And They Built A Crooked House, by Ruth S. Martin


The Lot is Ideal

Our saga began in the summer of 1985, when we decided to look for a bigger house. At the time our three girls were 2, 8 and 13 years old, and we had lived in the same home for 8 years. As our family grew we felt the need for a larger house, and began looking at existing homes in the same area. Our goals were straightforward: a more spacious house, same school district, and affordable.

We looked alone and with a real estate agent, but after six weeks of fairly intense searching found nothing suitable. Houses were either overpriced or too small, or in a poor location (on a busy street or behind a shopping center). In short, we saw nothing we liked and could afford. Our combined income, plus equity in our existing home, dictated a house of not much more than $350,000. Expensive, but not exorbitant. One Sunday in July I saw an ad in the real estate classifieds:

EMERALD HEIGHTS. 2 acre wooded lot on cul de sac. 4 bedrm contemporary. Cathedral family rm plus library large living & dining rm. Generous & luxurious. Quality built under construction. Time to customize to your design.

I called and spoke with a pleasant-sounding gentleman named Jacob Cooper. I learned from him that the advertised house was not much bigger than ours and that construction was too far along to change the floor plan. However, Mr. Cooper also owned a vacant 2-acre lot on the same street. On this lot we could build any size house desired. Homes in Emerald Heights are all on large lots, and range from about $150,000 for a small ranch house to over a million dollars. We had already seen some older homes in the suburb that didn't suit us; building a new one seemed feasible as long as the price was affordable. If we had to build to get the home we wanted, why not? Several friends had built homes and were happy with the result, so the idea was intriguing.

We arranged to meet Mr. Cooper at the lot on Pelican Road. We had never crossed paths before and had no common acquaintances. Just past middle age, he lived in a nearby suburb with his wife and had plenty of family in the area, including several grown children and many grandchildren. He said he was retired from the wholesale jewelry business and that "developing new homes is my way of keeping busy." Overall he seemed friendly and accommodating, and pleased that we (a professional couple able to afford a new home) were interested in his land.

For us the lot was great. Two heavily wooded acres, it was part of a six acre parcel in the middle of an established residential street. Cooper had bought the parcel a year earlier, just after it came on the market. The existing homes on Pelican Road are well-kept and unpretentious, providing the kind of neighborhood we wanted. Cooper had already developed two of the three lots. He had hired a builder (Frank T. Construction Co.) and an architect (James Nelson of Nelson and Packard, Inc.), and arranged for construction of two houses. On the first lot was the advertised `spec' house, selling for about $265,000. On the second, or middle of the three lots, a house was under construction for his son and daughter-in-law, and their two children (Cooper's grandchildren). The third lot, still undeveloped, was to be ours.

How much would a 3600 square foot home cost, with a first floor master bedroom? Based on his prices for the first two houses, Mr. Cooper said he could build it for around $300,000, lot included. Could we buy the lot and hire our own architect and builder? No, he said, we could only buy the lot as part of a package. Although he would obviously make more profit this way, such developer packages are a common practice in the area, so we were not surprised or put off.

So nice and inviting was the lot, we agreed to build. Cooper would hire the architect and builder (the same team completing his son's house) and finance construction of our house. We would pay 10% down ($30,000) when the contract was signed, the balance upon completion. Construction time would be about nine months.

This was exciting! We could help design our dream home, follow it's construction, and not have to arrange any financing until we took title. We also felt reassured that the same people who built his son's home would be constructing ours. During August and September 1985 we met several times with Mr. Cooper's architect, Jim Nelson. A thin man in his mid 30s, Nelson impressed us as sincere and knowledgeable, easy to talk to and responsive to our needs. From the very beginning we trusted Nelson as a fellow professional. He was partners with another architect and the duo had a number of homes and offices to their credit. During casual conversation we asked, out of curiosity only, if he had malpractice insurance like most doctors carry. "Yes," he replied. We thought no more about that question until almost two years later.

Nelson's final plans called for a 3700-square-foot, 10-room, contemporary cedar-sided structure with a large basement. The first floor plans showed a utility room, kitchen, family room, dining room, living room, office and a large master bedroom with bath, plus another half bathroom off the foyer. Upstairs the plans called for four bedrooms, one each for our children plus a guest room, and two full bathrooms. We loved the floor plan, not least because we had helped design it. The house would have just what we needed, no more or less. Although custom-designed, the plans were not daring or architect-urally avant garde. Basically we had added a first floor master bedroom to a traditional four bedroom house, an arrangement that should have posed no problem for any architect.

After adding some extras, such as an upgrade on the furnace, two skylights, and extra shelving, and eliminating a jacuzzi that was included in the original estimate, the contract price came to $307,350. We planned on spending another $40,000 or so on extras: finishing the basement, landscaping, a wood deck, and other items. Compared to existing for-sale homes, $350,000 seemed a fair price for a custom-designed house of this size on a two-acre lot. We congratulated ourselves on having made a smart decision.