28 August 2009

Green Blog, Green House

As we have explored building materials, design, components, and techniques, we have gotten really excited about building a "green" house. It just makes sense that, given this opportunity to decide what to put on this patch of earth, we would make it as socially responsible and minimally burdensome on our world as possible. Little did we know when we started down this road that Austin is a (if not the) leader in green building. In addition to it generally being kind of an outdoorsy hippie town that embraces this sort of thing, our hot climate and resulting energy needs have led the city and its municipally owned utility, Austin Energy, to devise creative strategies for reducing our energy use. Instead of having to build new power plants -- a very expensive undertaking -- Austin Energy has chosen to offer a myriad of incentives for individual customers to adopt energy-saving measures. For existing homes, they offer sizable rebates and zero-interest financing for all sorts of energy-efficient upgrades, such as new air conditioners, water heaters, insulation, appliances, etc. To reduce our water needs (Austin is currently in the second year of a major drought), they even give out free high efficiency toilets. Since codes tend to mandate these more efficient systems for new construction, the city isn't as generous with new homes, but they do have big rebates for solar panels and limited other energy-efficient components. I don't know how much they have spent on rebates (or how much a power plant costs), but they have already saved themselves the need for a whole power plant through these programs.

Austin Energy also offers a quarterly all-day workshop, Green by Design, for people considering remodeling or building homes. The workshop is a part of the green building program, which rates green houses from one to five stars. Our house will probably get four stars (the things you have to do for five stars get pricey, and we're not the Rockefellers). In addition to what you would expect (recycling of construction waste, efficient installation of systems, etc.), some of the things they give points for are things you wouldn't expect:
  • not having carpet (which wears out and creates waste when it's replaced)
  • building on a lot where utilities have been in place for at least 25 years (infill construction in developed areas theoretically reduces urban sprawl)
  • termite-proof construction, such as steel studs or barrier systems (so that the property does not have to be treated with chemicals that would seep into water sources)
There are even some things that aren't really about green building at all -- lever door handles, for instance, which are a component of accessible design (maybe this is like carpet; if a disabled person moves in later, the old handles won't end up in a landfill).

Anyway, the workshop covers a lot of this stuff. Unfortunately, we had just missed the spring workshop when we started thinking about our house, and by the time we went to the workshop two weeks ago, we had already discovered much of what they presented. We did learn some new things, though. For instance, we've been trying to decide what kind of water heater to use. The trend right now is tankless water heaters, but studies have shown that they don't save as much energy as you would think, and they're pretty pricey. Plus, since we're going to be installing enough solar panels to hopefully cover our electrical needs (there are HUGE Austin and federal rebates right now), it's hard to justify installing a gas appliance when electricity will be free and we don't know where the price of natural gas may go. A builder planted the seed of a solar water heater in our minds, but we have certain reservations about that, too. Green by Design introduced us to another option, which might be a winner: the heat pump water heater. It extracts heat from the ambient air and uses it to heat the water in a traditional tank. Even in the winter when the air is freezing, there is enough heat in the air to heat the water more efficiently than any other kind of water heater. Pretty cool, huh? (Since our house is about 70 feet wide, and the water heater -- near the master bathroom -- is on the opposite side from the other bathrooms (with the kitchen in the middle), we will have an on-demand recirculating pump so that we won't waste all that water waiting for the cold water to drain out of 60+ feet of water line.)

Other energy efficiency measures we have worked into our plans:
  • spray foam insulation (as I've written about previously)
  • high efficiency air conditioning equipment within the "thermal envelope" of the house -- because the spray foam goes on the underside of the roof, instead of at the bottom of the attic space, the attic will stay cool and the air conditioning equipment won't have to work as hard because it won't be trying to route cold air through an oven
  • standing-seam metal roof (which reflects heat, also helping to keep the attic cool, and also provides a great surface on which to mount the solar panels)
  • highly efficient windows that will help to keep heat out
  • wide eaves/overhangs, large porches, and an "awning" roof over one large, south-facing window (all of which will keep the summer sun off of the windows)
  • solar tubes in the kitchen (like skylights, but much more energy efficient)
  • high windows to bring light into certain rooms without letting in much heat (referred to in the biz as "daylighting")
  • toilets from the EPA's "Water Sense" list
  • Energy Star appliances (of course)
I'm sure there are more I'm forgetting, but I'm sure I'll write more about them as they are built/installed.

