Picking Up the Pace

Things have tended to move faster once the frame was built. Of course, not nearly as fast as I’d like, but now that the house is weather proof and everything is contained indoors, there are fewer reasons to have idle time and we can keep moving.

At the end of my last post, we were getting ready to have the building inspection.  We’ll pick up the story from there.

Stairs

Before we could have the building inspection, we needed to order, fabricate, and install the finished staircase from the first to second floor.  There was a temporary staircase in place, but it would not have passed inspection as-is, the inspector would have wanted to see the final product.

When I was asked what kind of stairs I wanted, I poked around online and found a “waterfall” design that I thought looked cool and asked for that to be built.  I thought it had a sleek, modern look to it, and I liked how the drywall met the treads and the risers when viewed from the side.

stairs design.png

A sample of the “waterfall” stairs I found online and thought were cool.  They were the inspiration for what I asked for from the staircase fabricator.

While the rough plumbing and electric work was being done, we ordered stairs from Alvaro Stairs in North Bergen.  The stair fabricator noted that we didn’t have enough room to build the risers exactly as I wanted, and we needed to leave some extra space for nosing in order to meet code.  So, I settled for treads that had a bit of a nose, and decorative wood on the sides that would replicate the waterfall look from the side.

Once the stairs were in, the contractor was able to build the frame to close off the staircase from the basement and frame the basement door.

Stairs.JPG

The stairs as installed.  They will have a similar waterfall look on the side as the sample we were working with.  The treads and risers are made from red oak, and the stringers are made from pine.  The drywall will be installed right into the stringers and it will look similar to the sample picture when finished.

My Friend, The Building Inspector

This purpose of the building inspection was to take a look at the overall structure of the house and the materials that were use to build it.  We would need to pass this inspection before we would be allowed to insulate the house and move on with the project.

My contractor was nervous about this one, having dealt with the Union City Building Department for the entirety of this project.  He told me (and I was able to corroborate this story with a large number of other people) that Union City is not like other municipalities in North Jersey, in that they have a very stringent building code standard, and they pay attention to every detail.  He asked me if I could have the architect on standby if needed.

I had a few vacation days I needed to kill so I happened to be off of work the day the building inspector came.  There was a four-hour window for when the inspector was supposed to arrive so I asked my contractor to text me when he showed up.  I got the text that he was there and I jumped in the car.  While I was on my way up (and I drove safely and didn’t check my text messages until I parked, thank you very much) I got another text: “trouble brewing, get the architect here”.  So, I called the architect and he said he was free and could be there in a matter of minutes.

I arrived at the house and the inspector was staring at the plans and my contractor was nervously pacing about.  They started to rattle off terms that went over my head and were somewhat confusing.  The architect walked in a few minutes later and was able to join in the discussion and help things along.

After a very detailed review of the plans, a long discussion, and a big walkthrough of the entire house from basement to roof, the inspector found a few things he wanted addressed.  A few of the things he cited us for:

  • The roof joists were missing something that was required to keep them from compressing.
  • Some washers were missing in the basement on the masonry bolts.
  • The windows on the 2nd floor were too low to the ground and needed to have limiters put on them to keep them from opening for more than 4 inches. This was likely my fault for switching the original design from casement windows to double-hung and not double-checking if they needed to be higher off the ground.  Because, like, I don’t know building code.
  • The tin knocker put screws in the dryer vent pipe. That is a no-no and we had to take it out and replace it with one that didn’t have screws in it, only tape.
  • We had made a change to the original plans to put some of the HVAC equipment on the roof. Because of that, the inspector told us we need a railing.  My architect disagrees, he believes this code doesn’t apply to a single-family house, but for now, it’s on the report as something that needs to be addressed.  We might try to argue as I don’t feel like adding yet another $1,000 expense to the project that adds little value.  Whenever the HVAC guy is on the roof to do maintenance, I’ll just say “bro, don’t fall off” and we should be good.

Throughout my observation of the conversation and the walkthrough, it appeared to me that my contractor was overly anxious about what was happening.  In my opinion, the inspector was just doing his job.  Getting annoyed at him if he found something wrong would be like getting annoyed at a cop for giving you a parking ticket an hour after the meter expired.  He was being fair with us.

