When Sue and John Fogwell started searching the perfect fixer-upper, they knew they'd have to get creative — and a little lucky. But they didn't expect to stumble across a home that would send most house hunters running for the hills (or, at the very least, a realtor's office): A brick split-level owned by a rather eccentric hoarder.
Here's how it all began: The couple knew they wanted to sell their New Jersey home to settle back on Philadelphia's Main Line, where John was originally from. And they were willing to rent nearby while they worked their DIY magic on a fixer-upper. After fruitlessly looking with realtors for a diamond in the rough, they decided to take matters into their own hands and simply drive around, with eyes peeled for the perfect property.
The third day, they found something. But they weren't exactly sure what. "The shrubs were overgrown, and blocking the front door," Sue says. "It looked like no one lived there." Sue and John examined as much of the property as they could (the home had a "no trespassing" sign and an odd, possibly active security camera on the front porch). After knocking on the neighbors' doors, they learned that the owner had moved out four years ago — and left all of his stuff behind.
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John sent the owner (we'll call him Bill) a heartfelt handwritten letter, talking about their ties to the area and their hopeful renovation plans for the property. Would Bill consider selling the home? After a month of radio silence, they heard back. He was willing to meet! Even more, Bill agreed to let the Fogwells into the house — permission he didn't even grant his closest friends.
"We had absolutely no idea what was going to be on the other side of that door when we walked in," Sue says. They figured the house would need a lot of work — but they were shocked to see how much.
"The first thing we saw was floor-to-ceiling containers that would usually be in a garage to hold nuts and bolts," Sue says. Next to that, endless piles of cassettes, tapes, magazines, and more. "It was just wild. Every inch of space was covered."
There was a tiny pathway and room for Bill to sit in a chair, with Sue and John hovering over him. Bill's hoard had taken over so much of the house, it was impossible to even get a feel for the layout.
"I was suffocating in the house, so I excused myself and went outside. That's when I saw it: what I guesstimated to be about 1,000 plastic bins. Full with junk and totally covering the backyard." Every fencepost had a spotlight, so Bill could keep an eye on his bins at night. There was a (working!) phone attached to a tree and wires hanging everywhere.
Less intrepid homeowners might have walked away, but not Sue and John. Despite the gargantuan mess, they knew they couldn't beat the location and made Bill an offer a week later — including an agreement to help him clear out all of his stuff, an effort Sue estimates would have cost them $60,000 if they hired pros to handle it.
John and Sue agreed to give Bill nine months to get his hoard out of house. They said they'd work with him to go through — box by box — and clean the place up. "No other buyer would have allowed him that time and help," Sue says.
With a mountain of seemingly never-ending work, their friends and family thought they were crazy. John actually called up a friend, who showed up, took one look at the place, and said there was no way they'd ever finish.
John spent the next nine months at that house, working 12-hour days. Every. Day. Even holidays. "He only took one day off to go to the doctor for a fractured rib," Sue says. "There were several times when it was completely frustrating, especially when it was a month before our deadline all three bedrooms upstairs were still full. Yet Bill wouldn't let us continue without him and he wanted to go through every single thing."
"It was insane to be standing there, watching him go through every magazine from the early '90s that he'd never read to begin with," Sue says. For Bill, every item — whether from a dumpster or a yard sale — had a story behind it; where he got it, how much he paid for it, what he was planning on using it for. Bill was stressed — and, of course, he would be. Hoarding disorder is a recognized and serious mental illness.
"It wasn't easy for any of us," says Sue. The only thing that kept them going: Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. "We had a vision the whole time."
Two and a half months past the initial deadline, the last bin was finally removed. Five dumpsters, 26 tons of paper and countless trips to a storage facility later. Now, Sue and John have moved onto the last stage of work: The house is being gutted and rebuilt. The new design includes creating an open floor plan, putting a kitchen addition in the back of the house, vaulting the ceiling and, eventually, moving in. "We are finally very excited about this project," says Sue. "Now that Bill's stuff is out, it truly feels like it's our house."
Curious to see how the Fogwells' new home comes together? Follow along on Sue's blog, Brick House 319, where she's documenting the renovation in detail.