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...