Job Diary - Planning Phase
Jessica here: So far, finding a lot has proved to be very difficult. Since we have children, we have to look at things like schools, quality of neighborhood, other children, safety, etc. We have to make sure that we are not on a busy road. Ideally we would like to be on a cul de sac. However, land in our area is somewhat hard to come by. First of all, most builders won't even release land to owner-builders. You can only buy the lot if you use them as your builder. It seems unfair, but there is not a lot we can do about it. Another problem is that the builders who will release lots charge a premium if you don't use them. This can add $6,000-8,000 to already fairly expensive lots.
We have spent numerous Saturdays as well as weeknights driving all over the area that we would like to buy in looking at lots. There have been a few that we have liked, but none that we have loved. There always seems to be something wrong with them. One option that we are looking into is finding an individual who owns some land and approaching them instead of trying to buy in these new developments. This would save us the premiums that the builders are tacking on.
Right now this seems to be our best plan of attack. We are also considering waiting a few more months to buy, because we feel like the boom might slow down a little bit in the next little while and it might become more of a buyers market. We are moving forward with our other plans, though I am a bit nervous about this without having a lot.
We have done a few things by way of planning. One of the first things that I did was to go on the internet to find what was out there. I went to quite a few sites, a lot of which are useless. However, there were some that I think are helpful or might be helpful in the future. I bookmarked and organized these under our "new house" folder. That way I can get back to them very easily. Also, the ones that have pictures and ideas, I am printing out to put into our binder. This binder has all of our ideas and pictures for the things that we want in our house. So far we have focused mostly on the kitchen and bathrooms. We've also looked quite a bit into light fixtures, ceiling fans, and flooring.
We made a field trip to Home Depot to get an idea of what's out there and just how much it costs. I was surprised by a few things. First of all, light fixtures are not as expensive as I thought that they would be. Of course the more intricate and fancy that you get, the higher the price, but the simple ones, which is my taste anyway, are good quality and reasonably priced.
Also, ceiling fans are the same way. There are expensive fancy ones and there are some that are fairly inexpensive. We are considering putting them in most of the rooms of the house. We think that this will add value to our house as well as help to circulate air and cool things down in the summer. There were things that were much more expensive than I thought they would be. Faucets, sinks and fixtures are really quite expensive. We decided that we did not want to scrimp on our bathrooms or kitchen. We wanted the best. However, I had no idea that a faucet for the bathroom, (just the faucet) could run between $300 and $400 dollars. That seems ridiculous to me. We did find some that we liked almost as well as the expensive ones for between $100 and $200. We'll probably end up using those.
Another area that is really expensive is the kitchen. I think that corian countertops are going to be out. They are popular now, so I think that they are way overpriced. We may go with formica or even tile if we can get a good deal.
We did our first budget tonight. And of course it was much higher than we had hoped. We want to build the house for $115,000. We set aside $10,000 of that for contingencies. When we added up the budget, it came to $125,000 without any money set aside for contingencies. We still have to look into environmental impact fees. That could really make a difference in where we buy. We were told that this could be in the range of $8000-$10,000. Yikes. We were a little depressed by this and the budget, but it was only our first crack at the budget. Hopefully, we will be able to find some really good deals with subs and materials that will cut that back even more.
My chore for the week is to find out about environmental impact fees and to get a list of subs going. Ten for each job. That's a lot, but the more the better, I guess.
Well, we have been unsuccessful in finding out about environmental impact fees. We've called around and nobody has heard of them. However, we were told that they did exist so I'm not sure what to think. However, we did end up calling two contractors. We figured if they do this for a living and such a fee existed, then they would know about it. Neither of them have heard of any such fee. I know for sure that these developers have developments in all of the cities that we are interested in. So I am going to assume that there is not any fee. However, I think that I'd better go back to the person that told us about the fees and find out what we can from them. I would hate to have a big chunk of money due that we didn't plan for.
