Friday, February 24, 2012

Step Six: Designing Your Dream Home

The design process has been the most exciting part of the journey so far.  We initially met with our architect to show him our style and discuss what we were looking for in our home.  He then drew up plans and we met weekly for two months to discuss, tweak and alter them, until we finalized a floor plan that met all of our requirements and our budget. 

I mentioned that we had difficulty finding plans that met our particular design requirements.  Mostly these were my own rather strong views on what I wanted in my house, some of them reasonable, and some of them strange idiosyncrasies.  Here are a few of the things that we had difficulty finding in readily available plans for purchase.
  • No attached garage.  This one falls under the personal idiosyncrasies.  I have a strong dislike for attached garages.  I feel as if they are a waste of architectural space and I hate the idea of a large void as part of my house.  I somewhat understand the arguments for them, ease of access to the house in inclement weather, etc.  But to be honest, I've never had an attached garage and I can't remember ever thinking gee, I wish I could just get out of my car and already be inside my house.  I'm not usually one to complain too much about the weather, and I don't melt in rain or snow, so I think I'll be fine without the attached garage.  I'll note that this one point alone rules out about 90% of the available house plans on the market.
  • All the bedrooms upstairs.  Some of this is reasoned, and some of this is personal taste.  I think of my house in zones: there's the formal zone, where unexpected guests or small invited groups can be sequestered; there's the informal zone, where larger invited groups, or close friends and family are welcome; and there's the private zone, where guests are generally not invited.  Having a second floor, and putting all the bedrooms there, easily demarcates the line between the public and private rooms.  A large number of modern plans put the master suite on the first floor.  Some of this is for space reasons, but largely I think the current thought is that in your old age, you won't want to be climbing up and down the stairs.  I see the logic in that, but I also think having the parents' bedroom significantly separated from any children's bedrooms is a problem.  Navigating the entire house at night because a child had a nightmare or wet the bed or whatever, seems like a pain to me.  Plus I think having the children's rooms upstairs, where the parents rarely go, could lead to less supervision and more trouble of one kind or another.  With just these first two bullet points, we've pretty much ruled out ever house plan on the market.
  • Both a living room and a family room.  A lot of plans these days are doing away with formal areas altogether.  As I mentioned in my first point, I like the idea of formal areas for entertaining and welcoming guests.  Having a formal living room means you can have ladies' night or guys' night at your home without sending your partner out.  It means teenagers can have their friends over in a room where they aren't bothering their parents, but can still be somewhat supervised.  It means unexpected guests can be welcomed in a mostly clean, uncluttered room, without any sudden cleaning to find room for them.
  • A room for a library.  We own a lot of books.  We currently live in a two bedroom house, of which one bedroom is the library/craft room.  We have ten bookshelves, and not enough room for all of our books.  Having a room that could be designated as the library was important for us.  But this additional room adds square footage to the house, and of course is not something most people look for in their home, so finding plans with enough rooms for everything we wanted, was difficult.
Working with the architect, we were able to meet all of our requirements.  We looked at three alternatives for the lot we now owned: 1) tearing down the existing house and building a completely new structure; 2) reusing the oldest part of the original house, tearing down the additions and building a new addition around it; and 3) reusing the existing floor plan and building an addition around it.  In the end, option 3 gave us everything we wanted at a price we could afford, so we are moving forward with that.  The new home will be 2400 square feet with three bedrooms, two and a half baths, dining room, living room, kitchen, office, and a two floor great room with built in bookshelves.  We're excited to break ground, but there a few things that have to be settled first, like obtaining the financing and finding a contractor.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Step Five: Finding an Architect

We actually hired our architect before closing, after we learned of the health department’s requirements regarding the septic, because our attorney advised us that we would have a better negotiating power if we had plans already drawn up. We didn’t actually need those plans to reach an agreement, which is good because it took us two months to finalize our plans, but I get ahead of myself.

