Don’t Fall Off of the Mountain and Into the Desert
(Lessons Learned on Buying and Building in the Mountains)
By Dennis and Nancy Ford
Sims Valley, North Carolina
Table of Contents
Like many of you, we had looked at the possibility of one day owning a home in the mountains. We loved the beauty and the variety we found there when hiked by ourselves or visited with friends. We loved the scenery, the activities, the people, and the never-ending list of things to do in the mountains. We made some great memories on our trips and finally decided that we would live in the mountains full time and concentrate on making memories with our friends and family.
We had the opportunity to move up to the mountains to become involved in developing a small, private community close to Lake Glenville in the Cashiers/Glenville area. An integral part of working on that project was closely working with contractors, builders, realtors, and homeowners from this area. It soon became evident that for those of us who have never lived in the mountains, there are some vital considerations that are unique to the mountains. How these unique considerations are dealt with makes all difference between making great memories while enjoying every minute of your time in the mountains and having to constantly battle to overcome nagging problems, additional expenses, and adjustments.
Everyone has their ideal home in the back of their mind and for a great many people, perhaps you, that dream is located in the Western North Carolina Mountains. You may already have a design and setting outlined for the home you want to build or purchase that allows you to make those great memories with your loved ones. On the other hand, everyone has also heard the horror stories of investing in land that is unbuildable, investing in developments that are poorly done or under financed, meeting and retaining “Attila the Builder”, etc. In short, most people worry about having your life’s dream become a nightmare. It can be easy to find a homesite with just the combination of view, water, trees, and location that is your dream, if you only prepare and know what you are looking for and the questions to ask in your search.
Of course, with proper care and questions, it is possible to have the right location, the right builder and the right set of amenities that exactly suit the buyer, and that means that you can build or purchase your dream home, one that is comes closest to what you have always wanted to share with friends and loved ones and be the place where you build wonderful memories for years to come.
To help you with making your dream come true, we want you to have a general knowledge of the questions to ask yourself, developers and builders, as well as the questions to ask the homeowner or realtor if purchasing an existing home. In addition, we want you to be able to start the preliminary research that will make any trip to tour or look at real estate in mountain communities focused and successful.
In other words, we want you to learn from the mistakes and victories of ourselves and others who were once in the same position you are at this moment. We were each people who wanted to have a retirement home, a second home or a vacation home in the beautiful mountains and enjoy whatever aspects of mountain living appealed to them and share that enjoyment with others.
We can testify that life in the mountains is a wonderful opportunity and a dream fulfilled. It provides opportunities to grow, explore, relax and enjoy ourselves. We found that trading the assets we had acquired over the years for the opportunity to enjoy those assets was an investment that has paid dividends.
We hope this is helpful for you and if there is any way in which we can help, we would welcome your questions or comments.
II. Tailoring Your Dream
Let’s start with the single most important area-You and Your dream.
You are the most important factor in your happiness. This is not the responsibility of your realtor, your builder, or your developer-you are the key component. Only you know what you want; and when you have settled this in your mind, you will be less likely to make a decision based on only one or two factors that overshadow your other, more critical factors. What is it that you would ideally have as part of your dream setting and location? If you make a decision after you have first carefully identified everything that is part of your dreams and requirements, you will be a lot less likely to forget the details that can make the crucial differences to your enjoyment year in and year out.
Tailoring Your Decision for You
The first step is to sit down with whoever else is going to be an essential part of your decision. All too often, couples find out only too late that they have slight (or major) differences in what they need to make them happy. Without ensuring that you have common ideas and goals, locating a home will be the least of your problems.
You may want to sit down individually and start with the questions below. Fill out the answers to these and other questions about your dream, and then compare notes on your answers to these questions:
• What do you enjoy doing? Are you active and like golf, tennis, backpacking, water skiing, horseback riding, etc. Or would you enjoy more quiet diversions like fishing, hiking, reading, and the like? Or what combination of the two?
• What activities have you wanted to take up or what do you enjoy most during vacations? Have you always wanted to take up a new challenge, like photography, carpentry, wood work, art, dancing, etc? Do you always go to the lake or folk festivals on vacations? What has been your secret or not so secret ambition to undertake a new challenge away from the routine of your everyday life?
• What are your physical limitations or challenges? Do you need special accommodations that will enable you to undertake your activities?
• Will you be having guests overnight? If so how many, how often and what ages? I can tell you that the short answer to the first part of this question is “yes” unless you have an unlisted address and phone number and have no friends or relatives. Will you need a more private guest area in your home to preserve your own privacy? How many bedrooms will you need? Will you need to accommodate the needs of children? If so for what ages?
• What size home do you want to maintain? Many families want to have a smaller home in the mountains because of the time it takes away from other things just to maintain it. If you do downsize, be sure you have enough storage for all the things you will use only occasionally or only seasonally.
