LESSONS LEARNED by Sara Cox

It’s not easy building your own personal residence when your husband designs homes for a living. You’d think it would be, right? They say building a home is a test of a marriage. We’ve survived five builds. And he keeps hoping I’ll give in for just one more. I’m starting to bend, not give in, but I’m a little less rigid than I was nine years ago when we started our current home.

We had a plan. And it was a good one. The idea was to build four houses (the very first build took place nearly 40 years ago and I’m not counting it here), live in the first three for a couple of years, then sell each at a profit which would be immediately funneled into the next build until we reached the fourth house, our “last” one, my “forever” house. The idea was that by the time we sank the profits of the first three into the last one, it would be paid for. And that is an achievable goal as long as the market is good, you control the cost by adding reasonable (and desirable) amenities and don’t “over-build”.

Our first build was in 1996. We started with a garden home in a popular gated and master-planned community. It was a Texas beauty on the outside, white limestone and stucco with a metal roof, but incorporating styles that we brought to Texas from New Mexico inside. We brought corbels, vigas, carved doors and columns from New Mexico on a flatbed trailer, and Jim designed for high ceilings, and Saltillo tile floors. (Viga is a Spanish word for “beam”.) There are lots of different styles but these were actually peeled dead fall trees each weighing around 500 pounds. As you can imagine, installing them in a high ceiling created a particular challenge. Jim “solved” this issue by having a crane brought to the site which lifted each one from the trailer and they were placed by the framing crew. It was complicated but it got done and done well. Yes, this was a true custom. And at 2,800 square feet, it was the largest home we’d lived in so far.

Lesson learned: Lofts are NOT for us. At the time, we still had teenagers who needed space as much as we did. Space to kick back and make noise. A place for their friends to come and hang out. The loft opened down to the main living room and as we quickly learned, nobody had any privacy. Their noise and our noise were incompatible.

We sold the garden home in 18 months and began the process of designing the next house. We bought a larger lot in the same community. Once again we couldn’t resist the urge to show off our New Mexico roots. This house was 3,400 square feet, stucco with a tile roof, but inside the floors in the main living areas were non-mortared brick on sand. The family room had a traditional kiva fireplace in a corner, a 15 foot high beamed ceiling and clerestory windows near the roofline. After the bricks were in place, a lot of construction happened and so they were covered with paper in an attempt to keep them clean. The time came when we removed the paper and cleaned the floors ourselves which was a seemingly endless process requiring me to scrub on hands and knees. Honestly, I cried. I thought, and said, the brick floors were the biggest mistake we’d ever made. I was wrong. They were beautiful, distinctive, trouble free.

This time, there would be no loft, but we did include a game room upstairs with French doors and a wall of windows that looked down into the entryway. The noise problem was mostly solved, keeping in mind that teenagers can make noise wherever they are if they want to. We added a bedroom, a positive factor for re-sale.

Lesson learned: The house sat on a V-shaped, centered, cul-de-sac lot. It was a fill-in lot as the subdivision was nearly built-out. The back yard was huge and its focal point was a beautiful, century-old live oak with massive spreading branches. It made the back yard pleasantly usable during the hot summer months when the western sun relentlessly invaded our space. The problem? The lot backed up to a busy major street near commercial properties. The master suite occupied the rear of the house and the traffic noise for me was a frequent annoyance. Just as we decided to put the house on the market, road construction to widen that road began. We forged ahead and sold the house to a family from the Midwest. The New Mexico touches sold them. My favorite comment was that the house had “character”. But before they brought a contract, they visited the house three times to test the noise factor. Apparently, it passed the test.

On to house number three. Once again we stayed in the same community. After all, both houses we’d built sold in under two months. The homeowners association ran a tight ship and all of the common areas were pristine. Homes and yards were well maintained. Who wouldn’t want to live there? This time we bought an interior cul-de-sac, fill-in lot. The noise factor was 100% improved. Based on what we had learned so far, we increased the size to about 4,000 square feet, and added more blended decorative touches such as a copper island, a rock fireplace surrounded by art niches, high beamed ceilings and more clerestory windows. This time we opted for wood floors in the main areas. The formal living area had a wall of bookcases for my book collection and another wall of windows looking out to the expansive covered patio/deck/back yard area. Another touch in this room was a “Hershey” ceiling, named so because of its numerous squares resembling the candy bar. The kitchen included two built-in niches for spices and a pot filler (a nice touch that I seldom used). The biggest change was a “casita” at the front of the property which, together with a high garden wall, created a beautiful front courtyard leading to our wrought iron and glass front doors. It was in compliance with the subdivision covenants, but one neighbor was not happy about it and actually vandalized it while it was under construction. We installed mature landscaping and almost immediately fig ivy began its crawl up the casita wall, which had a charming effect.

Lesson learned: Initially I worked with an interior designer friend to try and pull together all the color and tile selections. The exterior was once again stucco but we added rock with a metal roof. Easy peasy. But the interior began to intimidate me. My friend and I looked over tile and carpet samples and the more I looked, the more indecisive and confused I became. Once my decisions were made, we sent the information to our tile man who called Jim to have a “conversation”. His comment was something like, “Do you have a budget? Because some of these tile selections are still on the boat from Europe.” Message understood. I had to re-select. So I went to a local tile company, picked out similar, but much less expensive tile, and the process began to flow properly. The lesson learned wasn’t to dispense with an interior designer. I know several and they are all very talented professionals. The lesson is to know your budget and stay with it. It’s very easy to add a few dollars here, a few dollars there. And before you know it, the cost of the house is unmanageable.

