13 March 2005

So let me tell you about this house thing…

When we arrived in Austin at the end of October, we didn’t expect major problems finding a house. During our visit in April we had spent an afternoon with a real estate agent, and had seen a number of suitable houses.

Sure enough, the first day we went house hunting, sara walked into a place and immediately thought “This is it.” We went back when I had finished work, and I agreed.

It was in Bouldin Creek, part of South Austin, more specifically Travis Heights. It was a newly-built house, extremely energy efficient, with zoned HVAC, high-e windows, the works.

As far as style, the house wouldn’t have looked out of place in New England—constructed with fiber-cement siding to look like wood, with decks front and back.

We put in an offer in November, and it was accepted. We thought we’d be moved in by Christmas…

Being cautious, we arranged for a full independent inspection of the house. Many people don’t bother to get new houses inspected; many people are idiots. Mold is a big problem in Texas, as it is in England, because of the damp and mild climate. Our realtor recommended a local inspector who does a particularly thorough job. Sure enough, there were a number of interesting things about the house.

First off, the foundation was pier and beam. Not unusual, given that the house is in the South Austin hills, but usually the wooden joists of the house rest on metal plates, which spread the load to the concrete blocks of the piers. Plates are added and removed as appropriate to level out the house.

The contractors putting together this house had invented a shortcut. Instead of metal plates, they had hammered in some small wooden shims. As a result, the load was concentrated into a tiny area instead of being spread, and the concrete posts were starting to crack.

They had also not quite put in enough ventilation for the space under the house. In fact, it looked as if they had almost forgotten the whole house part in their excitement at building the foundation walls, as in one place they had forgotten to leave a gap for a beam and had just knocked out a hole with a sledgehammer after the fact, and then filled around the beam afterwards.

The decks were a problem too. They had been built with no gaps between the wooden slats. Seems superficially like a good idea, as you can’t drop stuff between the gaps and lose it. Unfortunately, it also means that water can’t drain from the deck, and gradually pools up. Then the wood starts to absorb the water, and the space under the deck becomes moist, a breeding ground for mold. Finally, the wood rots away, and you have to do major repair work.

My favorite cock-up was the bathroom venting. The way it’s supposed to work is the bathroom vent connects to a duct, which goes up into the attic and emerges via a vent near the top of the roof. That had been too much work for the contractors; they had run a duct across instead, to the soffit vents. Hence the moist air would immediately be sucked back up into the attic.

The good news was that the problems were fixable. We got an estimate from a builder our agent recommended, and put in a revised offer—we’d buy the house if the seller would pay our choice of builder to fix the problems. We wanted the work done by our choice of builder to ensure that The O’Reilly Men wouldn’t be hired to fix the problems they caused in the first place.

[Our builder has found a neat way to fix the decks, too. Rather than rip them off and rebuild them, the plan is to use an industrial covering material to put a single-piece waterproof surface on them. No holes for things to fall into, rain will just drain off, and the result should be more durable than a properly-constructed conventional deck. The downside is that it’s expensive, but it’s cheaper than major structural work, and the final result can be colored to match what the wooden deck looked like.]

So once again everything was agreed. We thought we’d be moving in in January.

Then came the next problem. It turned out that the house and its neighbor to the west had originally been part of one large lot. They shared a separate two-car garage, subdivided into two single garages. Unfortunately, when the builders divided up the original lot, they ran the property line across the corner of the garage.

Our neighbors-to-be had discovered this and weren’t happy about it. The city of Austin wasn’t happy about it either, and had refused to issue a certificate of occupancy for the houses. The neighbors-to-be got someone to draw up a revised plan which changed the property lines to skirt around the outside of the garage. The garage would be entirely on next door’s lot, and an easement agreement would be drawn up to give us perpetual usage of half of the garage for a nominal $10 fee to make the contract legally binding.

Unfortunately, the revised property lines needed to be approved by the city’s property zoning people at their next monthly meeting. In the mean time, our mortgage deal fell through, so we started that process again. Fortunately we’d elected to work via a mortgage agent, so he handled all the re-submitting of application forms and documents. We expected to be moving in by the end of February.

