I get asked this a lot. It's one of those questions that is all too common in post-K New Orleans.
Another version: "Y'all back in ya house yet?"
The answer is simple and complicated. We have no house. What remained when the flood water was pumped out was not worth saving, especially since it was much too low for me to ever comfortably live in it again.
Regular readers of this blog know much of the long story of the past two years. We planned to have the house demolished right away. But then there was a fire, and so we delayed demolition until the insurance and fire departments had completed their investigations. And so we moved into a FEMA Travel Trailer so that I could be on-site as our new house was constructed. And then the fire department never did complete their investigation to my knowledge, but the insurance company finally relented after many months and settled the claim. And so we proceeded with the demolition of the house. And so we started working on plans to build a new house. And so I had sand placed on our vacant lot in anticipation of building.
I have not blogged about progress on the house for many months because there was little or nothing to report. Unless of course, you want to hear the story of ridiculously high construction estimates and frustration with trying to wrench a simple loan from SBA and the promised grant from Road Home. Unless of course, you like those kinds of stories, you should stop reading now.
And because it is a long and convoluted story I will post it in several parts.
For those of you still with me, here is the full answer to, "How's the house coming?"
Part one: Concrete-filled blockhead
I had two criteria for the new house: elevated and strong. My Darling Wife wanted it to be beautiful, too. We started shopping around for a builder almost immediately after the hurricane and found one who specialized in concrete-filled polystyrene block construction. The exterior walls would be built of foam blocks that resemble Legos. Reinforcing steel and concrete would fill the voids. Interior walls and the roof would be conventional wood frame construction. The ground level would be mostly open and the first living level would be 12 feet above the ground.
We first talked to this builder in late 2005. We saw some homes he had built in Slidell, homes that had withstood wind and waves. We were impressed. With a stucco finish these homes were are beautiful as conventional framing but were stronger and energy efficient, too. He told us the typical cost for the houses he builds was about $115 per square foot. We wanted a raised house so I told my Darling Wife that we should budget a little more--say $125 per square foot. We wanted a house with about 2,000 square feet, so we set our sights on $250,000.
Now keep in mind that we already own the land--this is all house I'm talking about here. Thanks to flood insurance we were able to pay off our mortgage with a few nickels to spare, so I thought we were in good financial shape as we made plans to rebuild. With help from Road Home and an SBA Disaster Assistance loan it was completely feasible. I did not worry for one minute about the money.
For comparison, we first moved into Vista Park for about $150,000 in 1999--land, house and a shed in the back. But we understood and accepted the reality that Katrina and pressure on the building trades along with my determination to build a wind and flood resistant house were going to drive prices up
The builder recommended that we get house plans drawn up by a person who understood the concrete-filled block construction details. We dutifully hired her and set about planning our new house. It had three bedrooms, two and half baths, front and rear porches and a paved ground level that was open on three sides. It had about 2,200 square feet of living space. It took a while for the lady to complete the plans because she was very busy, but we stuck with her because of the builder's recommendation. We brought the plans to the builder and discussed our vision for our new home.
A few days later I received an email with a spreadsheet attachment. There were a lot of line items and estimated quantities spread out over several pages until I came to the bottom line.
I hope you're sitting down.
Because the bottom line price was $434,640.
Dumbfounded, I checked the numbers and I checked the math in the spreadsheet. Yes, it added up. And to add insult to injury, I noticed that some line items had zero allotted--things like appliances, Builder's Risk Insurance, storm shutters, a site survey, sidewalks and driveways. The builder's estimate confirmed the total living area of 2,184 square feet, net cost $199 per square foot. Add in the porches and garage and it comes to 2,883 square feet, net cost $151 per square foot. Again, this is for the house ONLY. We already own the land.
I called the contractor to discuss as calmly as one can under such circumstances. He told me that was just his "first run through" of the numbers and he promised to go over it again.
A few days later and another spreadsheet arrived by email. This time the price was a little under $400,000.
I spoke to the contractor again. "Don't panic," he told me. "There's still some wiggle room in those numbers."
I asked him, "About 40 percent wiggle room? Because that's what it needs to be."
After a long phone call, we parted company, and I realized that after many months of waiting, planning, and paying for a set of house plans, we had accomplished nothing but spend several months in a FEMA Travel Trailer. Our dream of a sturdy concrete-filled block home was pulverized leaving me feeling like a total blockhead.
Part two: Alternatives