Shangri La

Shangri La

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


In the corporate world, if you have to estimate something but really have no idea, you put a figure on paper and let everyone know that it’s a ‘SWAG’. That is, a ‘Silly, Wild-Assed Guess’. In cobbling together an estimated budget for The Dream, I did the same thing in a couple of areas – one of them being getting power to the cabin. $500 should cover it, I thought; $750 at the most.


Discussions with the good folks at Central Vermont Public Service Corp (and they really were a pleasure to talk with) yielded a revised figure of about $35/foot. The good news is that I’ve got that power company right-of-way on the property; the bad news is that I’ve still got about 110 feet from the closest pole to the cabin site. Anyone? Anyone? That’s right: $3,500 – almost 5 times what I anticipated.


The way I see it, my other option is a generator for construction – $750 to $1,500 – followed by solar power for the well pump and house for as little as $750 - $2,000. The solar-powered well pump is low-flow, however, and will require a holding tank at a higher elevation than the house, so the overall cost is likely to exceed the CVSC hookup fee. To be fair, I suppose we could also go with hand tools and a manual pump for the well, but I’m not sure we’re willing to ‘get back to the land’ quite that far.

I was told that the CVPS estimate was free, so I’ve opened a work order and hope to meet with a rep in a couple of weeks to get the ‘official rough estimate’. The excavator opined that sending the line underground would probably be about the same price once you factor in the additional pole and tree clearing that will likely be necessary. If I go with this option, CVSC suggested that I send the power through the foundation and have an electrician hook up the meter on a temporary board with some outlets rather than using a pole on the edge of the job site. This will save me about $80 as I won’t need the company to move the power line to the house later, and we all know that $80 saved is $80 earned.

Fortunately, this was the last SWAG I had in the budget. In the future, I’ll be blaming my low numbers on ‘the optimism factor’.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring Fever

Lured by the Saxtons River Inn's 2-for-1 offer through March 31, we packed up the car and headed for Shangri-La this last weekend. Me, the LSW and The Boy were joined by The Niece (who has been crashing at our place over the last year while attending a local college) and the LSW's sister, who was looking for an excuse to spend a few days exploring a new place and sleeping late. My goal was to meet with 3 excavating and concrete contractors to get the ball rolling on The Dream.

But first things first: The food.

Dinner at the Saxtons River Inn is still outstanding - especially the crispy onion rings, fish and fries. The LSW and her sister were united on the virtues of the pulled pork and the burger, respectively, but The Niece apparently prefers soggy french fries to crispy ones, so she was less enthused.

Unfortunately, the Inn falls short in the breakfast category - providing only coffee, apple juice, store danish, apples and oranges. Luckily, The Golden Egg is only a block away and offers the second-best breakfast in New England (the first being King's in Newtown, CT). I recommend the Vermonter Skillet if you're going, or perhaps the blueberry crepes. The breakfast sandwich was also good, but the fact that they don't offer it with Vermont cheddar is almost unforgivable.

On Saturday evening, we descended upon the Putney Diner to sample their pies on the recommendation of Mr and Mrs Chops. In the spirit of adventure, I ordered a Reuben for the first time in my life. Good choice, that; I've got a new favorite sandwich. The cole slaw was fresh and the pickles agreeably sour, but the fries were soggy, to my dismay and The Niece's delight. The 4 of us split 3 slices of pie at the end of the meal - Apple, Chocolate Cream and Maple Walnut. The verdict: The apple wasn't as good as the LSW's, but the Maple Walnut and Chocolate Cream were worth the trip.

The LSW will be reporting on the handmade chocolates she tracked down in Walpole, NH here. Ye gods, they are good! And then there was 'Smokin' Bowls' on 123 between Bellows Falls and Chester:

Does this look good or what? We ordered the 'Brownie of the day'; tasty but - unfortunately - strictly legal.

Now, down to business:

As I noted, the reason for the trip was to get land clearing, excavating, and foundation estimates. To that end, I spent all of Friday afternoon and part of Saturday morning on site, taking time to walk the property and clearing some of the underbrush between appointments. The weather was in the mid-50's and the sun shining, and I spent most of the day in a T-shirt. Nice.

