Category Archives: Project: House


So, building a house is turning out to be quite a learning experience! Buying the land was easy, easier than buying a cell phone. We basically wrote a check, signed a couple of papers, and that was it. We own land. Those trees over there, they are mine; that ditch, too. But, a house is a different story.

Our current house will fit in this house’s garage!

First, obviously, you have to decide what house you’re going to build. Also obviously, cost is the primary factor here – it sets a pretty hard upper limit. Cost is driven by three things: the square footage of the house, the size of the house’s footprint, the stuff you put in the house (type of floors, cabinets, appliances, etc.). The first and the last were obvious to us: a bigger house means more to build, fancy stuff costs more. The second item was a bit of a revelation.

Mmm… opulence. No, this isn’t our house.

We’ve looked at probably a thousand house plans. The web is full of house plan sites, and all of them list hundreds, if not thousands of plans, all of them searchable by sq/ft. So, a month or so ago, we found a plan we both liked. It had the right number of sq/ft for our budget, and had a nice floor plan with the right number of bedrooms, etc.. So, we took it to a builder and had him do a rough estimate. He said “[33% higher than our max]”. We said “Um….”. Took it to another builder, who said “[10% higher than our max].” We said “Why?” He said, “When I say I’ll generally build a house for $X per sq/ft, I’m assuming a standard two story house with a standard footprint. But 80% of this house is on the first floor, which means you’ve spread your square footage over a wider footprint. That means a bigger foundation and a bigger roof. And the foundation and roof are the most expensive parts of a new house. There’s your cost.”

So we debated just biting the bullet and building that house, damn the cost, vs finding a plan with a smaller footprint. And, after much frowning and sighing, we decided to go with our first choice, but we’d see if we could save money anywhere: drop a fireplace, get cheaper floors and cabinets, simplify some exterior details, etc.. After a meeting with the builder, we got the price down a bit – affordable but barely. But the builder pressed us to look at some things he’d built, to show us what we could build for the same money, if we went with a smaller footprint. I was skeptical, at first. I liked the house plan we had already fretted over for so song. But eventually, we were swayed – Mrs Wife, first. And, two weeks later, after looking at another few hundred plans, we found one we liked – and it’s bigger than the first one, and with better stuff inside, but with a smaller footprint.

Primary lesson learned: it’s cheaper to build up than out.
Secondary lessons learned:

  1. For all those thousands of house plans, there is really not a lot of variety because there are only so many ways you can arrange the standard features of a house.
  2. The architects who draw up these home plans are obviously copy/pasting/tweaking from one plan to the next. After careful observation, patterns emerge.
  3. Most of those sites show the same plans as the others, with different names on them.
  4. Tools like which let you take a 2D sketch from a floor plan and render it in 3D, with furniture, are very handy. Sometimes it’s tough to visualize what a room will really look like from just a top-down 2D floor plan. So, build a little 3D model, drop in couches and chairs of the same size as what you already have, and fly around it. It’s also useful if you want to see what small architectural changes will look like (remove a wall, add a window, etc.). Takes a bit of work to do the layout, but it’s a fun kind of work (to me anyway – I also thought designing Unreal Tournament levels was fun).
  5. The land we bought will count as the downpayment on the mortgage loan we’ll get. That saves us from having to come up with another $shitload. Kindof typical of us to jump into a process without knowing important details like that…
  6. Mortgage rates are down below 4% right now. Holy crap.

But still, at this point, we just have the concept of a house. No shovel has touched ground, yet.

Dream House

The last time I mentioned this, we had decided on a house plan which we found on the internet, and we had told the builder which plan it was and all the changes we wanted to make. That was in early January. Well, it’s mid-March now, and we just got a solid estimate on building that house. For the past two and a half months, the builder ordered the plans from the website, he had them “engineered” (which means evaluating the plan w/r/t the actual land where the house will go, getting it in compliance with local building codes, etc.), then sent the plans off to all the various sub-contractors to get bids on their portion of the job. The actual physical work on the house hasn’t started yet – there are still more contracts to sign and more reviews to complete. This all would have been avoided if we had used a house design that the builder had used before, but I didn’t want to have the same house as any of our neighbors. Alas.

This is process is painful for someone like me who likes to dive in and Get ‘Er Done, as soon as the will and the means are available, if not sooner. What a drag it is to have to wait for people who are waiting on other people who are waiting on other people…

Project: House

Since Rob asked…

Last time I mentioned the house, everything seemed like it should start, but nothing had started. That was frustrating to impatient me. Well, it turned out there were a couple of things standing in the way:

  1. A bunch of trees.
  2. A distinct lack of available dollars to pay for the workers who will do the actual work.

The tree situation got taken care of thanks to a bulldozer, a front end loader and a dump truck. Three weekends ago, when we went out to look at the land, they had just started to clear trees to make room for the house. Our instructions were “put the house here, the driveway here, and otherwise leave all the trees you can”; but seeing what that actually meant in practice was interesting. The absence of big groups of trees somehow made the lot change shape; it seemed to get a little smaller – it was easier to see all the property line flags hanging from the trees now. There was a giant pile of brush and downed trees off to the side, and a couple of clearings were starting to take shape. We went out this weekend and the pile was gone, the clearings have been cleared. And thanks to the rain, everything was ankle-deep with the red clay mud of central NC. Mmmm… goopy.

