by Thomas Luongo: Preparations
for the Pocky' Clipse
As I related
last article, my wife said to me one evening after work, "I
think it's time we had a kid…. And, I'm not raising it in this house."
Little did I realize how profoundly those last 8 words would alter
the course of my life, and not in the way you're expecting. This
came out of her mouth literally days after we'd paid off the car
we'd bought a year previously as well as all of our revolving debt.
Visions of small piles of gold and silver coins were dancing in
my head. This was August of 2002, gold hadn't even begun to embarrass
Gordon Brown yet. The mortgage-burning party was moving up our
But the logic
of my wife's clock refused to be ignored.
She was right.
The house was really a glorified bungalow. It was 50 years old,
1100 square feet (generously) with 2-wire electricity and a septic
system that needed a complete overhaul. On the plus side we owed
around $42,000 on it and, PITI,
was less than $450/month. So, it was either put all of our equity
into rebuilding this house or finding other arrangements.
As I said,
this was 2002 and the housing bubble was already being blown in
north Florida. My house appraised at around $68,000. Land prices
had tripled in the past 5 years. Our desire was always to have a
rural home. Given the local taxing structure this also meant finding
a place outside of Alachua County. My wife had asked for only three
things over the course of our lives together; one new car (done
and paid for), one vacation and a horse. She grew up on a 200-acre
farm in rural Ohio raising quarter horses (among other things) and
she missed owning a horse. So, knowing that this was likely the
last time we would do anything like this, the requirement for anything
we did had to include this. And it had to be done on a one-income
budget. We'd agreed that no child of ours would ever set foot in
a government school unless it was serving as a hurricane shelter.
the best we could do was a similar house on 5 acres. That wasn't
enough either house or land. I'm not sure whose idea it was originally
to build our own house, but once it got in my head, I wouldn't let
it go. After a short conversation with a co-worker who did in the
1970's what I was considering doing now, I became convinced it could
be done. I didn't think temporary insanity lasted this long, but
hey, now I had a guru!
A plan had
formed. We would find a plot of land between 10 and 15 acres, build
a house on it, and then begin the fun part. I researched what/how
we were going to build while Camille worked on finding the right
piece of property. The perfect parcel fell out of the sky one Tuesday
in November with one caveat; it was too big (19 acres) and, therefore,
too expensive. Undaunted, we pitched an offer to a good friend,
who agreed to become a cog in "The Plan" by pledging both
to buy 5 acres and help us build the house. We would all then move
into said home, allowing him to straighten his finances out and
then we'd help him build his house when he was ready.
a lot of that has come true.
We closed on
the property on December 16th, 2002, which commemorates
not only the Boston Tea Party but also the births of Beethoven and
Philip K. Dick. I don't really believe in omens, but there it is.
It was a 20-acre parcel (1/4 by 1/8 mile) with an acre cut out b/c
there was a trailer on that acre. We were even able to convince
Camille's parents that we weren't nuts and that we'd need their
help. That Christmas my father-in-law gifted me with a wooden tool
box filled to the brim. Financing would be handled via a HELOC at
4.5% and VISA as I refused to pay 11% on a construction loan when
I was using 0% (for up to 18 months) credit card offers to light
the charcoal for my BBQ.
Greenspan, I bet you never saw that coming did you?!
We set upon
building the house like a bunch of inept Amish-men in March of 2003.
My father-in-law's experience was invaluable. Since Camille didn't
work on Fridays I took off every Friday from March to December of
that year. Yes, Virginia, state employees really do get too much
time off. Yes, my boss deserves my thanks. Larry, the cog, came
out on the weekends. Every weekend. We worked 7 days a week for
nearly a year straight with only a week off that Christmas, which
was spent in front of a PS/2 drinking coffee and developing tendonitis.
I contracted only the well drilling, the septic, the trusses (to
my design), the temporary power pole and the insulation. Everything
else we did, including digging the 200-foot trench for the underground
electrical conduit. And we did most of it in the North Florida summer.
I thought roofing was hard, so I built two stories to minimize the
amount of roof. A decision that could best be described as moronic.
Camille was the electrician, I was the plumber. She tiled the bathroom,
I did the kitchen counter. Larry was general labor, gadfly and part-time
In spite of
doing nearly everything wrong at least once, the house went up.
