WE FIRST SAW THE LAND IN A LIGHT JANUARY snow three winters ago, and, under the spell of the small cove and the wide river, we signed a contract within a couple of hours. Married just a few months, we assumed we knew the hand of providence when we saw it. After all, hadn't we recognized each other? This was where our home was meant to be built.
We'd stand on the 20-foot bluff at the tip of our small peninsula and daydream. House talk is romantic poetry to couples. We imagined a redwood house, bleached to gray and silver, touched with turquoise for accent, low and sleek, modern but not austere. From windows we would watch the water on two sides, but an almost blind back would be turned toward the woods and a courtyard. Decks and porches on the water sides would grant the modest interior floor plan an illusion of generosity. The distinction between indoors and out would be blurred. And the roof would be flat, like the deck of a riverboat plowing toward the Chesapeake Bay, which we could glimpse on the horizon. So simple, yet a house well thought out. A clean three-bedroom core of a home to expand upon for a lifetime.
Gradually, of course, we met the reality of house building. This is an age that is comfortable with tract developments for the middle class and custom mansions for millionaires. We fell between the cracks, and perhaps were bound to run into problems. It's difficult to build a house that isn't the same as any other on a middle-class budget.
On the winter day we bought our peninsula, we didn't know about the bald eagles next door. Or the eagle protection agency. We did not know about percolation tests, either. In our case, 13 of them. Dug with bulldozers. We did not know about "unindurated erosion." Or 50-year hurricanes. We did not know about mortgage bankers. Or how a locked-in interest rate isn't always locked in. We didn't even know the dean of architecture at a major university could produce plans that, when submitted to builders, would bring bids a third higher than we had ever said we could afford.
Most important, we did not know that we could have ended up with a large 30-year mortgage and no house at all. At one point, having lost all hope, we referred to our land as "America's most expensive picnic ground." Time may yet approve our decision to build. Then again, maybe not. After three years, we still haven't moved in. But at least our home has a name.
"When are you moving into the new house?" friends would ask.
"Spring," we'd say in fall.
"Fall," we'd say the next spring.
And so forth.
We had been warned, of course: Build a house and you'll ruin your view of human nature, not to mention go broke and get older at warp speed. We believed every gloomy word, but we also believed we'd be different. After all, we weren't going to build the house of our dreams. That would be a lifetime project. We'd just build a house as structurally simple as two shoe boxes shoved together into an L, a perfect little house for two city people who'd never owned a blade of grass.
Our first tip-off that we were in for trouble was the price of the land. Too cheap by half. As Groucho Marx said about clubs that were willing to have him as a member, we should have been suspicious of land we could afford. But we were buying from Georgetown University. We had warm fuzzy feelings toward ivory towers. Would a philosophy professor steer you wrong? What we had overlooked is that modern universities have become land barons, and their endowment departments are not run by philosophy professors.
We knew up front that our land had no sewage system. Too remote. We'd have to dig our own septic trenches. No sweat, we were told. To sell the land, Georgetown had to have gotten the property to percolate -- the land had to absorb water fast enough to allow us to build a septic system on it. Later we learned that some of the tracts adjoining ours were undeveloped because they'd never perked. One woman owned about 20 acres, worth a fortune if it ever perked, but it never has. No perk, no septic. No septic, no building permit. No building permit, no house. Some lucky souls are granted permission to build a "mound" septic system. Great. The mound dwarfs the house and costs more than a college education.
We started digging perk holes. Big perk holes the size of a garage, gouged out by huge backhoes. Little perk holes, the size of graves, bored by rigs plunging their narrow noses down dozens of feet. Sometimes it looked as if we were starting a gold mine, at other times it appeared we might be drilling for oil. Our woods looked like the Argonne Forest. We were looking for that lovely porous sand one associates with beachside houses, but we kept hitting hard clay. Our land, it seemed, would absorb about as much water as a macadam highway. After months of failed tests ("That'll be $4,000, please"), we began some serious worrying about our investment.