All of the builders we are considering have done green houses, and at least two of them have participated in the city's star rating system. One of them is even currently working with the city on updates to the energy code for construction. An interesting thing about all of this green stuff is that what is considered "green building" today will someday -- probably sooner than you think -- be just "building" as the codes catch up to the best practices that are currently considered cutting edge but also just make plain sense.

26 August 2009

The Bachelorette

I know exactly how the Bachelorette feels. (In case you are not familiar, the Bachelorette is a TV show in which one woman meets and dates 20+ men and, over the course of perhaps three months, whittles them down to her one true love, to whom she will become engaged and then break up with at some point in the not-too-distant future -- probably within the time it takes to build a house, actually.)

Similarly, I started out approximately three months ago with several builders in contention for my love...er, my money. I was quickly and painlessly able to eliminate some of them and now have three solid contenders who are bidding on the construction of our house.

Invariably, as the season winds down, an increasingly distraught Bachelorette makes emotional declarations to the camera: "I have three great guys, and I don't know what I'm going to do." "I'm falling in love with more than one person." Wow. Intense.

Likewise, we wouldn't be getting bids from these three if we couldn't see a future with each of them. Each could build us a quality house that we would love. However, we have developed a clear preference: Builder R. Our preference is so strong that we wouldn't even bother getting bids from the other two if we were certain we could afford R, but we aren't certain, so we are keeping the others in the mix just in case R breaks our hearts, by which I mean our budget. (I suspect that, by the last couple of weeks, the Bachelorette has also made her choice, but she has to keep the others until the appropriate time, as dictated by the show's formula of one elimination "rose ceremony" per week.)

But even if we ride happily into the sunset with R, it's still hard. In the division of labor on this project, I've been the one to cultivate the relationships with the builders, and I'll be the one to have to break up with two of them. And they are quality builders, and decent people, and times are tough (especially for builders, but also, I suppose, for single people who feel compelled to look for love on primetime TV).

We have met with each builder 2-3 times and have shared countless e-mails and/or phone conversations. Each time, we get engrossed in their ideas, and each of them has made contributions that have been incorporated into our plans. In the moment, talking with one of them about air conditioning systems, plumbing fixture selection, or their preferred insulation method, it's hard to imagine not having them build our house. But the others aren't R, and it's even harder to imagine R not building our house.

Season after season, each Bachelorette worries that the man she chooses won't want to marry her. This is silly. They always want to marry her (even though we know that, one way or another, there won't actually be a wedding). The Bachelorette doesn't have to worry that she doesn't have enough cash for her chosen suitor, but she still has to break up with the runners-up, with whom she could totally see herself if an even more suitable prospect weren't also in the picture. It's heart wrenching. I know.

24 August 2009

Back in Town

Ursula and I had a great weekend in Tuscaloosa, I had a good race, and we drove back today. Ursula is pretty much the best fan ever, as evidenced by the sign she painted for me:

Yes, Kitty is wearing a wetsuit and goggles!

While I was away, Steve oversaw the soil sampling, which was apparently quite a process.

Initial feedback suggests that we have good, solid rock just a few feet down, but we're still waiting on the report.

Tomorrow we're delivering our plans to Builder R, meeting his foreman, and checking out another house he's working on. I also need to call the city's demolition inspector to confirm what we need to do before the inspection (to our knowledge, capping the water line is the main thing), and if it sounds like we have everything covered, I'll schedule the demo inspection.

19 August 2009

Weekend Update

I'm leaving for Alabama for a triathlon this weekend, but I wanted to fill in our fans (do we have more than one?...maybe just "fan") on what's gone on this week.

Today we received a "final" set of plans to bid. I put "final" in quotes because we all know it's not final, but it's close enough to send out for bids. We'll continue to hone the plans as our whim and our budget dictate. First, though, we're getting the bid set printed up and will hopefully meet with our three prospective builders next week to deliver the plans and our list of specifications so they can start getting their bids from their subcontractors.

