A small measure of dignity

Sarah and Lee Neff's pursuit of a dream house ended in a dismal trailer in Murdock.

By John Keilman and Kuni Takahashi
Tribune staff reporter and Tribune staff photographer

Lee and Sarah Neff came to eastern Illinois 15 years ago, dreaming of Victorian splendor.

They had been living on a farm not far from St. Louis when they saw a newspaper ad for a marvelous old house in the tiny village of Brocton. The house had a sweeping front porch, handsome columns and a jaunty turret springing from the roof. Its craftsmanship reminded Sarah Neff of the farmhouse she grew up in.

The Neffs, who scraped by on Sarah's job as a home health aide and Lee's disability payments, rented the place and made a tentative agreement to buy it. They refinished its wood floors and cleaned its sumptuous velvet curtains, hoping to restore enough of the house's grandeur that they might make a little money by opening it for tours.

But after two years, the owners decided to keep it in the family. The Neffs and their young daughter had to move.

Their next stop was a modest two-story house in the even smaller town of Murdock, about 30 miles southeast of Champaign. They made a deal with the owner to buy it through installments, paying $750 a month until the balance of $12,000 was paid off. The house often flooded, and the family replaced ruined floors, plasterboard and paneling, working on the place as if it were their own.

It wasn't, though. The Neffs said the owner never supplied them with a copy of the contract, and that they withheld the last of their payments in protest. After a decade of stalemate, the matter landed in court, where a judge in 2005 found that the Neffs had violated the agreement by not paying one year's real estate taxes. He ordered them to leave.

They didn't go far. Years before, the Neffs had bought a small patch of land adjoining the Murdock home, wanting to park their vehicles in a large garage that was attached to a dilapidated house. When they were evicted, the Neffs and their daughter, Kandee, now 19 and a community college student, parked a cramped, borrowed camper on the property and settled into a new and harder life.

The camper is packed wall-to-wall with their clothes and belongings. It has water pumped from an outside tank, and electricity, but little else.

"We have no furnace that works; we have no water heater and no refrigerator," said Sarah Neff, 65. "We heat with electric space heaters in the wintertime, and needless to say, it's not extremely warm, because then we can't afford the [power] bill."

The run-down house on their property has become their last hope for recovering a measure of dignity. With the help of their church and some friends, they have tried to make it habitable, but progress has been slow.

After an industrial accident in the 1970s, Lee Neff, now 64, has been unable to lift more than 5 pounds. Sarah Neff, limited by her own health problems, has found only part-time work, and their income of about $13,000 a year leaves them unable to afford supplies. So far, they have been unsuccessful in landing weatherization grants from the government.

They have managed to drywall four rooms, but much of the house remains to be done. They have a working furnace but no ventilation system. They have dug a trench for a water line, but can't tap it until they come up with $1,300 for the activation fee.

As another winter clamps down on the state, the Neffs awake each morning to see their former home, still unoccupied, mocking them as it deteriorates.

And every so often they drive to Brocton to look at the Victorian house that brought them to the area, wondering how life would have been had they never come.

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