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.


  1. Hi Cat! So exciting! I was wondering if you could answer a question regarding your blog! My name is Heather and please email me when you get a free moment at Lifesabanquet1(at)gmail(dot)com :-)

  2. Neat list! I like how thoroughly detailed you've described the step-by-step process. Some of these are actually quite important, but not many go over it, such as the survey of property lines. It's an added expense, but as your story proved, it's well worth the investment. I like how well thought-out you guys have been on all stages of your house construction.

    Davies Construction Pty Ltd