Tuesday, June 11, 2013

our homestead: our pre-building story so far

Me and my partner in crime
According to a friendly county official we met with at our local planning and development office a week ago, my husband and I are so close (fingers crossed) to being able to finally submit for our official building and clearing permits. Once we have these permits, we can start physically building our house! Anyone who was around me when I was in the heat of working on county paperwork knows how anxious and nutty all those forms can make me (e.g. my younger brother, my husband, sister-in-laws, etc). I think my laughing-anxiety (I kept a good sense of humor throughout it all) came from my desire to do a good job at something that I'd never had to do and my chomping-at-the-bit excited energy to have our house built. Again, this is the very first time I've built a house (duh!), so I'm a major greenhorn, learning so much about the entire process as I go. Literally, save for much help from my husband's father, I've been figuring out each step on my own as we decided that hiring a building consulting business would be out of our tight budget. I thought I'd take the time to write about the pre-building journey my husband and I have been through so far, in preparation for our permits. I'm sure I'm forgetting something and these are definitely not all of the details to everything I've waded through, but here's our general story. I hope to be of help to anyone else who wants to build their own house and imagine that I'll write a more succinct checklist later on...maybe after we're moved in. Anyway, here's our adventure so far!
1) Search for property
My husband and I started looking for property last spring 2012. We visited countless properties before finding our gem (which was only on the market for 2 days when we swiped it). To find properties for sale, we scoured area real estate websites, checked craigslist listings, set Realtors on the hunt for us including one of my husband's coworkers, looked up addresses for sale on Google Earth to survey the area and pulled flyers while driving around. We had a budget number in mind for what we wanted to spend and the more properties we visited, the better an idea we had about what our ideal property would look like. We also learned about competition- one beautiful property we fell head over heels for had an offer placed on it the same day we visited it. We also learned to be weary of too-good-to-be-true deals. Basically, in the Pacific Northwest, you're going to find a lot of swamps for bargain prices, such as the "trap carrot" property that pulled us over to the area where we found our dream property. We tried to talk ourselves into buying a really, really cheap property which was covered in horsetails and cottonwoods, had flocks of dragonflies buzzing about and thick mucky patches in August (all signs pointing to a wetland).  After contacting a few county water table and wetlands specialists, we learned the property was unusable for our needs.
2) Buy property
As mentioned above, the cheap swampy property we found drew our interest to an area I'd never been to. I started falling for the area while driving back and forth to investigate the swamp. I appreciated the views of the mountains, its close proximity to family, its ample availability of outdoor activities(boating, swimming, bicycling, fishing) and the neighboring wooded parcels mixed with open horse fields and mini-homesteads. I started specifically searching the area for more options- we found a super expensive open grassy parcel and a large wooded parcel sharing a long gravel driveway with a neighbor who'd hung a "trespassers will be shot on site" sign along the driveway.  Then, one day, a new property popped up- our property. Wooded, the right size, the right price and close to the quiet bass fishing lake in the area. My husband and I decided to check it out. We casually showed up, pulled the car into the grassy side of the road and pushed through the brush- a few steps in and we knew we had to act fast! We'd found our property! In fact, as we were heading back to the car, we saw another person who'd pulled over in front of our car, talking frantically on their cellphone and pulling flyers. We grabbed a flyer and called the real estate agent right away to setup a meeting.
We met with the real estate agent at his home and put in our offer for the full amount the property was listed for which was a competitive strategy as other offers had been below asking price. The next day, the real estate agent called us to tell us our offer had been accepted (hooray) and we met with him again to determine our terms for closing, to sign paperwork and to drop off an escrow deposit. Basically, if everything checked out on the property to our specifications during a 2-week feasibility study, we would agree to officially close on the property and we'd be handed the deed.
For our feasibility study, we wanted to find out the following things: 1) if our property was zoned to have a small house built on it, 2) drinking water availability, 3) electrical availability, 4) whether the soil would "perc" or not (e.g. if we could put in a septic and drainfield) and 5) check the title report for any liens. Figuring out the zoning was easy- we just went to the county website and typed in our tax parcel number. To find out about our drinking water and electrical availability, I contacted our PUD and water district. We found out that we could have electricity easily brought in from the road but we'd have to have a well installed. For our perc test, I contacted a soil engineer who was able to locate areas of sufficient drainage on our property by digging around. The real estate agent made it easy on us and provided a copy of the property's title: no liens! With these pieces of information, we signed even more paperwork at the escrow company and became the proud owners of 2.17 acres of woodlands on October 2nd, 2012 (our 2nd wedding anniversary).
3) Survey property lines
Surveying our property lines was the number one most important investment we made in our house building project....possibly the best $1400 we ever shelled out. To anyone wanting to build a house, have your lines officially surveyed and recorded as soon as possible. This past winter, we thought it would be a good idea to have a survey done, you know, have an idea of where our boundaries were so that we could confidently plan where our septic would go, where we should setup our fence and basically every other important, permanent change we might make on our property. Really, we thought it would suck if we accidentally dug our driveway on our neighbor's property or something. It was a really smart decision to make...especially since the neighboring developer who purchased the plot of land for sale to our left didn't have a survey done and measured his lines by himself. Low and behold, our surveyor discovered that our property has an easement with the road, wherein we "own" one road lane. The developer next to us didn't realize this and thought the property line started inward. I won't get into too many details on the blog since it was a pretty stressful situation, but in a nutshell, the developer did clearing on our property because he was thoroughly mistaken about our boundary lines. The photo above shows exactly what I walked up to one day after my septic guy contacted me and told me to  check out our property because he thought something fishy was going on with the developer. The land on the right side of the red line is ours. Rough, really rough. After giving a free copy of our survey to the developer, he agreed to follow the lines and level the land he'd displaced, and the county said we weren't liable for any of his unpermitted clearing (our real worry), so everything worked out in the end. Again, this was a very stressful situation for us: this property is our dream and a large investment for us. If we hadn't had had our land officially surveyed, we either would have lost a large portion of our property unknowingly or wouldn't have had as much klaut in protecting what was ours.
Photo credit: Groovers Septic Design
4) Septic, drainfield and well design and location
With having our lines drawn up, we were able to contact a septic designer. In our area, you almost have to base your house around the best soils for your septic and drainfield. Placement of a septic and drainfield also affects where a well can go. When meeting with our septic designer, we told him the general area where we'd like to put our house, and he went hunting with his associate's Kubota tractor to see what our options were. Lucky for us, he was able to design a system that would work around our ideal house location, which meant we could start really planning the future layout of our property. Once the best spots were found, our septic designer drew up a map similar to the example above, complete with a full page description of the soil logs he collected and the engineering of our system. Along with an application, this design and its specifications were then sent to the county health district office for approval.   
5) Select building site
As mentioned in the previous step, much of the determination of our building site relied on where we could put our septic and drainfield. Once these locations were determined, we were able to settle down on our official building site. The above drawing is a quick sketch of the general layout of our property.
6) Dream up house plans
For months my husband and I have been mulling over what kind of house we'd want to build: what it would be made of, what it would look like, what kind of roof it'd have, its floor plan, how big (or little) it'd be. From the start we knew we wanted to build something small using environmentally and energy-efficient materials. After searching through a collection of books and spending much time researching house designs and floor plans online, after investigating numerous alternative building materials and methods, after attending a home show at the local convention center, and after many messy sketches, we finally found what we wanted to build. The first scribbley drawing above is the earliest version of our final house design, in all its wacky glory, drawn up in a busy restaurant using a crumpley piece of notebook paper I had in my purse.

