A Zillowing Out Fan Builds A Home, Finds Love
4:42 PM EST on January 7, 2022
Ever since I started writing the Zillowing Out column, readers have emailed me links to good houses that I might like to see. I read all of these emails eagerly because I love to see terrible houses, and some of the people sending submissions find things more deranged than my wildest dreams. Because I have made a habit of asking people to send me pictures and/or listing links to houses they buy, sometimes readers also just send me emails about housing, which I appreciate and love because my nosiness knows no bounds.
In mid-December, Defector reader Clay emailed me. He sent me many compliments, which I appreciated, but then he dropped one of the most unbelievable meet-cute stories I have ever heard. I read the email out loud to my friends. I screenshotted it and dropped it in Defector chat. Some guy quit his job, bought a terrible house to fix, moved in across the street to someone else renovating their house and then THEY ELOPED?! Now they have two adorable dogs?! Preposterous! Unbelievable! I had to know more.
It was so ridiculous, so romantic, that even he added the caveat that if I sold a script based on his life to the Hallmark Channel, I needed to make sure to give credit. Luckily, I don't know how to write scripts. What I do know is how to call people on the phone and annoy them with my very nosy questions. So I called Clay and his now wife Danielle on the phone so that we can all enjoy their wonderful love story as a delightful treat.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey: I want to start with you, Danielle, since I know less about you. How did you end up buying a house to renovate?
Danielle: Oh boy. I graduated high school here in Wisconsin. That’s where we live. I went to school at Colorado State University and I happened to graduate two years post recession, so in 2010. Colorado was expensive then. It’s more expensive now. I could not, with student loans and questionable job prospects, afford to live there. I moved back in with my parents; the lovely millennial story. I started working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is where I still currently work.
As I started moving up the ranks a little bit, it was possible for me to start saving for a down payment. I bought a house in North Madison just at the nick of time. It didn’t require as much work as what Clay bought but it had some wear and tear.
Define wear-and-tear. Like what kind of renovation did you need to do?
Danielle: A lot of it was more superficial. The bathroom was the big thing. It had primary color striped wallpaper with a border. It struck me as a kid’s bathroom even though it’s the only bathroom in this 700-sq. ft house. The linoleum floors had to go. The deck/patio type thing needed to be dealt with. Those were the main things that I had targeted as the primary projects
Clay: I want to brag on Danielle for a second. The patio was large square footage, but a poorly made and treated wood deck with crappy railing. It had many coats of latex stain which chips off after a few months. It was a mess. She tore this whole goddamn thing out
Danielle: I did.
Clay: She replaced it with a concrete paver patio, which looks great. Entire concrete patio, and this lady handmade every single concrete paver stone in this patio.
Clay: I am shitting you not, Kelsey. When I met her she was in the middle of pouring ... how many was it ... a hundred?
Danielle: Yeah. I bought these two forms. They’ve got little stone type molds on the face. Two of these 12-inch by 24-inch pavers could be made from one bag of concrete. I own a Hyundai Sonata. So, I would show up at Menard's and buy 10 bags at a time. So that's 600 pounds of concrete I would stick in my car and drive them home. I could keep making them in my basement so I could keep making them even when it was cold. Over a year and a half I finally made enough.
Clay: When we were dating, it would be like, "Okay, I need to run home real quick and make a couple pavers."
How long were you living there before Clay moved in across the street?
Danielle: I bought in April of 2016. And he bought the following summer. So probably about a year.
Clay: It was the end of the summer. July 2017.
How did you end up across the street from Danielle?
Clay: We live on the north side of Madison. I grew up on the north side of Madison. The north side is awesome. Ton of dog parks. Ton of places to get lost in the woods. It's a working class neighborhood so it's not like it's full of McMansions and it's a very diverse neighborhood.
I moved out of this neighborhood at 17 and was not ready to go to school yet. My brother needed a roommate and he worked at a pizza place that needed a cook. So I decided I would move in with him and do that. Get some life skills. That was in 2008. I sold all my shit and rode my bike up there. It was my first big bike trip. The place that my brother lived was Fort Collins, Colorado. which is where CSU is.
I swear to God, I'm not making this up. My first apartment was a block away from Danielle’s. We were neighbors twice before it took.
Clay: I’ve since bounced around. I was farming for a long time. I moved back to the Madison area at the end of 2016. My folks were going to be doing work to their house and I wanted to pitch in and help them. I just had an apartment here in Madison and was relearning the city after being away for 10 years. Was flirting with getting a fixer-upper. My place came on the market and I bought it about a month after it went on the market.
I got a pretty good price. Obviously there was a ton of stuff that was covered up and undisclosed because it was an estate buy. There was no condition report.
