A "Big Thing," Part III

Posted by Arlo on May 25, 2004 under Life of Arlo

Continued from here.

That weekend, I began the daunting task of diving into some of the material my professor friend had sent to me. I picked up the Builder’s Guide for Cold Climates only because it looked very professional and had a lot of drawings. Boy, was that over my head.

I guess I should have had a clue with the words Builder and Guide included in the title. I’m not a builder. I mean, I’ve got enough tools and know-how to put together a particle-furniture that comes from the store complete with instructions, but anything beyond that is, well, beyond me. The book itself was well-written and quite explanatory, it just had a different audience in mind.

Before giving up on page 100 or so, I did sort of enjoy trying to figure out what they were talking about. Each chapter concerned itself with a different part of the homebuilding process; the foundation, insulation, electrical, plumbing, etc. All of it was geared towards building an extremely energy efficient, durable house in a cold weather environment. I got the most out of the first part of the each chapter where they gave an overview of what they were about to address. The rest was simply graphical variations on a theme. Unfortunately, the diagrams far outweighed the informative text. It wasn’t uncommon to find references to Figure 5.62 in a ten-paragraph chapter!

The sheer number of diagrams made it abundantly clear that many, many things need to be considered in order to properly build a home in our environment. As a prospective buyer, considering having my own home built, I worried that there was too much information. When it’s time to lay hundreds of thousands of dollars down, how can you trust your general contractor to make sure that all these little details are followed?

At the beginning of the next week, I contacted Wells Fargo again to find out why I hadn’t yet received an e-mail from their mortgage and loan department. I got an assistant on the line that promised to give it another try. A few minutes later I opened a .pdf that was the exact same, five-page form that we had filled out for Alaska Pacific Bank. Why oh why hadn’t we made photocopies? Oh, well. At least I’m familiar with what goes where.

Later that day, I exchanged a few more e-mails with “Beth” to find out exactly what auxiliary papers she would need ,as well as where I could drop everything off when I was finished. I promised to deliver it the next day and worked on it that evening.

At lunch the next day, Oksana and I followed through on that promise. The only thing to note was that, compared with our own bank, I wasn’t terribly impressed with Wells Fargo’s service. When we got to the reception area, no one immediately asked if they could help us, and when we asked if there was anything we needed to know before leaving the form, they didn’t even introduce us to the person that would be handling our prequalification. As we left, I convinced myself that it wasn’t a big deal. I suspected that we’d have a nice sit-down the next day when they had our results.

On Wednesday I received The Owner-Builder Book in the mail. I didn’t actually expect that I’d ever have the time and energy to invest in becoming the general contractor for our own home construction, but the price (on Half.com) was reasonable and I thought it might be a good idea to read up on General Contracting in general. Flipping through it, though, I began to reconsider. A large, paperback book, The Owner-Builder Book looked to be filled with, well, filler. Big blank areas and 4-inch margins filled with satisfied reader quotes. It looked like your typical self-help book. (Read: Filled with common sense and not that helpful to those who already have a full supply.)

Late in the day, “Tina” from Wells Fargo gave me a call at work. I had been anticipating the call and expected to hear that they had completed our prequalification. Instead, she informed me that she was “getting ready to work on our loan” and wanted to ask me a few questions before getting started. How much are we looking for? (The theoretical maximum.) How much do we have available for a down payment? (None at the moment, but we could perhaps manage 5% if we had to.) In the course of the inquisition, I told her that we were simply looking at loan options right now – we hadn’t even talked to a real estate agent yet, let alone decided on the particular house we wanted buy.

When she realized that we had already prequalified at another bank, she seemed rather surprised, and perhaps a little bit flustered. I took that as a good sign – the whole reason I wanted to get another quote was to see if two banks would compete against each other for our business. Even a half-point lowering of the interest rate could become a huge savings over the course of a 30-year loan. After her little epiphany, the questions became more specific and she ended the conversation by telling me that she’d get back to me as soon as she completed the process.

