Longest Year Ever

So, here’s something I didn’t know when I decided to gut-renovate a house.  It takes almost an entire calendar year to finish partial demolition and masonry work.  We started in October 2016, and as of the time of this writing, we are getting ready to start the framing of the house in October 2017!

What took so long?  Well, if you’ve been following my blog, the town was very difficult to deal with at first, and then I’ve been mired in construction delays.  At times, I’ve wondered if I make a mistake by not completely demolishing the house.  I probably could have gained efficiency if the old structure wasn’t in place and then we would have had enough room to bring machinery in to assist in the excavation process.  It’s hard to tell exactly what the cost and time difference would have been had I done that, but we did get to save most of the original structure, so that should be worth something.

We Have a Drainage System

In June, we dug a trench where the old clay pipe drainage system used to be.  Apparently, the sewer connection is somewhere behind the house, not in front of it.  We were able to locate the connection, and hook the new PVC pipe system into it.

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The drainage system in the front driveway

Once the new drainage system was built, we had to call in the town to inspect before we could cover it back up and fill it in.  It took about 4 days lead time to call the inspector in.  He failed us due to the way the pipes were configured, I never got the exact detail why.  The plumber had to fix the problem and we had to get the inspector back in seven days.

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All of the sewage connections in the house come together in the garage

Just like that, an entire week was lost.  This may not seem like a big deal, but this is typical of a project.  A three-day setback here, a week setback there, a three-week setback for some reason.  It all adds up to major, major time lapses in between actual work.  I’ve come to learn that watching your construction project sit idle for any amount of time is a special kind of torture that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Let’s Button It Up

After we finally passed the inspection of the drainage system, we were able to build the basement floor.  We backfilled the dirt over the pipes and filled in the trenches.  We put a plastic sheet down over the dirt and then built a rebar mesh on top of that.  That required yet another inspection, one which we passed on the first try.

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The drainage trough at the foot of the driveway

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The plastic membrane and rebar

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The plastic membrane and rebar

It took a few weeks for the mason to come back, of course, but when he did, he poured concrete over the rebar and plastic, and I finally had a finished basement floor!

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View of the fresh coat of cement from the driveway

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The fresh cement in the rear addition of the house

More Demolition

Once the floor was poured, my general contractor called in the framer so he could get ready to get started.  They also called in my architect to walk through the plans together and get on the same page.  One of the things they reviewed was the remaining demolition work that needed to be done.  The house needs to be demolished in stages so the remaining shell can stay in place without collapsing during construction.

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Making a big mess out front

For reasons that weren’t too clear to me, we still hadn’t done a lot of the work that the framer required in order to start.  It could have been done while we had some downtime in between inspections, but it didn’t happen.

Somebody noticed that there was concrete between the garage and first floor that had to be demolished.  I don’t know why we didn’t learn this sooner.  So, they had to put plywood down on my brand-new garage floor and demolished the concrete, making a mess of the basement again.

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This is now on top of my new basement floor!  AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!

They had to demolish the original brick chimney while they were at it.  That was another bit of work that could have been done much earlier.  Finally, they had to strip the outside and inside of the house to the studs and plywood.  When it was all done and cleared out, there wasn’t much left but the outer shell of the house, and the ceiling and floor between the first and second floors.  The house was finally in a condition to be framed.

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What’s left of the chimney

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The spaces in between the joists were where the cement was between the first floor and the basement.  Nobody noticed it was here until we had finished the basement floor.  It had to be removed because it was potentially damaging to the joists.

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The hole to the sky where the chimney used to be

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What is now left of the front of the house. The garage door is gone, replaced temporarily with that blue tarp.

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All that is left of the second floor.  Only the outer shell and the roof will remain.  The floor will be completely ripped out.

OK, So Let’s Get Started

In late August, my GC e-mailed me to tell me the framer was going to start on September 20.  We had a week or so of demolition left and the house would be ready to go long before the start date.  Naturally, I called him right away to tell him we needed to move that date in.  He told me it wouldn’t be possible because the framing guy was working another job.  I told him that I really needed the house to be framed before the winter set in.  He emphatically stated that it would take at most two weeks to frame the house and I didn’t have anything to worry about.

September 20 approached and the GC told me the start date was now going to be September 21.  Then the framer declared that because it was a Thursday so we might as well start the next Monday.  I didn’t follow that logic at all, but I wasn’t going to flip out about four more days wait.

On Monday, I texted the GC and asked him if we were starting.  Heard nothing back that day.  On Tuesday he texted me and said he was aware I was waiting for an answer and I’d hear back from him by the end of the day.  No word for the rest of the day or all of Wednesday.  Thursday, I called and got him on the phone.  He told me he was very embarrassed, but the framer wasn’t going to take the job.

Things took an interesting turn after that.  I repeated my original deadline that the house had to be framed before the winter or the project would be in serious jeopardy.  I would at some point just run out of money, having to pay two mortgages.  I’m already well over 10 months past my projected worst-case scenario of being done from when I bought the house in December, 2015.

My GC proceeded to get very worked up in explaining to me that he’d figure something out.  He said he was embarrassed and upset about the situation and he felt that his entire reputation was on the line.  I ended up having to calm him down and tell him not to get bent out of shape.  It was almost as if our positions were juxtaposed.  I should be the one that is bent out of shape!

I started to consider my options in order of preference:

  1. Wait for my GC to find a new framer
  2. Find my own framer
  3. Fire the GC and quickly find someone else
  4. Stop making mortgage payments and let the bank foreclose on the house

Each option had pros and cons.  At that point, as much as I like the guy, my confidence in my GC was pretty much shot.  I didn’t have a framer or a new GC in mind and it would be difficult to make a big change like that given my time constraints at work.  The fourth option was a nuclear one, but it’s not as bad as it sounds.  I’d lose about 15 years of savings with everything I’ve put into the project so far and my credit would be ruined.  But I’d stop the bleeding.  I wouldn’t need my credit rating anymore because it would be years before I could save up enough to try again.

Anyway, on Friday, I got a series of text messages from the GC that he had found a new guy and that he might be able to start next week.  They met at the house that day, and by Saturday, we had a quote from him.  After a day of pondering my options, the first one looks like it was going to work out.

I have it in writing that it should take the new framer about three weeks to finish, and that includes installing the windows that I ordered in August.  The framer has a job he needs to start right after that, so he is incentivized to hurry up!

In a way, this is almost too good to believe that we found a reputable guy just in time that has nothing else better to do for the next three weeks.  But, this is pretty much my best choice right now.  So, on Monday, we are going to order $16,000 worth of lumber from Kuiken Brothers, and we are going to get started.

How Did It Come to This?

When I started this blog, I had figured that it would be an interesting story about design decisions, construction, and decorating the house over the course of many years.  I thought I would be living in the house by the end of 2016, and would have sold my Hoboken condo, rolling the proceeds from the sale into a much smaller mortgage on the new house.  Instead, this blog has turned into an infrequent, long-winded complaint about not much getting done!

I don’t live life with regrets.  I believe in taking measured risks in order to get better outcomes for yourself.  This was definitely a risk, and so far, it has not worked out at all.  I am certainly not going to say I regret this decision, I know that I wouldn’t have been happy had I simply stayed in my small Hoboken apartment with no eye towards the future.  But, this certainly now falls into the category of a BAD IDEA!  I’m never going to make up all the money I lost paying the double mortgage for so long, and as of this writing, I can’t see how it’s even going to get done before 2019, a full three years and more after I bought the place.

This is a pivotal week.  If they start framing the house and come even close to their self-imposed three-week deadline for completion, my whole outlook will change.  I’ll be in a position to tell my contractor that he’d better have someone working on this job every single day until it is done!  All work can proceed on the house once the framing is complete, and weather will no longer be an issue.

Wish me luck…

Is Your House Done Yet?

“Hey man, how’s your house?  You moved in yet?  I haven’t seen one of your blog posts in a while”.

