Purchasing property in western NC

On purchasing property in western NC, this is a good rule of thumb:

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Funny…but good to keep in mind.  We live in a rural area, bordered by wilderness.  Quite an incredible environment in which to live, however if you are coming from an exquisitely groomed neighborhood development, you may be in for a bit of a culture shock.

When you are considering  a new property to purchase, no doubt you have walked around the accessible parts of the perimeter, and sat quietly in the woods listening to the breeze.  I suggest you come back and visit at different times of day and night, weekends and weekdays, if possible.  See what the night brings to this piece of land.  Can you hear highway noise?  Are there barking dogs?

Also you may consider searching for your prospective property on the county’s GIS website.  For Haywood County, NC the site is:  http://maps.haywoodnc.net/   and surrounding counties have similar sites that can be found through a typical internet search.  Search for your property of interest by owner’s name, or address, or the nearest cross street will get you close.  You can view the topography and figure out which direction is South, for example (in case you seek to use solar collecting technology on your new house).  You can see who your neighbors would be, when they purchased and for how much, where their structures are located, and how much land they own.

Don’t just peek at your potential neighbors online, go speak with them.  Western NC people are genuine and friendly.  Ask them about bear or elk or coyote activity in the area.  You won’t want to find out that you have bears when your trash gets strewn about the yard, or your toy poodle goes suddenly missing.  Ask them how well their gardens do, and what kinds of vegetables they grow successfully.  Ask them about winter access, and what was the biggest snowfall they experienced.

Also to consider is accessibility in building your new home.  Builders in western NC are fond of saying, “we can build anywhere with enough money,” and that may be true…but is it right for you?  Do you have deep enough pockets to build at a high elevation and/or on a steep slope?  Just because a parcel of land is available for purchase, does not mean that it is “buildable.”

As for myself, I own acreage next to a large dairy farm.  From time to time the odor is quite heady, but it never lasts.  Sometimes the farmer’s sons like to take target practice with some pretty large sounding guns, but they never do it at night or for hours on end.  In fact, the farmer and his family have generously offered to help us plow our road, help us take down large trees, give us fertilizer for our gardens.  In return we look out for stray cows, watch for gaps in the fence, and give them the respect that they deserve.

Affording a Mountain Home

Perhaps you were stunned to discover that you could own a piece of paradise for a fraction of what the same five acres would cost in your home state. Perhaps you and your spouse have “built several homes” already in your lives, and both feel confident that this will be the best and the last. Perhaps you have noticed that a steak dinner costs less in Waynesville than it does in your home town, and therefore you might expect that the cost of everything else is also lower.

A client recently asked, “why should it cost so much more to build in the mountains? Especially where my lot is, out in the sticks?” Dear reader, let me assure you that you are not being swindled. Many are the reasons that led you to a desire to build a home in western North Carolina; just as many are the factors that drive up the cost of actually making it happen.

“I have colleagues in the building industry in states X, Y, and even in state Z who told me that they could build the same home for 2/3 of what I’m being quoted in your region,” my client insisted. Let me begin by pointing out that if you intend to build on “raw” land, that will be nothing like building in a development of homes. Even if you have purchased property in one of our many fine mountaintop gated communities, your lot will have neither public water or public sewer. Site work will be one of the largest single expenses of your project. A well must be dug, and the higher you are above sea level, the deeper your well is likely to be. Your home will have a septic system buried in the ground, and the number of bedrooms (which is defined by the number of closets) will determine the extent of the trenches which must be excavated on the slope below your home site. Will the septic contractor be able to get a machine on the slope to dig the three-foot deep, eighty foot long trenches; and dig them perfectly level? Or will the contractor be forced to hire a crew of laborers to dig your septic lines by hand?

“Well I once lived in the beautiful state of Q, where our home had a well and had a septic system. I can see where digging a deeper well and digging septic lines on the wooded slope could add more cost, but that’s no big deal. My plan is simple, what else could there possibly be that makes building it so much higher?”

