Saturday, June 23, 2018

Construction Project Accounting for Dummies

Continuing my series of posts of (hopefully) helpful information for people interested in building their own homes this week I'm posting about all of our lessons learned when it comes to keeping track of expenses. I think this photo summarizes nicely what you're hoping to avoid:

(ie a pile of random receipts, many of which clearly rescued from piles of paper trash or fished from someone's pocket on the way to the laundry or forgotten in a glove compartment somewhere)

Presumably if you're using a professional general contractor, and maybe an interior designer, they will take care of some of this for you - some, but probably not all. And in my case, of course, things were even more complicated because I had the whole family involved in helping with building and decorating the house.  It was fun, but as you can see, it was messy.

My big take-aways from the process:
  • Designate ONE project accountant. All invoices and receipts go to that individual.
  • Make sure all contractors/subcontractors know this individual copy them on every communication related to payments owed or made.
  • Get clear instructions from your lender up front on how your loan will be distributed.  In my case this ended up being a construction loan on a draw system.  It came as kind of a shock to me that even after being approved for the loan I had to justify and detail each expense before the disbursements would be made.  And every delay in the payment process will cause problems with subcontractors so it's worth streamlining this process. 
  • Have a physical and digital file and put every single communication into them.  Take notes on relevant phone calls and put them in the files!
  • Where it makes sense, set up automatic payments and direct deposits for ongoing expenses. For example, I set up a payroll deduction that automatically filled up the construction account each month, and an automatic payment from the account for my construction loan installments. I'm sure this saved us late fees and stress in the end. Now that it's been converted to a mortgage all that has rolled over seamlessly.
  • As much as possible avoid paying for things informally on the 'IOU' system. Set up a construction account and if more than one person needs access make sure they all have debit cards/checks/wire transfer details right from the start. 
  • And on that note - if that doesn't work for one reason or another convince all involved at the very least to avoid using cash and try not to spread expenses over several cards or accounts. It will be a mess tracking them all down later.
  • Try to take stock on a regular basis, I suggest once a month. Hunt down all that financial data - send out a call for any 'forgotten' invoices, orphan receipts, paperless transactions that should be accounted for.  Check on how well you're sticking to your projected budget.  Look out for line items that cost more than projected and also estimate what percentage of construction (vs. what percentage of your $$!) is left.  This step particularly helped us to make spending decisions nearer the end of the construction process to stay as close to our original budget as possible.

So go forth and build responsibly!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

100+ Decisions You Need to be Ready to Make if You Build Your Own Home

In honor of Fathers’ Day I thought I’d maybe try a series of posts on practical topics related to the house construction since as you know my father was a huge part of the process.  This particular post is something I searched and searched for before we started construction since I wanted to be as prepared as possible. Needless to say I didn’t find anything that fit the bill so I wrote my own list - after a whole lot of learning by experience!

This list was originally going to have exactly 100 items on it, but there were just too many things to account for and the whole point of the list is to be exhaustive so I just included everything I could think of up to this point (it’s up to 105 as I write but I intend to keep adding to the list moving forward).  Ideally it will serve as a resource for other naive excited first-timers building their own homes.

And in the spirit of the holiday let me just say, Happy Fathers’ Day Dad! I could never repay you for all the ways you’ve stepped in to help and guide me over the years.  Thanks for this particular labor of love and all the ones that came before it. Here’s to this next stage of your dad life - grand-dadding!

