Help us get rid of this house!
October 2, 2012 6:58 AM   Subscribe

We have an old, unlived in house that is disintegrating. We need help fixing it up, emptying the junk out of it and selling it. We are overwhelmed and find it hard to face this problem. Advice needed.

I am asking this for my parents. They are both retired.

They own a large Victorian house at the end of a suburban dead end street in upstate New York. It hasn’t been lived in for about two years. My parents are both suffering from various illnesses and disabilities, and have not been able to list the house or even get it ready to be sold. It is full of furniture and junk. It is slowly disintegrating. Part of the roof inside is falling in, and there is a hole in the cellar wall into the space beneath the porch where an animal must have dug through. Both of them are very overwhelmed with the prospect of dealing with this house, and I want to help them if I can.

As problems tend to do, this one is coming to a head now. For some reason the water has been turned off. My father suspects that there was some sort of water leak and therefore the city shut the water down. My parents received no notification of any problems. If the water does not get turned on and the pipes fixed before winter, there is a possibility that the pipes will freeze and that will result in a much bigger problem.

My father does not want to let anyone know that the house is uninhabited, because that will cause them to lose insurance on the house. It will also start the ball rolling on a lot of paperwork, fines and possible work on the house by order of the city. I suspect the city already knows that no one is living there. They must notice that no electricity and water is being used. But they have not sent any notices to my parents about it.

My parents see the situation with the house as a huge, enormous problem that they can’t even begin to solve and don’t want to even face. Depression plays a big part in it. They want to salvage many items from this house, but won’t face even going over there to start that process. I had a conversation with my father today about the house. As a result of his depression he tends to catastrophize things. He is also under a lot of stress lately dealing with various other issues. I tried to help him list all the things we need to do to solve this problem but every time I ask him a question he says, “I don’t know.” I am not a homeowner and I am unfamiliar with how a lot of this works.

We live only 10 minutes away from it. They are thinking of going to Florida in a couple of weeks for a month or so. They may not go if this house can’t be dealt with. My parents do have a fair amount of money to throw at this, but they aren’t super rich. They have paid to have the yard kept up in the summer and the snow plowed in the winter.

I’d like advice to handle the situation with the house. Maybe a list of steps to take to get the water turned on, the pipes fixed, the junk removed (with their items salvaged), the house fixed up and listed for sale. If the steps involved are too much for them, I even thought that a sort of “project manager” could come on board to help manage taking care of the problem.

Also, advice on how to help them (and me) face this problem and not feel totally intimidated by it would also be welcome. I know this is a big problem with many parts. I apologize for that, but would appreciate at least some help starting to fix it.

[Side note: I am talking to my father about seeing a doctor and/or therapist to get his depression under control. He is not easily persuaded but we are working on it.]

If you have any questions you can reach me at
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Step 1: Plan "Salvage Day" in which you take your parents to the house and let them take anything they want in a 8 hour time period. Anything else is trash.
Step 2: Hire a Real Estate Agent and sell the house "As Is".
Step 3: Profit! (Or probably not, in this market, but at least it is off their hands and minds).
posted by Rock Steady at 7:08 AM on October 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

In terms of process / steps, I think you should clear the house out first. Hire someone or a team of someones after your parents have looked through the house and 'tagged' what they want. The rest has to go. They'll cart it away in large dumpsters.

After that, any issues or hidden problems will be much more visible.

It will probably cost a fortune to repair all of the neglect. Rock Steady's advice is sound.
posted by amicamentis at 7:09 AM on October 2, 2012

Maybe a list of steps to take to get the water turned on, the pipes fixed, the junk removed (with their items salvaged), the house fixed up and listed for sale. If the steps involved are too much for them, I even thought that a sort of “project manager” could come on board to help manage taking care of the problem.

It sounds like you're on the right page there. I'd call a plumber first, and ask them if they think they can diagnose the plumbing problem with the water off. If not, after you've turned off a shutoff in the house, so that the leak doesn't continue, call the city and see what it'll take for them to turn the water back on.

Then next step for me would be to call a general contractor and have them assess the basic things that need to be done to make it sell-able: how much to fix the roof, etc.

Once those steps are in line, have that salvage day for valuables, then see if someone like Big Brothers Big Sisters or Goodwill come in and clear everything else from the house - that gets everything out.

You can do this, and you're awesome for helping your folks so much with it!
posted by ldthomps at 7:12 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

First 2 posts beat me to it. Total agreement, having gone thru this a couple years ago.

Utility turn-ons & -offs, clearing out the house, etc -- those are administrative tasks. A real estage agent can handle most of it. The profit is reduced, but the alternative is spending a lot of your time.

The bigger issue, in my experience, was the parents' emotional attachment to 'stuff.' You can help them by organizing this, and Rock Steady's approach would probably work fine.

