Finally Footings

They’ve started on the footings up on the mountain. Almost 2 months after our loan closed the first dirt is dug. That is very frustrating, it took forever. It had been so long and our job was so stale that everything had to be revisited, none of the bids were current for anything. People gave up hope we’d ever get funded. So firing that all back up took time, and that is really unfortunate, because after delaying a year, another 2 months is like a dagger. I want to be living there already. My original plan, way back was to have the castle done and finished by August of 2015, back when I started this process in, I don’t know, 2010 or 2011, I thought it was doable. We may have the 3rd floor framing done by then, maybe.

So, at least now they’re starting the footings. What are footings? Well, they’re the feet of your building. You always dig down into the earth a ways (how far depends on a lot of factors, including your climate) to put in your footings. You put in steel, or a lot of steel as in my case, and pour concrete into these trenches. Then you have a firm level base on which to build your walls. I’m told this will take a couple weeks, then we’ll put up our pool patio basement walls, then the ICF main house basement walls, they will start on the 1st floor in June, then maybe 2nd floor in July, 3rd floor in August. Maybe we’ll get closed in then by Halloween.

Footing Work

Footing Tower

Footing Work

Partial Tower Footing

Footing Steel

Footing Rebar

Excavation Time Lapse Video

They started this week doing footings finally up on the mountain, I’ll post more about that when I get some better pictures, so the ball is rolling now, and hopefully it doesn’t stop.

We swapped out the memory card on the time lapse camera we installed so I pulled out the excavation work that was done last summer. It doesn’t quite start at the very very beginning of the dirt work, but fairly close. You can see them dig us a hole. The little nub they leave is for the pool.

Castle Loan Details

So I guess the loan is real, I have the paperwork, signed, sealed, delivered, no backing out now. I guess I can safely talk about it without jinxing anything.

I thought, all along, that I would provide a litany of the banks that said no, but we’d be here all day. Pretty much, you can assume that if the bank exists, at some point they said no to me. I probably spoke with 30 banks all told. Some told me no straight off the bat, they either didn’t do construction loans, or didn’t want to do one this large. Others lead me on for awhile before saying no, some loan officers tried really hard but ultimately could not get the approval.

A few of them said they would loan me the money, but only if I deposited a nearly equal amount with them first. Some said they could do it, but at half the required amount. Many blamed federal regulations making it too hard for them to do it. Many told me the problem was the appraisals, our appraisals were high enough, but they were nonconforming to regulations because our comparables were too old and too far away. It has to be sometime like sales within 90 days within a mile – so good luck if you’re out in the country. There are many places where you’d never find 3 homes that have sold in the last 90 days similar to yours within a mile of yours. Then of course, many simply thought that if I was building a McMansion it would be okay, but they worried that, even with my 50% down payment, they would take a loss on it in the (inconceivable) event of a foreclosure, because, who wants to live in a castle? I mean, yuck, right?

Ultimately I actually used some website, because I thought, what could it hurt? To get “multiple loan offers” blah blah, I’m sure you’ve seen the ads for sites like it. Through this site a mortgage broker out of Florida contacted me. He said he thought he could get me a loan, he worked on commission, 2% of the loan. That is pretty steep, but I didn’t have a lot of options. So I said okay. I was still free to keep looking for banks, but if I went with one he referred I’d owe him 2%. Ultimately, he got me back in with two banks that had told me no before already, Sun Trust and BB&T. Sun Trust sort of dragged their feet and while their initial offer was really nice, it was hard to work with them and they didn’t respond very quickly, and we’re already about 9 months late on starting. BB&T worked steadily through the underwriting and ultimately approved the loan and I went with them. I got a $2 million construction loan that converts to a permanent 30 year mortgage on completion. The rate floats within a range for now, Sun Trust was going to lock a rate in the low 3s which I would have preferred, but like I said, they were taking awhile and their approval was not guaranteed. So now I owe the mortgage broker $40,000.