Soil samples should be taken tomorrow. Unfortunately, I'm going to miss that. I'm curious about the equipment used to extract a narrow, 15-foot long cylinder of earth, and I'm curious about what that cylinder of earth actually looks like. I'm also, of course, curious about what that cylinder of earth -- two of them, actually -- will reveal about our lot, since that will dictate how sturdy (and by "sturdy," I mean "expensive") our foundation will have to be.

That's all for now. Maybe we can post some of our drawings, but that will have to be after I get back from Alabama. (The picture at the top of the blog, by the way, was our starting point for our plans and is very similar to how our house will look from the street, but we have made certain changes, most notably the metal roof. If we get really proficient at Photoshop, we may try to update that rendering to reflect our actual house.)

18 August 2009

A "Lot" of Lot

This is the last of the "lot" series of posts -- the lot is finally, undeniably, a LOT. And it is indeed a lot of lot -- with the 18' right of way in front (the first 18' of lawn), it's about 80'x150', or nearly 12,000 square feet (well over a quarter acre).

The work wrapped up on Friday, with the excavator hanging out over the weekend (the machine, I mean; not Tim, its driver). Now we have a long wait while we have the soil samples drilled, get the foundation engineered, and get bids. We hope to start construction as early in October as possible, but that depends on how long it takes to get bids, meet with our lawyer to hammer out a contract, and get through the city's permit process (which will NOT involve me going down to the development office -- that'll be the builder's problem from now on!).

For now, we're still trying to get a final set of plans (hopefully this week) and to do other prep work, including exploring our options on things like flooring, bathtubs, lighting, etc. Over the weekend we visited a house currently being built by one of the builders we're considering, and we saw blown-in cellulose insulation in action (it is dense -- much better than fiberglass batts). He likes to use spray foam insulation in the attic but cellulose in the walls, and since he's one of the best builders in Austin, I trust him when he says that's a better way to go (better value, I assume) than foam in the ceiling and walls. Here's a picture of both in that house he's working on:

Normally the spray foam would be in the attic, but this second-story room has a vaulted ceiling, so there's no attic above it. When spray foam is used in the attic, though (as it is in other parts of this house), it's applied at the top of the attic (the underside of the roof), making the entire attic space insulated, so it stays pretty cool (within 10 degrees of the conditioned space, instead of 50+ degrees warmer in the summer). The air conditioning system is also a lot more efficient when the inside unit and the ductwork aren't working under such extreme conditions. When all of this is taking place under a metal roof (shown above the screened porch below), which reflects heat instead of absorbing it, the house uses much less energy to stay cool. Throw some solar panels up on that metal roof, and you save even more.

We're so fortunate to be doing all of this at a time when energy efficient materials and systems are so accessible. We hope to install enough solar panels to cover all of our electricity needs, at least at certain times of the year. The city will buy back any power we don't need (but at wholesale prices, which are about a quarter of what we pay), and we will "settle up" monthly, so if we generate a bunch during the day but then turn on all of the lights and do lots of laundry at night, we'll just take back some of that day's production (sometimes the number on the meter will increase, and sometimes it will decrease). In essence, the grid will work as a battery for us. Eventually the city may start paying retail prices or may move to settling up annually, which would be more beneficial for us if we generate more than we need during the winter but less than we need during the summer. But since they are going to pay about two-thirds of the cost of the solar panel system, they can dictate the terms of buying back any excess.

13 August 2009

A "Lot" of Rubble

Alternate title: Dude, where's my house?

Today I took some co-workers over to see the demolition. The crew was already well into peeling the remaining foundation up from the ground. It was fascinating to see the excavator lift up off the ground when parts of the concrete just wouldn't budge.

Tim spent the day breaking up the foundation, removing the rebar, and getting ready to load everything up when the truck returns tomorrow. The rebar will be recycled like the rest of the metal, and the foundation will be ground up into road base. By the time I made it back in the evening, this is what I saw:

12 August 2009

Demolition, Day 3

All of the debris was hauled away today. Our excavator, Tim, is very skilled with the claw. He was nice enough to pose for a picture this afternoon:

By the end of the day, all that was left was the foundation. The ball-like object toward the left side is used to break up the foundation. I think Tim said it weighs 4,000 pounds. He picks it up in the claw, raises it up, and drops it. I haven't seen it in action yet, but much of the foundation has already been reduced to rubble.

