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Archive for June, 2010

emotional furniture

June 12th, 2010 by

We all know about emotional baggage.  (If you don’t have any yourself, then those old Kodak Moment commercials must have actually rung true.)

I’m here to top that idea with emotional furniture.  Bigger than baggage, often uglier, and generally likely to hold more—more stuff, more emotion, more sense of how-could-you-get-rid-of-me.

Two pieces have traveled the country with me, from Wauseon, Ohio (yes, it’s a real place), to Boston, Massachusetts to Alabama, Georgia, and California.  But the trip stops here.

As we clean up our California rental house in preparation for the move to our North Carolina rental house (in preparation for finally building A House Named Fred), we are shucking the unnecessary stuff, and finally I’m ready to chuck these things.  One is a solid cherry secretary that was…my mother’s?  My grandmother’s?  I don’t even know, which makes it that much sillier that I’ve carried it around all these years.  Same with the hutch.  Neither of these things matches the style we’ve come to love, of clean simple lines and contemporary sensibilities, and both of them tie me to unhappy memories.

So they’re going to the Salvation Army, along with the bedroom set my mother gave my ex-husband and me for a wedding present which has sat in our guest room for years, now, mostly unused.

There’s a freeing feeling to getting rid of old stuff you never really liked anyway.  Especially when it’s in preparation for building a dream.

this land is your land, we can’t find our land!

June 6th, 2010 by

(With apologies to Woody Guthrie.)

According to all the books I’ve read, you aren’t allowed to build a house—modern or otherwise—until you possess the land you are going to build it on.

As persnickety as this rule might be, it appears to be globally enforced, so we’ve resigned ourselves to performing the task of finding the perfect place to build Fred.Triangle Google Map

At first blush, this seems like a fairly simple chore. Just fire up Trulia.com, search for land that is the size and in the location you want, send the owner a big PayPal payment and it’s yours. Surprisingly, it turns out to be a bit harder than that, so I thought I’d share some of my techniques for finding and evaluating land that is for sale.

Finding it is harder than you might think. The entire real estate marketing eco-system is geared towards selling houses and structures. The tools for finding land, and learning the details about that land are pretty lame. Sure, a lot of stuff shows up listed on Trulia, but the listing usually consists of a picture of a bunch of trees (and sometimes—amazingly—10 or 12 pictures of subtly different trees), a price, and if you’re really lucky, an entry for acreage. Sifting through all this is very tough, and even drilling down into the listing agent’s own website is usually futile, because they just aren’t geared up to give you the info you need. In fact, some of them don’t even list land at all; only houses seem to make the website cut.

So what is that info you need? Well, the aforementioned acreage is nice to know, but there are lots of other things to find out. What is the topography? It’s pretty expensive to build on the side of a cliff, and houses last longer when they don’t have a seasonal stream running through their living rooms. Are there restrictive covenants on the style or type of house that you can build there? That one is a huge issue if you want to build a modern-styled house. Here’s a hint: If the architecture committee has a listing of the three acceptable color palettes for your exterior siding and shutters, just move on to the next candidate, ’cause your glass box tribute to Philip Johnson is DOA baby.

More stuff. Is it in a flood plain? What sort of stuff is around it, and how is it zoned? Your beautiful rural paradise may sprout a 1,500 unit Levittown redux in its previously pastoral backyard if you don’t pay attention to the county’s 20 year development plan. Conversely, is it next to the latest and greatest ultra-high density industrial hog farming combine? (I’ll spare you a link; feel free to Google among yourselves.) If your entire family was born without olfactory glands that might not be a problem, although the family dog may kill you in your sleep.

Are there any easements or right-of-way issues? (That one is still a fresh wound; we’ll wait for more scar tissue to form before we expand on this particular encumbrance.) What sort of soil issues does it have? In the areas Laura and I are looking, soil composition affects the perk test that is needed in order to build a septic field. If the land doesn’t perk—absorb liquids—well enough, then you won’t be allowed to build on it if there is no city sewer service for you to hook into. Speaking of city services, the whole list should be checked: Sewer, water (or well?), power, gas (utility lines or LNG tank?), cable (or satellite?), phone, internet. Too many of those going the ‘wrong’ way can knock your budget out of the park, so they need to be discovered early.

Some things just have to be explored visually, but with Google maps and Bing’s bird’s eye view, you’d be amazed how much you can learn from right where you are sitting as you read this. (If you are standing, you can’t learn anything however, so be sure to sit down first.) If the area is wooded, look for pictures taken in the winter, so you can determine the quantity of coniferous vs. deciduous trees. Pan around the site and see what sort of houses (and property valuations) your neighbors may have. We’ve walked away from a few plots that were nice, but were surrounded with double-wides and “open-air vehicle repair and salvage plazas”, aka the front yard.

