Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Monday, January 23, 2012

Prosperity & Palo Alto real estate (NPR's take)

If you have been in an Asian neighborhood or Chinese restaurant recently you may have seen a sign like this on doorways:

福倒 Fu Dao -- a wish for a prosperous year

Today is Chinese New Year and this sign features the character Fu () which means fortune.  It is traditionally hung upside down because the Chinese word for "upside down" is "Dao," which also happens to mean "arrives."  So an upside down "fortune" is a play on words meaning "fortune arrives" and is an auspicious symbol to put on one's door welcoming prosperity into your home.

Despite the warnings about a financing bubble, education bubble, tech bubble, and media calling everything a bubble bubble, the year of 2011 was a great one for our family and Silicon Valley.  Prosperity arrived to us in the form of a new job for Thomas, an IPO for Kay, a little brother for Cisco and a new home for all of us in one of the greatest places on earth.

A friend (who has the best personal blog ever) recently asked us why we decided to buy in Palo Alto.  That's the subject of a long complicated post on investing, resale values, and a personal history which I hope to get around to soon.  In the meantime, here's a segment from NPR that attempts to explain this crazy little thing called Palo Alto real estate: Silicon Valley Homebuilder Finds A Profitable Niche. 

For a behind the scenes look at the Palo Alto real estate market, here are a few bonus links to stars of the segment:

James Witt:
Before we decided to build our own, we considered buying a house by James Witt, the leading man of the NPR segment.  James is the Steve Jobs of Bay Area builders and designs practical yet beautiful homes chock-full of cool features and artistic touches.  Check out his homes for sale and projects if you want to buy a brand new home or are a remodeler in need of design ideas.

The $2 Million house that the buyer might want to remodel again:
Here's a link the $2 Million Eichler built in 1973 and featured in the NPR segment.  It's actually quite charming and located in Community Center -- a great part of Palo Alto near several parks.  There's an open house this weekend.  The real estate agent, Denise Simons was also the selling agent for the house that we bought and does a great job preparing older homes for sale.

Happy Chinese New Year!  May you be blessed with upside down Fu's in 2012!

Happy New Year!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Finding the perfect neighborhood & getting your plans approved

The first time we saw our new neighborhood, Green Acres, it was love at first sight.  We loved the wide streets, mature trees, and proximity to open space, parks and schools.  We loved that it was a quiet, modest neighborhood with generously sized lots and a mix of ranch homes, Craftsmans, Spanish manors, and no McMansions.  We loved seeing kids on bikes roaming the streets and dogs off-leash in the field behind the high school.  Everything that we saw we loved, so we went ahead and tied the knot.

Fast forward two months later...we're still in the honeymoon period but there are a few things I've learned along the way to share with would-be home builders.  These tips come from my ever expanding "do as I say, not as I do"files.   For the madly in love, these may be a bit of a buzz kill, but as the wise man who walked me down the aisle at our Vegas wedding warned, only fools rush in...

Part 1: The Neighborhood Rules

Rules, schmules. 
1.  Buyer beware -- check the local sex offender registry
Don't let love blind you to potential red flags.  The Megan's Law database allows you to search for registered sex offenders by street, city, or zip code.  Look up the neighborhood you want to buy in and check for worrisome offenders within close proximity of the house.  We completely forgot to do this until after we bought the house, but we lucked out and nothing turned up.  This is not worth leaving to chance, do the check before you make a bid.  I've had friends back out of an offer and forfeit their 3% deposit after they realized a convicted sex offender lived across the street.

2.  Be attracted to the neighborhood's architecture
The first rule of neighborly love is thou shalt not build a fugly house.  What's fugly, you ask?  Fugly is one of those "I know it when I see it" standards.  The reason it matters is because Palo Alto, like many cities, tries to preserve the "charm and character" of its neighborhoods and will not approve designs that stray too far from the community norm.  In other words, if your neighbors are complaining about your fugly house plans, you're going to have a really hard time getting past the required planning review (which is only the first step towards being granted your permits).  The best way to test for whether you'll be able to build the house you want is to take a look at the architecture that's already there.  If you hate the style of homes around you, chances are your neighborhood beautification plans are not going to be compatible with the locals.  And it's nothing personal, everybody loves the Flintstone house -- just not next door to them.  Green Acres has been described as a low-key, mainstream, "Leave it to Beaver" kind of neighborhood (sorry, no ultra contemporary homes) and we think that's just swell.

