My New Future Curbside Classic: 2220 Monroe Street – I Built It My Way

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Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to build a house. Like by myself, from the first pencil doodle to the last detail; maybe with a little help here and there. I finally got around to it. This is its story.

Someday soon, I will write the story that leads up to this house; the story of selling one expensive house in Los Gatos and turning that into eleven old/recycled rentals in Eugene. It’s a long story, and I need to scan a bunch of old photographs. But for now, here’s the story of the (to date) culmination of that on-going project, the brief for which was the following:

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I had a lot, right behind my house, which we bought for peanuts right after moving here in 1993. One of the moved houses, a little cottage, sits in the way back, on the alley. I split the lot into two lots some years ago, and on the front lot sat what was originally a garage that got moved along with the cottage. When I moved it and the cottage there, I ran water, sewer and electricity to it, as I foresaw some potential for it. That came to fruition when older son Ted (Ed, professionally) started college in Eugene, and he and I finished it to make it a little cottage for him.

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This is a very unusual structure, since the walls are solid wood; 2x4s laid on the flat, sort of like a log cabin.There are of course shingles on the outside.

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We acid stained the concrete floor, and used some recycled cabinets. We insulated the inside of the walls with some rigid foam, pumped lots of cellulose into the attic.

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It became a cozy little studio, and after he left, I rented it for some years until younger son Will moved in. Having a concrete floor turned out to be a very good idea. ‘Nuff said.

I had always planned to build something there, connected to the front of the little converted garage studio. And in 2011, I finally set to doing something about that. But what to build?

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A couple years earlier, I built this,little studio apartment on the back of one of my old rentals, to replace a collapsing little pile of sticks that someone had built in the 1940s. It was my first solo new build, and it was both fun but exhausting. The basic shape was largely imposed due to a number of circumstances/codes, since I had to stay in the same footprint as the old one.

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I kept it very simple, my default rule of thumb if in doubt. No “Craftsman” affectations, thank you. That style had its time and place, but not in the modern world.

So I decided to build a modest little bungalow on this lot. I started drawing up plans for a very basic house, as easy and cheap to build as possible, without being a mediocre house. One story, one bath, which added to the studio would yield three bedrooms and two baths. But then as I pored over my pencil drawings of the floor plans, I pushed out the side walls a few feet. And the front wall a few feet. This is a nice neighborhood; I didn’t want to grossly underbuild.

I already had a building permit for a 1000 square foot one-story house, when the folks who bid the trusses for the roof said: “for just an extra $2000, you could have attic trusses, and increase your square footage by 50%”. Well, I knew it wouldn’t be that simple and cheap, but I decided to go for it.

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So at the last minute I raised the roof four feet and made it a one and a half story house, and got the changes to the permit approved.The end result is that the main (new) house is 1600 square feet, and with the attached studio cottage, a total of 1930 square feet; four bedrooms and three baths.

I drew up all the plans and specs for the permit myself, with paper and pencil and an architectural ruler. My assigned contact at Eugene’s building department was very helpful, a and showed me how to meet certain seismic, structural, energy and other special code details that were a bit out of my purview, especially as they’re always being updated.

The point is: this house was not designed to show off my brilliant architectural skills (as if). It was designed to be simple to build, honest and energy efficient. And I wanted to use advanced framing, something I had been aware of for some time. More on that later.

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So exactly four years ago, in mid-August 2012, the excavator showed up.

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And then the foundation contractor. These guys are so cost efficient ($5,500), I wouldn’t think of doing my own foundation, especially having done a couple before. .

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In two days they were done and stripping the foundation. Here the concrete pumper delivers the goods.

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Now the hard work starts. I knew I needed a capable helper, as I just don’t have it in me anymore to frame day in and day out. I posted a Help Wanted on Craigslist, and was besieged with responses, as in 2012 housing was still in the doldrums. Alec turned out to be a very capable jack of many trades, having worked in a variety of building-related jobs. And most importantly, we hit it off.