That was on March 10th. I have yet to hear back from them.

After a week had gone by, I thought about calling them up and givin’ ‘em hell, but that’s not really my style. Besides, we got a good offer already from our own bank and we’re not exactly serious about this whole process yet, anyway. If a desirable comes on the market, we can always go back again. Still, it amazes me that a big bank like Wells Fargo treats a potential customer that way. Sure doesn’t make me want to enter a binding agreement with them for the next three decades.

A couple weeks later I finally received the Not So Big House books that I’d ordered. These were not as daunting at the builder’s guides I’d been slowly going through. Filled with huge color pictures and a smattering of text and blueprints, they were fairly easy to digest. The only problem I noticed was with a little thing known as their whole concept.

The idea behind The Not So Big House is to build a house that’s smaller, yet more functional. A place for everything, and everything in it’s place. While their pictures of tiny tight and clean rooms had bookshelves built into their walls or complicated-looking, yet highly versatile cabinets installed. On the surface it seemed like a good idea, but I knew right away that it would never work for me. I’m a packrat and my belongings will quickly accumulate to fill whatever space available to me. A Not So Big House will simply fill up that much faster. Furthermore, a house where everything has it’s own place will very likely become a mess as soon as anything is left out of place – another bad habit of mine. No, I think Oksana and I would do better with more space.

Throughout the rest of the month, I continued to work my way through the various books that I had accumulated, but I slowly began to lose interest. Eventually I put down the Builder’s Guide because it just wasn’t geared towards me. The Not So Big House books, too, found themselves back in the bookcase, and only the Owner-Builder’s guide was left on the nightstand.

But eventually I came across problems with The Owner-Builder’s Book, too. The first few chapters were far too motivational – I only need to be told so many times how Bob and Jane were able to save a truckload of money. I desired concrete examples. Besides, that which I’d read so far seemed to indicate that if you couldn’t at least “talk the talk” in the building world, if you couldn’t set aside six solid months of building time, or if you couldn’t pre-plan down to the finest details, then you probably shouldn’t try to be your own general contractor.

Not having managed even a single subcontractor before and knowing next to nothing about construction, I just assumed that it would be an impossible task. That is, until the book made a forceful recommendation that an Owner-Builder should put in at least 1000 hours of planning before even setting the process in motion. 1000 hours! Well, hell, with that much time put into learning how to be a general contractor, I probably could do it! The remaining problem, though, was an insurmountable one. With a full-time job, I can’t seem myself ever coming up with that much planning time, let alone the six months needed to build the house.

Somewhere in there, Oksana and I lost that valuable motivation that had been propelling us towards our first home.

Thinking back, the Wells Fargo hitch might have been what dampened my spirits. Up until that point, Oksana and I had been all over the idea, and I fully expected that the next step would be to contact a real estate agent. We slowed down, though, and even now – 10 weeks later – I haven’t done much more than read those books.

One of the things that set me back was a talk with one of those new homeowner friends of ours. They had started out by contacting a real estate agent “just to look around” and quickly realized that they could move from renting to owning quite easily. When a house that met their criteria came along, they felt that they couldn’t pass it up and, just like that, they were committed to a mortgage. His advice: We really have to convince ourselves that we’re just looking or we might find ourselves with a huge commitment before we’re ready for it.

And that worries me. Yes, it feels like we’re throwing away money on rent that we could be using to build equity on our own home, but I still have other dreams and goals (i.e., world travel) that I would hate to put aside for 30 years or more, just because we have to meet our mortgage payments. Buying a house is like tying yourself to a Navy anchor – it’s such a big thing, it limits your freedom considerably.

Now, about four months after the real excitement began, Oksana and I have put this whole real estate thing on the back burner. Oh, we still cruise the classified ads and keep our ears to the ground, but we’re no longer actively looking to get out of our apartment. In the meantime, we’ll continue to put money into savings and, when the time is right, I’m sure we’ll trade up. Who knows? By then we might even have enough for a decent down payment.

To be continued… someday.