At the end of everything, he looked at us and said “I’m going to let you insulate.  There’s nothing here to make me stop you”.  So, we have to address the items on his report and prove that they were done (mostly by taking pictures and videos of completed work), but we got to move on.

Gas Pouch

PSE&G showed up and installed the regulator and meter for the new gas line in the pouch we built for it.  This was to close out the work I had paid them to do in the very beginning.

Gas Pouch.JPG

The new gas regulator and meter

Button Up the Electric

There were still a few things the electrician had to do.  We did a walkthrough, and not everything was finished, and a few things had to change.  There were a few outlets that weren’t placed properly, and a few switches and fixtures had to be added.  This process dragged on a bit longer than I would have liked as it took several weeks to finish.  But it had to be completed in order to do the AV and data rough wiring.  We wouldn’t be able to work at the same time, we’d get in the electrician’s way.

One of the big milestones that place during this phase was to have PSE&G upgrade the service to 200 amps.  The previous incoming connection of 100 amps would not have been nearly enough.  We had to install a breaker in the driveway for the entire house.  Due to some code regulation, it had to be there and couldn’t be inside the house.  I’ll need to secure it or someone can just walk up and just shut the entire house electricity off.

200 Amp Service.JPG

200 amp service.  Cool!

AV and Data Rough Cabling

The reason a professional was not doing the audio-visual and data cabling was because I lucked out and happen to have a family connection to help.  My brother happens to be a professional in the field and works for The Judge Group doing corporate AV installations.  He was willing to work for food which was a huge help with the budget.

So, he donated about 10 hours of his time on nights and weekends and got to work cabling the house for television, data, and audio throughout.  The first thing we had to do was get the holes drilled in the frame where we needed them, so we asked the electrician to help.  His drill and set of tools were better suited for the task than anything we had.

Once the spray foam insulation would go in (more on that shortly), we’d be unable to pull any more cables in the future or fix any broken ones unless there was a conduit of some sort that wasn’t encased in spray foam.  We went to a local hardware store and looked around for something that was shaped like a bendable tube.  We settled on what looked like a long shop vacuum hose and brought that back to the house.

Basement

The majority of the AV and telecommunications equipment will be housed in a rack in the basement and controlled remotely from an iOS app.  The DirecTV whole home DVR, the incoming Internet connection (I haven’t decided between FIOS or Optimum yet), the Denon home theater system, and the HDMI switcher will all be in the rack.  So, all the HDMI and speaker cables will route into the designated corner.  In some cases, we used HDMI, in others, we used Cat 6 depending on the required length.

Basement wiring av.JPG

The corner of the basement where all the cables run to.  Everything is carefully labeled.  This is a combination of speaker cable and HDMI and Cat 6 cables.

Living Room

The living room required the most work out of all of the rooms.  It is designed to be the main media center, computing center, and entertainment area for the inside of the house.

My desk will be along the east wall, so we wired for signals to be sent in both directions between the living room and the basement.  The desk will house a TV, my computer, Xbox One, and Amazon Fire TV.  The computer, Xbox, and Fire TV will send signals to the HDMI switcher in the basement, and the switcher will send a signal back up to the TV.

Desk wiring.JPG

The desk wiring, using the improvised hose “conduit”.

The ceiling will hold the four surround sound speakers required for 7.2 surround sound.  I ordered one set of the speakers ahead of time so when the drywall is put in, they can use them as a template for the cutouts if they’d like.  If not, we’ll cut the holes in later.

Surround speaker cable.JPG

The four cables dangling from the ceiling are the cables for the ceiling speakers in the living room.

The west wall is where the TV and remaining speakers are going to go.  I was going to get a 65” TV, but I found out that a friend who is also renovating his home got a 75” TV so now I’ll have to do the same.  I haven’t ordered the TV yet, but we measured it out so the TV will be in the center of the wall from left to right, and we put an outlet and the HDMI output behind where it will be hung so they will be hidden.

The two front speakers and the single center speaker will be hung on the wall to the sides and below the television.  The subwoofers will be on the floor on the north and south ends of the west wall, and we ran subwoofer speaker cable and outlets to each area.

West wall wiring.JPG

There’s a lot going on here.  This will be the wall for the biggest TV in the house.  It will have two suwoofers (on the bottom left and right), the right and left speakers, the center speaker below the TV, and the TV hung in the middle.  It also has the conduit for the speakers and HDMI that run upstairs to the master bedroom.