We put down the floor joists,and then the OSB (Oriented Strand Board) sub floor. My intention was to also finish it as the final floor, but Alec kept talking my out of it, so we didn’t put any protection over it. I would regret that later.

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I’ve always been turned off at how inefficient and wasteful most framing is. Every window gets six studs; two to hold the header (jack studs), two that go all the way to the top sill (king studs), and two short ones to hold the window sill (cripple studs). The headers are huge and often solid wood, reducing insulation space. Doors get the same wasteful construction.

Advanced framing is really largely how balloon framing was originally done, with the tall and narrow windows back then taking up no more than two 16″ stud bays, with a very modest little header, typically just two 2x4s. In this house, the 2×6 studs are 24″ on center, and all of the windows on the load bearing side walls are sized to fit exactly between the opening of two stud bays. And the roof trusses will sit exactly above those studs.

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Here’s a close up of that picture. Note that there are no solid headers at all; just a 2×8 let in on the notched studs. No jack studs, no extra cripple studs. It makes for less material, less work, and significantly better insulation, as solid wood acts as a thermal bridge. And no, more unnecessary wood does not “make it stronger”.

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Here’s an example of what is commonly done, although this example is a bit of overkill: there’s no less than 12 studs in the framing of this rather modest sized window, presuming that the framing on the right off the edge of the window is the same as the left. The more I look at this picture, the more I shake my head. And where did I find it? At a site with DIY instructions about how to frame a window.

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The two of us banged out and tipped up the side walls in a couple of days.

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Here’s the view from the street.

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This is really the fun part, as things happen quickly. Of course, it’s hard work too, but it’s satisfying to see things happen so fast, unlike when one is messing with the endless myriad of little details yet to come.

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After we got the gable end walls up and the basic interior walls framed, it was time to set the trusses. Alec did not have experience with that, and neither did I, so the truss company turned us on to three guys who were willing to do it one morning for $30/hour each. It went very quickly.

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The end trusses went up first. Note the “raised heel” of the trusses, the roughly 2′ or so vertical rise on the outer edge. I specified that so that the attic/knee wall insulation would not be compressed at that point. It also made the roof less steeply pitched.

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Then the center trusses were craned up. These engineered trusses don’t actually need any center support to carry the whole upstairs living area. If someone wants to majorly remodel the first floor, they could tear all the interior walls down.

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Moving them into position to be tipped up.

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Bracing them as they go.

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A few hours later, they’re all set and braced. $360 well spent on these guys. We attach them to the top sills with special screws.

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Alec and I sheathed the roof, with 5/8″ sheets, to make a sturdy roof. The sheathing is a key structural element to give rigidity to the whole structure. The tar paper is going up here.

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We got the final roof shingles on in late October, just days before the heavens opened up with the first big storm of the season. The first two months were the most productive ones. The biggest challenge to a building project is maintaining momentum. Especially when there is no immediate pressure to do so. I think I’ll stay in and write a CC today…  

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I got permits to do my own electrical and plumbing, as this house was not being built for sale. The power line is in the alley, so I had laid down conduits for the electric and cable back in 1998, when I dug the utilities for the rear alley cottage. I knew then that I would eventually build there. Good thing, as that side of the lot now has trees that have grown quite large. Here’s the main panel. Pulling those three big cables all the way from the alley and through several bends was scary, and just barely doable. As it turned out, we had more bends than allowed by code, but our initial inspector didn’t notice it, and I wasn’t aware of the limits.

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Here’s how the trusses looked from below.

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The windows and doors on the gable end walls, which carry no loads, have no headers at all. I always smile a bit when I see big headers and lots of studs on gable end walls, never mind on side walls.

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One piece fiberglass tub/surround downstairs, and a one-piece fiberglass shower stall upstairs. Who wants to deal with the possibility of cracked tiles and leaky showers? Not me. I love these; no leaks, no caulk joints, no maintenance.

