Perhaps no project on my desk has required more hours of my time in the past year than the one I have not written about. I have signed contracts to build a house.
No, I am not building the house myself. I had always planned to, as I built the barn and the frame of the garage and mudroom, but while I was busy with family after 2009, the price of the kit doubled. I also have grown older and more tired. I have less boundless confidence. The years have taught me that I’m a lousy manager of people — somehow I allow too many to put in slapdash work or not show up, while I politely and uselessly wring my hands. Though I would have taken on the task again if the price of the kit had not jumped, the prospect gave me a cold knot of dread in my stomach. And the price did jump. So I began looking into house options.
During the summer of 2015 I set up meetings with builders. The routine seemed wearily familiar. Big promises. No shows. No communication. I was discouraged. If the need were not pressing (DH’s upcoming retirement, which will eliminate our housing) I might have given up.
Finally I settled on a panelized house from Northern Design. In a panelized house, the wall panels are prebuilt in a factory, out of the weather, and delivered on a boom truck. The shell of a house can go up amazingly quickly. Northern Design recommended a topnotch builder, Sam, who had fabulous references. We had several meetings last winter.
The house that I envisioned was 28′ x 36′, with three bedrooms. Yes, I’m aware of the irony of hankering for a home for thirty years and finally building my three-bedroom dream house when our two children are grown and gone. It makes me sad. However, the reality is that I need to build our home with an eye to eventual re-sale. An older friend of ours built a gorgeous one-bedroom home with fabulous stonework, views, and solar power — but after she entered assisted living last year, the house has sat on the market untouched.
Our future house looks enormous. Some of that is deceptive (the addition is only slightly larger than the garage), a function of it being set on a slope, attached to the garage and mudroom that’s already there, and surrounded by a wide wrap-around porch. My plan is to rent the garage apartment to help with taxes. The wrap-around porch is something I have always wanted. I know I could have eliminated it to save money. However, to me, a wrap-around porch says farmhouse and Anne of Green Gables, both deeply comforting thoughts.
After thirty years’ experience with Adirondack black flies, I asked for a screened room in the northwest corner.
The southwest corner, facing the mountain view, is an unobstructed deck.
See the walk-out basement door? That was a big thing for my dear friend, Allen, years ago when we put in the septic system together and sweated over this stretch of land: “You can have a walk-out door in this corner!” I had no particular yearning for a walk-out basement door, and the door has gone in and out of the plans as various builders have declared it possible or impossible. “Y’need a basement door so you don’t track cow shit through the whole house!” Damon insisted. Currently the door is back in. I know Allen is pleased.
The interior of the house is basic. Three bedrooms upstairs; kitchen, dining area, living room, and study downstairs. Sam, the builder, kept urging me to remove walls and open up the spaces. However even as he told me about his home with its beautiful open floor plan, he mentioned that he and his wife spent most of their time on different floors so their computer and television did not compete. I kept some walls.
The entire process of dreaming and planning was exciting, despite DH’s lack of interest. (He is a brilliant man, but not domestic. “Can’t we just live in the room over the garage?” he asked plaintively.) I pored over the drawings spread on the dining room table alone. Friends and family gave me ideas. I moved around silhouettes of furniture and appliances.
Then Sam’s bid came in. It was almost double what I’d budgeted. My heart pounded with fright.
The next six months were a tedious round of meetings and emails in which I tried to cut back the project to bring down the cost. I looked into doing the work in stages. I investigated having Sam put up the shell and me subcontract all the interior work. By last spring, we were getting closer in our numbers. I put a payment down with Northern for the shell.
At this stage a family crisis blew up, seemingly out of nowhere. Suddenly it looked as if perhaps we could not build a house at all, and would have to lose our hefty down payment. It was a grim time. I felt like an automaton, mechanically going through the motions of my days, my brain a blur. The draining uncertainty persisted all summer.
In August my friend Mike was retiring from the school at the age of 65. To help him figure out the best retirement budget, I took him to several meetings with a local financial planner. At the end of one of those meetings, I hung back and asked the planner, “May I come back for some advice myself?” I could and I did. The financial planner convinced me that, especially in a time of worry, the best thing to do would be to get a 30-year mortgage and own a finished home.
Deep breath. Okay! It was nearly Labor Day. Sam, the builder, had told me a week earlier that he should be excavating the foundation by our anniversary, September 8. I asked Sam to give me a copy of the latest proposal to sign.
“I’m very excited to start!” I wrote happily.
No response. No response. No response.
Finally, an apologetic email. Instead of starting our house, Sam had decided to retire.
What?! Northern Design was taken aback. I was in shock. I’d been on an emotional rollercoaster for months and now felt catapulted off the tracks. I began my school year in a daze.
Luckily, the financial planner is extremely calm by nature. It was all very simple. I’d find another builder. He scribbled a list of names on a sticky note. Obediently, I wrote emails. I made calls. I collected bids.
One name stood out. Nick is young (43 but appears much younger) and had less experience on big jobs, but was said to be a craftsman. He had energy and initiative, calling Northern to consult them about details of their package before bidding. Moreover he was described by his references as hardworking and invariably honest. “He’s a Boy Scout,” said one. I love Boy Scouts — I am a daughter of Clark Kent, and I married Dudley Do-Right. I hired Nick with a feeling of relief. As a friend commented, “All this drama and delay may have been a blessing in disguise.”
Excavation for the house foundation began the week after Jon and Amanda’s wedding. More to come!