With creditors at his heels and his marriage on the rocks, Michael J. Wueste quickly got away from his luxurious getaway on the Eastern Shore.
It was 1990, and his Virginia computer software and leasing company had just crashed, forcing him to halt the mortgage payments on his 8-year-old waterfront retreat.
"I had a judgment against me - all the money [from a liquidation of the home] was going to go to the creditors," said Wueste, 60, who works in real estate financing in Leesburg, Va.
To Wueste, it made more sense to abandon the contemporary home than let it go to creditors.
The property, near the Talbot County town of Bozman, was a dream place of fieldstone fireplaces, a dock with four boat slips, a pond, greenhouse, swimming pool and Jacuzzi.
And yet for nearly 10 years, it was all but abandoned, reduced to ruin as Wueste's mortgages bounced from bank to bank until the lenders all but lost track of them in the shuffle.
Although Wueste balked at making mortgage payments, he continued to pay Talbot County property taxes, hoping to regain the home. He said he sought to refinance and even pushed lenders to foreclose on the home, so that he and an investor could buy it back on more favorable terms
But when those efforts failed, Wueste stopped paying taxes, allowing it to fall into Talbot County's hands for a tax sale in 1998.
Enter Willard C. Parker II, an Easton attorney.
Parker is a principal in a small company that paid $35,000 for the property at the tax sale, just enough to cover nearly $3,000 in back taxes, a $29,950 mortgage claim, and a $2,050 bank note. Parker made some minor improvements and straightened out the title problems.
With the property valued at $349,670 - more for the land than the dilapidated structure - Parker turned around and sold the place for $315,000.
The takers? A Baltimore physician and his wife who saw beyond the rot and decay, and had a vision of what the home could be.
Today, finally clear of its legal thorns, the house is once again a top-notch weekend retreat, thanks to its new owners, Lynn and Bill Macon.
Yet, it was hardly the sort of place the Macons envisioned purchasing when they began their search for a weekend retreat on the Eastern Shore - a search that at times seemed fruitless, leaving them increasingly disheartened.
"We'd been looking for about a year and a half," said Lynn Macon. "We needed a place that was a short drive away and that my husband, and our three grown sons, could use for hunting and fishing.
'We were really discouraged'
"But things were either really expensive, or needed a lot of renovation, or needed to be expanded - we were really discouraged."
Then, the Macons' Easton Realtor, Henry Neff, of H. G.-Neff Co. phoned them.
"I remember saying, 'You're going to think I'm crazy, but you ought to come over and look at this place,' " said Neff. "I told them, 'It's the house of your dreams, but it will take vision.'"
Eastern Shore resident Steve Spurry, of Steven Spurry Builders Inc., described the place as a haunted house. "Very, very spooky," said Spurry, who was one of those largely responsible for the home's renovation.
While many people were interested in the property, added Spurry, they pretty much walked away after seeing the dilapidated condition of the place - and learning of the legal obstacles that could complicate its sale.
"I was asked by a couple of people to go to the tax sale - from my perspective it was a pretty typical tax sale," Parker said. "It had been advertised, someone had an interest in the property, and I put in a bid."
Parker acquired the property in June 1998 for Aulds Road, a limited liability corporation, consisting of himself, a local real estate agent and a local builder.
The legal thicket
Since Wueste was nowhere to be found, Parker had to thrash through a legal thicket of past liens to get the title cleared.
Venture Title Co. in Easton researched the history of the property for Parker and the Macons. "There were many liens on the property, but all of the lien holders received notice that it was sold at a tax sale," said a Venture Title Co. researcher, who requested anonymity, adding that only one of the lien holders pressed a claim, a bank that held one of the mortgages.
"We then had to go through the procedures so the court could confirm the sale and direct the [Talbot County] finance officer to issue the deed to the purchaser at the tax sale," Parker said.
After the tax sale, Wueste had six months to reclaim the house, but he never turned up, according to county court proceedings.
Wueste claimed he never knew of the tax sale. In fact, Wueste said, he still receives notices from a mortgage holder that doesn't know the home was sold for taxes. Nonetheless, according to Venture Title Co., the Macons are immune from any past claims on the house.
In February 1999, Parker filed court papers with Talbot County's finance officer that showed the liens against the house had been resolved. The finance officer, R. Andrew Hollis, signed the deed over to Auld's Road LLC in April 1999. Once his company got title to the property, Parker was able to market the home.