• How “green” do you want to be? Every year there are more breakthroughs made on homes that have less impact on the environment and are more inexpensive to heat and air condition. Most of these improvements come at an initially higher cost, but provide long-range savings. The internet is a gold mine of ideas in this area.
• What does your ideal homesite include in way of views, waterfront, etc.? What will you want to see when you get up in the morning and have your breakfast? What do you want to look at in the evening when you are unwinding from your full day? Do you want quiet and peace or will you be happy with a lot of activity around you?
• How close to your present home do you want to be? Will your friends and family be part of your dream home? How long a drive will children and grandchildren tolerate? How often will you be going back to visit your friends or use services at your previous home?
These are just a few of the things you might want to consider and we urge you to explore in depth the activities and desires that will make this an ideal investment. And after you are sure you have decided all the important personal factors, it’s time to move on to locating exactly where you’ll find the setting for fulfilling those dreams.
III. Choosing Your Mountain Community
Great, you now have a pretty good idea of what will make you happy in your dream home. Now let’s start your search for the ideal community where you dream will be located. The communities in the mountains each have their own personalities and a variety of assets and tradeoffs. Remember that you may have to be making a few compromises on where you end up searching. For instance, no matter how much you want it, you will not be able to combine privacy and lake frontage; small town intimacy with major shopping centers, nightclubs and gambling casinos. So, just like you did with your personal choices, sit down and answer these questions to help you center in on what you will need to look for in your new community.
• Does the community you are looking at meet the criteria you listed under Tailoring Your Decision for You? You just spent a good deal of time carefully defining your dreams and your wants, so don’t set that aside when you make your other decisions. It is important take all the time you need to look in depth at each community and ensure that it has easy access to all the things that you want to enjoy and that it is located within the distance you want to be from your present home.
• How central is this community to the activities (the ones you listed in Tailoring Your Decision) you enjoy? Few communities have everything you might want, and if they do, they might be more active and busy than fits your idea of a dream home. You might want to find a location that is central to all you enjoy and have a short drive to access the variety of diversions instead of just those in a single community.
• What are the Houses of Worship like? Is your denomination available? Church life and friends are important to many, while others simply want to have a place to go for special occasions such as Christmas candlelight services, Easter sunrise service, baptisms, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. How close is the worship house of your choice? Have you gone to a service there and felt comfortable and welcomed?
• How close to a University or Community College? Universities and Community Colleges each can offer a large variety of benefits. Not only the obvious one like classes you may want to take, but others including entertainment, fairs, athletics, gymnasium, guest lecturers, and a large variety of specialized classes for the specific activities you might want to take up in the mountains.
• Are there the type of health care and specialists you need in the area? How close are they? What specialists do you see annually now? (Think of Allergist, Ophthalmologist, Pediatrician, Dermatologist, Dentist, Chiropractor, Massage Therapist, or any other health related services you use periodically). Are they available in or near your community? Do they take your insurance? Can you get a recommendation and referral from your current providers?
• How close to a major airport? Look for hubs like Atlanta and Charlotte as well as smaller ones like Ashville, Knoxville, and Greenville/Spartanburg so you and your friends have the service and connections you will need when visiting. Remember, too, that some people have access to private aircraft and can use the smaller local fields.
• What are the average high and low temperatures for summer and winter? What are you used to? What do you want to avoid? Do you want to sleep with your windows open during the summer? Will you need a dehumidifier or a humidifier as part of your heating/cooling system? Some areas have homes that use only fans during the summer and that may not cover your particular needs.
• What is the average rainfall and snowfall in the area? How comfortable are you with your driving skills during inclement weather on mountain roads? Will you need to purchase a car with four wheel or all wheel drive for your safety and peace of mind? Remember, too, that in many places the average high temperature in the winter is high enough so that snow melts pretty quickly and is gone from the roads in a day or so.
• What restaurants, theaters, and other amusements are nearby? One of the joys of the smaller towns is that they are quiet and peaceful; the drawback is that some of the diversions and amusements you might enjoy may be a small distance away in another township or village.
• Does the Postal Service deliver to your home or will you need a post office box? Private companies such as UPS, Fed EX, DHL and so forth deliver to your door. There are, however, developments to which the United States Postal Service will not deliver and you will need to rent a post office box in that case.
• What is the tax rate? Be sure that you are not taxed out of your new home. Many times we forget to ask and get an unpleasant surprise when we get that letter from the local taxing authorities.
• Are there other accommodations nearby for extra guests or reunions? What is the range of price and quality of nearby lodges, cabins, motels, bed and breakfast inns, and other accommodations? Will they suit friends and family that will not be staying with you and are they close enough to be convenient?
Just like before, this is just a start for you, take your time and enjoy the planning and the exploring the various communities. Once you’ve found your community you’ll need to focus on the home specifics that will make you happy.