I started by locating the engineer's markers, which was a little challenging as a fallen pine took out the well marker. Once I found it, I was able to triangulate the planned position of the cabin and mark it with orange poles. The slope of the land seemed to lend itself to a walk-out basement, and before I knew it I was getting estimates on one at 28 x 32 in addition to my less ambitious 16 x 28 crawl space.

I talked with 6 contractors in total. Some things I learned:

  • When the land it cleared the excavator will expect to take away any salvageable wood. If you choose to keep it, the cost of the work will go up.

  • The cost of land-clearing will go down if the stumps can be buried on the property. Brush will be burned if weather conditions permit, or chipped if not.

  • Excavation will include digging the holes for the footings, leveling and prepping the floor for the rat slab, laying the drainage pipe, and back-filling and grading when the work is done.

  • The excavator can also be expected to rough-in the septic pipe and a 4" PVC conduit for the well. He/She should also run both pipes 10' beyond the foundation to make sure you're not trying to dig into the stone that will be laid down over the drainage pipes.

  • Well-drilling rigs require a roughly level surface and wide access to the well site.

  • The driveway should only be roughed-in until the foundation is done. After that, it should be at least sub-surfaced until all of the work on the site is finished.

  • Excavation and Land-Clearing estimates can vary significantly. Mine ran from a low of $4,000 to a high of $9,000.

  • Pouring the foundation will need to wait until at least mid-May, when the prohibition against heavy trucks on most unpaved roads during 'mud season' is lifted.

  • It will take 3 days to pour the foundation, and about a week for it to cure. Once it is in, the building needs to go up before winter to protect it.

  • Foundation estimates seem to vary less than excavating. For a 16 x 28 frost-wall foundation including a rat slab, I'm apparently looking at between $5,000 - 6,000.
(A 'rat slab, by the way, is 4" of concrete poured inside the foundation to keep out the critters and make working under the house more tolerable.)

The 'official' estimates are all expected before the end of this week, so I anticipate we'll be underway within a month. The first step will be land clearing, which is expected to take about 2-days, as most of the trees on the site are relatively small.

Here's a shot of the building site:

The view behind the future cabin:

In this shot the two large boulders mark the future driveway:

Incidentally, the major lesson learned on this trip was that a Hyundai Sonata is not the best vehicle with which to sample dirt-surfaced mountain passes during mud season. I see a Subaru in the LSW's future...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Writer's Cabin...Uh, I mean Gardening Shed

LSW here. This is what I woke up to on Saturday:

1) An old lady knocking on my door, newspaper in hand, pointing at a classified ad. "Where's the tag sale?" she demanded. After I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and focused, I saw that there was an ad for a tag sale at Same-Number-House-Similarly-Named-Street. After explaining (quite firmly) that no, there really wasn't a tag sale here, she left grumbling as another car pulled up. Clearly I was going to have to post a sign: "NO tag sale here!"

2) As she left, I couldn't help but spy the ginormous stack of lumber in the driveway and this in the backyard:


To be fair, the Vermonster had come home the night before and divulged his latest scheme: build a garden shed in the backyard as a test-run for the cabin.

I think he expected me to balk at the idea, but frankly I thought it was a great idea, as long as I didn't have to do anything.

I've got to give the Vermonster credit: he has the stamina of a work horse. He was out there from 7 a.m. til 5 p.m., hammering, measuring, measuring, measuring, taking notes. I'll leave all the technical stuff to him; all I can say is I now I have a perfectly level rectangle in my backyard that's just waiting for some walls and windows and such. It's a start.

Meanwhile, I thought for sure that someone searching for the tag sale would think they'd stumbled upon some free lumber, so we eventually moved it into the garage.

