Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sewer Negotiations

One thing I had to deal with over the last few weeks was what to do with the sewer line. During the bidding process, all the contractors had assumed there was a stub-out for a sewer line already there for the lot. From what I understand, this is a safe assumption to make. Unfortunately, there is no sewer hookup to my lot! There are two ways I can get rid of sewage. 
  1. Run a sewer line about 100' up the driveway, tear up the street to tap into the main sewer line, and repair the street (all at my expense with city labor). I would also have to install a pump in the house to pump the sewage uphill. All this is very expensive ($20-30K).
  2. Run a sewer line downhill along the north side of the neighbor's lot and hook into the side sewer at the sidewalk. This is much easier and cheaper (~$5K), but requires permission and a side sewer easement from the neighbor.
The decision was obvious. I first contacted the neighbor about tapping into their sewer line and they seemed to be fine with the idea. Fine, that is, until they talked to their attorney friend. Their friend vehemently recommended against such an agreement. Their first argument was that they incur some risk of me potentially clogging their sewer line. This isn't an issue as I would be bypassing their sewer lines and forking into the existing city line. They also said that they may have difficulties selling their duplex with an easement on the title. In my opinion, this isn't a big deal and it's apparently done quite often. If I were buying a house, the sewer easement would probably be the last thing I look at. 

A while later, a second issue came up. The same neighbor has an existing retaining wall on the south side of the driveway. It's about 60x3', handmade out of concrete scraps, and somewhat falling apart. They expressed interest in replacing the retaining wall with something nicer, but quickly disagreed when my contractor quoted them $6500 for it (it's an $8500 job). Since I have to undercut their retaining wall with my new driveway, that creates another new expense for me to try to support their structure and keep it intact. *grumble*

To try to sweeten the deal, I proposed that in exchange for giving me a sewer easement, I would replace their crumbling retaining wall with a nice poured concrete wall, equivalent to the one I have on the other side of the driveway. I also offered to cut down and dispose of the large bush in their backyard (a $600 value). This is a win/win situation for the most part. I don't spend nearly as much as option #1, and I get a nice driveway with proper retaining walls on both sides, while they get a new retaining wall and their bush taken care of. With this new offer, the neighbor gave me verbal agreement that he'll do it.

But not so quick! A day or two later, he had talked to his attorney again and had come up with a new list of demands. They wanted a set of proposed plans for the new retaining wall, a timeline, an indemnification agreement, and for me to pay the attorney's legal fees. When I had my architects draw up plans for the retaining wall, they also asked for the wall to wrap around the front of their duplex (probably an extra 2-4K expense). This was quickly starting to get ridiculous. I pushed back on the retaining wall additions and on the legal fees. Their attorney also suggested he could write up my end of the agreement (for a fee), which was ethically questionable.

Despite the already bad taste in my mouth from all this, the neighbor did still seem willing to move forward, and knowing that I could buy a car with the money I could save, I continued negotiating. Several days later, the neighbor came up with a new concern. He was worried that the sewer line would somehow disturb the cinder-block foundation to his duplex. This concern was totally unfounded, so to ease his mind, I had both my contractor and a foundation expert come out and say that this will not affect the foundation. Even with that assurance, he wanted me to sign something in paper that basically said that if his foundation deteriorates between now and the end of time, I would be responsible for repairing his foundation. In the words of Will Smith, "Aww hell naw!" Is this guy going to try to extort me? I only got to steam about that for an hour before he called back to say he's completely backing out of the agreement. Well thanks for wasting everyone's time!

Back to option #1!

In an effort to perhaps share some of my new-found expenses with someone else, I emailed the owner of the neighboring empty parcel and asked if he was interested in having me run utilities to his parcel and split the sewer cost before the driveway goes in. It would be a great selling point for that lot, and the future owner wouldn't have to tear up a brand new driveway to run utilities. He agreed to pay to run water and gas, but when he heard the estimated price tag on the sewer, he couldn't afford splitting the cost on that.

So in summary, I get no help from anyone and have to absorb all the extra costs, which are guaranteed to be significant. I'm forced to do option #1, but I will run a 6" line with a T-junction at the end of my lot in front of the house. Once the driveway is paved over, anyone who purchases the adjacent lot will have no choice but to hook up to my sewer line. When that time comes, I'll keep it simple and grant easement to my sewer in exchange for half of my sewer construction costs (whatever that ends up being). As for the south retaining wall, I'll build out a short concrete retaining wall in front of the neighbor's old one - just big enough to prevent the existing one from falling apart. I'll plant some shrubbery or something behind the wall to alleviate the eyesore.

How will I pay for this? The bank is of no use. A construction loan can't be re-negotiated, and anything over-budget has to be payed for by the borrower (me). If the money I saved up since March doesn't cover it, I'll probably borrow some from my parents or tap into my 401K (with penalties). Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Either way, I will be covered. I'm told that excavation/foundation work is the worst part of construction and the most likely to go over-budget. Once I'm out of the ground, it should be smooth sailing. At least I'm glad I'm no longer in decision-making limbo and can move forward.

Lessons learned:

  • Lawyers bring out the worst in people
  • Nothing's guaranteed until you see it in writing
  • Don't count on anyone helping you out, even if things are in their favor
  • Sewers are expensive
  • Always have extra money laying around

Monday, May 16, 2011

Retaining Wall

The retaining wall for the driveway was completed on 5/12. First, the footings were set-up on 5/2:

The footings were poured on 5/4, forms were put in place the next day, then a few days later, the wall was poured. Here's what it looks like as the forms were removed:

From the street

From the end of the wall

Close-up of the end of the wall
 The concrete guys wanted to sand everything down and fill all the holes left by air bubbles, but both my architect and I made sure they didn't. All that is great natural texture for the wall. They did forget to embed the house numbers in the front of the wall, but I'm not too worried about that. Numbers can be affixed to the wall at a later point for an equivalent effect.

The driveway will follow the profile of the retaining wall, but will be about two feet lower. Once the foundation work is done, the wall will be extended to meet with the foundation.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

House Number Typography

One of the cool things about doing custom construction is that one has freedom to create or customize almost any detail of the house. The only limits are budget, city code, and imagination. Since I'm a bit of a typography aficionado, I wanted to use an appropriate typeface for the house number. I wanted it to be very geometric and also subtly reflect the cool angles in the facade of the house. Both Futura and Neutra had some of those qualities. I ended up making a custom typeface by tweaking the terminals of the numbers to give it a more angled appearance.

This will show up stamped into the concrete retaining wall next to the street and laser-cut into the steel facade of the house.