Four years after graduating architecture school, my husband and I have been dreaming about buying a house. When we visited this house in March, we immediately put in an offer because we wanted a bright, spacious, and close to the beach house.

Gabby Dolechek house
The rat-infested home that I bought as a first-time buyer.
Gabby Dolechek
After purchasing it for $328,000, we saw it empty for the first time in May. We quickly noticed all the damage that was previously hidden behind furniture, cabinets, walls and under laminate floors. Rat poop, trash and cigarettes filled the entire house, and we were immediately heartbroken. The house still smelled horrible, and when we began cleaning and ripping out floors and cabinets to get all the rat and cockroach droppings out, we kept finding more damage. 

Many items listed on the inspection report as being in working condition were damaged and that the smell we noticed during the showing was not from the seller's dirty laundry and furniture, it was from a combination of rat poop and mold.

We had to replace all the systems and gut the entire house

Rats chewed up the ductwork, the plumbing system had tree roots growing through it, and the windows barely shut in the first week.

roach droppings were found on the kitchen walls, outlets and light switches, in the fridge, and in wall corners around the house.

Gabby Dolechek's home
Our bathroom after it was gutted and its ceiling full of rat feces was torn down.
Gabby Dolechek

We were told by our inspector that there was evidence of wood destroying organisms and that we should get a WDO inspection. We were told that a three-day house tenting would make sure that pests wouldn't come back.

We were never told that the rats had been living in the house for a long time and had destroyed everything in their path. There were piles of rat poop behind the cabinets, in the fridge, walls, vent, soffits, and insulation on the attic floor. We had to gut the kitchen, bathroom, and attic.

When we removed the toilet, we found that the wall behind it was covered in black mold, so it had to come down.

We sought legal advice, but didn't end up pressing charges

The home was not safe to live in. Our inspection report didn't state that the house was damaged, and we spent more than $30,000 to fix it. We asked the sellers why they were using window units and they said it was cheaper to use them. We had to replace the entire system after the inspection stated that the A/C worked.

We were told not to pursue legal action due to the financial and emotional strain it would cause.

The bottom line was that inspectors and real estate agents have clauses in their contracts that protect them from these types of situations, and it would take years to receive anything in return for the hefty legal fees that we would not be able to afford.

Gabby Dolechek's home
The exhaust fan in the bathroom filled with rat feces and trash.
Gabby Dolechek

But there were many red flags that we shouldn't have ignored during the home buying process

The sellers were present during the walk- through. We didn't feel comfortable opening curtains, cabinets and closets because they followed us and talked to us throughout the process.

Our agent suggested that we let the sellers stay after closing since we were flexible with our move-in date and it would make the deal better. He didn't tell us about the risks.

We didn't see the house empty and we didn't see the damage that was hidden. The sellers needed the funds for their next move so they tried to move up the closing date. This was a way to make sure that the sale went through.

We put too much trust in the professionals we hired

When we visited the house, we felt uncomfortable having the sellers present, but we assumed it was ok because our agent was scheduling these appointments. We listened when he told us to use his lender and inspector.

We were very confident that the inspector would notice the damage and report it. We should've been our own advocates, done our own research, and paid close attention to the house we were looking at.

They want the sale to go through so that they can get a paycheck.

Gabby Dolechek's home
A/C ducts chewed up by rats and stuffed with soiled insulation, trash, and rat feces.
Gabby Dolechek

We messed up, and if we were buying our first house again, here's what we'd do differently:

  1. Hire a realtor with a lot of experience and ask for references.We were referred to the realtor by our friends. They had never worked with him but knew him personally, so we hired him rather than a stranger. We never asked for his credentials or references to make sure that he would be a good fit for us — because we had never worked with another realtor before, we assumed that they would all do an equally good job.

    If we ever purchase a house again, we'll interview at least two different realtors to ask about their process of finding a home, the different types of inspections that they recommend homes receive, the number of sales they've had in the last year, and a few references that we can A simple search on the internet can help a real estate agent find houses that fit with your criteria. They're supposed to keep an eye on you from the beginning.

  2. Use a lender and inspector that does not work with the realtor.We used the inspector and lender that our realtor recommended, and I now know that if the inspector and realtor didn't have a working relationship, the inspection wouldn't have passed because the house was toxic and unsafe.

    We could have two separate checks. We paid $540 for our inspection, but it would have saved us tens of thousands of dollars over time.

  3. Don't let the sellers stay after closing.Before we put in our offer, our realtor suggested we let the sellers stay after closing so we never got to see the house completely empty until we tried to move in. It's impossible to see the damage of a house when the seller's furniture and belongings are in the home. During the final walkthrough the house should be empty so that every aspect of the house is visible.
  4. Don't rely on the inspector to point out all the damage.During the inspection, the sellers continuously made conversation with us, so instead of following the inspector, I talked with the sellers about the city and neighborhood.

    I would like to ask the inspector more questions. I should've told him to find a way to get to the attic and crawl space when he said he couldn't. I should have asked the inspector to do his job right and be more knowledgeable about it.

  5. Hire an attorney or ask another professional for help.We were moving from Illinois, a state that requires home purchases to be reviewed by an attorney. When we asked our realtor if we should get one, he told us that it's not necessary because the state of Florida doesn't require attorneys to oversee the closing. If I were to buy a house again, I would always hire an attorney because they can review all contracts, documents and make sure that I'm protected.

    If I didn't have an attorney, I would ask my family, friends, and anyone who has purchased a lot of homes to review my contracts. It's always better to have another set of eyes on important documents when it's hard to share personal and financial information with others.

  6. Have more than is necessary in our savings account.We grew up hearing that a big down payment is always better because it would help avoid PMI, which is required by conventional mortgage lenders when homebuyers put down less than 20% of the home's price. We wanted to decrease our monthly payments, so even though we both had student debt from our master's degrees, we managed to save $60,000.Fortunately, before we made the purchase, my parents suggested that we pay only the required amount and save the rest for emergencies because unlike an apartment, if anything broke in the house, we would be responsible.

    We kept the money in our savings so that we could use it to build a garage for my husband to work in and make improvements to the house. Without our savings, we wouldn't have been able to afford the repairs to our house, and we wouldn't have been able to find a home to live in.

I regret letting the red flags slide

When we bought our house, we knew the market was out of control and that prices were high, but we had a large amount of savings and were not waiving home inspections, which made us feel confident.

It was our first time buying a house and we really loved it, so we ignored the red flags.

For the last two months, we've been hopping from one place to another in order to make the house presentable. We're fortunate to have full-time jobs that allow us to build up our savings and pay for unforeseen expenses, but we're doing most of the repair ourselves after work. We don't have the money to hire contractors to help us on the home, so we've watched videos on how to do it ourselves. We have not been able to start renovations because we are still in the process of removing all the rat feces.

As soon as I step into the house, I feel like I've lost my mind.

The smell is still there even after the repairs have been done and the amount of work has been done. If I could go back in time, I wouldn't buy this house because it has destroyed our savings, forced us to live out of suitcases, and caused emotional distress.

We are currently cleaning out one bedroom and the bathroom so that we can move in by early August. When we are able to live in our home, we will look back and be thankful, even though we won't have a fully working house with a kitchen until 2023.

She is a video editor.