$100,000 New Home Challenge

Ever wonder what it's like to build a house from start to finish? Don't let the veneer of excitement make you think it is a great experience - sometimes it isn't. But the end result for us was well worth it. Here are some pages that chronicle our journey.

The Existing House

When I purchased my home in 2003, it may well have been the last home under $150,000 in Corvallis. I knew it had problems so I put some money aside to fix the roof and do something with the red water. Only blocks from my ex-husband and around the corner from the co-op, Sam's Station, and bus stop - I really began to like the location.

House without window trim

We liked the house enough to stay and build a little shop (to the right of the picture above). This was supposed to help us store the tools that would be used for renovation.

In December, I started looking at the house for renovation. It was doable but difficult. We found that the main part of the house was 18x20 feet and the rest all added on. We found the home to be very deficient both in building quality and safety. In the picture below you can see the 2x4 floor joist (naughty, naughty) with the crooked beams under it. We think those may have been the skids used to move it.

2 beams - possibly skids used to move it

The roof was extended by simply plopping the new one next to it and punching a hole into the old one for attic access.

old roof with hole for attic access

But the worse part was the rat problem that started in August of 2008. It never seemed to end. In scoping our sewer, we found one such inhabitant.

Upon using OneBite to poison the rats, we regularly found dead rats in the back yard. It was time to rethink our plan to renovate.

Thoughts about remodeling

By December of 2008, we switched gears and started thinking about simply demolishing our home and starting over. Although expensive, I estimated that it would cost about $80,000 more but we would end up with a much more energy efficient and usable home.

Our home had 7 ft tall ceilings. I liked that but Steve didn't. The height wasn't as bad as the fact that none of the ceilings were straight. In addition, we suspected that none of the windows had headers over them.

The problem in building from scratch was 2 fold: the city's prohibitive requirements and a very small lot. In December, I waltzed over to the permit department to ask them about any issues that we would have in rebuilding. Very quickly I found that our sidewalk was too narrow and that they would require land to be "dedicated" in order to widen the sidewalk. Although ADA standard sidewalks are necessary, I pointed out that the city already had a plan in place to move the sidewalks out into the middle of the street on our block. This was to become a long drawn out fight.

Another issue came to light was that our new home would probably be rectangular. Although it covered less land, the new home would have an area outside of the original footprint. Apparently this required a variance which involved money, neighborhood approval, and a 3 month wait. We had no plans in hand so I went upstairs to the public works people who informed me that the Corvallis Land Development Code strictly enforced green space with new building structures. I tried to argue that the home was built in the 40s and due to poor construction, it was not re-hab-able. The answer came back "no, you shall dedicate land for a 5 foot sidewalk and 5.5 foot green space." Later it became apparent that I would also have to dedicate land for 12 foot green space and a 5 foot sidewalk on the east side of the corner lot. The lot was only 50' x 110' to begin with, thus the city was asking for 20% of the original lot space.

We tried to consult with an attorney but unfortunately he was unable to help. Nevertheless, we pushed on. By February we were hot and heavy into designing a new house. Using some Mac software, I spent a few days designing the house and doing 3D walk throughs. As quickly as possible, a local designer drew up the plans on autocad and an engineer helped with beam requirements due to the basement and sheer and lateral design.

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We couldn't figure out how to get a full stairwell and utility room on the first floor so we decided to put all utilities in the basement. Steve also decided that radiant floor heating might be more efficient with energy and space usage.

By the end of March, the application for a permit was submitted and we were beginning to look more hopeful.

We take the plunge to build a new house

Our hurried house plan submitted for review included engineering drawings to deal with bearing walls and the basement. We planned to take the requirements to give up 20% of our little 5000 sq ft lot to an appeals board.

By April we hired our second attorney. This attorney at first said he could definitely help. After reviewing our information he told us "ADA is king." I was mad. How could an attorney tell us the city had a reason? What I didn't understand at the time but later came to believe is that you can fight anything but ADA requirements for 5 foot wide sidewalks. You could definitely fight greenspace (trees and grass between the street and sidewalk) and boy did the city want a ton of that.