We have been considering doing ceramic tile in the bathrooms and on the kitchen counter by ourselves. We have a friend that has done several tile entryways and kitchens. He is not a professional, but we have seen his work and he is very good. However, I feel bad using a friend to do all that work for us. We could offer to pay him, but he probably wouldn't take it. I thought about learning how to do it myself. I found an internet side- it's the Hometime site. Anyway, they have a very detailed area about how to do ceramic tile. They tell you how to do showers, countertops, and floors. It didn't seem super simple, but it definitely seemed like something that I could learn how to do. I'm also going to get a book so that I'll be well read on the subject. Maybe our friend can help me at first until he thinks that I'm proficient and then let me do a lot of the labor. Also, my dad is retiring in a few months and will have extra time to help us out. He's very handy and I'm sure that he would be more than willing to help.
This is really something that I would like to have in my house. Tile really adds something to your house and I definitely think that it will add value to our house.
Well, I'm well on my well to having a potential sub list. It's amazing just how many names you really need. I have ten for each area, though I couldn't find that many for some. Like on insulation, I only found three companies total that do it. I'm really worried about finding good quality people to do the work. We can ask questions and do our research, but even with all that planning we could get somebody that really screws up. And if one sub messes up, it could mess up a lot of things. There are just so many people to hire and so many supplies to buy, that something could easily slip through the cracks if we aren't careful. I guess that's where all the planning comes in. If you plan enough, then there will be less problems and hopefully we will be able to handle those when they come.
Well, I've definitely learned something about how helpful people can be. That is they are not very helpful. Nobody seemed to know anything about environmental impact fees, so we called a couple of builders. They had never heard of them. We figured that they dealt with things every day and so they must know what they are talking about. Wrong. Even the people that eventually gave us the information didn't know what we were talking about. They said they didn't know what environmental impact fees were. Then they said that they had impact fees-money that they took out for sewer, roads, etc. I thought that it was obviously what I was talking about, but I guess I should have been clearer. The problem is that they don't usually have to give them out because they are all included in the building permit cost. Most people apparently just ask about the permit fee and don't worry about the breakdown.
The fees, total building permit fees, ranged anywhere from $4500 to $8000. We checked on five cities. One was $8000. Two were $7000. One was $5500. The cheapest was $4500 so we are going to try and focus our lot buying in that area. Basically any money saved is good. We'll see what we can find. However, I don't think that there are a lot of available lots in this city. And I'm not sure what they are going for. I guess we will eventually have to weigh cost of lots against cost of permit fees. It may end up that buying a lot in the $8000 or $7000 cities is more economical because of the price of lots. Obviously there will be more information to come in this area.
Well, we did our second budget and we have reason to celebrate. We had overestimated quite a few areas (we hope) and we were able to get our budget down to pretty close to our desired cost. This is very exciting for us because we were a little discouraged after our first budget. However, I'm cautiously optimistic. I don't want to get too set on a number only to find out that now we've underestimated. Having said that, I'm very encouraged by our latest numbers.
We've become very aggressive in our search for a lot. We've been driving around a lot, just looking at empty lots. We've written the addresses down. Then we went to the county building to find out who owns what. Finally, we've gotten numbers of the people and given them a call to see if they are willing to sell. This is probably not the most efficient way to find a lot, but all that it takes is one person who is willing to sell and you have yourself a piece of land.
Another thing that we have done is to talk to the city planner. They are a wealth of information. And they can be very helpful, especially the one that we talked to. He gave us a lot of ideas. He suggested that it might be smart to buy a bigger piece of land, spend a few thousand on improvements and subdivide and then sell the other lots. He told us about a guy that spent $100,000 on an acre, subdivided and improved and then built his house and others on this land. Then he sold the others. He made a big profit. However, this probably won't work for us since we don't really have the money to buy the land and improve. If we did, we might consider it.
He also gave us the name of some developers, not builders. These people are ideal because they only develop the land. They really don't care about who builds on it, perfect for the owner-builder. Also, he gave us some information about the builder that we were thinking of buying from. I am so glad that we didn't buy from him. I really think that if we had we would have been ripped off. I really think that calling this city planner is a great move. He was really helpful. I think part of our problem was that we really didn't know where to go. He gave us some ideas that we hadn't thought of ourselves, and probably saved us a lot of money and frustration in the process.
