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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



Standing in the dining area, looking north.


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.


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.


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


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.


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!