Cave-Dwellers Get a Reprieve on Foreclosure

Unable to refinance, a Missouri family placed their custom cavern on eBay.

February 23, 2009, 5:16 PM

March 11, 2009— -- A Missouri family that almost lost their cave-home because of the recession has gotten a reprieve.

After hearing about the family's plight, the owner of a New Jersey archiving and medical records company -- who was first looking to buy the cave as a vacation home -- decided to offer them a private mortgage instead.

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"I lost my mom last November," Jon Demarest, owner of Logical Source Inc. in Fairfield, N.J., said. "I know what it's like to lose something. After I heard what he put into it, I said, 'I don't need another home.'"

For nearly five years, Curt Sleeper and his family have lived in a cave. His mortgage is about to come due and, like millions of other Americans, he can't refinance.

So he put the 17,000-square-foot subterranean home on eBay.

Demarest considered buying the cave but then started talking to Sleeper.

"He's an incredible human being, from talking with him," Demarest said. "I don't know him personally. I was just fascinated by him."

Sleeper today said he was "elated."

"We've thrilled. I feel comfortable, I feel a lot more secure. I feel 3,000 pounds lighter," he said. "It has certainly has released some of the stress of the last 30 days."

Sleeper and his wife Deborah bought the cave outside St. Louis in May of 2004 for $160,000. To pay for it, they sold their old home, TV and even the DVD collection. They made a 50 percent down payment and borrowed the other $80,000 from the seller. It was a five-year loan with a balloon payment at the end.

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The Sleepers now have until May 1 to pay off the remaining $83,000 or sell the property. They weren't yet in foreclosure but, without the help of Demarest, it was a likely possibility.

Now, they plan to borrow the remaining money from Demarest at a rate he called "competitive."

Besides the initial $80,000 payment, Sleeper said he spent another $150,000 on renovations to the cave and the surrounding 2.8 acres he owns.

The original plan was to refinance. But Sleeper is a self-employed computer consultant and banks struggle to appraise the cave because there aren't any comparable properties nearby or, well, any comparable properties. So while he might have received a loan two, three years ago, today he is in a bind.

Cave for Sale: $300,000

"Right now, banks are not interested in anything odd," Sleeper said.

He also acknowledges that he's not perfect. His credit score is 650 to 710, thanks to a few blemishes, including a dispute with a cell phone company.

So enter eBay.

Sleeper was asking $300,000 for the home but was also looking, preferably, for somebody to refinance his mortgage. After all, he and his family did put five years of their lives into building the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house into the cave. (During construction, Sleeper, his wife and their two kids lived in tents in the back of the cave and washed dishes and laundry in buckets. Their third child, a son, was born last week in the cave.)

The front of the cave is a finished house but there is plenty of room for expansion in the back.

"You're never done on a project like this," Sleeper said.

The house sits at the front of the cave opening, getting natural light. Behind it is a middle chamber holding the laundry room, storage and a spare bath. Behind that is another chamber. The home gets city power, water a sewer.

Water features: The property has at least three groundwater springs, one accessible through a cistern in the middle chamber of the cave, one that yields an average of 100 gallons a day that drips into an indoor pond in the front chamber and one near the woods that creates a shallow pond.

During heavy rain, Sleeper said, the property gets as many as 14 waterfalls from the cliffs.

Sleeper and his family are not the first to inhabit the cave. From 1958 to 1985, it was used as a roller-skating rink. It also doubled during those years as a concert venue that hosted Bob Seger, Ted Nugent and Tina Turner, among others, Sleeper said.

The cave is not actually a cave but in fact a former mine. In the early 1900s, two brothers blasted it out of the hillside and sold the sandstone to a glassmaker.

"I personally would not support anybody living in a natural cave," Sleeper said.

Online Interest

Since posting the listing last month, Sleeper said the response has been "overwhelming." His personal Web site has crashed more than once.

One day after it was posted, "I spent 15 hours answering questions on eBay and I just couldn't keep up," he said. "Every time I would answer a question, three more would show up."

He said 10,000 people were watching the auction, which ended today. Another 70 have pre-registered to bid.

At the same time, Sleeper said he is talking with some private investors about lending him the money to stay in his house. But he won't stop the auction until everything is finalized.

"The goal is not notoriety," he added. "The goal is either to finance or sell my house."

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