Dream House Turned Nightmare

It was just a "slight" leak in the underground oil storage tank, the inspector said

Photo by Domitek
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I'll never forget the first time I laid eyes on my house. It was a perfect spring day, morning sun glinting off the white clapboard siding, a cascade of pink cherry blossoms spilling onto the newly tiled roof of the den. If it wasn't the cutest Dutch Colonial Revival I had ever seen, it was easily the cutest my wife and I had seen that we could afford in 12 months of increasingly frantic searching. It was the sort of house I could imagine raising a family in.

Now it is three-and-a-half years later, and the object of that infatuation dangles bare-bottomed 20 feet in the air. Hoisted up and moved into the backyard, it hovers above the rim of a 30-foot-deep mud pit where the foundation used to be. The crater swarms with backhoes, chain-smoking construction workers, and rumbling dump trucks hauling contaminated dirt. The heavy industrial odor of home heating oil permeates the air.

I always wanted to own the kind of house that stops traffic, and now I do. All day long, cars slow at the curb, drivers and passengers craning for a better view of the worst, most expensive environmental disaster in the history of my tiny New Jersey town. Jaws drop in fascinated horror. Overstimulated toddlers bounce up and down in their car seats.

The reaction is understandable. Our homes, after all, aren't just where we live. They're where we invest our dreams—and our savings. They're supposed to be our rock, our firmament; the ground isn't supposed to come out from under them—or us. But what the rubberneckers don't realize is that the horror show they see before them could be worse. I could be still battling insurance companies, racking up $10,000 a month in legal bills, hearing about my wife's latest research on the best Latin American countries for fleeing the new bankruptcy laws, and watching her health and my work performance steadily decline under the unrelenting distraction and stress. Compared with all that, this is practically cause for a party.

I'll never forget the first time I laid eyes on my house. It was a perfect spring day, morning sun glinting off the white clapboard siding, a cascade of pink cherry blossoms spilling onto the newly tiled roof of the den. If it wasn't the cutest Dutch Colonial Revival I had ever seen, it was easily the cutest my wife and I had seen that we could afford in 12 months of increasingly frantic searching. It was the sort of house I could imagine raising a family in.

Now it is three-and-a-half years later, and the object of that infatuation dangles bare-bottomed 20 feet in the air. Hoisted up and moved into the backyard, it hovers above the rim of a 30-foot-deep mud pit where the foundation used to be. The crater swarms with backhoes, chain-smoking construction workers, and rumbling dump trucks hauling contaminated dirt. The heavy industrial odor of home heating oil permeates the air.

I always wanted to own the kind of house that stops traffic, and now I do. All day long, cars slow at the curb, drivers and passengers craning for a better view of the worst, most expensive environmental disaster in the history of my tiny New Jersey town. Jaws drop in fascinated horror. Overstimulated toddlers bounce up and down in their car seats.

The reaction is understandable. Our homes, after all, aren't just where we live. They're where we invest our dreams—and our savings. They're supposed to be our rock, our firmament; the ground isn't supposed to come out from under them—or us. But what the rubberneckers don't realize is that the horror show they see before them could be worse. I could be still battling insurance companies, racking up $10,000 a month in legal bills, hearing about my wife's latest research on the best Latin American countries for fleeing the new bankruptcy laws, and watching her health and my work performance steadily decline under the unrelenting distraction and stress. Compared with all that, this is practically cause for a party.

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Exterior of a raised house
Photo by Domitek
Our homes are where we invest our dreams—and our savings. They're supposed to be our rock, our firmament; the ground isn't supposed to come out from under them—or us.

We got our first inkling that the house wasn't going to be the turnkey operation we were expecting it to be during the home inspection. The inspector—a frustrated comedian hand-picked by our real estate agent, he spent most of his time cracking one-liners—detected a "slight" leak in the underground oil storage tank. My wife, ever the pessimist, worried this was a bad sign. I told her I would check with our experts, but I was sure it wasn't a big deal. A lifelong renter, I, of course, hadn't the slightest idea what I was talking about. I had no idea, for example, that the life span of an underground steel tank is 10 to 50 years, and that the one rusting beneath my future driveway was pushing 75. Or that the insurance industry has increasingly rewritten the fine print in its policies to exclude paying for just this kind of scenario. Or that on the list of issues that should give one pause about buying a house, deal-killers like failing septic tanks, termite-gnawed support beams, and nuclear cooling towers in the backyard, a leaking underground storage tank ranks right at the top. Nor did my "experts" see fit to enlighten me on these matters. To the contrary, our agent, our harried closing attorney, and the guy who answered the phone at the oil company all seemed to agree: It wasn't a big deal. The seller had an insurance policy on the tank, and the policy transferred with the deed to the house.