May I point out that even with its remarkable beauty, the state of Q has no slope greater than five percent. That’s five feet of vertical change in every one hundred horizontal feet. Here in the mountains you are likely to build on a slope of thirty or even forty percent. That is why the topographic map of your building site looks like a barcode….this is steep territory. Your house must be dug into the hillside, and a portion of the walls will be retaining dirt. Do you have a place to put the dirt that comes out of the ground? Or do you need more dirt from elsewhere in the county in order to do what you want? And what about the driveway, and a place to turn the cars around? You might likely need masonry retaining walls in those areas as well. What if your excavator finds a huge rock or a hidden spring where you wish to plant your house? Do you have an alternate site for your home, or do you have extra funds to cover these unforeseen factors?

And speaking of that steep slope…how far do you want your house from the road? Carving a driveway on a hillside is not a job for the inexperienced excavator. Rainwater runoff must be diverted responsibly with the use of ditches and culverts. The slope of the driveway must not be too steep or you will be going nowhere in wintry weather. And finally, unless you plan to pave your new driveway with asphalt or concrete, at the very least it will require three layers of crushed stone in order to be passable in your two-wheel drive vehicle.

Elevation will play an unexpected role in complicating your new home construction. Building at 4000 feet is nothing like building at 1000 feet above sea level. High winds are always a consideration, and in fact the building code requires that you use enough fasteners to brace your house against potential hurricane force gusts. Fasteners will drive up the cost of your home in the mountains. I’m not just referring to nails and screws, I am referring to stainless steel brackets to keep your roof from blowing off, and galvanized steel post bases to keep your deck from being picked up off of its footings. If you cannot imagine dangerously high winds enveloping your home site, it does not mean that they do not occur. I promise you that they do, and you will rest assured knowing that your contractor used the appropriate fasteners for high wind zones. And if your house plan includes a “wall of windows” which is not designed responsibly, you may require the services of a professional structural engineer to make it feasible.

“I have a brilliant plan to save the cost of hiring a general contractor by pulling the permits myself, bringing the guy who built my last house up there to build the new one (he’s desperate for work), and by hiring the guy I met down the valley who owns his own excavating equipment and says he can do the site work very cheaply.” Wow.

First of all, the state of North Carolina recently updated its building code to prohibit the falsification of building permits by unlicensed contractors and unscrupulous home owners. You can still physically build your own home, but you’d better literally do the work yourself, and you must be present for every visit from the building inspector. Next, bringing your friend or brother-in-law the carpenter up from out of state to do this work in unfamiliar territory will end up costing you more, if he is unaware of all the criteria I have mentioned above for building at high elevations. Finally, do NOT hire just anyone who has excavating equipment to do site work on your property. I’ve already outlined the need for a thoughtfully dug road and house site, but what you must also concern yourself with is the potential for landslide if these things are done improperly. Also it is unsafe, unwise, and unlawful to do any excavation until you have a comprehensive house plan to work with…and a permit.

It is not the author’s intention to dissuade you from building your dream home in the mountains. On the contrary, I only wish to encourage you to come do so. But you must know that there are no shortcuts and no bargains for completing your project. The very same untamed wilderness that appealed to you is what will create ongoing challenges for your life in the mountains….are you up to the task?

Some Green Building Design Criteria

What is commonly called “green building” today is more than just a set of practices that lead to environmentally friendly construction.  The benefits of green building design can lead to not only a reduction in consumption of resources, but also to a reduction in your monthly expenses.  Whether you wish to approach green building from the standpoint of saving the planet or saving your money, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that both can be achieved merely by considering a few basic concepts.

The selection of the building site is paramount to the green building process.  Unfortunately in the western NC region which we call home, steep grades are frequently all that are available or affordable to the prospective home owner.  When working to design a home on a steep lot, one thing must be clear:  keep the plan as shallow as possible (from front to back) in order to reduce construction cost and environmental impact.  A favorite saying among contractors in our area is “anything can be built if you throw enough money at it.”  This may be true, but the result can jut awkwardly out of the hillside instead of developing harmoniously within the landscape.  Controlling rainwater on the building site also merits close scrutiny.  Collecting and re-distributing runoff should definitely be of important concern to the green plan.

