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.

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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.

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

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

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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!

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

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Putting up the wood planks

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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.

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The finished vinyl siding in the back

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The vinyl siding on the east side of the house

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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.

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Tubing and valve for the first floor bathroom sink

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Tubing and valve for second floor bathroom sink

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Tubing and valve for the master bathroom sink

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Row of recessed lights for the living room

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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.

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All of this has to exit through the roof

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Dig

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

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

The First Non-Budget Expense

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

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

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

Masonry

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

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

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

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

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The crew digging out the basement the old fashioned way.

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

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The frame for the footings.

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The frame with the rebar, both horizontal and vertical.

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

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

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

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The concrete footings.

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Laying cinderblocks for the new basement.

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

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Bonding the new basement wall to the existing structure.

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

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

Kitchen Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Up

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

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

Making the Most of the Long Wait for Building Permits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Standing in the dining area, looking north.

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Standing in the living area, looking south.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here lies the remains of the ugly pink bathroom.

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

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

This is going to take a long time…

Getting Started on Living the Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front of House

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

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

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

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

Back Yard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downstairs and Backyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upstairs

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

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

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

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

Patio Sketch

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

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

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

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