What? I mean seriously, I want to be angry at him, $40,000 for a phone call and an email? Nice work if you can get it. Just for “selling the sizzle not the steak” as he said. But I can’t be angry at him, all he did was exactly what he said he would do, and I agreed to it, and ultimately without him I would not have this loan. So I can’t be angry at him, and as much as I’m going to dislike writing that check, that is his money. I can be angry at the banking system overall for forcing me to use him. I should be an ideal borrower, wealthy, well employed, large down payment, excellent credit, and our banking system was hard for me to use. No wonder the middle class is still hurting. Our government has this habit of gross overreaction. So we had a banking crisis largely caused by poor regulation, and the solution is more poor regulation swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. When what we needed was not more regulation, merely smarter regulation. So now, instead of being too easy to get a loan, it is too hard. One option presented to me was to put my home into an LLC and then I could have gotten a commercial loan on it because the regulations were more lax for those so they could get it done.

So BB&T is the winner, but even then it wasn’t a perfect situation. They had to charge a slightly higher interest rate because the loan wasn’t going to be underwritable enough to market it as a security or ever sell it. So BB&T was going to have to keep it in-house no matter what.

So now, I think, I can take the banking stress out of my life, and instead replace it with building stress.

Facts & Stats

I had to just add some stuff up to help some bids get put in, and I thought I would share.

The castle has a total of 10147 square feet conditioned above grade that you can stand on. I phrase it like that because we have some double height ceilings and some people count that as double square footage, but you can’t stand on air, so I don’t. Additionally there are 2632 partially finished partially conditioned basement square feet, 1035 unconditioned basement square feet. Then there is an attached unfinished unconditioned bare concrete floor/wall/ceiling patio basement (an artifact of the bedrock, slope, and position of the house) essentially a parking garage, that is 3544 square feet.

We will have 9 bathrooms. It seems like a lot, what governed our decisions on bathroom placement was making sure one was accessible without you having to walk halfway across the house or up or down a stair. You have to plan for things like the pool, do you want people to have to walk, dripping wet, across the house to use the bathroom or do you add one near the door to the pool? Many of these bathrooms are just half baths though. There will be 8 bedrooms, though not all of them will be used as such.

There will be a total of ~179 light fixtures, including things like fans and garage door openers. The kitchen is 314 square feet, which is just 3% of the conditioned total, and even less of the gross total.

Our total acreage is 20, and most of that is wooded forest.

I Have a Loan

After dealing with banks for a solid year, I’m happy to announce I finally have a loan. We could close as early as Friday, construction will start soon, I’m really happy, though now that it is finally real I am also a little anxious. In the time that has passed there has been some material inflation but I hope it isn’t too bad. I’ll post more details after we close, I don’t want to jinx anything.

I visited last weekend to do some business related things and took some more pictures of the lot. This was after some of the final grading was done and some rocks were moved around. It was also right after what Chattanooga called Snowmageddon, but as I’m from Michigan I found that adorable. The whole property was covered with snow on Friday and Saturday, but gone by Sunday.

My Builder and I.

My Builder and I.




Then I thought I would include this picture, what I call the best undeveloped view of Chattanooga. This is the lower 5 acres of my property, you can’t even get the entire view in the picture, if I had panned to the left you’d see more of downtown as far as Veterans Bridge, so essentially it is an unobstructed view of everything between Veterans Bridge to Lookout Mountain, and as low as Moccasin Bend. I’ll sell it one day or put cabins on it or something, I prefered the larger building site up higher for my own build as I like land and gardens, this is more of a brow spot, but it sure is a nice view.

The Best Undeveloped View of Chattanooga

The Best Undeveloped View of Chattanooga

Not Much to Report

Do I have a loan? No. I have three banks working on it, I’ve paid for more appraisals. The most recent appraisal was the highest yet, putting my loan-to-value (LTV) at 44%, and yet still no finalized loan. I do have “preliminary approvals” at two banks but I’ve heard that before.

Business is doing good to the point where I’d almost be there to just self finance, and I think perhaps in another year (maybe two) I could indeed to do that, not need a bank at all, but I don’t want to wait, still, you’d think with my strong financials getting a loan would be the least of my problems.

