Shangri La

Shangri La

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Road to VT - Part 2

When the original cabin didn't pan out, I swore off and committed myself to the new house. I'd channel all of my cabin energies into making the new place as nice as it could be, addressing needs like new windows and siding, building the cabinets the 1940s kitchen was desperate for, and tending to the cottage-garden landscape I'd inherited.

Why did I need a second home? I kept asking myself. I can barely keep up with the one I have.

I held out for maybe 6 months, and then found myself casually perusing whenever I grew bored of surfing TheThruthAboutCars, Slate and TheOnion. (Ever feel like the web is just an infinitely larger version of cable television - millions of channels, and nothing on?) Eventually, searching the real estate listings again grew into a daily habit, and I found myself occasionally leaving particularly interesting listing up for the LSW. When she failed to comment on them, I'd casually call her attention to them.

Me (reading the paper): I saw an interesting property listing - did you see it?
She: Silence.
Me (pretending to read the paper): It's listed for 90, but we could probably get it for 75 in this market.
She: We don't need another house. You can hardly keep up with the one you have, remember?
Me: I know - just thought it was interesting. I left it up if you want to see it.
She: [Exiting the room with her breakfast]

This would lead to me chasing her around the house with the laptop on the hopes that this particular listing would pique her interest. When finally cornered, she'd usually look at the ad for all of 30 seconds and respond with a disinterested shrug.

But here's the thing: Methinks she doth protest too little. Against her better judgement, I know she'd like a cabin, too. And so she eventually acquiesced to an overnight trip to look at Shangra-La and two other listings for comparison.

The first two properties did not bode well. We looked at 2 very swampy acres in Whitingham for $25k, followed by a $75k log cabin with well and septic in West Halifax. The listing agent had advised me that the area was very 'Vermonty'. By this she meant that we should not have been surprised by the junked cars and random furniture adorning the lawns of the surrounding properties. I'd say we were less surprised than alarmed.

I had wanted to see one other cabin in the area - a very tidy-looking A-frame for $90k.
"I have to be honest with you," the listing agent cautioned. "The neighbors are hostile." OK, then.

I was low on confidence as we approached Shangra-La and parked by the old meetinghouse, but prospects seemed to improve as we walked the property and my normally skeptical LSW didn't say much. The land was conspiring with me: The day was agreeably autumnal, the sun was out, and the meetinghouse was the verisimilitude of New England charm.

"Whaddaya think?" I asked, as the realtor pulled up. "Should we make an offer?"

She didn't exactly say yes, but didn't say no, either, and I knew then I had it nailed. The original listing had been $40k, but had fallen to $30 after 6 months. We ended the day at the realtor's office across the street from a historic inn we'd stayed in 10 years earlier. It seemed a good omen. I made a formal offer of $22 contingent upon a septic test, and the realtor called the owner right then.

"Well, they didn't laugh me off the phone, so that's a good sign."

About a week later we had settled on $26k - about $8,100 an acre, and the septic waiting game began.

($8.1 an acre seemed like a good deal given the other properties I've seen listed, probably due to the fact that septic was unknown and the real estate market was down. The town is also less desirable than its immediate neighbors, with no real center and few services.)


The next step after the perk test was to formally engage the environmental engineer to create the septic site plan and submit it to the State of Vermont for approval. As it turns out, this work is not 'officially' being performed for me, but instead for the current owner. I'm not even entitled to get the site plans and permit until the closing, though I was cc'd on all related correspondence.

I am entitled to pay, however: $210 to the State for the application, and $975.50 to the engineering firm for "additional field services, engineering design, general office, and mileage". Combined with the $650 for the perk test, that's a total of $1,835.50 in design and permitting work. And remember there's still another $1,500 or so in the spring to validate the actual water table and redesign the site plan if we find a conventional system is possible.

Ouch. I started with the impression that $1,000 would get me through permitting, but this just validates the conventional wisdom that big projects always cost at least twice as much as you expect and take 3 times as long.

For those of you keeping score:
11/24: I gave the engineer the 'go ahead' and mailed him a check for the state permit fee
12/18: Design work completed and filed with the state. A copy of the state regulations for the 'Innovative/Alternate System Approval' for the proposed "Enviro-Septic Leaching System" ( is sent to me
12/19: The State of Vermont acknowledges receipt and advises that they have 30 days for review
12/22: The engineer bills me
12/23: The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and Environmental Board forwards a 'Project Review Sheet', noting that I may also need permits from the Vermont Energy Code Assistance Center and local permits from the town
12/26: The realtor calls saying that the permit and approved design has been received by the current owner, and so we're officially 'go' to complete the purchase on 1/23.
Apparently the bureaucracy is relatively light in Montpelier. Ditto the town of Shangra-La, who informed me that they didn't even have a planning board, much less a permitting process for new construction. As long as I had the state septic permit, I could live in an old milk crate if I wanted. Nifty, that.
Now if the DOW would just add about 2,000 points in the next two weeks, I won't have to tear apart the couch looking for lost change for the closing.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Return of an Old Friend

A few years ago, I traded my VW Jetta in for a Ford Ranger. Something about the increasing comments from coworkers, friends and acquaintances about how the Jetta was the quintessential 'girls car'. The Ranger was a decided departure from my previous rides - not being small, foreign-made and impractical - but I quickly realized that I had been looking for it all my adult life.