The List
  • Budget (and emergency back-up funds you will make available)
  • Priorities (ie what gets left behind when you go over budget)
  • Timeline
  • Lot location
  • HOA - do you want one/are you willing to have one or no?
  • Mortgage company
  • 15, 20 or 30 year mortgage
  • ARM or fixed?
  • General contractor
  • Subcontractors (mostly chosen by the general)
  • Floor plan
  • Location and direction on lot
  • Driveway material, placement
  • # of bedrooms
  • # of bathrooms
  • Location of master bedroom
  • Location of laundry
  • Garage - do you want one? Where? How big will it be?
  • Informal/formal living space
  • Informal/formal dining space
  • Handicap accessible/age-in-place
  • Ceiling height
  • # of stories
  • Location of outlets
  • Special features of outlets (for instance we got some with nightlights and some with usb chargers built-in)
  • Location of light switches
  • Style of light switches
  • What else will be on switches (ie fans)
  • Location of light fixtures
  • Style of light fixtures
  • Heating/AC
  • Kitchen cabinet layout *this really requires some thorough planning
  • Pantry built-in or freestanding
  • Counter height 
  • Counter material
  • Kickboards 
  • Glass front, open or closed cabinets
  • Kitchen cabinet fronts
  • Appliances
  • Fridge water dispenser/ice maker
  • Fridge color
  • Fridge door style
  • Fridge width
  • Fridge with screen or internet
  • Counter color
  • Counter cut/edge
  • Sink style/material
  • Kitchen pulls/handles
  • Backsplash
  • Stove type (gas, electric, induction)
  • Oven and cooktop connected?
  • Two ovens or one (or one in two parts)
  • Stove hood style
  • Microwave location (could be a microwave/hood combo as well)
  • Open/closed shelves
  • Bathroom cabinet/sink
  • Height of sink/vanity
  • Sink fixtures
  • Bath/shower (tub, just a shower, tub and shower combo)
  • Bath shower enclosure (glass, tile, fiberglass)
  • Bath/shower fixtures
  • Tile for floor
  • Tile for wall
  • Washer/dryer stacked or no?
  • Washer/dryer front or top load
  • Stairs painted or stained
  • Stairs color
  • Stairs material
  • Stair railings
  • Flooring (general)
  • Flooring (kitchen)
  • Flooring (bath)
  • Heated under floors?
  • Style of window
  • Window screens?
  • Shutters?
  • Style of (exterior) doors
  • Style of (interior) doors
  • Handles/knobs for all doors
  • Type of siding
  • Paint color(s) - exterior
  • Paint colors - interior
  • Type of blinds/curtains/shades
  • Rods for curtains
  • Fireplace and type 
  • Fans - location and type
  • Roofing material
  • Roof style
  • Green features (such as solar panels)
  • Porch railings, material
  • Porch railings style
  • Screens for porches
  • Insulation type
  • Deck material and color
  • Style of trim interior
  • Style of trim exterior
  • Crown molding - if so, what style
  • Rugs
  • All furniture
  • Furniture layout
  • Closet organizing systems 
  • Mattress size, type
  • Wall art and decor
  • Doorbell
  • Door locks

Saturday, June 9, 2018


My leave is just finishing up this weekend but it’s been a wonderful rest.  My mom’s side of the family got together and basically for the first time since my childhood we had almost the whole family in one place. Four generations were all together, except for one branch of the family out east, but it was pretty impressive anyway given work/leave and the fact that at least two families are mostly overseas. I’d share the photos but everyone is rightly concerned with privacy. Instead you’ll have to just picture all the happy moments for yourself. 

*the Kansas cousins taking their Paraguayan cousin for a walk holding hands
*showing all the kids our childhood mulberry tree and getting our fingers and faces stained
*trying (and failing) to catch fireflies
*watching my brother and niece jump waves at the beach 
*hunting sand dollars with my mom
*my dad and brother going for a round of golf for the first time in years
*picking veggies out of the garden for dinner

It’s just been great to see the next generation of the family together and see my generation as responsible adults. It really has been that long! 

This is definitely one of the major challenges going back out overseas. I forget that life back home is passing just as quickly and I really am missing out. But thanks family for giving me so many great reasons to keep coming back! My apartment in São Paulo is at your disposal anytime!

Sunday, June 3, 2018


I’m starting to realize that a house is more of an ongoing project than a one time investment, but I’m still happy to report that the house is officially occupiable! Our three page list of tasks miraculously got checked off - with a huge amount of labor by my very gracious uncle who came to do basically everything that required skills and to fix whatever the rest of us screwed up. While he and my dad and the guys did the final construction my mom and I basically shopped til we dropped. I wouldn’t call the shopping a fun experience exactly - being cheap and indecisive makes that kind of thing a challenge - but it was so rewarding to see the house start looking more like a home every day. When we first arrived, for instance, everyone was sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags, they didn’t have shower curtains or towel rods or even toilet paper holders, and they were eating off paper plates on the patio furniture. Being around to set up the beds and kitchen and all the rest was awesome. I felt like quite the hostess being able to serve food at a real table!

