Monday, January 07, 2008

How's the house coming?

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


mominem said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mominem said...

I know how you feel. I keep getting that question all of the time.

I also keep hearing that construction prices are coming down.

Anonymous said...

Dang, that's rough.

Keep your head up, and keep us posted.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I'm so sorry.

Anonymous said...

I have an old house in Lancaster PA and I get that question all the time. Construction is expensive and very slow, so you can only restore and preserve what you can afford, a little at a time. I got a new furnace last year, so this year I am hoping for new windows. Good luck with building - it will be awesome when it's done.
Laurie in Lancaster

Anonymous said...

Tim, welcome to the land of getting close to being home.

The monster rebuild on our place is coming in around $400K, but that includes both cottages and the main house. Appliances and furniture should be another $15K.

Looks like we'll be back in our castle in three weeks. (passed the framing inspection this morning.)

E.J. said...

So sorry, Tim. :-(

Cold Spaghetti said...

What an awful ride you've had.

We are putting an addition on our home (something we've been planning for about 4 years). Before the storm, we asked around about building prices for renovations and additions and found that $100/square foot was standard -- same price for either. After the storm? Folks are regularly saying $200/square foot and often citing materials cost as the major factor in the rise.

We are doing the addition now, ourselves, and have completed many of the structural tasks (and, if I may modestly say so... it's damn fine job and certainly better than the "new" homes built around us). The point: based on what we've spent so far and our estimates for what is yet to come (which are probably high, we've overestimated every single cost so far) -- we figure we'll be paying just under $50/square foot. So it makes sense that $100/sq ft was a pre-K price, as this was twice the materials cost. Now... well... that's one heck of a lot of overhead going somewhere...!