IV. Evaluating Your Dream Home Site
OK, you’ve identified your general lifestyle needs and the type of community you want to be the center of that lifestyle. Now whether you build or are buying an existing home, we now need to move on to more specific factors of where your home will be located.
Look around where you are now. What are the features you like about your neighborhood or the neighborhood of friends you visit? Make a list of what you like and don’t like where you are and use that as an outline, while keeping in mind that you are looking at the mountains for a change in your lifestyle. Some of the things you like about where you are now are impossible in the mountains (and that is why you want to have a home in the mountains). Other than the question about to gate or not to gate, we would recommend that you consider getting the answers to these questions in writing or confirm them yourself in letter to the realtor or owner you use. In the rare instance that there is a misunderstanding about the question, or a problem arises later, you have documentation to clarify any points of misunderstanding. Specifically, if you are going to really enjoy your home, you need to know the answers to these questions:
• What is the concept of the development community? You have always heard that the three things that determine a real estate investment are location, location, location. While location is critical, we believe that when considering an investment like this, the concept of the community you are looking at is equally important. What is the aim of the community? What did the developer want to achieve? Is it to have a country club-type atmosphere so that you will have all the amenities of the country club you may be a member of at present? Or is it to provide a more peaceful setting without the energy level of a golf or tennis community? Is it an equestrian or fishing concept? You have already decided what it is you want to enjoy in the mountains, so narrow your search to communities that provide or supplement those types of settings.
• Gated or non gated community? Do you like knowing that people you see in your community are neighbors and guests? Does it worry you that people, not part of your community, can come in and look around at will? If so, you probably would like a gated community. If not, and you have other ways to protect your privacy, a gated community is probably not critical for you and your guests.
• Is the development community infrastructure in and complete including cabling and utilities? Make sure that your utilities are already in and functioning. In newer developments still in early stages this might not be the case. If the utilities are yet to be installed, ask if they are underground (no unsightly wires ruining your view), and ask if the money to install them is escrowed or bonded to ensure your ability to use them when you need to. Also, if not already in and functioning, when are they scheduled to be completed?
• What type of water supply do you have? (Wells, springs, municipal). How reliable is the water supply? When was the water last tested? One of the great advantages to most mountain communities is the wonderful drinking water and you certainly want to take advantage of that. But the questions to ask are, if spring water, how reliable is the spring? If a well, how deep? For both, what is the average flow per minute? One gallon per minute is 1440 gallons a day and a house uses at least 350-400 gallons of water per day, so you want to know how many houses share your well or spring and will any more be added. When is the last time the well or spring went dry (if ever)? When was the last time the water was tested for various impurities (it should be checked annually at least)?
• Septic and/or sewer access. Are the permits in, are the systems in, what is the cost of installing septic or hooking up to sewer? Is the septic pumped or gravity? What type of septic system? This gets a little complex if you have never had a home with a septic system and the services of a plumber may be worth retaining. Septic systems work very well and should give trouble free service so you never notice the difference from municipal sewage systems. Some larger mountain developments and communities have their own sewage treatment system, but most homes in the mountains will be on septic. The first question to have answered and see documentation on is that the septic is already in or that the approval agency has granted a permit to install one. Next ask if the system or permit covers the number of bedrooms or bathrooms you will require. The cost of installing the septic system itself can range from $5000 to $15,000 depending on several factors including how far away from the house the septic is, whether the septic needs to be above the house and what type of engineering might be involved. You will also want to know where it is located and how far the set backs are so that you will not plan to build on the set back. If purchasing an existing home with septic, also find out where it is, if you share it with another home, what problems, if any, have occurred.
• Are telephone service, cell phone service and television service available?. Reception for these services can be uncertain in some parts of the mountains. There are booster systems available for cellular phones and satellites for television. However, your home will need to be positioned so that you can access these services. It is increasingly rare, but there are still parts of the mountains that do not, as yet, have “line” telephone service. If that is the case, ask when it is scheduled and you might want to verify that with the local service provider engineer. He or she is available by telephone and that call is free. We say check with the engineer, since the sales people are usually located in Florida or California and tend to always give you a “yes” answer regardless of what the local conditions are.
• Can deliveries get to your homesite? Remember that you will need to have materials and goods delivered to your home or homesite and they may have to come on large trucks. These could include appliances, building materials for construction or remodeling, and landscaping items as well as your household goods and furnishings when you move in. If these trucks cannot negotiate the turns or there are low hanging branches or trees that allow a car to pass, but would be impossible for a semi trailer truck or concrete truck to negotiate, those materials and goods will need to be unloaded and carried to the house in smaller vehicles or by hand. Also remember that if the truck can get to your home, they will need room to turn around.
