Blog : vacation homes

Construction Sadness

Construction Sadness

I’ve decided, in the wake of the Cubs miserable, awful, embarrassing performance this week, to make every post a sad one. Monday, Multiple Offer Sadness. Today, Construction Sadness. Friday, likely, NLCS Sweep Sadness.  For those not paying close attention, I have been building a small fishing cabin not too terribly far from Walworth County. It’s not super far, but it’s still far. It’s far enough that it breaks my own rule for vacation home proximity, which is similar to last week when I broke my own rule about not burning fires until such and such. The rain was a cold rain!  And in the case of this proximity breaker, the trout fishing was just not good enough closer to home.

My relationship with construction is complicated. Extremely complicated. On one hand, I crave it. I enjoy the creativity the process allows. I enjoy the implementation of a vision. Sometimes, it’s a vision that only I can see, and so I take great pride in delivering what no one else expected. Earlier in  my life, this took the form of remodeling projects. When visitors would stop during various stages of the disaster that is a gut remodel, they’d shake their heads. They’d tell me they don’t think it’s going to work. I paid too much. I improved too much. I was always disheartened by those words, but they fueled my desire to deliver a product that would defy their negativity. In the end, the projects all resulted in success.

The last few construction projects have been new builds, from the ground up. This process is different but still the same. It requires a vision, but mostly it requires dedication to the process. The last house I built is the house I live in now. I finished that home in 2013, and it’s been a dandy of a house for me and my family. The construction process at that house was unique, in that I built the home when the market was poor which meant plenty of tradespeople were willing to work for reasonable wages. Further, those who weren’t affordable were available, and the project started in September and finished the next May. The current project is a handful of highway hours away, in a county where no one knows me and I know no one, in a region where work is a nice suggestion but not really something toward which anyone feels a particular fondness.

Once the land was purchased (that took two full years of searching), the project began. It was a modest project. 1200 square feet, give or take. A rectangle of a house with a tall gable and some cedar shingles. Much to the horror of this Lake Geneva market, I stained the shingles black. Like the night (my wife did much of the staining).  The bathrooms were lined with marble, or are, at least in theory, in the process of being lined with marble. My tile guy hasn’t reported for duty for a few months, but I’m sure he has a terrific reason.

When ground was first torn up by the rusted dozer that cut a twisty path up the side of that hill, the goal was to have the house finished in four months.  Maybe four and a half. Maybe less.  The dozer cut that path 16 months ago. The house is not yet finished. In fact, the house is not even close to being finished. I tell my wife that it’s almost done, and then I look over the list of things remaining. Trim, paint, floors, tile, bathrooms, plumbing, kitchen cabinets, countertops, appliances. It’s really not much of a list, or so go the unconvincing lies I repeatedly tell myself. The project, once a chorus of so much enthusiasm and light, has turned into a dirge.

The process has, however, afforded me many lessons. I sympathize on a deeper level with my Illinois clients who have a hard time getting contractors to do work here. I understand customers who are embroiled in multi-month, multi-year construction projects. How can something take so long? It just can. And I understand that better now.  In spite of the deep construction based depression that has consumed me, this project has given me an opportunity to practice what I preach. Give the market what it doesn’t expect. If the market expects carpet give it hardwood. Make it wide plank. If the market expects vinyl, give it cedar. If ceramic bathrooms with one piece plastic showers are good, then line the bathroom in marble. If Home Depot light fixtures light the neighboring comps, send all of your money to Restoration Hardware and use their lights instead. Markets give clues as to what construction standard is acceptable. If the market is nuanced and there’s an opportunity to create value by creating a superior product, then create it.

Pursuits

Pursuits

I lived in Geneva National for a while. In a few different places, at a few different times, with a few different goals in mind. I lived in a house, a grand, tall house with three layers of gable fascia that I was rather proud of. I lived in a small condominium while I built that tall house, and the condo received some new countertops and a new fireplace surround and some new paint. I sold both of those, but returned to a condo some time later to rent, a different place. Before that, before the tall house and the small condo I had rented a different condo, this one with a split staircase so that some of the rooms were up and some were down, the only thing in the middle being the landing for the stair. Because I lived in all of these places, I think I know Geneva National better than you do. I think I know it better than most Realtors, because if they’ve never lived there how, then, can they tell you about the experience?

In the same way, I lived on the lake for a while. From the time I was a day or two old to the time I was 18, I lived on that lake. I know what it feels like, what it looks like, the way it is when you walk to the pier in the morning with a fishing pole in your hand and leave footsteps in the dew. I know how the carp swim in the shallows during those early mornings, two at a time, large and purple, menacing looking but not really. I know these things because I lived these things, and the experience helps me every day as I try my best to convince others what it is they’re missing out on.