The problem comes with the hoarding mentality all of us have to some extent. "I might need that length of pipe someday." If your parents have truly made the decision to move on, then they have to do this. It's hard -- don't misunderestimate it. But you can help them. And if they want to save some odd stuff, who cares? I've stil got a pallet in my basement, which I'll hold until they're gone. That will be all too soon.
posted by LonnieK at 7:19 AM on October 2, 2012

In my experience (different country...) there is a kind of dead band inbetween derelict properties and beautifully finished properties. Developers are very attracted to semi-derelict properties and will pay over the odds for something which will take a lot of refurbishement. Similarly people will pay over the odds for something which requires no work. The danger is in spending a lot getting to a point where it still requires work. That's not an attractive property.

Sell as is.
posted by BadMiker at 7:19 AM on October 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Break this down into manageable steps.

1. Get the utilities turned back on.

2. Engage a junk removal company. I like 800-Got-Junk. Another option is College Hunks Hauling Junk. They bring the truck and the manpower to get the garbage, debris and etc out of the house.

3. Hire an industrial cleaning service to come in and do what they can around the other items in the house.

4. Get your parents in the house to determine what they want to keep.

5. Get that packed and put in storage.

6. Get an Estate Sale company in to dispose of the rest of the stuff. Either they have a sale at the house and you split the proceeds, or they make an offer on the whole lot of it.

7. Get the house repaired.

8. Put it on the market.

9. Watch your parents board the plane to Boca, smiling.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:25 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing reclaiming anything wanted, having an estate sale then selling as is. Leave the water off.
posted by Max Power at 7:25 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did this with a house I owned that was falling into disrepair and actually managed to pull it off decently. I broke it down into manageable chunks and basically made selling the house my job for a few months. I didn't have a hole in the roof, but I did have not hot water and an iffy water system that was turned off [by me though, not by the city]. Everyone's giving you a nice script. I'd be mindful of the types of problems you have

- money problems - what just needs to be paid for
- social problems - working out stuff with your parents
- labor problems - may also be money problems, think hard how much work you personally want to do with this house versus paying someone to do it. This also includes having people at the house when contractors have to be there etc, you'd be surprised how many can do work when you're not home

I was lucky in that I had USAA just give me a realtor and she was super nice and non-judgey and motivated and helped me outline the order that things had to happen. She was also available to occasionally meet contractors which was cool. We did an AS-IS sale which really cut down on the paperwork and inspections and headache involved in this.

So as far as order of operations, it's getting the mission critical stuff done first: roof and plumbing (with plumbing split between getting water turned back on and getting a plumber). Next deal with the junk in the house, this can be getting guys to deal with it (after getting personal items your folks want out of there) and/or just getting a dumpster and doing this work mostly yourself. Now is the time for your folks to be realistic. If they can't manage to put the things in their own home, have them rent a storage locker the deal is to get stuff OUT of the house. Don't worry about "fixing the house up" with the exception of things that would get worse or destroy the house over the winter. No paint, no staging, just get the place broom clean-ish [and moving out all the furniture can wait until it sells] and able to be walked through.

I know it's a headache and I spent way too much time with my hand in the sand about it, but I was amazed at how freeing having the house not be my longtime albatross became. It's good to just get started. Make those phone calls today. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 7:42 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depending on where you are in upstate NY (which is where I'm also located), there's definitely a market for as-is properties that can be renovated and flipped, or turned into rentals.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:00 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

A tip for dealing with your parents choosing what they want, if they will agree to it: have them make a list (they could dictate it to you) before they go into the house. Things they can remember they want when they're not looking right at them are more likely to actually be things they want, and not just things they are having a hard time letting go of as they stand there staring, or olding something in their hands, and remembering the time when so-and-so bought it for them, or whatever.
posted by not that girl at 8:49 AM on October 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

I think # 1 on the list should be repairing the roof and the hole in the cellar wall. You want to stop any further disintegration. Because there is no electricity this will be more difficult but any reputable contractor should have cordless tools as well as compressors and generators to power other tools. Do not spend a fortune, just have the minimum amount of work done to prevent the roof from collapsing and the hole in the cellar from getting worse.
posted by mlis at 9:19 AM on October 2, 2012

While I think that Not That Girl has a great idea with the advance list, I also find that part of letting go can be getting to tell those stories One Last Time. So maybe you could divide the day into 5 hours of marking or boxing up the things you want to take, plus another 3 hours where they get to tell you the story of where this or that thing came from, and then lovingly put it into the To Go box.

