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Building and construction advice

Anyone who doesn't have half a million dollars sitting around needs to crunch a bucket full of numbers and do some serious footwork before taking on this kind of venture. This is a true story, filled with adventure  fraught with peril and financial drain.  The story is of the permitting and construction of Jen and Gary Samsons home in King County, Washington. This is a story started in mid 2005 continued over the course of several years.

In the before time...

Once upon a time, I was happy. I lived with my lovely wife and two wonderful children in the beautiful land of Renton, Washington. Jen, my wife and I were in our second Renton area home and had been married for over a decade. Our modest, 30 year old, 1500 square foot, split-entry home in the Fairwood area had been our residence for twelve years. Fairwood, part of unincorporated King County, was a well kept family oriented neighborhood. I had been obsessing for years about buying a home on one of the many nearby lakes. Lake Youngs, Shady, Shadow, Spring, Panther, Kathleen, Meridian and Lake Desire, all within a few minutes drive, all small, quiet lakes. The best of the lakes are wooded and the county does not allow combustion engines on the water making them serene places to live. Picture perfect Pacific Northwest. The closest lake to Fairwood is Lake Desire. The sad reality was the homes were outside my financial means. I'm sort of stubborn though...

Lake Desire Map

Can we afford to build?

Since I couldn't reconcile the finances to buy a reasonable dwelling on the lake, I knew my only option was to build it myself. Did I mention I am stubborn? My goal was to have a home on a quaint little lake and my wife wanted a home where we were not constantly stepping on each other in the kitchen and bathroom. A little more yard for the kids to play would be a bonus. We agreed a 3000 square foot home was more than we needed but 2000 didn't add much. Our approach was to work backward from what we were comfortable with paying each month for our mortgage. From that number, we determined the maximum mortgage we could secure, leaving some wiggle room for property taxes and PMI. We subtracted the amount of cash we could muster from every source we had available then sought professional help from a lender. Before buying land, we had some more numbers to think about. How much could we spend on the land, excavation, clearing, foundation, trenching and drainage, utilities, permits, surveys and what was that going to leave us with for actually building a house to meet our living space goal. At this point we realized we could not afford much. I wasn't completely sure we could build at all, if we were able to secure land. Our 14 years of home equity and handful of 401k's from former employers were going to get us started into this investment. We had to start somewhere, so we went land hunting.

Cost: Figuring the price of land.

We knew the approximate cost of land in our area by surfing John L. Scott online, driving the area and watching various FSBO's. We secured three bids from excavators and concrete workers based on walking the main property we were interested in with them and giving them an approximate square footage of the home we thought we were going to build and the placement on the property we thought we would be allowed based on zoning and county rules as we understood them from online research. Be sure to get several bids unless you just want to throw away your money. Our first bid came in drastically higher than the other two. A couple things to emphasize here. We had to make a lot of assumptions early on, you will too. I am not risk adverse but this can be unsettling at times. More on this topic later...

Cost: Excavation can't be that much, could it?

We found excavators and foundation guys are not always the same team. If they are, your probably paying extra for the sub-contracting fee. Doing walk throughs and discussions took enormous amounts of time. You will need to explain your vision for the property including issues like driveway details, utilities trenches, landscaping, building position, foundation type, etc. The better job you do of explaining, the more likely your estimate might be in the ballpark. After these discussions, you will have a SWAG to work with for foundation costs. I say SWAG because that is all it is. Your unlikely to get a guarantee because "getting out of the dirt" is usually where most of the problems in home building exist. Nobody knows what is under the earth or how deep it is to bedrock. We had to dig extra deep and that means thousands of dollars more in costs. I heard stories of others hitting natural springs, unearthing hazardous waste, etc. I digress, back to the point. My excavation numbers were terrifying. Really, really scary  Really. I'm fiscally conservative most of the time and the bids came out double the number I was thinking based on speaking to people who would know. Even so, I'm obsessed so it was time to make an offer on some land.


I need to take a brief intermission and point out Jen is a saint. She had not killed or divorced me even though I had spent months thinking about spending ridiculous amounts of money, cashing in retirement savings and moving our well established family from the best neighborhood you could ask for. All she has asked for is that we not move so far we have to change churches or have to change the kids schools. Supportive wife award goes here.