Wednesday, February 05, 2014

May 2013: In which the Rambling Rover acquires a plot of land, and gets ready to build his future home.

“Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles -
God took the Rover by the hand.
Turned him around and, miracle of miracles,
Led him to the promised land!”

[Taken and tweaked from “Fiddler on the Roof”]

This blog post is somewhere between the historical recounting of how we acquired our beautiful plot of Washingtonian of land – and, quite frankly, a fairytale.  Having looked at over a dozen lots, all within a 30-minute radius from Microsoft, I can honestly say that no undeveloped plot of land came even close to this level of perfect.  Six acres of land; a beautiful, gurgling creek running through the property; a building site nestled serenely in the trees.  Seriously, Bill Gates missed out… but I guess he must have been looking in the wrong price range…

This is the story of perseverance.  Of going against the current.  Of latching onto a dream like a barnacle, and not letting go.

And (hopefully), this is but the beginning of the story, to be continued with:
  • Summer 2013 [Whoops, it ended up being December!]:  In which the Rambling Rover and Roveress finalize their plans and submit their building permits.
  • April 2014:  In which the Rambling Rover and Roveress dig a well, and find the purest water in North America, at a mere 120ft below ground. (i.e. NOT find water with arsenic, or have to dig some 300+ ft, like some of our neighbors!)
  • September 2014:  In which the Rambling Rover and Roveress finish the exterior framing of their home before the rainy weather sets in... (Or learn to deal with mold).
  • December 2014:  In which the Rambling Rover and Roveress move in to their new home, to greet calendar year 2015 on their own land (even if it just means living in a tent).
  • January - March 2015:  In which the Rambling Rover (and the Roveress, ever more so) spends their evenings, nights, weekends, and vacation days putting in cabinets, helping tile, and otherwise bring the house to full interior perfection. (Hmmm, do I hear “grad school and remodeling our house in Indiana” all over again? I hope I enjoy being a weekend warrior a whole lot more this time around!)
  • April 2015:  In which the Rambling Roveress embarks on an ambitious gardening project way over her head. (This is actually quite likely to happen!)
  • June 2015:  In which the Rambling Rover comes to her rescue, takes the remainder of his vacation balance, and learns to operate heavy gardening machinery. (Or at least hires out the work – wait, never mind, we won’t have any extra money by then!)
  • September 2015:  In which the spring flowers and trees are finally fully (albeit belatedly) planted, and Katrina learns to scale down her dream of a massive botanical garden.
  • Happily Ever After:  In which the Rambling Rover, Roveress, and some number of littler Roverlings continue to enjoy their wondrous plot of land, swimming in the creek, eating organic fruits and vegetables from their garden, building a tree house, and acquiring a peacock for good measure. (Hang on, would our cats harm the peacocks?  Possibly scratch that last one.)

Won’t that be fun?!  Did I mention there is a “Subscribe” / “Follow By Email” button on the right top corner of this page?!

But back to the present story.  Which begins, as all stories do, “a long time ago”.  In this case, we are set in Bloomington, Indiana, in the fall of 2011, about a month after I’d spectacularly failed my interview with Microsoft.

The fact that I failed the interview – and then still got the job – is another story in perseverance, but I’ll spare the long story.  The short version of it was that the campus interviewer and I had a hard time connecting to each other, but I still felt that Microsoft would be the right place for me, given the right team.  So, after a month of feeling dejected, I emailed a couple of people at Microsoft whose blogs I followed, and got put in touch with the team I wanted to be on.  But our house-building story begins right in-between those two points:  when I was done feeling dejected and had high hopes for the future, but before I received any confirmation that Microsoft would re-interview me, let alone hire me.  It was at this uncertain moment, when Katrina – being the eternally grand planner – and me, the eternal optimist, decided it was the perfect time to find out what sort of land we could buy in Washington. 