Once my brother and his family arrived we also got a chance to see how the house actually works for the family.  Good news - everyone (we had a max of 8 at one time) fit just fine and it didn’t feel crowded at all.  And even without tv and internet, which will be set up later, we didn’t get bored.  The beach kept us plenty occupied.

We even got to experience our first tropical storm which luckily didn’t end up turning into a hurricane though it was intense enough for me! No real damage though we did get a good reminder not to leave so much of our junk outside.

So, the project we started back in Jan/Feb 2015 is finally a fait accompli! I hope it will host many more family reunions in the years to come and that lots of friends and family and even some strangers get the chance to enjoy it.

And of course - photos!

Sadly, I forgot to take 'before' photos when I arrived - I was too excited to get started!
Mom got some though!  These are the master bathroom.

Thanks Mom for taking these 'after' pictures! They don't show the very latest updates, but since I forgot to take 'after' pictures  at all... they're the best! Also, I LOVE the tub.  Best decision ever.

So... I failed to get a true 'before' picture - when this room was just a pile of construction supplies - or a true 'after' picture - when we had cleaned up the mess and staged it like on TV.  Just know that it was cleaner.

Eating at a table. So civilized.

Bedrooms! This is before the addition of artwork, but you can use your imagination.

And finally, our little 'welcome to the neighborhood' storm

Monday, May 28, 2018

Feeling good!

Just a short post today! I’m pretty over the moon with my whole family together for the first time in forever - and even better, at my house! No internet service yet so I’ll have to post photos later. But maybe just one to demonstrate the overall feeling in the house tonight.

Well, this plus a whole lot of exhaustion and sore muscles! Turns out even the final stages of construction are kind of intense if you’re a wimp to start with!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Seeing the sights

I’ve been getting out a bit in the past couple of weekends to see the sights around DC. Of course, after a few years here as a grad student and off and on for various jobs (especially this one) I’d already seen quite a few of the big museums and monuments.  Still, it’s a beautiful area with a lot of history.  And, aided by friends with cars I recently been able to cover a lot more territory!

First stop on the magical mystery tour - Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson (and family, and hundreds of enslaved workers).  One especially gratifying result of the visit was that I finally learned how to pronounce Monticello.  For those who have studied Italian it should be familiar, and even if you haven’t just think of how you pronounce cello, or limoncello. (the c=ch)

The house was actually a bit smaller than I would have expected but full of interesting antiques and Jefferson’s own inventions.  While the tour was frankly expensive ($26 per person to tour the first floor and $62 to tour the entire house) they gave a great historical background and the garden and slave quarters tours, which are included in the ticket price, were very thoughtful as well. It’s good to see that the foundation running the site makes no attempt to cover up or excuse the use or treatment of slaves at the time. The real downside was the distance from DC.  It was about a 2.5 hour drive each way, and while the drive was beautiful, it does really limit the amount of time you can spend exploring the site. 

A week later I made a separate trip with a friend to Mount Vernon, but since we’d both already seen the estate itself we decided instead to take a tour of Washington’s grist mill and distillery.  I must be getting old but I honestly found the tour really fascinating and anyway it was a beautiful day for a drive and some time spent outdoors.  Tours were $5 per person here.

Just a few pictures below in case you’d like to inspire you to visit either site yourself!


Distillery and Grist Mill

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Happy Mother’s Day!

Happy Mother’s Day to my very special and longsuffering mother!

Now that I’m on the verge of motherhood myself I’ve started giving some serious thought to how I want to raise my own kids. And realizing, belatedly, that Mom was right all along. I’m not sure if it carries the same weight 2-3 decades later, but for what it’s worth Mom - I now concede that you were right about vegetables, exercise, TV, bed making, and even the dentist (mostly).

Thanks for passing down all that wisdom over the years.  In fact, the older I get the more I feel like I need it.  But I promise that this time around I'm really listening. ;) And with any luck I'll turn out half as wise as you someday!