Where to stuff our stuff?

Our home in Pennsylvania was about 2430 ft2. Our new Texas home will have nearly 3800 ft2. But before you declare that we’re getting a massively bigger house, consider this other fact: our Pennsylvania home also had a basement of close to 1200 ft2. In our case, half the basement was finished, and served as our family’s primary living and play space for many years: it’s where we had our computers, pool table, the TV and all the Thomas the Tank Engine videos, all our craft supplies… The other half we left unfinished, and that’s where we kept our our STUFF: camping supplies, Christmas decorations, totes full of classroom projects, wrapping paper, and above all, it’s where I started thousands of seedlings under fluorescent lights every winter. It’s hard to imagine living in a house without a basement, and yet, that’s where we’ll find ourselves soon: Texas homes have no basements.

Shopping around for a home near Houston, it was difficult to imagine what we’d do with all of our belongings. Sure, the homes boasted greater square footage living space, but most of that was in grand entryways, spacious living rooms, bigger master bathrooms than anybody could possibly need… And really not a whole lot in the way of storage space. I guess Texans live differently, but we have a lot of legacy stuff (even after throwing massive amounts of it away as we’ve prepared for our move), and we need a place to put it, at least until we figure out how to emulate those Texan ways. Attics I’d poked my head into while visiting some homes for sale weren’t promising: that’s where all the furnaces, water heaters, ductwork, and miscellaneous wiring go (you know, the stuff that’s sensibly put in basements up north), so there’s barely room to move around, let alone store significant amounts of belongings (even the kinds that can withstand the heat of summer).

One of the features that immediately appealed to us in the Perry Homes model we toured (our home’s twin) was that there were two second-story attic spaces accessible through scuttle doors from bedrooms. These attic spaces, located above the garage and the master bathroom, were not nearly as cluttered with pipework and HVAC equipment as the third-floor attic, and because they were located lower, we thought they may stay a little cooler too (that remains to be seen – summer has yet to descend on Houston). We immediately saw the potential for significant storage space, and it truly was one of the factors that swung us towards this model as our chosen home.

Of course, bare attic spaces have rafters with loose-blown insulation at their base; they need significant upgrading to serve a useful purpose. So we got a price on applying decking to some of the attic areas soon after signing the contract, as well as for substituting full-sized doors for the half-size scuttle doors for access to these spaces. After suffering a bit of sticker shock, we decided spring for decking out both attic spaces, and putting a full door into one of them. The second door had a higher price tag than we wanted to spring for at a time where we had already laid out lots of money at the design center.

Perry Homes decked attic space

Decked attic space above the master bedroom

The decked-out areas were soon evident during the framing phase of the home. We were pleased with how they came out: there were still roof supports, some ducts, and other obstacles to work around, but the decking was applied well, and was clearly going to serve its purpose as a support for family possessions. The other thing I noticed during my daily visits was that both of the areas had full-sized doorways framed out. The first time I met construction manager Chris, during the pre-sheetrock meeting and walk-through, I brought up the fact that there were two doorways, even though we had only requested one, and was happy when Chris stated that, given the progress already made, he’d be giving us the second door “on the house”. It was good to know that Perry was willing to look beyond the dollars and go the extra mile for its customers.

Perry Homes doorway about to disappear

A door about to disappear

At this time, it looks like perhaps Chris’ magnanimous gesture violated Perry’s strict policies, because all of a sudden one day, months after that first meeting, I found the doorway studded up (and sheetrocked over the next day). Needless to say, it stung to have something that had been promised and that we had come to count on taken away without as much as a word of notice. At this stage, I’m still working with the construction supervisor to see if we can salvage both the door and Perry’s goodwill. Keeping my fingers crossed.


An early rush

Perry Home Harvest Green framing

Our Perry Home in Harvest Green in the framing stage

The early stages of the construction of our new home were thrilling. I met with the construction manager, Jeff, an affable fellow who talked up the many benefits of Perry Homes. Not all of those would come to be, but it was a feel-good discussion, and we felt good about the venture. Within a week of our design center appointment, the foundation was being prepared – there is no digging required for that in Houston, which helps. Another week later, the concrete had been poured, and framing was underway. It was my daily source of entertainment to swing by the house after work and watch the rapid progress. Sure, there were a few mistakes in evidence (they neglected to give us a doorway from our master bedroom into the master bathroom for one), but at this stage everything was easily fixable. We were a little annoyed to find that one of the construction workers took a nail gun and used 40 nails to write his initials in an upstairs floor. Jeff said that would be fixed in due time, but the nails stayed put. That was perhaps an early indication of how promises from Perry Homes representatives somehow carried less weight than we had come to expect dealing with other businesses. But still, it was fun to see so much happening all at once, and little things didn’t overly bother us. Had we had only had little things to deal with, we would be pleased as punch even now!

A visit to the design center

Perry Homes Design Center selections

Our selections from the Perry Homes design center

Two weeks after we signed a contract on our new home, Amy returned to Houston for our design center visits. Perry Homes allows you two 2-hour visits to make all your selections, which sounded like a

lot of time, but it really wasn’t. Couples who have had a lot of time to check things out in model homes before their design center appointments may be able to rush through, but if you’re starting from scratch, it’s tough to fit it all in – especially since so many of the builder standards are quite ugly, so upgrades are warranted in a large number of areas.