I have however recently done two interesting things. The first is I found a coppersmith to make me a custom copper sink. I found them on eBay actually and I asked them if they could customize one of their designs. I’m really pleased with how it turned out. It is a large copper farm house style apron sink with two bowls and 5 square quatrefoils on the front. There is a slight concavity to the front face, which will allow it to blend in nicely with our countertops, which are curved along the outside wall of one of the towers. See the kitchen post. This was $1500, which if you’ve ever priced out as sink like this is a great deal, of course I bought it direct from the fabricator, not from a middleman.

My Custom Copper Sink

My Custom Copper Sink

The second thing I bought is a sconce. This is also a custom design. I saw this light fixture at Disney world hanging off Cinderella’s castle and I had to have it. Of course that one was maybe 6 feet tall, mine is half the size, but it has all the style. What I particularly liked was that it didn’t have a fake candle. I’m not a big fan of fake candle light fixtures, I like the light bulb to be enclosed in shaded glass or something (in the case of my sconce it is mica, which is technically a rock, just a sort of flexible rock crystal they can cut so thin as to make it pliable). Glass shades give you greater flexibility in bulb types as well. I also liked how the metal came up and formed a basket around the glass. Finally, and importantly. I liked the angle of it. I see a lot of “torch” sconces where the torch is held parallel to the wall, but I don’t think that is period correct and I simply also prefer the look where the torch angles away from the wall. This thing is custom made in Texas, is solid steel, 3 feet long, weighs a good deal, has a nice antique finish on it. $380, I am getting a little bit of a discount because I’m buying in bulk. We’re going to need a bunch of these sconces all around the 1st floor interior. Neat huh, and I also think it is a good deal.

This is my sconce, there are many like it but this one is mine.

This is my sconce, there are many like it but this one is mine.

My Sconce, Front View

My Sconce, Front View

My Sconce, Side View

My Sconce, Side View

The inspiration for my sconce, see on Cinderalla's Castle at Disney World.

The inspiration for my sconce, see on Cinderalla’s Castle at Disney World.

My sconce was done by Iron Gallery LLC, I shopped around and they gave me the best deal and all told I’m super impressed by the quality of the work. In addition to doing lighting they do other things like doors, and I tell you what it is really hard to find giant metal 10 ft x 4.5 ft gothic arch castle doors on the shelf at home depot, and we plan to use this same company to do both some of our other light fixtures (like the ginormous one in the great hall) but our custom doors as well. Actually one of the doors I picked was one of their stock doors, if you browse their site maybe you’ll find it, it is square but with a gothic arch window.

One of the goals I have with my blog is to reputationally reward the suppliers used on the build. For two reasons, one because people who do good work deserve credit, and one because I know how hard it is to find some of this stuff and I hope to be helpful to any future would be castle builders. So I plan to plug the vendors contractors and everyone else I use as I use them so long as they continue to perform and provide me deals and do good work and all that jazz. If I wanted to be funny I could say it is like reverse product placement, instead of them paying me, I pay them. I really need to figure out how to do it the opposite way…

So that is all, when I do have a loan, which could be by the end of this month if I’m lucky, or by Valentine’s day, or maybe not until this Summer if I’m really, really, really unlucky, I’ll post here first thing.

Banking Frustration

I’ve really been wanting to use a local bank for the build because I think they understand the Chattanooga market better than a national bank and I think they would be easier to work with and have a better grip on what I’m trying to do.

I’ve been told by two banks that if I was building a boring plain McMansion it wouldn’t be a problem, I’ve been told repeatedly my numbers are good, my downpayment is good (I’m putting nearly 50% down if you can believe that), credit good, income good, castle… not good. They don’t understand the castle, they don’t want to finance the castle. Why don’t I just build a generic house, it wouldn’t be a problem?

They worry that, apparently, in the event of a foreclosure (again, remember, my numbers are all excellent) they won’t be able to sell the castle because…wait for it… no one wants to live in a castle. Please. If you’d like to live in a castle, go ahead and comment on this post. But whats more, they worry that people would hate living in castles so much, that they would despise it to such a high degree that they will be forced to liquidate the property for more than a 51% discount (remember, I’m putting 50% down) creating a loss for the bank. So even if your dream isn’t to live in a castle, go ahead and comment if you would “accept” a castle at the same price of an equivalent square footage McMansion. I mean, if you had to choose between two houses with the same size/amenities, and one was a McMansion, and one was a castle, which would you choose?