We have also taken out a total of five and a half trees. Don't get me wrong; we're not tree haters. We just had really unfortunate trees. The two in front and one in the middle of the backyard were all in very poor condition, and the three along the back fence line were directly under the power lines and had been pruned so completely on the side closest to the power lines that they each leaned dangerously in the other direction (plus two of them had some kind of black mold tree disease). Yesterday, the power company's pruning crew came out and chopped them down to below the power lines (they wouldn't remove them but agreed to cut them down to the point that they would be safe for someone else to finish the job), and then the claw pulled them out of the ground. The third one still had a big branch extending out over our back neighbor's lot, and it would have snagged the power lines if Tim had tried to pull it out, so we decided to leave it for now. It's already much safer (and it doesn't have the tree disease).

It's funny how the lot, and the original foundation, seem so much smaller once they're cleared. We have to remind ourselves that it's a huge lot (80x130) and can easily accommodate a 2,250 square foot house with plenty of yard to spare.

11 August 2009

House? What House?

Demolition began yesterday. On the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words, I'll save myself several thousand words and experiment with posting pictures.

Before. (Poor house didn't even see it coming.)

Our friends Ursula and Schaefer came to watch.

The excavator got right to work.

It all went so fast.

That claw means business. It can smash things, push/pull things over, and, of course, eat things.

This is what the neighbors saw when they got home from work:

The whole thing took less than two hours.

I was back there in the evening and was tickled by all of the cars that slowed to a crawl as they drove by the house that was suddenly missing from the street. I loved imagining their thought processes as they saw the lot. Did they see the excavator first, or the absence of the house? Either way, this is BIG for a quiet neighborhood.

While demolition was taking place, we met lots more of the immediate neighbors, who came outside to watch it all go down. (Special thanks to the Lawrence family for having the most wonderful live oak tree, pictured behind Schaefer, to shade us while we watched.) If I had known how many neighbors would be there, I'd have brought nametags. And hors d'oeuvres. Later on I even met a family from a few blocks away, who were out walking and were fascinated by what was going on. Their little boy also loved the huge machine. Living that far away, they would never have stopped to introduce themselves if they passed by a regular house with new people out front, but a construction project seems to belong, in a way, to the whole neighborhood. As private people, this might take some getting used to, but it has been great to meet so many people who are enthusiastic about our new home.

10 August 2009

Fashion Dilemma

It's 6:30 a.m., and I'm trying to figure out what to wear that is appropriate for work (today happens to be a dress-up day) and a demolition site. Oh, and it'll be 95 degrees by noon. And most of my nice work clothes are black.

08 August 2009

Small World

We met another neighbor today. Well, I guess I should say that Steve met him -- because I've known him for a few years, although I haven't seen him in a long time. I worked with Jack (who I always knew as "John") at two different jobs I've had (my first law job out of law school -- Jack is a lawyer, too -- and the scoring job I used to do seasonally).

Steve and I sent the eight or nine neighbors closest to the house a letter a few weeks ago, introducing ourselves and letting them know what would be happening with the property, so he's known for a while that we bought it, but I didn't know until today that he lives there. (Actually, his elderly mother lives there; he grew up in the house (they are original owners, like the previous owner of our house) and still spends a lot of time there.) We had a nice chat, and so far we're 2 for 2 with the neighbors. (We were worried that the neighbors would view us and our plans with disdain; so far, that hasn't been the case. His mother was a bit concerned that we would build a two-story house -- which would overwhelm the other houses in the neighborhood -- but Jack assured her that the deed restrictions prevent that.)

In other news, we have a new project. We met with an arborist on Friday to get advice about the various trees and bushes at the house, and among lots of other great information, he told us that one of the various bushes that are close to dying is a keeper (it will have pretty flowers), so we're going to start hauling water over to try to resuscitate it. He also confirmed for us that our three main trees (as well as most of the others on the lot) are total write-offs and are best taken out during demolition.

06 August 2009

Got the Permit

It's pretty much all there in the title. If you're keeping track or perhaps have placed a wager, this visit to the permit office cost me about half an hour.