That truck - and a set of pneumatic nail guns - changed my life. New trim work for the house? Done. Cabinets for the basement? No problem. 3 cubic yards of mulch for the landscaping? Be back in a sec. And, on a more personal level, I was no longer the only car in a line of pickup trucks on a Saturday waiting to get in to the dump.

On the one hand, I was horrified: I had finally become my father. On the other, I could finally buy full sheets of plywood from the Depot. Fair trade.

Life was great for one gloriously productive year, and then the long suffering wife announced that we 2 would soon be 3. When the dust settled, I had traded both the Ranger and her beloved Mini Cooper in on a Hyundai Sonata. She was too sick to care, but I felt like I had lost my right arm. I tried to console myself with a seven-year old Chevy S-10, but I came to hate it almost as much as I had loved the Ranger. After a year, I couldn't stand the sight of it anymore and sold it.

After one long truckless year, I finally broached the topic with the LSW. I carefully reasoned that we had three vehicles to haul people, and none to haul stuff. As our cabin was going to be built largely by me, and was going to be made primarily from stuff, we'd need a way to transport both me AND my stuff 2 hours away to Shangra-La. How would I do this, I puzzled, arms raised in confusion. "If only I had something like the Ranger again," I said thoughtfully, stroking my beard and looking off toward the ceiling.

"Do whatever you want," she replied while walking out of the room. I've had a different vehicle every 2-3 years since she's known me, and - apparently - she's finally realized that protesting is futile. "Hot damn!" I mused, "I've finally broken her spirit!"

And so, on December 23 at 1 PM, a Ford Ranger XLT 4-cyl 4x2 Regular Cab joined the Hyundais in the yard. Christened with a 'VT' sticker in the rear window, it's ready for stuff-hauling duty in 2009. But now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the dump...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Road to VT - Part 1

In October of 2006, after years of renting a place in Stowe and imagining it our own, I ran across something fairly rare on A southern Vermont cabin with septic and well for less than 80k that didn't look like the set of a B-grade horror film. My surprise was compounded when my wife actually agreed to go look at it.

And so we found ourselves in Vermont on a Saturday coming to a slow realization that this cabin wasn't going to happen for us. Though I tried desparately to ignore them, the problems appeared one by one: The interior was 'rustic' in a sort of hasn't-been-updated-since-the-50's kind of way, the sill plates were rotting on both sides, the well was actually a spring box in the middle of what appeared to be a swamp, and the septic was 'unknown', but believed to be a dry well that may or may not have given up the ghost.

Standing on the center of the (painfully quaint) next town over, my long suffering wife gently persuaded me that we'd use all of our funds to buy it, and then the next 10 years of bonuses to make it what we wanted. With our first child on the way, it was more work than we needed. I hated to admit it, but she was right.

The wheels were in motion, however, and they apparently couldn't be stopped. If we couldn't have a cabin, it was time to upgrade our home. Sunday morning found us perusing open houses, and on Sunday night we had signed a sales contract with a realtor. Then the housing market began to collapse, and we endured 7 months of open houses and showings before we got our price.

But fate was at work: The house we bought was that very first open house we saw the Sunday morning we decided to sell. Our realtor claimed that she had never shown one couple the same house so many times.

I couldn't shake the idea of a cabin, though, clandestinely surfing every week for a sub-100k cabin. And so it was that I found myself walking the parcel facing the historic meeting house in Shangra-La almost 2 years after visiting the first cabin...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Why "Madness"?

So why did I subtitle this blog 'Green Mountain Madness'? So many reasons, but today I'll comment on one: I'm funding this endeavor by raiding a chunk of my 401(k). Foolishness. But hey: It's a real estate investment, so it's not like I'm running out and buying a Corvette. Hopefully.

Thanks to our recent, involuntary education in mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps, I no longer have delusions that real estate will fund my retirement, but I don't expect I'll loose money on it either.

But why would you do that now, I hear you ask.

Well, duh - I didn't intend to, Einstein. The market had just started to tank when I signed the offer and cut the deposit check. "So we're in for a correction," I figured, "how far could the market really fall?"

Great Caesar's ghost, whodathunk we'd see a 40% plunge in less than 2 months?!? Ouch.

So now I've been reduced to 1 part hoping the market goes up by mid-January (the closing is on the 23rd) and 2 parts scrambling for temporary financing options until all you irrational investors decide to dig up the sacks of gold you've buried in the garden and give it back to the kindly stock purveyors.

But there's hope: My father - god bless him and everything he stands for - has taken pity and is looking to see if he can help. He's only asked in return that I pay a reasonable interest rate and cast a 'correction ballot' for John McCain (it's a change he can believe in). A little embarrassing to be 40 and asking Dad for financial help, I admit, but luckily I have almost no pride. And with a little luck, the market will smarten up soon and realize that the little guy is suffering. Me, in this case.

