Tony and I had a great idea for August & September of 2021: bicycle the Pacific coast, from Canada south until it was no longer fun. This was a great idea for many reasons:
- Relatively cool weather and smoke-free air
- Not all that difficult
- Incredible natural beauty
- Lots of friends and family to stop and see
We were planning to house-sit during the last week of July for our friends Ben & Jean down in the Bay Area. When they returned, we were going to foist our dog on them, and drive back north to begin our two-month adventure. Coincidentally, during this week we had a little administrative detail to attend to: we were foreclosing on the mountain property that we sold in 2015. We didn’t actually have to be present for the foreclosure, but we needed to kick off the cleanup project, which a neighbor had kindly agreed to oversee.
Woah woah woah
This mountain property was absolutely beautiful. We enjoyed it for a decade of weekends, until we decided to retire and downsize. It’s completely off-grid and a bit difficult to reach, though only about an hour from our house at the time. It has a million dollar view, a swimmable pond, a gusher of a well, and we installed a yurt, utility building, and small solar system. It’s common to hold the mortgage when selling “undeveloped land,” which this technically is, and we were pleased to sell it to a young couple who planned to raise a family there.
The new owner, whom I’ll call BadGuy for reasons that will become clear, paid the mortgage for several years, until he stopped paying. He had also quit his engineering job and was attempting to make money in various unsuccessful entrepreneurial ways. Correlation? After some months of that, after traveling in Europe and grappling with Covid, we finally started trying to reclaim the property. He yanked us around for a while and then we wised up and handed the file to a foreclosure agent.
We’d seen the property last winter and knew there was a lot of cleanup to do. BadGuy had lots of renters, several of whom grew pot, and none of whom ever removed any trash. We also knew that we’d need to repair the yurt, which suffered a tree fall during a winter storm. Our helpful neighbor Tys had kindly removed the tree and tarped the yurt for us, so other than the punctured roof and 6 broken rafters, it was undamaged inside. We had a fantasy that Tys would just hire local folks to clean up, while we merrily cycled down the coast.
Not so fast! During the final days of ownership, BadGuy came in and removed everything of value:
- Solar panels
- Solar controller and inverter
- Water heater
- A lot of the copper pipes for plumbing
- Radiant floor heating controller and pump
- The 5000 gallon water tank (which is a really big thing)
The pond is 10 feet down and full of algae. Plenty of koi and other critters, so it isn’t toxic, but it sure isn’t pretty.
It took a few days to sink in, but we pretty quickly gave up on the idea of the bike ride this year. We turned our attention to the cleanup.
For those of you wondering if we sued or pressed charges against BadGuy: no. The property was technically his when he plundered it. He has no money. It really wasn’t worthwhile to pursue a suit. I don’t ever want to see or communicate with him again.
Getting started on the rehab
Ben & Jean (of house-sitting fame) were incredibly generous to us. They let us stay in their garage apartment, which is fabulous. Ben’s well equipped workshop and tools were at our disposal, and many tools moved up to the yurt for a few months. Ben’s expertise with electricity and plumbing, their network of friends, the neighbor who’s a contractor, were all unbelievably helpful. Jean cooked way more than her share of communal dinners when all Tony and I could do was stare numbly at the floor. It did mean that we had a long commute on yurt days, probably 3 hours round trip. They live south of Santa Cruz, in a corridor that even in Covid times has horrific traffic.
The first several weeks after the foreclosure were not very productive. We’d go up to the yurt and just wander around in a daze, as we discovered more things missing or broken. My favorite bit of malice: the 18″ long, 1/4″ diameter copper pipe between the propane tank and the line feeding gas to the yurt. Could that possibly have netted even a nickel?
Our first project was to clean out the utility building, which contains 3 rooms:
- Bathroom, which was in OK shape except for no water and… well, I won’t talk about that other thing.
- Plumbing room, which I temporarily branded the Rat Room. This was literally knee deep in junk and the bottom layer was rat poop. Also nests in the walls. It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen.
- Solar room, which also had some junk and some rat poop but nowhere near as bad. Sadly, it did not have any solar equipment.
How fun was that! We also had to lay out poison and stop up rat entry holes. We are afraid that we haven’t 100% succeeded in rodent-proofing, but the revolting mess is far behind us now.
Next, we needed to plan the new systems:
- Water tank
- Solar system
- Plumbing and hot water
- Yurt heating
- How to run the well pump to fill the water tank
This planning process was quite fun the first time around, fifteen years ago. This time, not so much.
Water tank saga
A few weeks before foreclosure, BadGuy sold the 5000 gallon water tank. The buyer, sensing something was off, contacted me. I offered to compensate him for the $2200 he’d paid BadGuy, effectively repurchasing “our” tank. This buyer was actually a representative for a neighboring landowner, a Thai monk we’ll call Master Kiddiporn (not his real name, but alarmingly close).
But then the water tank was stolen the day before foreclosure. So neither of us had a tank, and the monk was out $2200.