• Has a builder looked at your site and your plan to see if you can build that house on that site or make an addition to a home you may be purchasing? Once you have located a potential home or homesite and have found a builder (more on that in the next section) have him or her look at your plan and your homesite to see if they fit. A good, experienced builder will be able to tell you if your dream home (or addition/remodeling) will be able to take advantage of the contour, the views, and be all you want it to be. If there are challenges to having your dream home on your dream homesite, a good builder will be able to tell you what could be done to adapt either your plan or your homesite to accomplish your desires for your home.
• Are there rock and foundation challenges? Rocks are beautiful. The way they highlight a mountain homesite and become part of the landscaping can be the final touch to making your home beautiful. However, you will need to know if there are obvious rock problems where you want to locate your home. Rock that needs to be blasted out for foundations or driveways can be very expensive and the difference can be from $10,000 for an easy excavation to $150,000 for a complex and difficult one. Most builders will quote your price exclusive of the cost of blasting unseen rocks that they may unearth only after commencing excavation.
• What, if any, are annual fees at the community? This is pretty obvious, but still, it can come as a surprise if you don’t ask. Do those fees cover items like common area maintenance, clearing roads, security, caretaker, etc.?
• Are there additional fees for club membership, golf membership, etc? Just like non mountain communities, there is often a surcharge for golf membership, tennis membership, social membership, etc. And you should also ask if there is a minimum amount that you must spend monthly, or annually in the club house.
• What are the development’s building and hookup costs and construction deposits? Each community will have this to cover the cost of the actual hook up to water and utilities and as a bond to cover damage trucks and construction vehicles may do to roads and vegetation. Ask how much of this is refundable and how long the process takes.
• What are local municipal ordinances concerning slope, ridge, erosion control, set backs, tree clearing, etc.? This is an increasingly complex area unique to each state, county and municipality. You need to ask if your homesite is approved for construction and if the home you plan conforms to local and state ordinances governing construction. Streams, creeks, ponds and any waterway need to be looked at closely. Is it a trout stream or does it feed a trout stream? What are the set backs from the water? What are the ordinances governing the vegetation in the set back area? If you plan on damming the stream, what is involved for approval? You may be on a lake, but can you still build a dock or retaining wall? Water questions almost always have a state and Corps. Of Engineers factor in them, so ask about that as well. This is one area in which the services of a local real estate attorney are more than worth the fees for his or her opinion, because mistakes here are often permanent and expensive.
• What are the protective covenants governing architecture, size, guests, outbuildings, clearing views, house location, etc. First of all, remember that these are put in place by the developer to protect your investment and your enjoyment. A copy of these is usually part of any purchase agreement, but is always on file where the local county registers its deeds. These usually dictate where a home can be placed so as to not block the view of another home; restrict the trees that can be cleared so to preserve the natural beauty; limit the type home architecture so that there is a continuity of design that fits the concept of the community, and so forth. There are occasions where these can begin to border on the onerous, one development may require all homes be painted the same color, have the same type roof, etc. Other restrictions apply to construction and can add to the cost of building if, for instance, the construction outhouses need to be hidden or disguised and there may be other restrictions that add costs to the building. Also check ad see if there is a cost for review of plans for conformity if you are building or remodeling.
• Are driveways in or part of the homesite? Driveways in the mountains are usually best if they are on the high side of the homesite so that you will not have to walk uphill carrying luggage or groceries. Driveways can start at about $100 per foot to put in if they are not part of your homesite purchase price.
• What plants grow there? Has it always been your dream to have fruit trees on your property and enjoy a fresh peach, pear, apple or other fruit from your front yard? Perhaps you wanted to have strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries. Maybe you envisioned roses, day lilies, azalea, flame azalea, rhododendron or mountain laurel. These can all be done, but you need to know where they flourish and where they will fail. A local garden shop, nursery, or a university extension service can quickly provide what you need to know. A tip for you if you are planting, it is best to purchase locally grown plants rather than plants grown elsewhere and imported, as you often find for less cost at bigger stores.
• How do you dispose of garbage? There are often private services that pick up garbage from your home or a central location. Most development communities have a central spot where you drop off your garbage in animal proof containers. Others require you to make provisions yourself to either have it picked up or take it to the local recycling and disposal facility. If you are responsible for your trash disposal off site you will need to know what the cost of private services is; or what days and hours local facilities are open.
• What wildlife is in the area? Local fauna is fun and you want to know what is around and what its habits are. Most everyone is familiar with bear and concerned about bear being attracted to bird feeders or garbage left out. Others to ask about are deer, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, and snakes. Local hiking shops or outfitters can tell you what lives in your area and what precautions, if any, you should take. Of course the forest service is very helpful as well.