We sold the
house in Gainesville for 15% more than I had budgeted that October
and moved in then, though there was still a ton to do. We passed
our final inspection on January 7th, 2004 and filed for
the Homestead exemption the following Monday. Larry moved in that
May. We immediately started on a shed/work area.
From the beginning
of the project though, I knew there was something else to this than
just trying to save a few thousand dollars in top-line expenditures.
It was the investment in ourselves building skills that we didn't
have that we knew, deep down, we were going to need. Sure, my comparative
advantage was as a chemist. I could have used my time more "productively"
by leveraging those skills at a higher rate of remuneration and
paid the contractor to build my house leveraging his skills accordingly.
Feh! If what
I thought was coming was coming, I was going to need to know how
to build stuff. Besides, while I'm very good at my profession, it
ain't no calling. At the time it was just a job. This was my first
taste of being an entrepreneur in my entire life and I wasn't going
to shrink from it for any rational or sane reason like comparative
advantage. Building a house sparked my imagination; the idea of
building a consulting business cured my insomnia.
There was something
else at work here. Our house became a group project of a sort. Maybe
it was because of the sheer madness of it, but whenever I put out
the call for people to come out and help they came. On one early
Saturday I had 16 people on site building and flying the beams and
building the walls. It became an opportunity for an old friend and
me to rectify a regrettable alienation as well as a chance to help
another who was between jobs and needed both a sense of purpose
and some cash. It was beyond humbling and every time I look at the
center 6×10 beam running through the middle of my house, I think
about everyone who was there that day.
How could you
The last part
of the plan, though, was the part that was beyond our control; our
parents. From the beginning we embarked on this path to provide
a place for them to choose to come before it became necessary for
us to do so for them. The carrot for this was the grandchild. It
was a big carrot. I'm the youngest of four; my sisters are 10 and
12 years older than me and had their kids in the 80's. My brother
splits the age gap and is gay, so no grandkids from him. As for
Camille, her sister had one child and he was nearly out of high
school. So, our kid would be quite the occasion and another chance
for them to help us, while ensuring that we were coming together
at the right moment in time.
never thought I would be the one to be the caretaker of my mom.
I'm the child that left at 18 and never came back. But, in creating
"The Plan" I realized I was putting myself in that position.
My siblings were willing, but not able to provide a place for her
that would be suitable in the right time frame.
My mom was
reluctant at first. She came up from Marco Island to visit early
in the construction and my brother told me later that she expected
to see a pile of crap on the ground. She would never say that to
me. But, her expectations weren't unfounded. Imagine her surprise
to find me putting the finishing touches on the stair well and most
of the first floor shell finished when she arrived. Ironically the
last of my father's tools I had inherited died that day. Again,
omens. I walked her around the property and told her to pick a plot
of land she liked, for future consideration.
make that decision until nearly a year later but, with our help
and guidance, in February 2005 she moved into her new (and last)
house on what was the northeast corner of our property.
which I mentioned at the beginning, came up for sale cheap and my
in-laws bought it as a winter home; my mother-in-law still has family
in Ohio. They had sold most of their farm to an Amish family over
the past 10 years. By this time, we had finished the shed, fenced
the yard, survived two hurricanes and built a south-facing porch.
We started work on the first addition that summer with seed money
from them as a down payment on a future acre.
In the end,
"The Plan" survived contact with us better than we could
have imagined. Most of the things we set out to do, we did. The
particulars may have changed along the way and the schedules may
have slipped a bit, but all good plans leave room for improvisation.
Moreover, the effects it had on our families and friends were bigger
than I would have ever imagined. You don't set out on something
like this and not wind up leading by example.
You also are
not the same person you were before you started.
Is my house
a paragon of architectural design and refinement? Ha! No way. Is
the interior finished, most certainly not. But, it's ours, it didn't
break us and I have the smallest mortgage of anyone I know which
was exactly what I budgeted in 2002.
only two problems at this point. The first was I hated my job at
the University and it was beginning to kill me.
And the second
was I couldn't get my wife pregnant.
Luongo [send him email]
is a professional chemist, amateur economist and obstreperous recovering
Yankee residing in North Florida.