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I rented a little excavator and dug my own sewer trench and laid the line. The city sent a guy out to tap the sewer and I connected to it.

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Since the existing garage conversion studio had its sewer connected to the line for the cottage on the alley, I had to connect it to the new house, which required cutting a hole in the foundation.

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I rented a trencher for the gas line conduit.

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The old F100 was kept plenty busy these past few years.

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The potable water line. Actually, that 3/4″ had to be replaced; the inspector required a 1″ line due to the number of fixtures. Little details like this is what trips up the amateurs. I could tell you of a few others too. It was easy enough to replace though.

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And the storm and perimeter drain line, to the curb.

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There was a bit of code confusion as to the details of the meeting of the storm drain line and the perimeter footing drain line. I thought having them meet this far downhill was good enough; nope, I had to add a one-way valve on the perimeter drain line in case the storm drain backed up. Whatever you say!

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Now this innocent-looking assemblage of pipes caused a ruckus with the inspectors. It used to be that residential building inspectors did everything except electrical and plumbing inspections, which were done by the corresponding specialist inspectors. In a cost-saving move, the building inspectors were trained to do residential electrical and plumbing. Not a good idea.

This is looking up at the drains for the upstairs bathroom toilet and shower, with the vent in the middle. I used a very good book to figure out how to create this combination, based on the specific various code requirements. I knew it was good.

There’s several possible ways to do this, but plumbers tend to do these kind of things regionally in certain patterns. My inspector looked at this and had never seen it done like this and insisted it was not ok. I told him otherwise, and explained why. He insisted I was wrong. I insisted he call in a real plumbing inspector. He did, they both came back, and the plumbing inspector looked up and said: “Hmm; that’s a bit different than is usually done, but it works just fine. It’s rather elegant, actually.”  Thanks.

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Unfortunately, I went through some similar issues with this building inspector’s limitations with the electrical code. Without going into all the details, he made me do some things that I didn’t need to, and forgot others, like an external shut off (for emergency services/fire department). The meter (and shut-off) is at the alley, and that’s too far away. So I had to make and mount this sign on the side of the house. The lead electrical inspector came to do the final, and was pretty shocked that this had been overlooked.

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I’m not going to bore you with all of them, but I’ve learned it’s really handy to have pictures of the wall cavities before they’re closed up. Especially when I found out that Alec didn’t wire the three-way switch circuits in two rooms that had them. I had given him the book with the patterns in them, but he didn’t look at them and relied on his intuition. Bad move. I should have checked them before the drywall went up. Don’t ask how I “fixed” that problem after the drywall was up and painted. Let’s just say the inspector would not have approved.

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The water lines are PEX, color coded for hot and cold, a handy little detail. Pex, along with plastic drain lines, are the greatest invention in the history of plumbing. As easy as putting together Lego blocks.

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When I realized I had forgotten to cut out a dryer vent, pictures like this came in very handy.

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I’m a bit of a fanatic about insulation, although in our climate it’s not worth going totally overboard either. The biggest challenge was the knee-wall area, upstairs in the lower part of the roof. Ideally, one insulates a house only at the very outside skin everywhere, to eliminate any unconditioned spaces. That would have required spray foam insulation, as insulating in between the trusses at the underside of the roof would have been very difficult/tedious any other way. But spray foam is rather expensive, and I wanted to keep costs down. So I decided to insulate the vertical part of the knee wall with R30 batts, held in place within the bay with some cheap Styrofoam boards. And later I would pump a very thick layer (R70) of blown-in cellulose in the horizontal area, as well as the overhead “attic” area, which is rather small in this house. That left only quite small areas of unconditioned air space.

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The sloping walls of the upstairs were insulated with 8″ (2 x 4″ layers) of rigid foam (black backing), which I bought used for dirt cheap at our local recycled building supplies store. It probably came off an industrial roof or something.