We also confirmed that demolition will start next Monday and heard from two of the builders who have been courting us. One of them, whom I'll call Builder B, has a preliminary bid for us. The other one, Builder G, already gave us his guesstimate -- which wasn't pretty -- and was just checking in. (We're lucky to have three solid builders to choose from. I'm not too sure how we're going to choose.) Builder B also mentioned that he drove by our lot the weekend before last and saw the utility markings, so he could tell that we're getting close to demolition. Which we are!

Tonight we're going to do some more work on our list of specifications for the builders to bid. This is important so that we get accurate bids and so that we're comparing apples to apples among the builders.

05 August 2009

Lost Some Dirt, Got Some Dirt.

Today was quite the day.

The utility company's tree trimmers were coming around 8 to trim some trees away from the power lines, and I had to open the gate to let them in. (We were also secretly hoping that, by being there while they worked, we could encourage them to cut as much of our neighbors' trees as they needed to, so we wouldn't have to be the people who move into a new house and start chopping up our neighbors' trees where they crossed the plane of our property line.) As I approached the house, I saw the truck and a row of traffic cones leading to a big area in the front yard that was fenced off with that orange plastic construction fencing -- which seemed like overkill for some tree pruning in the back yard. As I pulled into the driveway, I saw that the orange fencing was around the hole that the gas company had left when they capped the gas line. Steve and I had partially filled in the hole to (a) reduce the chance that someone would fall in, and (b) get our dirt pile out of our neighbor's yard so he wouldn't hate us, but the hole was back, and now three or four times as big. And they had taken the dirt away (so we wouldn't try to fill it in again? A phone call letting us know what was going on could have accomplished that). Upon closer inspection, I could see not only the gas line exposed but also what appeared to be our sewer line and the top of the big main sewer line that runs parallel to the street. My first thought was that the plumber, who had told us that he had capped the sewer line several days ago (and had dug and then refilled a hole on the opposite side of the driveway), had come back to finish up the job, but I didn't see anywhere that appeared to be capped. A mystery!

The mystery was soon solved when I met the next door neighbor, John, and apologized to him for the huge hole that now extends into his yard. He said it was okay, it wasn't my fault; it resulted from the gas company hitting the water main, and the repair people hitting the sewer line. It appeared that all had been fixed, and hopefully the new (and improved) portion of sewer line will save us some trouble later because we were expecting to have to replace the sewer line anyway. (John is retired and spends a lot of time in his front yard, surveying neighborhood goings-on. He also filled me in on some neighborhood gossip. Our construction just might be the most exciting thing in his world for a while, and I fully suspect that updates on our house will quickly spread along the street.)

To my dismay, the tree trimmers wouldn't be trimming the neighbors' trees. It turns out that the electrical lines are the very highest on the poles, so not much reaches within their 8' pruning zone. Tree limbs touching the phone or cable lines don't matter. Just before leaving, they did see that we had taken the electrical service back to the pole, so they trimmed a little bit of a tree that looked like it would hit the lines if they were connected back up to the house (which we hope we won't have to do; our plan is to bury the electrical service to the house).

[I just realized this is a really boring blog. Hey, no one's making you read it.]

While the trimmers were working, I set up a compost bin in the back corner of the lot, made by tying together the ends of a 10' piece of chicken wire. Yes, we will be composting at the new house several months before we move in. We figured any plants we plant will be at such a disadvantage with us tending to them that starting them off with some compost is the least we can do.

Today we also:
  • Got word from the city that our demolition permit is ready to pick up. I was planning to be in the area running and swimming in the morning anyway, so I'll swing by and pick it up on the way to work. (And yes, by "swing by," I probably do mean "sit for an hour until I am finally helped.")
  • Called the demo company to schedule demolition as soon as possible. Haven't heard back.
  • Got a quote from the geotech company for soil samples and a soils report, which will serve as the basis for the engineer's foundation design. They were itching to get started drilling the soil samples tomorrow; I had to explain that there's still a house on the lot.
  • Bought two curved shower curtain rods for the (tiny) showers in the house we're renting. They will also be the shower curtain rods for the hew house. They're really nice and cost next to nothing! (Thank you, Tuesday Morning!)
  • Met with our designer to go over the latest set of changes, which puts us really close to final drawings. Once these changes are made, she is going to send the drawings to our engineer so he can start working on the beam spans he needs to work out.
and finally...
  • Got a bill from our designer. I think it's safe to say that the financial hemorrhage has begun.