Three months after the closing, the remediation firm called with some, ahem, bad news. The oil had leached into the groundwater and encroached a few feet onto my neighbor's side of the property line. "Okay," I said. "So why don't you just clean it up?"

"Well, sir, as I'm sure as your attorney explained to you, both those conditions void our coverage."

Several phone calls and Xanax later, I had managed to convince myself that my crack advisers knew what they were talking about when they insisted that this, too, wasn't a big deal. "Right, yeah, well, this happens sometimes," I was assured with confidence. All I had to do now was have the previous owner submit a claim under her homeowner's insurance policy.

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interior of the raised house
Photo by Domitek
My wife greeted me with that strange, glassy-eyed expression commonly found in teenage huffers of model airplane glue. "I thought I smelled something," she admitted, "but I wasn't sure."

By November, the seller's insurance company had also rejected the claim, she'd hired a lawyer, and I was starting to suspect my experts wouldn't recognize a big deal if it was advertised on a turnpike billboard. Then one Friday evening, after several days of rain, I arrived home from work and was hit with a smell eerily reminiscent of some other not-so-scenic turnpike roadside attractions. My wife greeted me with that strange, glassy-eyed expression commonly found in teenage huffers of model airplane glue. "I thought I smelled something," she admitted, "but I wasn't sure." When we made our way to the basement and saw a viscous brown ooze seeping through seams in the vinyl tile, the last shred of doubt left the building: We were screwed.

But not as screwed as we would be. Oh no. My oil spill would take many, many, many more turns for the worse before it was done with me. That "few feet" it had spread onto my neighbor's property? Actually, it was more like a few dozen that extended in an amoebalike sprawl clear into the middle of his yard and under a portion of his house. My spill was like some extraterrestrial creature that only grew larger the more money I spent trying to delineate it. It flowed uphill. It contained levels of contamination the likes of which the environmental consultants had never seen. They'd hold their meters up to the soil samples, and the little needles would arc to the last hatch in the danger zone and then just collapse back to zero, as if giving up.

By the time the consultants had taken some semblance of a final measure of the thing, the estimated cleanup costs were pushing $500,000 if I chose to move my domicile (if I underpinned it, the tab jumped to $600,000). Four different insurance companies and seven lawyers were arrayed against us at this point, my legal bills topping $100,000, my $115,000 home equity line down to its last $14.36. That's when I had to make perhaps the hardest call in my adult life, and ask my father for a loan so we could keep going.

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As it happens, I don't think the insurance companies were counting on Dad stepping up to the plate. Because just eight months and $60,000 later, they met our demands, or at least enough of them that we could begin planning to excavate half our block.

Not long ago my wife asked me a question that she'd never posed in quite the same way before: "Why did you keep going?" The answer seemed so obvious that at first I didn't know what to say. "Well, you know, I was fighting for my life in there." She looked at me quizzically, and that's when I realized that as awful as the ordeal had been for her, it had been worse for me in one crucial respect: At least she had piped up with her reservations during the inspection. I, on the other hand, the man of the house who was supposed to protect us in such matters and provide for our future, had allowed my dreams for us to blind me into taking the advice of a home-heating-oil salesman, a hopelessly overbooked closing attorney with a shabby office above a pizza parlor, and a small-town real estate agent caught up in the biggest housing boom in U.S. history. Certainly lots of home buyers make mistakes, and the usual advice is not to beat yourself up too much about them. But somehow I didn't see me letting myself out of the ring anytime soon.

As I write this the backhoes and dump trucks are closing in on the last few of the 1,050 tons of contaminated dirt they will remove from my property. More loads of clean dirt and crushed stone arrive daily. Then next week the contractors show up to start laying the footings for my new basement. In the plans it's a beautiful basement—six 22-inch-high windows, foundation constructed of the latest steel-reinforced Styrofoam-insulated concrete forms, Energy Star natural gas furnace. When they're done with it, I'm even planning to have them keep going and frame out a little cathedral-ceilinged addition above the den, right where the cherry blossoms used to hang. Sadly, we had to lose the tree. But I think we managed to save the dream.

 
 

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