We pretty quickly figured out who had taken the tank (another neighbor). He expressed remorse and promised to make it right. Days, weeks, went by… it was always tomorrow, or next Sunday, we’ll be getting that tank back. Tony and I finally bought a new tank, which was delivered the next day from San Jose, and positioned perfectly in the right spot and orientation. This was the first unalloyed positive experience of this disaster. Still not hooked up to either the well or the yurt, but a real, new, clean tank.
The monk’s representative got fierce with the tank thief, and a few days later a 5000 gallon tank was deposited on its side on our land. The monk decided to employ monk-power to roll the tank down the mountain along an overgrown fire road, a half-mile to his own property. This project was unsurprisingly unsuccessful, but at least he got it off of our property.
Solar technology has certainly come a long way in the past 15 years. The new system has half the footprint of solar panels, 20% of the footprint of batteries, and the batteries are sealed and maintenance-free. All with probably 2-3x the power.
We had a work party with Ben and his friend Dan who was amazingly willing to give us a day to install some panels. Unfortunately that day was well over 100 degrees, and panels are installed in the sun. Oh well, we got it done. The previous week, Tony and I had helped install panels with another of Ben’s neighbors, Jeff, who put in a grid-tied system to charge his two Teslas. We had some vague idea of how the hardware worked, but Dan was really the one who pushed us to completion that day.
Jeff had hired a solar expert for his project from several hours away, because all the local firms were booked out for months. The professional solar guy got a nice few days at the beach helping Jeff, then we tacked on one day to hook up our panels and install our new equipment in the (rat-free!) solar room. He was a god, and we now have electricity.
The solar project required a lot of research and thinking, and a serious chunk of money, but was largely painless.
Plumbing, hot water and heating
These systems are all related, because the yurt was set up with radiant floor heating which uses hot water. Again, the smarts of that system were ripped out by BadGuy, as was the hot water heater, but the pipes still existed. So we just needed to replace the original equipment, and we should be good. More money, but it shouldn’t be fundamentally difficult, right?
The tankless hot water heater runs on propane. It turns out that no one had used propane on the property for a few years, and the old propane company would no longer deliver. So we had to get the old company to take away their old tank and the new propane company to bring a new tank and put some gas in it. Sigh. This was not very difficult, and not terribly expensive in the cosmic scheme of things. OK, now we have propane. We bought a water heater same as the old water heater. New radiant floor guts same as the old radiant floor guts. Just hook them up, right? Of course not. 5+ years of people doing creative plumbing left us with pipes that headed off in mysterious directions. And some of the copper had been removed, presumably to sell for a few dollars (though I suspect it’s sitting in BadGuy’s backyard, as his follow-through is poor). After several sessions of crawling under the utility building trying to figure out where everything went, I decided to just cut out all the supply lines and start from scratch. The plumbing is complicated because of the radiant floor heating, so we ended up with a manifold wall, which looks pretty nifty. Sadly I don’t have a picture. Darn. It took a really long time to do the plumbing, largely because of my complete lack of skill, but we got it done. We should have hired a plumber, but it is very difficult to get people to come up the mountain.
We will return to the plumbing saga after a brief digression to talk about the water supply. The well is down by the pond, so probably 300 yards from the water tank, which is maybe 50 yards from the yurt and utility building. When we first owned the property we simply ran the well from a generator, which we needed to do only a few times a year. It was a pain, but infrequent. BadGuy went to the effort of hooking the well pump to the solar system. We had already run electricity down to the pond, so this was actually a small project for him to do. It put a huge strain on the original solar system, which was too small to run a 220v well pump reliably. Especially since some of BadGuy’s entrepreneurial efforts were agricultural. Anyway, BadGuy’s electrical skills did not include basic elements of safety. He had exposed wiring running across dry grass to unprotected connections at the well pump. This in an area at serious risk of forest fire. OK, fine, easy to fix (with super electrical engineer Ben by your side!).
Tony and I also had to tackle the plumbing connections from the well to the water tank. The pipe was still in place, but the connections were yanked out when the original tank was stolen. It took a long time of buying stuff, trying it out, and going back to the plumbing store to get more stuff, before we finally got water into the tank from the well and out of the tank to the yurt. We described this period as a turtle trudging halfway to the finish line every day. Would we ever reach it?
We did get there: we have water (though a few of the water tank connections leak a bit). After a few hours of sweating and cursing, we joyfully flipped the breaker for the well pump circuit and water started gushing into the tank. To be honest, we did have to go down to the well to restore a blown connection down there, but we finally got it. Water in the tank!
Now let’s get water into the plumbing system. Though unskilled, I’m smart enough to put cleanout valves all over the system: before water enters the pressure pump; after the pressure pump but before anything else; and at 3-4 more points through the system. Step 1 was to run water through the first cleanout, which is outside the utility building. Yup, we have water. It appeared clean, so after a minute we closed that valve and sent water through the pressure pump up to the 2nd cleanout inside the plumbing room. Two seconds of that and Tony was screaming at me to turn off the water. Oops, we hadn’t tightened down the hard water filter, which was immediately past the cleanout but enough water was getting through to spray everywhere. Poor Tony (though it was a hot day so maybe it felt good?). Simple fix and let’s try again!