"It was all very complicated and took the rest of the summer," said Lynn Macon. "We couldn't get title insurance without a clear title - it was the three sellers who really did the legwork to get the title problems straightened out, while Bill and I just sat around waiting for the process to be finalized."
Eventually the title company was able to resolve all the issues and the deed passed to the Macons in August with the couple obtaining title insurance in their name, ensuring that any claim by Wueste or any creditor was moot.
Finally, the Macons had their Eastern Shore dream home.
Skeleton in the Jacuzzi
When Neff brought the Macons to see the place, he likened it to the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu, but Steve Spurry, the builder, thought it looked more like a haunted house.
"It was in terrible, terrible shape," Spurry recalled. "Animals had moved in, vandals had broken in, kids had been having parties there, and the ice storm a few years ago didn't help matters much.
"A tree had fallen on the roof and water was leaking in everywhere, not to mention that the house was totally overgrown with vines."
The floors had rotted, trees were growing through the skylights, and a bridge over a drained pond was falling down.
But the home was not exactly uninhabited. A squirrel's skeleton was in the Jacuzzi; woodpecker holes penetrated the interior; a raccoon had lived over the shower in the master bedroom; birds had nested in the closets, an owl had taken up residence and fish swam in the swimming pool.
Termites, bees and ants also called it home.
Then, there was the mysterious popcorn found half-cooked in the microwave, some furniture, clothing, canned goods in the pantry, and a bag of groceries.
None of this deterred the Macons, who took about an hour to decide they wanted the place.
The property had obvious advantages: 4,300 square feet of living space, 4.5 waterfront acres on Leadenham Creek, a beautiful fieldstone foundation, a dock in good condition with four boat slips, plus a southwest view of the setting sun.
"There were three fieldstone fireplaces, including one in the master bedroom, which had never been used," Lynn Macon said. "And the floor plan was really fabulous - it was a house with good bones."
"The house was initially very well constructed, and you could see that," said the real estate agent.
"It had great character, as did the land, and it had privacy, plus the price was reasonable. Essentially, the Macons paid for the lot and a little bit for the house."
Soon after the Macons took possession, Spurry gutted the house and hauled away about 20 Dumpsters full of debris from the property.
"But we did keep the same configuration of rooms, with the exception of the master bedroom," Mrs. Macon said. "Everything we did inside was done with the intention that the water outside was what we really wanted to emphasize."
Spurry replaced the roof and dealt with the termites. He replaced a third of the house's frame and about half the windows.
"I straightened out the framing and got everything sound and safe and strong," he said.
The work took Spurry 10 months. "I just couldn't trust anything that had been there before - now it's like a new house," Spurry said.
It's a house that has a central living area with cathedral ceiling on the first floor. "There's also a slightly elevated area that we're not sure what it was used for," said Lynn Macon. "There's a family/great room on two different levels and a huge screened-in waterside porch."
The first floor also has the dining room and kitchen, and at the other end of the house is the master bedroom.
"We totally reconfigured the floor plan of the master bedroom and added two walk-in closets, an office area and master bath with a steam shower and Jacuzzi," she said.
A partial second floor has two bedrooms that share a bathroom, while a third bedroom, which overlooks the water, has a private bath.
The couple also has been working with Delaware interior decorator Walter Culver.
"He and Steve Spurry have worked together so well and really complemented each other Lynn Macon said. "Their vision had made this project an absolute delight. The inside is earth tones and very monochromatic and we have decorated with a dark rattan, South Seas feel."
Much of the interior decor also reflects the couple's love of Africa.
"Walter used a lot of soft, very subtle African prints, and we're decorating with two large Zulu baskets, which we brought back from South Africa with this house in mind," she said.
Outside, the couple tore down the greenhouse and replaced it with a deck off the master suite.
The swimming pool was in surprisingly good shape, although the Macons did have to put in a new pump and make other mechanical repairs. Then they replaced the existing pool deck with a larger deck.
When it comes to landscaping, the couple want to keep things as natural as possible.
"We do plan to work with an environmental group to enhance what grows naturally and perhaps attract more birds," Lynn Macon said.
"After cutting away the vines, we found some magnificent hollies, dogwoods, and river birch trees - at one point, there was some very nice landscaping done here and it's kind of a treat to see this coming back."
Gus Sentementes is a Sun staff writer and Mary Medland is a Baltimore free-lance writer.