'Extreme Home' family, one year later

2:58 PM, Oct 11, 2009   |    comments
Rod Sanford/Lansing State Journal Bed with wings: One year later: Arlene Nickless and her son Andrew, 8, continue to adjust to their new Holt home.
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(Melissa Domsic. mdomsic@lsj.com) - One year after the ABC television show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" gave the Nickless family a new house - and thrust them into the limelight - reality has returned.

Arlene Nickless says she and her three sons are better off in their new 3,300-square-foot, four-bedroom house on Eifert Road in Holt. But Nickless, who remains grateful for the help she has received, still is an unemployed widow who's worried about paying the growing bills that come with a larger home.

"It's hard being in this position because you feel like everyone's watching how your life is going to be now that this has happened to you," she said. "In that aspect it makes it really scary because I don't want to lose the house. I don't want to be a statistic.

"I don't want to be, 'Oh, yeah, did you hear about that "Extreme Makeover" family that lost their house?' "

Nickless, 48, and her sons, Aaron, 12; Noah, 10; and Andrew, 8, moved into their new home Oct. 4, 2008.

More than 1,600 area volunteers built the new house in five days as part of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

The family's 1860s farmhouse fell into disarray after Arlene's husband, Tim Nickless, became ill several years ago. He was a registered nurse at Ingham Regional Medical Center. It's believed he contracted hepatitis C after being pricked with a patient's needle. Tim died in January 2008.

"(The show) kind of rushed the grieving process on us. There were things I had tucked away, like Tim's robe he had on before he passed away," she said. "To have everything gone and starting anew, it was just a huge, overwhelming adjustment. It was the idea of going through this without him."

Nickless lost her job as a registered medical assistant at Ingham Regional in December 2007. Her request for unemployment was denied, so she's relying on about $3,000 a month in Social Security checks.

Nickless said she'd like to find a job as a patient care advocate.

She's been able to pay the bills so far, but now her reserve has run dry and some bills that were covered for the first year after the makeover are going to be her responsibility.

"I am worried - I can't not be. I'm not working, we're down to Social Security and the bills are looking like they're more than I can afford," Nickless said. "I would love to go back to school, but on the other hand, I really need to find a job, too."

"Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" advises each family to consult a financial planner to help them understand and budget for any expenses they may incur as a result of their new home, said Chantelle Aspey, spokeswoman for the show's producer, Endemol USA.

"Ultimately, financial matters are personal, and we work to respect the privacy of the families," Aspey wrote in an e-mail.

There are several ways Nickless can improve her financial situation, said Ted Feight, owner of Creative Financial Design in Lansing.

"My first thought with her is, 'OK, I'd go back and get an education in the medical field.' That's where the most openings are," he said.

But in the meantime, she needs a job to pay the bills, Feight said.

Nickless has been meeting with financial adviser Dave Coker at an Edward Jones office in Lansing for about a year.

Coker said Nickless has some financial issues to work out, but doesn't think she'll lose the house.

"I believe she'll be fine in the long run," Coker said. "Is it tough for her? Absolutely. She needs to make a transition she hasn't really made yet."

Coker said a refinanced or modified mortgage would greatly reduce her financial burden.

The new house was donated, but Nickless still is responsible for the pre-existing mortgage on her former home.

Donations totaling $108,000 have helped pay down the mortgage. Her payments average about $1,700 a month, and she's working with lenders to lower her 10.72 interest rate.

"There are a lot of things we can do to get those numbers way down," Coker said.

Property taxes on the new home run about $6,000 a year, a big jump from the $1,500 a year on the former house, she said.

Nickless said she cried when she found out her heat and electric bills would be about $600 a month on the Consumers Energy budget plan. The highest heat bill she had in the old house was $450.

Water bills are covered for now because the Lansing Board of Water & Light raised about $2,000 to offset the expense, she said.

Cable, Internet access, telephone and homeowners insurance were all covered in the first year. She also pays $300 a month for storage units that hold much of her belongings from the former house.

Nickless said she's looking at several options, from building a pole barn for the items in storage to seeking grants to help with energy costs.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to keep the house," she said.

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