• How solvent is the developer? If not complete, when is the community scheduled for completion? Is there a bond for completion? At the best of times, things happen to even the biggest developers. Your developer should have a bond or have escrowed the funds for a reserve to complete all aspects of the community you have chosen. He or she will usually refer you to the funding bank or to the local county agency to confirm the existence of such a guarantee. If there is not one you can verify, regardless of the verbal reassurances of past record or anything else, proceed with a large amount of caution.
• Is there a time limit for you to build? Some communities want you to begin building within a definite period of time. If that is true of the community you have chosen, you need to make sure that there is enough time for you to arrange to transfer assets, find a builder, as well as find plans and an architect. You may also be planning ahead by purchasing land now for a home several years from now when you retire or when your circumstances with children or a growing business reach a certain stage that enables you to build your dream home. In either case, be sure that you have no restrictions that will cause you have to act prematurely or to possibly lose your purchase if your circumstances change.
• What are the views from your homesite in each of the four seasons? Each season in the mountains has its own beauty and charm. Winter views, especially, are longer and clearer. As a consequence, winter will sometimes unveil a whole new vista of beauty you never anticipated during the summer. It will also unveil other homes, roads and structures that will be hidden during the summer. So if you are purchasing during the summer ask for winter pictures if available and, if you are purchasing during the winter, remember that trees will fill out with leaves and give more privacy and less view in some cases.
• Are there any easements on the property, what are the setbacks? There can be easements for utilities, for septic, for access to another homesite and other reasons and there are almost always set backs at property lines of at least 20 feet. There may be other setbacks from the road, from walking trails, from water, etc. A current survey should show all easements and setbacks that will affect your home or easements will be recorded in the deed office.
• Is the property in a flood zone? Even though it looks dry, the mountains have a way of channeling water during storms so that floods can occur. Also, streams can overrun their banks, as can ponds and lakes. The county where you are purchasing should have a flood map available for you, most of the time on line. It will show whether you are in a zone that floods, on the average, every 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years or 500 years. Your lender, if you have one, will probably require this information as well.
• Can you access you home during winter? We are often surprised by the steepness of some roads or driveways we see in our travels. During inclement weather these steep roads and driveways are incredibly dangerous. Remember that snow, ice and rain can occur suddenly and sometimes either leave you stranded in your home or unable to get to your home safely.
• Is there adequate erosion control? Runoff from rains, springs, and snow melting can cause damage to roads and homes if your development has not planned for this and maintains its erosion control. There is usually an erosion control office for the county you build in and each development should have an erosion control plan on file. The offices are usually very helpful in telling you what to look for and plan for.
• How close is the nearest fire department and EMS? How far will emergency services have to travel to help you if you have a need? Since fire hydrants are unusual in the mountains, most fire departments rely on pumping water from ponds and lakes to fight fires, so where is the closest pond or lake they can use? Local service is often volunteer, but excellent and responsive.
• Who is responsible for maintaining roads during winter and inclement weather? In the event of a snow fall or ice storm, the municipalities will be clearing the state and county roads. Of course they clear the main arteries first, so if you are further back in the mountains it may be later in the day before other public roads are cleared. Who is responsible in your community if you are in a gated community with private roads? Will you need to arrange for the clearing of your own driveway?
• Is there anyone responsible for keeping an eye on your home when you are away? If you are not a full time resident and a storm passes through your area, who will check your home to ensure that no damage occurred? Does your development cover that as part of their fees? Is there a caretaker or service that has this responsibility?
• Is there someone at the community that you can rely on to orient your guests in your absence? Again, is there a caretaker that could be a source of information so that your guests would feel welcome and be able to enjoy the area as you do?
• Which lender should I use?. As we have already discussed, there are many things that make building in the mountains very different from building where you are now. Local banks can advise you on many things we have already discussed and will be familiar with local ordinances and customs for building.
V. Selecting Your Realtor and Buying an Existing Home
Even though you have a pretty good idea of what and where you will be looking for your dream home, and you have done a great deal of research on the internet, a good realtor can be your best friend and save hours and days of your precious time. An amateur realtor, whose primary interest is in a commission, will turn your hunt into a tedious boor unless you get extremely fortunate and find your dream in spite of him or her. Let’s approach this with all the care you took getting this far.
• Why use a realtor? Whether looking for that ideal homesite to build on or buying an existing home, this is the first question to answer after you have defined your needs and search parameters. Are you familiar enough with the entire area to go on line and get the communities you want to look at? People that live year round in the town or village you have chosen are a wealth of information about the pluses and minuses of each area and development. A good realtor should be your greatest asset in your search for either a home or homesite.
