the post everyone wants to read and i don’t want to write


House woes.

I haven’t written any house stories in awhile for lots of different reasons. Mostly frustration, but also a fair share of caution in being careful about just how much I share here that’s still floating up in the air, undecided.

When we started the process I warned that it would likely be a long one, but I didn’t anticipate it being quite this long. I thought that it would be fun to share the process, but it was also sort of exhausting to do it. I admire people that share these kind of renovation stories as they go. I also know that they do it as their job, and I have another full time job plus about a half dozen serious side gigs that keep be perpetually busy.

The biggest reason for my silence was disappointment. I wanted things to go smoothly. We worked our tails off to ensure that. If I were to add up the hours of time spent and the thousands of dollars spent on drawings and models and engineering and site work, etc. I would probably cry. I have cried. On two occasions, in epic fashion. The first was on my birthday last year, when we met with our first contractor to discuss the lack of subcontractor participation and skyrocketing construction costs and packed schedules. I didn’t actually cry in front of him, but I did later, when I let myself sit in that disappointment. I had glued myself to a chair and a laptop at our dining room table for nights and weekends too many to count, and it felt like an impossible project at that point.

Contractor #1 proposed a new idea – a collaboration with contractor #2, with more availability, less expensive overhead, and the opportunity for contractor #1 to do all the finish work that he’s exceptionally skilled at. Hope again, until that crashed and burned. Contractor #2 had less luck with sub bids, and the summer and early fall felt wasted to us before he got back to us and confessed that the project was out of his comfort zone. That was the second big cry.

In the meantime, we considered a few other houses in our zip code. Several of our favorite houses (from the outside) were listed over the past year and a half, and we’ve made appointments to see four of them on repeat occasions. Three moved to heavy consideration phase, and one recently moved beyond that stage before the owners changed their minds and decided not to sell. The entire time we remained conflicted about leaving our current house, a place that has quite literally been built on sweat and tears and love. The girls enjoy looking at other houses, but remain firmly in the current home / forever home camp. They want to build the addition and carriage house so badly, and that’s the hardest part of the whole thing. Time is flying by, and I worry that we’ve missed our window. I worry about that a lot.

We regrouped in the late fall and winter, and streamlined the entire set of drawings in order to reduce cost in three areas that seemed out of control. We re-engineered everything, and again I chained myself to the work most nights and weekends. Contractor #1 wanted another go at it, and had more time to devote to it this year. We handed our revised set over in early March, and then I got to relive my birthday disappointment  yet again this past April. Better, but not good enough.

In really basic terms, here is the issue. We have a tight, narrow lot, that makes everything more complicated.

See me here in the early 2000’s – hand digging out bricks to create this lovely blank slate for construction? If only I could just build the whole darn thing myself. (Joking.)

We’re drastically changing our house with this addition, but the overall footprint of the addition is not large. So the square foot cost of the work is really high. We have to work within a range of values dictated by the future value of the house post-construction. Our neighborhood has so many different housing types – apartments, two- and four-family flats, single family homes – it’s one of the things that I love about it. There’s a place for everyone. Other neighborhoods in our zip code (think Lafayette Square or Compton Heights) have a much higher ratio of single family (very large!) homes, where property values can soar to twice the highest value of single family homes in our neighborhood. The bank can consider comps in both of those neighborhoods when assessing the value of single family homes in our neighborhood, but there’s definitely a lower cap on values where we live that you don’t see in some of these adjoining neighborhoods. So we keep hitting this over-improvement ceiling on our house. It makes us nervous and cautious, and it turns the bank off completely.

Our single best asset in this whole thing is the ability to construct a separate living unit above the garage. I go into detail on why that’s a great thing (and a rare opportunity) in this post. So we have that going for us. BUT. We have to build it to see the future value of our house support the improvement costs. So we can’t just build the addition now and do the carriage house in a later phase. And we can’t build the carriage house first and do the addition later – we’d be completely landlocked at that point. So it’s all or nothing, and at the moment we’re still nothing.

We’re much closer than we were last April to that magic number, but we’re still not there. We met with contractor #1 in early July, and we’ve petitioned our lender again for some leniency, but to no avail. It’s frustrating to know how to do something and be able to afford to do something, and still be told that we can’t do something. We have another hybrid plan that we’re trying now, and I want to be optimistic again. But I’m guarded about it. I’m not up for that third ugly cry anytime soon.

This isn’t a great story. It involves a lot of disappointment and long stretches of sadness and regrouping. We’ve continued to knock off some of the interior projects on the existing house as we go, and those are good things that we enjoy. The fireplace might be at the top of that list. We’ve helped my sister on her new house, and that’s been exciting and also a little hard to watch. We’ve seen friends plan and implement their own renovations and we’ve wondered how we’ve managed to have a project that nobody wants to do when everyone else seems to be able to line up help and expertise with no sweat. It’s not a place of jealousy where I write this, just a place of sadness that we haven’t been able to complete this project with our girls. I want them to be a part of it because we’ve included them in the process so much already.

They love our home, and don’t want to leave. I’m with them.

Here’s tiny F next to giant scaffolding during our last major project phase. She’s nine now, and three times this size, so we’re overdue another overhaul. It’s good for the soul, a little dust up, I say. We’ll take all finger crossing you can manage our way.

3 Responses to the post everyone wants to read and i don’t want to write

  1. different set of eyes on the plans, perhaps?

  2. Thank you so so much for sharing. Be encouraged! You are doing a hard but valuable thing, and persisting in it despite the instant-gratification culture that we swim in.

    We are going through a renovation/addition on our house right now that I designed/drew, and 2 contractors looked at the plans and ran for the hills. I was discouraged at the time, but I think many builders just want to do quick easy jobs and don’t see the value in putting new life into an older structure. Thankfully, one contractor stuck it out, and I thank him every day for dealing with fiddly details like making the roofs and floors match up. It is not simple to match new construction to existing when you also have to take into account codes and contemporary construction methods!

    I do have moments of self-doubt about the amount of money we are putting into it vs resale, but then I think it is SO worth it for the kids to see us shape our environment in such an intimate way—and for them to watch it being built, piece by piece, day by day. Our SF price is high as well, but we are aiming for a right-sized house that respects what was there before, which is more important to me than raw square footage.

    I think it’s part of being an architect to build for yourself—-both DIY and bigger projects. To experience the freedom/torture of designing for yourself, and the thrill of the built design. You COULD buy something else, but it would never be YOURS in the same way.

    Anyhow, it’s great to get an update with all the ups and downs—-in my book, real life beats HGTV any day. 🙂

    • Thank you. This really means a lot to me. I’m hoping that we’ll get some encouraging news again soon. I’d love to know more about your project!

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