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I bought an abandoned house and tried to renovate it but failed. I'll never buy another fixer-upper.

Karie Fugett   

I bought an abandoned house and tried to renovate it but failed. I'll never buy another fixer-upper.
  • Karie Fugett bought a dilapidated house in Oregon to renovate and live in with her boyfriend.
  • The renovations proved overwhelming and expensive, especially after Fugett became pregnant.

In 2018, I fell in love with a 1200-square-foot dilapidated home. It sat on 22 acres atop a hill, hidden under overgrown bushes and trees. Ivy crept through the windows, and debris littered the yard. The kitchen and bathroom were gutted, and the smell of rats' nests was so strong I could hardly stand it. But with a little imagination, I could see its potential.

I'd discovered the listing only hours before seeing it. Affordable, buildable land in Oregon didn't stay on the market long — sometimes only a day. My boyfriend and I had been looking at properties for months and knew that if we were interested, we'd need to make an offer quickly.

We drove two hours from our home in Philomath to see it. On the way, I called the real-estate agent, who said she couldn't meet us but permitted us to hop the fence and look around.

The property was located in a town I'd never heard of with fewer than 1,000 residents

The house was less than 30 minutes from Eugene. The listing said it had a good foundation but a bad roof. It didn't have plumbing, but it did have electricity. There was a well, but they couldn't confirm whether it worked.

While I would've loved to find land with a livable home, I knew it wasn't within my budget, and I was prepared to live in a camper as we built one ourselves.

I had been sitting on some life insurance money I'd gotten after my Marine husband died of war wound complications. I'd spent the eight years since his death working toward a college degree and had spent over half of the money during that time.

At that point, I was 32 and wanted to invest what I had left in a forever home. The property was listed for $130,000. If I bought it in cash, I'd have another $25,000 for renovations. We'd probably need more money, but we planned to start there and do everything ourselves.

It was hard to see the house from the property

When we arrived, we took turns squeezing through a small gap in the fence. We walked a mile up a wooded driveway and stopped at what looked to be the house. It was difficult to tell. Blackberries had devoured the property.

I pushed into the home's front door, and it swung open. After admiring the living room, I walked up the stairs. At the end of a narrow hallway, I found a room I imagined could be turned into a writing space. One day, maybe, it could be a baby's nursery.

I knew this house would require a lot of work, but I thought I could turn it into my version of the American dream with enough determination. That night, I made an offer of $5,000 above the asking price.

Within a few hours, my offer was accepted. A few weeks later, we pulled our 25-foot camper trailer onto the land and began working.

The next two years were a whirlwind

We decided to pay a professional to put a roof on the house to prevent further water damage, but money was tight after that. We found used windows and planned to install doors ourselves. We got all the old drywall and paneling off of the walls, but we couldn't afford insulation and new drywall yet. We decided to keep the floor cement to save money.

The labor was overwhelming, especially while living in a cramped RV that didn't offer much relaxation at the end of the day. We didn't have running water for showers or baths. We had some help here and there but struggled to find reliable help we could afford.

The pandemic came, and soon after that, I became pregnant. There were so many unknowns. My boyfriend was also working a full-time job but remained determined to keep the land as the well ran dry every afternoon, as the plumbing he'd run to the kitchen busted, and as the camper grew mold.

Meanwhile, I had morning sickness now, but I still had to carry the bucket we used as a toilet down the hill, often in the rain, to dump it in the woods. I wasn't as optimistic as he was.

Another housing opportunity came to us

My boyfriend's grandmother died in the fall of 2020 when I was seven months pregnant. After she passed, her property in Alabama — 60 acres with a modest, livable home — became vacant. My boyfriend's mother said it was ours to live in if we wanted it.

At that point, we'd lived in Oregon for four years and didn't plan on leaving, but I wondered if it might be easier to have grandparents around and to have a whole house to live in rather than a camper and a distant dream, even if the location was not our preference. I wanted to do what was best for my daughter, and I was tired.

In the meantime, we decided to get an apartment in Eugene. I couldn't tolerate the camper lifestyle anymore. The apartment was an unforeseen expense that made it even more difficult to renovate our home. All work on it stopped when my daughter was born.

I reached my breaking point

One afternoon I told my boyfriend I was ready to give up on renovating the home. I wanted a flushing toilet, a kitchen to cook meals in, and space for my baby to learn to walk.

I'd come to the property hopeful after seeing other families DIY their own homes on social media, but renovating a home was one of the most difficult things I've ever attempted. I realized it's nearly impossible without a lot of money, a community of people to help, or both.

That Christmas, we flew to Alabama so I could look at his grandmother's house and decide whether I could imagine raising a family in it. A week later, my boyfriend flew back to Oregon alone to pack our things while I prepared our new home. I listed the property in Oregon, and we sold our camper.

I got lucky with the sale

The silver lining was that housing prices had skyrocketed since I'd purchased the property. It sold within half a year for $295,000, more than double what I paid for it. While it was a good investment, and I don't regret doing it, I will never take on such a huge renovation project again.

Ultimately, no matter how hard I tugged on my bootstraps, I couldn't build that American dream for myself. Instead, I'm lucky to have my boyfriend's family's generational wealth to lean on — something I don't have in my own family.

Though we're stuck in a state whose politics don't quite align with ours, we're grateful to have a home with loving grandparents nearby. We're not sure what we'll do next, but I know we won't be buying another fixer-upper.

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