Of course, we wanted to sue, so we searched out the best Perk Lawyer in the county. He didn't like the look of our case. Georgetown hadn't done anything wrong. To sell, it had needed to find two perkable spots. It wasn't the university's fault that the state later changed the law, nullifying Perk Spot No. 1 as being too close to the water. As for Perk Spot No. 2 -- golly, someone once had made a slight surveying error and it was actually on somebody else's land.
Finally, on my 39th birthday, we made our 13th test, superstition be damned. We studied all our boring-sample data, crossed our fingers and drew Xs on the map for the most likely spots where we might find sand 20 to 30 feet down. Please, don't ask "Why between 20 and 30 feet down?" That sort of understanding requires a degree in geology, as far as I can tell.
On the appointed day, all the concerned parties -- our builders, the heavy-equipment operators and the county inspector -- gathered around The Final Hole. We had dug a 15-foot-deep hole, then sent the big backhoe down in that hole to dig 15 more. The inspector rode the scoop shovel to the bottom, then crouched in a pit that, by now, was as big as a small house foundation. "He's doing you a favor," said my builder. "Digging that deep, then going down himself. Without any structural support, the hole isn't real safe. In theory, he could get buried." The inspector scooped a tiny hole out with his hand, put a coffee can (with the bottom cut out) inside it and filled the can with water.
If the level of the water in the rusty coffee can went down one inch in 20 minutes, I could build my home. This is science. If it didn't, I was back at square one, two years after putting most of 17 years' worth of savings into that land.
As we crouched around the rim of the pit, waiting for the waters to recede, we started playing a little game, nervously tossing pebbles to see if we could get them in the can. About half were going into the can. Then all at once everybody realized that we were filling the can. A look of silent disbelief passed among us.
My land perked in 16 minutes. Sixteen very long minutes.
With no extra credit for the rocks.
We celebrated. We had won. We could build.
We were wrong.
Around Thanksgiving, two weeks before my wife was due to give birth to our first child, the eagle protection people found us. Did we know about the two bald eagles that lived 400 yards from us? The ones with the nine-foot wing spans? The ones with the two eaglets? The ones that had lived there for seven years and weren't about to move?
A letter from the state's eagle department, citing federal statutes, informed us of its recommendation for a "temporal restriction on building" on our lot. No tree could be chopped, no hole dug, no noisy construction during eagle mating season. That's seven months, from mid-December to mid-July. In fact, we were told that it would be best if the eagles didn't even see us by accident.
Then came the bad news. If the eagles, or their new kids, decided to move onto our land, we couldn't build anything whatsoever until two years after they had left. (Who knows, they might just have sublet to herons and wanted the old nest back.) If the eagles outlived us, then tough luck. No house, ever. In fact, if the eagles nested on our land, then "people visitation to the site should be minimized." People visitation? Not even picnics.
Four seconds after finishing reading the letter, we phoned our builders. Eagle mating season was just days away, and we hadn't chopped down tree one yet. We told the builders to clear the house site immediately. And, if they accidentally knocked down any tree that had a nest the size of a Volkswagen in the upper branches, there'd be a Christmas bonus in it for them.
We had to act fast. The more we got built, the harder -- legally -- it would be to stop us. One thing we absolutely did not want -- snow. Because snow would mean delays. And delays could mean an eagle cop in the neighborhood itching to slap a stop-work order on us.
So, it snowed. The biggest snows on record. No work could be done on our land for two months. Not one shovel of dirt dug. The eagle narcs phoned. Should we tell them the truth, that smack dab in the middle of mating season, we'd barely begun our house? This was real-life Scruples.
We never lied. We politely told the eaglecrats that we'd bought the land two years ago (true) and had hired our builder many months ago -- also true. (We forgot to mention the months of perk-test delay.) The eagle agency apparently assumed we were past the stage where construction noise would disturb eagles, should they be in a mood to mate.
We also told the agency that we loved eagles and would never hurt one unless it tried to fly away with our infant son, the way eagles in western states take off with lambs in tow. In that case, of course, we would just have to dynamite all their eagles.