We also ran the wire for the upstairs bedroom television, and the bedroom and bathroom speakers through the same conduit in the living room.  The wires traveled the floor joists and through a hole in the upstairs subfloor and into the bedroom.

Bedroom speaker cable from downstairs.JPG

The cable runs on the left go disappear through a hole in the ceiling and head up to the master room bedroom.

Kitchen

I want one smaller television (45” – 55”) in the kitchen across from the island so I can watch TV while I’m preparing food.  I didn’t think I needed any speakers given the proximity to the audio on in the living room so this TV will likely always have the same signal as what’s on the living room TV.  Again, we hid the outlet and the HDMI cable behind the television.

Kitchen wiring.JPG

The HDMI and outlet for the kitchen television

Dining Room

I’m going to transfer my only TV in my Hoboken apartment to the dining room in the new house.  It’s only 55” but I think the size will work well for this room.  I may want to add cabinetry in the dining room at a later phase so I don’t want the TV to take up too much of the wall.  The table is also going to be close to the TV so it will be good enough.  The outlet and HDMI connector will be hidden behind the TV.  In this case, we ran Cat 6 instead of HDMI due to the length of the cable run.

Dining room TV.JPG

The dining room TV layout.  The speaker cable for the ceiling is in the hose on the right.

This TV will be far enough away from the living room that it will need its own audio, so we ran speaker cable for two stereo speakers in the ceiling.  Once again, we used our improvised conduit to guard against the spray foam insulation.

Dining room speaker cable.JPG

The cable for the left speaker in the dining room.  It will be over the dining room table and in line with the chandelier.

Master Bedroom and Bathroom

The bedroom will be a bit of a simpler install.  I don’t have a television in my bedroom in my apartment, but I figured that since I have two floors now, I might as well get one in the master bedroom.  I also wanted to listen to music in the bedroom and master bathroom as I like to crank loud rock and roll in the morning while I shower and get gussied up for work.

As such, we put an outlet and an HDMI connector for the TV.  I haven’t planned a size yet, it’ll probably be in the 55” to 65” range, nothing too crazy.  We ran speaker cables for stereo speakers in the bedroom and on the opposite side of the wall in the bathroom.  The speakers will be on the same left and right channels in each room, they won’t be able to play separate music, which would have been silly anyway.

Bedroom TV and Sound.JPG

The bedroom TV will be hung on the shared wall between the bedroom and bathroom.   The speaker cables will run to both rooms so I can listen to Motörhead while I shower and get dressed in the morning.

Insulation

I learned a new term called “R-value” as it relates to insulation throughout the design and build process of the house.  The R-value is a measure of a material’s resistance to conductive heat.  Standard building codes tend to indicate the necessary R-value for external walls and roofs based on the climate in the region.  You have to use materials (mainly insulation) that have an aggregate R-value to meet your R-value requirements.

In the beginning, we failed our initial drawing review because we the architect didn’t have the exactly correct R-value indicated in the plans as per Union City building code.  Once we had that sorted out, the plans stated that we needed the following R-values:

  • Basement ceiling: 30
  • External walls: 21
  • Roof: 49

There were three main ways we could reach the required R-value, by using fiberglass insulation, spray foam insulation (both open or closed cell), or insulated siding.  Insulated siding wasn’t an option because we couldn’t insulate the Shou Sugi Ban boards, and the color of vinyl siding I chose didn’t come with an insulation option.

So, we were left with spray foam and fiberglass as options.  Fiberglass is much cheaper than spray foam, but it takes a lot more space, the higher the R-value.  Because we have a 2×4 frame on the external walls, we didn’t have much space to work with.  This ended up becoming problematic from a design and budget perspective.  We ended up having to go with the much more expensive option of spray foam on the external walls, and a hybrid spray-foam and fiberglass for the roof to meet the required R-values.

Basement insulation.JPG

The fiberglass insulation in the basement gets us to an R-value of 30.

Kitchen wall insulated.JPG

The east wall insulated with spray foam.  Gets us to an R-value of 21.

Living room west wall insulated.JPG

The aforementioned living room west wall insulated with spray foam.  It is now evident why we used that silly hose to make a conduit for the speaker and HDMI cables.