We called some of the developers on our list. I think that we have found a lot. We went to look at the lots that he has available. The one that we want is $55,000 for a third of an acre. We think that's a great deal. It's going to be a really nice neighborhood. The developer wants to keep it upper scale. The smallest lot is 1/3 of an acre. The only problem is that the covenants are restrictive. We have to build a 2000 sq feet rambler. We were only planning to build a 1600 sq feet home. That really adds quite a bit to the cost of the house, which we haven't been planning on. We are going to have to rework our budget to make sure that we can afford the bigger house. We don't want to get in over our heads, but we really do like the lot and the neighborhood. Hopefully all will work out.
It is now the middle of June and we only have 3 and a half months until we want to break ground. There are so many factors to take into consideration. We only have put a couple hundred hours at most into the planning thus far. We are really going to have to pick up the pace in order to be prepared. We could get by with less hours I'm sure, but if we really want to save the most money, then we have to reach that 1000 hour mark. We are looking at 25 hours each person each week to do that. Seems a bit daunting. I'm not sure that we have enough hours in the day to accomplish that.
We know approximately five people or so who have owner-built in the last year or so. I'm having each one of them give me their top five sub choices. That gives us 25 subs that we know do good work. This probably won't cover all of the areas that are needed, but I think that it will help us tremendously. I feel very uncomfortable hiring people that we know really nothing about the quality of their work. At least this way, we'll have some idea about their abilities.
I took a field trip today to a kitchen place. I just really wanted to see what was out there and how much cost we are looking at. They had four or five different kitchens there for an example. They ranged from the very high to fairly cheap, but this place specializes in middle of the road prices. He told me that I could get a very nice kitchen for $9000. He also said that is a bit high and that I probably could get a pretty nice one for $7500. We'll have to see how that compares to others, but it seems a bit steep. Also, I really like the look of the corian countertops. They have look alikes that run about $50 per sq ft. That might be an option and I think that I can do even better than that. I'll have to look into how durable they are, but I have a feeling that they will be fairly durable. They just aren't as trendy as corian.
I did my first sub interviews today. Most everyone was very nice. There was one guy that blew me off, but it didn't really bother me because I don't want to waste my time with somebody that is not interested in working for me and doing a good job. I didn't get a whole lot of suggestions, but I think that I got some good information on cost and job quality. I talked to people that just did it out of their homes and then some that are very businesslike with secretaries, etc. I can see advantages to both. The one place I talked to that was a business atmosphere was a little hard to get suggestions because I talked to the secretary mostly. One good thing there is that they have a person whose only job is to give bids on projects. She told me that it only takes her one or two days to get a bid back after seeing the plans. Their prices were fairly reasonable. Also, they would be very easy to get a hold of somebody to talk to.
We went to a house that is being built down the street from us. They are putting up the cabinets and that sort of thing. A lot of it is finished. Anyway, we really like the house plan and the look of the house on the outside. The owner gave us a copy of the blue prints and all the info so we had that when we looked around. It was helpful because we were able to see the measurements of the rooms as we went through them. The bedrooms were too small for my taste. Also, the eating area was too small. We definitely will remember that when we draw up our plans.
Also, there were some things that we liked. They had arches between the eating area and great room. And the hallway also had an arched ceiling. It really added continuity to the house and brought the whole thing together. We were told that these would really not add a great expense to the house. The basement apartment had a beautiful tiled kitchen. We would like to do something similar in our entry area. However, they were Italian tiles and I'm sure that they were expensive. If we could find them at a reduced price I think that we would do it. We need to check our resources and see what they can do for us.
Sometimes I wonder if we are in over our heads with this project. I just feel really inadequate when it comes to knowing what I am doing. I feel like I don't know enough about house building and that maybe I'm not qualified to be doing this. I'm sure that everyone must feel that way sometimes.
We have been doing a lot of looking at houses that are being built. They are all in different phases of development, which seems to be a good thing. I'm not that familiar with house building so for me to see the different stages of building will be valuable later on. Also, we are discovering things that we like and dislike. Mostly things that we dislike. I honestly question what people were thinking when they planned certain things in their homes. I wonder if it was just poor planning or if the idea was good on paper, but not very practical in reality. We looked at a house that had an angled garage. We were considering doing this because of the way our lot is laid out, but we both agree that it doesn't look that great and also leaves you with a very odd shaped room.