I know the plan is that this is supposed to be our gardening shed, but I'm thinking it would make an awful nice Room of One's Own. We'll see how much sway I have in this relationship.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Cabin

Once upon a time, restoring old British cars – usually MGBs – was my diversion of choice. The LSW endured a parade of clunkers for which I tried to combine concourse-quality restoration plans and a shoe-string budget. While almost 50% of these projects resulted in something that could be safely driven, all of them reinforced something I grew up hearing about projects in general:

It will take twice as long as expected, and cost 3 times as much.
And so I’m finding as the estimates begin rolling in:
  • 16 x 28 frost-line crawl-space foundation with a ‘rat-slab’: $5,000 (rats and excavating not included)
  • Power: Needs to be estimated, but I’ve heard stories of $2,000 - $4,000
  • Septic (as currently proposed): $10,000 - $13,000
  • Well: $5,000 - $7,500
  • Land Clearing: $2,000 - $3,000 per acre
With each new piece of information, the cabin in my imagination gets a little more modest. The kit becomes DIY stick-framing, 20x30 shrinks to 16x28, the full-size kitchen becomes a stove, sink and under-counter refrigerator, CVSC power becomes a solar panel, and indoor plumbing becomes (at least at first) a mulching toilet and 5-gallon water containers. In short, the “cabin” really does become a cabin. *sigh*

I have mixed feelings about this process of ‘right-sizing’ my expectations. To be brutally honest, I like the idea of having the kind of ‘camp’ that makes friends, relations, and neighbors envious. It’s a side of me I don’t care for, but can’t deny. There’s another side, though, that is attracted to the idea of a small, off-the-grid, minimal maintenance getaway that provides the experience of being mostly outdoors and close to nature. And one that bucks most to the materialistic pretensions we’ve been awash in over the last decade.

The interesting thing is that, while many of our friends were upgrading locations and square footage over the last decade, we’ve willingly (even enthusiastically) embraced smaller, older homes. Our current house - built in 1940 and clocking in at just less than 1,800 square feet - is the biggest – and newest – we’ve ever had. With its original kitchen, windows and [lack of] insulation, I’m confident that it inspires very little envy in our friends, relations and neighbors. So why would I care what they think of our little shack in the woods? Not that they’ll have an opportunity to form an opinion; it’s now grown too small for visitors.

I still occasionally surf the real estate adds for Vermont for ‘turn-key’ properties, wondering if I shouldn’t use the project budget as a down payment. But here’s what keeps me on the straight-and-narrow: I want to own the property and anything on it outright. And if that means a shipping container with a window, at least we’ll never have to worry about seeing ‘foreclosed on it’.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Adventures in Building

Now that we’re no longer waiting for an additional septic test, I've been agonizing over cabin options: I want something that will go up quickly and easily, but I know that I could do it the hard way for about half the price. And with a budget of less than $30k, that 50% differential will likely determine whether our water will come from a well or rain barrel.

I'm confident that I can build the place myself. From car engines rebuilding to Windsor chairs making, custom trim work to guitar playing, I haven’t yet found a project that I couldn’t tackle if I set my mind to it. But how can I convince the LSW that my optimism isn’t misplaced? And – to be honest – prove to myself that I’m not underestimating the work?

The answer came to me as I passed thought the only tunnel in New England (so I'm told) on my way home from work last Friday: Build a gardening shed in the back yard. Armed with this one construction stone, I could kill the following birds:
  • The LSW gets a modicum of assurance
  • I get practice in framing
  • We get a gardening shed
  • The current gardening shed (the garage) can be liberated for cabin supply storage
  • I can gauge current lumber prices to refine my budget
  • I can get an idea of what is likely to be tricky, and where help will be needed
I hated to take the money out of the cabin fund, but the LSW agreed that it seemed a prudent investment.

And so it was that I spent the weekend buying materials, leveling the site, and constructing the floor framing for an 8 x 10 gable-ended shed. Materials included:

(6) Cinder blocks
(4) 2 x 10 x 12 PT (10’ lengths weren’t available)
(30) 2 x 4 x 8
(8) 2 x 6 x 8
(4) 2 x 4 x 10
(3) 5/8 floor sheathing
(3) ½ roof sheathing
(10) T-111 siding
(2) Packages of roofing shingle
(1) Package of 6 mil poly film
(1) Roll roofing felt
Galvanized Nails and deck screws, various sizes
(2) Saw blades

The total cost was $1,100, which didn’t include window and door (both of which I will build myself) and trim (which will come from leftover white pine 1x stock I have in the basement). I consoled myself with the fact that a manufactured shed of the same size would cost at least a third more.

