General Mom

Mom-of-5, building a home in California, step by step, with Faith and Feistiness ~ by General Mom Contractor

Month: August, 2012

Surveyor and Civil Engineer

I met with the Surveyor and the Civil Engineer this morning at the property. We needed additional survey work done on the existing cement driveway pictures below that cuts through a small part a lot next to us and crosses into ours and leads to the way top where the subdivision water tower is located. We are using this driveway which has deeded access of ingress/egress for us to use for our access to our land. This will hopefully save us a bunch on money since the prior owners had the driveway going up a steep hill in the front yard and knocking out a bunch of oak tress and requiring a 12′ retaining wall. I can’t imagine looking at a huge and dangerous 12′ wall for my kids to jump off of. Retaining walls = money and danger.

So, we paid the Surveyor $900 for the additional survey work that was already completed and paid for by the previous owners. He and the Civil came out today to see where we were thinking the driveway will go. He concurred that it is a smart spot at the top of the cement access drive. We will be minimizing grading, which is moving dirt around, and we need to keep it to less than 1500 in order to avoid environmental assessments which takes an additional two months review time and a permit fee of $3500. So, the less dirt moving the better. Since we are on top of a hill and it slopes from the driveway at 800 feet elevation down to the house at 750 feet and the farthest corner of the house is 740.

We have to consider the slope when designing the house. When there is a 10 foot drop where the house goes, you have to decide on a few options. Option 1: A walkout basement, which they call here in CA, a daylight basement. Option 2: cut dirt down and push it over to that area to make the house level. Option 3: Step down the house in that area to nestle into the contour of the land. I like houses that have step down living rooms so I think we will be stepping down into a guest suite type area and where the piano and office will be. So, designing the plans to step down in a secondary area that isn’t high usage is important for the safety of our little ones so no one will be tripping down into an everyday living area.

Now I am awaiting the quotes from the Surveyor to move around the septic design on the topography plan and give me the updated Topo report. The Civil will give me a quote for grading and drainage plans by Wednesday. I already have a quote from another Civil so we will see where the numbers fall. Both are capable so it’s purely numbers. Once I decide on a Civil then we will need to get him final plans to orient the house on the land the way we want it and once that is finished then we can submit it to the county. That’s when the ball really gets rolling and fingers crossed for a speedy review period which is usually 2 months for Design Review.



Saturday Design Review

I have been pouring over the preliminary design that we got yesterday. I have moved bathrooms, added a courtyard. Adam has chimed in too with his 3-D engineering abilities. You have to envision walking through the house with all the special nuances in mind that each family has. We have 7 people now to think about traffic patterns, homeschool, bathroom breaks, play areas, the view, guests, noise above you and below you. When you finally move in, you should not be surprised at all if you imagined it enough. ;).

We also cut out the footprint of the house to scale to move it around on the topography plan. Then cut out the size for the fire turnaround by the garages. Finally we can start sketching the driveway options.


The Preliminary House Plans

We have been working with our designers for a month now. Last time we built a house we used a draftsman directly and skipped the whole architect/ designer part. It was inexpensive as we paid something like 5k but it didn’t include a framing and roofing plan. That became problematic for the framer who needed more precise instructions for the staircase and complicated hip roof.

When researching this time, I interviewed our design team and realized they designed 5 houses in our city that we liked. They were fairly priced too! They will be giving us a very detailed set of plans with cross sections, roof plans, interior and exterior plans and they help project manage the whole house.

Today we met them to see the first floor layout. It’s pretty good! They gave me tracing paper to sketch out any ideas I had for changes. So far, I’ve been making changes based on our family size and my experience with living in our old house design. They also had a rough sketch of the second floor which looked good too. So I’m happy with what they delivered!


Arborist, Utilities and Designer

Yesterday was my birthday, 39, which started with an early morning meeting with the surveyor. He pulled all the data he had on our lot and we discussed the ever so popular driveway. I must admit I put a lot of emphasis on a driveway. It’s the approach, the feel, the first impression of a house. Since we are on top of a ridge, we have to be as smart as possible since moving dirt equals money. We have designed the driveway even before the house. It is actually dictating the design. We are exploring two options since we threw out the first owners design going straight up the front and knocking out at least 10 oaks. We are planning to use the existing cement drive that also goes up to the HOA water tank. The length of the drive also has implications from the fire Marshall who told us the county ordinance of anything over 500 feet needs an 8 foot turn out in addition to the 40 x 48 fire turn around at the house. It currently will be 719 foot driveway. All the while you have to keep everything under a 15% slope. Research is essential.

The arborist came out and analzed which trees needed to be tagged and removed. We will need permission by the county to remove them since we are in a protected oak woodland area. Our designer did a great job explaining the overall effect that we wanted to maintain with the trees to keep, clean up and remove. The utility guy will have to trench the water, telephone, and electric 300 feet from the boxes to the house and stay away from the drive and the roots of the trees.

