Shangri La

Shangri La

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.