04 August 2009

There Are Already-Built Houses You Can Buy.

I told a colleague about all of the work involved in demolishing, designing, and building. She's a pragmatic sort and responded by asking me if I was aware that there are houses you can buy that are already built.

Nothing much else going on today. We got a set of drafts and sent our designer a ton of minor changes. Fortunately, we're her favorite clients, so I'm sure she was delighted to get that e-mail from us. It's nice to have the major design issues worked out and be at the point of deciding on simple things like placement of electrical outlets.

03 August 2009

The Permit Office, or Fool Me Once, Shame on You, Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

I went down to the city development office again today. I had to take my car to the dealership first and made it to the city offices right at 8, when they opened. The last time we were there, we were sent from floor to floor for different things, so I didn't quite remember where I needed to go for the permit. (The directory by the elevators, as another woman in the waiting room this morning pointed out, is entirely unhelpful.) I seemed to think the fifth floor was right, but when I arrived, it didn't look familiar. I went to an office where I thought the receptionist might be able to point me in the right direction. To my surprise, she told me I was in the right place for a demolition permit and that I needed to talk to "Lonnie," who had just called to say she was going to be about 15 minutes late. Now, we had been to the permit office before (and waited for TWO HOURS to be helped), and I knew this wasn't it, but the receptionist spoke with such authority that I thought maybe they had shuffled things around. I think being first in line for Lonnie also threw me off my game -- that was certainly not the experience we had last time, and it was a welcome departure.

However, as time went on (and Lonnie didn't arrive at 8:15, or even 8:20), I decided I should look for permit office I knew. I found the Development Assistance Office on the second floor and signed in at 8:26.

I need to digress for a minute and explain that, as much as I believe that the City of Austin tries to be a leader in development and government in general, they know nothing about efficient customer service. The last time we were there, we were within our option period to buy the property and just wanted to talk to someone to get questions answered and confirm that our plans to rebuild were feasible. We arrived around 8:05 and told the receptionist the purpose for our visit. She put us on the "Zoning" waiting list (one of three lists) and wrote in the comments section, "McMansion" (that's the nickname for a fairly new and complex set of rules in Austin residential building that prevents the construction of, well, McMansions). We had a whole variety of questions, so we weren't sure why she chose to list that specifically. After waiting for perhaps an hour and a half, we learned that this was because there was only one person trained to handle McMansion questions, and while we were in the main "zoning" line (not that any of our questions had much to do with zoning), we had to wait specifically for this one person. Accordingly, people who arrived after us were helped before we were, and we found ourselves with two hours to contemplate how arriving five minutes earlier -- and getting on the list before at least some of the dozen or so people ahead of us -- would have saved us at least an hour of waiting.

So, in planning this visit to the permit office (the same office that put us on the "zoning" list last time), I was relieved to know that I would be on a less crowded list this time. Little did I know that not only was I going to spend half an hour in the wrong place before even getting on the list, but when I finally got to the right place, I landed back on the same "zoning" list. (Apparently the much less crowded "permitting" list is for commercial permits. How silly of me not to know that.) If I just wanted to drop off my application, I could do that without waiting, but I wanted to be sure everything was in order. (I was also hoping that I might be able to walk out with my permit.) And despite being about sixth on the list, the receptionist assured me that I was next in line for Bryan, the demolition permit guy.

AN HOUR LATER, the person ahead of me finally finished up. I think Bryan must have gone out to the site to actually lend a hand in demolishing something. Another ten minutes later (I guess Bryan had to clean up after his morning on the job site), I finally presented my application to Bryan, who took two minutes to accept my materials, confirm that everything was in order, and tell me that the permit would be ready in about five days.

I finally arrived at work at 10, three hours late. I blame the city 100% for the delays this morning, but I also recognize that my sense of urgency (including the reason I wanted to be sure the application was accepted the first time) was due to dragging my feet a little getting to this point. Knowing this inspired me to get in touch with the engineer who is going to design our foundation and engineer some longer beam spans in the house. I also left a message for the geotechnical company that is probably going to take soil samples and prepare a soil report for the engineer, and we scheduled another meeting with our designer on Wednesday. All in all, a few steps forward, and no steps back. Not a bad day.