The answer proved simple:  the expensive sort.  Let me spare you a search on Redfin/Zillow/Trulia, and describe the minimum prices you can pay near Redmond, WA (Redmond being Microsoft’s headquarters, on the outskirts of Seattle):
  • Undeveloped plots anywhere near Redmond:  0.5 to 1.5 acres, $200-350k (and up, into the couple-of-millions – for land alone!).
  • Undeveloped plots further out of Redmond:  1-3 acres, generally still in the $150-250k price range minimum (and again, easily up into the 750k).  Descriptions generally focus on suburban utopia and “host BBQs in your spacious back yard”, though – for the cheaper plots, anyway – we’ve found those yards to be within seeing and hearing range of roads and tall power-lines.
  • Undeveloped plots way the heck out Redmond (i.e., an hour or more away):  3-10 acres, still with the same $150-250k price tag.  This time, descriptions change to “perfect for horse lovers” or “weekend getaway retreat”.  All very true, but rather out of range for commuting to work to Redmond every day.

Given that our Bloomington home – land, house, and workshop – was worth just over $100k, this all seemed a bit grim, even with the far-off prospect of a Microsoft salary.  But there was one alluring plot:  6 acres, with a creek running through it, at $70k.  It was love at first sight.

Sadly, by the time I got the job at Microsoft in March of 2012, the land was no longer turning up on a Zillow search.  We were vaguely disappointed, but not altogether surprised – and too busy with settling into our new life in Washington.  But then, in May or June, Katrina decided to do another land search, just to probe the waters – and the same plot was back in the search results!  Its previous listing must have expired, but a renewed listing was back up again.

*          *          *

That very weekend, we drove out to look at the property and a handful of others.  Driving east from Redmond, and then on a small picturesque road that connects Fall City and Duvall, we turned east onto a one-lane road.  We drove by a number of horse ranches, under an old railway trestle, and then onto a rustic (if slightly the worse for wear) gravel road surrounded by trees, and with copious amounts of moss hanging overhead.  As a quintessence of rustic Washington countryside, we passed by a beautiful log home right on a creek, with large white geese plodding industriously across its yard.  And then, quite suddenly, we arrived at the site of our future property.

Actually, at the time, we had no idea whether we had arrived at the right place at all.  What we arrived at was a split in the road, and a location that roughly corresponded to the map on Zillow.  There was no “For Sale” sign, no tape markings of any kind, and no indication of where a building site would be.  There was, however, a gurgling creek, so we jumped out of the car and looked around.  It certainly was scenic.  But wherever the 6 acres were, and if we were at the right place at all, it was unclear where they lay, and if any of the land was actually buildable.  From where we stood, all we could see was a creek and fairly steep topography on either side, with hardly room enough for a home.

After pondering and scratching our head for a minute (Katrina did the former, my dog and I did the latter), we took one last look at the creek and got back in the car to look at other properties.  But as we passed again by the beautiful log home – and paused to let the squawking procession of geese cross the road towards the house – it struck me that if land truly was for sale here, surely the next-door neighbor would know.  So, getting in queue behind the geese, I too crossed the road, and knocked on the front door.

The neighbor – presently occupied with installing cabinets in his kitchen – came out to greet me.  He confirmed that there was indeed a plot of land nearby for sale, maybe even bordering his property – he wasn’t quite sure.  But the buildable site would be somewhere up the hill, past and around the fork in the road and the “Private Road/No Trespassing” sign where we had stopped short last time.  I asked whether we’d be allowed to proceed.  He smiled:  “That sign has been there for a long time, but it didn’t stop the rest of those folks from buying those properties and building their homes.  All of us were newcomers once”.  So, encouraged by his friendliness and the knowledge that a for-sale property was indeed in the area, we turned back around and drove up the foreboding hill – foreboding both by its inhospitable sign, and a pretty serious incline that stretched high onto the hillside.