Danielle: I literally watched them drag the dead body out of that house after that gentleman passed away. No joke.
Clay: I want to be clear that our houses were literally across the street. I could throw a snowball at you and from my house, and I think a few times I did.
Danielle: The houses faced each other.
Clay: This place is a hundred years old. It was built as cheap housing for Oscar Mayer employees in the 30s. It has since been many tiers of rentals. I'm not trying to hate on that guy at all but it was rough.
I think the easiest way to summarize it, we always say, "We rebuilt every wall in this house." It’s literally true. We’ve replaced every window. New plumbing. New wiring. New HVAC. Even though I got a good price at the time, I’m never going to be able to pay myself what it cost. I can’t win financially on this deal.
At the same time I wouldn’t have met Danielle, so I can’t lose.
How did you meet?
Clay: Did we meet at the dog park?
Clay: But we met through our dogs.
Danielle: Kind of.
Wait, what do you mean kind of?
Danielle: I actually met Clay’s mom at the dog park when I bought the house in the spring of 2016. The dog park is a 20-minute walk/5-minute drive from the house so it's really close. I eventually got to know Clay’s mom. The summer of 2017, when he was buying his house, his mom was like, "You live on the corner of this street and this street?" And I was like, "Yes." And she was like, "Oh, my son is buying a house there."
I didn't think much about it. He eventually got a dog. So I assumed we would meet at the dog park or something. In late summer, I saw he was working in the yard. So I went by to say like 'I know this is weird, but I know your mom, and I'm Danielle.' That was the first time we met.
Clay: Yeah, so we saw each other at the dog park. And we chatted and hit it off.
So what started first, the working on each other's houses or the feelings?
Clay: Wow I've never thought about this. The phases of construction and the phases of our relationship really couldn’t have lined up any better. Let's see. We started, what? Your bathroom? That was that winter?
Danielle: It must have been January of 2018 because I remember my mom came over to help me demo the bathroom.
Clay: Yeah that must be right. She was doing a bathroom remodel. She was putting some built-in shelving in and she needed to do a little frame-out. She came over to ask if she could borrow my nail gun or maybe get some help because she needed to put a stud in.
Danielle: I needed to put a stud in. I NEEDED A STUD!
Clay: She needed a stud so she came over to get a stud. She got a tool instead. [laughs]
So that's kind of how that started and then one thing led to another.
So the bathroom was kind of the catalyst?
Danielle: It was pretty quick for me. I’m a serious person. I was crushing on him before the bathroom thing. He made some mention of his girlfriend and I was like, well I'll just keep my ears open on that.
Clay: I was in a relationship through 2017. There was a part of me that was fighting this connection I had with Danielle. The odds of finding someone that just wants everything that you want and is so, so compatible with you? The odds on that are extremely unlikely. Not to mention someone whose worldview also aligns. You may find someone whose skills align but often not everything else. So I did. I kind of had an instinct.
Even an idiot like me had to see the signs. I just couldn't stop thinking about her. I think at that point I knew she was single, but she plays her cards close to her chest. I didn’t know what her orientation was!
Danielle: I do, yes.
Clay: Our first date was in March 2018.
So when did you realize this was for real?
Danielle: For me it was pretty soon. I remember going to help out at a couple of different horse shows. That was in the first part of May 2018 and that was the first weekend we weren’t able to hang out. That's when I realized it was pretty serious.
Okay, then what? I'm on the edge of my seat.
Danielle: [Laughing] I think I remember, we were going to one of Clay’s really good friends' wedding at the end of October. It was going to be our first trip together and also to a pretty sizable social event. Previous to that I had decided I wanted to marry this fool. Sometimes your brain gets way ahead. But going to the wedding kind of pushed that conversation in my brain forward.
Clay was off doing his social butterfly thing, and I was hanging out with one of his good friends, Jeff. He casually mentioned that he had gotten ordained to marry some friends and I was like, "Okay, I will slot this fact away in my brain for later."
And then I think it was probably Thanksgiving. I think I made a joke. Clay asked, "When do you want to get married?" And I was like, "Well, you can take me to the courthouse tomorrow."
Clay: That was my Rico Suave proposal.
Danielle: From there we were like, Okay, let's actually think about this seriously. Then I was like, "Your buddy Jeff is ordained, should we ask Jeff to marry us?" He lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Clay was looking to buy a work truck. So we were like, We'll just make this a trip down South. We didn't tell anybody. It was just going to be a trip we were going on.
Clay: We eloped in February of 2019.
Danielle: Yup! Jeff married us on a mountain outside of Asheville.