Currently, I’m building a small cabin on the side of a hill quite a distance from here. The cabin is a few hundred feet from a trout stream, and the views are delightful to the north and to the south, also to the east and to the west. There’s nothing I don’t particularly like about what it is that I’m doing. I’m building this cabin to exercise some of my real estate ADHD, but mostly I’m building it so that I have a place to hang my hat when I’m out fly fishing with my family. It’ll be a nice thing, this little cabin, but I never really wanted to build it. When I started considering the concept of a small cabin from which to fish, I could picture it in my mind. It was small, sure. Basic, with a wood stove and a small kitchen, the pots and pans hanging from hooks. The bedrooms, small, maybe only two, maybe just one. I wasn’t clear on that part. The bathroom, ideally inside, but an outhouse was a possibility. After all, it was just a cabin to hang ones hat while on a 24 hour fishing trip. Luxuries were not necessary, only a dry, warm place to sleep.

After some time of considering this basic idea, I looked around for the cabin that might fit the vision. I’d spend less than $100k and I’d buy this place and it would be next to a trout stream and I’d sit on the porch and watch for trout to rise. Once they did, I’d grab my three weight and I’d walk over to the stream and I’d catch the rising trout. I’d hold them briefly and then release them, content in my skill and pleased with the process. I’d then walk balk to the cabin and sit on the porch, maybe to think about that trout or to watch for the next one, I wasn’t sure. That’s what I wanted to do. And so I kept looking for the cabin that would allow such an evening on that porch, near that stream with the rising trout. And I’d spend less than $100k to do it.

It was soon apparent that $100k wasn’t going to work. Small Amish built cabins on posts could be bought for that price, but if my wife and kids were along for the trip we couldn’t really function out of a space so small, so unstable. The outhouse would have been okay if it were just me in residence, with my son perhaps,  but Curry women and Curry girls don’t like outhouses, so that wouldn’t do, not at all. $150k might work. I could set up a gofundme.com on this website and ask for donations, the money would be well spent on my mental health, which would benefit everyone who knows me, personally or just through these pixels. $150k it would be. Local Realtors got to know me. I’d tell them what I wanted, and then I’d go see something that I described. The places were not right, too this or too that, too rustic or two boring, too far from the stream and to close to another house.  I didn’t like decorating out there. I didn’t like the bathroom fixtures. I didn’t like the landscaping, which generally consisted of a gravel driveway that was mostly dirt and grass.

My vision, this easy, wide open, simple goal, was proving elusive. The large area of several counties had been narrowed. I decided that I only really liked two different valleys, maybe three, but the one had a farm on the corner with too many cows and too many broken down implements scattered across the fields like some sort of scrappers obstacle course. If I spent $300k, surely that would solve this thing. I can’t really spend that much money, but I’ve done more for less.  LendingTree told me I could borrow lots of money, and if some anonymous algorithm confirmed I could spend more, then who am I to argue? Let’s spend more, I figured, and we could rent the house out most of the time. After all, this place is too far away to frequent, and if we had a garage and some other bedrooms I could store things in them that I cannot store here. The basement would be nice. Who ever said a cabin in the woods should be so basic? Hooks for hanging pots and pans seem nice until you realize that I’m of a certain height and I’d most definitely hit my head on them, which seems problematic and very un-relaxing.

The market yielded nothing. For a region settled by Norwegian Immigrants there were no relics of style that I had expected to uncover. The area seemed small to me. Little to buy, little to look at. If I upped my search to one million dollars and pretended that I had infinite funds, no house was appealing. Land, that’s what I needed. Just a couple of acres would do. Nothing big, just easy. Near a stream, so I can build that deck and sit on it and watch for rising trout. Valley land was soft, sandy and silty at once, and certainly there would be some available. And there was. That’s when I learned about hydraulic shadows and flood plains. I could buy land near the stream, but then I’d risk being swept away in the night, my wife and kids swept, after some time of floating, into the Mississippi, never to be seen again.  Valleys, perfect for watching trout rise, terrible for living through floods.

