Monday, November 16, 2015

You Should NOT Build a New House if… (Part 4) You Expect the New House Will Be Perfect and Solve All Your Problems

Up until we built our new house, Kathy and I had only lived in one house…for 30 years. We lived in an apartment for a little over two years after we married, at which point we decided it was time to invest in a house instead of paying rent. We looked at a lot of houses and found few that we liked at a price we could afford. The real estate agent kept pleading with us to look at a particular house in Oak Hills subdivision. Inexplicably, we believed it was too far out. Not in a hippy sense, but in a distance sense. In actuality, it was only two miles further out from where we had been looking. Commuters in Atlanta would laugh their heads off at the idea of two miles making any kind of difference in commute time. Ah, but what can I say. We must have been distance challenged at the time.

Ultimately we did go look at the house in Oak Hills. Upon first looking at it and seeing the size of it, we were pretty certain it was out of our price range. But fortunately, the man of the house had already been transferred to another city by his company so he and his wife were looking to sell as soon as possible. In fact, when we put in the obligatory offer that was lower than the asking price, the sellers actually countered with a deal better than our own offer. No, the sellers were not off their rockers. The better offer happened because the man’s employer decided they would pay for all the closing costs so he could get moved more quickly to his new city. Needless to say, we accepted the offer.

The house was quite big. 2000 square feet of living space on the first level and 1400 square feet more in the basement. It was a wonderful well-built ranch-style house. There was much to love about this house, but also a number of things not to love. Those latter things didn’t really bother us at first. We were just glad to be out the apartment and into our own home. But over time the stars faded from our eyes and we began to become more critical of our dwelling place.

One of the biggest issues was the kitchen. It was galley style and quite narrow. If more than one person was working in it, a bit of bumping and shoving could occur. Also, the dishwasher and the refrigerator could not be fully open at the same time since they were positioned opposite each other. You wouldn’t believe how often I could only crack the refrigerator door open slightly to put something back. It would have helped greatly if I were skilled at popping my shoulder and elbow out of joint. Also, even though the kitchen had a fair amount of cabinet space, it wasn’t quite enough. We had to store some of our kitchen items in the basement and drag them upstairs when needed.

Speaking of dragging things upstairs, another annoyance was bringing in the groceries. Our garage was in the basement under the kitchen. Upon returning from the grocery store, we’d have to make several trips up and down the steps to put things away. We also had a deep freeze in the garage, so whenever we needed a frozen item from it, we’d have to make that pilgrimage to the basement. When we were younger, we did not consider this a problem. But as we grew older a strange thing happened. As hard as it is to believe, over time the steps got taller and increased in number. In fact, by the time we decided to move, the number of steps was growing exponentially. Things were getting totally out of hand. Some people said it just seemed like the number of steps were increasing and getting steeper because we were getting older. We weren’t so sure about that. I threatened to install a dumb waiter. Kathy wouldn’t go for it. She said that if we were to get a waiter, she wanted a smart one that could speak.

Don’t get me wrong, the basement had its advantages. We went there when tornados showed up. We also had a large room down there with a pool table. And no, we did not use it as a fancy eating table like the Clampetts did in the Beverly Hillbillies.

My hobbies require frequent use of a computer. Kathy’s hobbies involve using a sewing machine, a serger, and scrapbooking equipment and supplies. At first we had the computer equipment in a room in the basement while Kathy had her stuff in a room across the hallway. But eventually we were both using computers so much we decided to move the computer room upstairs to our guest bedroom. We didn’t have overnight company too often, so it worked out fine using the basement entry room as the guest bedroom. The problem was there was no room for Kathy to put her hobby stuff upstairs. You might say, “So what?” But you see, Kathy and I are part of that rare breed of husband and wife that actually like spending time together. We wanted to be able to work together, but we couldn’t with that arrangement.

Another problem was that the laundry room was very small and right next to the kitchen. That was fine for people who like to wash clothes and dishes at the same time. We didn’t. Also, our dirty clothes were stored in our bedroom at the opposite end of the house. With no room for sorting the dirty clothes in the laundry room, we would do so in the nearby den. It was kind of weird watching TV over mountains of clothes, although it did give us a sense of being in nature.