Dimensions of the building footprint play a large role in responsible home design.  Concrete blocks, sheets of plywood, dimensional lumber, all come straight from the manufacturer in pre-cut lengths or pre-cast units.  Why not create a plan that takes advantage of this modular basis?  For every written dimension that ends with a fraction of an inch, or is not divisible by a building industry standard unit, this translates in the field to increased labor and increased waste.  Labor and waste are not to be taken lightly in the pursuit of a green building design.  Aside from the obvious environmental impact of waste is the added expense of dealing with it.  Likewise, even though the cost associated with labor may come immediately to mind, a reduction in labor will save not only funds but extra trips to the job site (and therefore the associated fuel consumption).

Conditioning the home is also a principal consideration in the evolution of green construction plans.  The methods and magnitude of heating and cooling depend on your needs.  Seasonal conditions vary greatly in our mountainous climate, and also change with elevation.  There are natural options available to supplement your home’s conditioning systems, such as the compass orientation of the footprint, convection air flow throughout the interior, shading the exterior with overhangs or vegetation, and making use of the Earth’s ambient temperature below grade. 

Options for green heating and cooling are generally defined by their consumption of fuel.  The industry constantly strives to make improvements in the efficiencies of traditional devices such as furnaces, heat pumps, and water heaters.  However, for those who wish to go further with green heating and cooling, non-traditional options do exist.  Geo-thermal heat exchangers are similar to traditional air-to-air heat pumps, but instead they exchange heat with the ground, which has a more constant temperature throughout the year than the air.  Under floor radiant heating may be used in place of forced air systems, which can contribute greatly to the quality of the environment within the home.  On-demand water heaters will operate only when hot water is called for; they do not maintain a constant reservoir, and as such will not only reduce consumption but also outlive traditional tank water heaters by as much as three times the life expectancy.  

Now that you have conditioned the space to your liking, maintaining a constant temperature inside the building envelope is of the utmost importance.  Everyone who builds in the mountains wants maximum glass facing their view to incorporate a “wow” factor into their home.  But depending on the orientation of the house, openings (also called fenestrations) should be carefully considered to avoid potential undesired heat gain or loss.  A “mud room” entry is helpful as an intermittent point of entry into the house that will minimize the intrusion of unconditioned air into the building envelope.  Proper insulation is critical, as is appropriate sealing around wall penetrations such as dryer vents and electrical outlets, and weather stripping around fenestrations. 

Kitchen, plumbing, and other appliances should be carefully chosen based on their energy efficiency, which is always noted in plain view with a government mandated energy guide located on each device.  Compact fluorescent bulbs, halogen bulbs, and dimmer switches should be utilized wherever possible to reduce electrical power consumption.  “Enhanced Durability” is a concept that is considered in green building design, which includes products and methods that reduce the negative effects of solar radiation, rainwater erosion and runoff, and the probability of future service calls.  Salvaged, recycled, and renewable building materials and practices are a further consideration for the green home. 

The National Association of Home Builders and the International Code Council have created the National Green Building Standard, which outlines the above and more in specific detail.  It is the responsibility of the home owner to consult with professionals in the design and construction industry for advice and implementation of green building practices.

Banks, Lending, and the Economy

I can’t pretend to be fluent in economics, but I have something to share which I hope you will find useful.  My position as a director of the Haywood Home Builder’s Association allows me the privilege of learning about such matters.

Our organization received a letter from one of our members, a building contractor.  He stated in his opinion the only way the construction industry can make a “come back” is for the banks to change what they are doing and to become more lenient in their current lending practices. 

One of my fellow board members is a banker.  She addressed the contents of the letter in our meeting, and I asked her to write her response and send it to me so that I might glean a better understanding of the situation.  She was kind enough to do just that, and I would like to provide for you here the body of her essay.