Hillsides, that’s where I needed to be. Not bluff tops, but hillsides. Something half way up the hill. All the way up would be too high, too hard to get to, too windy. Half way up, just out of the flood plain so that when the levies break I would have a solid view of the carnage below. 3 acres, that’s all I needed. Until it became apparent that 3 acre lots are next to other three acre lots and my plan here was to escape. To hide. To sit on that porch without asking the neighbor how he’s enjoying his porch. I’d need more land, 10 acres, 20, 30 even. 40! But the folly was that I couldn’t afford 30, not then and not now. And so finally 15 acres hit the market and on a snowy day that felt like a whim, I drove out and I bought it. I paid for the land and I thought that perhaps I had made a big mistake. I had buyer’s remorse last week when I bought the $29.98 package of fireworks instead of the $19.98 package. What was I, a Rockefeller? I had the larger package in my cart for a while before swapping it for the lesser package, and then I thought of my kids and how they’d be so disappointed with me and so I, after some time of staring at my options, grabbed the $29.98 package.

The land was bought for a price that was my original cabin budget. The cabin is being built now, and I’m so far over budget that I’m not quite sure what the total cost will be. I have a good idea. I won’t be able to sit on my deck and watch for rising trout. But I won’t get swept away in floods, and I’m not so high that I’ll be blasted by the unceasing wind. The bedrooms, there are a few. Baths, some of those as well. The space swelled when the plans were drawn, and even though it’s still small compared to what I sell and see here, it’s still bigger than I originally intended. It’s more money than I intended. It’s not exactly what I had intended. But it’s in the valley I like and the trout aren’t far away, and the kitchen will have shelves to put away the pots and pans.

This ongoing experiment has given me terrific insight into what it is you struggle with. I didn’t plan to do any of this, I just wanted something simple and easy, but it’s grown and turned and it’s become something very different. But it’s something that I want, and when I first sit on that deck and watch the stream in the distance dance and twist through the valley floor, none of the other things will matter because it’s the pursuit of a lifestyle that we’re after.  We’re all just Mr. Blandings, after all.

 

 

Lake House Shopping List

Lake House Shopping List

I’ve seen things no one should ever have to see. I live like you, just wishing to make it through my day without conflict and strife, to make it from this day to the next in perfect peace. Yet I, unlike you, drive around all day to make my living, and in this driving I see things that I wish I didn’t. Just two days ago I saw a semi-truck with a fully loaded trailer. On that trailer there were no fewer than five brand new pontoon boats, each wrapped in pontoon plastic, each heading to a new owner. It was as terrifying and troubling as you’d guess, and the image is one that even now, some two days later, I cannot shake.
This time of year, when I drive around this lake, I see interesting things. I see puzzling things and frightening things. As the leaves fall, homeowners do their best to rid their lawns of the leaves. Some wait for all of the leaves to drop, then they have companies come and sweep them into giant piles where they will be sucked up by giant truck based vacuum cleaners. Others rake and rake, but the rake is a futile tool on a large enough lawn where so many Maples loom overhead. But the rake is preferred compared to the other thing I see: The Electric Blower.

Thankfully, most of the things I see can be fixed through some good advice and some preparedness. Pontoons can be sold to people who live far from here, where they will be delivered to lakes where they are not relegated to the shadows. Electric blowers can be destroyed and thrown in the garbage. Perhaps the electric blower phenomenon is not something spawned of preference; perhaps it’s just that people don’t know any different. That’s why I feel it my duty to provide you with this short list. It’s a list of things any lake house needs. With the Holiday season rapidly approaching, and without further ado, that list of must-haves:

GAS POWERED BLOWER. This has to do with the electric blower problem. Electric blowers are horrible. As a child in the mid 1980s, all of my “remote-control” toys were corded. We still called them remote control cars or trucks, but they were just toys with a wire attached to a controller. If you wandered down some street today and saw a child playing with a cord-controlled toy, you’d immediately stop and pause. You’d take up donations from neighbors and rush to the store to buy this neglected child a proper remote controlled car. Electric blowers are like this. We don’t walk around house talking on our corded phone anymore, so why should we walk around the yard with a corded blower? We shouldn’t. It’s a ridiculous concept and those who use a blower like this should be ashamed. A proper Echo gas blower is only $149, so go buy one. The backpack version is superior, but that’s more involved and if you’re currently using an electric blower at your lake house you should choose the $149 model first, so you can ease into this modern world of internal combustion engines.

AN AXE. We can spell this either way, ax or axe, so I’ll alternate now to show flexibility. A proper ax is different from any old axe. We need one of these at a lake house for many reasons. What if Nanna gets locked in a room and there’s no time to wait for the locksmith? Axe. What if there’s a small rodent running around the house and there’s no time to wait for the exterminator? Ax. What if you want to chop some wood because you’re incredible? Axe. Very little beats chopping wood during the late fall and winter, as there’s something remarkably therapeutic about chopping wood, carrying that chopped wood into the house, then burning that wood to keep warm. Best Made Co has great axes, but any wood handled axe with some heft will do. Just make sure it’s a full sized ax and not some silly hatchet.