I'm really having an interesting time while calling roofers for interviews. It's sort of interesting how evenly split they are on things. Half have recommended that we use 30 year shingles and the other half have said that they aren't worth the money. Others have said that if you use a good quality brand of 25 year shingles, they are more durable than most 30 years anyway. I'm wondering if the roofers that recommend the 30 years mark up the prices and thus make a profit on them or if they really are that much better.
We met with our first designer today. We talked about ideas for our house and what exactly we want in it. He seems to be well qualified and talented, but we thought he was a bit expensive. We'll look around some more and see what else is out there. Maybe we're just underestimating this expense.
We think that one of our best resources is that we know quite a few owner-builders. We met another one of our neighbors yesterday. She owner-built her house. She said that she was happy with all of her subs except one and he was a friend that was out of work. That seems to be something to stay away from. She's going to give us her lists. Also, we have a neighbor to the north of us that is owner-building. He knows a lot of people in the business. If we can get all these people to give us their lists, we should have a very good list to go off of. Also, we can see the kind of work they have done on our friends and neighbors houses.
John here: The lot fiasco is over. It has been a mess but we are almost done. When we first looked at the property we were told that 5 ft of our lot was going to be given to our neighbor because in construction he hit a storm drain had to move his house 5 ft closer to our property. This would make him 5 ft too close and would give him a very small side yard. That is fine except that our lot would be reduced to 96 ft of frontage while the zoning requires 100 min ft. Thus we have been months trying to get the lot re-zoned. Well it went before zoning and planning and has been approved. It now must be approved by the city council but that should not be a problem. I feel a lot more comfortable now. Although stressful, it has worked in our favor because we will save a few thousand dollars on interest charges because we can't officially buy the lot until it is rezoned at the end of August.
I'm moving dirt onto the property tomorrow Sat June 15th. My neighbor down the road has a lot of dirt to be moved and I have negotiated a deal with his excavator to move it for me. The dirt will be free, I just have to pay to move it. It is a really good deal. The going rate per load is 25-30 dollars. I will be running the loader and two trucks for $170/hr. If I keep them motivated I think I can move about 12-15 loads an hour or $12-15/per load. I'm planning on renting a backhoe for a few hours so I can keep the dirt stacked on the back of my property to keep it out of the way until I'm ready to back fill. I anticipate needing about 80-100 loads to fill in my lot.
I also talked with the manufacturer of SIP foam paneling. I'm seriously considering using these to frame the outside of my house. They are a little more but you get instant framing and insulation. They can put up the whole house in a number of days. I'm still trying to figure out if it is going to be worth it. I did learn that if you build your home in 4 foot sections it cuts costs because they don't have to cut the foam as much. This is nice to know especially now that we are beginning to design our home.
After interviewing about 4 designers we have come down to two choices. They are both the same price, $.45 sq/ft. One hand draws and the other uses CAD. We are really having a hard time deciding and do not know for sure which one to go with.
We are looking at the Parade of Homes this week. We figured we better get in as much as we can to see if there are any more ideas out there that we would like to incorporate before we get the designs fully done.
Jessica here: Tonight we went and visited a recent owner-builder. She gave us some good ideas for our house, as well as a list of names of subs that she used. She was happy with most everyone, so we'll call these people for interviews and get bids from them. She had some creative ways to make things look more classy and expensive than they really were. She had a fireplace and urged us to do the same for resale value. I'm not sure that we can really afford it. I'm not that big into fireplaces anyway. I'd be happy to not have one, but maybe that would be a mistake. However, if we try to put everything in our house that will give it a higher resale value, we'll be broke! We have an appointment with our designer tomorrow to get started on our plans.
John here: We've been through several drawings with our designer and have a pretty good design in place now. He's very fast and understands what we want. We need to finalize the design and get good drawings so we can get bids off them. The subs are telling us that they really can't bid without the plans. It's going to cost us about $5 a set to make blueprint copies, so I have an idea to shrink them onto 11 1/2" by 17" paper and print off a set for much cheaper.