*          *          *

At the top, having successfully braved the precarious slope, the scenery felt once again like pleasant countryside.  Five or six houses rose above us, with tall Washingtonian trees standing sentinel behind them.  We drove to the house at the end of the road, closest to where we assumed the property must be.  As it happened, the owner of that house was doing some yard work outside; seeing us stop and look around inquisitively, he waved us down and asked if he could help.  We told him he could – and help he did.  He and his wife had looked at buying this very property a dozen years earlier, before deciding to buy the two adjacent lots instead.  Their southern lot is where they had built their current home, keeping the northern lot undeveloped for now, with a vague plan to build a barn and maybe a larger log house in the future.  The 6-acre plot that we were interested in lay just on the other side of their undeveloped lot.

Here is what our prospective neighbor told us, in a nutshell:
  • The good:  The land sits amidst the most beautiful, quiet, and untouched area that he and his wife found after searching everywhere within a 30-minute radius of Microsoft (surpise-surpise:  he – and half our neighbors – turned out to Microsofties).  The only sound you can hear outside is the chirping of birds above and the gurgling of the creek below.  The only light you can see at night is the porch lights or campfires outside and the Milky Way above. 
  • The so-so:  Water can be a hit or miss.  On the “hit” side, one of the further neighbors hit an aquifer, and now has a near-unlimited supply of some of the purest water in North America (shared between three houses, actually!).  A closer neighbor hit a so-so water supply:  silty and moderately low pressure, requiring a large storage tank outside, but not terrible.  He, our neighbor, hit arsenic – and subsequently spent $20k on a water purifying system that could rival that of the International Space Station…
  • The downright not peachy:  Road access.  The current road and road easement ends at his property line… and both he and the rest of the neighbors want to see it stay that way.  It’s nothing personal – but more traffic means more road maintenance, more noise, more trucks going up and down for construction, and more two-way traffic converging on the steep part of the hill.  Without the road easement from neighbors, our only viable option would be to plow our own road up on our own property, following an abandoned logging trail.  This, however, would be an even steeper road than the one we drove up on:  35% grade for a horizontal distance of over 300ft long.  Such a driveway would require extra permitting and geological studies, extra construction costs, extra safety precautions… and it would still border on being too steep both for construction trucks and for day-to-day living.

Having told us all this, and having chatted with us about our plans and what it is that we’re looking for, our prospective neighbor wished us the best of luck and told us he actually thought we’d fit right in – if somehow we could make the road situation work.  And with that we departed.

*          *          *

For the rest of that day, and a subsequent weekend or two, we drove to another dozen properties.  Only one lot was attractive – also with a creek running through it, and with a bunch of flowering blackberry bushes arching above it.  However, the creek crossed unavoidably close to the house site – and we were told by a prospective neighbor that it took him three years to get building-permit approval, due to a “wetland” risk.  The area also lacked the sense of an [albeit small] community, like we sensed at the Griffin Creek property.  And so, having done an exhaustive search, we came to the conclusion that “our” property was indeed our one true choice, and not just because we were enamored with the very first property we saw.  Now the only question remained:  what do we do about the road?

This question remained unsolved for a surprisingly long time – for the better part of a year, actually.  We negotiated with the seller to get a Critical Areas survey done of the land… but with inconclusive results about whether the road would be permitted.  We also called a couple of road contractors, and got somewhat contradictory results – one contractor saying that the road would be steep but doable, another saying that he’s done all sorts of roads in his 25-year career, and that a hill like this is about as bad as it gets.  And from a variety of internet searches and solicited (and unsolicited) family advice, the general conclusion was:  even if officially permissible, the driveway would be dang steep.

We then spent hours poring over topographic maps of the area.  Could the road be adjusted to be less steep?  Not really. Or at least not cheaply.  Could we get access from some other way, since our prospective southern neighbor said he wouldn’t want to give easement through his properties?  Possibly.  There was one other road offshoot that climbed the hill and led to the properties of two distant neighbors further to the north.  Would it be possible to get easement through their properties and extend the road to the back of “our” property? We walked the distance:  no, it was too far.  The stretch would be over a half-mile long, and would cross at least four other properties that we’d also need to get easement from.