I know you, and I know what you're thinking: "But how can I help?" Please, for the love of all that is holy - put your money back in the market now so I can take mine out. I promise to thank you here personally.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Perk Test

I'm walking though the property with the environmental engineer. We've discussed the location I had wanted for the cabin - on the southern tip of the property where we can see the old meetinghouse. From there looking north the land forms a thin triangle of about 3 acres, heading uphill on a dead-end road on one side, and staying level beside a state road on the other. Both roads are dirt, and I have visions of clearing the southern tip to make a small field at the crossroads for the cabin to look out on. Besides the meetinghouse, there are are 2 old farmhouses across from the tip, and the rest of the land is wooded. If feels remote but cozy - a small huddle of humanity in a wilderness.

"This area looks wet. See these?" He holds up a weed. "I don't know what they are, but we always find them in damp areas." He gives the signal and the excavator begins digging a 5-foot-deep hole. The wall of dirt clearly reveals layers - rich brown soil bisected by bands of red and then grayer soils with darker bands below.
"See this?" he asks, handing me up a chunk of soil. "That's what you don't want to see - the red there is rust, just like on your car. You get that when the water table is high and consistently wet."
The rusty soil was less than 8 inches below the surface. I've been told we need at least 4 feet of soil above the water table to be able to put in a conventional in-ground septic system. "Let's head uphill - there are pines up there." He indicates a stand of trees about 100 feet ahead. "They don't like wet feet, so we might have some luck there."

We're doing a 'perk test', to see where a septic system might work, and what kind it will be. I've been warned that 'mound' systems are much more common in Vermont than in-ground, due to the high water tables as moisture travels over hard rock beneath shallow soils. I had thought these tests involved digging holes, filling them with water, and seeing how long it took to drain. Turns out the texture and coloring of the soil tell the engineer almost everything he needs to know.

We dug a total of four test holes along the dead-end road from the lowest to the highest point on the property. Unfortunately, the water table was never more than 3 feet below the surface. I'd have to have a mound system, which, at $10,000 - $13,000, would be double the price of an in-ground. "I've only found sites for 2 conventional systems in the last year," he tells me.

I'm just glad the property will take septic at all.

Turns out there's hope, though. If I want to do additional tests this spring, we can determine conclusively if the water-table banding is the result of an occasionally high water table or maybe standing water from the Jurassic era. If so, we might still be able to go conventional. The additional test would be another $1,000 (plus $500 for a revised design, but the savings could be 4 times that. Of course, we might find that the water table is consistently high, and it would be bad money after good.

But I got a bonus: The engineer and the excavator both had a wealth of information on the area and the land, which they freely shared over the course of 2 hours. They had excellent insight on where and how a house should be situated, and what I might expect to spend on a well ("You won't have any issue with water here - they'll only need to go down about 300 feet"), land clearing, and a foundation. "This is a nice piece," they both commented more than once, and offered suggestions on what could be done to make it nicer. Higher up on the land, the removal of a few trees would provide a view of the ridge line to the west; a few more trees, and I could overlook both the meetinghouse and the ridge line to the south.

All the while, the realtor hovered near us on the road, waiting to hear if I planned to use the septic contingency I put in the contract to back out of the deal. "We're good," I told her. "It may have to be a mound, but I still want it." When everyone had gone, I walked the land one last time as a light snow was falling, taking in the view of the ridge line through the trees by test hole #3, high above the original site. I was freezing after being under-dressed in 37 degrees for over 2 hours, but be damned if I didn't have a hard time leaving.

Right, What's All This Then?

Q: Hey. What you doin'?
A: Typing.
Q: Looks like a blog. What about?
A: Overtly, it's a chronicle of my attempt to realize a 10-year dream of owning my own cabin in Vermont.
Q: Why 'overtly'?
A: Because it will probably end up largely being about almost anything but.
Q: Like?
A: Woodworking, partisanship, corporate life, Zen, toddlers, British cars, annoying people, modern life, gardening, home maintenance, the irrelevancy of opinions (ironically), cats, dogs, neighbors, vermin, vacations, New England, high school reunions, Joss Whedon, my lame novel, business analysis, yard work, IPAs, food, really nice tools, ennui, diminished expectations, sushi, insurance, the virtues of an open fire, and the sanctity of fiscal responsibility, whether practiced or not.
Q: But you'll at least occasionally provide an update on the cabin?
A: Almost certainly. Or at least possibly.
Q: Will the other stuff be funny, or at least interesting?
A: I doubt it, unless you're me, in which case you'll find everything here riveting.
Q: Can you give me a good reason to read it?
A: Well, if - like me - you're inclined to cash out a 401(k) in the middle of the worst market since 1929, search for land in a grossly overpriced area, and attempt to build a cabin from scratch despite having no building skills while simultaneously trying to convince your wife that this isn't another example of your demonstrated ability to bite off more than you can chew, then you might enjoy commiserating with me.
Q: Sorry, that doesn't sound like me.
A: I suspect you're in the majority. Fortunately, I enjoy hearing myself talk, so I should be all the audience I need.
Q: OK, then. Maybe I'll be back.
A: Drop in anytime. If the light's on, we're home.