We were lucky that our design center consultant was willing to work with us, giving us more time than our official four hours. But we still just barely got done before the time ran out on us. During that time, we selected everything from the granite for kitchen countertops to cabinetry colors and style, from appliance upgrades to faucets that don’t look like bottom-shelf Home Depot specials, and from carpet and hardwood to tile. Oh, that tile… It was going to bite us in the rear end big time. But more about that later.

What we didn’t realize until much later is that it is far better to stay with the bare minimum in upgrades, and plan to upgrade on your own later. This is for two reasons – one, it means that the upgrades don’t count in your home value, so that your property taxes will be lower. But more importantly, it means that you won’t have to put down much extra earnest money at the front end. As soon as you’ve put down a substantial amount of non-refundable money, you’re pretty much locked in to the home. And that means that the builder has you right where they want you. There have been times during the construction of our home where we would have walked away if we could – but we had already invested too deeply. So take my advice – go light on the upgrades, to keep your options open until far into the construction process.

A brand new home

Soon, my family and I will be the proud new owners of a brand new home, in the brand new Harvest Green community in the western outskirts of Houston. Building the home has been quite a process, with some thrills and quite a few disappointments, too. In this website, I will document all we’re going through as we watch our house coming together – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It all started with my move to Houston, from our long-time family home in Pennsylvania. The job up north went away, a job down south materialized, and before I knew it, I was living in Houston, in a small apartment, away from my family, on a mission to find suitable new housing for when my wife, two sons, and daughter would join me after the school year ended. A familiar story for many Houstonians, for sure, as the metropolitan area has boomed in recent years, attracting many new residents.

I knew the general area where we wanted to live, somewhere between the current location of my new job (in Sugar Land) and the location it was rumored to be moving to in a few years (in Katy). That area has seen a particular boom in growth recently, with many new developments going up as the new Highway 99 makes it easy to get up and down the western reaches of Houston’s suburbs. So starting from the very first weekend after my arrival, I was out looking around, at new homes going up in communities like Aliana, Fieldstone, Long Meadow Farms, and Cinco Ranch. Resale homes were on the radar too, but my family was keen on starting this new venture in a new home built to meet our needs, so I focused on new construction.

And there was plenty to choose from, model home villages galore! Myriads of builders tried to entice me with flashy layouts, media and game rooms, grand entrances, roomy kitchens, the works. Problem was, most of them would not be able to build a home to be ready by the time my family arrived. There were fewer than six months between my arrival in Houston and the reunion of our family in early summer – not enough for most builders to construct a home. Then, a few weeks after driving my trusty Subaru into town, we found out about Harvest Green, a master-planned community just west of Highway 99 so new that nobody lived there yet. The community concept, focused on farming and edible gardening, was attractive to us: among the hardest things to leave behind in Pennsylvania was our mature garden, built up over 20 years with home-grown trees, shrubs, and perennials, so we were eager to get back into gardening, learning about sub-tropical horticulture in the process.

Since Harvest Green was so new, there were plenty of lots to choose from, and a few of the builders promised they could build a home to be ready by late June. A few of their models looked enticing, so my wife was soon on a plane, so that we could make a decision together on where to build our home, and more importantly, with which builder. The two prime candidate builders were Perry Homes and Highland Homes, both of whom offered five-bedroom models that would fit our family of five, and perhaps even all the assorted belongings we had accumulated over the past twenty years (no basements in Houston, which puts storage at a premium – more about that later). Both builders had the reputation for building good homes, but with quite different styles – Perry tending toward the more formal, Highland a bit more down to earth. We had a day to make up our minds – and in the end, we selected Perry. Their 3798 floor plan felt a little roomier than the Highland plans we had seen, and perhaps more importantly, Perry had a nice cul-de-sac lot that would offer us a slightly larger back yard, compared to the nominal size in the subdivision. They say everything is be bigger in Texas, but that doesn’t apply to lot sizes in new developments, which are decidedly tiny. So a wedge-shaped lot with a little extra room to garden was attractive.

So we signed a contract, forked over the first check for $3000 earnest money, and were officially in the home-buying business. We selected many of the builder options that same day, including the elevation (the layout and appearance of the facade of the house and its roofline). Following the trend in new construction around here, we selected a stone-and-brick elevation, which meant we had to select the particular brick and stone types – so the next day, we ventured out into other developments with Perry homes, maps in hand to show which homes had which stone and brick selections – and found a few combinations we liked. The brick we liked best and the stone we liked best weren’t a very good combination together, so we decided to pick the stone and selected a matching brick – the same combination as we had seen on a few of the homes in Cinco Ranch. As it would turn out, our home’s stonework would look rather different from those homes – but more on that in a later post.

As I’m writing this, the home is nearing completion – it could be done within a month. I’ll write more about our many experiences along the way in future posts, and will document further progress as it happens.