• How do you choose a realtor? If you have decided to use a realtor, how will you find a good one? Of course, personal recommendations are a great source for you and we recommend that as a starting point. It has been our experience over many years that in each community there are a very small number of great realtors and a large number of people to whom real estate is a hobby. So it is important that you find the right partner for you in this search for your dream. To us, a professional realtor is one who will spend a great deal of time with you before you ever get in a car finding out exactly what you want by asking about all the items we mentioned above. How can a realtor make the best use of your time, and narrow your search to only the homes or land that suits you best if all they have bothered to find out is your name, where you are from and what your price range is? Too often a realtor will shake your hand, print out everything in your price range from MLS, put you in the car and spend one, two or three days seeing every home on the list. Not only does this waste your time, it leaves you confused about what you saw and when.
So first try to find a realtor who will talk with you on the phone before you even arrive and start to find out what will work for you. Ask the local real estate board or MLS who are the top five agents in terms of sales in your area year in and year out. If they cannot provide that information, often local builders or developers can tell you the same thing (be careful they don’t just recommend a spouse or relative).
Successful realtors are usually successful for a reason. Have your list of things that are important to you ready and maybe even email it or fax it to your realtor prior to your visit. With this information, your realtor can effectively guide your first meeting and help save your valuable time.
When you arrive in the area for your search, your realtor should spend additional time verifying what he or she has learned about your needs and what they are going to show you. He or she should have an agenda for you that includes a tour of the general area before showing you homes or sites. If your realtor has done his or her homework, you should be shown no more than four homes or home sites and each of those should be pretty close to your requirements. Your realtor should not be showing you a particular home that does not meet your criteria, but happens to be a listing of theirs or he listing of a colleague.
• Is the realtor your agent or the seller’s agent? Each realtor MUST identify themselves as representing the interest of either the seller or the buyer or both (called a dual agent). In North Carolina you must acknowledge that you understand this and agree to this. You will be given a small brochure telling you about this and you will be asked to sign it, acknowledging your understanding of the arrangement you have with your realtor. If you are not told about this or do not get the written material, we would recommend that you do not use this realtor as it is a violation of the license. Most of the time the realtor will tell you that he or she will want to act as a dual agent, equally representing your interests and those of the seller. You can ask that the realtor represent only you and your interests (be a buyer’s agent) if you wish. When you do this, the realtor is only representing your interests and yours alone. In return, you are guaranteeing payment of the commission (usually not an issue if the property is listed) and this will also allow the realtor to show you local For Sale by Owner homes that you may not get to see otherwise.
• How long has the realtor been selling in the mountains? You don’t want a realtor to get his or her experience on you. There are plenty of realtors who have been selling in the mountains for a number of years and know the reputation of builders and developers. Choose one of them because their experience and knowledge will be worth it.
• Some additional help. Each previously owned home that is for sale must have the North Carolina Residential Property Disclosure Statement (both listed homes and For Sale By Owner)-did you get your copy? This form lists all the items in a home that you might want to ask about or have inspected. A copy is included in the Additional Information You Might Find Helpful section at the end of this document and it is good to have as a reference wherever you go.
NOTE, EVEN IF YOU WOULD NOT CONSIDER BUILDING YOUR HOME, WE SUGGEST YOU REVIEW THIS FOLLOWING SECTION ANYWAY. IF YOU EVER NEED TO REMODEL OR HAVE AN ADDITION TO YOUR HOME, YOU WILL WANT TO KNOW HOW TO PICK YOUR BUILDER.
VI. Finding the Right Builder
If we were to pick the single most frequent cause of lament or ecstasy on the part of people building their home, it would be the relationship with, and competence of, the builder of the home. The vast majority of contractors we are familiar with are excellent craftsmen and have a crew of craftsmen or trusted subcontractors that will make you very proud of their work as well as provide you years of trouble free enjoyment in your home. However, this is also probably the area where you have heard the most horror stories. Forget those tales of woe! A very small amount of research on your part can eliminate most of the uncertainty and fear you may have about selecting a good builder. After all, this is a person you are going to trust with fulfilling a major portion of your dream. He or she will be doing vast amounts of work without you being present on a daily basis to supervise or make suggestions. Choosing your builder is a big decision, so plan on interviewing three or four highly recommended local builders. Any good builder will welcome your questions and take pride in showing off his or her other homes and letting you talk with the owners of those homes. So let’s take a look at how to find the right builder.
• Do you have your home plan? Perhaps you have already looked at Southern Living or somewhere else and selected what you want in a floor plan. Or maybe you want to replicate a home you have visited or the home of a friend. In most cases you will have made some adjustments to the plan by adding something here and taking something away. If so, you can go over that with each builder you interview and compare their comments and suggestions. This way they get an idea of what you will be asking them to build and they understand what your priorities and preferences are.
