Friday, 29 February 2008

4 - The Decision

For the next few months we kept an eye out for removal houses via a number of companies. A list of some of these can be seen to the left of these words and, as time goes by, above left. All the while we became quite used to the idea of moving a house. It seemed like the ultimate gesture in recycling. The fact that no more new materials would be extracted from an already depleted planet just to house me and mine, sits well on the mind. Of course, there would be resources used, such as petrol to move the house, but these would have been needed no matter what we built. It also feels nice knowing that someone’s unwanted house would be given a new life here with us. We just needed to find one that fit in the budget, suited our site’s orientation for passive solar considerations and wasn’t too rough on the eye. While we were looking we kept on crunching the numbers for the SALA Smart house option. Despite our best efforts at belt tightening we could not squeeze the SALA costs below $170 000 and that was only allowing $20 000 for building and no waste treatment set up, kitchen or carport. We also kept on entertaining the idea of other kits, despite our growing displeasure with their company.

And then it happened. A newly acquired house notification email popped up from Drake Homes. At first we did not give the “ATTO” much more than a passing glance. I’m not sure why. That night though I studied it closer discovering that it was designed perfectly for our chosen house site. Our view of Wollumbin (Mt Warning) is to the east. This house had a great back covered verandah facing that very direction. We wanted the living areas with their larger windows facing the north, for our cool winter mornings. They did. We wanted bedrooms on the South. Check. We wanted a house with a longer east west axis then north south. Mate.

As an added bonus the house looked like it was in great shape. It had some very nice features including everything we wanted from the beginning. The cost of the house was posted as being between 75-100K delivered and stumped. That seemed reasonable considering its apparent good condition. We were getting excited. We contacted Drake stating our interest. The next step was to see inside it. The house still contained its current owners in its original location in the Brisbane suburb of Nundah. The land that it stood on had been sold to developers. So too had that of the two houses next door. In keeping with the unfortunate nature of modern life, a large block of units was being built with the hope of devouring large numbers of young upwardly mobiles.

Organising an inspection proved quite a feat. The owners were busy people and insisted on being there when Drake showed anyone through. We called Drake nearly everyday for the next week. No joy. They could not get in contact with the owners. The last call we made to Drake about an inspection delivered the news that the house had been sold un-inspected by a man who walked in that afternoon with a deposit. It had only been for sale less than a week and no one had seen in it. We were gutted.

We learnt from Drake afterwards that this kind of thing happened in the world of removal houses. People know what they want, they have the money ready, and they pounce. Bugger. We weren’t any of those things. We weren't really sure what we wanted, we didn’t know if we had the money or if it was ready, and we aren’t ones who pouncing comes naturally to. Apparently it was a cut throat industry. We decided to sharpen our cut throat’n knives.

We started preparing ourselves for the next ‘perfect house’, not that anything could replace the ATTO. I enquired about the likelihood of my current bank, nab, loaning us money for a removal house. They wouldn’t. It’s too risky. We discovered that a lot of banks will only lend money after the house has arrived. The salesman at Drake gave me the number of a mortgage broker who he knew had helped people in the past. I rang Otto Dargan from
Transportable Home Finance in Sydney and a beautiful working relationship was forged. He understood the situation, and considering the equity in the land would cover everything anyway, said it would be a snap. He suggested a GE loan would be best for us and went ahead with preparing the paperwork.

