Initially the design had a wrap-around porch, across the entire front, back to the garage on one side and the master bedroom on the other. We liked the way the house looked with this porch. However, one of the first things we did was to have the plans reviewed by an architect. He praised the overall design, but advised us strongly to reduce the size of the porch. He pointed out that it would be a major cost element that frankly would not get that much use. So we cut back to one porch at the front door and a smaller one at the kitchen side door.
We included an option for a guest room next to the garage, with the idea that this could be eliminated if needed to reduce costs. We also included a partial basement, under the kitchen and dining room, for the wine cellar and utilities. We had a number of other features that we wanted, such as a geothermal heat pump, stucco outside walls and tile floors in all of the living areas, and were also hoping for a roofing material that at least looked like tile.
In 2008 we had an engineer make rough plans from the design, to solicit initial bids from builders in order to determine if we were close to our budget. We included the guest room option at this stage. We came up with a cost target based on our cash and investments, the estimated value of our current house and our combined incomes.
We had final plans drawn up in 2009, by the company that developed the original plan, after our initial bid from one builder. By that point we had decided we could not afford the guest room and left it out of the final plans.
I had only a vague idea of what kind of house I wanted, except that it had to have an interior courtyard and passive solar potential. As I mentioned before, our current house is a passive solar design, and I wanted to retain at least some aspects of that. I also wanted a wine cellar My wife has a hobby of working with house plans. We have a program, 3D Home Architect, on our home computer. She locates electronic copies of plans that she likes, and then plays with them, moving walls, windows, or even entire rooms. I would have to say that most of the house designs she has come up with are well beyond our means.
She found a couple of candidate designs that were close to what we wanted, and we picked one to start working with. The basic layout is a U. The front of the house is the base of the U, with the dining room, foyer and study. One leg is the kitchen, breakfast room, laundry and garage. The other contains the bedrooms, with the master bedroom at the back of the house. Immediately behind the foyer is the family room, with the courtyard behind that. There is a partial second story comprised of a loft over the foyer and the two-story family room. The courtyard is enclosed at the back by a covered portico.
The final decision was based on two things: 1) The out-of-town lot would have much better solar potential. We have been solar energy enthusiasts for a long time; our current house is a passive solar design. The general openness of the neighborhood, and the fact that the back of the lot faced almost due South, were both conducive to solar design. 2) I had the realization that the large flat lot would be perfect for a Mediterranean courtyard house, mostly on one level. I’ve been enamored of Mediterranean design in general and interior courtyards in particular through trips to Provence (in southern France), Italy and Argentina. A one-story design would also make sense for us as we got older.
The last time we checked, the in-town lot was still for sale.
We quickly decided to go for it. We made an offer on the lot, with the agent’s advice, and it was accepted. Of course, this was well before the real estate market crashed, so prices were high. Fortunately, loans were also readily available at that time, and we had no trouble lining up a lot loan, with some of our cash as a down payment. We closed on 12 June, 2007. The sellers lived in the house next door, and had owned the lot for over 20 years, since they built their house.
We had a celebration picnic on the lot with four of our closest friends and the sellers. We kept inviting passers-by to stop and have a drink. It was a jolly occasion, and we planned to make it an annual event, but somehow that never happened. We spent the rest of 2007 and the first half of 2008 planning our daughter’s wedding, before we seriously got back to planning our house. We set a time frame of three to four years from the closing date to be moved in. We made regular trips to “visit the lot” in the meantime.
We never seriously considered buying an existing house in Chestertown. We looked at a few old homes, just for fun, but all of them had significant issues. There were a few really nice, well-maintained or restored homes for sale near the waterfront, at astronomical prices. We weren’t at all interested in a tract house, so we decided early on to find a lot to build on.
We looked at some listings to get a feel for building lot availability and prices in and near the town. We quickly learned that there are not very many unbuilt lots left in town, and good ones are expensive. We decided we needed help from a local realtor. We located a real estate agent in the area through a friend who is also an agent, and started looking at lots in Spring 2007.
He showed us one lot in the town, one close by and one farther away. We quickly rejected the last one. Initially I preferred the in-town lot. I liked the idea of being within easy walking distance of the downtown and waterfront areas. It was a typical town lot, deep and narrow, and would have needed a two-story house. It was also not in the greatest neighborhood, with a trailer park on the opposite corner and rental houses next door.
My wife liked the other lot, about a mile south of town and maybe 1/4 mile from the Chester river. It is about 1 acre and flat, with a few mature trees. It also has no on-site water and sewer, and I was hoping to avoid a well and septic tank (our current house has them). The difference in the listed prices of the two lots was not large.
My wife and I started having semi-serious conversations about living in Chestertown. Initially we spoke of retiring there, but that seemed impossibly far off. In our 50’s, we have no plans — or means, for that matter — to retire any time soon. Truth is, I have a great job as a contractor at NASA, and would gladly work as long as my health and mental capacity permits.
2006 was a difficult year for me. My mother passed away in February, after a long series of health problems and a bad fall. My father had been suffering from progressive Alzheimer’s starting in 2004, was moved to nursing care in Fall 2005, and passed away in late August 2006.
Sad as that all was, they both had significant investments, and I inherited a 1/4 share along with my brother and two sisters. This, along with some other investments of our own and some company stock I had accumulated, gave us a good amount of potential cash to work with.
The one significant obstacle to living in Chestertown was the commute to/from our jobs. The drive there from our house is 60 miles and takes 1 hour, 15 minutes; from there to work would be a bit farther. We convinced ourselves that we could handle this, by leaving early enough to miss the worst traffic, and also working short days and/or telecommuting on Fridays (everyone knows that getting across the bridge on a summer Friday is a challenge). We already carpool to work most days, and at that time were ready to downsize the family minivan for something that gets better gas mileage.