With our first plan review results (after 2 weeks), the city lowered their requirements from 20% of our lot to 14%. Obviously they could move on their requirements. We had some hope so we began to get bids on demolition and excavation. I was surprised that E.D. Hughes came in very low.

I had to get past the issue of making a rectangular home on top of a footprint that is not rectangular. Although the new house had a smaller footprint, the land development code was interpreted as either you build a new house within the old footprints or get a variance for anything outside the footprint. Apparently they used this interpretation for many years. But if you read it:

Where the use of a structure is permitted by the applicable zone but the structure is nonconforming, an alteration, expansion, or relocation may be Ministerially approved if the improvement, evaluated separately from the existing structure, would be in compliance, and is not within a Vision Clearance Area as defined in Chapter 1.6 - Definitions, and/or as determined by the City Engineer. 1.4-2 LDC December 31, 2006 For structures in existence prior to December 31, 2006, reconstruction of structures (both residential and nonresidential) may occur consistent with how the structures previously existed in their nonconforming state..

I argued that the code above is not an either/or, A or B. Fortunately, I won that argument.

It was down to one last issue: the taking of a 5 foot swath of 2 sides of our small lot. In the beginning of April we finally met with some of the city employees to see if we could come to an agreement. We could see that they realized this was a tough situation but we were not willing to give up our land under the 5th amendment:

..nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation

Apparently the city of Corvallis thought that their Land Development Code, passed by council, superseded the Constitution. Our pleas went nowhere. We even offered $10,000 for them to redo the sidewalks. This was more than the amount needed. The problem was that the city employees wanted our land in case the grant to rebuild the sidewalks into the street fell through. I actually got up, thanked them for their time, and left the meeting early. My husband was left to apologize and wrap up. I just couldn't stand anymore of the stonewalling and impasse. The next day I made an appointment to see a local attorney with land dispute experience. I was hoping the third attorney was a charm.

At the same time we were waiting on the engineer to fix some of his mistakes caught by the city plan reviewer. It took 2 weeks. Some things just take time - I guess.

Finally by the middle of April I made an initial appointment with a local land attorney - my last ditch effort at finding effective, legal help. We met with the attorney who promised he could help. We were hopeful again!

I submitted additional info to the permit department by the middle of May. It took some extra time because the engineer was on continual vacation. Apparently you can't switch engineers without starting all over as their "stamp" covers their work. It took 2 weeks for the city to review any changes so each submittal took valuable time.

The attorney informed us that the city attorney wanted to avoid protracted battle that would cost the city money. So did we. By this time I assumed the city attorney and the city employees were communicating. I wrote up our third submittal for plan changes to appease the city permit department. In it I wrote that the city needed to talk to the city attorney about the unconstitutional taking they were requiring in order to issue the permit. I asked that the sidewalk issue be taken out of the permitting phase and dealt with separately. If needed, they should deny the permit. Probably not the smartest move on my behalf but it got the city off their butts. Actually, Ken, the head of Development, certainly got off of his butt and outright denied the whole application. Not sure how legal that is (I call it bullying), but we went back to them to hash it out.

Finally Ken sat with us at a meeting with another proposition. That they would conditionally have a 2.5 foot easement only along one side of the property and assurance that we would build new ADA sidewalks if the street was not updated by the city. Finally, they were getting reasonable. They only wanted to illegally take 7% of our lot even thought the original lot size was not large enough for current zoning requirements. And it only took 6 months to get to this point.

Almost there

By June 22, almost 2 weeks later, we were able to get the permit undenied despite the fact that it only took 2 days to come to an agreement. This delay worried me in that you only get a few days to request a hearing after denial or you lose your money (over $500) and you have to start all over.

It took 6 weeks to get the agreement drawn up so that the permit could be issued. It was now July 23. The agreement consisted of 3 sentences inserted within a standard easement template and a way to hand over $2500 for the city to hold to ensure sidewalks are made. If there is an example of why people think government represents only red tape and is slow and expensive, this is a perfect example. It could be that the city was overwhelmed and had to lay off people but I found no evidence of either. Their workload seemed to go down due to the economy as fewer permits had been issued for new residential buildings. In addition, they only laid off 2 temporary inspectors.