We are going to bring the small sets to several of our friends and experienced owner-builder people and ask for their comments on our plan. We're still not happy with the way the master bath and closet work. We're not sure whether to allocate more space for the closet or for the bathroom. It's always a trade-off between one thing and another, you can't get everything you want.
We can print a set of shrunken drawings for subs at 15 cents a page, which makes 75 cents for a whole set. I can put it in an envelope and mail it for close to a dollar a set. At that price, I don't care if the subs even return the plan sets. The main thing is getting back a bid without a lot of delays. I'm also experimenting with efax.com where I can have my own electronic fax number, and receive marked up drawings back from subs and bids electronically and view it all on my computer via the internet. These drawings will be shrunk even more to 8 1/2" by 11". It's really convenient, and this way I can fax a whole set of plans to a sub for free. By using my scanner, I've gotten the whole set in electronic form stored at efax, and now I can ask subs for their fax numbers and send to them easily.
It seems like most of the subs are not happy with my smaller plan sets because they aren't perfectly accurate to scale. That is, when you shrink them, they come out slightly off and you can't get perfect estimates of dimensions for bidding. I'm not sure if that's really true, but you could definitely reduce the plans accurately if they were created digitally in the first place. Our designer is an old school guy who does the drawing by hand. Nothing against him because he is really smart and works very fast, but he doesn't use CAD to produce drawings, which is digitally scalable. Anyways, some of the subs don't need more than what I've given them and we've gotten back some really cool bids electronically. Some of the others I am dropping off full sets of plans to, but not very many.
I'm hoping to get these bids all in soon, because we wanted to have a good budget September 1st. This is a problem, because we haven't got drawings to some of the ones on our list yet. And some of the subs we need we haven't actually identified yet, so it's going to be tight. We are working as fast as we can.
We submitted the plans to the city today. The inspector looked them over and didn't seem to think we needed engineering on the plans, which they sometimes require around here. The drawings are very good and straightforward, and I have a pretty good relationship with the Lehi inspector now. We talked several times when they were deciding to rezone the property this summer, and I think he trusts me. It's good about the engineering, because that will save us hundreds of dollars.
We don't yet have our bids back from everybody. I cannot believe how people will not return your phone calls. If you call somebody to follow up the plans you gave them, you'd think they would respond. In some ways I feel like a pest, but I feel like if you say you are going to be done in two days, you should at least return a call two weeks later when you haven't got the bid back yet. I'm having trouble getting concrete locked down and framing is very uncertain, too. Those are both early trades in the project and I would really like then to be settled.
Part of the problem is that we aren't decided about whether to use SIP's (structural insulated panels) for our exterior walls, and ICF's (insulated concrete forms) for the basement. I have one guy who can do both. I'd really like to use him because he is so honest, and that would take two big chunks of the project off my mind, which would be good right now. He went to BYU, where Jessica and I went to school, and he is an MBA, which is rare for a contractor. I've met with him several times and my only problem with him is that the numbers never quite arrive at what he is saying. He is saying that SIP's come close to the cost of conventional framing when you consider the labor savings to put them up.
I have done spreadsheets and talked to people, and nobody knows exactly how you can come out pretty close to the cost of conventional framing. Trying to compare apples to apples, he is still two to four thousand more than the other framing bid I have. I figured that the outside walls of the house were about a third of the labor on framing, with flooring and interior walls one third, and roof and sheathing the other third. He said that was probably right. But there isn't enough to cut back if you take one third of his estimated labor to compensate for the added cost of the SIP materials. It's true that you get back some savings on heating and cooling, but conservatively, I think it would take more than ten years to make up the difference.
The same thing goes for the ICF's on the basement walls. They are thousands more expensive than conventional concrete walls at the eight foot level, but if you want tall basement walls like we do, they are about a thousand dollars more for the 9 foot walls. This is comparing against walls that have good insulation, which we definitely want. With all the costs coming in now we are thinking we might have to really cut back, and just do eight foot walls with normal insulation. We found good insulation for the whole house and it turned out at a good price, which is blown in cellulose. It's extremely good insulation, and we saw a demonstration at the home and garden show in Salt Lake showing how it keeps all of its heat in compared to fiberglass insulation.