We had attached a short length of hose to the cleanout valve and positioned it over one of those big orange home depot buckets. Because, you know, we’re not stupid. The water came out! We have water! It’s… black. Seriously, unpleasantly, black. And coming fast. What ensued was a Keystone Kops style bucket brigade (we found a second bucket), where one of us would hold the hose to fill a bucket while the other would toss the water onto a tree, run back and exchange buckets. We’d switch roles every ten buckets or so. Every so often the water would start clearing up, only to return to blackness. We finally agreed to count down 10 clean buckets before we could stop. We estimate at least 100 buckets, or 200-300 gallons of water, before the torture ended. In retrospect, we should have attached a long hose and sent the bad water far away, but who would have imagined it would have gone on for so long? For the next week we’d begin our work sessions with a few buckets of dirty water before it cleared up. Now, finally, it turns on clean first thing. We’ve tested it and it is clean, bacteria-free, and potable.
My theory about this black water is that the line from the water tank to the yurt was open for a long time, perhaps a year. I had assumed it was just open for the month or so since the tank was stolen, but I now believe it was open all winter and got a lot of dirt and stuff washed in. When we turned on the pressure pump, the water started scouring dirt off the interior of the pipe. The black water stopped and started as various areas of crud broke loose. It finally ended when the pipe was all clean.
Fixing the yurt
You may recall that a tree fell onto the yurt last year, rendering it uninhabitable. Six rafters needed to be replaced. They are 12’6″ long and have some funny angles and unusual hardware at the ends. So at the same time we were dealing with the plumbing fun, we were acquiring and bringing home (to Ben & Jean’s) the lumber, sanding and staining it, cutting the angles and drilling the holes. Months ago we’d ordered a new yurt roof, as repair is not practical.
A neighbor of Ben & Jean’s is a contractor, and we’d gotten on his calendar for Monday 27-Sept to do the big yurt repair. We needed him to pick up scaffolding (the center opening is 12′ up) and transport our beautiful new rafters. Replacing the roof was the big project, but we also had a long list of other minor projects for these guys to knock out.
Before Yurt Day we had to clean and remove the yurt walls, label them, and stash them somewhere they wouldn’t get too dirty. We did most of that work on Sunday. Jeff (of solar system fame) helped Ben, Tony and me with this wall work. Simple pressure washing + scrubbing made a huge difference in the appearance of the walls, some of which had moss growing on them! They aren’t perfect, but they can solidly be described as fine. Jean tackled the rehabilitation of a table that had been in the Rat Room (but had since been sanitized). Some chalk paint and fancy black wax and it looks positively chic.
Yurt Day began at 7a at the bagel shop. We got back home maybe 12 hours later. In that time, the professionals did such amazing work. They pulled off the old roof, plus the bubble wrap insulation and cloth liner, in record time. Tony and I got to work repairing the insulation (duct tape) and liner (iron-on patches), while the guys installed the rafters. An important piece of replacement hardware was the wrong size, so Tony drove down to town for new bolts: 30 minutes each way. While he was gone, the guys reinstalled the roof layers (liner, insulation, then roof). Each layer was a bit of a puzzle, but the roof itself was definitely the biggest challenge as it weighs over 125 pounds. A myriad of smaller projects brought us to the end of Yurt Day, and the guys came back for a half day on Tuesday to hang the walls and do some more small projects.
The yurt is now habitable! I can attest, as Tony and I have spent a night there. It’s magical at night; even in summer it cools down and is usually clear. We could see the Milky Way. In the morning we watched the mist rise from the valley to reveal Monterey Bay far below.
We desperately needed a break so we returned home to Ashland for the first time in 6 weeks. We are enjoying doing nothing.
We return in a few weeks for several appointments:
- Check in with Jimmy the trash guy to see how the cleanup is going (there are trash piles all over the property)
- Launch the brush clearing project with Tod the brush guy
- Get wifi installed!
- Fix the pond walls, drain and refill (Useful Tony the contractor)
- Hopefully, find someone to help us automate the process of filling the water tank.
There are a bunch of relatively more fun projects that Tony and I can tackle, mostly involving painting and prettifying the property. We plan to put it on the market asap, though realistically that will be spring as no one would visit it during the wet season (and if they did, they wouldn’t buy!).
This has been a bad few months. I’m tired all the time. We have spent so much money, we can only hope to recoup when we sell. The best thing I can say after two months is the property and yurt are no longer awful.
We continue to be grateful and humbled by how very kind most people are. Not BadGuy, but even the water tank thief eventually came through. Our neighbor Tys and our friends Ben and Jean, and their friends–now ours too–Jeff, Dan, and Useful Tony, have all given generously of their time. Incredibly generously. So continue to enjoy your friends, help one another, and maintain calm when everything seems to fall apart.