Clay: It was either Tennessee or North Carolina. We aren't quite sure, but if anyone asks it was definitely North Carolina.
Okay, but Clay's mom introduced you! How did you tell your parents!
Clay: We’re really privileged that we didn’t have the familial pressure. That was not our cup of tea at all. They were ecstatic.
Danielle: Everyone could have seen an engagement coming out of the trip. They were all very happy about it.
Clay: We took Danielle's mom out to dinner as soon as we got back into town.
Danielle: She threw a napkin at Clay, jokingly. It was a bit of a shock, understandably so. She was very happy about it. Our dog was staying with Clay’s folks, so we circled around and picked up Luther. And we told them too!
God. This is unbelievable. It really is a Hallmark Movie. Okay, what next? What happened next?
Danielle: Before we left, I had met with the realtor to get my house on the market the day after we got back from our trip. My house went on the market immediately and sold pretty quick. We moved me out. We walked my sofa across the street.
Clay: Literally right across the street. Now we are putting the finishing touches on my house, but there are a lot of finishing touches. We are hoping that we can be ready to put it on the market this spring. As soon as we have that, we can afford the down payment on a construction loan for the house we’re designing.
Yes. Please tell me more about the next house. Clay sent me a nice picture of a barn, but what is happening?
Danielle: Well. I’ve been intrigued by and planning a house since I was pretty young. My parents built the house that I primarily grew up in. My mom, while she was dating my dad, built the house that I was born in. When I was 8 or 9 they built a house themselves. So I grew up looking at house plan books and wanting to move walls or change this or that. I would scan them into the Gateway Computer and use Microsoft Paint to like erase walls.
Clay: Your coloring books kind of!
Danielle: Yes! I always had the plan to live in the country
Clay: We knew if we could sell your house, we could get a piece of land and start getting it ready. We started looking for land almost immediately after we got married. We had been looking for about two years. But we kept getting priced out.
Danielle: I think we were to the point at the end of 2020 where we were like we need to stop looking. We had been close and made some offers on a couple different things. I expanded our search because I was working from home and didn't really need to be in commuting distance anymore.
I found this property that only had like two or three pictures. Awful! So I thought, I’ll go to this guy's website and find other, and there weren’t any. But I saw this other property on his website that I hadn’t seen before. I’m on Google Earth and online mapping trying to get a good look at it.
Clay: No one can stalk a parcel like Danielle.
Danielle: Turns out it was his own property. It had everything we wanted. Woods and open area. Southern-facing slopes. He wasn’t advertising it anywhere except on his website and on a sign on the property which is at the dead end of a dead end road.
So we drove up one day last winter to see it. We took a look and had good vibes.
Clay: I kind of fell in love with it. That first trip out was a year ago yesterday. I was on a cloud. You’re on the Wisconsin river the whole way.
Danielle: We had fog, but it was freezing. Everything is coated with beautiful little icicles. We’re all just like abuzz.
Clay: Yeah, we get back in the car to drive home and see that the Capitol has been attacked. We had no context for what was happening because we had just been staring at nature all day. I hadn't ventured out of my camera app and here were these idiots raiding the capitol. That's how I remember it was yesterday.
Danielle: This past year has been kind of a mad dash. We spent basically every weekend out there this summer getting it ready. We built a barn. Eventually we'll get a camper to park inside the barn to live in while we finish the property.
Are you concerned at all about moving into a camper from your nice house?
Clay: Yeah. But the other part of it is that our house is 800 sq. ft and it's been under construction the whole time we’ve lived here. So the camper might feel like an upgrade.
Danielle: There will be no building materials inside the camper. Having two dogs it might get a little cozy, but at least we'll be able to go for walks on our property.
Okay last question, I swear. Clay, in your email you said "It's probably projection, but Zillowing Out feels like a search to me. If it is, I'm really pulling for you to find It." Do you both feel like you were searching for something?
Danielle: I was fully prepared when I bought my house to forge my path in this life by myself. He’s the added bonus I didn’t know I wanted. I didn’t think I would ever find another person that wanted the same weird set of things that I wanted. We have some really oddball things that we align on that made me willing to do away with my independence forever mentality. I was searching for something different and ended up finding something that was more and better that I thought possible.
Clay: [laughs] I'll try. I think that I have found what I wanted and didn’t actually think I would find, which is mostly the person who shares everything that needs to be shared and compliments everything that I lack. A couple of times this summer I went out and pitched a tent for a week on our property and it has really felt like that is home now. Whenever we drive out for a trip, I feel like I’m going home.
For all of the spontaneity in our story it feels like a Swiss fucking watch. It all clicks at the right time.