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I didn’t take anymore pictures until the house was essentially done, meaning that I didn’t want to document the two years of snail’s pace progress after Alec had to leave shortly after we finished the rough plumbing and electrical. The black free-standing gas stove I found for 60% off, having been a showroom model. I had originally planned to heat the house with a ductless mini-split system, but when I found this so cheap, and with the house so well insulated, I decided to use it instead. Its heat is enough to heat the whole house very evenly, the magic of being much better insulated than typical new code construction.

My window rep even got me triple-pane windows throughout for not much more than double-pane, as the manufacturer had a special promotion going on. They are very heavy, but make the house super quiet, and of course add to the insulation quality.

I walked all over the house in the winter with an instant read digital thermometer, and the difference in the most distant upstairs room was only 3 degrees less than in the living room. The heat just permeates the inside of the house, and radiates it to all the rooms, as so little is lost through the walls. The gas bill this winter was peanuts. I did put in electric wall heaters in all the other rooms, as required by code, but I doubt they’ll ever get used much. And the gas stove gives off such a pleasant radiant heat. I rather hate ducted systems. I love underfloor radiant heat, but it too would have been pricey in this setting.

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The downstairs is basically divided in half; this side is an open room from front to back, living, dining and kitchen. These shots were taken before the kitchen island was assembled. All the kitchen cabinets and furniture are from IKEA.  The other half of the downstairs is a bath and two bedrooms. Bungalow style, meaning no wasted space for a hall.

The floor is the OSB sub floor, sanded, and the cracks filled with wood putty, and finished with five coats of Bona High Traffic water-based polyurathane, after a sealing it with a light-amber toned Bona sealer, to bring out the color texture just a bit.

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It’s hard to show how the floor looks, but everyone loves it. Folks ask if it’s cork, or some exotic other material. Nope; just the sub floor. And OSB is tough, and this particular material is impregnated with wax so that it doesn’t swell if exposed to the rain during the construction process, so it’s going to hold up. The best thing is if that it does get dinged, one can’t barely see it. And if I ever sell it and someone wants to spend the bucks for a hardwood floor, that’ll be easy to do later.

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Here’s the kitchen fully finished. In my original plans, there were only going to be three of those high windows, which are sized to just pop in between the studs. And none were planned for the living room; just the larger lower windows. As we were framing the house and cut out the windows, I decided I wanted more, so I just kept cutting out more of those high windows, as they had no impact on the framing, due to how I designed it. That’s how I like to work: organically. It’s hard to imagine a house and its lighting and its relation to the sun until one is really in it.

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By the way, that long wall with all the windows is of course south-facing, so that this Great Room is always very light and bright, and  gets the benefit of considerable passive solar heating in the cooler months. The roof overhang was designed so that in the summer, when the sun is high, the windows are mostly shaded.

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The ceilings downstairs are nine feet tall, so the upper windows fit well above the upper cabinets.

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Granite counters have become very reasonable. And we picked black for the appliances as we’re both sick of the ubiquitous stainless that everyone else has. And it matches with the black gas stove, and the black ceiling fan. Home depot had a really aggressive Black Friday sale on appliances just about when I needed them.

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Originally, the back of the house was designed with a six foot wide entry hall from the side door to accommodate the laundry and storage. But half of it had to be sacrificed for the staircase when the upstairs was added at the last minute. So I installed these IKEA storage cabinets, which have various types of interiors (pull-outs, shelves, etc.) and is very versatile.

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The truth is that if I had originally planned to have high windows in the living room, I would have designed their interaction with the lower windows a bit more harmoniously. But the advantages offset that. Trimming them required a bit of creativity. All the trim for the windows, doors and baseboards was recycled from the old rotted-out farmhouse I took down on another lot some years ago. I did a story on that here.

Out of the blue, a neighbor asked if I could use a planer he was getting rid of. Yes indeed! I ran the 125 year old fir flooring we pulled out of that house through the planer, and then ran it through the table saw to cut off the tongues and grooves. It’s a bit narrow (2.75″), but it works for the rather sleek loft-style I was after.