• Does the builder have in-house design build services from an architect, or work closely with one or more particular local architects? Often builders and architects that are not used to working together do not make a good team and you become the referee. We have listened to builders complain that architects design homes they never have to build so they don’t understand the complexity of construction. We have also heard architects complain about the Neanderthal builders who cannot grasp the elegance of design and are unable to read plans. The truth is often somewhere in the middle and you want to avoid being in that middle. Builders will frequently make adjustments to plans when they start construction and see the need for adaptations to fit the land or because there are errors in the plans themselves. Much time and expense can be saved if builders and architects have a history of successfully working together. As a side note, if you use your own architect, make sure he or she is experienced in designing mountain homes. Nothing looks more out of place, than a beach home nestled on a mountain top. And nothing will be harder to sell in the future.
• Does your plan fit your homesite? Like we mentioned earlier, ask your builder to come to the homesite you have selected (most reputable builders will ask to do this before they even talk details with you, if your candidate does not, be cautious of him or her). An experienced builder will help you site your home exactly and will spend some time finding out what it is you want to achieve with your home on your site. The builder will also have a good grasp of how to bring your driveway in if it is not already there, how the entrance should look, what trees to preserve and what trees will have to come down in construction. Builders will also have a file and history of homes they have built that may fit your homesite well and, with some modifications, suit your needs for the home itself better than your plan.
• Is the builder licensed? What type of license? Unlimited or restricted? Ask to see the license of your builder and verify it on line with the State. In verifying it on line, you can often tell if there are offenses or complaints against him or her in the past. A restricted license is relatively easier to obtain than an unlimited and an unlimited usually means a greater degree of expertise. There are many builders with a restricted license who do a great job building homes, and we’ll get to further questions to ask next. It is also common for some builders to work under a contractor so that they can get work without the trouble and expense of obtaining a license. Or, in many states, the builder can ask you to obtain permits in your name and a license is not required. We would recommend that you be very cautious of this type of arrangement unless you have a great amount of experience in building homes and will be present for the building process.
• How long has the builder been in this area building homes? We’ve already discussed how unique building in the mountains can be. Don’t let a builder learn on your home. How many homes has he or she built in the mountains? How many in terrain like yours? Ask to go see them and talk with the owners about their experience.
• How many homes does the builder work on at one time, and how many are underway now? Be careful of a contractor who has a lot of homes under construction at the same time. Some builders will find it hard to say no to anyone asking them to build there house and start right away. If a contractor has several already underway, he or she may have to hire tradesmen he or she may not be acquainted with and quality now becomes an issue. Or if new crews are not hired, the existing crews will be shuffled from job to job (sometimes as a result of which owner is on site or which owner complains the loudest) and delays and poor quality are the inevitable result. Personally, we prefer a builder who tells you that he or she is at capacity and cannot get to your home for some time. Anyone who does that will have their full attention on completing your home on time and with the quality you expected.
• What is the average time until completion of each home? Some builders will give a guarantee for completion with penalty clauses for delays. Others will not because they are leery of factors they cannot control like weather and supply delays. When you contact them, ask the owners of other homes whether the contractor brought them in on time and at cost.
• When can the builder start on your home? You need to know when work will commence for a number of reasons. First is that some types of work are best done in the summer or dryer season so that excavation does not get delayed by rain filling up foundations, footers, or piers before they can be filled with concrete. Second, in the mountains, on most days work continues regardless of the weather, but it is better if, during inclement weather, most of the outside work is finished and the inside work is being done when it is cold or wet. Third is that your construction loan may have deadlines for commencement and completion that, if not met, can lead to more costs for you.
• What completed homes and homes under construction can you tour to review the builders? We’ve already talked about homes built for other families, but often builders will have completed homes that are not currently occupied or may be homes they built for themselves to sell later. Look for the minor details that show a passion for perfection; are the joints all matching and fitted or are there gaps where they come together? How is the painting quality? Are the floor boards and stairs still tight or have they shrunk and started to move, show big gaps, or started to warp? Has the outside decking been sealed? Anything else you can think of is worth asking about. When we visit a home under construction, in addition to looking at the work, we like to see if the site itself is kept neat and clean. A builder that takes that kind of pride in his site is more likely to ensure that the quality of the work inside the house is also as good as possible.
• Cost plus or fixed cost? The cost of building a home falls into one of two categories. Either a builder will purchase all materials and service and add a cost factor to it (usually 10% to 20%, although we have seen slightly higher) that he or she passes on to you as his or her profit; or he or she will quote a price to finish the house at a fixed price with the profit margin part of that price. Most builders will tell you that the amount is close either way. If you choose cost plus, you will need to review the bills each week to ensure that what is being ordered is what you want and as you want it. Be aware that you will see the cost factor added to not only the materials and labor, but also to things you might not have thought about like trash removal. If you have expertise in a certain area, some contractors will allow you to furnish that part of the job at your expense. For instance, if you own a tile business, then you could supply the tile and perhaps have one of your employees come up to your home and install the tile. This must be discussed and agreed to before work commences and be part of your contract. It is too late to remember that Uncle Bill owns a roofing company after you have signed the contract. Once the contract is signed, the contractor is going to contact and schedule his or her sub contractors and arrange to purchase and deliver the materials for your home.