Before making our plans official, we had my husband's father bid out our proposed project using the second, more organized drawing above. We wanted to make sure that building this style of home would fit our budget. If not, we could always change our plan before meeting with a drafter. It was a pleasant surprise when my father-in-law told us we could add a loft for just a little bit more (a dream house feature of mine I thought we wouldn't be able to afford). On that note, we are truly blessed that my husband's father will be helping us build our home. He has years of construction and building experience and is a very hard worker. He has already helped us so much during this project- we are so, so lucky! I look forward to being able to tell my daughter that her grandpa helped build our home.  
Plans by Design Lines
7) Draft and engineer house plans
Once we had decided what we wanted our house to look like, we contacted a house plan drafter to professionally translate our drawings into an actual, structurally-sound design we could use for the permitting process. We couldn't have picked a better house designer: he was very helpful and attuned to what we wanted. He didn't try to push his own opinions or agenda upon us, which was very refreshing since our home is a lot smaller than the norm. If anything, he opened our eyes to more possibilities available with the particular shape of our house, such as a mini play loft in our daughter's bedroom  which could double as a built-in bed later. Little awesome details. Once our plans were drawn up to our specifications, an engineer analyzed them and made sure all requirements were noted for up-to-code earthquake and wind resistance. We will be required to submit a complete set of plans with engineering to the county when we head in for our building permit.
Photo credit: University of Minnesota
8) Official plot plan
Another document we need to have ready for submitting for our building permit is a professional plot plan which shows the coordinates of our property, the  location of our house/septic/well/drainfield/driveway, the varying elevations of our property, and the planned impervious surface and land grading needed for our building project. Above is an example of what a plot plan might look like. The same person who was able to draft our official house plan was also able to draw a complete plot plan for us, so we have this ready to go!
9) Well company letter
Our county also requires a letter or certificate from either the local water district or a well company as proof that our property has access to water once we submit for our building permit. This was pretty easy to obtain- I just contacted a local well company, let them know what I needed and after checking the neighboring area, they were able to write me a letter stating that we had water. Check off the list!