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Here’s the front downstairs bedroom.

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And a peek into the bath.

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The staircase, something I had hoped to avoid by planning a one-story house, was a particular challenge, as I’ve never built one before. We had built a rough construction stairway, so I just decided to beef that up with 4×4 columns, side skirts, and live-stock fencing and make it work. The only place left for the washer and dryer are under the stairs. Like I said; my approach is simple, honest, industrial, and unpretentious. Here it all is, on full display.

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The treads are just 2×10 framing lumber, and the risers are OSB.

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Here’s the view up. I took the galvanized stock fence wire panels to a guy who powder coats these.

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At the top of the stairs is a sitting room-office space.

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Here’s another view. The staircase looks simple enough, but it was a bit of a challenge to all fit together just right, and meet the codes. I lucked out the day I went to the lumberyard to buy 4×4 posts, as the ones there that day were very nice and straight and mostly clear.

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The upstairs hallway, which leads to:

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The upstairs bathroom, with a skylight.

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A large walk-in closet (one half seen here).

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And the master bedroom, with a large window facing east. This is a single triple-pane, triple light combination window (one unit), and that was a mistake, as it turned out to weigh several hundred pounds. How were we going to get it up there, from the outside? We ended up using a come-along that we mounted at the very top of the roof gable with a big lag screw, and winched it up. It was a scary moment, seeing it dangle there, especially getting it into position and securing it.

Well, there were a few others. Roofing was no joke, as the 9/12 roof pitch is just barely doable without aids. Alec is built low to the ground, and felt secure up on it. I never quite fully did, despite my lack of fear on roofs. Going up on it again to wash the skylights a couple of weeks ago reminded me why I originally wanted a one-story house.

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Sadly, with these trusses, dormers are not readily possible without a lot of extra hassle. But I did place this skylight strategically.

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So that when one sits in bed there is a perfectly framed view of Spencer Butte in the distance. It looks much further away in this shot than in real life, due to the iphone’s lens.

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And the view to the east isn’t bad either, for this part of town.

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Where the bed goes, if one wants to get that skylight view.

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The last thing I built was this rear patio cover, which is rather essential for both the rain and summer sun. The posts weren’t yet oiled when I shot this. I also ended up installing a through-the-wall air conditioner in the downstairs great room, and one upstairs, as the last two summers were hotter than average. Of course, this summer is back to being cooler.

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The exterior is clad in Hardy panel material, a cementious product that has become very popular because of its many qualities, including non-rotting and dimensionally stable, which means paint stays on much longer. It’s roughly the equivalent of stucco. The front upper portion I sided with Haida Skirl cedar siding, cut to look like the primitive cedar boards used by the Haida Indians on their long houses in the Pacific Northwest.

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The only way I could get to the very peak of the gable with my extension ladder to install it was to back my truck in position and set the base of the ladder on the tailgate. One has to improvise all the time. This was shortly after I had painted the house with Metro Paint from Portland, which is recycled-reprocessed paint and costs all of $50 for 5 gallons.

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Well, that’s about the end of the tour.

front porch

Is that orange door zingy enough for you?

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I certainly didn’t design it like the typical spec house to maximize its ability to sell quickly on the market, although I have had quite a bit of unsolicited interest, which almost led to a sale in one case. It would be easy enough to sell in our current market, for about $400k. I’m now glad I didn’t pull the trigger; it would have been hard to give up anyway. And what would I do with the money? Pay taxes and put the rest in the bank and get .05% interest? When so many others are chasing the steady returns of investment real estate? In this case my annual ROI will be roughly in the 15+% range. And rent goes up with inflation, or better.

I’ve had some great folks move in as tenants, who are relocating from Park City, Utah. They’re friendly neighbors, so I can still go visit it anytime I like. Hopefully not to fix something.

 

Related: (Immobile) Curbside Classics: One Coming Down; Another To Go Up