• How extensive is the estimate you will receive? Does it include insurance, utilities, waste removal, etc.? We have seen estimates on two pages and estimates on thirty pages. Personally, we prefer a builder that takes the time to make a detailed estimate and go over it with us. We don’t like surprises once things start and we are billed for things the builder assumed we would know, but did not include in the bid. Ask about any other costs that might be involved, but were not part of the bid. Ask about all costs that will be subject to the cost plus factor. Ask about how overruns are handled in the event material or fixtures cost more than the estimate (over the time it takes to start and to complete a home, costs can increase for reasons your builder cannot control).
• What warranties does the builder offer? After completion, a good builder will return in a month, in six months and in a year to make sure all is well with you and to repair anything that may be a result of defective material or workmanship. There are manufacturers’ warranties on many items like appliances, roofing, heating and air systems and the like, but a builder should stand behind his or her own work. Take notes and send them to the builder when you find a board loose, a joint in the drywall failing, a stair rail coming free, etc. Of course there is always the “punch list” that you and the builder go through before you pay the final draft, but other things may only become evident after time.
• What kind of bonding does the builder have? It is important to you that your builder be bonded for two reasons. The first is so that in the event of the builder being unable to finish your house, another builder can finish it without a financial burden to you. Second is that a builder’s sub contractors will look to you for payment in the event they are not paid. This is true even if you have, in good faith, paid the contractor for those services and the contractor has used those funds elsewhere.
• What are the financial references for the builder and how is the builder funded? Ask the builder who his or her banker is and then get permission to go talk with them. Without getting personal details, you can find out that the builder you have selected is solvent and a prudent business person.
• What is the draw schedule? How often and under what circumstances is the builder paid? You are not your builder’s banker, so most builders will submit bills for your review weekly and expect to be paid weekly. We prefer this to having a system in which we pay for a great deal of work yet to be done. That way we have not extended the builder and we are only paying for work or materials already ordered and on site.
• What level of communication do you require? Since this will be a long distance relationship for most, you must determine what you are comfortable with. With the digital age you could get pictures over the internet and talk with your builder weekly if you choose. We know of several builders that prefer frequent contact so that you are fully informed and can make changes and approve next week’s work. Other builders find this bothersome (sometimes because they do not own a digital camera, or use the internet) and a waste of the time they could be using on the job. Remember this is your dream home and you have the right to be kept informed and comfortable with progress. But because this is a complex undertaking, we recommend communication regularly scheduled and as frequent as possible without being an intrusion and a burden. Remember that during these reviews and contacts, anything you change, even at the suggestion of the contractor, is changed at your added expense. So be careful, even small changes add up and the bill at the end may be an unpleasant surprise.
• What is the selection process for items like cabinets, fixtures, finish, etc.? Usually, as part of the bid, you will get an allowance for several categories of items like these. You will often get a catalogue from the builder of these items and be asked to choose what you want. It is possible that you have strong preferences of make and style based on your own personal style and experience and you need to make these known at the beginning so that the cost of purchasing and the time needed to have them ordered, delivered, and installed can be factored in. Since this is such a matter of personal taste and since it also greatly contributes to your enjoyment, few builders will be comfortable making the choices for you, but most will have recommendations based on their experience and availability of products.
• Is the builder adequately insured? You need to have a copy of all insurance policies including liability, workers compensation, bonding, and any thing else he or she carries. Note the expiration dates and make sure they do not expire during your construction.
VII. Closing Thoughts
It has been our experience that many people who come to the mountains looking for homes and homesites, are sometimes not prepared for the detail involved in acting on their dreams. Most have some idea of what may be involved; few have the complete picture that will ensure a trouble free fulfillment of their dream. It is our sincere hope that this has been of some help in your search for a home in the mountains. This list is not exhaustive, nor is it meant to do anything but start you thinking about what you need to do in preparation. Your own research and on site leg work will be invaluable and is essential. When we moved up here from Jacksonville, Florida, it was after years vacationing in this area and looking at property for some time. After two years of overseeing the development of a beautiful valley overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains and talking with people who came up to buy, we realized that there is no substitute for experience and preparation. But had we asked some of these questions of ourselves and the professionals we dealt with, our learning curve could have been much shorter and we hope yours can be as well.
We share with many the emphatic feeling that living in the mountains is not only one of the best decisions we have made, but that being here gets better each day and each year. With only a little preparation, you too can experience the joy, the peace, and the fun of building memories with loved ones in an ideal setting. That was the only reason we wrote these thoughts down and you are welcome to contact either of us and ask us any questions about your search. We would be happy to help in any way we can.