For the next ten days we forlornly dragged our feet on our way back to the ol’ drawing board. Just as we got there and tried picking up the house search again, I received a phone call. It was the Drake salesman informing me that the man with the walk in deposit had discovered that the house could not physically be moved to his block and as a result it was back on the books and available for us if we were still interested. We were. He had a lot more people waiting in the wings but thought he’d offer it to us first. I hung up the phone and looked across at my partner with the wonderful realisation that I possessed the one piece of news that would bring back the sheer joy and happiness she had when we first realised we wanted that house. I wasted no time in delivering the news. What a wonderful moment. We traveled straight up to the Drake office and paid a deposit for a house we had not seen. The understanding was that we would try and have an inspection that weekend and if the house was not to our liking we could withdraw our interest and deposit.
That weekend we went to Brisbane to look through the house with the Drake salesman. We were greeted by one of the owners, a friendly man who went about his business after showing us in. My partner and I gingerly entered the house and followed the Drake salesman around. He hadn’t seen in it either, only his colleague had. After seeing one of the bedrooms and the bathroom we had a moment to ourselves in the kitchen. I’ll never forget my partner’s face. We looked across at each other mouthing profanities as a way of conveying our excitement at what we were seeing. We couldn’t believe it. The Drake salesman had seen a lot of houses and was amazed at the great condition this one was in. An overwhelming sense of good fortune had fallen upon us. Even though we were buying this house, and it would cost a substantial amount of money, it felt like we had won it.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

3 - The Housing Options We Considered

I guess by simply looking up at the title and explanation of this blog, there is no real mystery shrouding the outcome of the following deliberations. Nevertheless, let’s press on in the spirit to which we have become accustomed.

Own Design and Owner Build
The first option we considered was one that I had always assumed would be the only way to go when it came to building a house for the land here. It was, of course, to design our own house featuring all the little quirks we desire along with all the energy saving features we had learnt about over the years. It would be unique. We would gather recycled materials and do a lot of the building works ourselves.

So what happened with this idea? A few things did, none of which were more persuasive than the other, just awfully influential en masse. Firstly there didn’t seem to be that much in the way of savings to be had. Having a unique one off design can be expensive. Not sure how expensive but I was told it was substantial. Then there are still the services such as plumbing and electricity to be completed by other people. Of course the plan is that these costs could be offset by doing some building work ourselves. This got me thinking. Building one’s own house is a lovely thing to do and something I greatly admire for many reasons, however, I do not have the interest, inclination, patience, time or skill to do it. A large adventurous part of me wishes I did, a smaller practical part knows I’d struggle, and a tiny self care part, thinking of the longevity of my fingers, limbs and relationship, strictly forbids it.

Building a house and learning as you go takes a lot of time. I couldn’t really take this time out of a paying day job because at the moment we need the money. Doing bits and pieces here and there on weekends and the like would stretch the whole thing out beyond any realm of acceptability. We did not want the building of the house to become our entire lives, having to constantly field questions on its progress from everyone we know for the next 5 years. We have a child to raise, trees to plant and food to grow.

Kit Homes
We spent many months looking into kit homes. At first glance, from a distance, we were wooed by the prices and seduced by the promise of time savings. When we got closer, warts and alls started emerging. Here is a collection of what we discovered.

SALA Homes
This was the first company we took a passing interest in about two years ago. They make 5 star energy rating houses which incorporate a number of nifty features and building materials that reduce the house's overall impact on the planet. After a brief look at their designs we ignorantly deduced that their houses were a bit too modest for our needs. We also grossly underestimated the costs involved in actually building the house, assuming that the overall finished house price would not be that much more than the quoted material price for the kit. We thought we could easily afford much more than what they had on offer, how much more was a figure we didn’t know at that stage because we had not done any sums. Anyway, for the next year or so we shelved the house plans to make mental room for other things. After this time we returned to the SALA idea. They had more designs available and after sitting down with a pencil we mapped out how one would work for our specific site. We liked the four bedroom SALA Green and were becoming increasingly excited about it. The costs seemed reasonable on paper, $165000 for the kit, remember though dear reader that we had not really ironed out the detail in our budget.
We went on a tour of an estate that has some SALA display homes. This was very encouraging, we arranged a meeting with the SALA team in Brisbane and talked over the changes we had in mind for their plan. They were very easy to work with and open to new ideas and suggestions. They even encourage changes as long as they do not detract from the overall efficiency of the house. Everything seemed right. But it wasn’t. Someone mentioned a safe guesstimate monetary figure when working out the cost of the fully built house – “add about 80% of the kit materials figure to that very figure”. The world spun around me. Further spoken words after those corkers blurred together into a long continual throat song sounding note. I was in a brief shock. I felt like a fraud, sat there talking turkey with people who thought I knew more about turkeys, like how many hooves they have on the ends of their opposable tails. Arrghhhh. We politely wrapped things up, threw on some niceties, and exited the office.