3.  Make sure you're compatible for height, mass and scale
Houses come in all shapes and sizes.  When we bought our house, we didn't do a whole lot of inspection since we thought we were just buying the land and could build whatever we wanted on it.  Wrongo.  Palo Alto requires that new developments "be compatible with the neighborhood pattern for height (vertical profile), mass (bulk or volume) and scale (perceived size)."  In particular, they pay special attention to the impact of your construction plans on the adjacent homes, aka your "streetscape."  Before you buy, take a long and hard look at the the houses to your immediate left and right of your property because their roof lines, height, landscaping and window placement will all impact what you're able to build.  Every city is different, so just make sure to check what their rules are before you buy.  And words of wisdom from our architect: Never try to build the first two-story house in a neighborhood, especially one of all Eichlers.

Luckily for us, Green Acres is a pleasant mix of one and two-story homes surrounded by mature landscaping that allow for a great deal of privacy.  However, our lot is sandwiched between two single story homes so we have to keep our rooflines low in order to remain compatible with our vertically challenged neighbors.  By the way, if you drive around Palo Alto as I did, you may notice some very odd and awkward looking homes that tower over their neighbors and stick out like a sore thumb.  I snapped photos of these anomalies and was hoping to use them to make a case for why we should be able to add another few feet to our dinky little 25-foot high Craftsman.  When I ran this line of thinking by our architect, she explained that the homes probably pre-date the city's guidelines and were the precise reason why the city created the standards in 2005.  Bah.  So while it saddens me to write this, I've come to the conclusion that the fastest way of getting your plans approved is to follow the rules.

Part 2:  Guidelines for getting your plans approved 

1.  Adhere to the city guidelines, duh
To me, guidelines are merely suggestions, which is why you probably don't want someone who's loosey goosey about rules to be your architect.  The single best way to get approval for your plans is to follow all of the standards laid out in this 15-page document:  Palo Alto Single Family Individual Review Guidelines.  Fortunately, unlike me, our architect plays by the rules and diligently incorporated these guidelines into our plans.  Here are some of the things she built to minimize our impact on our neighbors and the streetscape:
- Made garage narrower in width relative to the house and set-back from the house's front facade (the city wants new homes to have less prominent garages)
- Placed arbor over garage to make it look shorter
- Used horizontal siding (avoided strong vertical elements that exaggerate height)
- Set second floor back from the front facade and away from side lot lines
- Used Dutch gable roofs to minimize visual height of house
- Ensured windows did not align and look into neighbors' homes
- Avoided second floor balcony (allows for more privacy for neighbors)
Note: Another clever thing that our architect did was include the 2-story house behind ours in her streetscape drawing.  This was not required by the city but helps viewers see that our house sits nicely in between all the various house heights.

Our "Streetscape" drawing by Jeanine Unterleitner, Residential Designer
2.  Optional but recommended: Preliminary Review meeting
For $100 fee you can request a preliminary review meeting where you will go over your initial plans with the city planner and architect assigned to your project.  This is not required, it's simply an opportunity to get some early feedback before you make your official submission.  We opted to do this to make sure we were on the right track and get any necessary course corrections and were happy with the investment.  The planners ended up being very happy about the design and commended our architect for her thoughtful site plan.  The meeting was also useful because they offered helpful suggestions on how to further improve our compatibility with the neighbors (many of which we incorporated into our final plans).  Here are some of the things suggestions we incorporated from the meeting:
- Added a water table (horizontal trim line) to break up the second story
- Adjusted details like the front porch columns and railing to break up perceived height of front facade
- Decided garage door will be natural wood with carriage panelling (the city hates fugly garage doors)
- Extended the garage roof lower to match neighbor's roof line
- Added south-facing windows (this was a sustainability recommendation since it allows sun to heat house in winter)
3.  Required: Planning Review and notifying your neighbors 
Once you've completed your home plans you submit them for an official Planning Review.  At this time, you are required to post a sign on the property with a drawing of your proposed house and  streetscape.  You must send a photo of your installed sign to the city.  See below to for my submission (hopefully our planner's not a cat person.)
Astro and Cisco lobbying for community support.
The city also sends a notification to all homes within a 150 ft radius of your lot.  Neighbors have three weeks to visit the city planning office to review your proposal and submit their feedback for consideration.  This is where you pray that you have no haters in the hood, which brings me to my final tip (which is not a rule, merely a suggestion):

