One morning this past June, Claire Segeren and Cal Hunter received legal permission to live in their own home. It had only taken five years.
The couple had spent that time renovating their house in the Scottish village of Sandbank, about 35 miles west of Glasgow, after buying it in 2018. With limited funds, they became their own contractors, painstakingly rebuilding the 120-year-old red-sandstone house nearly from the ground up in an effort to restore its turn-of-the-century glory.
“When we got the sign-off” from local building authorities, Mr. Hunter said, “it did feel like a real milestone. We both just crashed.”
This had not been the plan when they first set out to buy a place in Scotland. But of course, not many people buy houses accidentally.
As the story goes, Ms. Segeren, then 24, was visiting family in her native Toronto when her boyfriend, Mr. Hunter, then 26, attended a home auction in Glasgow. The couple’s intention was to buy an investment apartment near the city center that they could renovate and flip. But Mr. Hunter mistakenly bid on the wrong lot. There were no photos of the 1,940-square-foot Victorian-style home in the auction brochure, though it did describe it as “requiring modernization throughout.”
“I thought, with that price for a flat, how can you go wrong? Why not give it a go?” said Mr. Hunter, who hails from the English port city of Hull.
By the time he realized his mistake, he was the owner of Jameswood Villa, with a winning bid of 10,000 British pounds (about $12,400). Or rather, the owner of a quarter of it — he had actually bought one of four flats in the building, which was derelict and on the verge of collapse. All the other occupants had long since abandoned it.
When Mr. Hunter called the auction house, he was offered a second unit in the building that had failed to sell at the same auction. He accepted it, thinking that owning half the house was better than a quarter. “We’d borrowed the money from Claire’s parents,” he said. “I felt a responsibility to make it work.”
Jameswood Villa sat in the northwestern peninsula area of Scotland, a pastoral landscape dotted with green and gray hills, on the outskirts of the lakeside town of Dunoon. As soon as Mr. Hunter saw it, he knew he had made the right mistake.
“I was drawn to the idea of being mortgage-free in my 30s and having a beautiful place with a nice garden,” he said. “I knew it would be hard work, but we’d really been wanting an opportunity.”
The building had been condemned. But Mr. Hunter is a carpenter by trade, and with support from some gas and electrical professionals — and, eventually, dozens of helpers — he and Ms. Segeren decided they could revive it themselves. They wound up spending three winters living in a camper van beside the property as they worked, showering in a temporary space inside the house where the icy wind would rattle through.
“We’ve been working five and a half days a week, most weeks, for the whole project,” Ms. Segeren said recently.
This summer, inspectors declared the property safe for habitation — a new chapter for a home that has already lived a very long life.
Documents show that the developer, Dougal McVicar, bought a 0.28-acre plot from a wealthy landowner family, the Hunters of Hafton, and built the house around 1901. Jameswood Villa was never occupied as a single-family house and seems to have always been subdivided, according to Derek Darkins, a local historian.
By the time Mr. Hunter and Ms. Segeren bought their portion of it, everyone was gone. The couple’s 79-year-old neighbor, Anne Currie, helped to fill in some of the gaps. She was friendly with Jameswood’s last resident, who left after it was repossessed in 1998.
“They actually had it quite nice,” Ms. Currie said. “They had put love into the house. It’s a sad story. It started leaking from the roof and it would have been fine if there were other tenants.”
She watched the building disintegrate over the years, becoming an extreme example of the many empty homes found not only in this bucolic area, but across Scotland. (According to figures published by the Scottish government, 42,865 homes sat empty for six months or longer in 2022.)
Dunoon, the main town on the northern Scottish peninsula of Cowal, has seen its share of forgotten homes through the years. In the 19th century, developers built houses along the Holy Loch coastline to meet demand for holiday properties among Glasgow’s elite.
“The proliferation of these properties for the well-heeled also created a need for accommodation for the employees who would service these new houses and their growing communities,” Mr. Darkins said. “Jameswood Villa was part of this process.”
The town reached its zenith in the 1960s, when the Holy Loch became home to a U.S. Navy base, leading to the influx of some 3,000 service members and their families. But 30 years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy closed the base, shutting down the area’s main economic engine.
“A lot of people made a lot of money with the Americans,” Ms. Currie said. “When they left, that’s when the place went down.”
Buyers like Ms. Segeren and Mr. Hunter are now helping to resuscitate the area once again, but they’re not doing it alone. After they bought Jameswood Villa, they met with Kelly Ferns, an empty homes officer with the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership.
