People are the sum of their choices in life. Some work out really well, while others not so much. But both kinds end up defining who we are. Words, after all, can often be deceiving – actions are unmistakable. Still, even if you have a very good idea of who you are – or who you want to be – and you’ve laid a path for yourself, things don’t always work out quite as you planned.
“God does not play dice,” Albert Einstein famously wrote, but it seems like random luck and chance play a major role in our lives. The smallest decisions, no matter how inconsequential they seem at the time, may prove to have long-lasting and crucial effects later. Any decision is like throwing a stone into a pool, and watching the ripples – or consequences – form around it. Just take this couple, who bought a Scottish manor house completely by accident, and has been working to renovate it ever since.
Everyone makes mistakes
Cal Hunter and Claire Segeren are a young couple who are very much in love. With Claire foregoing med school for a year, the two had a year all to themselves. After a bit of thinking, they decided flipping a house – buying it, renovating, and then selling for a profit – would be a fun and rewarding experience.
Deciding to buy a house at auction, they did some research and even physically visited some sites. Eventually, a decision was reached and Cal went to an auction house to bid on a property. He won, but bought a 120-year-old manor by mistake.
Bidding on the wrong thing
Despite neither one of them being Scottish, they had their eye on an apartment in the Pollokshields region of the Scottish city of Glasgow. It was fire-damaged, so Cal and Claire knew the place would require some work – six months by their estimation – but they were willing to risk it. While Claire was visiting home, Cal went over to the auction house.
He bid on his property, and was ecstatic that his bid of £30,000 won. Soon, however, joy turned to panic. The house sold before the house he was supposed to bid on was sold in three lots, not one. What he ended up buying, then, was something else altogether – a 120-year-old mansion in Dunoon, Scotland.
‘What’s the worst that could happen?’
Upon hearing the four worst words in the English language – “all sales are final” – Cal swallowed hard and called Claire who was visiting home in Canada. Imagine having to tell your girlfriend you’d just paid the equivalent of $39,400 – for the wrong house! Claire actually took the news surprisingly well.
Considering that the price was relatively cheap, and that they’d intended on doing a bit of renovation work on the house they bought anyway, she figured it would be okay. Her dad, who was next to her when she took the call, seemed to agree. “What’s the worst that could happen?” he said. And just like any other time anyone has said those words, they were about to find out.
A bit of a fixer upper
Cal was English while Claire was Canadian, so they actually had to look Dunoon up on a map to see where their new home was. Happily, they got what they hoped was the first bit of good news, as it wasn’t far from Glasgow. Since Claire planned to go to med school at Glasgow University, that seemed to work out well. The initial shock having worn off, the couple was now quite in high spirits about the entire thing.
During the auction, the manor, named Jameswood Villa, was described as needing “full upgrading throughout” with a Google Streetview image from 2010 enclosed. While Jameswood certainly looked as if it’s seen better days, they were ready to rise to the challenge.
(Un)Truth in advertising
With cautious optimism in their hearts, Cal was dispatched to Dunoon to have a closer look at the property they just bought. It turns out the photo they saw, apart from being old, was conveniently angled so as to obscure the “leaning, crumbling front wall” that indicated very serious structural problems, which they later learned were due to subsidence, or the house sinking into the ground.
The roof, meanwhile, had gaping holes in it, and as no one lived in Jameswood for the past two decades, most of its timbers had rotted. They thought they might need to replace electrics and plumbing, among other things. What they didn’t expect was a “derelict house” that the local council described as dangerous.
Determined to finish the job
Amazingly, Claire and Cal were still undeterred. They had seen derelict buildings as they traveled through England, and saw the potential encapsulated within them to become beautiful homes.
Sure, Jameswood wasn’t the quick flip they were hoping for, but it was still a challenge they were excited to tackle. Reality once again invaded, however, as they quickly realized they’d have no financial means of carrying out the project if they weren’t doing all the renovations themselves… or if they were paying for mortgage or rent while they were doing it.
Moving into a caravan
If they were going to do this thing, there was only one way to do it – going absolutely all-in. And so they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Since they were effectively homeless for the project’s duration, they rented out a caravan and parked it on the property’s garden.
It would be home for the duration. There was only one problem – it didn’t have any running water or electricity, so they’ve had to ask the neighbors to use their shower and oven, while they make do with candlelight.
Loving the wild outdoors
Claire and Cal describe themselves as a couple “determined to make life an adventure.” Well, it certainly looked like they got one. But they were ready to play the hand fate had dealt them, as it was fate that brought them together in the first place.
Where would an Englishman and Canadian woman meet in the first? The French Alps, naturally. They met there during ski season and quickly hit it off, becoming an item. They’ve since road-tripped all across Europe and spent a summer camping and canoeing in Canada.
Setting up a blog
To chronicle their progress through the renovation work, the two set up a blog and accompanying Instagram page. Both are titled “What Have We Dunoon?” – quite a clever pun on the fact that they were in way over their heads, combined with the name of the town Jameswood was in.
Posting regular updates to both, they’re able to show followers and fans their little triumphs, from putting in the electrical grid to some well-deserved tea breaks… They are in the United Kingdom, after all!