Another annoyance was the size of the master bathroom. Apparently it was designed and built as a torture chamber for claustrophobic family members you hated. There was only room for a sink with limited counter space, a toilet, and a shower. If your spouse was on the toilet as you were getting in or out of the shower, you’d have to hop over them like a rabbit. One had to be careful not to trip over the toilet sitter and thus rip the shower curtain down.

There were a number of other issues I could mention, but enough complaints. You get the picture. Admittedly, these are all first world problems. Many people around the world would just stare at us in amazement should we mention these problems to them. If you have no indoor plumbing or electricity, you’re not going to be sympathetic to someone complaining about the size of a laundry room or master bath. I get it. But on the other hand, I do live in a first world country and I refuse to have third world problems. If I think the toilet seat in the third bathroom in my house is a bit hard to sit on, I’m going to complain about it. I’ll leave complaining about third world problems to those in third world nations. My ancestors already did that type of complaining years ago. That’s why they built this country up to be a first world nation. They wanted their descendants to complain about less important things than they complained about.

We considered remodeling our existing home, but we didn’t like the idea of disrupting our home life during the process, and we knew no amount of remodeling could correct the “garage in the basement” issue. Also, if we removed all those extra steps that had come into existence from nothing over the years, there would be a huge gap between floors. So, we decided to go on a search for another house. A real estate agent friend of ours helped us out. He showed us quite a few homes, but none met with our approval. We had already decided that if the other house had a number of obvious problems, we weren’t going to go through the process of selling and buying and moving to just shift to a house with its own set of issues.

The real estate agent finally realized that there was only a small chance of finding an existing house that we were willing to switch to. So, he told us we needed to consider building a house. We were extremely leery about doing this. We had heard a number of horror stories about this process from others; some that almost made me wet my pants. However, we agreed to meet with some builders. What could it hurt, except for our pocket book, if we decided to go that route? As it turned out, we already knew one of the owners of the building company as my wife had taught all his kids in school. So, we started on a positive note. After several meetings with the builders’ architect, we made the scary decision to sign a contract and have them build us a house. We took an existing floor plan and modified it to meet our needs. Well, at least as far as we could determine.

As Kathy and I told people of our decision to build, a number of them told us: “When you build a house, you can correct the problems of an existing house, but you’ll just introduce new ones that you didn’t even consider.” Deep in my heart I knew that was true, but it was still disconcerting to see it play out in reality.

Our new house is on one level, except for one small step from the garage up to the laundry room. What were we thinking letting the builders put in even one step? We already knew how those things could proliferate based on our experience with the old house. However, that step is what allows any water draining from our cars to be blockaded from running into the house. In our old house, the garage was level with the basement living area. Occasionally when we parked our cars inside the garage during a heavy rain or snow, the water would drain off them and run over to the wall, go under it, and soak the carpet on the other side. So with that one small step we had one problem solved. You might say it was one small step for man, but one giant leap for problem solving.

Our kitchen is now BIG. No running over each other. Well, except when we are all trying to get to the sink at once. There’s plenty of cabinet space so we can keep everything we need right there. We do still have the deep freeze in the garage, but it’s just a short distance from the kitchen and we don’t have steps to navigate to get there…except for that one I mentioned earlier. We now have a large laundry room so dirty clothes can be separated there rather than in the den. We have a LARGE master bath. There are two sinks so my wife and I don’t have to compete for usage. We have both a tub and a shower. And the toilet is in its own cubby-hole so you don’t have to be a rabbit to get to the shower.

Our old master bedroom had two small closets. This was always a nuisance. Kathy couldn’t store all her clothes there, so had to keep some in the basement. I won’t mention navigating those steps again. Whoops! I guess I just did. Hey, even I, the man, could not store all my clothes in my closet. And I didn’t even have very many clothes, at least by first world standards. Our new house has a LARGE walk-in closet that can comfortably store all our clothes. It’s very nice.

My wife, son, and I are book junkies. In our old house we had bookcases scattered throughout the house, both on the first level and the basement, to hold all those books. We decided to correct that problem by having a library in the new house. It would have floor to nine-foot ceiling shelves for storing all those books. Well, except for our son’s books, which he wanted to keep separate in his bedroom. Add pocket French doors, a table, and a couple of recliners, and we also had a reading room. Nice!

