Shangri La

Shangri La

Friday, February 27, 2009


This week, the stock market is officially off 50% from it's high earlier this year.

Give me a second to rant: I couldn't have cared less about the stock market until this little adventure began. I only put money in it because of the 50-cent-on-the-dollar offer from my employer if I participated in the 401(k) plan. Frankly, I've always mis-trusted the stock market as a baby-boomer fad, and, like most of their schemes from Vietnam to leisure suits, nothing good can come of it.*

Now, unfortunately, I follow CNBC religiously, as well as The Motley Fool, and any number of other financial websites, wondering how long it will be before I can access the pittance investments that will fund The Dream. For the record, I resent the time I'm wasting following all this crap when I would have been perfectly happy to put my retirement/future cabin funds in a safe 2% COD. And to think I would have been laughing all the way to the bank! (To make a withdrawal.)

I, wait - I hope it will all come back, but dollars to donuts (which are probably worth more) it won't go up nearly as fast as it all fell apart. Of course, I could bet the farm and pull it all out now, but the talking heads are all saying that everything will turn around at the end of 2009.

I feel like Basil Fawlty after he beat his Morris 1100 with a tree branch: [Shaking fist at the sky] "Thank you god!!! Thank you so bloody much!!!"

Rant mode off. I wish I could say I felt better, but I don't.

*I hereby specifically exempt any schemes by my next-door neighbors and, of course, my father.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

We interrupt this blog for a message from the LSW

LSW here. I figured it was about time I got on here and told you the truth about this crazy scheme shared my side of the story.
For me, it started when we were visiting relatives in Maine. Husband (who shall henceforth be known as Vermonster) was surfing the Web, looking at property in Vermont. This was nothing new, as we've often day-dreamed about owning a little cabin in Vermont, the place where open-minded, nature-loving, cheese-eating New Yorkers go to get a little R&R and pretend to read "Walden." But something told me that this time, things were different. My gut instincts were right.

Flash forward a week. A mystery illness has besot me and all I want is for Vermonster to come home from work and relieve me of taking care of The Boy. He finally arrives and almost instantly I see it-- that strange glint he gets in his eye when he's up to no good. I've seen it so many times before: The Triumph. The MG. The other MG. The guitar. The truck. The kayak. The gold-encrusted woodworking tools. Did I mention the MG? So this is where he admits he took a half day of work (yes, while I was sick, thank you very much) and drove up north to check out some property. And guess what? He took pictures of it on his phone. You must understand-- this is not a man who takes pictures. This is a man who, in the delivery room, was TOLD BY THE NURSE to take a picture of his newborn son. At this point, the message was clear. It was the classic theme: Vermonster vs. LSW, or was it man vs. land?
I have a lot to say about this all. There's much to discuss: the money, the property, the come-to-Jesus discussions, the new lexicon of words such as Unit One, septic assessment, mulching toilet and, my favorite, humanure. So if you want the real story, the one unobscured by rose-colored glasses, stay tuned. I'll be back.

March Madness

The LSW was surfing the web the other day and discovered that the Saxton’s River Inn was having a ‘buy 1 get 1 free’ offer on bookings through the end of March. We hadn’t planned to go back up until late April, but this was too good to pass up. A quick call later we were booked into a 2nd floor suite with private porch for 2 nights for $160. Nice!

Now I dare not believe the snow will be gone by then, so spending the day walking the property is probably out. Instead, we’re going to drive 2 hours East to pay a visit to Shelter-Kit (see Options, Options).

Back in November, we had visions of a very small camp – a kit house less than 500 square feet that we could add on to later. As the months wore on, however, 500 square feet became 600, then 800, and then the kit house morphed into a small cape that I would build myself with help from foolish willing friends. My desire for a small getaway, well, got away from me as concerns about resale crowded my thoughts. All the while the LSW was becoming increasingly concerned that I was getting in over my head, setting us up for endless headaches and cost overruns.

And then a few days ago I suddenly – and unexpectedly – found that I agreed with her. I woke up on a Sunday morning and immediately thought “I’d rather have 250 square feet completed in a month than 1,000 square feet that we’ll be working on for 2-3 years and continually feel broke because of.”

So I’ve come full circle to my original plan: A Shelter-Kit Unit One with one enclosed and one open porch, built on piers by me and the LSW. I’ve been assured the basic structure will go up in about 7 days, and it’s modular, so we can expand it in $5 – 10k increments as the spirit moves.

Downside: It will be tight and we won’t be able to have guests until we expand. Also, at $16k it’s about 60% more expensive than stick-framing an equivalent-sized structure ourselves.

Upside: It will go quickly with minimal hassle, no power tools, no construction waste and minimal land clearing. It will also – and this is important – be a simple structure that will require minimal maintenance vis-à-vis “a real house”.

