When Dave and Kathy West decided to build their own house here in the summer of 1976, everyone agreed on one thing: they probably couldn't do it.
First, they'd bought into the neighborhood they wanted by taking the cheapest available lot. It lay so low that water pooled in it with every rain. The developers called it the duck pond.
Second, the third set of house plans their architect turned out still didn't satisfy them. They'd gone from the basic rancher style design Dave thought would be easy for a beginner to a dramatic, two-story contemporary with balconies and vaulted ceilings. Though his only experience had been helping his father build a house years before, Dave figured he could use the architect's prints to get building permits, then improvise from there.
And finally, they didn't have any money -- only enough to cover settlement costs. Their idea was to ask for the smallest loan possible, then to finish only as much of the house as they needed: two of the three bedrooms (one for their two daughters), a bath, and the kitchen. The rest would be done as they could afford it.
For a down payment, they offered the bank their own labor and receipts for favors Dave had been gathering through his business (he manufactures recreational vehicle seating), with the understanding the favors would be worked out on the house. To everyone's amazement, the bank came through.
Why? "I think it's because I went in completely prepared," Dave said. "I had detailed answers to every question they could possibly ask. We had the lot paid for and I figured all the costs. Some were pure guess-work, but I had them. I was afraid they would balk on the fact I was doing the building, but it never really came up. They allowed for sweat equity."
With financing secured, they began in August 1975. For a full year, through the record cold winter until they moved in the following August, the Wests spent every day at the site. Dave scheduled the work at his office each morning, then put in a full day on the house. At closing time he checked back in at the office before returning to the house until 11 ot 12 p.m. Kathy worked her schedule around the girls' school hours. Except for masonry, excavating and plumbing, they did most of the labor themselves.
Their first major hurdle was the water problem. A heavy rain filled their foundation with 5 1/2 feet of water. After three days, it still hand't receded.
"We figured we must have the kind of clay farmers use to line their ponds." They borrowed a pump, spent two days pumping and a couple more waiting for the mud to dry.
In the meantime, Dave began designing a drain field to run around the house. "It doesn't go anywhere," he said. "The two ends are attached. Everybody says a drain field won't work unless you run it to a low spot, but it does. My reasoning was that if you get that much water, it can flow all around the house and seep into the stone."
Later, he coated the foundation with five coats of sealer. They have never had water in their basement.
Did they make mistakes? A few, like letting themselves be talked into garage doors too small to admit their van. But basically the changes worked. Given their inexperience, they were surprised how well they did.
At the beginning, when they thought they would be unable to finish, they decided to buy very good materials. "We decided we would sacrifice in not having as many things," Dave said. "But what we did have would be quality."
Would he do anything differently?
"Yes, I'd start in the spring. We built during the coldest winter and the wettest in 25 or 26 years. It's so much easier when you build in decent weather. I think you get a better quality house."