This line of questioning is all my fault.  I’m the one that told everybody I knew that I bought a house in December, 2015 and planned to renovate it.  I made matters worse by blogging about and sharing it on Facebook.  I drew all kinds of attention to the subject so I deserve the litany of questions that go along with it.

The only problem is that I have had virtually no answer to that question for the better part of 2017.  This past winter was brutal for my project.  We started in October of 2016 and hit a number of roadblocks right away.  Not much can progress on the house until the masonry in front and back is complete.  Only when that is done can the house be framed and the rest of the work can start.

There is a whole litany of reasons the project moved so slowly, fitting mainly into three categories: Difficulty with inspections from the town, bad weather, and delays with the mason.  Weeks would go by with no progress at all, leaving me with an empty feeling of helplessness as my bank account was draining with nothing to show for it.

In January, there was some progress on the rear addition.  The footings were approved and the mason started to lay cinder blocks with a duro-bond wire in between every other layer.  Once that was done, my contractor called the building inspector and asked him to approve the rear addition.  On February 3, the inspector gave us our first inspection failure.

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My first inspection failure.  I think I’ll frame the original.

The basis of the failure was somewhat unclear at the time.  It seemed to hinge on a somewhat confusing conversation that the inspector and my contractor had.  First, the inspector said that we needed to check to make sure the foundation was built with the proper setbacks from the neighboring properties in accordance with the approved plans.  The contractor asked if that meant we had to have the property surveyed right away.  The inspector said that would do, or we could get a letter from my architect saying that we were building according to his design.

The second reason we failed was because the inspector wanted proof that we put the duro-bond where it belonged and that we doweled into the existing wall properly.  My contractor said that we had pictures and that the architect was supervising the project and could attest that we were in accordance with the building code.  The contractor pointed out that the only to prove everything would have been to have the inspector visit after every layer of cinder block was installed!

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I’m telling you, bro, we really did layer the blocks properly!

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It was kind of hard to prove once the walls were built.

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The view from the back looking towards the front of the house

We proceeded to get a letter from the architect explaining that everything was built according to plan and we sent that to the building inspectors office.  We really didn’t know at the time if that was going to be good enough, so we prepared to move on with building the drainage system.

The project had stalled a bit being early February.  The weather was poor and the mason didn’t have much of a window to work outside.  My contractor told me that he was going to meet with the mason on February 20 to discuss moving forward with the project.  I asked if he could let me know what time he was going to be there so I could meet them both.  I had that day off of work for President’s Day.

On the morning of the scheduled meeting, my contractor texted me and asked me to give him a call.  He said that the contractor was on an unannounced two-week vacation to Peru.  Of course, the weather broke and those two weeks were very temperate for that time of year, it would have been good enough for the masonry crew to continue on.

About three weeks after the supposed two-week vacation started, the mason announced he was going to return to the job.  That day it snowed and he couldn’t come.  The snow was heavy and froze over and set us back again.  All told, from the time of the failed inspection on February 3, we lost about 8 weeks to weather and the mason’s vacation before he was able to start back on the project in earnest.

The Drainage System

As I explained in a previous blog post, we had to build a pretty elaborate drainage system around the extension in back of the house.  We were required to drain all rain water into the sewer connection.  This is the opposite of what most municipalities want you to do, typically you are not supposed to overload the sewer system with rain water.  Union City works in mysterious ways.

We also had to fill in the trenches around the extension with rocks to aid in drainage around the outside of the house.  Since we couldn’t get machinery through the alley between my house and the neighbor, the masonry crew had to use shovels and a wheelbarrow to fill the rocks in around the house.

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That trench is where the rainwater drainpipe will be.

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One of the rainwater drainpipes in it’s fancy rocky bedding.

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An idea of the scale of the excavation we had to do to make room for the pipe.  The masons made this pile of dirt with buckets, one by one.

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The pipes in the aforementioned trench.

Front Masonry

The front of the house wasn’t nearly as elaborate as the job in the backyard.  We aren’t extending the house in the front, but we are building a second story where the original mud room front porch was.  This required first that we demolish the mud room and check the existing foundation to see if the footings were deep enough.  On the left side of the house, the footing was deep enough to pass inspection.  On the right of the house, there was no footing at all, requiring us to demolish the existing wall and excavate enough ground to pour one.

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Nope, no footing in here.  WTH?

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So, we just poured our own footing.  Better make sure it is 42″ deep, not just 36″. Don’t want the house to fall over!!!

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And we have a new wall in front.

The dangerous front steps were also slated for replacement.  They were demolished and the skeleton of the new steps were put in place.  They seem to be a lot more even and less deadly than the old set of steps.  They still need to be finished with concrete.  We’re not going to use any brick finishes, the design we are looking for is a simple one with a skim coat of stucco.

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The hole where the old steps used to be.

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The foundation of the new steps, all with uniform height!

The Inspector Is Our Friend Now?

Before we could backfill the backyard, we needed to have the inspector come and check out the drainage system.  We also wanted him to review the front footings, the existing one we planned to retain, and the new one that we dug out.  He no-showed our first window, telling my contractor while he was at the house waiting that he couldn’t make it.  He made it the next day, and things went decidedly better than any of our previous inspections.

The inspector reviewed the drainage system in back and determined that it was adequate.  He gave us the go ahead to back-fill the dirt back in the trenches without issue.  There was, however a problem in the front.  The new footing was only 36 inches deep, according to the plans and building code, it had to be 42 inches deep.  The contractor realized there was a mistake but was taken aback by the response the inspector had.  He told the contractor simply to dig the hole six inches deeper, send him a picture, and that we’d be good!  From the explanation of the story that I got, I think my contractor nearly fainted from the shock of this act of kindness and common sense. This was the go-ahead we needed to build the new foundation wall on the right side of the house which was the last bit of foundation that needed to be built.

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The backyard now that the trenches have been back-filled.

So, Where Exactly Does the Sewer Drain?

Now it was time to hook into the existing sewer connection as per our design.  The mason ripped up the basement garage floor where the house trap is.  We found a clay pipe that we originally thought drained out the front of the house to the sewer in the street.  The plumber visited and pointed out that the pipe was pitched towards the back of the house.

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The clay pipe, pitched down and away from the front of the house.

It turned out that the clay pipe was just a rainwater drain from the front of the basement and that the sewer pipe heads out the back of the house.  We couldn’t figure out exactly which direction it heads.  When we excavated the back extension, we never hit the pipe.  It either took a sharp turn to the side under one of the neighbor’s houses, or went straight down.  Whatever the case is, they tested it out with a hose and water seems to drain well through it, so who cares?

Hopefully this is the last “mystery” in this house.  There’s going to be so little left of the original house that there shouldn’t be much guesswork with the rest of what we have to build since most of it will be from scratch.

The mason took out the existing machinery from the basement (none of which was working anyway) and excavated all the spots where we will run the drainpipes from upstairs.  He also ripped out the clay pipe, we’re going to replace that with PVC piping.  When it’s all done, there is going to be very little left of the original basement floor and I’ll have a nice new coat of concrete.

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The remnants of the machine room, along with a trench for drainage.

What’s Next?

We started masonry work in October, 2016.  As of mid-June 2017, we are almost done.  I thought the entire house would take about that long to build, so feel free to call me a dumbass the next time you see me.  Anyway, we can’t move forward with anything else until that is done.

All that is left is for the plumber to hook up all the drains from the inside and outside into the sewer connection.  We will then ask for another inspection.  If we should be lucky enough to pass, they can backfill the dirt in the basement.  We will finally be able to start the framing process.

I met with the framer two weeks ago with my GC to over the project.  When my contractor originally explained the process to me, he said that framing would take “one week, two max”.  I asked the framer what his opinion was and he said it would take “three to four weeks”.  So, I’m guessing it will take three months.  If I’m lucky, he’ll be done by mid-October, but that’s only if I’m lucky, which I’m obviously not.