Master bedroom and roof insulation.JPG

The master bedroom insulated with spray foam.

Roof Insulation.JPG

The roof insulated with spray foam and fiber glass.  Gets us to an R-value of 49, baby!  That’s some hefty insulation right there!

The insulation cost came out to roughly double what was budgeted for.  This was my least favorite cost-overrun of the project, given that it’s not something that you can even see.  The bright side is that this insulation should work very well to keep the sunlight from heating up the house.  It will also help me save on heating and cooling costs as heat will not be able to enter or leave the house very easily.

Hardwood Floors

The flooring was pretty straight forward.  The architect had rendered the house with a very light-colored wood flooring material.  After some back and forth with samples, I decided on 3 ¼” red oak select floorboards.

While we were waiting for the insulation inspection, we had some time to install the floors.  The flooring guy had the materials delivered and installed in a matter of two days.  He added some filler where there were gaps in between boards. At a later time, we’ll have it sanded and covered in three coats of polyurethane.  I’m not going to have it stained so it will retain it’s light coloring.

Flooring Downstairs.JPG

The hardwood flooring on the first floor.

Flooring Upstairs.JPG

The hardwood flooring on the 2nd floor.

The Insulation Inspection

The insulation inspection was very straight forward.  The same building inspector came back and passed us for insulation.  He still wanted a few things cleared up from the original inspection before he gave us our “sticker” to continue the project, but he gave verbal approval to move forward with drywall.  This will be the last inspection until the very end.  Major milestone passed!

What’s Next?

In the immediate future, we will begin installing the drywall in the ceilings and walls.  This will be a relatively simple project.  We have to plan for the fireproof ceilings and walls in the basement, and the moisture-proof walls in the bathrooms upstairs.  Also, getting the drywall inside the house is apparently going to be a bit of a logistic challenge.  From what I hear, it is going to require a big truck with boom lifts to get it through the windows.

Following that, we can work in parallel on the HVAC installation of the exposed duct work and the required machinery.  We’ll finally begin what will be my favorite part of the project, building and installing the kitchen cabinetry and appliances!

Time Check

I get asked 100% of the time when the move in date is.  I still have no idea.  I bought the place in December 2015, and we’re still working on it in May 2018.  You do the math…

A Virtual Second Look

This is another video walk-through of the new house, to show progress since the first one.  This one includes the new siding, electric, plumbing, lighting, and A/V wiring.

 

Scatter-Brained and Over Budget!

I woke up the other day and couldn’t believe I still live in Hoboken.  I was supposed to be out in late 2016 in my worst-case scenario.  Yet, as I headed into year three of the construction phase, the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to show.  Progress has been taking place at a rapid clip, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the house get built.  It is a fascinating process that I never knew anything about until now.  I’m also getting to make more and more decisions about how I want it to come out.  The questions are coming my way fast and furious from the contractors and it has made me a bit scatter-brained, but this is the fun part and I’m certainly enjoying it.

Homemade Japanese Siding

The siding project took an interesting turn, and unfortunately set the project back a few weeks, and of course jacked up the price!  I recall asking my architect early in the process what the siding on the front of the house was supposed to be, I couldn’t tell from the renderings he showed me.  He muttered something about using “charred cedar planks” and I didn’t think much of it, assuming that we could just go to the lumberyard and buy some.  I turned my attention towards other aspects of the project and didn’t ask about it again until the framing and roof were done.

As it turns out, I should have asked more questions a lot sooner in the process.  As I mentioned in my last blog post, the architect wanted to do use Shou Sugi Ban siding, and that is definitely not something that you can just walk up to a local store and buy.  In late November, we found ourselves in the position of having to buy it from a specialist (nowhere near new Jersey) or build it, or pick a different siding material.  Since I wanted to remain true to the original plan, I decided that we should go ahead with Shou Sugi Ban siding.  This decision set us back some time as we then had to figure out what to do.  If I had asked more questions earlier, we could have gotten ahead of things and had the siding ready to go on time.  Lesson learned for the next time (just kidding, there is NO next time!).