The first bank, recommended by the architects, the loan officer was all gun ho, and I thought it was a sure thing, I was told it was a sure thing, at the very last minute they pulled the plug because the management at the bank rejected it at the final stage of the process. This caused delays, we wanted to start building last Spring, all this summer has been finding other banks.

Of course, as I’m contacting other banks, the first thing I say is, its a castle, are you sure thats okay? The plans and those nice 3D renderings have been done for awhile, so it isn’t as if they can’t look and see exactly what I mean. Another bank, recommended by someone else, said okay, and I’ve been working with them… and then just now they pull the plug. They said the article made them realize it was more castle-y than they thought. But seriously, they’ve had the plans for months, and it was the very first thing I asked them.

I don’t blame the loan officers at either bank, they were on my side, the first one even said he would loan me the money personally (if he had it), I blame their bosses, the people making the final decisions. Our whole banking system is a mess because of the recession and Washington and everything else. I’m incredibly successful, I have a credit score near 800, I’m putting 50% down, and I still can’t get a loan.

It is incredibly frustrating to me to be told “Hey, great income, great credit, great downpayment, but sorry, we can’t lend to you because my boss doesn’t understand why you want a house that looks like a castle.”

Do you know what banks are supposed to do when they have no idea how much a house is worth? Get an appraisal, duh. So I paid, out of my pocket, $3000 for two appraisals (it has to be two, because of the size of the loan). Guess what? According to the appraisers, these being the people whose job it is to figure out how much houses will sell for, my castle would do perfectly fine on the real estate market, better than fine. I’m still sitting pretty with a loan to value of near 50%. But even then, the bankers say no, despite having the appraisal in front of them telling them what they could sell the house for, they say no.

I tried other local banks too, many told me know right off the bat, it was just too big of a project for them to handle. All is not lost, I have one more bank, the most likely bank, they did another high end vaguely castle-like home recently, still working the loan. We hope to close on that in 3-4 weeks. Since the first bank bailed on me I learned not to put all my eggs in one basket, but now that another bank bailed I have just the one egg left, and that makes me nervous, and stressed, and angry.

So maybe I can turn that article in the newspaper into something beneficial, since the cat is out of the bag and apparently everyone in town now knows about my house, if anyone is a banker or knows a banker in the Chattanooga area who might be interested in this project, please, let me know. I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me too many times not to be intensely worried about that one wee egg left in my basket. Of course, everyone please comment if you’d like to live in a castle so I can have a sort of moral victory over those stuffy bankers, and if anyone is looking for a bank recommendation, I’ll post giving them my whole hearted recommendation.

Originally, with this blog, I was hoping it to be anonymous, I didn’t think of building plans being public record, a journalist seeing ours, Googling my name, and voila. But now the cat is out of the bag, and everyone in town, apparently, knows what I’m doing. So, let me put that to use. In addition to me wanting a backup bank, just in case, we still haven’t picked many of the trades who will be working on the house. If you think you have something to offer please let me know. I will be continuing to blog about construction, and apparently, there will be media interest, so it could be good promotion for you as well if you’re chosen. Also, my wife still is looking for a job, she is a child psychiatrist and they’re so rare they’re basically in demand everywhere, she has interviewed at different hospitals or healthcare providers down in town, but hasn’t signed a contract anywhere yet. If you know someone who might need a doctor with her training, we’ll certainly take the referral. Erlanger specifically we’ve never heard from, through I hear through the grapevine they need someone like her. Oh and hey, I guess, since HGTV is just up in Knoxville, since this is no longer a secret I guess it can really not be a secret if anyone knows anyone who works up at the network.

Excavation, Site Preparation, Digging, Leveling

For almost a month now they’ve been digging on my mountain.

I think I mentioned before, but I’ll mention again, what you pay for your land is not the only thing to consider when choosing your land. Assuming you’re not building in a graded flat subdivision you’re going to have costs associated with putting your land into a buildable condition. In my case I bought the high point of the ridge and it needed to be brought down to where I could have roughly 80×120′ of flat area for the footings, patios, parking, etc. The driveway and front turnaround drive also had to be built up and leveled, a septic field built, etc.