So, where do you find out all this stuff? You dig. You can’t depend on the selling agent to give it to you. If you find listings from a Realtor that specializes in land, they often have full packets that contain some of this info, but the average residential house-focused agent will not have that neat and tidy package pre-assembled for you. Of course, if you have a great Realtor like ours—Linda Cromartie—who is acting as your buyer’s agent, you can ask her to get a package from the seller’s agent. However, you will often find that if the seller’s agent sucked at posting the information in the first place, the tend to suck equally at getting it for your agent. (This is the infamous ‘Sucking Agent Corollary’ phenomenon, often abbreviated as ‘SAC’, because, uh… ‘SAC’ is a funny word.) I personally like to attempt to get as much info as I can before we bother Linda, because I’m already bitter and cynical, whereas she’s a much nicer person than I am.

One of the best sources I’ve found is the local County record system and GIS. All the counties we are looking at have most of their land records and all of their maps online, so you can easily learn a tremendous amount about the zoning, hydrology, soils, topography, essential services, etc. of any piece of land in that county.

Another benefit is those maps are often linked to the County Registrar of Deeds, and all the relevant documents, including surveyor’s plats, covenants, deeds, property tax assessments and rates, and other legal documents are downloadable as PDFs. I can’t tell you the number of times I have found easements and covenants that the listing agent wasn’t aware of, or—if your world view is so negative that you suspect Mr. Rogers’ original neighborhood was in Kabul—covenants that the agent was trying to hide as part of a global conspiracy.

Once you get proficient with these tools and websites, you can get a tremendous amount of info in about 15 minutes of digging per candidate. That’s how quickly I can do a pretty thorough first pass, and many times I can eliminate quite a few listings that just don’t clear the bar.

Just remember, a little digging at this stage is much cheaper than having to backfill the other type of digging when something gets ‘discovered’ further down the road!

hectick is spelled with a ‘k’, right?

June 6th, 2010 by

Well, it certainly was a full, and ‘hectick’ week. I flew to North Carolina on Tuesday, because Monday was a holiday. Of course, it takes all day to get from San Francisco to Raleigh, so Tuesday bit the dust without me realizing any accomplishments.

Wednesday was one of those fun, rewarding, fulfilling and completely exhausting days with our architect team. In previous visits, Laura and I, along with our ever-present assistant FredDB, had managed to convey a lot of information about how we envisioned the house. We covered aesthetics, contents, systems (i.e. plumbing, HVAC), materials, traffic flow, etc.

In fact, there was only one area of Fred that we kept deferring; my studio, where I plan to design and build furniture, and objets d’art, which are pieces of art that probably started out as furniture, but ended badly.

For some unfathomable reason, Laura was never that keen on spending a brisk four or five hours discussing three-phase power, dust collection, live-load weight and vibration capacities of flooring and thousands of other, equally interesting things. I can’t figure that out. Maybe she just wanted me to have an area where I could feel my input was useful? She’s a giver, so that’s probably it.

In any event, covering all that stuff with our design/build firm was front and center for this trip, while Laura was safely ensconced 3,000 miles and three time zones away. She missed all the fun, but we soldiered through without her, until even I ran out of stuff to talk about. The team managed to stay awake through the whole event, although I think they were very happy to see the end of our allotted time approach.

With that mission accomplished, I had two days left in the trip before I had to fly back and get extremely busy on prepping for our big move. Thursday was ‘Look for land… Again.’ day, given our recent setback with the previous property we chronicled earlier in the blog.

I started with seven new properties to look at, plus a couple that were reborn from our previous round of searching. Of course, as I looked at the seven, I found a few more that seemed to have eluded every MLS and real estate website on the planet, so that just added to the load.

So, what’s the deal with the new spelling of ‘hectick’? Well, it’s June in North Carolina, and it’s been raining a lot. So it’s hot, and humid, and apparently these conditions create the perfect petri dish for ticks.

The offical State Parasite of North Carolina

The offical State Parasite of North Carolina

Lots of ticks. Stand in the grass for 30 seconds and you’ll find at least a half-dozen crawling on some part of your body and clothing. Be really clever and go traipsing through five- and ten-acre uncleared woodland properties, and the number increases exponentially. And even after you play at impersonating a grooming baboon, you will continue to find more, or think that you feel more, for hours and days afterward. They were in my rental car. They were in my hat. They were in other places, uh… very different from either a rental car or a hat. I even managed to bring three of them (that we know of so far…) home with me as mementos for Laura to extract a few days after our initial coming together.

So the summation of that day, in which I was joined in my infestation by both our Realtor, Linda and our architect, was that I found a hell of a lot more ticks than I did good, affordable building sites.