We looked into buying it, but the cost of the materials and the shipping was absolutely prohibitive.  So, my contractor had to learn to become an expert in Shou Sugi Ban siding fabrication in his backyard.  During some of the coldest days of December, his crew grabbed makeshift blowtorches and about 10 canisters of propane. They spent four days torching tongue-and-groove cedar planks.

imagejpeg_0.jpg

Making Japanese siding in a backyard in New Jersey

When the burning phase was complete, they carefully wrapped the charred sides of the boards and transported them to my house.  They laid everything out on all three floors of the house and applied two coats of polyurethane to each board to weather treat them.

imagejpeg_0 (2).jpg

Pre-treated Shou Sugi Ban siding after the charring phase is done

imagejpeg_0 (3).jpg

The siding was carefully wrapped before they sent it to the house

imagejpeg_0 (4).jpg

The entire house was used as a staging area for adding coats of polyurethane to the siding

The architect suggested that we use the Shou Sugi Ban siding on the front face of the house, and just far back enough on the sides where it would be visible from the street.  He also wanted us to use it for the back face of the house, but I felt that would be too costly.

We bought Ply Gem Mastic Quest Double 4” vinyl siding in “Misty Shadow” for the rest of the house and prepared to get the process of fastening all of the siding to the house started.  The first problem was how to hang the cedar planks vertically to match the plans.  Since some of the planks would fall in-between where the interior studs were, there was no way to nail them to the house.  So, we put up fireproof plywood across the front and sides of the house.  That way, we could nail the finished planks to them.

The siding guy proceeded to hang the vinyl siding on the house and finished it all in the matter of one week.  At long last, we had a finished-looking house that was water tight!

imagejpeg_0 (5)

Adding the plywood layer so we have something to nail the wood planks to

imagejpeg_0 (8).jpg

Putting up the wood planks

30650.jpeg

Installing the vinyl siding in back

So far, there have been no leaks from the new roof and the new siding.  We’ve had some pretty bad rain and snow so it has been tested well.

My contractor told me that the first day they had the Shou Sugi Ban siding on the house, someone driving by slammed on his breaks outside the house to ask what it was.  He said that it looked fantastic.  I’ve been back to the house many times since, and I’ve witnessed it myself.  People stop and stare and point out how cool it looks.

IMG_0070.JPG

The finished vinyl siding in the back

IMG_0068.JPG

The vinyl siding on the east side of the house

IMG_0063.JPG

The front of the house.  Make sure to stop and stare!

I’m a bit concerned that the siding is already beginning to patina.  That will either need to be touched up, or it will simply be part of the look.  I’ll have to decide over time.  Either way, I took the risk with backyard-made Shou Sugi Ban siding, let’s see how it holds up!

Now Let’s Get the Inside Going

Completing the siding was a huge milestone, because for the first time since we started, it put us in the position to work on multiple things at the same time.  My general contractor brought in his team of specialists that he’s been working with for years to get started on the interior plumbing, electric, and HVAC.  All three of these processes required that we have an idea of the final layout of the finished house.  So, a lot of decisions had to be made.

Plumbing

The house plumbing design has to accommodate the following:

  • Two full bathrooms on the second floor.
  • A half-bathroom on the first floor
  • A kitchen with a sink and a pot filler
  • Water and a drain for the washing machine on the second floor
  • A natural gas cooktop
  • A natural gas dryer on the second floor
  • All drain vents must exit through the roof

There was some discussion with my GC about the type of piping to use for fresh water.  Ultimately, we decided on pex tubing over copper to save money.  There were a few advantages to pex, one of which is that they have a tendency to be harder to burst in situations where they freeze.

In order to prepare for the rough plumbing for the bathrooms, we needed to know where all of the faucets were going to be located so we could install the rough-in valves.  Each faucet I selected was wall mounted, so they all have a different set of valves than a typical vanity-mounted faucet.  They had to be set precisely in place before the walls are built.

IMG_0333.JPG

Tubing and valve for the first floor bathroom sink

IMG_0255.JPG

Tubing and valve for second floor bathroom sink

IMG_0247.JPG

Tubing and valve for the master bathroom sink

IMG_0249.JPG

Tubing and valve for the master bathroom shower head and hand sprayer

There was some trouble understanding how one of the bathroom faucets was supposed to be installed.  I selected a GROHE shower head, sprayer, and faucet for the main bathroom that had a “double-el” valve that my plumber had never seen before.  We had to call the plumbing supply showroom a few times to understand what to do.  Eventually, we got clear instructions for how it would have to be installed.