02 August 2009

Let's Back Up a Bit

A lot has happened since we started down the road to building this house just a couple of months ago. But I suppose the beginning of this story is further back than that.

As you may know, Steve went back to graduate school in 2002 and worked dutifully on a PhD for many years. We had been living in our condo since 2000 and planned to sell it as soon as Steve finished his degree, which happened to coincide with the economic downturn last fall. While Austin's real estate market has remained fairly strong, it has been especially hard to sell condos since the lending requirements severely tightened up after the rampant condo-building and -buying (and -foreclosing) of the last several years. I think a large segment of would-be condo buyers stopped looking altogether because of the perception that loans simply weren't available anymore. In actuality, it just got harder to find complexes that qualify for financing. (A big roadblock in many complexes is owner-occupancy rates. Fortunately, our complex has remained largely owner-occupied since it was built, so that wasn't a problem.)

Anyway, putting our house on the market at the end of last year wasn't ideal. However, we knew it was a great unit in a great complex in a great neighborhood in a great part of town, and we knew that the right buyer would love it. It just took longer to find that right buyer than we expected. We had countless open houses and advertised it in every way we could, until finally an adorable young couple came by one Sunday and couldn't stop gushing about how much they liked it. Then they called to ask about property taxes just minutes after they left. Then they e-mailed later that day with more questions. A few days later, the initial offer came. After a few weeks of negotiations (he is a lawyer, too -- which was actually really great, as we very much "spoke the same language"), we had a contract that we can't help thinking was really advantageous for both parties.

I had started casually house shopping last summer. We weren't planning to buy anything until we had sold the condo, but we did want to get a sense of what was available and at what price. Unfortunately, nothing was very inspiring. Our chosen neighborhood, just across a main road from our old neighborhood, was developed in the 1960s, and most of the houses really reflected that era. We were anticipating buying something that needed work, but we had paint, flooring, and cabinets in mind. These houses were constrained by 60s floor plans and wouldn't be very comfortable to live in without much more extensive work. (We were kind of spoiled by the condo, which had tons of really usable storage space in its 1200 square feet; most of the 40-year-old 1800 square foot houses we saw just didn't seem as livable.) By the time we were close to selling the condo, I was beginning to think that renting for a while might be a better option than buying something we weren't excited about. Fortunately, while we were in talks with our eventual buyer, a house three blocks away, which had had a fairly severe fire in January, was put up for sale. On a bike ride one weekend, we stopped and looked in the backyard. Steve went first (I stayed in front with our bikes) and immediately fell in love with the lot. (It's 80'x130', just shy of a quarter acre.) It seemed to be priced with the expectation that the buyer would rebuild the existing structure. While that was theoretically possible, various factors would have made that difficult. Over the years, we had toyed with the possibility of buying a few different properties that caught our eye, with thoughts of renovating to varying degrees, but the timing was never right. This time it was, although the prospect of tearing down a 2,000 square foot house to design and build a new one was far bigger than anything we had previously contemplated. I called the agent to ask if the seller would consider a significantly lower offer. He suggested writing it up so he could present it, so we did. Then we began looking into financing. This turned out to be much harder than we expected. Traditional lenders wouldn't give us a regular home loan since the house was uninhabitable, but they also wouldn't give us a lot loan since there was a house on the lot. Ultimately, though, we concluded that the difficulty of finding financing worked to our advantage, as other prospective buyers may have been deterred by the challenge of finding a non-traditional lender. And ultimately, we negotiated a price that was much closer to our first offer than to their asking price -- roughly the value of the land minus the cost of demolition.

Then we had a 20-day option period to research, investigate, and determine whether this was really a good idea. We began looking for architects, builders, design ideas, construction financing, etc., and exploring Austin's building processes. (More on these topics in later posts, I'm sure.) As we talked to more and more people, I kept waiting for someone to tell us that we were dreaming, that we were too young to do something so grown-up, but no one did. We started a Google document to assemble ideas, internet links, and contact information for the team that we were quickly putting together. There was so much to get done that I was routinely waking up around 3 or 4 am to do various tasks. Some nights I'd work for about two hours and then go back to sleep; other nights I'd just wake up and research different things online for a while before work. Either way, the odd hours and lack of sleep didn't seem to wear on me. The excitement of what we were doing kept me going.