Is Your House Done Yet?

So, back to that original question.  No, it’s not done, but now I think I have a better idea of where we are at.  Once framing is done, everything else can get started, some of which can be done in parallel.  There also won’t be weather delays for anything on the inside.  We can put siding up, install windows, rough the electric and plumbing, put drywall and flooring in, and install the kitchen and bathroom fixtures and finishes.  Piece of cake, right!

As you may recall, I closed on the house in December, 2015.  I thought we’d have permits in a month or two, start building in March 2016, and be done in time for me to move in before New Year’s 2017.  Given the pace we are at, and how long just the masonry phase has taken, I have a better idea of my estimated completion date.  I think my best-case scenario at this point is December, 2018.  That would be a full three years from when I bought the house.

This situation puts me in serious financial jeopardy.  I budgeted for a year of paying two mortgages out of my savings, not three.  Additionally, the bank I work for had to pay a $7.2 billion fine to the US Department of Justice in January as a result of some improprieties from 2005-2007.  They had to cancel our bonus pool entirely, which was a nice kick in the gut on top of everything else.  The assholes that broke the law are all gone from the bank, playing golf and spending the summer in their Hamptons mansions.  Now I have to figure out how to make up that cash that I was desperately counting on coming in this year.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen other than I have to move forward.  I can’t sell the place as-is, it is a shell right now. I can borrow against my current apartment in Hoboken which is the likely course of action.  However, the plan all along was to sell my condo at the end and use the proceeds to refinance the jumbo mortgage I took out on the new house.  Anything I borrow against my condo eats into the profit I will make when I sell, giving me less money to pay down the principal on the new mortgage, increasing what I’d have to borrow.

I can hope for the best, but there is a slim possibility that I will have to turn around and sell the new place immediately when it is finished.  If that happens, some lucky person is going to get his or her hands on the best house in all of Union City.

I walked through the house yesterday, the entire property is a complete disaster.  The backyard is a muddy mess, there are trenches in the basement, and the frame of the existing house is partially demolished and littered with debris.  It was a “what was I thinking?” moment.  But I regret nothing, I knew I was taking a risk and had bitten off more than I could chew.  If I pull this off, I will be living in my dream house someday.

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Just a crazy mess right now.

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What’s left of the insides, the flooring was removed.

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The clay pipe is gone, leaving this disaster of a trench inside the basement.

There’s a sliver lining to this dark cloud.  Count on partying at my place in Hoboken on the first Saturday of March, 2018!  It’ll be cramped as usual, but we always manage to fit somehow.

The Dig

Just over one calendar year since I closed on the house and construction has just started to get underway.  I keep getting questions like “You moved in to your new house yet, bro?” or “You sell your old place yet?” so I figured I should explain that we are really just getting started and I am staying put in my cozy Hoboken condo until my new place is livable.

I took fewer days off this year during the summer than I normally would. I reasoned that I needed my vacation days to spend time with the contractor and to go showrooming to shop for finishes.  Due to the delays we had in getting started, I never used those vacation days and I was set to lose them at the end of the year.  So, I put in for the week off with a loose plan to meet with my kitchen designer, my contractor, and to do some shopping for finishes.  I managed to get a lot done, both in learning the process for how a house is built, and making some finishing decisions.

The First Non-Budget Expense

You’re supposed to double the original time and budget estimate when you build a house, right?  We’re already double the time estimate, but if we double the budget estimate, I go bankrupt and move back in with my parents.  Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Anyway, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but the gas regulator happens to be right inside the garage door.  The garage is already very tight and one wrong move when parking the car, and I could rip the thing right off the wall.  We called PSE&G, filled out a few online forms, sent a few e-mails back and forth, and finally convinced their engineers to come to the house to assess the situation.  They seemingly came up with a plan to move the regulator to outside the house, and they will re-route the pipe so it is nowhere near the car anymore.  They decided that the exact amount of $2,294.59 will cover their troubles.  I’m waiting to hear back from them as to when they are going to come and do the job, but it is good to have it paid for and know that it will be taken care of.

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The gas regulator which would be about four inches from where my car is parked if left there.  PSE&G will relocate it to a safer spot.

Masonry

Construction work has begun with the masonry phase of the project.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post, there were special considerations with this project because there is not enough room on either side to bring in construction equipment.  We had to find a mason who had a crew with shovels and wheelbarrows that could dig out the basement for the rear extension by hand.

They had to start by removing the one-story kitchen, the basement underneath it, the backyard stairs, and the basement wall.  They did a very good job of keeping the job site clean and orderly as they did all this.  They pretty efficiently removed all of the debris as they created it.

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The one-story kitchen was removed and the basement underneath it was demolished.

Next, they had to grab their shovels and start to dig.  They dug out the area around the perimeter of the new basement extension, and the outdoor kitchen wall.  They built trenches deep enough to make room for the concrete footings at the depth specified by the city.

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The crew digging out the basement the old fashioned way.

Following that, they built a frame and outfitted it with steel rebar.  We had to pause at that point in order for the town to come to inspect the depth and construction of the frame.  Of course, this lead to about two weeks of delays.  First, despite the fact that 2016 has been a very dry year in New Jersey and we are in a drought warning, it rained the day the inspector was supposed to come.  So, that pushed us back a week.  When he came back, he complained that he didn’t like the fact that the vertical rebar wasn’t yet installed and that there was no bonding wire attached.  My contractor argued that it wasn’t necessary to show the vertical rebar at that point in the inspection, and that there was no bonding wire in the drawings (that he personally approved) but we had to make the necessary changes anyway.

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The frame for the footings.

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The frame with the rebar, both horizontal and vertical.

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This is the description of the foundation detail from the drawings that the city approved.  The same guy who approved the drawings said we needed a bonding wire attached to the rebar in order to pass inspection, despite the fact there is no bonding wire in the drawings.

On the day of the next inspection, it rained again and the bottom of the trenches filled with water.  The inspector claimed he couldn’t see the bottom so he couldn’t pass us.  My contractor had to argue that he was just there and already saw how deep the footings would be and the inspector gave in and passed us.  He cautioned my contractor not to pour concrete in the trenches until after the water drained, as if he were some sort of idiot that would do something like that.

The mason poured the concrete footings just before it got too cold to do so.  The concrete hardened and they began to layer in the cinderblocks to frame out the basement.  This is where we currently are in the process as of this writing.

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The concrete footings.

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Laying cinderblocks for the new basement.

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The short wall they are building is the frame for the outdoor kitchen.

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Bonding the new basement wall to the existing structure.

The next step is to finish the drainage system, not only for the new addition but for the entire house.  A local ordinance requires that all rainwater is drained into the sewer.  We can’t have gutters that just drain to the yard.  The way my architect drew it, he has the drainage pointing to an abstract new sewer connection.  My contractor would prefer to use the existing sewer trap so as to not have to dig in front of the house, or possibly even in the street to create a new one.  We are currently working with the architect to make this decision so we can move forward and finish the back extension.

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The plumbing plan with the reference to the “New House Trap”.  We hope to be able to use the existing house trap and to not have to dig up the sidewalk and street.

Kitchen Planning

While all this is going on, I’m trying to get ahead of the kitchen planning.  I’d like to have the cabinets ordered well in advance so my kitchen designer can build them in parallel with other work that is being done in the house.  I also needed to pick out a countertop so we can decide on coloring for the cabinets, the backsplash, and the rest of the downstairs.  Due to the arrangement of the kitchen island in the middle of the open layout of the first-floor great room, I considered the countertop to be the most important finishing decision I’m going to make.

I had gone back and forth on this decision for some time, trying to decide between several kinds of engineered or natural stones.  Each had some good and bad things about them.  I noticed right away that I hated most standard quartz samples that every kitchen showroom had in stock.