I loved this house and mourned its loss when we sold it exactly two years after we moved in. Our little Westie, Gracie, loved to explore all the flora in our back yard, and met her first fauna while exploring the front courtyard, the beginning of a lifelong dislike of felines. We took lots of walks in the neighborhood and I felt very much at home. But we had a plan and it was time to design and build the last house.

We went out of our comfort zone this time and bought an acreage lot in a subdivision miles from our previous homes. We had toyed with the idea of living in the country. This seemed to be the next best thing. This lot was loaded with mature oaks, including one “century” oak, a huge tree and the namesake of the subdivision. It backed up to two large, privately owned properties, one boasting a friendly cow that I was sure would be my friend, if not Gracie’s. But something wasn’t right, at least for us. Jim had spent years on homeowner’s association boards and felt strongly about maintenance of restrictions and covenants. Property values are secured this way. And we learned early on that the covenants in this subdivision were loosely adhered to.

Lesson learned: To thine own self be true! We loved our old neighborhood, had good friends in the area and trusted that the homes we built had been good investments and desirable places to live. They were in an excellent school district, another good selling point. The new lot could not deliver the same offer. And as a practicing realtor I did a market analysis only to learn that the market in this subdivision was practically non-existent. And one other thing: I wondered what those large cages were in a number of front yards. As it turned out, they were traps…for javelinas! Apparently they roamed the area, seeking little Westies and other delicacies for dinner.

So the new lot, beautiful as it was, went on the market. Jim took me to see a lot in a subdivision that abutted our old neighborhood. I had once called this area Timbuktu it seemed so far out. Much development had taken place since that time and I instantly fell in love with the area. And this lot…this lot! Covered with oaks, about a half an acre, beautiful homes all around. And I was back home again. So once again, we were in building mode. It took 7 or 8 months to complete but it was worth it. The house sits in a completely private part of the lot, oaks trees preserved, no road noise, no javelinas, although wildlife does abound. Deer, raccoons, possums, skunks (unfortunately), cardinals, and an occasional fox live here. I’ve even seen more than one falcon circling overhead. Gracie is in heaven chasing squirrels and attempting to keep ugly buzzards from landing on her property.

Now to the design details. And two more lessons learned. We know our style and we continued to bring a little bit of New Mexico into our home. I like to think our style is eclectic, but there’s no denying where we came from. So while the original plan was to downsize the last house, therefore keeping the cost down to the level of “paid for”, that didn’t happen. We like our rooms spacious and couldn’t let ourselves live in cramped rooms. This time we enlarged the family room, and as in the past incorporated our high ceilings with beams, clerestory windows, corbels and lots of windows. We added more decorative niches and built-in glass shelving for our art glass collection. Once again we used the Hershey ceiling effect and installed beautiful hand-scraped hickory wood floors, along with floating walls in a large formal living/dining space that included a curved rock wall in the entry.

Lesson learned #1: Instead of painting the entire interior of the house with colors you’ve never used before, have your painter put up a sample. Just because it’s trendy doesn’t mean it’s right for you. I was shocked when I first saw the paint, a dull shade of gray. I actually asked Jim if it was the primer. Unfortunately not. In an attempt to cheer myself up I dubbed it “decomposing body gray”. But I didn’t feel like laughing. Off to the paint store for more selections when to my great relief Jim said we could repaint. Having gone so far away from what I had done before, it seemed best to go to the opposite end of that color spectrum. This time I chose a warmer, more neutral shade, called Golfer’s Tan. The paint was delivered and the painter got back to work. He asked if I wanted a sample. Nooooo. I knew I’d love it. The second time should be the charm. The whole interior was repainted. I couldn’t wait to see it. It’s interesting to me how light in different rooms tends to show different shades of the same color and this time, it went from dull to ridiculously bright. This paint was definitely a change from the original selection. But now I dubbed it Golfer’s Third-Degree-Burn.

I had successfully decorated three houses in the last 10 years. Suddenly I was a complete failure. Fortunately for me, as I stumbled out of the house in a daze, a future neighbor passed by, introduced herself and to my everlasting relief, revealed herself as an interior designer who would be happy to “take a look”. Her comment, “Well, it’s a little pink” was followed by “It’s only paint.” And thankfully, Jim agreed. She helped me with the color that finally covered our walls, a vaguely descriptive shade called Ponytail. Before you s\]
\ay it, I agree. That could be almost anything. But it is perfect. We are happy. As is our painter.

Lesson learned #2: Think of the future. After 4 builds and a few rentals in between, we have gotten older. We no longer have children living in the house. We don’t need two stories. We really don’t need 4,000 square feet. We have enjoyed this house like no other and have lived in it longer than any house in our collective histories. Our neighbors are dear friends. The memories we’ve made here are priceless. I will mourn this house if and when we decide to build again. But I treasure the experiences we’ve had in the process. I guess I might as well start packing.