Following this revelation we were quite disappointed. It was made worse by the fact that we first saw the SALA option as a cheap one. In fairness to SALA their safe percentage figure included the complete building of the house and further allocation for driveways, water tanks, extra solar panels, on site sewage management and the like. We would need all these things, it’s just we wanted to do it for a lot cheaper than $300 000 – at that stage we knew this was way over even our fantasy budget figure. Despite this setback we were so impressed with the SALA staff we went home and worked on working with another cheaper, smaller, simpler plan, the 4 bedroom SMART. Here is a blog
, documenting the building of a modified SALA Green House.

Other Kits
During this time we also looked at a range of other kit homes for comparison hoping that something cheaper would emerge. We wanted to find out if the SALA’s vented wall system, high pitched roofs and other passive climate control features were worth the extra cost. Now of course this is hard to gauge when you’re talking houses, they are not available for test lives on your specific site. I guess we started trying to make educated assumptions about the significance such features would have for us and if their impact would be substantially noticed. Additionally though, SALA does use sustainable materials, where ever possible. They also come with very functional louver windows, wooden French doors high ceilings and 12mm Ecoply lined walls as standard, turns out they share our distaste for plasterboard. All these are nice features and things we would perhaps try and incorporate in other kit homes.

The first place we enquired at was
Valley Kit Homes . They were situated about an hour’s drive from us so after looking into a few of their plans via their website we made an appointment to see them and ask questions. We arrived to meet our host, and after briefly looking around the display stage set style interior layout boasting the company’s finest in fittings, we reclined across from a desk cluttered in photos of houses and grandchildren. Our host seemed nice enough to begin with and listened with a pained smile as we fumbled through the delivery of an introduction to our situation and some of our preferences for the designs. She responded obligingly showing us some real life pictures of finished houses. These were not to our taste and as we started to unpack our questions of alterations to the designs and incorporation of things like high ceilings and wooden wall linings and window frames, her answers became increasingly shorter in both length and tone. It is as if the more questions we asked the more she did not want to secure our business. We did get out of her that most of the things we enquired about were doable but were “very expensive”. She did not give the impression that she represented a company that was progressive in its concern for the preservation of the natural environment, good style, flexibility or plain common courtesy. Maybe she has come across our flakey type before who ask lots of questions and don’t come back. Maybe it is her job to filter out our kind. Maybe she personally loves all the things we wanted to change and was deeply offended by our insensitive remarks. Or maybe she was keen on nipping down to the shops in her lunch break to return a pair of slacks she was going to wear to a friend’s 60th that weekend. Who knows? On the way out we were guided via another display, a wall of external cladding options that were mostly fake wood grained imprinted Hardiplank which I’m sure it is not without its function and charm in certain situations, hopefully though, not ours. We did not speak of Valley Kit Homes again.

Another nearly local company is Affordable Steel Kit Homes
. They pride themselves on their steel, easy to put together, framed houses. Their designs seemed to hold more potential for us than Valley Kit Homes did. We were sent their information pack, complete with a rather odd promotional DVD containing a collection of their recent appearances on various home shows that we had never heard of. This is not saying much though as we are not ones to watch such programs. I went along one afternoon to their offices and chatted with one of their youthful polo-shirted team members who had a tendency to smile smugly after each of his confident assertions. He was a nice enough chap, though na├»ve to some of the finer concerns I had about things like passive solar design and the inclusion of recycled materials. I came away from the meeting with a wary feeling. Not something you want from such encounters. The one thing I did take on board from the meeting with ASK was that it prompted me to do an online Owner Builder Course through Access Building Education. We figured it couldn’t hurt to have it ready incase we decide to go ahead with the kit option. Even if we didn’t do any building then at least we could save money on overseeing the project. It cost $155 and was rather informative.