Unfortunately, there was a snag. When the city reviewed the redrawn lots, they rejected the changes because the diagram was missing some essential information. The whole thing had to be sent back to be re-drawn and then re-submitted for the next month’s review meeting.

That was done, and things looked like they were falling into place. We had sorted out the financing, we’d checked the easement agreement was OK, the price and terms were agreed, and the money was ready to go.

It was about then that we discovered the IRS had recategorized my UK flat as a speculative business investment, rather than our only real estate property. There was a rather spectacular tax bill due. Massachusetts wanted a big chunk of cash too. The good news was that we had the money to cover it by April’s deadline. The bad news was that it was the money we were planning to use for furniture and appliances…Oh well, c’est la vie.

The city approved the change to the property lines, and we still expected to move in some time in March. Then our new neighbor asked a lawyer to check over the easement agreement, and the lawyer went nuts. He put in clauses saying that nobody could ever park in front of the garage, even temporarily; that we couldn’t keep housepaint in the garage; and that I couldn’t repair my bike in there either. There was also stuff about not being allowed to play musical instruments in the garage, not that I cared about that; but for good measure, he added a clause saying that no such restrictions applied to next door.

My objection was pretty simple: the agreement said we would split the maintenance costs for the garage 50/50. If we were going to split the costs equally, we should have equal use of our respective halves of the garage. I shot off an e-mail last week. The good news was that everyone agreed the lawyer had been a touch overzealous, it was perfectly reasonable to store a couple of cans of paint in the garage, I could clean and repair my bike if I wanted to, and if people wanted to visit us and park in the driveway that was fine so long as the car was on wheels, rather than on bricks. This was written into a revised contract (yes, even the bit about cars on bricks not being allowed), and everything looked like it would happen some time next week.

On Friday I was out getting some photocopying and faxing done, arranging for the bank to wire the money to the escrow agent, when I got a call from our realtor.

It turned out that the bank who had offered us our mortgage deal was getting pissy. In the last few days, oil prices had hit the US economy, and interest rates had jumped up 0.75%. The bank said if we didn’t complete the transaction that day, our interest rate would be raised 0.5%. In fact, to get that concession our mortgage broker had had to scramble around and contact senior management at the bank and explain the reason for all the delays.

So I finished my faxing and collected sara, and we drove over to the land and title company immediately. We spent a couple of hours reading and signing a couple of dozen pieces of paper. Technically, we completed the transaction “pending funding”—instructions may have been sent to my bank in Boston, by fax and now by FedEx as well, but they won’t act on them until Monday. However, since the money is sitting in my account, cleared and ready to go, I have confidence that I can get my bank to deliver the funds Monday, so we went ahead and signed accordingly.

As for the repair work, that’s starting this weekend, hopefully. The builder says we can go ahead and start moving in. The seller is going to cut a couple of checks and give them to us, one will be given to the builder up front, we’ll hand him the second one when we’re satisfied with the work done. The reason for that arrangement? Well, we’re not the only ones hurting from the delays—the builder found himself sitting on two houses, unable to sell them for almost a year, and for cashflow reasons needed to rely on the proceeds from the sale to fund the repairs. Something of a leap of faith by us, but it’s not going to keep me awake at nights.

I’m the kind of person who reads documents before signing them. There was one exception: the “meat” of the agreement is a 25 page nightmare mandated by Texas state law. Since we didn’t really have any say in what that one said, I just signed it. I have mixed feelings about that—on the one hand, I wonder if a non-state-mandated document might have been readable. On the other hand, if it hadn’t been state mandated and had been (say) 20 pages, I would have had to read it.

The seller’s agent thanked us for our patience. Both realtors agreed that it had been the most protracted delay in closing they had seen in about 35 years of combined experience. Our neighbor-to-be arrived and signed the easement agreement. Everyone seemed relieved that it was finally over.

So it all comes down to this:

After four months of delays, we bought the house we wanted. It’s actually purchased, in a legal sense.

The original contractors, who cocked everything up? They were all fired.

Hopefully we’ll pick up keys to the house on Monday when the deal is funded; then we need to sort out getting our stuff out of storage, and work out who we can bribe to help us unload our worldly possessions.

© mathew 2017