Extra Credit:  Go out and meet the neighbors
It's so much nicer to arrive in person rather than show up in the form of a yard sign or letter from the city or an early morning bulldozer.  Since we had Martin Luther King day off, we decided it was the perfect time to spread a little bit of neighborly love.  I spent the morning baking up a storm while brushing up on my Flanders speak: Hi-dilly-ho-dilly neighboreenos! Howdily-doo! Heydily-ho, window buddy!  And that afternoon my husband and I went door to door to meet our new neighborinos and deliver plates of Sweet Meyer Lemony cookie goodness.

Much to our surprise and delight we were treated to Armenian tea at one house, fresh egg rolls at another, and hospitality all around.  It was an afternoon full of neighborhood history and gossip.  We learned names and professions of our neighbors, who has kids and how many grandkids, who lives mostly in their vacation home and who rides their bike to work.  We learned which neighbors fought over construction plans and who's had asbestos issues and where the neighborhood's fugly house is located.  We were happy to learn that our adjacent neighbors are easy going--a nice 93-year old lady on one side and a rental property on the other (we met the owner/landlord and he seemed pretty pleased with our construction plans).  Our favorite story of the day was learning about the 80-year-old neighbor who vowed to run buck naked down the street if Obama won in 2008.  Her midnight streak remains to this day the biggest scandal in Green Acres history.  Ah, we can't wait to call it home.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Houzz porn and making decisions with a better half

Dreaming about a sweeet, sweeet Craftsman.

Warning: The first half of this post is about marriage.  If you're a home design enthusiast just looking for a porn fix, here ya go...a sexy Houzz slideshow:

The first time I embarked on a construction project I was flying solo.  It was a year long home remodel and the only person who had to sign off on decisions was moi.  Needless to say, things moved along quite quickly.  This time around I have a better half.

Division of labor in our household is very simple.  Responsibilities get divvied up and assigned to the person who loves it the most, hates it the least or needs it done more urgently.  One of my favorite perks of being married is having someone who manages my 401K (he loves investing) and does the laundry (he runs out of underwear first).  He's also in charge of all things automotive because he digs that kind of stuff while I am not a car person.  Last year when he decided it was time for me to get a new one, he did the research and car shopping by himself.  (After all, who would want to spend Sundays test driving cars when you could be out trolling open houses??)  When he finally found his top pick, I took it on a five minute test drive, looked at the final price and gave my stamp of approval.  That's how we roll.

On the home design front, I'm in the driver's seat because for me it's a dream job and for him it's work.  Our end goal is a smart investment and a house that we'll love living in for the next decade.  For better or worse, I'm in charge of the details on how we get there and he'll do test drives when there are decisions that have a major impact on the cost or end result.

The secret for how we get there while still maintaining marital bliss has been Houzz.  Houzz is what a male friend of mine classily describes as "house porn." It's an online community and database of home photos sweeet sweeet eye candy uploaded by design professionals from around the world.  It has thousands upon thousands of photos detailing every possible nook and cranny of a home's anatomy --inside and out.  Hubba hubba.  I spend a greater part of my waking hours on Houzz fantasizing about the perfect closet, getting ideas on how to build a dream kitchen, and coveting a tropical beach house.

The beauty of Houzz is that in addition to browsing photos, you can also save and share them in an "ideabook."  I have an ideabook for every room in the house and when I see something I like, I send the link to our architect.  It's so much easier to show than tell.  Our realtor (the person who introduced me to Houzz) also has an ideabook where she shares trendy design elements for our house.  (BTW, Houzz also comes in handy when the pros start throwing around words I don't know, like rafter tailstrusses and dutch gable roofs.)