  • First of all “spec” lending has basically halted.  The reason for this is “spec” lending is considered “risky” because these loans are for properties no one initially plans on living in and only for the main purpose of selling the home in the future.  The issue now is that these homes are not selling, especially the higher-end homes.  The builder cannot afford to keep these homes for an indefinite period of time (hoping it will sell) and the bank has to take it back in foreclosure.  Unfortunately, there are more of these situations than we would like to talk about in the market right now.  The risk is — if that builder had a choice as to what payment he was going to make – the difference between paying his own house payment where his family resides and the home that he built to sell, he is always going to choose the payment on the home where his family resides, as well he should.
  • The de-regulation of banks in the past years made our guidelines so lax that every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the country thought they could originate loans and loans were made just to make money without any thought to the borrower.  Could the borrower really afford the home, did they understand the loan program, was the appraisal a true picture of the value of the home—all questions that contributed to the current problems.  I honestly believe mortgage originators being paid on a commission basis have been our biggest source of current problems because they only got paid if the loan closed.
  • Credit scores.  The score considered “good” is now at least in the 700s.  Two years ago, credit scores could be as low as 640 and considered good but with all of the foreclosures, the grade level has definitely increased.  However, there is a caveat to that statement.  (My Bank) makes both brokered loans and portfolio loans.  If we have a good customer who has great compensating factors, such as good deposits, low loan-to-value,  etc., we may choose to consider these factors and they may out-weigh the lower scores.  Currently, (my bank) has no fixed rate loans over a ten year period and therefore, these portfolio loans would be made as an adjustable rate loan.  If the customer is trying for a fixed-rate brokered loan, the credit scores have no compensating factors.
  • Appraisals.  One of the biggest problems with foreclosures in the nation is the loan balances exceed the actual value of the home.  Unfortunately, there were instances that the mortgage originator, the realtor, the seller or someone involved in the transaction actually got appraisers to inflate the values, just to make the loans.  That has been the biggest reason for the upside down loans.  On March 1, 2009, the federal government passed the HVCC (Home Value Code of Conduct) resolution.  As of that date, no party involved in a real estate transaction (buyer, seller, builder, realtor, loan officer, attorney) can be involved in the ordering of an appraisal.  It now has to be done by a non-interested third party.  We, as originators, do not have any idea who is performing the appraisal until we have received it.
  • Lastly, the issue concerning problems with “higher-end” homes has mainly been the appraisal process because the sale of these homes has almost stopped.  The appraisers have no way to compare the subject property with current sales when there have been no sales.  In the past few months, as indicated in the Realtor newsletter and the paper, sales have picked up.  This also has been a problem because some of those sales have been stressed sales and the prices definitely do not indicate the true value of the homes.  This is also hurting the appraisals because the appraisers again only have the current comps to compare the subject property to.

May the reader find this essay to be as informative as I have.  I will gladly provide the name of the bank and the lending officer to any interested party.  Please comment or email me at ab@andybaileydesign.com

Radiant Heat and On-Demand Hot Water

As I mentioned in earlier articles, our home is generally heated with a wood burning stove, with some supplemental heat gathered through a passive solar process.  Of course we use a more standard heating system as well, which is thermostatically controlled and fired by liquid propane gas.  What is unusual about our system is that it is an open network of water filled pipes, warmed by an on-demand water heater.

By “open network” I mean that the water that runs through our floors is also our potable water.  Potable is water that is used for drinking, bathing, washing, and cooking.  So through a complex array of mixing valves and pumps, our hot water is diverted as necessary to the washing machine or the shower or the floor.

When considering this “green” technology, I spoke with several companies who supply radiant heat parts and services.  At the time (three years ago) this was completely foreign to me and to most of my colleagues here in the building industry.  This was before the price of fuel skyrocketed, before the current economic slump, and before the green building movement had gained any momentum.

The supplier I chose had many years of proven service and experience.  I sent them my building plans, and they generated a detailed diagram of my system along with a complete list of materials.  Fortunately for me, my friend was building his house at the same time, and he was also interested in using a radiant heating system throughout his floors.  We helped each other with every aspect of the learning and installation processes.