The issue with the dollars is still in progress, though it sounds like it’s just a matter of waiting for paperwork to complete its journey back from the magical Land of Loans. Building a house requires that you pay a bunch of workers to build it, oddly enough. And paying them means you essentially need a secure line of credit that the builder can draw on, to pay for what needs to get done when it needs to get done. You don’t write a big check up front; you get a bank to agree to make the full amount of the builder’s estimate available and the builder just dribbles it out as needed. And that means, while it’s under construction, you only pay interest and principal to the lender on the money the builder has taken out, instead of on the full amount you’re approved for – which is a bit of a relief (we’d like to avoid the full brunt of paying two full mortgages for as long as possible!). Once it’s all done, the loan magically transforms from a construction loan into a traditional mortgage for the value of whatever the builder took out. We dragged our feet a bit on getting the loan process started though – not knowing anything about the house building process – and I suspect this delayed everything by a week or so.

So, the obstructing trees are cleared. Permits are secured. They’ll be starting the foundation, the well, the septic system, etc. as soon as the loan is approved.



The builder has apparently started the foundation. It looks much larger than we were expecting it to, and the wide angle lens here makes it even bigger. Mrs is standing just to the side of the garage opening; the segment directly above her will be the front porch.

The lender is still fucking around and we haven’t closed on the construction loan, yet. So, the framing is on hold until that clears up. But, we can at least see where the house is going to sit. And the lot looks ten times smaller now.

But check out that red red soil! Crazy.

A Loan, Again

Some time ago, we were told our construction loan would be approved and we’d close on it ‘within the next week’. That was over a month ago. Turns out the person who was handling our loan was himself in the process of leaving the lending company, so he didn’t put a lot of effort into getting our stuff through the system. So, despite our innumerable phone calls, emails and pleas to the dark powers of the universe to bring unbearable pain upon those responsible for the delay, our paperwork just kinda sat around – just like the builder, who understandably isn’t going to do expensive work if he isn’t guaranteed to be paid for it. I’d feel sorry for him, but his people recommended this lender to us.

We are assured by the new person handling our loan that we’ll be good to go, as soon as we get an appraisal done. But who knows what the fuck kind of bureaucratic traps and ambushes we’re going to encounter along that path…

Our original hope was that this house would be done by early fall. But that’s four months away. Early winter is sounding more likely.

Was watching season three of The Wire this weekend. The scenes where budding businessman Stringer Bell has to deal with builders and inspectors and permits and delays really hit home. I wish we had a fresh-from-jail Avon Barksdale to go thump his chest at our cast of clowns – just for the giggles.

Plumb Loco

We just got a note from the builder’s representative: we need to decide on all of the plumbing fixtures in the next two weeks. Part of this is because the size and shape of the bathtubs / shower / sink stuff we choose affects the wall / floor framing for the rooms where they go (bathrooms / kitchen).

So, it looks like we’ll be spending a lot of time at kitchen & bathroom design places, frantically trying to commit to bathroom fixtures. Exciting!

I like this one because it looks like a little foam take-out container. For salsa or raita.


Went out to the house at lunch today. They’ve started framing! So, there’s a skeleton first floor up, and we can see the outlines of the rooms. And we can see where they didn’t make the changes we had agreed on.


We had asked that they put a door from the master bathroom into the laundry room. This requires a little reconfiguration of the laundry room and of the bathroom. But not too much. And they sketched up a new plan, and we all agreed. Then they gave the people who did the foundation the original plans. And then the guys who did the first floor framing had the old plans, too. So they didn’t make our change. And now they have to figure out how to make it happen the way we’d asked. It’s not a huge change, but it’s something they would probably prefer to not have to fix.

But we wouldn’t have known if we didn’t go out there to check.

On the positive side, they did make a bunch of other changes that we asked for. So, it’s coming along.



Just four days since my last visit, but the second floor is well under-way.

We closed on the construction loan yesterday, finally. So, everything is official and legal and paid for. Turns out the builder should probably not have done any building on the lot before then: insurance issues. But, he’s an impatient guy and went ahead anyway. That’s fine with me – get ‘er done! The realtors who work for the builder to assist us with the process were making noises like this could be done in three months. Gulp.

We’re picking out exterior paint colors, this weekend.

Making An Inside

Stopped to look at the house yesterday PM and…


The framing is pretty much complete. All the interior walls are in place. The exterior walls are sheathed. The sub-floors are all in-place. The sub-roof is done. Most of the windows have been installed. So, two weeks to build the skeleton. I’m amazed.