IMG_0316.JPG

Tubing and valve for the main bathroom shower, faucet, and hand sprayer.  The controversial “Double-El” valve is highlighted in the red square in this photo.

Each of the drains and the bathroom exhaust fans needed to be vented through the roof.  The open floor plan on the first floor made it tricky to navigate pipes through between the floor joists.  For the most part, all piping and vents were run through the half bathroom ceiling on the first floor and straight up to the roof.  Others were routed straight up the east wall.

IMG_0334.JPG

There’s a lot going on above the drop ceiling in the half bathroom on the first floor

The kitchen fume hood was a bit of a controversial topic.  There was no obvious way in the plans to fit an 8” pipe and route it outside the house.  The wall the kitchen is on is too close to the neighbor’s house to simply punch a hole in it and vent the fume hood right there.  We kicked around a few ideas, my two favorites of which were to install it illegally after the inspections were done, or to forget it and install a fume hood that re-circulated air inside the house through a filter!  Both were terrible ideas so after much debate, we decided to sacrifice a corner of the middle bedroom and use that to vent the fume hood properly through the roof.  It will now be forever referred to as the “Cattywampus Corner”.  It is a small sacrifice to make if I can fry three pounds of bacon at once without setting off the smoke detector.

IMG_0093.JPG

The “Cattywampus Corner” in the middle bedroom will be built around this pipe for the fume hood

The gas line into the house had to be rebuilt entirely because the regulator was dangerously located in the garage near where the car would park.  We had PSE&G come in and create a new pipe that went through an old window that we bricked over in order to make a pouch for the new meter and regulator.

IMG_0343.JPG

The new gas line coming through the pouch we created where the basement window used to be

The new gas line inside the house had to be routed to the kitchen for the range, the upstairs washer/dryer closet, the basement machine room and the roof for the upstairs heater.  We also installed a “T” on the gas line so in the future we can use it for the outdoor kitchen range.

Electric

The electric wiring design was a combination of what was on the original plans, and a re-think of the lighting and TV layouts once I was able to walk around inside the house.  At all times, building code needed to be observed.

First Floor Original Plans.png

The original plans for the first floor.  We moved the island closer to the kitchen counter, and re-worked the recessed lighting plan a little bit to be more in line across the room.  Our changes didn’t radically alter the design.

On the first floor, we had to finish the layout so we could plan the wiring.  That included, the kitchen layout, the location of the dining room table, the couch, my computer desk, and the couch.  This was the most involved decision-making process so far.

We started with the kitchen.  The final layout varied from the plans somewhat due to some decisions about the placement about the kitchen island and the cabinet designs.  We moved the kitchen island a bit closer to the cabinets, and we made it a bit longer.  We also added a pantry which moved over the placement of the refrigerator.

Once everything was drawn out on the floor and walls, we were able to plan where all the outlets needed to be.  That included the outlets for the refrigerator, warming tray, oven, and the convection steam oven.  It also helped us place the lights on the ceiling.  We started with three pendant lights over the island, and then planned two rows of recessed lights that travelled the entire downstairs.  In the kitchen, the recessed lights illuminate the space on either side of the island.

IMG_0271.JPG

The kitchen wall

After the kitchen was in place, we were able to lay out roughly where the dining room table would be.  My kitchen designer asked me if I had any details about what kind of table I’d be using so that we could make a better idea about where to place the dining room chandelier.  I really don’t have an idea yet so we aligned it roughly with the kitchen island.  We also placed it somewhere in the middle of the south wall and the end of the island.  That then gave us an idea of where to put the television so we could place the outlet on the wall behind it.

The living room was up next.  This room was a bit simpler because there are no hanging lights, we simply had to finish travelling the recessed lights through the area.  We also added a third row of lights in the area over the television because this room was a bit wider than the other two.  We identified where the television was going to go and placed an outlet behind it.

We also planned out where the speakers were going to be, with a plan to install 7.2 surround sound.  We placed the two required subwoofers in each corner of the room and put an outlet behind each.  The front three speakers will be mounted on the walls, assuming a TV size of 65 inches.