Around this time, we were also starting to think about where we were going to live if our condo sale actually went through. (Working where I do, I know that real estate transactions can fall apart for a million different reasons, so I didn't consider it sold until it really, finally was.) The prospect of moving was huge. We hadn't moved in 9 years. We also had a 10x10 storage unit of things we had packed away to stage our condo. We figured we would keep the storage unit and get a two-bedroom apartment to live in during construction, but finding a place from the world of apartments in north Austin was too big a task for me, so Steve took over. He made a few calls but didn't find anything very appealing. Everything was also more expensive than our condo (or equally expensive but wouldn't be paying down principal on our loan anymore).

This entire sequence of events, while stressful, has been so fortuitous. Finding a buyer at the same time we found a great opportunity to build in our preferred neighborhood was incredibly lucky. The next piece to fall into place was equally lucky. At the grand opening of our neighborhood's new library, Steve ran into a friend from grad school who, through his own extremely unlucky series of events, had a house he was about to rent out. It was much larger than we were looking for (4 bedrooms and 1600 square feet, plus a garage) and cost more than we wanted to spend, but he was willing to reduce the rent considerably for us. We were happy to spend a little more for a more comfortable house, where we would be renting from a friend on flexible terms, close enough to our new house to keep an eye on construction. We were also able to get rid of our storage unit.

So things were moving along, and it looked like everything was on track, but I was still keenly aware that something might derail our whole perfect plan. While I can't speak for Steve, a cloud of stress loomed over me throughout the month of June, and time seemed to stand still as we inched toward closing, moving day, etc. We began to arrange for a moving truck, looked into transfering utilities, gave notice at the storage place, and started to plan for when life got back to normal(ish) after the move. One day, I was looking online and found two supercute bunnies at the animal shelter. I sent the link to Steve with a note that we should look into adopting them after the move, but he immediately jumped to action, called the shelter, and applied to bring them home. The couple of days while we were trying to adopt them only added to the stress, as we weren't sure whether they would be ours until we actually got them. Between the sale of the condo, the purchase of the new house, and now these adorable bunnies we wanted so much to bring home, we were like kids on Christmas eve in the twilight zone, full of anticipation of what was to come but yet unsure our Christmas morning was actually going to arrive. At certain moments, it was just TOO MUCH. Eventually, though, after jumping through way too many rabbit rescue hoops, the bunnies were ours! (Pictures to come.)

The final days counting down toward closing on our purchase were similarly stressful, for reasons not worth getting into, and again, it wasn't until we were actually there with our really big cashier's check (about a week later than we originally planned) that we knew we really were going to get the property.

We left closing with the giddiness of first-time homebuyers who were finally getting the keys to their new home, but in our case, there were no keys, because there were no locks, because there were no doors. Our new house had boards covering all of the doors and windows -- and not all that securely. I went straight to Lowe's to buy more "No Trespassing" signs and a lock to secure the side gate, and then I headed to our insurance agency to stock up on various kinds of liability coverage. After all, what we had bought was a huge hazard and significant liability (albeit a huge hazard and significant liability sitting on our ideal lot).

I had the day off, as well as the following week to pack and move, and we started with the storage unit that day. I'll spare you the details -- moving is moving, right? -- but I will say that touching, packing, and carrying everything one owns forces a person to confront his or her materialism. If everyone had to pack up all of their possessions, carry them outside onto a truck, and then back inside every few years, people would absolutely have less stuff. If everyone had to do this in July in Texas, people might stop buying stuff altogether. We are definitely getting movers when the house is finished.

The sale of the condo was probably the smoothest part of the whole process. We signed the day before the buyer did, and we were actually in Philadelphia when everything went through. I had the opportunity to go back to the condo this week to pick up some mail that wasn't forwarded. What a surreal experience, standing on my own front porch, ringing my own doorbell, waiting for someone else to open my own front door. It was exciting when they did, though, because it looked great and the buyers seem really happy with their new home. They even said that they weren't planning to make any changes because they loved everything we had done to it.

This was a long post. But it was a long process to get to where we are now. The three months this specific plan has been in the works belies the complexity of everything that has had to happen to get us to this point.