It was a great collaboration from the team. We should be getting initial house designs to review in a few days. Can’t wait to see what they came up with based on the list I put together. Right now I heard the house is too big. 😉


Doing Homework on the Land

Land to build on comes in two forms: raw and subdivided. The difference on which one to buy rests on how much money you have and how long you want to wait to move into your new house. We have always gone with buying subdivided land and can’t imagine buying raw land. We investigated a parcel back in 2003 that had a house on it and we went to an attorney to see if we could subdivide it and sell a few acres off. We couldn’t. It was under a law in Illinois from 1974 that prohibited multiple subdivisions. Here in CA I think there is something similar called the Williamson Act. Anyway,you will hear people tell their long and expensive stories about improving their raw land to get it ready to build on. Here in California, that costs up to 100K and up to 6 years just to get it to the building permit stage.

So, we ended up finding 13 acres within a gated subdivision. It’s a lovely rolly neighborhood of 12 parcels with 6 houses built currently. So our research was essential before buying land. I went down to the County (city/ county planning offices) Planning Office to pull any and all archived files related to our new land address. The picture is the in the elevator of the county building office. I wanted to see all that developer went through and if there were any hidden issues.

I did find out that our subdivision is part of protected habitat(S). Yes, multiple habitats show up on the county GIS map, namely the Dudleya (a succulent plant), the Bay Checkerspot Butterfly and Oak Woodlands. So, more investigation if we will be impacted for our lot. There are hefty rules, regulations, mitigation measures and fees on encroaching these habitats by building near them. Two weeks went into this investigation. I called the County and talked to several planners that looked at maps, we read through files of homes built in the subdivision, pulled the archived subdivision files, spoke with program directors that over these species and finally concluded that we won’t be impacted. We will potentially need an Environmental Assessment but that could or could not be tripped when we submit for permits based on if we are disturbing/removing too many trees, dirt, and if our Civil Engineer can argue that the lot already underwent Environmental Assessment when it was subdivided. I hope we can squeak by on this since it could save us ($3134) just for the assessment fee plus the reports needed by a biologist and arborist ($3,000). This could also save us two months time which is like gold. As it stands our lot has to undergo a design review Tier 1 ($3516) which is for 5000 total square feet including garage. If you have 5001 square feet, then you have to do a Tier 2 Design Review (5K) or Tier 3 (7K) and do these crazy story poles to show what the house will look like on the land with these huge sticks and orange nets for everyone the get the “idea” of what it will be like. I think this is so crazy! I will post a picture of a house I saw being remodeled and made bigger with these story poles.

So doing homework on the land is essential to costs and surprises. I want no surprises on this project.


Investigating, Praying and a Leap

This beautiful lot came on the market in March of 2012. We hadn’t sold our McHenry home yet but thought we might soon but maybe not soon enough to snag up this amazing opportunity. This land was owned by a couple who owned it since 1998 and were planning on building their dream home. An enormous 9,000 sq foot home with an elevator, yoga room, indoor sauna. They bought the land for a hefty sum and then paid for a lot of the initial work that needed to be done in normal preparations for building. They did the house design, structural work, civil work, topo, geological, geotechnical, septic design, perc tests, soils tests and more. Basically everything prior to submitting for a grading permit. It was amazing amounts of information for me to investigate. I spoke to the owner who has built many homes and she said she was tired and wanted to move on. It just amazed me all the work she did and she was ready to walk away. I had gone to the county several times, spoke to every expert trying to figure out why this was such a great price. There must be a hidden reason why! I couldn’t find anything wrong even though I found out that the building permit process will be a lengthy and arduous one. Very unlike our quick 7 month beginning to end IL house. But I have met the nicest people, planners and engineers at the Santa Clara County office. Really! They have all promised to help us get this approved quickly!

We finally sold our home that we built in McHenry, IL and closed June 5, 2012. We prayed and prayed if we should move forward on this land. Could our family handle it, could we afford it (that is still debatable), is it worth the stress? We sought so many people for Godly council and checked to see if our hearts were in the right or wrong place. Adam poured over many excel spreadsheets for days and days. We referenced our last project and plugged away at numbers until I was sick. I hate the whole numbers part! Adam dislikes “Jen math” which is basically no math at all. Plus at the same time as this, I was looking at ALL our other options. We considered buying the house we are renting and we even went as far as putting an offer on a short sale that we got out bid on!

So we put an offer in on June 18 and the owners accepted. We just closed August 7, 2012. We have just taken a huge leap of faith! God help us and protect us! “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” Exodus 14:14


Here We Build Again!

It’s been since May 2004 since we built a house ourselves. We sold that house May 2012 and here we build again! This time, we have five kids instead of one and we live in California and not Illinois. Why oh why are we building? For one, we really enjoyed it the last time. There is something so fun about designing, investigating the processes and seeing it all come together. Plus, the cost of housing here in California is demanding me to go and get and build what suits us. So, I plan on writing down my journey for my memory’s sake and for the sake of my kids and their memoir of their General Mom. General Contractor Mom that is but that was too long of a title and blog name. 🙂  Here she is, 13 rolling acres, overlooking a reservoir and a 150 degree view of hills and vineyards nestled with acres of California oak trees.  Truly a blessing from God.  It’s glorious up here.