The Can of Worms, Part I

That’s what the builder said, a couple of months into the Project.

You don’t open a can of worms, and not expect to find any worms in it…

In September 2017 our Australian Real Estate Adventure came to an end. We had signed the papers for Salter House, negotiating a long settlement (January 15) in exchange for fifty grand off the price. That gave us lots of time to think about what we wanted to do. 

Me: We need storage. Usable closets. Get rid of the carpet in the bedrooms. Take those blinds down off the windows.

Marc: We need a toilet next to the kitchen.  Redo the bathrooms (see photo).

One of us is more or less ruled by his early morning digestive situation.

We also didn’t know much about the Griffins. I did some initial research and it became apparent that we had unwittingly bought a piece of Australian Architectural History. Anything we did to it had the potential for being a Horrendous Travesty.

I also learned that Victorian era architecture is much more heavily protected than mid-century or early century architecture. Australian anglophilia in action. We could do anything we wanted to the inside and no one could say anything. This was at once so, so wrong and absolutely terrifying.

What have we done???

We didn’t know any architects or any builders. No worries, mate!  We plugged “Heritage Architects in Melbourne” in Google and it spat out a few possibilities. I asked real estate agents for recommendations. One problem was the scope of the project — we weren’t going to be spending vast sums. (Right!! So funny!!) One Big Shot heritage architect shunted me off to a junior associate. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but I was a bit miffed.

We interviewed four architects, all of whom were excited at the possibility of working on a Griffin house, even with such a small budget. They were all adamant that we would not be able to live in the house while the work was being completed, which was an enormous relief to me and a disappointment to Marc.

We went with a woman who brought a colleague along to the meeting who was also a lecturer on Australian architectural history and was very knowledgable about the Griffins. In retrospect, choosing a female architect with a historian-architect sidekick was brilliant. At the time, we were just excited that they had a builder who was willing to start right away.

The next hurdle was getting access to the house, before settlement, to draw up plans. Eventually the estate agent did his job, and we eked out an hour here and there, the unwilling vendor lurking in the corner at his computer while the architects and builder walked and measured, trying to assess what needed to be done in lowered voices.

Later, our builder Stuart said that he’d seen a lot of coverup jobs in his career, but nothing that came close to this one. Just as well we didn’t know that at the start.

In Australia, Christmas is a serious vacation. Workmen, known here as “tradies”, are not available until at the very earliest mid-January. This is summer. People pack their kids into their caravans and utes, fill up the Eskys (coolers) with beer and sausages, and head for the beach. Nevertheless, Jane and Christopher worked around the clock in December to get their plans ready and a “budget” drawn up so that come closing day, January 15, Stuart and his crew could start ripping up carpets and knocking tiles off the bathroom walls. Tentative completion date: May 22.

Marc and I took off hiking in New Zealand for a couple of weeks (see photo), and in early January we moved into Monash House for a month, our fourth abode in Melbourne since June. We’d move into three more before finally inhabiting the house.

A week before closing, I discovered two things: first, we should have insured the house in case anything happened during the settlement period. We had a 20% stake in it, after all. And second, I was supposed to schedule a walk-through in the days before closing to make sure that all was as promised when we signed the papers. I scrambled to correct my negligence.

I suppose we lucked out on the first: nothing had happened. No tree limbs on the roof, no floods, no fires. But when I did the walk-through of the empty house, I was dismayed to find traces of black mould in the bedrooms, which the sellers had hidden with strategically placed furniture. Their agent, in the room with me, was clearly a bit uncomfortable.

Me? I was freaking out. What have we done? 

Jane and Stuart managed to back me off the cliff when I called, later, in a panic. Happens all the time. We’ll get it sorted.

That night I lay in bed, in the blissfully air conditioned mansion on the Monash campus, wide awake and fretting. I was not going to live in a house full of neurotoxic mould. Why hadn’t we done a proper inspection? But we were in this, like it or not, and so we’d have to figure out how to deal with it.

Little did we know that the mould was just worm number one.

5 thoughts on “The Can of Worms, Part I

  1. The tension! How am I supposed to wait for the next installment? From what corner will the next worm emerge? Will Stuart be OK? Why did you have to live in 4 places? Were there life lessons to be learned? Nicely done.

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