Working with the Environment

Photo of Wayne JeansonneAs a follow-up to my blog post Building in a Boom Town, I want to talk a little bit about working with the environment. Now I’m not going to go all Al Gore on you and start preaching about how building green is good for the environment. Nope, I’m going to talk about the specific space where you will be building, or about the house you will be remodeling.

Well, let’s say you got lucky and found a lot in Austin with nothing on it. It’s in the school district you want for your children, it’s close to work, there’s great shopping and entertainment nearby, and unicorns do exist.

Then you notice it’s the last lot in the neighborhood, surrounded by homes that were built 20 – 30 years ago. “Strange,” you say, while scratching your head. “How can this be? Why is there a lot left in a completely built-out neighborhood?” Ah, something is amiss, my dear Watson.

Ok, time to take off the rose-colored glasses and look around. What’s going on here? Well, for one thing, as a developer sells off its lots, sometimes the most difficult lot is the last one to go. Maybe no one ever built on this difficult lot for a reason. This could be due to, say, dramatic elevation changes or a steep slope. Could be because of the difficulty of getting utilities to the lot. Could be the view isn’t as good as others. Sometimes these leftover lots become a dumping ground. Look closely: If you notice chunks of concrete, gravel, or wash-out from concrete trucks, run like hell. This trash material will have to be either removed or buried, all at your expense. If too much of the lot is covered in this material, the base under any house built there will always be settling or moving. You’ll also discover that many of these types of lots are way overpriced. Why? Supply and demand. It’s likely more desirable to be in the neighborhood now than it was, say, 20 years ago, and there’s a limited supply of lots.

Another big factor to consider is water drainage. I always tell people: Here in central Texas, we end our droughts with flash floods. Look around. No, not just at the view, yes, it’s lovely. Look across the street. Look at the neighbor’s yard. Look for signs of water movement. Water runs downhill, duh, and it will seek its own level. So this means that if you plan on putting a house in the path of water getting to the creek, that water might want to pass right through your home to get there. You might need to build retention walls or rain gardens to capture, hold, and use excess water.

What about utilities? Are they at the curb? Is the nearest electric pole two blocks away? Or is it right there, but over-loaded serving all the neighbors? Yes, the electric company can put it a new pole, but who pays for that? Sometimes the utility company pays for it, sometimes you do, and sometimes it’s a shared cost. Same thing can happen with the gas, water, and septic utilities. Contact the utility companies serving that lot and ask questions. Also, I recommend you get on Google Earth and get a bird’s eye view of the property. This can give you a lot of information about the terrain and layout.

So what if you find a lot you really, really, really want to build on, but there’s already a house there. Maybe it’s an old a house in need of repair. Do you tear it down? Do you fix it up? Do you live in it for a while and then tear it down? Yes, no, maybe. People are always asking me if it’s better to remodel or to tear it down and start over. Depends. Lately, based on some of the things I’ve been seeing, I lean towards tearing it down and starting over, especially if it’s a really old house that’s suffering from deferred maintenance and was poorly built in the first place. There’s really only so much you can do to an old house.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean. I’m a motorcyclist. Way back, I used to ride Harleys. I told a riding buddy I thought it would be really cool to pick up an old barn find and restore it. (What’s a barn find? Read my last blog post.) My buddy looked at me and said, “Yep, but you’ve still got an old Harley.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons he and I both ride BMW motorcycles.

My point is that if you try to renovate an old house, it can be so wrought with problems that you can quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. You have to tear out what you don’t want, fix what is left, and make sure everything new looks like it has always been there and that it works. Plus, building code requires that anything you touch has to be brought up to current code. And you still have an old house with a footprint you might not like. If your goal is to create a more energy efficient environment, good luck. It can be done, but how much money do you want to throw at it?

One thing to help you decide whether to demolish or not is to get a home inspection report during the option period before you buy. It’s worth spending $400 to $500 to find out if the house has structural issues, wiring problems, or safety hazards. And please don’t call me after you get the report to find out what it will cost to make minor repairs so you can negotiate a better price. I’m a builder, not a handyman.

A tear-down will require a separate permit that can be pulled at the same time as the build permit. Don’t even think about doing the demolition yourself. It’s dangerous, the utilities have to be properly disconnected, and what are you going to do with the giant pile of rubble. Hire experts. If you put your team together early, your general contractor will be able to take care of the demolition. Also, I recommend not tearing it down until you are ready to build, as bundling the work will save you money. Upon completion of the demo and clearing of the lot, an inspection will be done by the city before you are allowed to begin building new.

I’ll be the first to admit it’s really tough to look at the over-priced cost of a lot with a house on it that you’re just going to tear down. It’s the law of supply and demand that’s driving house prices in this booming market. But if you do decide to tear it down and start over, you can get that new energy efficient home, designed the way you want it, with all the latest features. Just remember, please don’t beat up the builder for what you had to pay to get there. It’s really not our fault.

Just trying to help. Wayne