Meet our newest Reality Home Building family – the Albanos. Chuck and Simone are both retired from the Coast Guard. They have been married for 17 years and made their home in Essex, Connecticut, in a very old house that they have spent their entire married life renovating from top to bottom. “We essentially rebuilt the house,” Chuck said. “We took it from the worst house in town to one of the best houses in town, but it took a lot of time and work.”
Like many people who live in colder locales, the motivation to build a new home was based on a desire for a more temperate climate. After 17 years of brisk New England winters, Chuck and Simone decided they had had enough. Besides the cold temperatures, with both of them at retirement age they were also concerned about accessibility and mobility during the winter months.
“We had property in Vermont where we always thought we’d build a home when we retired. It was beautiful with a great view of the mountains, but it also had a 900’ driveway that would have to be plowed in the winter in order to get in or out,” Chuck said. “I got to thinking, ‘do I really want to be plowing that driveway when I’m 70 years old?’ We could easily become housebound and it just didn’t seem like a good situation or a recipe for enjoying our retirement.”
“We love to do outdoor activities all year round,” Simone said. “Vermont is great for skiing, but we wanted a more temperate climate that would allow us to do all sorts of activities outside during the entire year.” They decided to sell the land and look for property elsewhere.
Their search led them to Havelock, NC, which is near Morehead City and the Crystal Coast. Their lot backs up to a half-mile wide creek and offers stunning views of the sunset over their dock every evening. They are building a Sater Design plan, The Sandusky, which they chose because the layout offers views of the water from nearly every room in the home.
“Our big requirement when searching for a plan was to find one where every bedroom and every major public room could overlook the water,” Simone said.
“We originally had chosen a design from an architect in Wilmington, NC with a porch that wrapped all the way around the house,” said Chuck. “Then we found out that just the porch alone would cost over $200,000 to construct and had to step back and reevaluate. The Sandusky gave us everything we wanted in a plan and was much more reasonable to construct.”
Simone said, “I started looking online and immediately was attracted to the Sater plans. This one had an exterior style that suited our taste, plus the arrangement was nearly perfect.”
The Albanos did make a few modifications to the plan to customize it. “To open up the dining room to the water views, we eliminated the closet under the stairs and broke through the wall between the dining room and living room. We turned the wet bar sideways and tucked it under the stairs,” Simone said. “This gave us about an eight foot wide opening from the dining room to the living room. We also eliminated the wall between the kitchen and living room, so the whole public area of the first floor is very open.”
Other modifications were made in the master bath. “We decided to eliminate the hall and doorway between the master suite and the study and use that space to expand the master bath,” Chuck said. “It allowed us to add a large closet near the powder room, which is great because it makes up for the storage we lost by opening up under the stairs. The bathroom is larger and much more open to the suite now. The only doors are the ones to the closets and the little room with the toilet. It made the whole room much more accessible and less cluttered feeling.”
The Albanos also made a few changes to alter the exterior appearance. “Overall the roof height was too high because we had to raise the foundation since we are on the water. We didn’t want the house to be so tall and imposing,” Chuck said. “We changed the interior ceiling heights and lowered them from ten foot ceilings to nine feet. It didn’t make any difference in how the house feels inside, but it allowed us to lower the roof line. We also extended the soffits by a few inches which changed the roof slope slightly and added to a cozier appearance.”
“The other changes outside were pretty minor because overall we liked the look of the house,” Simone said. “We did eliminate the arches on the front porch and changed the columns from round to square so they would match the back of the house. One big change that saved a ton of money was with the windows. We didn’t eliminate any windows because we didn’t want to change how the design looked, but on the plan we noticed that every single window was specified to be operable, even the ones in the front dormers, which are dummies that are just for looks on the front of the house – they don’t actually access any rooms. For those and for the second floor windows of the great room we bought fixed windows instead. They cost so much less, and since in places we can’t access them there’s no point paying extra for an operable window.”
They applied this same cost saving method to the French doors in the living room as well. “Only one set of those three pairs of doors is operable,” Simone said. “The others look exactly the same – you would never know. But we figured it would be highly unlikely that we would ever open all those doors at one time, we only needed one pair to be able to access the deck. Often by the time you get all the furniture arranged the way you want in the room you can’t open all the doors anyway.”
Because Chuck has a lot of construction experience and wanted to take a more hands-on approach to building this home, he and Simone spent a lot of time finding their builder.
“We started in November of 2008, as soon as we knew where we were building. We interviewed six or seven builders and really weren’t finding someone that we liked who we also thought would do a great job of constructing the house,” Simone said.
“With every builder I would have what Simone and I started referring to jokingly as ‘the talk,’” said Chuck. “I would explain to them that I have a lot of construction experience and that I would probably drive them crazy. A lot of times they would kind of roll their eyes and you could tell they were thinking, ‘oh great, a do-it-yourselfer,’ but then I would ask them very detailed, technical questions about how or why they built something the way they did and they’d catch on that I actually do know what I’m talking about. Some of them didn’t like that. Some builders want a homeowner who says ‘build this’ and comes back a year later to pick up their key. I knew we would have to find a builder who would be willing to let me work with them very closely.”
“After our initial interviews where we didn’t really find someone we liked I started doing a lot of research,” Simone said. “We drove around some of the nicer neighborhoods in the area and made notes of the builders there. While we were looking, there were two particular houses that we really loved the looks of from the exterior. I got on the Home Builders Association website and started looking up builders, and if they had their own site I would click through and check them out. Lo and behold I found Varner Brothers, and both of the houses we loved from our neighborhood scouting turned out to be ones they had built.”
“We met with Danny Varner and had ‘the talk,’” Chuck said. “Unlike the others, he liked the idea of a collaborative effort for the build and was very responsive to the way we wanted to work. Also, he’s just the nicest guy in the world – if there is ever an instance where we start to butt heads Danny just won’t butt back. He lets me vent and then we calmly work through whatever the issue is. He’s very patient and we’re both learning a lot from each other on this project.”
Varner Brothers is the general contractor for the home construction, with Danny handling all the scheduling of the subcontractors. When it comes to specifying items or particular construction methods Chuck has been very hands-on. “Danny lets me communicate with the subcontractors directly. If there is a particular way I want something done, he’ll let me call them first and make sure they are able to do it before he even hires them. Then, I walk through with them and give them instructions. Also, we are ordering a lot of the items for the house ourselves – plumbing fixtures, appliances, etc. Danny has been very accommodating to that idea, where some of the other builders we interviewed kind of put up a wall when we said that’s how we preferred to work. He tells us what date he needs the items on the site and we make sure we’ve got them there in time. So far it is working out great.”
Join us next issue as we check in with the Albanos to see how construction is progressing.