Back in 2009, Deborah Rumberger saw homeownership as the key to providing stability for her two young daughters, then 13 and 7. A few days before Halloween that year, after months of house hunting, she found the one: a 100-year-old Victorian home in Helena, Montana.
It wasn't easy. For starters, her budget didn't allow for a ton of options within a safe neighborhood. "And I just wasn't interested in a lot of the homes I could afford," she says. It's why she initially thought the two-story property she would later purchase for $173,500 was too good to be true — but she pushed her doubts to the back of her mind and bought it anyway.
That first night, after an exhausting day of unpacking, she tucked her kids into bed and crawled under the sheets. Instead of sleep, however, "I got so sick I thought I was going to die," Rumberger recalls. Her heart started pounding and her mouth went dry. All night long, she kept wanting to get up, but she felt so stiff she was barely able to move.
The next morning, a thought made her go white: There's something wrong with this house.
That same day, Rumberger started calling everyone she could think of to try to get out of her mortgage: the realtors, the bank, the title company, everyone. "Nobody cared," she says. "They chalked it up to buyer's remorse or stress from moving."
By the end of November, after about 30 days in her new home, Rumberger was constantly exhausted — more than the usual fatigue that comes with working and raising two children. One night her chest hurt so badly that she went to the emergency room, convinced she was having a heart attack. Another time she rushed herself to the hospital when her limbs went completely numb. By January, she noticed troublesome changes in her daughters, too. Her eldest was acting depressed, complaining of an itchy scalp and had frequent nose bleeds. Her youngest had sinus problems for the first time in her life, along with acid reflux and recurring nightmares.
Terrified over what was happening to her family, and convinced her house was the problem, Rumberger continued ing her realtor, her bank, her title company, her inspector and her doctors. Finally, that spring, she found help in a neighbor named Clara Holliday. Holliday introduced her to the homeowner who lived in the house before the family that sold it to Rumberger — and that's when she learned about the home's 20-year history with flooding and mold.
Rumberger learned through this previous homeowner that the second-floor plumbing had once been re-routed through the attic. The problem was the attic wasn't heated, which can lead to frozen pipes. Frozen pipes can crack and leak when they expand in warmer weather, which Rumberger suspects happened during a particularly bad winter in 1989, when no one was residing in the home.
Sotereas Pantazes, co-founder of EFynch, a handyman community in Baltimore, says he's seen basements result in mold just days after a significant flooding. Rumberger, however, was living in the home 20 years after unresolved flood damage.
The old homeowner urged Rumberger to search her home for mold, starting with the tub in her bathroom.
Rumberger didn't have to search long. "I peeled back the plastic lining and it was filled with mold," she says. Next, she pulled down nearby drywall and tore up part of the carpet. Everything was covered in toxic black spores.
"At first, I felt relief and thought 'aha!' I knew something was going on," she says. "But at the time, I still didn't understand how damaging and dangerous toxic mold is."
Dr. Ann Shippy, a Texas-based physician and author of , says every one of Rumberger's symptoms — fatigue, weakness, headaches, morning stiffness and joint pain — is textbook mold toxicity. "Mold produces chemicals, like microtoxins and microbial volatile organic compounds that have seriously dangerous side effects," she explains. "A lot of people think you're only affected by mold spores if you're allergic to them, but mold makes chemicals that build up in your body." This is why Rumberger's two daughters didn't feel sick until a couple of months after the move — it sometimes takes time to notice the symptoms of mold toxicity.
After discovering the mold in her bathroom, Rumberger convinced a home inspector to come over that very same day. A moisture mirror, which helps identify mold behind the walls, showed evidence of growth all over the house. Her homeowner's insurance didn't cover prior mold or water damage, so she was looking at an $80,000 price tag to remediate her home from top to bottom. "When I heard that, I knew it wasn't a possibility," she says.
She wasn't ready to give up on her dream house, so Rumberger decided to do the remediation on her own. She rented a negative air pressure machine (which draws the mold spores out of the house), along with suits, goggles and other supplies for a total of $500.
But once she got to work, stirring up the mold made the family's symptoms even worse. By June, they started camping in the backyard, only going inside to use the restroom. "By July I couldn't even go inside the house, because it felt like there were so many spores that they would attack anything moist, including us," she says.
According to Dr. Shippy, she's right: "When you open up a wall with mold, you send a lot of a very powerful chemicals into the air that you breathe into your lungs, so they go straight into circulation." Just like doctors have found one of the most effective ways to get medication into someone quickly is though the lungs (verses digestion, which filters through the liver first), this makes these chemicals in the air even more dangerous.
Camping lasted a month, until they got rained out. With no nearby family to turn to, they moved into the local YMCA. They'd spend the next year sleeping in cheap motels, at her co-worker's house and late, renting two bedrooms over a garage before finally ending up in the apartment where they live today.
In June 2010, around the same time Rumberger was forced to move her family into their backyard, she decided to take legal action. "I held off for a while, because I thought 'we don't want to do litigation, we can fix this,'" she remembers. But, financially, she didn't see any other way out.
Rumberger filed against four parties she believes knew about the mold before the sale. "It took almost six years, I had five or six lawyers during that time and it was almost as hard as the mold exposer," she says. Even though they settled to the mutual satisfaction of all parties, Rumberger doesn't think she'd do it again.
"We were able to get out of debt, but let's just say we're still tenants and our lifestyle didn't change much," she says. The only positives Rumberger saw from the settlement was being able to afford some much-needed medical treatment and finally being able to put this experience behind her once and for all.
Then, in December 2010, Rumberger also convinced her bank to suspend the mortgage payments she still owed and sold the house (with full disclosure about the mold), ultimately incurring an almost $80,000 loss — about the same amount as the initial remediation estimate, but with a lot more headaches.
The new owners finished remediating the mold, completely rebuilt the interior and turned it into a three-unit rental, which Rumberger still drives by today. "For the longest time, we'd just avoid that road and wouldn't drive down it," she says. But now, on occasion, she gets the urge to see the house in which she thought she'd grow old.
As for Rumberger and her daughters, they still live in the same apartment they moved into a year after fleeing their Victorian dream home. They've been renting it for more than five years and, even if it was financially feasible, Rumberger doesn't see herself buying again. "We lost a lot of years of our lives and still have some health issues," she says. "But it's just one of those things we have to come to terms with and move beyond."
Pantazes says if an inspector doesn't see mold with their own eyes, they don't have to disclose it. But that doesn't mean potential buyers can't look for their own clues, such as patches in the walls, discoloration, walls that bow and bend and just general poor home maintenance. "Little signs will show you if the owner is a person who took care of their home," he says.
Another thing Rumberger says shouldn't be underestimated: your gut. "My older daughter didn't have a great feeling about the house, but we just shook it off." Today, she wishes she listened to her daughter's instincts, which might have spared them the entire ordeal. "Our American Dream became a nightmare, but the biggest lesson I learned is when to hold up, when to fold up and when to run away."