And what did I learn from day 1?
  1. Purchasing materials can easily take an entire day
  2. No matter how carefully you plan, there will be return trips to the lumber yard and/or the local home warehouse
  3. White pine shiplap isn’t always available, and cedar shiplap is a very, very expensive alternative
  4. T-111 siding becomes more attractive when you understand how (relatively) cheap it is
  5. Leveling and preparing the site will take at least another half-day
  6. Sandwiched beams of 2x10 PT can get heavy very quickly
  7. Computer work does not adequately prepare your hands (or muscles) for a day of hammering and lifting
  8. Slicing your thumb open on a joist hanger is infinitely more distracting when you discover that your wife has locked you out of the house while running errands
  9. Thinking you can have the floor AND walls framed in a single day is wildly optimistic
  10. Dogfish Head IPA tastes best when enjoyed after 10 hours of manual labor
  11. If you think you’re sore at the end of day 1, wait until the morning of day 2
The lesson of day 2 was that multiple blisters on your hammering hand combined with very stiff muscles will necessitate taking the day off.
Stay tuned.

Monday, March 23, 2009

This Blogging Business...

The LSW - who has a moderately successful blog here - keeps giving me advice on how to attract people to this one. Most important, she says, it to post frequently. Daily, if possible.

It's not.

Between working full time, commuting 100 miles per day, learning guitar, working on the house and 'nurturing social connections' there just aren't enough hours in the week.

And then there is the 8x10 garden shed that I've begun constructing in the back yard to prove to the LSW (and myself, frankly), that building my own place in the woods is a possibility. More on this to come, but right now I've got to go soak myself in Bengay and tend the blisters on my hands...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Options, options...

Two more interesting options for a prefab cabin:

Panel Concepts has a number of 'panelized' cabin kits from 12' x 12' bare-bones shells to 20' x 40' insulated and partitioned units. Pro: Whatever you think of the faux log cabin siding, the reported assembly time is one of the lowest I've seen. Con: The nearest distributor with an assembled sample is 5 hours away in upstate New York.

Zook Cabins builds and delivers completed cabins from 12' x 18' to 22' x 48' to your [future] doorstep, taking the 'you' out of DIY. Throw a little more money at them and they'll install a bathroom and custom kitchen for you. Pro: Very competitively priced, can combine trip to the factory with a weekend at Sesame Place for The Boy. Con: I'm always suspicious when a manufacturer claims 'Amish Craftsmanship' on a product that no Amish would ever buy.

Another interesting option came at the suggestion of the LSW: Craig's List. Sure enough, there were a number of barns and antique post-and-beam frames for sale, and even a listing for historic Appalachian log cabins ready to be reassembled on your site (banjo not included).

Monday, March 16, 2009

On your mark, get set ... nope.

LSW here. If the Vermonster is a classic Type A personality, then I'm the poster child for Type Z. He plans our budget down to the last dime ("Twelve cents of each paycheck will be allocated toward the fund for next year's Girl Scout cookie orders"), while my idea of budgeting is to get a statement at the ATM every few weeks to make sure I'm not overdrawn.
However, in some respects, I'm very rigid. When The Boy was first born, I maintained a very regular schedule, which I believe is one reason that he sleeps so well at night. (That, and the fact that he takes after my side of the family in that respect; we loves us some sheep counting.) And in my professional life as a writer, deadlines are set in stone. There's no eleventh hour for me.

So today, when I heard the tale of woe about the septic test, my brain fritzed just a little. Up until this point, our mantra was, "It all depends on the septic test." That's what gave me structure; it made this crazy, chaotic adventure just a little more defined.

But now we don't have that, and I'm afraid of what this will do to the Vermonster.