When it was time to decide on our exterior design finishes, I scoured Houzz and the web for examples.  (Houzz has a nifty bookmarklet that allows you to save photos from other websites, too.)  After spending hours compiling an ideabook with 170 different exterior designs, I pushed the dog off the couch and replaced him with my husband.  We then used my iPad to flip through the collection photos and debate details.  (You can do this on your computer, but the Houzz iPad app is drop dead gorgeous and easier when you want to cozy up and quickly scan through a lot of images.)  Within about five minutes, we were able to hone in on our likes and dislikes and come to some decision points -- all this from the comfort of our living room.  No dog-eared magazines, no open houses, no making small talk with realtors pretending we're in the market.  Just a quickie with me, my hubby, and Houzz.  

In the end, we sent three photos to our architect with the request: "like these but on a Craftsman with a contemporary twist."  She miraculously morphed the photos into a drawing of our future house, all of which you can see in our tantalizing ideabook below:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How to hire an architect (or residential designer)

He aced the interview, but sadly doesn't use email.
If you want to learn about how to do a meticulous job hiring an architect and building a house, this Seattle home blog is a must-read.  Mike describes the start-to-finish process of creating a new custom home with the kind of detail and precision I hope to master in my next life as a man.  Mike spent a few months researching and interviewing architects before choosing a firm with a flat-fee structure of $48,000.

It took me about a week to hire our architect Jeanine, who is actually a residential designer.  Her estimate was $18,000.  I call her our "architect" because everyone assumes you have to have an architect design your house and it's easier than explaining the difference (which is highlighted at the end of this post).

For my dear readers who may actually be thinking about building a home, I thought I'd outline how to hire an architect the proper way before explaining the Kay way.  The first list is a compilation of advice from Mike's Picking An Architect post along with Choosing a Contractor tips from Consumer Reports (click on the aforementioned links to get the full details):
Strategic Planner Checklist   
1. Get personal recommendations
2. House stalk to find architects you like
3. Evaluate architects' previous work and style fit
4. Ask for 3D renderings from previous projects
5. Find out who is really doing your design (if it's a bigger firm)
6. Interview previous clients
7. Check with the Better Business Bureau for a complaint history
8. Ensure contractor is properly licensed and insured
9. Get cost of construction estimates
10. Decide on design vs design/build option
11. Get written estimates from at least three contractors
12. Negotiate a fair contract and fee schedule
I call this the "Strategic Planner" checklist because my husband is a strategic planner and I imagine this is how he would've done it.  Buuut, since he's busy getting paid the big bucks for those strategic planning skills, I gleefully sped ahead with my own strategery:
Kay's Get It Done Quick List 
1. Referral from someone I trust and has worked with the person
2. Person responds quickly to my calls and emails
3. Price seems reasonable
I'm the type of person who moves fast and usually learns along the way.  Sometimes moving too quickly ends up costing me extra, but on balance things tend to work out because I rely on the advice of good, honest, and practical experts who help guide my way.  Our contractor, Jeff, is one of those experts and referred us to Jeanine.  Jeff, (also found through a referral), was our trusty general contractor for a large remodel of our current house, so his recommendations carry a lot of weight with us.  Plus, when I called Jeanine, she got back to me promptly and scheduled a meeting that week.  I showed her our property and took her to an open house of another home that we liked in order to give her an idea of what we wanted.  The following week the 18K contract was signed and voilà!  A week and a half later (less than a week after we closed escrow on the house), we had our first designs.  Now that's my kind of pace...

It's been about six weeks now, (that includes the holiday break), and we are just about to submit our initial plans to the city of Palo Alto.  The whole process so far has been remarkably efficient and fun.  I will go into further details in future posts but for now I will leave you with two of my biggest learnings.