Then we held our breath until the spring thaw. Would the eagles arrive and dispossess us? Would the eagle agency inspect our land, upgrade its "recommendation" to an edict and hold up construction? That would give the eaglets another window of opportunity to build their very own Volkswagen-size nest near mom and dad, perhaps on our land.
Neither the eagles nor the eagle agency ever alighted on our land, but I have learned that when you aspire to squirehood, you cannot be certain that the next phone call or letter won't bring disaster. One day, my bank called. Instead of saying "I am not home, call my lawyer," I made the mistake of saying "Hello." I was calmly informed that, through an oversight that was really no one's fault, the bank's contractual commitment to my permanent 30-year loan had expired. The bank was sorry they had forgotten to notify me in advance, but there it was. They had me by the fine print. I'd just have to accept a new loan at what they called "prevailing interest rates."
This may not sound like much of a snafu. But it is. Say you find a tolerable interest rate, but you worry that by the time your house is done and you convert to a permanent loan from a construction loan, interest rates will have gone through the roof. You pay the bank a fee to "lock in" that decent interest rate for one year while you build.
When my "lock-in" period expired, prevailing interest rates were 1.5 percent higher than the rate I'd locked in. Not much? Through the miracle of compound interest, which Baron Rothschild called the eighth wonder of the world, that 1.5 percent over the life of my mortgage would add up to two years of my salary. That's when I said, "Gotta call my lawyer."
My attorney suggested I threaten the bank with violations of the RICO (racketeering) Act. "Nobody understands the RICO Act, so sometimes it scares 'em," he said.
"So, I'm okay?" I asked.
"No. Legally, you're completely dead," he said. "Of course, you could always throw yourself on the mercy of the bank." He laughed involuntarily at the words "mercy of the bank."
What could I do? I threw myself on the mercy of my bank -- the one with its picture on the $10 bill.
Believe it or not, it had mercy. In my opinion, it is a very nice bank, a bank with a conscience, and if it ever needs a few eagles, I know where it can find them. I got an extension of my lock-in commitment. "However, I don't think it'd be smart to miss the next deadline," said a bank vice president. Yeah, and good luck on putting that boy of yours through college.
Finally, by this past Christmas, our hurdles seemed behind us. We could look to the future. Clean up a few odds and ends, like that 20-foot-high bluff with a bit of erosion. Not much, a foot or two in three years. We had consulted experts before finally deciding exactly where we'd build our house. Wanted to be extra safe. Then we pushed everything back a few extra yards, just for the heck of it. So, it was time to call the agency in charge of Marsh Creation. We'd bring in some sand, plant grasses at the water's edge, do some bank grading and -- voila` -- no more erosion.
As the state's wizard on river erosion stood on my point, he was quiet. Slowly, the geologist explained all the options for sites like ours -- bulkheads, battery bulkheads, wave screens, grading, riprap. But in each case, one variable prevented the use of that method. The house. If you could only grab it and drag it back a ways.
"You can do many things to ease the problem," he said. "But this will never be a static situation."
"Excuse me," I said, trying to simplify. "I just want to protect this house for my son, you know, 50 years from now."
"I couldn't promise that," he said.
"What do you mean?" I said. "The house is almost 100 feet back from the bluff."
"This is the best site for your lifetime," he said. "But someday, this whole point will be gone. It's a question of hurricanes and 50-year storms like the ones in 1933 and 1954. You won't lose much for years. But, in one storm, you could lose 10 feet of point in a night. You did not pick a good site if you have long-range concerns."
My son's an infant and already he hates me. Someday, he'll have to tell his children, "Kids, don't get too attached to grandpa's house. It's pretty now, but he's left it to the river."
"If you're going to sit here," the geologist said to me, "and watch every black cloud, you probably ought to sell, because you'll just give yourself a heart attack. I've seen it." He turned to his young assistant and said, "Remember Mr. Grease? His land was exactly like this. Mr. Grease nearly drove himself crazy watching storms."
"Hypothetically," I said, "what would it take to solve this problem if money were no object?"
"Did you ever see the movie 'King Kong'?"
For a moment I thought, "He's going to tell me to buy a 100-foot-tall gorilla to drink the river . . . or hold up the house."
