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wait, aren’t we supposed to get serfs with this?

February 9th, 2011 by

It’s official: We’re landed.

OK, that kind of makes us sound like fish, but I think you get the point. As of mid-January, we are the proud owners of 5.19 acres of North Carolina. Ahh, I can feel the liabilities growing even now…

So the uncertainty about where we are going to build Fred is now gone. Or, more accurately, limited to being within a 5.19 acre area minus setbacks, septic field allowance, road easements, ephemeral streams and topographic profile limitations.

Yep, now all we need are plans. Uh, and permits. Oh, and a road survey. And a small list of other things; two to three thousand items, tops.

We’re holding off on scheduling the housewarming party just yet, but all kidding aside, we are very happy and relieved to have acquired this particular plot. It’s perfectly sheltered from major thoroughfares—potential Fred-gawkers will be geographically thwarted; Ha!—while still being conveniently located for shopping. It’s inhabited by old-growth hardwoods, many of which we plan to keep intact. It borders on preservation land, so we don’t have to worry about neighbor encroachment in the future.

In short, it’s wonderful, and it’s a big milestone in our journey to home ownership.

Now, about those property taxes…

so, how’s it look so far?

November 23rd, 2010 by

OK, it’s almost done!

Well, maybe not exactly done. Perhaps “underway” might be the more appropriate term? Of course, we haven’t actually closed on the land yet, so maybe “underway” is a bit over-optimistic.

Let’s take the more literal approach, shall we?

There are stakes in the ground.

You know that expression that everyone uses but never actually does? (Really. How many people who mention “Putting a stake in the ground” actually do it?)

Well, we have genuine vampire-eradication-implements planted around the tenta-perimeter of a house named Fred. And for bonus points, they have fashionable crime scene-like tape designating the outline of the body… err, floorplan strung around them.

Staked Property

The scene of the crime (click the image to actually be able to see something...)

See? Like I said, almost done!

Actually, we are making very good progress on building a house, given that we don’t actually own the land it’s going to be built on yet. We have consulted with numerous professionals and have devised all kinds of ways in which we will need to part with our money as the project goes forward. There’s the foundation work (complete with the probable granite slab that we may hit once we dig), the wells (geothermal heat means that one hole is never enough), the septic field, the road and driveway, the utilities trenches (because utilities all grew up as only children who never learned to share a trench with a sibling) and a few consultants and surveyors who will do other stuff that is TBD. And once all that is done, we’ll be almost ready to actually start to build the house.

The house that isn’t actually designed yet, but I’m sure we’ll be moving forward on that part as well.

See? Like I said earlier… Almost done!

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.

heartbreak and renewal

May 30th, 2010 by

People warned us about this.  Oh, they didn’t say “prepare to have your heart broken,” they said “we had trouble finding the right piece of land.”  They told us about architectural review committees on which one member decided the slant of their proposed roof wasn’t right, or land deals all but decided when something legal fell through, but they never talked about the emotion.

It’s an emotional thing, building your own home.

You’ve decided nothing else out there really fits; you have, as a couple (assuming you’re part of a couple), determined that your life together will fit best in something custom, rather than an off-the-rack set of outerwear.

And as you look for the perfect site for this custom suit, you form a picture in your mind of how your refuge will look.

Mine was a shade-dappled sunny place, tall trees all around for peace and privacy.  A stream nearby would be nice, with all that happy burbling.  Birds would sing in the tall trees’ shade; we’d hear the leaves rustle, too, and no neighbors would be able to look in our windows.

Thought we’d found it–it seemed we had–but, like nearly every other custom-building couple we talked to, we had our hearts broken by technicalities.  An easement, an odd boundary.  A seller who was ambivalent and, finally, threw up too many roadblocks for us to believe our peaceful place would stay that way.  Didn’t like the windows, or the number of them, or how they were placed.  Not too sure about that roof.

To be honest, I didn’t think it had affected me that much until the other things we’re dealing with began to seem like bigger problems than they really are.

But I woke up this morning with a very old song in my head, and realized I was sad about losing that peaceful green place.

From Three Dog Night’s “In the Country:”

Before the breathin’ air is gone, before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime:

Out where the rivers like to run I stand alone, and take back something worth remembering.

a mock-up of a preview of a sketch of a concept

May 14th, 2010 by

So, assuming we get to build Fred on the piece of land that my beautiful bride fell in love with, what is it going to look like? Well, perhaps nothing like these pictures but, just maybe, a fair bit like these pictures.

(Click on the images for a large view)

These are the very first conceptual sketches that our architect has shared with us. Our main motivation right now is to understand the potential price of a certain type and size of building, how the building might fit on the aforementioned land, and to check all of that against our budget. It will be interesting to see how much the final design—which we probably won’t settle on for at least a few more months—varies from these very preliminary SketchUp renderings.

BTW, I love SketchUp, so I was really psyched when I found out that our architects used it for these quick conceptual renderings. Now I just have to keep myself from “improving” the drawings that were done by folks that actually have architecture degrees and certifications. Yeah, whatever.

With that being said, SketchUp is pretty easy to learn, and there are tons of tutorial videos on YouTube. The price of the software is the ever-popular “free to you from Google”, so there’s not much risk in trying it out. If you ever want to play architect for a few hours—and don’t feel like dropping $10k+ on AutoCAD—you can do some amazing work with SketchUp, especially when you start downloading all of the house components that they have in the 3D Warehouse.

Anyway, back to Fred! We probably want a few more windows, and we really haven’t figured out all the internal spaces yet—these are just shells so far—but the single story, courtyard style is definitely on the right track.