Yet, as our friends predicted, we did introduce a few new issues. Not as many. Not as troublesome. But issues nonetheless. In our old ranch style house, the rooms were well separated. But having been influenced by many different HGTV shows, we decided we wanted our new house to be more open concept. This is nice in many ways, but does have its disadvantages. In particular, NOISE! It’s hard for anyone to do anything in one room without the noise disturbing others in another room.

In our old house, the bedrooms and kitchen were on opposite ends of the house. In our new house the living space is centrally located with the bedrooms surrounding it. For instance, our kitchen is right next to the master bedroom. And even with a wall between them, the blender and garbage disposal and even the cabinets doors closing, can be heard in the bedroom. If you are a light sleeper and you are on a disparate schedule from your spouse, this can be a problem. Also, in our old house we had pressed wood countertops. They were well made and had lasted for years. They also absorbed the impact of dishes being set on them. In our new house, at the recommendation of many people, we installed granite countertops. They look elegant, but talk about clanging as dishes are set on them. We could open our doors and use the sound as a substitute for a church clock tower. Once you adjust how heavy handed you are, this noise can be minimized, but it was still disconcerting initially.

We had installed some hardwood and tile in our old house, but the den remained carpeted. However, carpet is a dirt trap no matter how much you vacuum. We decided to go with all hardwood and tile in the new house. While this is nice for cleaning, it can be hard on your feet if you like to go barefooted in the house like I do. Also, the sound from the TV echoes more, making it harder to understand conversations while watching all those romantic Hallmark movies. Closed captioning is a good solution to this problem, although I have noticed that on some shows the words aren’t on the screen long enough for me with my slow reading skills.

We were so looking forward to having a covered patio since the old house had an open patio. Then we could grill even when it was raining. Well, that’s what we thought. As it turned out, the smoke likes to congregate under the patio ceiling when the grill is sitting on the patio. This is okay if you have X-ray vision that allows you to see the food on the grill through the smoke, but unfortunately I am not from the planet Krypton. Also, I was concerned about discoloring the vinyl ceiling over time. So, I have to roll the grill onto the grass away from the patio. Not going to do that when it’s raining. It wouldn’t be prudent. Oh well, at least we can sit outside when it’s raining…unless, of course, the wind is blowing the rain sideways.

There are a number of other issues, but I’ll just mention one more. There is not as much storage space in the new house as the old one. But we put a positive spin on that one. We decided that if we didn’t have enough storage in the new house, then we had too much stuff! We relinquished ourselves of much of our stuff before we moved, then more after we moved, and are still looking to get rid of more. You have probably heard the old saying, “The person who dies with the most stuff wins.” That’s not true. Dying with a lot of stuff is easy. Dying with a minimal amount of stuff is hard. Those that do that are the real winners.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

You Should NOT Build a New House if… (Part 3) You Don't Like Seeing Stuff Immediately Trashed

Building a house is a messy process. For our house, they dug out LOTS of dirt to level the lot in preparation for the foundation. After laying the foundation, the frame went up. Then the wood decking part of the roof went on. At that point things got a bit bizarre. The structure was beginning to look like a house with a roof. However, without the water shield and shingles, a roof is just a sieve. Whenever it rained it just leaked down through the gaps in the wood to the concrete floor below. When we walked through our house while it was raining, we would have to dodge trickles, even streams, of water attempting to soak us as we passed nearby. I was tempted to declare our house to be a water park and charge admission, but was pretty sure the zoning laws would not allow it. Not too long afterwards the roof was completed and the leaking stopped. Thank goodness!

The tubs and showers were put in very early in the building process. They quickly filled up with dirt and trash, which is fine for bugs to bathe in, but not humans. All that pretty white fiberglass looked a mess. But we learned to accept the fact that they would never be clean until the house construction was finished. Well, we hoped they would be clean. But given the way they looked, we feared that there would be embedded stains that could never be removed. Fortunately, that wasn’t true. They came pretty clean.