In particular, every place I visited stocked Caesarstone quartz samples.  There could not be a less inspiring and classless collection of quartz than what they have to offer.  Each stone is more boring and dull than the next.  While their quartz may be very durable, there is no way I wanted that look in my new house.

I was intrigued by recycled glass countertops, and took a look at IceStone and Vetrazzo.  Both had distinct looks to them and were visually much more stimulating than regular quartz.  I went so far as to order samples of both and even priced out a full Vetrazzo fabrication and installation.  It was a tough call, but I had to pass on both.  The price I was quoted was very high.  Also, the slabs have a physical size limitation so they can’t be very big.  As such, I would have had to have several unsightly seams on the island.

My kitchen designer sent me to the NY Stone warehouse in an industrial section of Jersey City, beneath the Pulaski Skyway.  I never would have known it was there until she sent me.  I was taken back by the sheer size of the place, it was huge and separated into four distinct bays.

The receptionist explained to me how the warehouse was laid out.  I could walk through the four bays, taking pictures of the stickers on the sides of the slabs that I liked.  When I was done, she’d help me compile a list.  Bays #1 and #2 were regular slabs, bay #3 was mostly limestone and not really for kitchen use, and bay #4 was the exotic section.  Bay #1 and #2 didn’t impress me at all, they were mostly bland slabs of white and grey with very little color to choose from.  Most of the customers in those bays were couples fighting over which boring shade of white to buy.

I made my way over to bay #4 and was really excited by the exotic selections.  There were a lot of very colorful stones to choose from.  I had a preference for something in blue headed into the decision-making process, and they had many stones to choose from in various shades of blue.  I took pictures of about 7 or 8 slabs and brought them back to the receptionist.  At first, she said “You were only there for about 10 minutes, most people take much longer!”  She then complied my list of slabs and then exclaimed “Wow, you have very good taste!” This compliment, of course, came as no surprise to me.  It was still nice to hear.

I didn’t want to purchase anything without discussing it with my kitchen designer, so I made a return trip with her a few weeks later.  We found a new set of slabs that really struck us both.  Of course, it was one of the most expensive stones they had in the place, but I had to buy it.  The NY Stone folks used a crane that is built into the warehouse to pull all 8 slabs they had for me to view them separately. I picked out the two best ones they had and paid for them.  I am now the owner of two slabs of Labredorite Lemurian from Brazil!

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One of the slabs of Labrecorite Lemurian I bought.  This picture really doesn’t do it justice, but it is a very striking piece of stone.  The blue accents change color as you change your viewing angle.  They are highly reflective and add a distinct characteristic to the stone.  It will match well with a number of shades of blue and gray on on the cabinets and walls.

The slabs are still sitting in the NY Stone warehouse. At some point in the near future, they will be sent to the fabricator to be cut up in the shapes I need them for my cabinets when they are built.

It is quite a relief to have this decision made, I’ve been working on it for almost a year.  Now that we have the color of the stone that will be on display in the middle of the house, I can work on coloring for the cabinetry and then the walls.

My kitchen designer also advised me that I should pick out kitchen and bathroom faucets in advance of the plumbing being done.  Each shower head and faucet require their own diverters and valves that need to be fitted before the walls are built.  So, I have to pick out everything by the time the house is framed so I don’t hold up the start of the plumbing installation.

On her advice, I visited the AF Supply showroom in Fairfield, NJ.  I walked around somewhat aimlessly for a bit until somebody had mercy on me and asked if I needed any help. I explained her my predicament, that I need to build two and a half bathrooms and a kitchen with a modern design aesthetic.  I have no interest in any transitional-looking fixtures.

With that in mind, she helped guide me through the showroom.  We went bathroom room by bathroom room and discussed how each should look and function, and what fixtures would go with each. I learned about wall mounted sink faucets, vessel sinks, and three-way diverters for bath-shower-body sprayer combination setups.

By the end of our walk-through, we had picked out fixtures for all three bathrooms, as well as the kitchen.  I even picked out a vessel sink and a waterfall faucet for the downstairs bathroom.  When combined with a cool vanity, tile, and lighting fixtures, it will have the vibe of a bathroom in a trendy restaurant.

She sent me a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of all of my fixtures, as well as a cost breakdown.  I wouldn’t say that I fully made a hard decision on everything just yet, but I certainly have something to work with and I anticipate that the end result will largely look like what we picked out that day.

Next Up

Next up for the contractor is to do the front masonry work.  We will partially demolish the front of the structure and check the footings for suitability for the two-story addition we are putting there.  When that is complete, we can frame the house.  And when the framing is done we really can start almost everything else, roofing, siding, insulation, plumbing, heating and cooling, and electricity.  Needless to say, I am very anxious to get the house framed so the real fun can begin.

No, I am not moving in anytime soon.  Expect an invitation to a Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day party at my current home sometime soon…

And We’re Off!

“Hey man, how’s your house coming along?  You moved in yet?”  When you start a blog that promises everybody in your friends list that you are about to get started on a construction project, you set yourself up for this question from just about everybody you run in to.  Unfortunately, I had to deal with an incredibly frustrating and expensive wait from the Union City Construction Department to get the construction permits finalized.  I had hoped to have permits done in March, 2016, which was a buffer of about three months from when I bought the house in December, 2015.  It wasn’t until October, just a few weeks ago, that I finally got permission to build the house from the city.

I didn’t intend to make this blog about dealing with city hall, but I guess it is part of the story so I’ll explain it as best as I can.  Honestly, the process dragged for so long that my memory is already kind of fuzzy on the subject.  But I can break down several reasons why it took over 10 months to get the permits, at least from what I can tell.

If the permit process doesn’t interest you, scroll down to “Project Start”.  If not, here are the three reasons that I believe it took so long.

Misunderstandings

My architect asked for a meeting with the construction officer at the beginning of the process to discuss the project.  The officer reviewed the drawings and noted that we were adding a third bedroom but only had two parking spaces.  He said that city zoning ordinance required a third parking spot if we were adding the third bedroom, but that he’d let it go and we’d get approved as-is.

This turned out to be a huge mistake on our part.  One of the biggest misunderstandings we had was the third parking space.  My architect took him at his word that we would be OK with just two parking spaces.  Turns out, we failed zoning review because of this.

We failed a few other times even after we re-submitted the drawings with the third parking space.  Despite the initial meeting my architect held with the construction officer, he still didn’t know exactly the level of detail they needed to see on the drawings.  It took quite some time to decipher what the city was asking of us and we had to re-submit the drawings several times.

Inefficient Processes

In all my years in the private sector, I’ve never seen a more inefficiently run business process than the Union City construction permit process.  It was shocking how long it took for them to perform the simplest of tasks.

At first, we had to submit for zoning review.  For inexplicable reasons, they didn’t ask for drawings at that time and we just had to fill out a form.  About a month later, we were given zoning approval, meaning that we were within code.

When that was done, we proceeded to submit the drawings.  Then the fun began.  A month later, the town failed the drawings for a multitude of reasons for building, fire, electric, and plumbing.  Even more maddening was that they revoked the zoning approval and didn’t tell us why, only saying that we needed to talk to the construction official to discuss.  I went with my architect to the meeting, and that was when we found out that we failed zoning due to the third parking spot.  At first, he didn’t even know why we failed, he had to call some guy from his mobile phone and ask him if he remembered why he failed us!

My architect had to add the third parking spot and re-submit the permit for zoning and the drawings again. A month later, we got zoning approved (and this turned out to be for good) but they failed the drawings again.  My architect had to meet with them again to understand why they failed us and had to do another drawing iteration, which cost us yet another month.

Sometime in August, someone from the building department called my architect and told him that we were about to get approved, pending some sort of fee calculation.  We thought we were ready to go any day.  Another bad assumption on our part.

I got a call at work from the building department (after really not talking to them directly at all throughout the process) and didn’t pick up the phone right away.  I called back just a few minutes later when I was free and the conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, did someone there call this number?

Union City: Yeah, we left you a voice mail.  You have to take care of the [inaudible] fee.