"Remember the wall? That'd do it -- a wall as high as the cliff. Cost about $1,000 a linear foot."
"How many feet?"
"How much waterfront you got?"
"Seven hundred and fifty-one feet."
"You wouldn't need to do the last 50 feet back in the cove."
We think the geologist is wrong. Maybe hurricanes are passe' anyway. However, I already feel different about clouds.
Actually, I feel different about several things.
I've been a sweetheart all my life. Lots of smiling and appealing to people's better natures. Never yelling or threatening. You know the type -- a sucker. I never dreamed of suing anybody, much less paying a bribe.
So far, in defending the honor of Casa Nada, I've consulted two lawyers about four different suits. I've opened my very own file of threatening letters to document cases in court. I've gotten so desperate about bureaucratic delays over permits that I've asked my builder: "Am I supposed to bribe somebody to get them to do their job?" Both times I was told, "Not yet." Once, I even suspected a plumber of stalling and sowing chaos just to try to get me to pay him extra to do what he'd already contracted to do.
Worse, I've screamed mean, hurtful (and accurate) invective at a respected architect, a man who has testified before Congress. Yes, words far worse than anything I've ever said to anybody before in my life, words about half as bad as those Earl Weaver has yelled at me. In fact, when in doubt, I asked myself, "What would Earl say?"
Every time I took the high road by appealing to someone's decency, I was ignored. Every time I threw a fit or threatened, I got results.
Despite this, the whole experience has been, in a perverse way, almost inspiring. For many years, I avoided risks and seldom respected risk-takers. What most people call "dreams" were foreign to both my nature and my experience. But I found that the more I put myself at risk, the less power the possibility of failure has over me.
Several times our house project looked as if it might be "a bad decision." Yet I would think it was the right decision even if it had worked out -- or still does work out -- badly.
Building your own house is intoxicating partly because it is frightening. For a small moment in life, the possibilities are endless. You don't start from compromise. Instead, you imagine the sort of control over daily environment that, to some, is a form of spiritual contentment.
Unless you're rich, building your own home is always going to be a genuine risk and an exhausting challenge. You might even find that you're gullible enough to buy an eroding peninsula on barely perkable land surrounded by eagles -- land somebody richer, and maybe craftier, gave away. But that might also be the only way you have a shot at pulling it off. AT THE MOMENT, WE ARE JUST DAYS AWAY FROM our bank-loan extension deadline. The one we were told not to miss because the mercy of banks, even nice ones, is not infinite. At this point, interest rates have gotten better. So maybe only one year's salary is at stake. Everything is in place to declare the house legally complete and go to settlement.
Except, of course, our well. We don't have one. So, we have no water.
Stanley, the Wandering Well Man, swore he'd have the well dug before Christmas. Then he disappeared for weeks. Dozens of phone calls went unanswered. The builders staked out his home. No Stanley, and no time to get anybody else. Finally, when he resurfaced, I made him an offer I thought he couldn't refuse. "You may have bigger contracts than mine," I said, "but you don't have any bigger problems."
I honestly thought that would do it. A barely veiled threat to spend the rest of my life making him miserable.
Well, Stanley's gone again. His drilling rig is on my land. The hole is started. But no Stanley.
"Where is he?" gasped my wife. "Oh, I just want to bite him. He's worse than the surveyor who drew our property lines wrong and cost us all those months when our county permits were rejected. I want to line them all up and shoot them."
So, Stanley's been added to our List of Adrian Messenger. "It's amazing," said my construction supervisor. "We can't find Stanley anywhere. But if he shows up tomorrow, we've still got a chance to make the deadline.
"You know," he added, "I've never understood why banks let people put off drilling the well until the last thing. It ought to be done first, of course."
"Why is that?" I said.
"If you don't hit ground water, you got no well. Way out here, if you got no well, you got no house. It'd be worthless."
All in all, as we race against the bank's loan-extension deadline and watch the sky for eagles, as we drill for water and fight erosion, it looks good. We'll be moving to Casa Nada pretty soon.
We think it will be a very nice house.
Or, maybe, an ark. ::