When comparing all three meetings, our experience with the SALA people won hands down in making us feel understood in our desire to feel understood regarding the elements we feel are important to include in our future house. They were literally unreal. This fact, coupled with their overall philosophy and inclusions such as solar panels prompted us to decided that we would go with SALA after slightly rearranging the internal layout of their 4 bedroom SMART House. We would make it three bedrooms and with a larger living area.

We did look at a lot of Kit Home companies during this time and followed some up with detailed enquiries. This list includes some of them.

Agnes Water Kit Homes
Classic Queenslanders
Gateway Manufacture

Smart Shax

As we started to crunch the numbers on the SALA home, we became increasingly concerned about the costs. Because of this we kept looking around.

Project Homes
Our neighbour had a project home built a few years ago. It seemed rather cheap for what she got and, due to its orientation, was rather cool in summer and warm in winter. We could not help then to at least investigate the possibility of building one here. We found a number of companies with a number of designs. This is as far as we got. We shook ourselves out of what was an irrational moment of poor judgment. Project homes represent everything we do not want in a house or in our lives. We actually felt rather ashamed of even considering such a thing, however fleeting. The biggest issue for us is the companies’ seemingly complete lack of concern for sustainability. They appear to build these houses unecessarily large these days, with air conditioning in mind, featuring things like rooms tucked away without cross air flow, small or no eaves and large windows all the way round the house.

We’ve always only wanted a small house. Anything too big is rather pointless and somewhat embarrassing, especially considering that we moved out here to be ‘out’ here. Not inside all the time. Media rooms, powder rooms, activity rooms, games rooms, and the myriad of other useless extra rooms they often include in such houses hold no appeal for us whatsoever. I read somewhere once that paying off big houses is like renting out a heap of rooms in a hotel everyday and not using them. It is sheer waste poorly disguised as decadence. We could not live with ourselves living in a place like that. For us these kinds of project homes serve as monuments to everything that is environmentally and morally wrong with the planet, from the materials that make them to the energy they consume after they're built.

Relocatable Homes
My partner had always wanted to move an old house onto our block. It made sense. Old Queenslanders have all the features that we wanted in a house and we have enjoyed renting them for the last ten years or so. The only thing though was that we had heard that they can be quite expensive once they're moved and restored. So it is with some trepadation that we started searching house removal sales companies' collection of current stock. We found
Drake Removal Homes, south of Brisbane, and decided to go along to their yard to see some houses in the flesh, errr... wood. We met one of the salesmen and as we left the office to walk around the houses, he reminded us to use our imagination. We looked at few places that we had already seen photos of on the website. They were different up close. They required a lot of "imagination", only thing is imagination costs money in this context. The old wooden houses we looked at would require major work to replace decking, roofing and all sorts of other odd bits and pieces. We discussed the removal process with the salesman on the way out and left him our details for email updates of new stock. We would need a house that did not require much work for this option to be viable for us.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

2 - The Budget

Apparently the most important first step in deciding upon a housing option for a patch of land is to ascertain how much money one can legally acquire for the pleasure. We did not really do this, preferring to jump right into dreaming up, discussing, and looking at plans. In keeping with my unwritten desire to ensure this written piece is readable, I will outline the budget details here rather than clumsily unpacking them over the course of proceedings as was the case in real life. Right, so towards the beginning the only thing we knew about the budget was that we would like it to be small enough to pay off its borrowed component (all of it) with one modest income or two half modest incomes. There are a few reasons for this. We do not want to be stretched thinly across a large debt, we are not keen on having a child care centre raise our child(ren) and a small loan is better, in so many ways, than a big loan, no matter what the hell it’s for. The actual figure would need to incorporate what we owed on the land already – $70 000. After factoring in my sole income of around $50 000, it seemed we would be eligible to borrow about $220 000. This leaves $150 000 for the house and everything that goes with it, like water tanks, waste systems, and solar panels. For the first few months of house planning I sort of forgot about the $70 000 already owing on the land, grossly overestimating our confidence when talking with potential contractors.