Me: I didn’t catch that, what do I have to do?

Union City: Check your voicemail! (click)

There was no voicemail on my phone.  While I sat there, bewildered, the phone rang and it was Union City again:

Union City: Your voicemail was full.  You need to take care of the [inaudible] fee.

Me: Could you please spell that?

Union City: C-O-A-H.  You have to pay the COAH fee.  Go online and send in the form. (click)

Before I go any further in the story, let me state for the record that my voicemail was not full.  Anyway, I googled COAH and didn’t come up with much.  I called my architect and he said that he had never heard of it either but he’d check it out.  A few minutes later, he sent over a form he found online, and asked me to print, sign, and scan it, and then send it back to him.  I did that as soon as I could and he said he’d drop it off the next day.

Then the wait began again.  Several weeks later, when my architect was on vacation, I called the city to see if the permits were ready to pick up.  The woman I spoke to told me that they were still waiting for the COAH form to be dropped off.  I told her it was there already but there was no arguing with her.  She told me I could fax it to her.  I said I don’t have a fax machine but I could e-mail her a copy.

I hung up, found the signed COAH form on my phone and immediately e-mailed it to her.  She replied right away in all caps: “THANK YOU FOR SENDING, BUT YOU NEED TO SEND IT TO THE TAX ASSSESSOR.”  Not sure why she didn’t tell me that on the phone, nor am I sure why she couldn’t just forward the e-mail to the dude herself, but I did what she said anyway.

The tax assessor was responsive when reached by phone.  He said that the COAH fee was a fee that the state made them charge because I was renovating the house.  It would be calculated based on the assessed value of the finished house.  As he promised, about seven days later, he came back with a handwritten form that said I had to pay a $2,300 COAH fee for the right to develop my property.  He promised to walk it up to the construction department right away.

This was not the best news I got all week, but at least the ball was rolling again.  I called the construction office and they told me that they had the COAH form and the permits were back under review with no ETA for completion.  I pleaded my case and told her that the COAH process alone had gone on for over a month and asked that they kindly wrap things up as soon as possible.  She said that there was no ETA for completion.

I called the following Tuesday to politely ask if there was anything else they needed from me.  The woman on the other end said “You are still under review, we’ll let you know when it is done!” and hung up the phone.  I started to think that these people really hate their jobs, their lives, and the general public.

My architect stopped by a week after that and asked if they were done.  After a few moments, they said to him “We need the COAH form.”  I think at this point, he was wondering if Alan Funt was about to run in to the room and tell him that he was on Candid Camera.  Either way, he somehow managed to convince her that it was on top of the pile and that they did indeed have the forms.

A week later, about 7 weeks after the COAH form process started, and about 8 months after the permit process began, they called my contractor to tell him that the permits were done and we could pick them up for a total price of $9,200, inclusive of the COAH fee.

Sheer Incompetence

Friends and family gave me all kinds of useless advice during the process.  Their hearts were in the right place, but there was really no way any of it would work.  Some examples:

  • Hire a Cuban lawyer and have him take them to court.
  • It’s Jersey, bro! Bring an envelope full of cash!
  • Call the mayor and complain.
  • Call them more often and politely ask them to move the form along.

The reason that none of this common sense advice was going to work is because the people who work in the construction office in Union City are terrible at their jobs!  They push paper all day and barely use computers.  Almost everything they do is still handwritten.  They are late or don’t show up for their own appointments.  They have no interpersonal skills.  What good would it have done to bribe someone if it still would have taken them weeks just to do the math for the permits?  What’s the mayor going to do, review the zoning himself?

Some of my favorite examples of their utter incompetence:

  • I visited the house on July 6 to check the mail. There were two letters from the city, both had handwritten address lines.
    • The first envelope was post-marked July 1 and it was made out to a Hispanic variation of my first name. Inside, the letter was dated May 28.  I guess it took them 6 weeks to handwrite the envelope to the wrong name.
    • The second envelope was post-marked July 2. It was made out to “Pavel Rodenski” at my address.  Inside, the letter was dated July 1 (they’re getting better at sending mail quickly) and it was also made out to “Pavel Rodenski”.  I keep this blog semi-anonymous, but I can assure you that Pavel Rodenski doesn’t even resemble my real name.
  • Their inability to just take care of the COAH form was very frustrating. All they had to do was talk to the tax guy, ask him to fill out the form and send it back to them.  It should have taken one day.  I can’t figure out they wanted my architect and myself to push a piece of paper around city hall.  A piece of paper that they lost track of at least twice.
  • The permit receipt was written by hand. At no time in the last 30 years has anybody in Union City figured out how to use Microsoft Excel to create a simple template that can be used to do math for them.

Anyway, this is it for me regarding the permit part of the story.  I’m sure the inspections and the CO process will go smoothly with these characters in charge.

Project Start

I am happy to announce that work has started today.  My contractor texted me a few pictures because he thought I wouldn’t believe that we are actually underway.

The first phase of the project is the masonry work.  This involves extending the back of the house by building a new foundation behind the existing one.  It also includes knocking down the misshapen and dangerous front stairs and replacing them with a safer set.

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The incredibly dangerous set of front stairs.  Take a close look, none of the steps are the same height.  The one in the middle is the worst, it is three bricks tall!

To begin, we need to rip the front of the house and the back of the house off and throw them away.  We also have to knock down the basement walls in the back of the house and remove a steel staircase.

The house only has a three-foot alley on the right side and a one-foot alley on the left.  This will prevent any mason from bringing in equipment to help the excavation process.  Therefore, we had to find a crew that was willing to dig out the new basement with shovels.  We also don’t have room out front for a dumpster, we have to remove trash one truck-full at a time.

These constraints proved tricky for my contractor to find someone that we could use.  Several people he brought in to look at the job refused to even bid on it.  One of them gave a bid of over $70K which we rejected.  He finally was able to find someone that was willing to take the job at a reasonable price so we could get started.

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Working hard on ripping out the entire back of the house.

This part of the project has already presented me with my first finishing decision to make.  What should the front stairs look like?  I posed that question to the architect, since it is job to mind the modern design aesthetic of the house.  He responded that “The front steps should be a concrete block with a cement skim coat finish and precast treads.”  OK, sounds good to me!

My contractor is already working on the next phases of the project.  He has the framer lined up and already got me a lumber quote from the lumber yard.  He also has two window quotes, one from Andersen, and one from Marvin.  He told me that we should order the windows now so that they’ll be ready once the masonry and the framing are done.

I am behind before we even got started, but the overwhelming amount of decision making regarding the finish of the house is about to begin.  I can’t describe how excited I am, and I’m looking forward to every bit of it.

Making the Most of the Long Wait for Building Permits

I had a lot of people reach out to me with comments and questions after I started my house reconstruction blog.  One of the questions I got was if I plan to live in it when the construction is done.  I’m not sure why that wasn’t clear, but yes, it will be my new primary home.  Unfortunately, since it is being fully gutted and renovated, I can’t live in it until the construction is mostly complete.  So, that sound you hear is the sound of me slowly going broke while I pay two mortgages.  I was doing fine when I only had one mortgage, but I ain’t exactly Rockefeller.

The toughest part of this whole process thus far has been waiting for the building permits from Union City to come through.  It took a while to even submit the plans in the first place.  My architect needed to rip into the walls to understand how the house was structured before he could finish his construction drawings.  Once that was done and they were submitted, the long process of waiting for the town to approve his drawings began.  Of course, the Union City building department rejected the drawings on all fronts last week.  It failed electrical, building, fire, and plumbing all in one shot.

I sat with my architect this week to go over the project.  He pointed out to me that almost every single item that was flagged when the inspectors rejected the plans was them either misunderstanding or missing something that was right in front of them in the drawings.  He has to answer to every one of their complaints, re-submit the drawings, and hope for the best the second time around as the wait will begin again.  I’m hoping it’s only three weeks but that’s wishful thinking.