Assuming that we build on that piece of land. Stay tuned for updates on that!

why build? aren’t there enough houses already?

April 26th, 2010 by

The “why build?” question is one that often comes up in semi-polite company, usually delivered in conjunction with a look that says “Aren’t they cute? They think they can actually do this without killing each other.”

Invariably, our potential house building discussion partner suddenly finds that he has to help the hostess vacuum the dog or put the sushi in the oven. I suppose it’s fair that the thought of building a house sends most people running for the (already fully-developed and subdivided) hills. The thought of designing, coordinating, managing, permitting, insuring, funding, financing, acquiring, and being held liable, responsible, inspectable, culpable, and certifiable—for some reason—seems to intimidate most people.

Houses for saleTherefore, in order to find a place to live the aforementioned “most people” generally gravitate to structures where others—anonymous builders and designers—have run the gauntlet described above, and have emerged with an inventory of houses placed into an inventory of subdivisions that conform nicely with other subdivisions approved by a county and governed by a State. Sadly—in my admittedly skewed opinion—what comes out the other side is a clusterclump of simulhouse-clones that are designed and constructed to look as if they are about to encounter the late 1800s. Hence the pseudo-shutters that are nailed—open, of course— to the side of the house, and the oh-so-handy faux hay-loft door perched above the modern three-car garage complete with a genuine reproduction wrought iron rooster wind-vane on its genuine reproduction cupola.

what you aren’t supposed to do

April 10th, 2010 by

After a grueling Saturday spent driving, driving, driving from one piece of land to another, we decided to just see a single lot—one we’d decided not to drive to the day before, because it was a ways away from where we’d been tooling around.

It was just over the county line from Orange into Chatham, which has all sorts of advantages here, not least a decidedly lower tax rate.

That did put it a good bit further from Hillsborough, which I wanted to live near because of the writers’ communities there, but hey, we’re just looking, right?  So—without Linda, who had a previous commitment—we grabbed our Garmin (brought our own, thank you, no to Hertz Everlost) and piled our stuff into the rented Ford Escape.

It was easy to get to, this lot; pretty much straight down 15/501, turn right on a pretty countrified road where horses and cows were leisuring in nice rolling hills, make a couple more short turns, and there we were.  We detoured down the driveway of a house for sale; the sign said “contemporary” and we could see an Asian-style roof from the road, so it seemed worth a look-see.  Nice place, if a bit small, but not quite what we were looking for.  Beautifully sited on its very sloping lot with a swooping driveway down to the house from the road.

Onward.

We saw a for-sale sign up ahead, but when we stopped and pulled out the information packet (just a single sheet of paper; how is that a packet?  Ah, this pedantic mind) we knew it wasn’t the lot we were looking for because it cost about $50,000 more than the listing had said.

Onward.

A right turn, and up the road on the left was another for-sale sign.

photo of Araya Lane land

Boulders on the perfect lot

This time we were in the right spot, and my heart leapt and sank at the same time because I just freakin’ fell in love.  If you’ve ever been to northern Ohio, near Cleveland, and seen a park called Squires’ Castle, you’ll have an idea of the kind of land we were looking at.

It rolled, but gently.  It was covered, completely, with hardwood trees; oak, maple, even a beech or two and maybe that’s a sycamore?

The sunlight shone down through the leaves, dappled the ground and the many boulders scattered across it like God was throwing jacks with them.

As we walked onto the lot (which, as it turned out later, was a happy home for ticks), it was as if we’d become engulfed in a fairy forest.  I fully expected to see hobbits come out from under one of those giant rocks.

So we did—well, I did—what you are not supposed to do: fell in love.  With a lot.  Dirt.  Ground with rocks and trees.  I expect that love will go forever unrequited.

looking at land

April 10th, 2010 by

We had promised ourselves this weekend “off,” to maybe drive down to Pinehurst and Southern Pines, see some sights, play tourist and take it easy. Knowing the week ahead of us would be busy and stress-filled, we’d agreed to plan some down time particularly for the day after the loooooooong flight.

As it turned out, though, our realtor—Linda—wanted to show us some pieces of land, and what the heck; let’s do it, right?

So off we go.

She met us in the lobby of the Residence Inn, punctual as usual. When we walked out to find her, she sat at a couch facing the desk—we were walking up on her from behind—and she was reading the paper. I noticed how perfectly her hair was done. She’d gotten a nice cut since the last time we saw her, looked really good.

As always, she was smiling. There isn’t a bone of meanness in her, but if that had been me (knowing the day ahead), the smile would have had a curl of mischief.

We spent a long day looking at land. Have you ever just gone out and looked at land? After a while, you find ways to entertain yourself about it, comparing the trees (these are taller than on that other lot), the ground underfoot (more bumps and holes), the sounds (can you hear that road noise?) and the color of the sky from here.

We saw flat land and hilly land, rocky land and sandy land. Land with clearings and driveways already on it, land with no sign of any human being ever setting foot there. As it turned out later, we even saw land owned (or once owned) by a dog-breeder who may have supplied Michael Vick with his fighting animals.

Linda is a wonderful, sweet person with some serious scruples. She won’t lie, I can tell by the silences she leaves when a question might force her to. But she also won’t say anything bad about anybody, and I have great respect for her principles. Her car shows how hard she works, and is built for durability more than comfort.  So the day, covering some serious mileage in and around Chapel Hill and Durham, was tiring. Still we saw some good potential locations for A House Named Fred, and knew she’d figured us out—she got what we wanted and was helping us find a new home.