CELL PHONE DRYING BAG. Last week, my wife lost her cell phone. She lost it after walking to the end of our driveway to retrieve the mail. She looked everywhere. Everywhere! The phone was not found. Days passed, the phone was not found. I joined the hunt, and the phone was not found. It had to be somewhere, but it was nowhere. On Sunday I mowed my lawn, and narrowly avoided hitting something shiny. It was her phone, and it spent four days on that lawn. It rained all day one of those days, and the phone was likely destroyed. Thinking quickly, I removed the case and the battery and stashed it in a container of rice. The phone, a day later, worked just fine. Don’t use rice, use a proper kit because it’s cool and shows you’re prepared for the likelihood of a cell phone ending up in the lake. EVAP bags are cool, and you should have a handful of them at your lake house at all times. Your guests will thank you.

Of course this isn’t the most thorough list, but it is a list that will help your lake house be a better place. It’ll help you be a better person. It’ll help your lawn look better in the fall, your stack of firewood look taller in the winter, and your phone dry faster in the summer.

Lake Geneva Data

Lake Geneva Data

It bothers me that I so fondly look back at years that have only recently passed. When the market was scary and difficult, I enjoyed leafing through the local Realtor’s Association materials month to month, watching the brokerage rosters to see which agents were no longer agents. During that difficult time, one older lady Realtor remarked to that she had apparently retired, but no one had told her yet. I heard agents screaming UNCLE often in those years, and how I relished the opportunities that these holes in the market were creating for me. Pardon me while I wipe these nostalgic tears from my eyes.

Today, things are entirely and totally different. The roster pages now bloat each month, with smiling faces of agents who just started yesterday. Signs in lawns are changing, with new companies and bigger companies, signs plastering the names of people that I’ve never heard of. There are new agents and there are revitalized agents, those who think that now it’s time to try hard, now that the market has improved and the test for extreme real estate success involves breathing closely into a pane of glass to see if the candidate can fog it. As a special bonus to the consumer, you’ll be pleased to note that everyone of these new agents are experts in their field.

But how can we know that? How can we be certain that, even in spite of any demonstrable record of proficiency, let alone success, these agents are indeed experts? Well, silly, in real estate as in politics there is no need to back up a claim to prove its worth, you must only find the microphone and make that claim. If our culture has provided that we can now self-identify as whatever it is we feel like being, perhaps it’s only natural that Realtors who fogged the glass yesterday are the experts of today.

But some take further measures to convince you of their worth, and while I just write here and try to maintain a professional level of success to prove my worth, in an effort to differentiate there is an old theme making new appearances: The compilation of data to prove a point.

Real estate is a data intensive business, this everyone knows. But unless we are Case Schiller and we’re only looking to smooth out the rough edges of the largest asset class in these United States, we have very little use for macro numbers. Last week, as I do many weeks, I wrote a market analysis for a lakefront home on the north shore. In preparing this report, I could have used broad MLS generated data to prove a point. I could have used a year’s worth of data that involved every segment of the lakefront market. I could have done these things, but the numbers, while factual, would have been misleading. Geneva is a segment specific market, where a 50′ lakefront home in Lake Geneva Beach Association has absolutely nothing in common with a 100′ lakefront lot in Fontana. To compare the two and present a statistic that says one has anything at all to do with the other is disingenuous at best, ignorant at worst.

There is a new angle out, one that aims to convince sellers that the goal of selling is to actually sell. The intent of the effort is correct. The application of the numbers is absurd. That’s because one of the numbers is not at all objective. You cannot contrast the right way against the wrong way, unless you identify the criteria for the differentiation. If I say that my listings are the right way, and your listings are the wrong way, this is fine. But that is subjective opinion, not objective fact gleamed solely from the collection of data.

The lakefront market on Geneva is one that behaves irrationally at times. It is a market that prints sales that should have no business printing. It will reward one seller with a huge gain just as it saddles another seller with a huge loss. It will flood a segment with buyers ($2.5-5MM right now) and skew many of those print prices higher, just as it will vacate a market (entry level lakefront) and cause sellers to sell at prices that are below the 2012 market lows. This market makes very little sense at times, and to attempt to reason with it can lead to futility.

That’s why this market is best approached with highly precise, highly segments comparable statistics. If we’re measuring a 200′ lakefront lot based on its price per foot, then we should be smart enough to ignore 50′ lots. If we’re going to proclaim something a value because it’s our listing, then we should back that up with narrow proof. We should do this, but any explanation of value here should include a highly articulate narrative that defines the nuance that leads to true value. Without the ability to detail these nuances, the collection of data and the blurring of objective and subjective statistics is called marketing, not research.