What you don't know is that the Corvallis Land Development Code (LDC) implementation, interpretation, and enforcement is costing a ton. They had to hire extra people to do these tasks which drives up the cost of permits and city taxes. Supposedly, the permit system is paid for through permit costs. I find that to be difficult to believe. Somewhere in there, costs are going to be carried by the overall tax payers. We just don't see it due to accounting slight of hand. You also may not realize that there is an entire department in the city that deals with the LDC. If Corvallis were smart, they would roll back and simplify the LDC much like Eugene. This would allow the city to get rid of the department that deals with the LDC thus saving tax payers tons of money.

It was July 23rd and I finally had a permit in my hand to both build and excavate. This brought on the "permit dance" from Calvin. The long fought battle had come to a halting screech and work was going to begin.

Let the Demolition Begin!

On July 21st, 2 days before issuing the permit, E.D. Hughes began demolition. Steve, the demolition guy, was able to remove the house in just 6 hours.

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Of course, the rats had the last word.

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In another 6 hours he dug a huge hole and over 30 dump trucks of soil was removed.

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It was now July 28th, only 5 days after the city issued the permit.

Concrete is On Its Way

In the beginning of July I purchased a rebar cutter/bender on craigslist. During my conversation with the seller, I told him we were looking for a concrete guy to pour the foundation, slab, and back stairwell. He gave me his info and I didn't think much of it. How could someone commuting between Portland and Corvallis underbid a local person? But he did, by almost 50%. The Corvallis "tax" hits again. It seems that everything is more expensive in Corvallis, including contractors. After calling references, we had Paul on board to do the concrete work.

Paul had bid the job to use metal framed forms. These 2 foot by 8 foot forms weighed about 90 lbs each. Not so bad until you realize we had to put 140 of them in the hole and then take them out. Remember, to take them out there is now a 9 foot tall wall in the way. Oh logistics!

By July 28th we had finished digging. I contacted Paul to tell him we can start with the footings. This is what the walls stand on. By August 3, the footings were poured.

Building the footing forms - lots of work!
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Steve looking at the footings before getting poured:
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The cement truck with the line pumper (the hose thing):

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Kevin floating the cement on top of the footing:
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Not much, but a good start to a solid foundation:
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Now for the basement walls. But wait, we have problems getting forms. Stay tuned next time for the saga of Building a Home in Corvallis.

Item Cost
Teardown and Costs So Far $21074
Attorneys to fight the city $3184

Oh, the Basement Walls...

In trying to rent forms for the basement walls, we found that doing owner-builder had some issues. These companies would not rent to a contractor without impeccable credit nor a homeowner WITH impeccable credit. But between us and the contractor and a lost week, we finally were able to get hold of the forms. We are allowed to rent old, broken forms for $3300. Plywood with 2x4 forms would have been far less expensive but this is faster and ensures no blow outs with cement.

We have to haul 125 80lb forms here from Vancouver, oil them, put them up, pour cement, then take them down, clean them, take them out of the hole, and stack them back on the trucks to haul back to Vancouver.

Basement walls go up

It's now in the middle of August. We have to hurry this along because the house has to be framed, roofed, and sided by October in order to have a dry house before the rains.

We finally are allowed to rent the forms for a mere $3200. It took 2 trips just to get them here. These forms are 2 foot by 8 foot metal frames with smooth wood - they weigh about 80 lbs each. You put them together a little like an erector set with wedges that pin them together. Here, you see a picture of the inside forms with the rebar that will be encased by the cement:

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In the meantime, some guy takes his recycling seriously:

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The door buck for the basement door is installed (notice all the rebar around it):

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Finally the outside walls are put up, with scaffolding on the inside and a creative use for scaffolding planks around the outside:

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I didn't get a picture of all of us (about 6) going around the outside with the line pumper putting in the cement and jiggling it - mostly because I was helping out by holding one of the jigglers.

Moment of truth when the first panel is removed:

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And here it is in all of its glory:

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A little problem getting the forms out without killing ourselves (we're all pretty exhausted by now). So we ended up renting an extending forklift:

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Finishing the cement

With the basement walls done, we now had to finish the basement slab. There was a lot of prep work to do.