IMG_0173.JPG

Row of recessed lights for the living room

IMG_0332.JPG

Both rows of recessed lights across the first floor zones

Lastly for the first floor, we planned out the computer desk and all of the various inputs and outputs we’ll need for audio/visual and data.  It will be along the back wall of the living room behind the couch.  The downstairs will include a mix of hardwired Internet connections for gaming and computing, and WiFi for everything else, including smart home devices.

We planned the switch layouts such that I can control all three rooms as zones and have “layered” control in each zone as well.  For example, in the dining room

The second floor was a bit simpler to plan out.  Each room was compartmentalized and treated separately, so there was less to align and match.

The first bedroom in the front of the house will be lit by one hanging light in the center of the room.  The same with the middle bedroom.

The master bedroom will be lit by both recessed lighting and by a hanging light in the center of the room.

The outlets in the bedrooms were arranged by building code.  I added them all up and there are 20 outlets in total, for a total of 40 sockets.  I can’t imagine having enough things to plug in that require that many sockets, but building code is building code.

The hallway will be lit by sconces.  There will be exposed ducts running along the ceiling so we won’t be able to light them from above.

One area that is still under discussion is how to light the stairs.  I didn’t like the idea of overhead lighting above the stairs because I’d have no way to reach it to change the bulb.  So, we are working out a plan to install recessed lighting in the wall along the staircase.  The final design has yet to be decided.

Each bedroom and the hallway required a hard-wired smoke detector.  They were all placed out of the way from the lights in each area.

HVAC

While this was all going on the tin knocker was busy installing all the rough items needed for the HVAC system which will be put in place at a later time.  He can’t put the duct work in until the walls are in place, but everything that goes inside a wall or a ceiling or exits the house through the roof needs to be installed now.

IMG_0295.JPG

All of this has to exit through the roof

IMG_0195.JPG

HVAC ducts which will go inside the walls

In order to have two-zoned heating and cooling, and in order to fit everything in the house and not take up backyard space, we are going to use a combination of the roof and the basement to store all heating and cooling machinery.  So, all intakes and vents had to be planned out accordingly.  The house doesn’t have a chimney so we are using PVC flues where needed. All of the bathroom exhausts were installed and vented through the roof as well.

IMG_0280.JPG

The various exhausts and intakes that exit through the roof

Finishes

Also on the to-do list are all of the finishing items, especially those that require cabling or plumbing before the walls are put into place.  I’ve been keeping track of all of my ideas using OneNote and researching ideas and modifying the list as I go.

OneNote Notes.png

My scatter-brained notes

The most interesting part is planning out the audio/visual and data connections and making sure they are future proof.  The plan is to store most of the equipment in the basement, and route HDMI and speaker cables throughout the house where needed.   My brother does commercial A/V installations for a living so he has graciously offered to help design and install everything we need before the walls go in.

The working plan includes the following:

  • DirecTV (for television)
  • Verizon Fios (for Internet)
  • Five indoor televisions (two living room, one kitchen, one dining room, one master bedroom)
  • 7.2 surround sound in the living room
  • Stereo speakers in the dining room, master bedroom, master bathroom (I like listening to music when getting ready in the morning)
  • Amazon Echo integration throughout the house
  • WiFi throughout the house and outside
  • Xbox One for gaming in the living room
  • Amazon Fire TV for media streaming

We have an unorthodox plan for running the necessary cabling throughout the house before the spray foam insulation goes in such that we can pull ore replace cables as necessary.  We are going to use some hoses we found at a hardware store as cheap conduit.

There are a few other non-A/V items that I’m planning for, some of which I’ve already purchased so we can install them when they are ready:

The Hunter Douglas shades required a power supply which I purchased to be installed in the basement.  All three shades will be connected to the same power supply and the electrician will install the wiring.

The hand dryer will not only be practical but will add to the ambience on the first floor.  I want it to look and feel like a trendy restaurant or club.

The Nest Hello was just released this March and I got in on the first shipment.  It will provide video security for the front door and will also alert me anytime someone rings the bell, whether I am home or not.

Amazon Key is a new product as well, and it will allow for keyless entry using a keypad to the front door, and the delivery hatch we are building to the basement.  This will allow Amazon to deliver packages and leave them inside the house.  Each Amazon Key is coupled with a security camera that stores footage in the Amazon Cloud.  Every time someone uses the keypad to open the door, I get an alert and I can watch what is going on using an app.

