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?

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