Footing drains had to be installed all the way around the outside of the cement footing:

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There was a lot of foam board to install under the slab:

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Footings to form (they will hold up posts for beams):

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Sumps for the footing drain and washing machine:

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Connecting the footing drain to the sump:

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Basement stairwell landing drain:

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Rock thrower giving us the crush rock need for the 4" gravel base for the slab:

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Finally putting the pink foam down on top of the compacted crushed rock:

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On pour day we had a big crew:

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It started raining hard a little after this. Let's just say we had a tarp up with holes in it to drip into buckets:

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The next day, the block lights for the basement go in:

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It's Time to Start Framing

We had a tight schedule to maintain. In 2 days, the framers would come in and put up the house. They started with the basement walls, beams, and post:

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The floor joists then are installed. In the meantime we thoroseal the outside of the foundation to protect from water:

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Subfloor is put down along with framing the first wall:

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The first wall - the front of the house:

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While we have an 8 foot hole - we bury 3/4 pex as a potential heat sink for the under floor randiant floor heating system (possible "air conditioning"):

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The last wall put in place:

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With the floor joists down and the basement wall protected with thoroseal, we are now able to start back filling the 8 foot deep moat around the house:

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So far we are only a few days into framing the house!

The House is Up

The next few days go by in a whirl wind. In 17 days we go from a cement hole in the ground to a house with a roof and walls:

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Rather than using custom ordered trusses, we made our own rafters with 2x10s:

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In the meantime, Steve was forming up the basement stairwell so that we all could access the basement easily (remember, there is no inside stairs yet):

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The inside framing was coming along quickly. Walls were built thus allowing the joists for the second floor loft to be installed:

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1 week into framing, the roof rafters went up. The ridge beam is about 38 feet long and had to be put up by hand on ladders. It is about 11 feet tall. All of us were on board to help out. Fortunately, the top floor was installed complete with sturdy subfloor:

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Most of the rafters are in place in about 1 day:

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Paul lovingly works on the stairs. They turn out gorgeous:

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It is 9 days into the framing and most of the sheeting is up:

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The back dormer (this makes room for the stairwell) is built:

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Steve sneaks in a bunch of drain and sewer plumbing:

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Finally on day 15, the front portico (covered entryway) is put up:

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Get Her Weathered in Before the Rains

It is now September 17th and the rains haven't started. We figure we have until the end of October to roof, get gutters and sump pump working, install windows and doors, and side. We immediately start the roofing felt. You have to install the D-style edging to keep the roofing shingles from sagging off the edge of the roof:

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By September 26th, more than half the roof is shingled:

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By October 3rd, the roofing is done. Windows and doors are getting installed along with the jumbotex house wrap. We even got the gutters installed:

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By October 9th, the dormer is sided and painted and the East side of the house is 1/2 done:

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We also opted to install white metal flashing over the facia to protect it from the weather.

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And by the end of October, on October 31st to be exact, the roofing, windows, doors, and siding are finished. We are officially weathered in.

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Getting in Without a Ladder

By November, the weather was still pretty mild. We decided to gamble by forming and pouring the front porch and steps. By doing so, the columns for the portico (cover porch) can be installed and the siding completed. Steve decided to make the footing for the front porch much larger than the specs put out by the engineer. Most of the porch is floating on top of pea gravel so staking out the forms is difficult, to say the least:

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It's November 11th. Paul washes off the top of the concrete before it dries to expose the aggregate in the concrete:

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By November 25th Steve installs the posts and finishes the siding. Yeah, we have boo-boos in the cement work but doing it ourselves saved about $2000:

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Gettin the Heat On

OK, it's starting to get cold. The end of November runs into the middle of December and we get this really cold spell where it gets down into the teens at night to warm up into the 20s for the day. Steve is frantically putting in wiring, lights, and our radiant floor heating. The gas company will be hooking us up any day so we dig a line to the sidewalk (in pea gravel which is no treat). We are looking forward to having some heat so we don't freeze our fingers off. I'm trying to caulk but the caulk is too cold to use in a pneumatic (air) caulking gun. I give up and end up doing it by hand.