Picture credit: Streamline Engineering
10) Stormwater management plan
This is our current step and the very last piece of our permitting puzzle. We are currently waiting for a soil engineer to complete our stormwater management plan. He estimates he should have our plans complete sometime next week. Essentially, this engineer first takes a look at our property and its particular needs, such as its soil makeup, its gentle slope and its proximity to a protected lake,  and then they analyze what we want to have done on the property. With all of these detailed pieces of information, our engineer will design an appropriate grading and clearing plan which will protect the neighboring eco-system and prevent erosion. I am so grateful he will be filling in all of the stormwater paperwork...I remember taking a look at that multi-page packet and getting the sweats. It's intense. I posted a snapshot of it above. So, so glad it's not my job to fill those forms out! Once we have our stormwater management plan complete, we'll be able to talk to the county about our clearing permit as well as put in a driveway! Hooray!
11) Complete remaining paperwork
I've already completed these forms- a lot of repeats: hand-drawn maps to the property, our contact information, the square footage of our property, our tax parcel number, etc. These forms primarily have to do with installing a driveway and whether or not we've submitted our septic and drainfield plans to the health district.
12) Submit for our building and clearing permit
Above is what a basic building permit application looks like. I've already filled this form in by now. Yeah baby! Once we get that stormwater plan in, we'll be able submit for our permits and hopefully get started soon. Fingers crossed that everything is ready- we really, really want to get started with building!

13) Mark property with construction tape and sign
Yesterday my husband and I went out to the property and started marking off certain areas of our land with construction tape, such as our building site and some trees we plan to fell (luckily they are mainly small cottonwoods). We're preparing for inspection post permit application submittal as a county official will head out to our site to investigate our plot plan. Our proposed building site, septic, drainfield, well, driveway and any trees we plan to take down will have to be clearly marked with construction tape and flags. We will also have to carve walking paths through the brush to ensure easy access to these locations. Good thing we were gifted a fancy machete as a wedding gift from a farmer friend. We are also required to have a sign out on the road with our approximate address- we stuck one in the ground on our way out.
14) Ready list of building contacts
While waiting for our stormwater plan, I've been readying a complete list of contacts for the build. Mainly, we wanted to have an idea of who would be doing land clearing, grading and tree felling for us first. I was so relieved to find out that the man I have lined up to install our septic and drainfield can also complete any land clearing tasks needed, including laying down our gravel driveway. *Phew* That makes it easy! I'll be meeting with him out at the property sometime next week to go over our clearing plan with him, that way, he'll be ready to start as soon as our permits come in. I've also already met with a fence installer. We walked the west property line together (the boundary we share with the developer's property) and he generated a quote for a 5ft chainlink fence. I contacted the PUD and learned that they will be the ones to install underground electrical wires from the street to our home.  And I even know who will be pouring our foundation, doing our rebar work, framing the house, installing our roof and completing our plumbing, and I have some leads on electricians. We're getting very close to getting this project rolling! I'm ancy to start and anxious about staying on budget. I think everything will work out though.

Monday, June 3, 2013

trail setters: my family started a farmers market

My mom and stepdad started a little Sunday farmers market in town. Yesterday was the first day and we were all pleasantly surprised by our town's turnout. We even had a few folks linger in from Seattle. We couldn't have asked for better weather too- bright sunny skies. My parents are calling their baby a "grower's market", meaning the focus of the market will be Washington grown and produced foods and plants. Maybe one or two craft vendors, but that's it. Food vendors will have to use Washington grown food and produce, so, for example, we have a hot dog vendor coming in who will be using locally raised pork. Essentially, their market is what farmers markets should be, but often deviate from. For instance, you'll head to market and only be able to find one or two farmers in a sea of crafts. I'm looking forward to watching this market grow. It's in an excellent spot: in the middle of town near a large grassy area with a playground and skate park. Anyway, below are a few photos I took from opening day. I sold edible and pollinator-attracting plant starts I grew myself. My parents had their awesome tomatoes up for sale (of course). 