We tried to find floor plans that met our needs in the myriad available on line, but nothing we found met our (or really my) requirements for what we wanted our home to be like.  After much frustration we reached the conclusion that we were going to have to hire an architect and design a home specifically to our desires.
As with finding the property, we probably did not go about finding an architect in the normal way.  We knew we wanted to be as green and as energy efficient in our building as possible, so we asked for recommendations and did a web search for architects who specialized in green construction and were LEED certified in our area.  After our research we found one whose website and credentials we particularly liked and we went to meet him.  We liked him immediately and didn’t search any further, though apparently it’s customary to meet with, and get quotes from several architects before deciding which you’ll use. 
I have to admit, in our research to find an architect who would design something we liked, we never considered the cost of such services.  So we were a little put off at first by the proposal we received.  But, we did a little more research and learned that the general rule of thumb is about 10% of your overall budget.  The proposal we received did fall within that window, and the after getting over our initial sticker shock, we also realized that the amount of work the architect was committing himself to, and his hourly rate were indeed reasonable for a trained professional.  So, we agreed to go forward and hired Jason Kliwinski of Designs for Life to design our dream home.
Then we began the design process.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Step Four: Closing

Closing was actually pretty anticlimactic.  We did a walkthrough of the house, to ensure that everything looked right, that the sellers had cleared out their belongings and everything was in order.  There were no problems.  We then went to the settlement where we signed a few papers, wired the money and left.  I had expected closing to be a long drawn out process, but we were done in less than an hour, and most of that was waiting for the wire to clear, which apparently happened much more quickly than normal.  So, no hiccoughs, and suddenly we were homeowners.
We met our next door neighbor and learned a lot more about the state of the septic system.  Apparently it stinks and overflows and the now former owners were living in some pretty unsanitary conditions.  While we weren't happy to learn just how bad the system was, we were glad that we decided not to move in until the new home is built.  Our neighbors seemed nice and were obviously thrilled that we would be fixing the place (and septic system) up.  Good to know that we don’t have big shoes to fill as neighbors. . .   
Since we would not be occupying the place, owning a home didn’t feel much different, other than our now empty bank account.  We installed locks on the doors and gate and lowered the heat to 55°.  We called the electric company so we would have power on the site and ordered oil for the heater, since there was almost none left.  We turned off the water and drained the house, to prevent frozen pipes if the heat failed at some point.  We notified the post office of our names so we would get any mail sent to us at the new address, even though it’s mostly spam at this point. 
Then we started planning for our dream home.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Step Three: Inspection

I can’t imagine purchasing a property without a full inspection, but I guess some people feel more confident in what they’re purchasing.  Even though our plan was to tear down the existing home, we still had a full inspection done so we had a sense of what we might be dealing with during demolition.  The inspection was actually enlightening.  We learned that despite its appearance and age, the home was in surprisingly good condition.  The floor joists were basically whole tree trunks, and showed almost none of the normal signs of rot.  The basement was dry, even though it had been a pretty damp month and there was no sump pump.  Most of the basic mechanical systems were either new or in good repair.  The water test did come back negative, but that would be easy to fix with a filter or ultraviolet system.  We already knew about the state of the septic system, but the inspector confirmed that it was cracked and taking on ground water.  Learning that the house was in such good condition made us start to rethink the idea of completely tearing down the house.  We started to wonder if we shouldn’t preserve this historical construction, which had held up so well for so long.
We also had the property lines surveyed.  This was so we could better see where the property lines were, other than just the word of the owner.  It was also important to us because the property does not actually have any frontage.  It is accessed from the road by a right of way across a neighbor’s property.  We wanted to be sure that there would be no legal problems regarding the right of way, so we made sure to research the deed for such and make sure it was included in our new deed.
During this inspection phase we received our first real setback.  The seller’s attorney sent us a letter amending the seller’s disclosure.  Where she had initially noted that there was no litigation against the property, we now learned that the health department had initiated litigation against the property for repair of the septic system.  As I mentioned before, we knew the septic system was in poor condition and would need to be replaced.  But now we learned that the health department was involved and would require us to install holding tanks and put money in escrow for replacing the system before the sale could go through.  Since we had been planning to take out a construction loan, we had intended to include the price of the septic installation in that loan amount.
We spoke to our attorney and she spoke with the attorney for the health department, and explained our plans to build.  Given our plans, the health department was willing to be more flexible in their arrangements, but we still had to agree to not occupy the house until temporary holding tanks or a new septic system were installed.  This put an end to our plans to move in while we built, but in the end, this actually offered us a bit more flexibility in deciding whether to reuse the existing house or tear down and rebuild.  So despite this hiccough, we moved forward to closing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Step Two: Making an offer