We take a little time off to have Thanksgiving with family:

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We install pex water lines into specially designed aluminum plates the spread heat from the hot water lines to the underside of the floor. This is called hydronic radiant heating:

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By the middle of December we start working on stringing the electrical throughout the house. Lots of holes to drill (no pics because I'm helping Kevin). And lots of canned recessed lights to install. And it's COLD!

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Gas line is now hooked up so we install a little 30k BTU wall heater. No luck, it's not touching the house when it's only 20 some degrees outside. But at least you can stand in front of it and get warmed up:

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Warming Up

It's January now and we have gas but no real heat, or insulation for that matter. The hold up is getting all the electrical, plumbing and radiant floor heating distributed throughout the walls. In addition, light boxes and canned lights must be installed, hooked up, tested, and inspected.

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With inspections done, on January 13th we can insulate the walls with BIBS (blown in insulation):

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Steve works on the water heater/radiant floor heating system. We want to make sure there are no leaks or problems before we cover it all up with insulation:

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After a week of successful heating with no problems, the rest of the insulation is installed:

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Walls and Paint

On January 25, the very next day after insulation, we take delivery of sheetrock. The boys start in immediately. We rent a lift to put up the heavy 4x12 5/8" drywall:

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3 days later the top floor, including the dormer and part of stairwell, is sheetrocked:

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Steve is kind enough to finish plumbing the basement for a washer and dryer that same day. I no longer need to go to my ex-husband's house to do the wash:

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At this point the main floor still has drywall stacked all over the place. It is tight quarters to have to put up drywall while working around it and also moving out of the way:

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While the boys are finishing hanging, our brother-in-law (AKA Stan the drywall man) tapes the joints:

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It's January 30th and the drywall is all up and lots of taping has taken place:

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Pretty soon it becomes apparent that this stuff is not going to dry in time to texture and paint before the tile guys come in. We put in de-humidifiers. About 2-4 gallons of water is removed each day for a week. Poor Stan was dying because we also heated the house to about 80 degrees. Remember, it's about 30-40 degrees outside. We now know the heat works and the insulation appears to be effective. The gas bill was $50 that month which includes the water heater, heating system, and dryer. The electric bill was $100. Most of that was for the one week of de-humidifier use.

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By February 8th, the texture is sprayed on. Immediate we prime, and put on 2 coats of paint. Ryan sprayed the primer while I backrolled. The next day Steve sprayed the paint on the ceiling. We then roll the whole house with the paint color twice and trimmed against the ceilings. We are done by the 11th:

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We install the light fixtures and recessed light trim by the 12th. I spent $3400 on lighting so I'll include plenty of pictures:

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Finally, the day before the tile guys are due to start, we put in the toe kicks for the cabinets in order to define the areas for tile installation:

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Tile Floor Underway

It's Monday, February 14th, and the tile guys are getting started. I negotiated a great price for installation of the hardibacker, tile setting, and grouting. We decided to tile the entire house except for the stairwell, done in maple, and the basement, done in stylish grey cement.

It took a couple days to clean the plywood, dry, and put down the hardibacker:

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By the 16th, they start laying the tile. I wanted tile that was super hard, looked almost natural, and was cheap, cheap, cheap. I found it: Italian porcelain that had enough variation in it to almost look terra cotta. I then wanted to vary it so that it didn't look like a Shoening house. I picked a pattern that required 11 tiles to make a single pattern. Oh boy. Those guys had the cheat sheet in front of them the whole time.

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Here's Kyle lovingly laying a tile:

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The kitchen is layed but not grouted:

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Some grout action going on:

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Here is the undried and uncleaned grout:

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In the middle of laying tile, I have the cultured stone guys come in a do their thing with the bathtub surround. We decide on cultured because there are no grout lines to clean and it is custom fit. Plus we get to properly enclose the window in the bathtub area:

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It's Moving Time!... for stuff only

It's March 24th. The sealer we have put on tile floor is dry now and we decide to move our stuff out of storage and into the house. We had rented a 10x12 storage room to store all our belongings and more: large fridge, washer, dryer, dishwasher, clothes, desks, chairs, dining table, bed (no mattress), 3 sets of shelves, 2 very large couches, and a large puffy chair. Fortunately most of the furniture was disassembled into flat pieces. I should have taken a picture of the storage room - it was floor to ceiling.