1. My parents' beefsteak tomatoes.
2. My little plant stand.                                                                                                                        
3. Some of my starts.
4. My big ol' pregnant belly. I'm due August 6th!
5. Blowing the conch shells (old market tradition) at the end of the day. My stepdad's to the right.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

our homestead: our official house plans

Here she is! Our beautiful house! She'll be a 24x24 foot, 864 square foot house with 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and a loft. We had Duane at Design Lines draft our official plans. Duane was awesome to work with- he helped bring to life our funny little sketches and thought up some really creative details we hadn't considered before. We LOVE our house plan and are super close to getting our building and clearing permit. I'll write more about that process later, but for now, here's the house and some descriptions:
The North: Both bedrooms will be side by side on the lower level. The view from these windows will be woods and our neighbor's horse trails. Shady and private.

The West: Our front door. Our driveway will end here. We'll eventually have a small porch that wraps around to the larger entertaining porch to the right/south. The view from this end of the house will be partially wooded with our vegetable gardens and greenhouses providing privacy from our neighbor's lot above. Sunset light. 
The South: Eventually we'll have a large entertaining porch here. Thick, wooded views from this side of the house. Two large windows (one from the lower living area, one from the loft) to take in the woods and a glass sliding door for flowing in and out of the kitchen (great for entertaining). All-day daylight.

The East: This end of the house overlooks more woods with the potential for a partial ...sliver of a lake and mountain view from the loft. Morning sunrise light ideal for a bright kitchen (lower left window) and for sipping coffee on the loft deck. A shaded bathroom window too (under the deck)- I'll probably grow some vines on the deck for privacy.
Main Floor Plan: Everything important is on this floor- bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, laundry, etc. Small but functional, exactly what we wanted. Our downstairs living area will have a vaulted ceiling and will probably just include a small dining table for our little family and a small couch and coffee table to quietly enjoy the view of the woods and the woodstove fire. We'll also probably have a small pantry underneath our stairwell (we are still deciding if we'll do traditional stairs or a spiral). And, we'll have a nice soaking tub in the bathroom.

Upper Floor Plan: The fun part of our house. All media (movies, computer) and Joe's wrestling mats will be up here, with lots of windows to take in the woods and perhaps a sliver of the lake. A large 14x8 foot east-facing deck to take in the sunrise. We'll probably put a futon-couch up here for overnight guests. The loft is the same size as the 70s room in our current house, which is where we spend the majority of our time. People up in the loft will be able to look down to the living area.
A side section of our house, showing the stairs up to the loft.
A side section of our house showing the "storage shelf": e.g. our daughter's future play loft/bunk bed with railings tall enough that she can't roll out of the bunk, yet low enough to slip a twin mattress over. The railings will allow her to peek down to her bedroom. I'm super jealous- I wanted this as a kid! A built-in bunk bed will also free-up floor space in her room.
Oh, and did I mention? We're having a girl!

We are due with our first baby August 6th and couldn't be happier. It'll be a memorable summer!  

Monday, March 25, 2013

our homestead: paperwork for the county and finishing basic house plans

When are we building the house? Probably the end of May or early June. Probably early June. This summer. First off, we have to wade through the above paperwork and meetings with the county for a Building Permit. Everything needs to be permitted- everything. From how we grade (shape and dig) our soil for preparing the driveway and building site to how big we plan to build our house and what materials we plan to build with not to mention detailed mapping of our property and how it relates to surrounding properties (location of utilities, drain fields, storm water, etc). We can totally get this all done, but it will take time to research everything. Luckily a lot of the grading and water information will be gathered by our septic and soils engineer, and we plan on working our property layout plans around the majority of the standing timber on our property (for example: we will snake our driveway around trees instead of chop them down). The physical act of building the house definitely seems like the "easy part" the more I learn about the whole process.
My husband and I have been finalizing our basic house plan for our initial build. I call it the initial build as we plan to build on an addition in about 4-5 years. We'll see when the time comes though- we might be very happy in our little house just the way it is. Currently, we're shooting for a single level, 600-800 square foot home with a rustic modern aesthetic. We want two bedrooms and one bathroom, and an open living and kitchen area. We are also considering building a pole barn shop for additional storage and Joe's "man land"depending on what we can afford. If we build a shop, our house will probably be around 600+ square feet (which is just fine with us). Below are a few sketches and some floor plans we're strongly considering at this point. We are also working with a family-friend builder who will be able to turn these doodles into legitimate plans for county permitting.
Photo credit: Family Home Plans