Ms. Ferns helped them track down the owner of one remaining flat, enabling them to buy it for £10,000. The couple had already acquired the third unit months before for the same price; the owner, who’d bought it at the same auction, came to view the property and immediately decided to sell it.
Once Ms. Segeren and Mr. Hunter had obtained the entire property, Ms. Ferns was able to provide them with a £10,000 grant — “the maximum amount they qualified for as owner-occupiers,” Ms. Ferns said.
Ms. Segeren recalled their first meeting with Ms. Ferns: “She said, how are you going to live during the project? How are you going to make money? And how are you going to do the project by yourselves?”
Ms. Segeren left the meeting rattled. “She asked the right questions,” she said. “We didn’t really have the right answers. But we needed somebody to tell it to us like it was. She taught us how to look after a traditionally built home.”
The first few months were overwhelming. But when the couple received the first structural report, there was some relief: For every problem, there was a solution. It was the road map to their renovation.
They were resourceful, calling friends and relatives for tips and advice, reading building codes and books on sustainable construction. YouTube was a valuable resource for tutorials on how to slate the roof. When cash ran low, Mr. Hunter took on carpentry contracts and Ms. Segeren found work at local pubs.
The first step was to repair the roof and stop water from leaking in. They ordered scaffolding from eBay. “We did the roof structure first so we weren’t getting rained on, and then went from the ground up,” Ms. Segeren said. “After that, it sort of started to feel like a normal renovation.”
They cleared the interior, filled with rotten and broken furniture, remnants of past lives. “There were big holes everywhere,” Mr. Hunter said. “All the ceilings had fallen down, so you were walking on the plaster.”
Their commitment to sustainability led the couple to reclaim materials where possible, like the sheep’s wool insulation they used in the walls, and low-embodied energy materials such as bricks and timber. Ms. Segeren said the wood floor boards came from a man who’d salvaged the material from a carpet factory. “He was selling it for nine pounds a square meter, which is less than you can get cheap vinyl for,” she said. “It was such a good deal.”
They also raided a similar house in the area that was set for demolition. They were invited to take whatever they wanted and managed to rescue doors, architraves and wood paneling.
The cast-iron radiators were sourced from eBay. “We paint stripped them, my dad painted them for us, and him and Cal plumbed them in,” Ms. Segeren said.
That’s about when the cavalry showed up. After Mr. Hunter was interviewed by a reporter from the Dunoon Observer in 2019, the article went viral and offers of salvaged items for the house — tools, supplies, old toilets and sinks — began pouring in.
As the work stretched on, they needed extra hands but couldn’t afford to hire tradespeople. So they joined the online platform Workaway, which connects people seeking a working holiday experience with people who need help. Guests are expected to work five hours a day in exchange for food and shelter.
In 2021, a then 19-year-old Charli Kleeman, who was living in Leeds, discovered the Jameswood Villa project on Workaway. A few weeks later, Ms. Segeren and Mr. Hunter picked her up at the Dunoon ferry terminal.
“I remember thinking it was beautiful because the garden had this really rustic handmade kitchen and it was so full of love,” Ms. Kleeman said recently over Zoom.
At night, she slept in one of three tents set up in the garden, along with two other Workawayers. During the day she was assigned to flooring after being trained to cut and lay wooden boards. “I was a tiny piece of the puzzle,” she said. “I laid the floors in two rooms.”
Ms. Kleeman stayed for two and a half weeks, but the experience changed her life. “I ended up going back quite a lot, and I ended up moving to Glasgow,” she said. “I don’t have to do an office job. This is an option of life. It opened my mind up to alternative ways of making a living.”
Ms. Kleeman is one of many people who have been inspired by Ms. Segeren and Mr. Hunter’s journey. An Instagram account set up to document their project now has more than 300,000 followers. Some post advice and words of encouragement, while do-it-yourself enthusiasts share experiences. When followers asked how they could send financial support, the pair launched a GoFundMe account that raised £20,000.
“My friends in Canada say it’s so funny — that of all the people who were likely to become influencers or Instagrammers, they didn’t see it for me,” Ms. Segeren said.
After spending around £80,000 on the renovation, the couple are ready for the next phase: using the downstairs apartments as short-term rentals in an effort to recoup some of the money they borrowed. The rate: £125 a night, with a seven-day stay for £700. They will reside in the three-bedroom apartment upstairs.
“We definitely didn’t realize how long it would take” Ms. Segeren said. “Even at the final stages we’re like, ‘It’ll take a month and we’ll be done. And then two months later, you’re like, ‘Why are we still working on this house?”