Of course that was just the daytime task. That evening, the love of my life had assigned me the mission of performing a recon and mapping on our new rental home. Luckily all my Special Forces and Air Cavalry training had prepared me well for this deployment. After capturing full photographic intel and assessing the dimensions and capacities of each landing zone (aka ‘room’), we are now well equipped to begin our assault early in July, when the heavy artillery  (the movers) will begin their offensive.

With that late night mission accomplished, the next day had another recon target. This time the objective was mobile; the rental RV that we will use in our effort to relocate George, Gus and Jack with minimal trauma. Here is more information on that three-cats-in-the-ring circus.

A few more land evaluations got squeezed in, and then I got to end the trip on a high note. Because I had brought my camera on the trip, I was able to take some pictures of our architect’s newborn daughter.

Allow me to clarify: For me, “Bringing the camera” means schlepping around 40 pounds of lenses, flash heads, tripods, diffusers and reflectors etc. It’s a sickness, and it invariably offers me an opportunity to spend some quality time with a TSA employee, but I do manage to get some decent pictures… Sometimes.

The effort was certainly worth it this time; she’s beautiful, and she was modeling the lovely hat and booties ensemble that Laura made for her. All’s well that ends well, and this trip saved the best event for last.

P.S. All Southern colloquialisms aside, she’s definitely much cuter than a tick.

there’s more than one way to move a cat, or is there?

June 5th, 2010 by

If you wanted to read more about building Fred, or modern architecture, or buying land: Move along folks. Nothing to see here. Keep it moving.

Also, if you don’t have pets, you may not understand what you are about to read. Our guys are our family, and we would do anything for them.

And the upcoming move is stretching that definition of ‘anything’ to the limit.

Cat mover RV

Just don't say a word, OK?

Here’s the deal: George is a prima donna, and remains remarkably unruffled in any environment. If all we had to do was move George, we’d pop him into his carrier, hop on a plane and be done with it. In the interim, he would charm anyone and everyone who saw him, and we would have to answer the ‘Does he bite?’ question about 50 times, because he is one big boy of a cat. More info on that subject can be found here.

Gus is a little tougher to move. You see, Gus is very vocal when he is displeased. And Gus is displeased whenever he is in his carrier. Further, Gus has amazing stamina, and is as stubborn as a mule-cat. Hence, Gus would be the feline equivalent of the crying baby on an airplane for the entire duration of the flight. (Of course, I’m currently writing this post on an airplane with five crying/screaming babies on it, so right now I’d actually love to have Gus as a meowing distraction.) So, moving Gus by air might be doable, but a little tougher than moving George.

Of course, it really doesn’t make any difference whether Gus would be a problem, because we have three cats, not two. Cat number three is Jack. All 20 pounds of him. Jack is the sweetest and best behaved of the three, so his demeanor is not the problem.

The issue with Jack is one of sheer terror. Jack is very comfortable and loving around people he knows. The problem is, by my best guess, Jack only knows about eight people, and chances are extremely good that none of those eight are going to be the exclusive occupants of two airports, two airplanes, a rental car bus, a security checkpoint, or any of the other way points that he would have to occupy during the sojourn to his new home.

When Jack gets scared, he gets very scared. He shakes and quivers, he tries to hide, and amazingly for Jack, who never met a morsel he didn’t like, he refuses to eat.

So, any veto on the flying option goes to Jack, and this has been seconded by his vet and by numerous cat-moving-experts on the interwebs.

With flying out of the picture, and Chapel Hill being a land-locked city without a major seaport (I looked it up to be sure), that leaves driving. 3,000 miles of driving. Laura’s Miata can’t even hold me very well, let alone three cat carriers, so that ain’t happening. The Audi station wagon could do the trick. Barely. But that means staying in hotels, which means transporting the cats in and out of a lot of strange places with loud noises and potential escapes into dangerous areas. And managing the litter box and feeding while on the road wouldn’t be pretty.

So the seemingly-brilliant idea Laura had about three months ago was to rent an RV in California, and drive that to NC. This helps with two things, because it also gives the guys a safe quiet place to stay at both ends as the movers do their very loud and scary business. There’s only one catch: No-one will offer a one-way rental (with or without pets) of an RV from West to East during the summer.

So, short of buying the RV we’ve always dreamed of never owning, we will have to do the previously unthinkable. Fly to Raleigh, rent an RV in North Carolina, drive it to California, load up the boys, and then just drive it back. Did I say 3,000 miles before? Ha! This idea will see that 3,000 and raise you another 3,000. Over a total of less than 10 days.

I know, you’re all envious, aren’t you?

So this July, if you happen to be cruising down I-40, (Pretty much anywhere there is an I-40, ’cause will be covering the whole damn thing. Twice.) and you see a 29′ class-C RV driven by two very tired ex-Californians with three little furry faces looking out the back window, be sure to give it a wide berth. If it wasn’t a rental, I would paint the following words on its massive flanks:

Caution: Contents Under Pressure

Alas, the above warning will have to suffice.