We needed a definite starting point. Now we don't have one. We could build a cabin tomorrow-- or not. We could decide to clear the land and put in a well-- or not. We could do whatever we want. If only we knew that was.

I know it'll all work out in the end, but in the meantime, I'm afraid the stress levels just moved up a notch. Because nothing depends on the septic test.

The Dangers of Assumptions

In my professional life, I'm always on the lookout for assumptions, whether my own or my customers'. I ask every question at least 3 different ways, factor professional backgrounds and personalities into my information gathering techniques, and get everything I think I've heard validated. In my personal life, apparently, not so much.

When the environmental engineer told me in November that we'd need a mound system, we talked about additional testing he could do to determine if a cheaper conventional system could still be an option. He explained that the testing would take place in the spring, and we'd be looking for primarily for the water level in April, when the runoff from the snowmelt peaked. He told me to call him early in the year to set something up.

What he meant: The test is from March 1 to May 31, with April likely to be the best indicator of the height of the water table. Call me in January.

What I heard: We need to test in April, call me in March.

And so, based upon sloppy questions and incorrect assumptions, I called him today only to find that we're too late and won't be able to test now until next year unless I can credibly claim 'hardship' to the State of Vermont. 'Yuppy too impatient to wait for his trophy home in the woods' probably doesn't qualify, so I'm SOL. Sux.

Lesson learned? Just because I'm off the clock doesn't mean I should leave everything at the office.

We've been telling ourselves that the second septic test will determine how we move forward, but now we're stalled a full year if we do so. Looking for options, I was able to confirm that the location of the house and the well won't change due to the size and topography of the property, so we could start with them. And in doing so, the only safe assumption is that the current worst-case septic plan will hold. Ugh.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Updating the Numbers

Confession time: Before I joined the glamorous and fast-paced world of business analysis, I was a cost accountant. Now I know what those of you who know me are thinking:

"Say what?? How could an anal-retentive type-A personality have ever found succor in the shoes of a beancounter??"

To which I reply, "Succor?"

But it's true. Beans I counted, for nearly a decade. And though I've long since hung up my transparent green visor, I still love doing budgets and assigning expenses to categories. And so I don my visor again in updating this folly's expenses for the closing, to wit:

Attorney's Fees: $750

Title Insurance: $250

Title Search Fees: $126

Recording Fees: $24

VT Transfer Tax: $325

All of which bring the grand total of the land to $27,624.56 (including the $149.56 in Shangra-La property taxes for 1/2 year)

I also confirmed at the closing that I will forfeit a portion of any profits on the property to the beautiful State of Vermont should I decide to sell within 5 years.

Fat chance.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

This land is my land

In the previous post, the LSW illustrated her misgivings about The Dream with a picture of a rusty shipping container marked ‘Foreclosed’. While her faith in me warms my heart, I think I can set her mind at ease on at least one thing:

When you pay cash for everything, there is no one to foreclose on your property.

And this is probably where The Dream diverges for the two of us. I suspect that for her it represents weekends with The Boy camping without actually having to go 'camping' and trolling the picturesque countryside for good food and diversions. For me, however, the knowledge that I own a home outright is at least as appealing, and provides a number of intangible benefits:

1) In economic downturns like this one, we don’t have to be concerned about becoming homeless
2) We don’t have to worry about how to pay off my current house before retirement
3) Should we decide to ‘downshift’ our lifestyle or change careers entirely, we can ditch the portion of my salary that supports a (big NYC suburb) mortgage on a (relatively modest) house
4) It gives The Boy a model of home ownership that is not based upon enormous debt, and introduces him to people who are less immersed in the consumerist/career culture that is predominant in Southwestern Connecticut
5) Being right on the VAST system, gives me an excuse to by a Snowmobile

The LSW has heard me repeatedly summarize these benefits to friends as “Three acres and a shotgun!” It’s tongue-in-cheek, but I guess I can see why she’s a little nervous.