1.  Hire tech savvy people
In six weeks we've been working with Jeanine, we've spoken on the phone twice, met three times in person, and have exchanged approximately a hundred thirty emails.  The one trait I don't see on peoples' fancy checklists is to make sure you hire tech savvy people.  And by tech savvy, I mean they use email regularly, can locate information (like city building codes) online, and know how to send you a digital photo or PDF.  Bonus points for using Word, Excel or Google Docs files.  Don't take it for granted that everyone knows how to do these things.  I've come across a fair share of people in the home building industry who don't use a computer.  It's most important that your architect (or residential designer) and general contractor know how to communicate via email since they are your main points of contact.  Receiving drawings, contracts and invoices electronically is not only faster, it gives you a timeline and record of everything you've done.  It's also a lot easier sharing a photo of something you like rather than trying to explain your style preferences.  A good way to screen for this is to simply conduct some of your initial interview and conversations via email, including the exchange of the contract and other information.  It's definitely nice if your subcontractors are proficient too, (I hate hanging on to paper contracts and invoices), but not essential.

The second lesson that I learn over and over again in life is that:

2.  Nothing beats a personal recommendation from someone you trust
If there's one thing I've learned from years of working in the corporate world, it's that interviews are a terrible way of hiring people, especially when you're screening for skills you yourself don't have.  Often times the person who performs the best in an interview winds up being the biggest muppet ever.  A candid assessment from someone I trust has always proven to be the single best source of information.

Here's the email from Jeff referring us to Jeanine.  This, along with a phone call asking for more details is why I felt so comfortable moving forward.  So far we've found everything Jeff has said about Jeanine to be true.  Jump to the highlighted section to learn about the difference between an architect and a residential designer.
Hi Kay, 
Over the weekend I was talking to a building designer I work with about a job she’s designing in San Mateo.  I mentioned to her that you are going to be interviewing architects/designers and if she is interested in meeting you, which she is.  Here’s a little background about her and her company.  
Jeanine Unterleitner is the principal of The Residential Designer.  She’s been designing houses for many years and I have worked with her on several projects.  Her strengths are listening to her clients needs and creating intelligent use of space.  She also uses the same Structural Engineer, Jody Tai, P.E. for most projects.  This is a huge benefit because some architects design beautiful houses only to find that the structure is radically altered when it gets engineered.  Anything can get built, but my point is that inefficient design is costly.  Jeanine and Jody work well as a team and use cost effective techniques to achieve great design results. 
To clarify, Jeanine is not a licensed Architect nor affiliated with the AIA.  She is a building designer.  What’s the difference?  In my experience, money and ego.  I’ve met more than one licensed architect that is very rigid about his vision of what the house is supposed be.  Is it about the vision or the client?  There are some excellent architects out there, and I am happy to refer you to one in particular, but be prepared to spend a lot more on design. 
Last thing I want to say about Jeanine, is that she knows how to drive a project.  Big or small, she’s on it.  That means getting revisions submitted to the city quickly, or following-up with an answer to a question.  She’s very capable of designing a custom home that meets your objectives.
Let me know if you’d like me to introduce you or if you would like to contact her directly.  I did tell her that you were at the early stages of interviewing designers, so don’t feel pressured into contacting her, if you’re already planning to work with someone else.  Below is her contact. 

For those of you who have made it this far, here's a bonus tip from my parents who built a new house in Palo Alto a decade ago.
The Frugal Asian Parents Way
1. Visit new homes in your city
2. Find one you like that is about the right size
3. Hire same architect at hourly rate to modify the design for your lot
I learned about this approach after boasting to my dad about the very reasonable quote from our architect and asking how much he paid.  They paid a mere $10,000 for their plans.  They managed this by trolling open houses of new homes in Palo Alto until they found one that they liked.  My dad then contacted the architect of the house and hired him at an hourly rate to modify the plans.  Aside from re-sizing some dimensions, they made no major structural changes and simply added a second archway to the front facade.  Since the designs had already gone through the rigor of the city reviews, the amount of time needed from the architect was low.  I think this is a great strategy if you can find something you like that's already out there.  As for me, an ABC with somewhat less frugal ways, I'm okay making an additional investment in order to get custom features like our two mudrooms, dog friendly layout, and the guest suite designed especially for our much deserving parents.