As mentioned before, Claire and Cal had no other choice but to do the work themselves. But they have called upon some friends to help. One friend, for example, helped clear out dirt that accumulated on the sidewalk outside.
With so much to do, it kept getting pushed back, so he came in to help. As for the lovebirds themselves, Claire’s been working on the house full-time while Cal, who’s a carpenter, has been taking jobs to pay for the project while working on it himself any spare minute he has.
Setbacks every step of the way
Work so far has been… challenging. Since starting in November, 2018, they’ve had hit road bumps and setbacks every step of the way. “Finding a new problem,” Cal explained, “seems to be a daily occurrence.”
When their work van kept getting stuck in the mud, they went to the trouble of putting down a driveway. Then, they had to dig up that very same driveway to find the elusive water supply. It also took them five months to find the cable that’ll allow them to connect to the power grid.
A ‘catch-22 jigsaw puzzle’
In another twist that author Joseph Heller would probably have been proud of, the house needs a new roof, since the current one has more holes in it than Swiss cheese. There’s only one problem with replacing it.
The walls probably won’t be strong enough to support it since they’re just as rickety. Alright, so fix the walls – only the lack of a roof means rain can come pouring right in and ruin them again. “It’s like a huge catch-22 jigsaw puzzle,” Cal said.
Help from the community
Luckily, they’ve not had to face up to the task completely alone. Apart from the friends who occasionally come in to help, Cal and Claire have also benefited from the community coming together to support them.
We’ve mentioned the neighbors who allow them to shower and make food at their house, but others have chipped in as well. “We’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of the people of Dunoon,” Cal said. While they thought they were lunatics for doing it, Dunoon’s residents have offered them nothing but encouragement and support.
Many others have gotten in touch with them through their blog as well, giving them not only technical advice on how to proceed but also pointing them in the direction of old building supplies no one was using. That wasn’t just a happy coincidence.
Apart from the practical concern that money was more than tight, Claire and Cal wanted their renovation project to be as eco-friendly as possible. To that end, they’ve been making it a point to use reclaimed buildings materials. Floorboards, timber, kitchen units – anything will be recycled.
Testing their relationship
The Jameswoods Villa project wouldn’t just teach the two young people a whole host of useful skills, or so Claire hoped. It would also be a good way of testing their relationship.
If they could survive living in a tiny caravan on a construction site, she reasoned, they could survive literally anything. Ever the optimist, she also believed there was a light at the end of their tunnel. “It’s a long way off.” she admitted, “but it is there.”
The end goal
When taking on a project of this magnitude, it’s important to have an end goal in mind – what you want to achieve when all is said and done. Claire and Cal had certainly visualized theirs.
As far as they were concerned, when the property was completely renovated and the tools were laid down, they would be the proud owners of three separate apartments. They’d sell two of them, to pay back debts racked up during renovations, and live in the third.
Their own personal ‘happy accident’
At the end of the day, it was all about perspective. It would’ve been all too easy to lose heart – and hope – and despair at not only having bought the wrong home but also facing a monstrous renovation project.
But instead, they preferred to view it as their own personal “happy accident.” It wasn’t what they had originally envisioned, but life was an adventure, and should be treated as such. They much preferred to embrace such happy accidents than despair over them.
Finding their footing
As with everything else we choose to do in life, it was all about the risk versus the reward. The risk – or rather, risks – were quite obvious. They might have just lost money on a property, only to throw good money after bad and lose even more money on renovating it.
Then again, if everything went to plan, they would be homeowners while still in their twenties – and without a mortgage! It would be a monumental achievement in this day and age.
No gray areas for them
The greatest president in the history of the United States (and we’ll fight you on this), Theodore Roosevelt, knew a thing or two about conquering great challenges. Suffering from asthma as a child, he became a war hero in the the Spanish-American War.
And he would have something to say to Claire and Cal. To dare to do mighty things, Roosevelt stated, even if you fail here and there, is better than living in that “gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
Due some good fortune
While we don’t have a direct line to fate, if there was any justice in the world Cal and Claire’s insane gamble would pay off big. Fate played a part in bringing together two people from different countries in a third country, and it pushed into their lives again when Cal bid on the wrong property.
While their work is still going – and might be for a while – we can only keep our fingers crossed and hope their attitude towards life is rewarded, and their “happy accident” turns into a jackpot.
While this mission has probably created a lot of frustration and everyone involved is probably exhausted, that doesn’t mean they let this get their spirits down. They have been remaining positive and staying optimistic.
Yes, it’s been hard work, and yes they’ve had a lot of struggles along the way – including their truck bottoming out under the extreme weight of bricks – but that doesn’t mean they can’t get through this anyway. The house is coming along, slowly but surely.
Trips to the dump
Because the house is so old and falling apart, obviously most of the junk has to be removed and thrown out somehow. This means that there have been many trips to the dump to drop off moldy, dirty, gross items.
The couple have been filling up the truck to the brim and carrying all of the gunk away because most of it just simply cannot be saved. They try to salvage as much as possible, but there is clearly plenty going to the dump.
