacing
After clearing out buckets of broken plaster and chipped wood on the floor, they also had another unusual task to work on. They had to pull bits and pieces of timber from the walls and floor, making sure that only the useful parts of the structure remained. But it turned out to be quite a balancing act.
"We have to replace nearly all of the timbers in our home, but it's not an easy task," the couple exclaimed. "We can't pull it out all at once, because it might disturb the already partially collapsed structure! Bit by bit, we're planning on replacing timbers - from the ground up!"
Winning the Race
As Cal and Claire progressed through the first steps of home renovation, they found themselves employing the old adage: "Slow and steady wins the race." It was the perfect motivation since they had to move incredibly slowly to ensure that important parts of the building structure didn’t collapse on them.
"The floorboards in the top floor living room were so rotten they could crumble in your hands," they explained. It was safe to say their project was not… a safe one. And after removing rotten floorboards throughout the first floor, they set to digging out a trench and improving future ventilation by shoveling the ground down.
Plumbing and Electrical
But the digging and shoveling weren’t exclusive to the interior. On the grounds of the property, they had to dig another trench to divert extra water from the already water-logged soil. They then had to fix the plumbing and wastewater pipes, to ensure that no extra water was being pumped out into the grounds.
Once the water issue was taken care of, it was time to tackle electricity. They quickly realized that they needed to find the live wire or it would cost them dearly. "If we hadn't have come across [it], we were going to have to pay for the road to be dug up, so they could connect our site to the mains," the couple said.
Next Up, Sandstone
Speaking of the exterior, fixing the drainage system and clearing out the yard was far from the end of their backyard work. For one, they had to scrub at the sandstone walls at the front of the house, which was reported to be "a great spot for moss and lichen to grow."
Cal and Claire also had to learn about cleaning the sandstone, to ensure they didn’t damage it. "Red sandstone is a very fragile stone, so cleaning with harsh chemicals or tools would ruin them,” they explained. Instead, they employed a natural bristle brush and painstakingly scrubbed each stone panel, and replaced the mortar too.
But maintaining the cleanliness of sandstone was a relatively minor problem compared to the myriad structural issues they were faced with. And one of their biggest bugbears was the bay window pictured below, teetering so close to the edge of collapse that only a yellow band held it in place.
"We have a cracked lintel between the ground floor and top floor and two cracked mullions (upright stones) at the bottom left corner. They need to be replaced,” Claire and Cal reported. Considering the building was 120+ years old, it was hardly a surprise. Slowly the couple had to remove and replace each piece of the window.
Removing the Roof & Chimney
Move around to the rear of the building and you’ll see that there were even more problems to reckon with. Another set of crumbling windows, stairs that were half disintegrated, and a roof that needed to be replaced completely! Cal and Claire set to work dismantling the roof slats, and covering the top of the house with plastic.
The same had to be done to the chimney. "We're taking it down carefully, brick by brick, sending the bricks down in our handy dandy pulley, and we'll be salvaging the unbroken bricks to use in other areas of the house and garden," they reported. Indeed, this was no easy task.
A Massive Rebuild
After dismantling the roof, Cal and Claire had to wait another seven weeks before they could begin work putting the new roof in. It was definitely one of the riskier parts of the project, and the young DIYers had to make calculations "countless times" just to be safe.
While they made their calculations and waited to start replacing the roof, they did some extra work on the back walls of the exterior. The brickwork also needed some help, as some of the bricks around the back windows were falling apart, compromising the structure of the windows.
Return to the Interior
In short, there was plenty of work to be done. And once they had made some serious progress on the exterior structure, it was time to backtrack to the interior. After all, the building’s newly minted rooftop meant that they could finally get a good headstart on the inside without fear of being soaked in rain.
They’d cleared out all of the rooms, so now they just needed to gut the interior so they could get started on some reconstructions. It took them a few weeks of toiling away, but it was worth it. "We've just gotten rid of the very last bits of lath and plaster in our house," they declared proudly.
Putting Up Wall Frames
After sweeping off the floorboards, Claire and Cal could finally get to the meat of their renovation project. Here you can see the dedicated young couple placing one of their first wall frames over the beautiful stone walls. For the purpose of being "sustainable" and "efficient," the walls had to be covered.
They explained their thinking thusly: "One of the most important ways of doing this is by robustly insulating the building, and leaving no gaps. So we are framing out the perimeter walls of the building and putting a sustainably sourced insulation in!"
Things were really beginning to shape up at Jameswood Villa, but they weren’t quite done with deconstructing the place just yet. Claire and Call now had to focus on figuring out what parts of the floor needed to be removed and replaced, for complete structural integrity.
As you can see above, these enormous antique beams had to be entirely removed, as parts were too rotten to remain part of the floor. But the couple had no regrets. "The building feels so large now that it's being opened up and you can see ground-floor to roof, unobstructed," they exclaimed. Now to replace the old beams.
Things Were Coming Together
They spent a few more days fitting in glorious new beams that would keep themselves and their visitors as safe as possible. "It still needs some final level checks, squaring and noggins," they shared. "But, she's in! This is particularly exciting for us because this upstairs floor will be our home!"
Now that the floors are walls were underway, the Villa was starting to feel more like a home. "The upstairs will be our apartment, and we welcome guests into the two downstairs apartments as holiday rentals," the couple explained. "This way we can recuperate some of the costs of restoring the building!"
The Kitchen & Living Room
Now that the bare bones of the house were established, it was time to start carving out a home. Claire and Cal began rigging up the final walls that would separate each room. They could now figure out where each room would go, and the living room and kitchen were first.
"I can finally see this space in real life, instead of trying to imagine it, or stand in the imaginary corner of the room to picture the space," Claire gushed. "I can't wait for us to entertain friends and family in this room, cook lovely meals in our kitchen and have a cup of coffee."
And Extra for Guests
Now that they knew where the kitchen and living room were, it was time for the couple to size up the bedrooms. Initially, Claire and Cal’s idea had been to build a large guest room for visitors, with an office off to the side. But the more they thought about it, the less it made sense.
After all, they wanted to prioritize the guests that would visit. "We have so many friends and family we'd love to come stay, so making this a proper bedroom just made sense," they said. By shifting a wall 1 foot further than the original plan, they were able to build two reasonably-sized bedrooms.
A Stunning Change
Remember that collapsing bay window? Well, Cal and Claire felt that it was too much of a statement piece to remove completely. Instead, they patched up the crumbling structure and repaired the brickwork, resulting in a gorgeous transformation. It had been a tricky job, but it was worth it.
First, they had to keep the structure in place while they fixed it, which required braces to keep it stabilized. "Slowly and carefully" they removed the problem components of the bay window, replacing each one with new parts. "It was a very risky [task] that could cause the whole bay to fall on us,” Claire and Cal admitted.
Believe it or not, all of the herculean efforts we’ve described took place over two years, which is how much time had passed since the couple mistakenly bid on the Jameswood Villa. Now that their dream home is starting to take shape, they want to do the job properly.
Even if that means their dream is years in the making. Despite their misgivings when they first entered the centuries-old mansion, they “couldn't be happier with Cal's purchase." According to the dedicated DIYers, "this really was the happiest mistake we've ever made!" And we can’t wait to see the end result!