We lowballed the offer.  As I said, the house was being sold “as is”, but it still clearly needed a decent amount of work.  We knew that the septic system would need to be replaced shortly after we moved in, a job for which the owner had already gotten a plan and permit for, and for which the bill was going to be $30,000.  We also knew that the house had already been on the market for over a year and a half and that the owners needed to sell as quickly as possible.  Knowing all this, we offered a price below our target price with the hope that after negotiation we would end up at or lower our target.  When we made our offer, the seller’s real estate agent told us to draw up the paperwork without even consulting her client if she wanted to negotiate.  We were a little surprised, but hoped this meant we were going to get the property for our initial offer.  After drawing up the paperwork and having our lawyer review it, we submitted it to the owner.
We heard back in a few days that the owner wanted more money and wanted to move the closing date back from our October offer to December.  She told us she had spoken with her lawyer and couldn’t accept anything less than the price that was our initial target price.  We were disappointed.  Even though we had initially expected to negotiate, we had gotten excited about the possibility of not having to do so.  Now with the price increasing, we took a step back to reevaluate if this was really what we wanted.  We talked about it, we worried about it, we stayed overnight in a B&B in the town to see what my husband’s commute would be like, and finally we decided yes we would go forward with another offer.
We still didn’t raise our price to what the seller had basically told us was her minimum, though.  We offered a price midway between our initial offer and her minimum, in the hopes we might still get the property for less.  But she remained firm, so in the end we met her minimum, which was our target price to begin with.  We also pushed the closing back to the week between Christmas and New Years to minimize our closing costs.  With the new offer submitted and accepted we had two weeks to start our inspections and surveys. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Step One: Finding Property

Our method of finding property was probably not how most people go about it.  We were not actively looking for land when we discovered the property we ultimately purchased.  And we never viewed or considered any other property.
I’m not sure what prompted my husband to look, but one afternoon he sent me the link to a listing in our target area.  The price was more than our target, and it already had a house on it, so it would not normally have shown up in our search results.  After talking it over, we decided it wouldn’t hurt to look at it, so I contacted a real estate agent who is a friend of my family.  I went with her to see the place without my husband.

Plastic Sheeting Greenhouse
We knew from the listing that the house on the property was in a pretty poor state and was being sold “as is”.  Since our plan was to tear the existing house down, it was a bit weird to still walk through the house and ask questions about it.  I learned that the house is about 200 years old, that the portion in the front with the living room and dining room was original, but that the back portion with the kitchen was added on later.  I also got to tour some of the large backyard, which is mostly wooded with a small creek running through, and a nice lawn area around the house.  My first impression of the property was that it met our needs in terms of size and shape, but the house was definitely not worth fixing up and needed to be torn down.  I told my husband about the property and house, including some of the more amusing features, such as a plastic sheeting greenhouse, and a “master bedroom” with cardboard ceiling.  We agreed that he should see it before we made any decisions.

Master Suite with Cardboard Ceiling

After my husband saw the property, and we explored a greater portion of the back yard, his impression was not nearly as dour as mine regarding the house.  He felt that many of the things that made it look rundown were cosmetic and that structurally it was pretty sound.  We talked and talked about the property, spoke to the township about zoning and other regulations we might encounter if we purchased the property, and finally agreed to make an offer.  One of the major selling points of this particular property was the existing structure.  We agreed that we would be able to live in it temporarily while we built our dream home, saving us the cost of rent while we built.
And so it began. . .