Inspections

With equal parts optimism and dread, I was looking forward to the separate plumbing and electric inspections which were scheduled for March 19.  My GC put his crew on a deadline to have everything ready to go before then, and they worked through the weekend to complete everything.  I wanted to get these two inspections, but also calculated about a 100% chance of failing them both for some reason.

Much to my surprise, we passed both without issue.  My GC was so surprised, he told me he couldn’t sleep that night because he was so excited!  He also forgot to attend a meeting with a perspective customer because his emotions got the best of him.  I’ve never been so happy to be 100% wrong about something.

 

What’s Next

Our next inspection is the building inspection on Wednesday.  This one is going to check on everything we built including the frame, the roof, and the siding.  One of the inspectors who was at the house a few months ago noted that he believed that wood siding was not allowed on the sides of a house.  But our siding plan was on the original approved plans, and I checked the building code myself and nowhere does it say we can’t have wood siding.  I don’t know what to make of his comment, but I’m hoping for the best on Wednesday.

Once we get past inspection, we can install the bespoke conduit for the AV equipment.  Once we are sure everything is in place on the exterior walls, we will spray-foam insulate everything.  That will be the last step before we can put floors and walls in.

Over Budget

Not only is almost every single item on original plan over budget, but I’m still bleeding cash each month as I pay off two mortgages.  Everything I wrote about in this blog has been a lot of fun and I’m very much enjoying the decision making and implementation process.  Waking up every morning knowing that I’m going broke from paying two mortgages since I bought the place in December 2015 and knowing that I’m nowhere near completion is becoming very stressful and upsetting.  Any cash I had on hand for cost overruns has pretty much evaporated and I’m looking for new ways to borrow and fund the rest of the project.  In the end, this will probably cost me time getting started on phase 2 (mainly the backyard), but I can’t worry about any of it now.  We’ve picked up the pace in 2018 and I’m doing my best to keep everything moving as quickly as possible.

A Virtual First Look

This is a video that accompanies my previous blog post about the framing being completed on the new house. It even includes some dramatic police activity in the first few seconds.

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.

IMG_7421.JPG

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.

IMG_7428.JPG

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.

IMG_7761.JPG

The drainage trough at the foot of the driveway

IMG_7763.JPG

The plastic membrane and rebar

IMG_7767.JPG

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!

IMG_8268.JPG

View of the fresh coat of cement from the driveway

IMG_8271.JPG

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.

IMG_8590.JPG

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.

IMG_8592.JPG

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.

IMG_8593.JPG

What’s left of the chimney

IMG_8594.JPG

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.

IMG_8597.JPG

The hole to the sky where the chimney used to be

IMG_8923.JPG

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

IMG_8935.JPG

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.

Failure.png

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!

IMG_6189.JPG

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

IMG_6218.JPG

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

IMG_6305.JPG

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.

IMG_6299.JPG

That trench is where the rainwater drainpipe will be.

IMG_6438.JPG

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

IMG_6444.JPG

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.

IMG_6450.JPG

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.

IMG_6457.JPG

Nope, no footing in here.  WTH?

IMG_6681.JPG

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!!!

IMG_7017.JPG

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.

IMG_6431.JPG

The hole where the old steps used to be.

IMG_7045.JPG

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.

IMG_7061.JPG

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.

IMG_7064.JPG

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.

IMG_7364.JPG

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.

IMG_7363.JPG

Just a crazy mess right now.

IMG_7374.JPG

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

IMG_7378.JPG

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.

IMG_6169.JPG

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.

IMG_6100.JPG

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.

IMG_6133.JPG

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.

IMG_6154.JPG

The frame for the footings.

IMG_6168.JPG

The frame with the rebar, both horizontal and vertical.

Footings.jpg

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.

IMG_6180.JPG

The concrete footings.

20161227_110526.jpg

Laying cinderblocks for the new basement.

20161228_153151.jpg

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

20161228_153929.jpg

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.

Plumbing.png

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!

IMG_6181.JPG

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.

img_6094

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.

imagejpeg_0

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.

962C0B8F-0D0D-4623-978F-FD4392A41FC9

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.

 

IMG_0122

Standing in the dining area, looking north.

IMG_0127

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.

IMG_0120

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.

IMG_4776

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

IMG_4771

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!