Here is the 2 year old fridge that died (notice the plastic still on it) with the dishwasher across from it:

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Steve, Ryan, and I manage to get the 7 foot long puffy couch up the stairwell (with hardly a scratch on the walls):

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The bed patiently awaiting assembly in Calvin's room:

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We crammed about 24 boxes of stuff in to the various cubby holes in the loft:

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Puffy couch and chair with shelves in the cozy living room:

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We immediately setup the dining table and chairs so that we have a more roomy place to eat:

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We haven't even moved in but by April 11th the computer and internet are working:

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Cabinets Galore

The end of March also brings a flurry of work on cabinets. We wanted cabinets that were good looking, inexpensive, well built and custom fit. The only way to get all that was to build them ourselves. With the proper tools, you can make your own cabinetry. We had accumulated much of the tools from making the cabinets from the previous house: joiner, planer, drill press, finish and staple guns, nice table saw, joining jigs, biscuit tools, sanders, and a newly acquired drum sander.

I had argued that we only needed 4 cabinets: bathroom, cooktop, sink, and oven. The rest could be built once we moved in. It turned out that we really need all the bottom cabinets to be made at the same time. However, we could cheat by not making any drawers, doors, or upper cabinets, which was a big savings of time.

It took around a month and a half to build the cabinets, install the granite tile counters, and install the sinks and appliances:

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By May 5th Steve built the railing for the stairwell (AKA buffalo jump):

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Final Push

We are trying to move in within 3 weeks so there is a lot left to do. Steve spends a week prepping to pour the back porch and steps:

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By May 23rd, the back porch area is finished:

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We still have inside handrails and outside handrails and railing:

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The front area needs about 10 yards of topsoil. Then the 2 trees and bushes removed from the yard can be put back almost in the same place they came from:

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After about 26 inspections, we have only 2 left: the final inspections tomorrow, May 31st.

Movin' In... for real

Our inspection takes place May 31st, the day after putting in the topsoil and replanting the trees and bushes. This is either pass or fail. Pass? We might be able to move in. Fail, we are delayed and have to pay for more time at the mobile home park. Our inspector, Norm, has a sharp eye. He notices all the safety items we have installed - smoke alarms, railings, hand rails, appropriate stairs, windows not too close to landings and tubs, and the height of both the front and back porches under the required 30 inches for railings. He also doubled as the final inspector for the LDC requirements - the two trees replanted in the front. Pass!

About 2 hours later we move in. It takes all of 20 minutes. How hard can it be when you park your home (trailer) 5 feet from the door and throw all your stuff in!

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Our home of 11 months was about to be sold:

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By June 6th, the trailer was sold and down the road.

Epilogue

It took a while for us to get used to the new house. It was big. It was easy to clean. It was different. But the weirdest part was knowing that we had lived on the same area of land but in a different house. I know I shouldn't get attached but I can't help it. I love the lighting and open spaces. The stairwell is not only functional but airy and elegant, too.

There is still work to be done. Needing more cabinet space in order to unpack, we make 5 upper cabinets in July. In addition, we put up backsplash to protect the walls:

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Somewhere in there Steve makes drawers, too.

In September, we get around to painting the house to match the workshop:

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By the beginning of November the cabinet doors are made, sprayed, and installed:

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And just in time for Thanksgiving, the drawer fronts, knobs, and handles are installed:

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Well we built our little 1300sqft house where I was told it could not be done. It is compact, yet open, highly efficient and simple. And we were able to upscale some of the equipment, fixtures, flooring, and cabinetry. We estimate the lumber and hardware for the cabinetry cost us about $1500. After several quotes, we think it would have cost about $50,000 from Jerry's or Home Depot - and that would not have been custom fit. The total cost of the house from demolition to almost finished is $131,000. I was shooting for $100,000. We estimated it would take 6 months to a year to complete with the likelihood of taking a full year. It took 11 months.

We couldn't be more pleased.