Only you know whether your parents are capable of letting things go if they do this, or whether a lot of junk and papers would need to be cleared first, but I think my mother was able to winnow to a huge degree (getting from a substantial house to a 2-BR apartment) only by having one last visit with a lot of souvenirs and treasures from a lifetime, and the spur to tell me all those stories too. Of course, I still had to do a lot of heartless clearing, as the whole thing can be too heartbreaking, but maybe if your parents have already taken moved out, in essence, there won't be too much beloved stuff there anyway.

Just another possible approach.
posted by acm at 9:26 AM on October 2, 2012

On getting your parents to sift out the stuff they want to keep, remember that making these decisions is exhausting.
  • If you only live ten minutes away, do one room a day with them and/or limit activity to daily 60-90 minute chunks, a set number of Pomodoro units, etc.: tactics to ensure that they don't shut down and can see progress. Set a goal of touching everything only once.
  • Rent one of those POD things to store the stuff they plan to keep and to establish, up front, a cubic footage limit. Or rent two PODs (the other as a way to corral stuff bound for charity) and a dumpster. Decisions about stuff that is already "gone" (outside) are less likely to be revisited.
  • Bring a camera to take photos of stuff they can't or shouldn't keep but want to remember. It doesn't matter if they ever look at the photos again: it's a tactic to help them let go and reassure themselves that they won't lose touch with that part of their lives. If you follow acm's advice about setting aside time to hear the stories, you could also take pictures of them with the items.
  • If you have siblings who won't be helping, get their input on what they do and don't want from the house in advance. Set up, in advance, a system for getting their input whenever your parents' suggest saving something for one of them. You could, for example, text them a photo/description of the object and require a response within a previously agreed time period. Or make a pile for each sibling and have them show up towards the end to collect, move or re-categorize these objects. Same goes for other family members; don't let their absence become a way for your parents to avoid dealing with making decisions about the stuff.
  • Photos and paper stuff (e.g., programs from long ago weddings and funerals) is often a problem. It might be worth moving an open box from room to room into which this stuff is tossed for later filing, scanning or inclusion in an album. If you anticipate much lengthy debate about who gets what photo, recipe or other paper memento, planning a way to scan them in advance will save you a lot of time that would otherwise be spent dithering. If you don't think it will slow you down, buy a bunch of plastic sleeves and put the items into a binder immediately; they can reorder them later.
Are they relocating to Florida? If so, feel free to appropriate this story... I met a guy at an auction who would go to Florida, pick up antiques cheap and truck them back to the original 13 colonies: profit. Some of his stock came from kids getting rid of their deceased parents' stuff, but a surprising amount of it came from people who lugged their mahogany dining room sets to Florida only to discover that it was all too dark and heavy for that climate and lifestyle: they traded it in for glass and rattan. Help them determine whether the furniture that looked great in an upstate NY Victorian makes sense in a beachy condo.
posted by carmicha at 10:25 AM on October 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

If the water does not get turned on and the pipes fixed before winter, there is a possibility that the pipes will freeze

Have a winterization company drain the pipes, and leave the water off. Much cheaper than heating the house to the level needed to keep the pipes from breaking. No risk of finding that there's been a water leak for several days.
posted by yohko at 5:22 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone about breaking it down into a list or plan to make the situ easier to deal with. I would even have a nice dinner with my folks to talk things out and write them down together so that as you all move along with it, they have the comfort of knowing what to expect.

On the technical side, I think BadMiker brings up a very important point about selling "as is". Making repairs may or may not change your selling price and I'd rather take a hit on my asking price than take a hit out of my pocket.

Anyway, I would get together with a broker or agent to find out if that is true or not before spending any money for repairs. (See if it makes a difference.)

One last thought, if it is at all manageable, I would have a sale of some sort after your folks retrieve what they want and need. With any luck you'll have enough $ to pay for the junk man AND a nice steak dinner for you and your folks.

Good luck, you guys will get through this!
posted by snsranch at 5:35 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

If the water does not get turned on and the pipes fixed before winter, there is a possibility that the pipes will freeze and that will result in a much bigger problem.

As Yohko notes, this is actually backwards. Having the water off is better if there is a risk of freezing -- the problem occurs when there is water in the pipes that freezes, expands, and breaks the pipes. Water off? No problem.

You do want to drain everything -- open taps upstairs, flush to empty the toilets, and open the lowest point in the water supply you can find (uh, hopefully there is a floor drain in the basement). If you're not sure, call a plumber to "winterize" -- it's an easy gig for them, they'll love you. They can vacuum the water out of low points, for example.

As to insurance concerns, there is a type of insurance for uninhabited buildings, and at last resort many states have a kind of last-resort public insurance option. Ask an independent agent for some quotes. It may cost you more than regular insurance, but it won't break the bank, and it will probably be necessary at some point in the selling process.

Since you're determined to sell the house, as-is is the way to go. There are literally hundreds of thousands of similarly distressed properties on the market these days.
posted by dhartung at 12:33 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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