For the lower level we tied pex tubing to the re-bar grid before the concrete was poured.  The thermostat for this zone communicates with a temperature sensor that is also submerged in the poured slab.  On the upper level, the pex was strapped to the bottom of the sub floor.  This zone has its own thermostat, which is mounted on the wall about five feet above the finished floor.  Both zones had to have insulative barriers beneath them, since the heat is so effective it actually radiates downward. 

After running the system for a couple years, the two zones have clearly demonstrated their differences.  The lower level zone, being surrounded by a mass (poured concrete), gives us almost immediate results.  In fact, if I set the thermostat for 72 degrees and come back later, I find the slab temperature has climbed to as high as 75 or 76 degrees.  In contrast, the upper level zone takes more time to raise the temperature to the set point of the wall thermostat.

My two zones are connected to a propane-powered on-demand water heater.  During the construction process I heard many differing opinions regarding my proposed system.  The building inspector was intensely curious, and eagerly soaked up every bit of information I offered.  The plumber shook his head and told me the water heater was going to run continuously, and purchasing propane would bankrupt me.  The radiant heat company assured me it would be effective and efficient.  The propane supplier licked his lips and told me we needed to have a 500 gallon tank and a line of credit. 

In the end, the radiant heat company was right.  What the others did not realize is that the water heater only needs to run for less than an hour, until it sufficiently heats the water that circulates through the floor and back into itself.  After that, only one 85-watt pump is necessary to circulate the hot water throughout the floor until the set temperature of the thermostat is achieved.  Even if the pump runs for several more hours, I am basically heating my house with less than one amp.

The propane supplier called me every month during the first year…now they know I only fill my tank once every 12 months.  When they top off the tank at 80% capacity that would be 400 gallons.  A year later the tank generally reads 45-50% or 225-250 gallons.  So in one year I consume only 150-175 gallons. 

I cannot promise the reader the same benefits unless you are willing to do some of your heating with a wood stove.  But still this is a fantastic result considering that a two-person household is using the propane also to cook and to bathe.

Old Man Winter

Approximately half of my clients over the last five years have built a new home here in the mountains with the intention of making it their primary, year-round residence.  Some already reside here, others plan to retire here some time in the future, while still others are eager to jump right in to full-time mountain living. 

If you are planning to live in your new home over the winter, it is crucial that you plan for certain inevitable contingencies.  Loss of power, water, heat, cooking, and even the ability to leave the house are all potential circumstances that you will encounter at some point during your tenure in this part of the world. 

I grew up outside Atlanta, where a mere dusting of snow meant no school, simply because it does not make good fiscal sense for the city to spend money on something that may or may not happen each year.  The occasional ice storm was even more crippling for Atlanta residents, many of whom were ill prepared to subsist for more than a few hours without power.

In sharp contrast was the time I spent living in New England, in a small town between Boston and Cape Cod.  There I would see two feet of snow fall overnight, as often as four times a season;  with many more snowfall events of six, twelve, eighteen inch totals.  None of my fellow residents expected to be excused from work or school.  I would rise from my warm slumber at five in the morning and plunge headlong into the brutal chill, gather my snow shovel and walk a few blocks to the town’s public library, where I had taken on the task of shoveling snow and ice from the sidewalks surrounding the building and parking areas. 

While it is comparatively uncommon to experience a two-foot snow event here in the southern Appalachians, even the recent 12 to 16 inches of snowfall proved to be more than just a mere inconvenience.  A heavy, wet snow fell at a rate of one inch per hour, weighing down trees and power lines.  My home was without power for 72 hours but fortunately I was prepared. 

Many homes here are outside the reach of public utilities and services.  Living at high elevations and on rural roads means that you must sacrifice certain comforts to which you may have become accustomed.  Even if you have known more severe winters elsewhere, here you will find a different set of challenges to overcome. 