Maybe the best thing will be to have eight foot walls in the basement, normal framing upstairs, and cellulose insulation. We got a very good bid on that, about $200 higher than fiberglass, and I think I can get that guy to come down by $100 or so. I'm afraid that the guy who may do our framing won't want to do the job if its conventional framing and conventional concrete foundations. In that case, I'll have to get a couple of other framers who give me good bids, and maybe a backup guy on the concrete.
It's getting kind of tense right now, because I don't have a good budget for the bank, which they say they want before going ahead with my loan. This loan is a big savings, because it is a one time close. They approve you for your 30 year mortgage at the same time as they approve the construction loan and you only pay closing costs once. This will save us probably more than $2,000. But they want everything perfect. Right now my construction loan is just an estimate that we calculated off the budget guides in The Owner-Builder Book and from the Owner-Builder workshop tapes we watched. It would be much better if we had good bids in all the categories and probably several so we could average the costs to be safe. I am scared to death that our budget isn't accurate without getting all the bids back, even though we've reviewed it with several people.
What I don't know is if the bank will take a long time to approve the loan once we have all the papers in. To be safe we are going to submit the construction license of a friend of ours to be the "contractor". We offered to pay him $750 and he was agreeable, and he is willing to give us any advice we want. He will also come out and inspect the job, hopefully once a week or twice a month. We also don't know how long it will take for the city of Lehi to approve our building permit. It's been two weeks now, and we're worried that it might go six weeks, which we hope not, but we can't do anything but wait. The problem is meeting our goal to start on October 1st.
Big problem. We did get our building permit, about a week ago, and the bank is good to go. But we are dead in the water. I had the excavator out there today, and I was there and the two guys were laying out the corners of the house, and they stopped and said "Your house won't fit on this lot." I was sure they were wrong, because our designer was very careful, but I had this nagging feeling right away that our designer might have been confused about the boundary changes that came from the City of Lehi. Anyway, one corner of the house was about a foot an a half over the setback line that Lehi allows, even though they measured it twice. So the excavators just left and said, "Let us know."
It turns out the designer was confused. I can't understand why they don't go to your lot and make sure their design fits on your land, but they never do, he told me. Well, I thought I told him about the boundary change, and how it took 5 feet off our land, and how it was rezoned by the planning commission to allow the variance. But he didn't know about it, and now the plans that we worked on so long and sent out to everybody are no good.
He says he has some ideas to change the plans, and one of them is to take off the bump-out on the back corner of the house where the master bath is. That really disturbs me because it was one of the nice features of our house. From the front you see the bump-out and it breaks up the lines of the house and is a nice contrast, I think. I have no idea how long it will take him to draw up his suggestions, but I am worried now, because by the time we go through all of this again, it could set us back a month.
We decided to take the bump-out off the house, which gave us 3 1/2 feet back, and cleared the setback lines by maybe two feet. Jessica was concerned that we wouldn't have the 2,000 square feet we are supposed to have to meet the restrictive covenants, so the designer gave us an extra 6 inches of depth in the house, and we made it. I borrowed an engineer's tape and checked all the measurements of the land with a friend. It was pretty easy to do, and I would suggest that anyone building a home should make sure to measure their own land to be safe. We checked it several times, and there's no way the original design would fit within the setbacks that Lehi city requires.
The designer finished all the revisions and we picked up the plans today. Now the earliest we can get the excavator out is Thursday, Columbus Day. From my neighbor, Kevin, we learned that the sewers are a little high on our side of the street, so the first thing the excavator has to do is dig out the sewer stub and from there we'll determine just how high our house has to sit to get good drainage. Our land was so dished out when we got it that we won't have to dig much at all to place the footings. We've already brought in lots of dirt to fill in around the foundations when they're ready.
One special thing we have to do is put gravel in to fill up where the garage floor will be. They will do footings and foundations for the whole house, and just a small amount of gravel will go under the basement floor. But under the garage floor, which is much higher out of the ground, there will be hundreds of tons of gravel as a base for the garage floor. After they get the foundations poured, we'll fill in the cavity under the garage floor with truckloads of gravel. I'm getting prices on that now, and they vary from four dollars to twelve dollars a ton delivered.