BUILDING A NEW HOUSE YOURSELF
- PROBLEMS TO AVOID -
Failure to Properly Understand/Observe
Local Zoning and Building Code Regulations
Though we made a concerted effort to read the regulations and made many long distance calls to various county departments before we even moved to Arizona and settled on our new land, we still failed to fully understand or even know about some of the regulations. Part of the reason is perhaps a certain mental block in trying to sort out legaleze and finding that what we read or heard on the telephone was quite confusing and often contradictory. There were so many rules and regulations to know about. What inspectors told us also was not necessarily what officals downtown told us when we called them on the telephone or spoke to them in person.
When we arrived in Arizona the consensus in our area out in boonies was that the County's arm rarely reached that far out from Tucson, and that we shouldn't worry about building and zoning regulations. We therefore made a number of improvements to our mobile home without taking out any permits.
That was a serious mistake because about that time the County building and zoning officials DID begin enforcing the regulations out in our area. Several people in the area were foced to tear down structures which they had built with a proper permit and build them again. When a neighbor made his first complaints (see below), the County came out, found violations, and cited us. We had to remove much of the stuccoing we had applied to our mobile home and take down the car port and front deck, for example. And to make matters worse, though we HAD taken out a zoning permit for the trailer which we understood to be permanent, it turned out to be only temporary despite the words "finaled out" on the permit with no expiration date listed.
We could have fought this in court, but the County has much more time and money than we had. Why spend the rest of our nest egg on lawyer's fees, we reasoned, only to risk losing and have nothing left to build our house with? In the end, we had to move the trailer off the property to another location in the area. This entailed buying new land to put it on and going into debt -- something we had been trying steadfastly to avoid.
We hope this tale of woe will serve as a warning that County regulations are to be taken seriously. Period. There have been other counties in the state which either did not have building and zoning regulations at all in the past or had the reputation of not enforcing the ones they did have in outlying areas, but that is apparently changing all over the state. Fast. We understand this trend to be true throughout the United States.
Every county varies a great deal in the codes they have and do not have on the books. We are fortunate here to have a bonefide straw bale building code (and we are staying out of hot water now), but this is not true everywhere. Check and recheck to see what the regulations are and what you are and are not permitted to build. Enough said...
Arthur Schopenhauer once said:
"All truth passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed;
second, it is violently opposed; third, it is accepted as being self-evident."
We have experienced both ridicule and opposition while building Solar Haven. One new neighbor in particular called the County many times about us trying to see if what we were doing was legal. Several County inspectors did come out to check up on us. Our neighbor considered the Solar Haven project as so much hippie nonsense and was worried that things as unconventional as solar electric panels, rain catchment pipes, and a straw bale house would lower his property values.
In fact we are running counter to the "dominant paradigm" of society -- that is, having little or no mortgage and therefore not supporting our great and grand financial institutions, not supporting the local utility company by using renewable energy systems, leaving our land natural, and considering that a small house is a beautiful and desireable house.
One of the things our neighbor asked us when we first met him was "When are you going to be cutting down all your weeds?" We answered "What weeds?", and it was all downhill from then on out with him (he had bladed much of his property). When we didn't hook up to the grid, he was incredulous and incensed... with more ranting about reduced property values and not supporting the development of the neighborhood. He refused to speak with us at all after the first couple of conversations with him -- it's a long and sad story.
The chap we hired to tow our mobile home out from the city to our new land turned out to be a real flake... and cost us a lot of money. As our mobile home came into view down the road, we could see a long section of water pipe dragging along the road underneath, sparking on the pavement. "Duh... I don't know how that got there", he siad. There was a dent in the front of the trailer. He didn't know anything about that either. Next, the fellow got our trailer STUCK in the sand before he could get it into place on our pad. "Duh... No trouble". He wouldl get a big backhoe out to our place the next day to pull it out, he said. Five days went by. No backhoe. In the meantime Mayflower Moving Company arrived from 800 miles away with all of our furniture and belongings. They had to move everything into the trailer with the trailer listing 30 degrees to starboard. Walking across the floor was a challenge. Carrying a couch was even more of a challenge. The movers were mighty upset and angry to put it mildly, and they were also exhausted by the time everything was unloaded. They calmed down at least a little after getting a big tip and some cold watermelon.
After two weeks of phone calling and still no sign of "Duh Head", we had no choice but to rent a bulldozer from Tucson (and hire a driver) and have the poor trailer pulled out of the sand and put into it's proper place on the pad. Cost: $685! A week or two later he finally showed up. "Duh... I was comin' right out to help you, you didn't need to rent a bulldozer."
It's supposed to rain 12 inches a year in our area, at least according to the statistics on the Weather Service Web Site. We figured that would be enough to meet our needs if we didn't dig a well and relied on rain catchment for our water. And, in fact, 12 inches of rain was enough for us the first year. However, for the next three years it rained only 7-8 inches a year with long periods of drought. (Global warming?) We tried a rain dance, but.... we have had to get water trucked in from Tucson to fill up our tank. Cost: $140 a tankful. We have needed quite a few tankfuls in the past three years...
We were prepared and willing to give up the many conveniences of the big city in order to be able to live close to the natural world with few neighbors and lots of elbow room. However, we weren't quite prepared for the remarkable incompetence and poor service of the local phone company. It took seven months to finally get our phone installed -- we had already dug a long, deep trench for the new line for them. All they needed to do was drop the cable and sort out their paper work... Once the phone was installed, it worked well enough except that it sometimes goes out in wet weather. The big shocker came when we tried downloading something from the Internet for the first time. The data came down at the rate of only 2.2K per second, 25 times slower than a conventional 56K modem. The lines are of course only copper/analog, not fiberoptics but really folks. Friends in the area confirmed there was nothing wrong with our system, that's all they got either. If this is some kind of spiritual testing of our psychic capacities, like patience, we feel we have flunked...
Everyone we know who has built his own house has pretty much the same list of grumbles and gripes as we have. Workers don't show up on time -- or not at all. Sometimes they do really lousy work. And trying to get them to fix their mess is very trying and almost always an unpleasant encounter. Sometimes they won't fix their work at all and steadfastly protest there is nothing wrong. We have had to fire three people over four years. One foundation wall had to be torn down after the inspector wouldn't go for it -- same wall we had told our mason to fix but he screamed bloody murder it was just fine. He was one of the three who got fired... Then there is having materials delivered, but not necessarily the ones you ordered. And tools break or they get misplaced for ages or they get lost forever...
Well... as the old saying goes
(and variations thereof)
This stuff is really difficult and painful at the time, but at least some of it is par for the course
and far outweighed by the deep rewards of creating and building your own home --
not to mention the joys of living in it later!
This page copyright by Jim Phypers, 2006