For those of us using a well for our water, loss of electric power means loss of fresh water.  Foreseeing this event, I filled clean containers with water for drinking and cooking, and filled my bathtub with water for bathing and flushing.  I heat my home with propane-warmed water that radiates through the floors; however a loss of power means a loss of the electric pumps that drive the flow.  It is for this reason that I consider the wood stove to be my primary source of heat.  In early spring I collect and split oak, locust, and other hard woods, stacking them to dry and age in time for the cold weather to begin. 

Many homeowners in this situation use a gasoline powered generator to drive the electric systems that control water and heat.  While this is an excellent short-term solution, running out of gasoline means you will have to rely on your vehicle to get you safely to the gas station and back.  Temperatures here may not rise above freezing for several weeks, meaning that without chains or a plow, you may be stranded at your home until the ice melts from roads. 

For these reasons it is wise to be prepared to be comfortable in your home for an extended period.  Consider the following:

-Ponder the sun’s position when planning your new home and driveway.  I have observed first hand that more ice melt occurs in direct sunlight with an ambient air temperature below freezing, than will occur in shade with an air temperature in the fifties. 

-Keep your pantry well stocked, including foods that can be eaten with little or no preparation. 

-Provide a back-up heating system for your back-up heating system. 

-Always have a reservoir of water available.

-Get to know your neighbors;  even if they are half a mile away, they are still your neighbors who may need your help or help you if necessary. 

-If you have little or no experience driving in wintry conditions, do not attempt to learn on a rural or steep mountain road!

The crippling winter events of recent weeks don’t happen every year, but they do happen.  The beauty of our western North Carolina mountains attracts many, but one must also appreciate that our climate can be extremely harsh and overwhelming.

Solstice and passive solar gain

The shortest day of the year is approaching, but to me this is the day that I measure the sun’s farthest reach into the heart of my home. 

There is to be found on a section of baseboard in my living room, a small mark made with a Sharpie, on December 21, 2007.  On this day each year, the sun extends its warm caress a full eleven feet, six inches across dark green ceramic tiles, reaching eagerly to illuminate the cool, dim interior. 

This “technology” is what is known as passive solar heating.  A thermal mass of masonry is required, as well as a decent southern exposure.  If you’ve ever felt the brick facade of a home during the cool shade of evening, and been surprised at the residual warmth of the afternoon beneath your hand, then you are familiar with the concept of a thermal mass. 

This is most commonly achieved inside the home with a poured concrete slab floor covered with dark tiles.  An interior brick wall can also provide the desired result, however it may be easier to “wash” the floor with sunlight than to do so on a vertical surface.   In order for an interior wall to be properly bathed in the sun’s rays, the situation would require at least two stories of windows…otherwise this thermal mass would have to be at most only a few feet from the glass (only practical if the space is a hallway or nook).

In my home I have nine foot ceilings and south facing windows that are a little higher than usual…about 90 inches to the top as opposed to the standard 80 inches above the finished floor surface.  The extra window height provides additional distance for the sun’s rays to reach into the depth of the home.  Eleven and a half feet of sunshine striking the floor is what I get on December 21, as opposed to zero sunlight penetrating the windows on June 21. 

It’s definitely not enough solar gain to heat the house without my auxilliary systems, but there is a noticeable amount of heat, and it’s a great feeling to know that for this warmth I am not paying the utility company.  Even in January and February, at my elevation of 3000 feet, I usually do not have to run any auxilliary heat during the day to keep the house at a comfortable level (provided that the sun is shining). 

Another consideration was to have no low-E glass windows and doors on the home’s south facade, for this type of glass would insulate the interior from the sun’s warmth and therefore work to defeat the advantages.  The remaining three sides of the house have typical windows and doors with low-E glass. 

In addition, a generous roof overhang of 2 feet helps to shade the house during the summer months.  My home is 2 stories, and the roof overhang alone would have been too high to provide shade to the windows on the lower level.  To correct this problem, the floor joists on the upper level are cantilevered beyond the exterior wall a full two feet (see fig 1), effectively providing the necessary shade for the doors and windows on the lower level of the south face. 

December 21 – short on time but long on light and shadow. 

copyright A. Bailey Design

copyright A. Bailey Design