To take my mind off of watching my checking and savings account balances slowly approach zero, I’ve been trying to make the most of the wait. My meeting with my architect was also to discuss the finish of the interior and how it will look when it is done.  Part of our agreement is that he is in charge of not only the construction design, but he is also an interior design consultant.

While doing my own reading on the subject of interior design, I came across the terms “traditional, “transitional”, and “modern”.  I asked my good friend June (who is an interior designer) what the three terms meant to her.  She told me traditional is exactly what it sounds like, something like The White House with lots of heavy and ornate woodwork.  Modern is the opposite of traditional with a minimal, abstract, and geometric look.  Transitional is a combination of the two.

After viewing thousands of pictures on line and visiting about a dozen showrooms over the past few months, I made the decision that I hated transitional and traditional, and want a modern look for my house.  I told my architect to run with that idea and he went to work on drawing up some renderings of what my modern home could look like.  He showed me the first pass of the renderings at our design meeting and I was elated.

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An overhead view of the great room.  Pictured from left to right, the living area, kitchen, and dining area.  The living area is the north side of the house.  The entrance from the backyard is off the living area, the entrance from the sidewalk is off the dining area.  A half bathroom is near the kitchen island.

 

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Standing in the dining area, looking north.

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Standing in the living area, looking south.

The pictures of the great room are a great start.  There was no way I could have dreamt this up on my own, I really needed my architect to take my feedback and come up with a design.  Now I have something to work with and tell him what I think.  We can iterate on his designs as many times as necessary.

The layout of the great room, from south to north, will be dining area, kitchen, and living area.   The entrance from the sidewalk is on the south to the dining area.  The entrance from the backyard is on the north from the living area. I felt that the kitchen, being the centerpiece of the entire room had to be a distinctive and eye-catching design, and that would shape the design of everything else.  In particular, the kitchen island has to jump out at you when you walk into the house.

What jumped out at me immediately when I looked at these pictures was that I really like the floor.  He went with a wide-plank hardwood floor with a light color.  Out of everything in this picture, I think I’ve settled on that design and color on first sight.  Everything else is off to a great start but will need some work.

One of the first things I noted to him was that I wanted to make a better statement with the lighting.  I don’t want to have just recessed lights across the ceiling, that seems kind of boring.  I would like to have some modern lighting elements over the dining room table, the island, and the couch.  He seemed to think that I should stick to recessed lighting over the island, but I asked him for some optionality.

The next thing that jumped out at me was the waterfall design of the island.  I learned the term “waterfall” at one of my many kitchen designer visits.  A waterfall is design when the countertop stone cascades down the sides of an island and reaches the floor.  I’m not sure exactly what kind of stone sample he used in his rendering, but this gave me a sense of how dramatic it can look with where the island is placed in the room.  I think that the stone selection I make is going to be one of the most critical design considerations in the entire house.

My architect also mentioned that he wanted a unique backsplash on the wall behind the kitchen counter.  Since it is an enclosed space, it lends itself to being somewhat eclectic.  He told me he would outright walk off the job if I selected a stone and glass mosaic.  Fair enough.  Pictured only in the view from the north, you can see that he selected a patterned Spanish tile for the backsplash.  I like where he is headed with that idea.

The colors of the walls have to change.  There’s no way that I’m going to settle for a sterile white for the walls.  I’d like something bright, bold, and not necessarily even neutral.  Again, I believe that I need to decide on the stone for the island, then the colors of the cabinets, and then the paint color for the walls and ceiling.

There isn’t anything along the east wall in the dining area right now.  I asked my architect to add some shelving for wine, liquor, and decorations.  I’m going to put a 55” television on the wall where that painting currently is.

These renderings don’t show the west wall.  I asked for a lot to be done there.  In the living area, I need a cabinet or shelves for my electronic equipment.  I’d like to frame out a 65” or 70” television in the center of the wall.  There needs to be some sort of functional or decorative elements along that wall so it isn’t just empty with a big TV hanging in the middle.

I also asked for book shelves along the west wall across from the island.  I have a big stash of cookbooks that I’d like to keep conveniently located in the kitchen.  I don’t, however, want them to distract from the look of the room and look cluttered so I’d like for them to be enclosed in cabinets so they can’t be seen unless the cabinets are open.  I also want to hang a 32” TV above the cabinets so I can watch TV while I’m prepping food on the island.

I’d also like to consider opening up the stairwell and not walling it off as it shows in the rendering from above.  I think it might function better for carrying large pieces of furniture up the stairs if it’s more open.  I think it will also make that area of the house seem bigger and airier.

Finally, in the living area, asked him to center the desk so that it is not right up against the refrigerator.  My computer will go on that desk and I’ll have a swivel chair there so I can turn around and watch TV easily.

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Overhead view of the second floor.  The master bedroom suite, along with a bathroom and a walk-in closet, is pictured on the left.  The small bedroom is in the center.  The main bathroom is to the right of the small bedroom.  A larger bedroom is in the front of the house, pictured right.

The upstairs is going to be less visually stimulating, and mostly just functional.  Even still, I’m very excited to see the initial rendering he gave me.  On the west side of the second floor (the left on the picture) is the master bedroom suite with a bathroom and a walk in closet (both on the top left).  To give an idea of scale, that is a king sized bed in the bedroom.

The bedroom in the middle is going to be the smallest one of the three. It will have a closet and room for a queen sized bed.  I haven’t decided what I’m actually going to do with this room yet, maybe I’ll take up a new hobby and stage it in this room.  Or maybe I’ll just treat it as an attic and use it for storage.

The closet right outside the master bedroom is actually going to be where the washer and dryer are. That didn’t come across in the rendering but we are going to run gas, water, exhaust, and a drain to that room.  I’m glad that I don’t have to haul laundry all the way down to the basement.

The main bathroom is just off the hallway at the top of the stairs.  It’ll have a linen closet just outside of it, and I’m tinkering with the idea of fitting it for cat litter boxes should I decide to become a cat owner again.

Finally, in the front of the house (pictured top right) will be the third bedroom in the house.  This space doesn’t currently exist, right now it is just open air over the front enclosed porch.  This one will have substantial closet space and room to move around.

While all this planning is happening, my contractor got to work with the interior demolition.  While we didn’t get the building permits yet, the town did grant us a permit to begin non-structural demo.  He’s stripped away most of the walls and ceilings, and hauled most of it away.  We can’t get a dumpster in front of the house because there is a handicapped spot that belongs to my neighbor in the way.  My contractor figured out some way to hire a guy to show up with a pick-up truck to haul away trash on an on-demand basis.  He claims he got a good deal and that’s the price isn’t that much different than if we had gone the dumpster route.

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They told me when I bought the house that it had “good bones”.  I guess.

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Here lies the remains of the ugly pink bathroom.

The demolition only took a few days but it was good that it got done.  Once the building permits are ready to go, I’d like for the construction crew to be ready to get started quickly.  There will be more demolition that needs to be done as some structural parts are going to be removed, and the entire exterior will be stripped, but that can’t start under the conditions of our current permit.

With all this planning underway, I feel like I have at least a fighting chance of working through the overwhelming amount of details and decisions that will have to be made during the construction finishing process.  I need to get my head around how the house is going to be wired, for TV, data, sound, security, smart outlets, and smart lighting.  Maybe I can Google all that while I can still afford to pay my ISP bill.

This is going to take a long time…

Getting Started on Living the Dream

I don’t have a specific recollection of when I got the idea, but early on in adulthood and just after college graduation, I started telling people that I was going to build a house of my own someday.  I knew that I wanted to live in house, at the time I was living in a cramped pre-war railroad apartment on Washington Street in Hoboken, NJ.  I figured it would be good to build it to my specifications and to be the first one to live in it.  I am from Bergen County, I figured that I would eventually migrate back that way and find a plot of land to build on.