And so we began the long and intricate process of negotiating for a road easement, that would allow us to drive up just the way we came up when we first saw the property.  Initially we thought it was just the one neighbor that we talked to on the first day that we’d need to convince, even if that seemed like a difficult task in its own right.  But as we soon learned, the road and its maintenance bills have been a sore spot for the neighborhood for years:  so much so, that it’s been the subject of two lawsuits within the past decade! The latter resulted in a 26-page legal agreement between the six neighbors at the top of the hill, with a clause stating that any amendments or extensions of the easement would require the consent of all six parties (even if not all would be impacted by our house site).  We searched desperately for any loopholes in this document, or any contradiction with earlier easements, or any “fairness” clauses stating that if those neighbors were passing through our lower portion of the property, we’d be somehow entitled to build our road at the top of theirs.  In a span of a month, Katrina became an expert in legal jargon, and all the cryptic verbiage of “the north half of the south half of the north half of the southwest quarter of the northeast quarter of section 34, township 25 North, Range 7 east, Willamette meridian, in King County, Washington” (that’s our property, by the way – plug it in to your GPS, why don’t you?).  But no, if we were to get an easement, we would need to convince all six families to agree to it – with nothing but our charm and wit (and my newfound Microsoft salary) to help us.

Enter Michael, Rambling Rover turned Diplomatic Negotiator.  Meeting one-by-one with each of our neighbors, Katrina and I talked to them about our plans, and discussed the concerns they had over granting easement.  For some, it was concern over construction inconvenience; for others, the overall increase in traffic. But with some creativity, a bit of charm, and some good ol' American cash, all six neighbors eventually came on-board with granting us an easement.

*          *          *

With our preliminary negotiations complete, Katrina and I set out to legalize the agreement.  Lawyer services, it turned out, are very expensive… but grad school, and the accompanying research skills, had done Katrina some good.  For the next three weeks, all I saw of my wife was her head sticking up above the laptop, eyes glazed with legal verbiage.  But at the completion, we had a 31-page “Common” legal document modeled after the previous easement agreement, along with short individual agreements for each of the six families.

Having drafted all of the easement agreements, the seller agreement, and the complex interaction between the two (each of the agreements was effectively contingent on all of the other agreements getting signed), we sent out the paperwork to our neighbors to review.  In parallel, we sent it to our relatives, with clear and precise instructions to be duly impressed by Katrina’s work.  Inspired by the legal formalities, my father wrote back:

GRANTEES: Michael and Katrina Zlatkovsky
GRANTORS: Alexander Zlatkovski, Era Zlatkovskaya

This EXPRESSION OF ADMIRATION is entered into this __ day of March 2013, by and
between Michael and Katrina  Zlatkovsky, husband and wife, and the parties specified
herein under “Recitals: B. Grantors”.

A.      Grantees and Purpose:
Michael and Katrina Zlatkovsky, husband and wife, seek an admiration of their newly acquired
lawyer skills (see “Recitals: D. Description of skills” hereinbelow) that surpass all understanding of
Grantors (see “Recitals: B. Grantors” hereinbelow). In order to obtain admiration, Michael and Katrina
Zlatkovsky must finally close on their parcel of land described hereinbelow under “Recitals: C. Description of

*          *          *

The subsequent weeks were busy, but the details are largely irrelevant from the story’s perspective.  We talked with each of the neighbors; we received their notarized paperwork back, and notarized our own; we spent $700 on document-filing fees (who knew that government scanners were that expensive to operate?!).  But the important part, ladies and gentlemen, is that – almost a year after we first saw it in person – we became proud owners of our beautiful property!  And that – you just wait! – a magnificent castle-inspired home will soon stand tall and proud on a hill above Griffin Creek.

That’s all for now.  Here’s to a successful, eventful, and house-blog-filled 2014!


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing. What a journey, and although I was just one bit of information in your two are always my inspiration. Thank you.
Rich the Realtor....

Helen Kline said...

Let's hope this next year is a little bit easier for you than last year! Here's to a beautiful Castle Zlatkovsky!