It really got disconcerting when the flooring was laid. We had hardwood and ceramic tiles put down throughout. But they had to be put down a few weeks before the house was complete. Thus workers were in and out all the time walking on them with their dirt infested shoes. Sometimes cutting and sanding was being done inside the house. The floors got filthy. I thought about jumping from one clean spot to another, but I was never that good at long jumping. I feared that some of the harder chunks of dirt would begin scarring the floor as people walked over them. But I never noticed that happening. Even after the cleaning lady cleaned them several times just before we moved in, I picked up dirt on my bare feet for days. We bought a spin mop to clean the floors more thoroughly, but doing so at the stage where we were still unboxing and leaving trash behind, it wouldn’t have done much good. But eventually things settled down and we were able to clean all the floors to such an extent that they passed the bare feet test.

Once the cabinets and bookcases were installed, they too were quickly inundated with dust. Every time I saw them I had to resist the urge to break out a dust rag and the Pledge, and I’m not even that much on cleaning. But there was no sense in cleaning shelves and countertops when they would be just as dirty the next day. Yet they too came quite clean once the inside work was completed.

The one thing that remained a frustration even after we moved in was paint splatters. The painters were apparently not fans of covering or taping things while they were painting. They just relied on their skill with a roller or brush to insure paint didn’t go where no paint should go. But even skilled painters aren’t that skilled. We noticed some of the splatters early on, but when you are walking through getting an overview of the house rather than looking at details, a lot can be missed. It was only after moving in that we began discovering miniature Picassos at various places about the house. Like on the hardwood and tile floors, the top of the security system box and the thermostat, on the countertops and bookcases, etc. In some places, there were just small pinhead sized spots. In other cases, there were splotches. In most cases these could be removed with a swipe of a razor blade; no shaving cream required. But these spots can be elusive. We still keep finding spots three months after having moved in. Hopefully we have just about found them all. Most of the more recent one I’ve found turned out to just be floaters in my eyes.

So, if you decide to build a new house despite my warnings, don’t get distraught over the messes that are made during construction. Most likely they will clean up just fine. And if for some reason they don’t, you can always build another house to replace it.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

You Should NOT Build a New House if… (Part 2) You Don't Like Having Your Patience Tried

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” So wrote Thomas Paine in “The Crisis” back in late 1776. He was speaking of events surrounding the revolution that was occurring against Great Britain. But there are other things that can try men’s souls, such as building a new house. Of course, that is not nearly as trying as facing a formidable opponent in war, but trying to some extent nonetheless. As my wife would say, “It’s a first world problem.” So true!

We signed our new house contract late in October 2014. Construction was to start immediately. And indeed the lot was cleared of excess dirt within a week. And it stayed that way for almost a month before the footings were poured. It was disappointing to drive by every few days anticipating some progress only to find the dirt that had been there for many days.

Completion date was initially supposed to be in May 2015. But based on the warnings we had been given by veterans of house building, we knew that it would most likely be June. So, the footings were poured and construction began. Things progressed in spurts. Sometimes there seemed to be no activity for a week, then all of a sudden there would be a flurry of activity. It was as if we had bears for workers. They’d come out for a period of time and then go into hibernation. The difference is that bears hibernate once a year. Our worker bears seemed to hibernate once a month.

Eventually spring arrived. We got to the point where the underground electrical conduit was supposed to be buried in preparation for the electrical department running power to the house. The day it was supposed to be buried, the contractor was unable to make it to the house. That afternoon it started raining and barely stopped for two weeks. No burying could take place with the ground so wet. Finally things cleared up and the ground dried. Anticipation was rampant. Nails were being bitten. The conduit was placed in the ground and glued. However, the contractor wanted to let the glue dry good before covering the conduit with dirt. Well, as you have probably guessed, it rained again that afternoon delaying the burying another week or so. Finally, the conduit was buried, and the electrical department was scheduled to come out. Well, guess what? A storm came through town and knocked out power all around our area. The electrical department then spent the next several days just getting people’s power back on. Some newbie house waiting to have power connected for the first time became a low priority. We totally understood. If the power at our old house had been knocked out, we would have wanted it back on before having power connected at the new house. Overall, about four weeks transpired from the time power was supposed to be connected and when it was actually connected.