Sunday, March 3, 2013

our homestead: the planning stages

I figured I should take the time to catch up the blog on what step's my husband and I have completed in our homebuilding adventure. We are currently right on track with the whole process and are planning to break ground this late spring/early summer.
First of all,  we had all of our property boundaries recorded and surveyed by Ford Land Surveying. The surveyor marked each of our property corners with a wood and a metal stake, tied off with blue and white construction tape. He also sent us a large plat map of our land, showing all exact measurements, degrees and corners. Now that we know our official lines, we can rest assured that any work we have done on our property will actually be on our property and not impeding upon our neighbor's. I also didn't realize the exact size of our land, as before we had tromped around the property using GPS on my cellphone to find the "corners"...I found we'll have quite a nice sight for a big vegetable garden in the back corner, much larger than I thought. According to the county, we could even put up a fence now (up to 6 feet tall) along our survey line without a permit. We'll probably wait to erect a fence until we put in our gravel driveway.
1. Our top survey mark. Our driveway will probably go somewhere around here.
2. We plan to put our long gravel driveway through the brush here, snaking around the trees.
3. Another survey mark at the "elbow" of our property.
4. My mom charging through the brush to help me find the markers- almost like an Easter egg hunt.
With the survey completed, I was able to contact Brent of Brent Hackney Designs and asked him to begin designing a septic and drainfield system for our project. I had previously had him out to the property in early Autumn to perform our perc test during our feasibility study, and one thing that I immediately liked is how he commented on how cool it was that our property had lots of standing timber and old growth stumps to garden with. Basically, I want to keep our land clearing to a minimum as I want to preserve the woodlands of the property, so I'm glad he was on board with working around the trees.
Joe and I also decided a septic system would be the best choice for us in lieu of a composting system. Apparently, our health district will approve composting systems, but our development depart won't issue you a building permit without a proper septic. If we wanted to build a house under 400 square feet, we could get away with a composting system as you don't need a building permit for that small of a structure, however, since we want to build around 600-800 square feet, we will need a permit.  I'm sure if we put in a lot of hours and effort, we could get a composting toilet system permitted, however, I also really just want to have a roof over our heads sooner than later, and would rather put in that effort to having our actual home structure permitted. Composting systems, or at least, the practical family-sized ones usually come with a huge above ground tank, so we'd probably have to build a bigger structure to house it. Instead, we are going to get a high-efficiency, low flush toilet. I've been reading about pressure assist systems which use a mix of air pressure and less than one gallon of water to flush, and are supposed to be up to 70% more water efficient than traditional flush toilets on the market. Something like the Niagara Power One.
Anyway, back to Brent. We had him out to the property again, and along with his associate's kubota tractor, he was able to find the best soil for our septic and drainfield, and also sighted our well. He chose spots where there weren't trees, including a gentle slope for our drainfield. Our septic will probably be close to our house in the middle to back corner of the property. Our drainfield will go in a clearing towards the very front bottom of the property. Our well will be above the drainfield near the driveway (also in an existing clearing). I'll be able to have our vegetable garden up in the sunny corner as I'd originally planned. Yay!
1. Brent and his associate digging around for the best soil to use.
2. My quick Paint drawing of where everything is going to go.
Now that we have our survey done and our septic/well/drainfield layout designed, we just need to finish up our basic house plans for our preliminary meeting with the county. I'll write more about the nitty gritty later, but basically we need to have professional, to-scale drawings of everything: the dimensions of our driveway, any land clearing or grading we intend to do, the dimensions of our house, etc. We cannot disturb our land (put in a driveway, cut down trees, etc) until we have an inspector out to look at our property. We are getting very close to being done with a general house plan. Once those are ready, we can start getting our building permit packet prepared, and then it's on to the next step.

Friday, January 18, 2013

our homestead: dreaming of a woodland garden

I'm already dreaming of the woodland garden we'll have at our new property. We have to build our home first, but I imagine come spring 2014, I'll get to start cultivating my own little magical piece of earth with native plants, shady blooms, walking trails, wood benches and stone steps. Perhaps a little mossy hobbit house for visiting nephews and nieces to hide in?
Photo credit: Claus Dalby
Photo credit: Wallace Gardens
Photo credit: MFAH
Photo credit: ngs
Photo credit: South Carolina Botanical Garden
Photo credit: Beautiful Portals
Photo credit: Forever in Bloom
Photo credit: Apartment Therapy
Photo credit: Trouvais