One of the most important things in a project like this is safety. There can be multiple different things within the home that can pose a threat or cause some kind of harm or danger.
Because of this fact, anyone working in the house needs to make sure they are properly protected. To prevent breathing in dust, soot, chemicals, mold, and a whole array of other harmful things, it’s important to wear a face mask at all times.
On top of protection, it’s also an obvious fact that the couple taking on the task of converting this old building into a livable home is probably going to get pretty dirty. Thankfully, there are things like tough work gloves to help keep all that dirt off their hands.
They even posted a picture on their Instagram saying how excited they were for a new pair, even though they gloves would admittedly probably only last about an hour.
While Claire and Cal clearly have an enormous task on their hands, converting an old and falling apart mansion into a livable dream house, they haven’t let that bring them down. As we already mentioned, they are keeping their spirits up.
This couple is also making sure to take the much needed breaks they so deserve and they don’t forget to have some fun with friends every now and then. After all, it can’t be all work and no play. For now, however, even as we write this, work is ongoing.
They have the power
Sometime in early March, Cal and Claire were finally able to bring electricity back to Jameswood. It was a huge win for them, not just in terms of progress on the house but also for some pretty basic, simple reasons.
For one thing, it meant they didn’t have to work by candlelight anymore, which was both inconvenient and dangerous. Secondly, it meant they could charge their tools on-site instead of going to their neighbors’ shed. It was just the shot in the arm their project needed.
Taking out the floorboards
Just to help you get a sense of what a fundamentally flawed Jameswood Villa was, we’ll take the living room floors as example. On the top floor of the villa, the floorboards in that room were so thoroughly rotted out that they could literally crumble if someone touched them.
This was just downright dangerous, and so Claire decided that it was safer to remove them altogether than to have someone think they’re safe, only to plummet to the room below. And since theirs was an equal opportunity operation, she removed them herself!
Conquering her fear
When it came to surround the exterior of the house with scaffolding, Claire had to face a different challenge. Suffering from a fear of heights, she had to get over it so she could help Cal and the rest of their friends put up scaffolding around the circumference of the house.
Putting safety first, she ordered a safety harness for herself, and got to work. The pair almost finished putting up the scaffolding, which allowed Cal to take a nice tea break.
The ceiling pushes the wall out
Why was scaffolding so important to the project? Well, one example could be used to perfectly illustrate the importance, and the magnitude of the task facing this young couple. The beautiful front wall of the manor had seen better days.
The bay window on the front, for example, was in bad shape. About to topple at any moment, it might take part of the sandstone wall with it! At first, the gang thought the house sinking into the ground was the cause, but when they investigated they learned timbers from the roof were actually pushing it out!
Going really, really old school
Every so often, Claire and Cal would get a reminder that they’re not quite there yet, amenities-wise. While they did own a washing machine, for instance, and even had the electricity to run it, it couldn’t handle the thick layer of Scottish mud that would cake on everyone’s work clothes and gloves.
Thinking outside the box, Claire went back to her ancestors – and washed them in a nearby stream! After giving them a good soak, she simply hung them to dry in the sun.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Cal also proved to be quite adept at thinking on his feet. Since Jameswood Villa was not quite yet habitable, it goes without saying that it didn’t have a functional kitchen. When the weather surprisingly turned nice, Cal had an idea.
Instead of cooking in their cramped caravan, he used leftover scaffolding pieces to build an outdoor kitchen! They even brought out old kitchen units from inside the house so they could place their kitchenware on them. It wasn’t traditional, but it worked.
A caravan with a view
Initially, Cal and Claire’s caravan used to sit right in front of the house, since that was literally the only place they could leave it. It wasn’t ideal, as any passing truck rocked it like an earthquake and it was right next to the partially collapsed front wall.
So, after clearing a new access route to the house, they got a neighbor to tow the caravan to the other side of the house. They then slowly pushed it to the top of their yard, where they now woke up to horses and deer roaming the fields behind Jameswood.
A feast for crows
Since Jameswood Villa has been deserted for the better part of two decades, it was slowly being reclaimed by nature. And the biggest reclaimers by far were crows!
The birds made a very comfortable home for themselves in Jameswood, and while Claire said they loved all of Mother Nature’s creatures, nesting crows were setting the work back weeks! To keep them away, they devised all kinds of methods, some more effective than others. This scarecrow, built by Claire’s dad, was probably in the “others” category.
A proper welcome
As spring turned to summer in Jameswood, Claire and Cal have begun seeing a healthy stream of friends from the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world. These friends weren’t just coming in to gawk at them while they worked, though.
Far from it, in fact. Many of their friends chose to spend part of their summer helping in the work. To repay the favor, the couple wanted them to be as comfortable as they could be, hence this tricked out tent.
Putting things into perspective
In mid-May, Claire wrote a blog post detailing her and Cal’s recent progress. Other than a list of what they had accomplished, however, the post was also about the progress itself. Since they were spending every waking moment working on Jameswood Villa, it was hard to assess just how much progress they had made.
It took things like a friend visiting for the second time and being shocked about the place having electricity to put things into perspective for them. They still had a ways to go, but they’ve come a long way too.