Circumstances changed over time and I ended up buying a condo (at what seemed like a high price at the time) in January, 2001 in Hoboken.  It was a great move at the time, it is much nicer than my old rental on Washington Street. It has a parking space big enough to fit my car and my motorcycle, and a small terrace that I could use to grill.  It certainly has appreciated nicely since 2001 and turned out to be the best investment I ever made.  I joined the condo board to protect my investment and I have served as board president for the last six years.

Time went by and I never left my apartment.  I decided on a whim to replace the kitchen in 2011 and was very pleased with how it came out.  I thought it would be good practice if I ever did decide to go ahead and pursue the homebuilding dream.

About two years ago, I suddenly realized that I was getting frustrated with my living.  My neighbors were driving me nuts, especially in my capacity as condo board president.  They seemed to think it was ok to sit on their lazy asses while I volunteered my time to keep the building well maintained – and then to complain about the job I was doing!  Grilling became an issue, too.  I was fine for the first ten years living here, and slowly the neighbors began calling the fire department whenever I grilled.  I think the problem there is that the brick wall on my terrace obscures the view of the grill from the street so all people saw was smoke and they got spooked.

So, in the summer of 2014, I decided it was time to leave and that I needed a plan.  I wanted my own house but I didn’t want to move all the way back to Bergen County like in my original idea.  I work in Manhattan and loathe long commutes.  I also have a lot of ties to Hoboken having lived here for over 23 years now.  The prices for stand-alone properties in Hoboken are prohibitively expensive for someone with my means so I started by looking just outside of town. With Uber, I can move back and forth to neighboring towns very easily so I decided to stay in Hudson County.  I have a very good friend who lives in Union City and her living situation definitely influenced my decision to consider the area she lives in.

During my search for a new home, my plan changed over time but I settled on these requirements:

  • It had to be located in Jersey City, Union City, or Weehawken, north of Route 139 and on or east of Palisades Avenue, excluding the Weehawken or Jersey City waterfronts (both of which prone to flooding and too expensive).
  • It had to have indoor parking for the bike and the car.
  • The size of the lot needed to be a minimum of 2,500 square feet.
  • It needed a backyard that I could use to cook and entertain in, as well as grow a vegetable garden.
  • There had to between two and four bedrooms, and at least two bathrooms. Nothing bigger than that.
  • It had to be one of these options that fit my overall price point:
    • An empty lot that I could build a house from the ground up.
    • A house that was so cheap I could afford to knock it down and build from scratch.
    • A house that was in the mid-price range that I could gut and partially expand.
    • Something that was move-in ready

Once I made my mind up and set the search in motion, I realized that I was about five years too late in getting started!  Hudson County is the most densely populated country and there is not much empty space left in my target location.  Distressed properties are often snapped up by flippers or developers in shady deals before they can hit the open market.  An outsider like myself who spends most of my time on my full-time job really doesn’t stand much of a chance in finding a good deal that someone else isn’t already looking at.  There are so few move in-ready houses in my target location for sale that prices are astronomically high for the ones that are.

A year of frustration came and went.  I stared obsessively at Zillow all day long, every day, waiting for something good to trigger one of my alerts.  I surveyed neighborhoods from my motorcycle, stopping to take pictures of places that looked abandoned or condemned so I could try to locate the owner via public tax records.  I found one really cheap house in my teardown price range that hit the market the week I was on vacation; it was sold before I got home. I visited a few places that looked decent online but were pretty lousy when I visited them in person with my realtor.

While this was going on, I did some prep work by reaching out to some architects to discuss what I wanted to do.  Most of the Hoboken-based architects I found online barely returned my messages (I guess they are too busy desiging crappy luxury Hoboken rentals) but I finally established a relationship with one who did return my calls and said he could help me.  He would eventually get the job because he was pretty much the only person who talked to me!

In September 2015, I finally found a lead that looked promising.  It was on 19th Street in Union City and matched all of my criteria for the mid-price renovation option.  I called my realtor and ran out that night to take a look at it.  We quickly were able to ascertain that it was a flip, someone had bought it out of foreclosure, did a minimal amount of work on it, and was trying to sell it for a quick $80,000 more than what they paid for it.  I knew right off the bat that I was about to get ripped off but I felt like this was really the first house that I really thought I could get my hands on after a year of looking so I wanted to move ahead.

Front of House

The front of the house.  Take a close look at the steps,  each one is a different size.  That is just the beginning of the problems this house has.

This set in motion a crazy chain of events that I had no way of preparing for.  It turned into the wildest two and a half months of my life!

First off, I had no idea how much the renovation would even cost. My realtor suggested that I call a contractor and get him to come out the next day. The realtor would meet him at the property and we could get his opinion on a rough estimate of what it would cost to do the renovation.  This is where being condo board president finally paid off, I knew a contractor that we did business with in my building and I called him that night.  Since I’ve given him so much business, he was willing to come out on no notice and help me out.  He showed up the next day and gave me an estimate I was comfortable with.

It wasn’t too much to go by, it was just one contractor’s opinion based on my rough description of what I wanted the house to look like when I was done.  But it was all I had so I decided to pull the trigger and make the offer on the place.

Back Yard

The backyard is the perfect size for what I’d like to do with it.

I was immediately in trouble because I had no idea how to finance it.  I didn’t know if I had to take out a regular mortgage and borrow against the house after closing, or maybe even borrow against my current condo and finance construction that way.  I got put in touch with a mortgage broker who suggested a 203 K loan to purchase the house and to fund the construction.  This is a type of construction loan that is regulated by the state.

This got me started on what was a very atypical mortgage closing process.  Usually when you buy a house, you need to get it appraised for an amount equal to or greater than the selling price.  The mortgage company then approves the loan and you are good to close provided everything else falls into place.  In my case, I had to prove that the value of the finished product was worth the amount that I had to borrow.  In order to do that, I needed a plan for what the house would be like when it was done, and to base the estimate off of that plan.

So, I gave my architect a ring and told him he was hired.  A deposit check later, I had him on the property and described to him in general terms what I wanted.  He measured the house, asked me for a survey, and went off to come up with a draft design.

While that was in motion, I had the house inspection done.  The inspection report was a disaster, there couldn’t have been more problems with the house.  Pipes were leaking, the roof had to go, there were holes in the siding, the problems never ended.  I was comforted by the fact that I was about to gut the house so pretty much every issue that it had was about to go away.  I used the leverage in the inspection report to negotiate a $5,000 closing credit from the seller which was nice.

The architect came back with a draft floor plan a few weeks later and I was floored by the design.  The house has two livable floors and he completely redesigned the interior and also planned extensions in both the front and back of the house.  The first floor was going to be an open concept great room with dining, kitchen, and living areas, and had a half bathroom.  The second floor was subdivided into three bedrooms and two bathrooms.  The master bedroom had one of the bathrooms and a walk-in closet.  It also had a closet for a washer and dryer and a linen closet in the hallway.  He had a design for an outdoor patio and kitchen in the backyard, another feature I asked him for.  I was amazed at how well he was able to translate my ramblings into a viable drawing.

Downstairs and Backyard

The plan for the basement and garage level, along with the patio and back yard. The solidly shaded areas are the existing basement, the shaded “L” shaped area in the back of the house is new.

Now I had a floor plan for a proposed finished layout so I could begin the loan and appraisal process.  In order to get the loan, I had to hire a HUD consultant whose job it was to review the plan and determine roughly what it was going to cost to build.  He would ultimately be in charge of the escrow loan during the construction phase, doling out payments to the general contractor for completed work.  It took some back and forth with the HUD consultant as I felt like his first draft came in too low and I wanted to borrow more than what he first estimated.  I felt it was important to get as much done in this phase as possible and wanted the funds to be able to do so.