Friday, March 6, 2009

There's a reason for my hesitation in this whole "cabin in the woods" scenario

LSW here. This is what I dream of when we talk about building a cabin:

This is what I fear we'll end up with:

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sometimes a cigar is just a cabin in Vermont

LSW here again. Soon after the Vermonster came home with pictures of the property on his cell phone, I found myself sitting in the shrink’s office.

I’ve been seeing McFreud for a few years now. I offer this information freely and casually as if I was including him in a list of people I might also employ: a housekeeper, a nanny, a personal trainer, a pool boy, a chef. But the truth of the matter is, I bandy this information about as a way to head people off at the pass. “I’m not screwed up or crazy,” I want to say. “I just trust the instincts and advice my shrink offers.” That’s certainly true. Plus it’s nice to have 45 solid minutes where I get to sit in a comfy bouncy chair, stare out the window and not be interrupted by the phone or the boy or the cat.

So a few months ago, this was the conversation I had with McFreud.

“This is all I hear,” I say to him. “Talk, talk, talk,” I say, as I mimic chattering beaks with my hands squaking all around my head. “Land. Cabin. Septic. I just don’t process any of it.”

He looks at me with his poker face.

“I don’t know,” I say, my usual response when things get all quiet. “I don’t know.”

He bounces in his chair. I bounce in mine. (No proverbial couch here.) Finally he speaks.

“See, he’s up here on a high,” says McFreud, holding his hand above his head. “He’s feeling euphoric. Meanwhile, you’re down here,” he says, moving his hand below his knee. “You feel like you need to play the role of the anchor, but he views you as the ball-and-chain.”

Bingo. As usual, he’s hit the nail on the head, making my $15 co-pay worth every penny. But his job isn’t to judge or give advice. His job is to help me find my own way through this.
“You’re absolutely right,” I say. I leave his office with my assignment: to tell the Vermonster (and worse yet, prove to him) that I’m not a stick in the Green Mountain mud. If there’s one thing I fear, it’s turning into a bitter, old kill joy, stick-in-the-mud, ball-and-chain. So things needed to change. And that, my friends, is how I came to the point in my life where I dedicated myself to learning the difference between a conventional septic system and the more expensive—but probably necessary-- mound system. This is where the fun begins ...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


I had been watching the stock market obsessively for over 3 months – furtively stealing glances at CNBC every hour at work, listening to ‘Marketplace’ every evening and surfing a handful of financial web sites between guitar practice on the weekends. What did I learn?

1) The market had no confidence in the Bush administration
2) It has even less confidence in the Obama administration
3) No one – from the pundits to the traders to (seemingly) the Fed chairman – has any idea how bad this is going to be or when we’re going to get out of it

The voices predicting a rally grew steadily weaker as each surge in the market crumbled under the weight of fear and uncertainty. As I watched my share price drop from $21 to $12.50, I found myself traversing that famous mental path through denial (It will come back!), anger (But I was just about to finally realize The Dream!) and bargaining (I’ll cash out when the Dow goes back to 9,000 – we still get more than we put in) to acceptance (Eh, it was all just paper wealth anyway. Let's order out for Chinese!).

The breaking point came when I read that ‘the charts’ were predicting the Dow would fall below 6,000. It was bad enough that I knew what ‘the charts’ were (too boring to recount); the fear that my money would completely dry up and blow away had finally became unbearable. I was tired of tracking the markets, numb from all the bad news, sick of the prognosticators and weary of the punditry. I finally ‘capitulated’, as the talking heads call it: I took my money and ran.

I know what you're thinking: But wait! You’ve locked in your losses! This is the time to buy, not sell! Stocks are always a good investment in the long run!

Meh. I never trusted the market to begin with, and I’m done.

...And the surprising thing is that I feel really good about it! Now at least I know my budget: A very modest $24,276, plus any interest (at 2%) that accumulates and any nickels I find under the couch. I don’t have to tell the three of you that clearing the land, building a cabin, digging a well and putting in septic at this price is going to require a lot of sweat equity on my part, a rift in the time/space continuum and infinite patience from the LSW. Should be a fun year!

Stay tuned.