So we’re going up to the factory to take a first-hand look, and I’m sure a number of discussions will follow about how we could (or perhaps won’t) enjoy such a small space. Essentially, we’re talking a 9x5 bath, 9x6 kitchen, 12x12 common space (living AND sleeping), and a 9x12 covered porch. Small, but better than your average hotel room, so there’s that.

But I’ve changed my mind before, and both my annual bonus (or lack thereof in this economy) and the stock market will strongly impact the final decision. Still, it should be a fun weekend.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Yes In Deed!

I received an envelope from the lawyer today containing two items:

1) A title insurance policy
2) The property deed stamped as 'recorded' by the town of Shangra-La

NOW it's official. I considered having it framed, but it went in the fire-proof lock box instead. But I'm celebrating with a 'Southern Tier' IPA beside a warm fire.

A Response from the Blogosphere

Huzzah!! I have a comment on this modest little endeavor!

The astute reader (all 3 of you) may have noticed that the owner of Shelter Kit commented on my 'Options, Options...' post last time. So, in the spirit of taping my first $1 bill to the wall, I'm going to reply in a post:

Dave, I haven't ruled Shelter-Kit out, and I have recently taken a closer look at the barn-house options. You should also be aware that your staff has been exemplary in keeping friendly - though professional and unobtrusive - contact with me since my first inquiry. I plan a visit you in March or April to get a first-hand look at the product. Thanks for reading!

Now, before anyone starts to think I'm a Shelter-Kit plant, let me state for the record that I had no idea these guys existed before I started researching by options for the cabin. What impressed me is that they went beyond the other manufacturers I contacted in keeping my name on file and occasionally reaching out to me about my plans and how their product might suit my needs. Not like used car salesmen would, but more in the spirit of 'hey, we're here and hoping you'll take a look at our product - we're sure you'll like it'; not pushy, but taking every potential sale seriously. I can respect that.

And in this economy, I'm surprised my inbox is otherwise empty.

Efforts to realize The Dream are otherwise on hold until the snow melts in April (May?) and I can hire the Environmental Engineer to further assess whether or not we can fall back from a mound to a conventional septic system (and recoup about $6,000 in the process). Around the same time, I'll determine how much land clearing will be required and start talking seriously to well-drillers. In the meantime, I'm teaching myself guitar to pass the time...

Friday, February 13, 2009

Options, Options...

While waiting for the closing, I began looking into my options for homes. My initial preference was for kits, and Shelter Kit was the front-runner. I was thinking I could do a Unit One with both an enclosed and open porch, and add on additional modules later. This was particularly attractive as they give you all the tools you need to build the thing and bundle all the materials in 100-pound units so two people can carry them to the site. Everything is cut and drilled, so there is no construction waste, and very little guess-work. I loved this option until I saw just how small 12 x 21 really is. Initial cost: About 17,000 plus foundation.

But I also looked at First Day Cottage. They essentially deliver material and instructions to the site, relying on me to have power tools and a basic level of know-how. They were willing to do something in roughly the same square footage as Shelter-Kit, for about the same price.

And then I discovered Country Plans, which provides plans and a forum support community to people who want to build their own homes. I did quite a bit of research on framing and material costs, and it turns out that (as you would expect) building it myself is at least 1/3 less expensive than a kit option. I'm fairly handy, so the thought of building myself isn't that intimidating to me, although my LSW is a little leary of this option.

Log cabin kits are more expensive than any of these options, and panelized kits were at least 1/4 more expensive than building it myself. The annoying thing about Log Cabin kits, by the way, is few of them posts prices on the web. Everyone wants to rope you into a marketing web before they say anything about costs. Bastards.

I'd love to do a true post-and-beam from the Shelter Institute, but at approximately 30,0000 for an lockable structure, it's beyond my budget.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Scenes from a Closing

January 23, 2009

9:30 AM

Late breakfast in our home town, hoping it will tide us over until dinner as the closing is at 1:30 and The Boy's nap time is usually noon. Weigh him down with carbs, the thinking goes, and maybe he’ll sleep on the way up. The last thing we want is an over-tired toddler creating chaos in the midst of dignified legal proceedings. The place is new to us, but recommended. Unfortunately, we know we’re in trouble the minute we walk in: It’s got one of those long breakfast counters.

The LSW and I have a history of being ignored at these places for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom; we usually sit patiently, trying to make eye contact with the staff, but they work around us as if we’re invisible. They also tend to be wily, avoiding coming close enough to us to hear our pleas for service.

True to form, I practically have to chase the waitress to get her to give us menus, and then she seats herself next to a customer and proceeds to tuck into friendly conversation and a plate of her own breakfast. The other waitress must be new – she accidentally glances in my directly long enough for me to give her the ‘get over here now’ signal. The food is nothing special, and I expect we won’t be back.

12:30 PM

We jump off the highway early to take back roads to the attorney’s office. I’ve chosen a route we’ve not traveled before though the two ‘large’ towns closest to the property. On paper our property is 2 hours from home, but we’ve never been able to verify it because we always find a reason to take the long way there as soon as we cross the Vermont border. The LSW points this out, but I defend myself by arguing that I’m still exploring the neighborhood. The boy hasn’t slept a wink, but he’s in the pre-sleep mode of talking a mile a minute. Great. He should conk out just as we pull in.

