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Dream-house for rent (no kidding)

by Steve McKee on June 20, 2007

You’d think that someone who wrote about building and design topics for the local paper (kind of like me) and was also having a house built for himself (like me) would have something to say about the design and building of said house. It’s a pretty big deal, giving birth to a house. Stuff happens. Anecdotes accumulate. All of it fodder for the ol’ column.

But blathering on about myself has never appealed to me, though I seem to be doing it just fine at this very moment. Yet insights, a few of them anyway, did result from this house-building adventure. And I always do enjoy a good insight whenever I find one.

I can tell you this much: it turns out there’s quite a bit of work involved overseeing the construction of one’s house even if one doesn’t drive a single nail. I’ve always known this to be true, on an intellectual level at least, the way you or I know it’s hard to climb Mount Everest. Now, having done it (the house, not Everest), I know this to be true down to the depths of my soul. By way of contrast, fifteen years ago when Melody and I were working on our first house (a major fixer-upper that absolutely needed to be completely changed into something else) we did probably ninety percent of all construction work all by ourselves. From digging and pouring the foundations, to framing walls, adding a second story where there was none, adding earthquake hold-downs, pulling Romex, hanging sheetrock and siding, installing and casing out doors, putting in the hardwood floors and so on. All that work we did on our own, and still it doesn’t seem as hard as having this house built for us.

This new house of ours grew out of no pressing need for me and my family to change spaces. In fact, nobody in my family has a burning desire to move there, despite the fact that it’s big and sort of dazzling. We’re comfy where we are.

It just sort of happened, this house-building thing. It’s more of an investment tax-strategy kind of maneuver, a remodel of a small house that then grew into this big project. From the start it was intended to be a rental house, needing to be a property that allowed for reinvestment of the proceeds from a sale of a rental fourplex in Vallejo. It all has to do with 1031 tax exchange requirements and all that no-fun tax stuff.

After a period of time as a rental it would then be sold for profit. Thus the house was to be considered a “spec” house: a home designed to be comfortable and appealing but without a specific owner in mind. I know very well how to design for spec, something I do for clients all the time.

But then something happened of some significance: during the design of this spec house there was introduced into my mind (by me) the idea that I should make it extra nice to entice me and Melody to live in it for a few years (or perhaps longer!) some time down the line because if we lived in it for at least two years prior to selling it we could take advantage of a different tax trick involving a capital gains tax break (that comes if you live in it for two years of the previous five before the sale. Blah blah, more yucky tax stuff.) And that changed everything.

The house was no longer a mere spec house. It was for me to live in, and yet was not my end-all dream-house either. (My end-all dream-house is something I’m stilling mulling over in my mind. The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s years away and is going to be massively eclectic.) This current almost-my-dream-house that resulted is a pretty sweet pad, mind you, 3500 square feet with four bedrooms and some highly livable touches like bonus rooms and real honest-to-goodness attic storage. There’s a “parlor” that is actually a smaller extra family room that can serve as both a “getaway room” and as a sometimes-used formal room (for Christmases, private conversations, etc.) The upstairs bonus room is designed to feel tucked away from things with steeply sloped ceilings and cozy dormer windows and a fireplace for rainy days. This room will serve as a future office for me (oh, how I dream of that office) but can meanwhile hold a pool table or who knows what else. The whole thing has tudor-like extra steep roofs, because I always wanted to design one that way with bedrooms with steeply sloped ceilings and dormer windows peering out. Of course framing such a steep and “cut-up” roof is time consuming and therefore expensive, but, hey . . . the dormers!

Oh yeah, more insights, less blather. I believe that having-a-house-built-for-me has helped complete my education as an architect, if I consider it in context with my decades-long path through grad school followed by internships, opening my own office, then taking up a tool-belt for years, investing my own money in fixer-uppers, and then (finally) a dozen or so years now as a straight-up architect. Now, having this house built, watching others climb ladders and fit beams into place while I instead visit three different websites for garage doors, I figure is another chapter in a Siddhartha-like education of learning about things by living them. To know what my clients go through, not in an abstract way, but in my gut.

As a case-in-point let’s consider selecting light fixtures. Fifteen years ago my bride and I were content to go to Yardbirds and find the best looking light fixture we could for any given location, pay thirty bucks for it, take it home, install it and then live happily. For some reason that I can’t quite wrap my mind around, buying light fixtures now involves agonizing over choices, multiple trips to Lamps Plus and Lowes, as well as numerous evening visits online to various websites. In addition to the extra effort expended, the money spent per fixture is now also much more than in our youthful days at Yardbirds.

And some sort of cosmic law was also discovered: We always seemed to be able to get only half of our remaining light fixture list purchased at any one time. Thus, mathematically we kept getting closer to finishing, yet always some fraction remained. On and on this went. Well, it finally happened that we rose up and shook off the shackles of light-fixture punch-list oppression and finally bought our last light fixture. (Insert Hallelujah chorus here.) For the life of me, I can’t tell you a better or more efficient way to do this, just be ready to grind it out.

With the house in the final week of being finished, it was time to seek renters. Friends who’ve toured the house find it hard to believe we’re going to rent it out, that we’re willing to let others have first crack at this big fresh house. “Get over it,” I almost say out loud. “We have.”

I was ready to shamelessly use this column to promote the house as a rental, but then two weeks ago realtor buddy Jim Worthen heard what we were doing and found a family that wants it for a year or two. So, just like that, it’s rented. ($3K per month – I figured you secretly wanted to know.) All without even running an ad.

So it turns out there are things to write about with this house of mine after all. Next time I may tell you about the epiphany (and outright sense of relief) involving the grey fireplace tile. As a story it’s not half bad.


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