Foundation hole from corner tower

Foundation hole from corner tower

I had looked at one lot that was cheaper than this, and way way way worse than this besides, but also it likely would have had 250k+ of excavation costs, making it, in the end, not cheaper. Additionally I toured a house under construction nearby where I was told they had a million dollars in site prep. They took a lot that was hardly flat at all, the peak of a little foothill that was all rock, and had to blast it apart (literally) to create a level surface (and a large one). Though they got tons of “free” rock to landscape with.
Foundation from Forest Side

Foundation from Forest Side

My lot is great by comparison. It was a high point, but not so steep or severe, and mostly soil, very little rock. Around 2 feet from subgrade we did reach a really compacted layer of almost-sandstone. Not quite rock, but not quite soil anymore. That has slowed us down and cost more money. All told it is looking like site prep costs of around $100k, if you include the tree clearing. Cheaper than other options, but still quite expensive. Of course, that isn’t the end of the earth costs, on the backend things will need to be put back into order, the foundation backfilled, the lot graded with soil, etc. Plus this isn’t including the long driveway, which I categorize under concrete, but which could also have been less (or more) with a different lot.

Excavation on our property was done by Joe Palmer of McKinnley Excavating.

Clearing the Land

We’ve just had our land clearing done, it makes it a little more real now I guess. I’ve spent the last 6 months or so just working on budgeting and pricing and it is taking way longer than I wanted, I had hoped to have a budget by thanksgiving, I’ll be lucky to have it by March I think.

We cannot do any more work until the loan closes because of title issues, which is unfortunate because I’d be willing to pay for the excavation to start now just to get a head start because I think the house isn’t going to be done by the time we’ll want to move (which means we’ll be stuck renting). But we were able to get the trees cleared at least.

I haven’t been there to see it yet, but I think it turned out really good from the pictures. This is the view from dirt level, we’ll be much higher when looking out a window, even the first floor is above grade.

View From the Road

View From the Road

View Down the Driveway

View Down the Driveway

Big View

Big View

Reclaimed Gothic Doors

Nothing beats new construction in terms of quality, energy efficiency, or ease of installation, but generally nothing beats old construction in terms of quality, story, or cachet. Many times when people are building historic houses they like to seek out reclaimed materials to add character to their construction. We are largely not doing this.

We have a copious amount of beams in the construction, and using reclaimed wood would be nice, but its very expensive, and even though we’re building an amazing home, we still have a budget. You can buy new timbers that have been hand hewn to look old for less than old timbers. Same with flooring.

However, I have purchased a few items for integration into the castle that are antiques.

The first are a set of doors. These gothic doors with stained glass transom were salvaged off the Ruffin Nichols Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia prior to being demolished. This church is pre-civil war, and was built in 1844. These doors I purchased were made of American Chestnut, a species of wood extinct in the lumber trade due to blight. I think it is utterly cool that when entering my castle you will walk through gothic doors from 1844 from a tree that can no longer be grown for lumber (the blight kills all chestnuts prior to reaching harvest age now).

Ruffin Nichols Memorial Church

My builder was not too excited about this when I first told him I wanted these doors, he was rightfully concerned about trying to get them to work, to fit snugly, energy sealing, and the like. However I simply told him I wasn’t planning to use these doors an exterior doors, but interior ones. I imagine in fact they’ll be open most of the time. You see our house features an entry vestibule, a gatehouse or barbican. You essentially enter the front door (which will be newly manufactured, and bronze), and find yourself in a small room with another set of doors to enter the house proper, it is this second set of doors that I am using these reclaimed doors for.

1844 Chestnut Gothic Doors

When I saw these doors, with a total height of 10 feet, and the gothic detailing, I knew they would be perfect for this spot with my first floor ceiling heights of 12 feet.

1844 Chestnut Gothic Transom

I also purchases a couple antique wood mantles from around the 1920s.

~1920s wooden mantle

There is a possibility that someone else will catch my eye, but at this point I do not plan to purchase any additional antique salvage building materials.