The towns, by the way: ‘Large’ is generous by half, but we do find the diner friends have gushed about for their supposedly sublime pies.

1:30 PM

Of course the attorney’s office is in an antique home at the center of a Norman Rockwell painting. I feel like I’m going to visit grandma. And, lo and behold, the attorney is a grandma, and the office is very ‘homey’. Within minutes our realtor turns up with the seller and her lawyer. The property was in probate, and the seller is the estate’s executrix. She was also the late owner’s sister, so there is a sort of gravity to the closing that discourages casual conversation. Thankfully, the boy plants himself in a corner and becomes engrossed in figuring out how the randomly shaped pieces he has comes together to form a picture of Mickey an Minnie.

With visions of closings we’ve experienced in the past, I feel like my pen is just getting warmed up when suddenly it’s over. We’ve signed a total of 5 documents and watched checks get handed to everyone except us. (Next time I’m going to overpay so we get one, too.) I’m stunned to realize that this means the other 30 pieces of paper we inked at our last closing were all related to the mortgage, and it becomes clear: The economy has collapsed because of all of the filing that needed to take place after the tsunami of home buying! Bank employees are too busy filing to make new loans, and no one can find anything anymore – it all makes sense.

Less than a half hour after we entered, we step back into to sunshine as newly minted ‘vacation property’ owners. I’d finally feel like a yuppie if I owned a BMW, but fortunately I drive a pickup. It doesn’t feel real, somehow, and I keep looking at the copy of the deed and the septic site plan blueprints to convince myself it is.

Intermission: The astute reader would ask if perhaps it didn’t feel real because I didn’t really own the property. After all, didn’t I say a few posts back that I was borrowing the money from my generous father to avoid cashing money out of my 401(k) while the market is in free-fall? Well, I do, and I didn’t. My father came through with the check, but I couldn’t bring myself to cash it. Part of The Dream, after all, was to own the property outright, and, in the end, I believed enough in The Dream to take the hit. Besides, who knows? Maybe we’re in this economic funk for the long run, and it could be years before my per share price stops bouncing around at 60% of its prior value. If you defer The Dream long enough, after all, you’re dead.

2:30 PM

We pull into the parking lot of a 201-year-old 18-room Saxtons River Inn and check ourselves in. The place has a family air to it, but not so much that you feel like you’re in someone’s house. We love it, and the woman who welcomes us loves the boy, so she wins us over instantly. We have the place largely to ourselves, so I spend a little time exploring the open rooms while the LSW and the boy attempt a nap. My intention is to sit downstairs at the bar with a pint of something locally brewed and my blueprints, but somehow I end up in the car heading to the property.

3:00 PM

I’m walking the length of the property on the two sides bordered by roads, taking a fresh look at my new domain. I have fantasies of walking the property, but the 4 foot snow bank standing guard is unforgivingly uniform. Undaunted, I pick a spot at random spot venture in. Everything goes well with foot number one, but it all goes to hell when I lift the other foot to join it. 3 feet deep, turns out, and I’m up to my waist and clearly not going any further. I spend some time looking for a better spot, and the land stares back at me silently, wrapped everywhere in the same white sheet. It occurs to me that I finally have a practical application for snowshoes.

I end up standing in the road like an idiot, reveling in the sound of the light breeze through the stark treescape and imagining what we'll build, and do, come spring. If the market goes up. And maybe even if it doesn’t.

Then I get in the car, take a wrong turn, and am reminded afresh of how far you can go on a Vermont road without a cross street or even a place to turn around.

6:00 PM

We go back downstairs for an early dinner, planning on sitting in the emptier of the two dining rooms in hopes that we won’t bother anyone if the boy has a meltdown. The small bar has taken on the festive atmosphere of an English pub in the last hour however, with guests and townspeople sitting around chatting amicably and Counting Crows playing in the background. We take a table by the wood stove and order up a celebratory dinner: Clams for an appetizer, a burger plate for the LSW, fish and chips for me, and a grilled cheese for the boy. Everything – including the wine this time – is delicious. We toast the big occasion, and I bask in one of those rare ‘everything is right with the world’ glows until the boy decides he can’t sit still any longer and we head up to bed.

Postlude: The following day.

Before heading home, we swing by the Jamaica Cottage Shop to take a look at their 16x20 cabin that is on sale as a kit for $9,000. This is one of a number of kits I’ve been eyeing for a small cabin, but I’ve been anxious to see what 240 square feet with a loft really feels like. We stand inside for a few minutes, the feelings of victory from the prior day rapidly dissipating. The LSW and I are in immediate agreement that it is way too small, and this throws our current plans for a cabin in disarray. I spend the rest of the trip home reviewing our options, and slowly conclude that I’m going to have to build the place myself.