When the subway tile was being applied to our bathroom walls, the contractor was almost finished when he realized that there was not enough of the bullnose trim to finish the job in the master bath. He put an order in and then went off to work on another job less important than ours. Well, less important to us. I guess he figured that it would take quite a few days for the tile company to remove what we needed from the New York subway system walls and ship them to us. Anyway, the tile arrived a few days before the installer got his priorities straight and came back to work on the most important house. Ah, but that was not to be. The bullnose tiles shipped to us were not the right ones. They had apparently removed them from the wrong wall in the New York subway system. And rather than just immediately shipping the right tiles to us as we shipped back the wrong ones, they said they had to receive the wrong stuff first. WHAT? Well, real long story long, we eventually received the right tiles and they were installed.

Delays, delays. Always delays. There were a number of more minor delays that occurred that I won’t bore you with. But eventually construction came to completion…two months later than predicted. As they say, “Better late than never.” Boy, that’s true!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

You Should NOT Build a New House if… (Part 1) You Are Tight On Money

Recently, my wife and I completed the building of a new house after having lived in our previous house for almost 31 years. After many months of slinging a hammer, plumbing, and electrifying, we are tired…very tired. Just kidding. We didn’t actually build the house, we hired other people to build it for us. We took an existing floor plan and modified it to fit our needs. The whole process of designing a layout and then having it built was, to say the least, an interesting experience. Actually, some parts of the process were fun while other parts were frustrating. We ultimately came to the conclusion that building a new house is not for everyone. However, we survived and have now been in our new house for about three months. I decided to put finger to keyboard and create a series of posts entitled “You Should NOT Build a New House if…” Here’s the first one.

You should NOT build a new house if… are tight on money.

You’ve probably heard it before from people who were suckered into, uh, I mean convinced that they should build a new house rather than buy an existing one or just stay put. Yes, I’m talking about these dreaded words: “It’s going to cost more than what you estimate. Budget accordingly.” I know, those are not the words anyone wants to hear. I kept talking to people who had built in the past and was waiting to hear, “Oh, our contractor greatly overestimated what our new house would cost. It ended up costing $50,000 less than we anticipated. We bought a Lexus with our savings.” But guess what. No one ever said that. I suspect that no one has ever said that in the history of mankind. I can hear the cliff dweller now. “Yeah, we thought it would cost 10 wild boars to have a living space carved out of that rock face, but it turned out that the rock was so hard they had to design different carving tools and it took several months longer to complete. It ended up costing us 15 boars.” And indeed, one friend told me to plan on our house costing 1.5 times more than the contract estimated. I began to sweat since I had already signed the contract at that point.

Because of the stories we had heard from experienced house builders, we started our planning early. We actually began talking to the builders about a year before we thought we’d be ready to build. We knew that we would need some of our retirement money, and it was going to be a year before it would be available without a penalty for early withdrawal. We settled on a house plan and then picked out a lot that would accommodate it. The builders said they would put the lot on hold with no money down. The only caveat was that if someone else came along wanting to build on that lot, we would only have a couple of days to commit else we’d lose the lot. Fortunately, during that following year no one else wanted the lot. And as it turned out, neither did we. As we neared the date for signing a contract, we realized that there were a few downsides to the lot we had chosen, so ended up switching to another one.

During that year of waiting, we did not remain idle. We actually began picking out, or at least estimating the cost of, various items. Things such as hardwoods, tiles, cabinets, countertops, appliances, and the ever important front door. By the time we signed the contract in October 2014, we had been able to revise the cost estimate the builders had given us so we were pretty sure the cost would not rise much during the construction phase. Nevertheless, we still built in a 10% contingency just in case we got a wild hair and decided to put in 18 karat gold bathroom fixtures or the like. We hoped that this contingency would not be needed for the actual house since we had some new furniture we wanted to buy also.

Well, the good news is that the actual cost of the house came in only about 4% over budget. Most of that was due to buying more expensive appliances and front door as well as wanting customized cabinets in our closets rather than the standard shelves and hanging racks. This left us some budgeted money for buying the new furniture we wanted.

So, I was happy that the house was only 4% over budget, but still it was over budget. I missed my goal of being the first man in the history of mankind to be able to say that we came in under budget. Oh, well. Perhaps it’ll happen for the next house we build. Yeah, like we’re going to go through that again.

The lesson for you, the reader, is “don’t build a house if you must stay on budget.” It’s not going to happen! And if for some reason you build and it does happen, be sure to contact the Guinness Book of World Records. They will be very interested in you.