It’s the first time we could actually walk inside, as there was no inside, this past weekend. And so it’s the first time we really got a real feel for the size and layout of the rooms. We built it flipped from the way the plans were drawn (in order to put the garage/driveway on the right side), so it’s been tough to match the drawing to earlier stages of the house. Now, though, the house exists as a physical object, so we don’t need to worry about the drawings. Verdict: some rooms are bigger, some are smaller, than I imagined. And the house is much much taller than I thought it would be. Not sure why that is.

Today, we go select kitchen appliances. Next week, once we know the size of all the appliances, we go to select cabinetry. We have to select the plumbing fixtures this week or next, too.

Today we have an appointment, arranged by our builder with a kitchen appliance dealer he prefers. We can buy the stuff anywhere, but we might get a discount or something if we go through this dealer (don’t know, we just got the number of the place yesterday!) This will be our first time dealing with a builder’s allowance. An allowance is where the builder says “you have $X to spend on these things. go pick them out.” In this case, “these things” are the oven, stove, refrigerator, etc.. If you go over the $X amount, you pay the difference directly to the vendor. Digging through Consumer Reports, we learned that kitchen appliances can get very expensive; we could blow our entire kitchen allowance just on the stove, or on the refrigerator, for example. Most models are not that expensive, and it’s certainly possible to do it all for much less than we’re allowed. But still, it’s going to be tricky to stay within the allowance, in the face of all that shiny new stuff. Right now, I’m determined to do it, but we’ll know by 5:30 this evening if I was able to hold firm…

Shopping Spree

You’re given $25,000 and a list of items you must buy. The list of choices seems huge at the start, but there are constraints you don’t know about and which you will only learn once you get into the process. And while the number of brands is large, the prices between brands and models are unimaginably varie – which you will also discover as you progress. And, you have four hours to get everything. Go!

Yesterday: a full day of housewares shopping. I took a day off from work, even. We spent the morning at the cabinet store, picking cabinets, doors, colors, pulls, layouts, etc.. The cabinet guy had a copy of the builder’s plans and had done a CAD mockup with of all the different cabinets we’d need in the house: kitchen, pantry, bathrooms, laundry room, etc. His mockups were pretty much exactly right, and we only had a few minor changes to make. So we spent most of our time picking out the cosmetic stuff. We didn’t have many options to choose from when it came to cabinets and door styles, thanks to our budget. We already knew we wanted a really dark stain, so there wasn’t much to choose from there, either. That left door style and pulls. The door style choice was made easier by relative cost of the two styles we liked. That left pulls, and that wasn’t too hard. So, that was both stressful and anti-climactic. We want very much to make the right choices, but don’t really have much to choose from.

Our new lavish kitchen
Our new kitchen! Lavish!

Then we drove an hour across town to go the the Carrboro branch of the appliance store (even though the cabinet store was yards from the Raleigh branch of the appliance store…). There, we picked out kitchen appliances and plumbing fixtures. Kitchen appliances were, as with cabinets, severely constrained by budget. There were basically three brands we could consider, and one we discounted based on a reputation for unreliability. So, we got a quick tour of what they had on display and the salesperson said she’d put together a quote of the other two lines. We’d prefer to mix and match between the two, since one brand has some features we like but a lower reputation for reliability, and the other has a better reputation, but is missing some features. But, the manufacturers offer big rebates if you buy their whole line. So not a lot of choice here: one line or the other. But with the rebates, both come out under the builder’s allowance.

Plumbing was much more fun: faucets, shower heads, toilets, bathtubs, etc.., lots of little inexpensive decisions. The only really expensive item is the master bathtub (we could have easily blown our whole allowance on a fancy tub). But, we found one that wasn’t going to break the bank, and left us lots of room for everything else. We did run just over the allowance here, but since we’re well under with appliances, things balance out.

Still lots of things left to pick, though: lighting, paint, counter tops, trim, floors, etc..

One thing that’s really sinking in is how truly expensive home furnishings are. This is not going to be an inexpensive house, by any standard. But it would have been no trouble at all to quadruple what we spent kitchen appliances, without going to different stores. Tripling the plumbing budget would be trivial. Though I have no idea how high we could have gone on cabinets, because there weren’t prices tags on anything except the pulls, the sales guy was frank about telling us that we weren’t shopping anywhere near the high end of what they had available. It’s shocking.

When that was done, we stopped by the construction site on our way home. There, we discovered a bunch of things we’d like to change about the framing (want to turn some of the unused space under the upstairs roof slope into storage, want to add windows in a couple of rooms, need a new front door, etc. – all stuff we had talked with the builder about, previously, but which didn’t get done by his framing sub-contractor). Hope it’s not too late. Work on the house is stalled right now because all the next steps the builder can take depend on all the stuff we picked out today – need to know where the cabinets go and the kind plumbing fixtures we want before the plumbing can start, and we need to know the appliances before cabinets can start. I’m sure electrical is waiting on our lighting and appliances choices, too.

It’s a chore. Luckily, Mrs is taking care of the day to day haggling with all the people involved. There’s no way I could do it and still do my day job.