For the appraisal, my realtor and I had to some homework to find “comps” in the area, similar homes that had sold recently to demonstrate that my house would value for the amount I wanted to borrow.  This was another big back and forth process with the mortgage broker as I felt his original appraisal estimate was too low and I wouldn’t be able to borrow enough for the construction portion of the loan.  After a few weeks of us all discussing it separately, he raised his estimate and we agreed on a final number for me to borrow.  The loan was high enough for me to buy the house and cover what we thought the construction was going to cost.

All this was happening while the clock was ticking on my contract with the seller.  He really had no idea what I was doing and why the process was dragging on for so long.  He kept calling the realtor and my lawyer to ask what was going on.  This is where my lawyer really did a great job of keeping things together and on track.  I was fortunate enough to be friends with her before I put this offer down.  She’s represented about a dozen friends of mine for their closings so I already knew she was the best.  She managed to buy me enough time to eventually get things together and ready to close.

The final two things I needed to do in order to close was to hire a contractor (and have him fill out a ton of paperwork with the mortgage company) and get insurance on the house.  The contractor selection process was the longest and most dragged out portion of this whole ordeal.  I wanted to get at least three competitive bids in order to make the best decision.  The three bid plan is a rule of thumb we use on my condo board, and we typically end up selecting the middle bid.

I started with the original contractor that came to visit my house on the first day of the process.  He took one look at the floor plan that the architect drew and immediately changed his tune.  He told me that this wasn’t what we discussed and that his original estimate would likely triple because the scope had changed so much.  I really didn’t think it changed all that much, and certainly not enough to triple his quote!  Either way, he outright refused to make a bid and told me to back out of the deal while I still could.  So, he was out.

The mortgage broker recommended a contractor that he and the HUD consultant had previously worked with.  I had him over to the house and he said he would come back with a bid.  My father had told me to call someone who had done work on my parent’s house.  I called him and had him do a walkthrough as well.  This put me in a holding pattern as I had to wait for both of these two to come back with bids on the project that hopefully matched the estimate the HUD consultant provided.

These were a tense few weeks as I really had nothing to do other than wait for the two of them to come back with bids.  When they finally did, the contractor that my father recommended came in a higher than the other guy.  I needed to find a way to make a decision between the two.  I asked the mortgage broker for a reference for the contractor he recommended.  I reached out to the person he told me to call and the guy could not have given me a worse review!  He told me the contractor was a complete disaster and he had to fire him and that I should run away as fast as I could.  That was some recommendation!

I wanted to hire the guy my father recommended but his bid didn’t match up with the HUD consultant report.  This took about a week or so to sort out, but we got them to agree on a bid structure and we were good to proceed.  At this point, the house was appraised, I had a plan, I had a contractor, and I just needed to get homeowners insurance.

The homeowner’s insurance policy turned out to be the first real “gotacha” unforeseen cost of this project.  I didn’t think of this ahead of time, but homeowner’s insurance is significantly higher when a home is being renovated.  I got slapped with a $5,600 bill for the annual premium on the new policy.  The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that it will be partially refunded if the construction is done within a year, and I certainly hope we hit that mark!

By all accounts, everything was in place and I was ready to close.  The seller served us with some sort of legal notice that I had two weeks to close or they could cancel the deal and sue me for damages.  So, I pushed my team to get everything done.  My only issue was that the house was a mess, there was a lot of debris in the backyard and a big stack of paint cans under the stairs.  I had been pushing my realtor to have the place cleaned up but the seller was being difficult, saying that he was annoyed with me for taking so long to close.

Great Room

The first floor great room.  The front door entrance is pictured on the right.  From right to left is the dining room, kitchen, and living room.  The existing house is the crooked portion in the middle.  The house wasn’t built squarely in the lot.

As the closing day approached, I used the only leverage I ever had during the whole process.  I told me realtor and lawyer to tell the seller’s people that I wasn’t going to close on the house until the seller cleaned it up to my liking.  I threatened to not show up at the closing and to hold on to the certified deposit check until I was satisfied with the condition of the property.  Faced with the specter of having to sue me and start over with a new buyer, the seller acquiesced and did indeed clean the property up on the day of closing.  I didn’t do a walkthrough, but he texted a series of pictures of the property to my realtor demonstrating that he cleaned up everything I told him to, and a few things that I didn’t!

To recount, I had the following people working for me during this ten-week period, most of whom I didn’t even know when the process started:

  1. My realtor
  2. My lawyer
  3. The home inspector
  4. A contractor
  5. An architect
  6. The insurance agent
  7. A mortgage broker
  8. A HUD consultant
  9. The surveyor
  10. Deed and title agent

Did I mention that I have a full-time job?  Thinking back on it, I can’t believe I found the time to keep everyone headed in the right direction and to get them whatever they needed from me.  It all paid off in the end, on December 18, 2015, I closed on the house and got a set of keys of my own.  The purchasing phase of this journey was complete, and it was time to begin the demolition and construction phase.

At this point in the story, I need to make the following admission: I haven’t got the slightest idea how to design a house, in fact I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing!  I can speak in general terms about what my dream was, but I can just barely articulate it to the professionals working for me.  I have no idea how to tackle the overwhelming amount of details that need to be covered in order to finish a home off.  I know next to nothing about topics such as exterior finishes, smart home wiring, venting gas appliances, kitchen design, color matching or pretty much anything else you should consider when designing a home.  I didn’t even know the difference between traditional, transitional, or modern design.  At the time of closing, all I really had were three things: A concept, a dilapidated property, and a construction loan.

Upstairs

The second floor.  It includes all three bedrooms, both bathrooms, and the closet for the washer and dryer.  We barely had enough room between my house and the house next door to put a window in bedroom 2 as per building code.

Closing on the property was really the beginning of the fun part.  This is one of the most challenging endeavors I have ever attempted.  I have to plan every single detail of this house and make sure it is built the way I want it.  I started to immerse myself in the details attempted to teach myself the things I don’t know about home design.

I wanted to begin with the areas that were most important to me.  Specifically, I want the great room and backyard to be awesome.  One of my biggest passions is home cooking and I love to entertain guests in my home.  I want a kitchen that is both functional and visually stimulating.  I also want a backyard that I can cook and barbecue in, as well as grow some of my own ingredients in a garden.  Something I learned from my parents, especially my dad, was how to grow vegetables and to cook over an open flame.  This is my chance to have a viable space to do both.

Since closing, I’ve met with a half a dozen kitchen designers and also several appliance experts.  I have so many ideas from them, I’m twice as confused as I was before I started.  But I think I’m starting to get ahead of the design discussion, and with my architect’s help, I am optimistic that this is going to turn out well.  The one firm decision I’ve made is that I want the house to fit a contemporary design motif and that the kitchen is going to be the most important part of that design.

Patio Sketch

The architect did a free-hand sketch of what the patio is going to look like.  I’m still playing around with the idea, but that wall is going to be what we are going to work with.  I may add an island between the house and the table.  The area labeled “BBQ” will be where I keep my charcoal grill and my smoker.  

This process is about to get very interesting.  I’m slowly going broke while paying two mortgages because I can’t move into the new house until it is ready.  I have to be patient while the house is partially demolished, re-framed, and re-wired and re-piped.  I have to find the time to plan every last detail of the finish.  There is a possibility that I will fail at this and go bankrupt trying to get this done.  I’m hopeful that there is a much higher probability that this house will be awesome, is going to be a killer bachelor pad, and will become best house in all of Union City.  Only time will tell.

As of the time of this writing, I’m in “permit purgatory”, waiting for the Union City building inspector to give us the final go ahead to start construction.  So far, they’ve issued us the permit to demolish the interior and sent us a letter saying that our plans conform to building code and don’t require a zoning variance.  Of course, I have no patience for this process and can only hope it finishes soon.  The contractor has begun to strip the interior and haul out the debris.

I plan to write about the process as much as I can.  I think it’s been an interesting story so far and I get a lot of questions about it.  There are entire TV networks devoted to home building and restoration so I am going to attempt to share my story along the way.  You’ll get to see me either sink or swim in these uncharted waters!