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September 26, 2007

So You Wanna Build a Custom Home

So you wanna build a custom home... in Scottsdale... at the end of the frothiest real estate bubble... EVER.

You've bought the land - a pretty patch of 1.13 acres that backs up to an ocean of prickly pear, turpentine bush and saguaro cactus known as the Tonto National Forest. Your brother-in-law / architect-to-the-stars drew the most outstanding plans in the universe: 3,300 square feet of unsheathed cool, including a fireman's pole from the upstairs closet to the garage. And yes, it adhered to code... along with the bookcase-cum-secret door that leads to the media cave that has another secret door that leads to the pantry (with wine cooler) so you can get snacks and not miss the movie. And did I mention the wrap-around porch -12 feet deep - with the disappearing glass wall that has an unobstructed view of Four Peaks.

Oh, and no one can ever build behind you because it's a National Forest.

This has been your dream and your all-consuming project for the past five years... until you wake up one morning to discover you're living in your own reality show, lovingly titled: BUILD ME A HOUSE, CRACKSMOKERS!

Because if you think we're gonna give you ONE MILLION DOLLARS to build a 3,300-square foot home - that, when completed, would not only be THE SMALLEST but also THE MOST EXPENSIVE home in the neighborhood - YOU NEED TO PUT DOWN THE CRACK PIPE AND STEP AWAY FROM OUR PLANS.

Do you hear Dr. Evil laughing in the background? ONE MEEEEEELYUN DOLLLLLARS!!!!

Yeah, got tagged by the builders on that one. We had three choices, excruciatingly researched. Silently stalking, we walked the skin and bones of their homes under construction, went on home tours, talked with trusted friends in the know. We picked three, per the recommendations of all.

Brand X - Young and hungry, builds 1-2 homes per year, with a long pedigree in the production-house industry at a MAJOR LUXURY HOME BUILDER. A house he designed and built was the second-prettiest in our future neighborhood (ours would've been the first-prettiest). Brother-in-law / architect-to-the-stars liked him A LOT.

Brand Y - A decade as a custom home builder and developer. His homes have been featured on various TOURS DE HOMES and we actually signed the papers for our land in one of his elegant models. Builds 40 custom homes a year. Took one look at our plans and said, "I think your cost-to-build estimate might be a little light. Just looking at the plans, I'm thinking about 1.1"

Million, that is.

We chuckled when we left our initial meeting - he's got to be CRAZY if he thinks this house is a 1.1 MILLION DOLLAR HOUSE. But we liked his expertise and his gracious confidence and he can build the hell out of a house - so much so that the architect-to-the-stars had even seen Brand Y homes in national magazines. (I know, I know - why were we surprised at $1 MILLION DOLLARS?)

Brand Z - Southern boy from Alabama. Recognized immediately that the brother-in-law /architect-to-the-stars was from the South. Complemented the architect's kitchen design and attention to detail. Took us on a personal tour of one of his homes under construction. Gorgeous finishes, wicked, wicked attention to detail... and we felt like we were talking to a member of the tribe.

Yeah, well, it's a crack-smoking tribe, these custom builders. Brand X and Brand Y came in between $1 MILLION AND $1.2 MILLION respectively. We pulled the plug before Brand Z wasted anymore of his time bidding it out. The VP at the bank who was going to fund our loan told us point-blank: THIS ISN'T A MILLION DOLLAR HOUSE - no offense (none taken) - AND I CANNOT FIGURE OUT WHY THEY'D BE BIDDING AT ONE MILLION DOLLARS, but she ran the numbers just for shits-and-giggles which was when we learned that our monthly note would be $6666... if we got the VERY BEST interest rate... and if we absolutely got every dime out of our existing house... and if we managed to sell our existing house before the close of construction and used that for a down payment.

Let me repeat: Our monthly mortgage payment would have been $6666. Mark of the beast - or in this instance, MORTGAGE OF THE BEAST. Dr. Evil is still laughing.

So before you start offering suggestions on how to spend money WE DON'T HAVE and telling us where we made various mistakes (and believe me, we know we made them) and before you start offering different options that we have beyond the nuclear one, allow me to cut you off at the pass: We agonized over this one. We talked to the architect-to-the-stars who was dumbfounded because he felt he'd drawn a home that was roughly HALF what they bid and could've been scaled back based on finish selections. We talked to friends in the industry. We talked to the bank. We talked to our folks - not so much to figure out how to pay for this because if we could figure that out, we could also figure out how to eliminate fine lines, wrinkles, gray hair, nose hair and saggy boobs. No, we called in the consiglieri to try to tease out why this house would cost ONE MILLION DOLLARS or why an entire industry tasked with putting a roof over our heads feels the need to hit the crackpipe.

Here's what we determined (and this is speculation, mind you, but well-informed speculation): We have Scottsdale tastes on a trailer-park budget.

The mortgage crisis has not yet lapped at the shores of the custom market (but it's coming, oh, it's coming all right). Basically, the Scottsdale custom market is a beneficiary of Beverly Hills (and all of California). In Scottsdale, you can get a LOT for ONE MILLION DOLLARS (including a 3300-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 4-bath with wrap-around porch and casita on 1.13 acres). In parts of California, ONE MILLION DOLLARS can buy you a double-wide with pop-outs. The build time for a custom home is a lot longer than a production home so these builders are just coming off projects and starting to see the slowdown. The sub-prime market is about four steps BELOW these guys on the property ladder. BUT the sub-prime folks have to move up to something (and can't). The good-credit folks who own that little "something" need to sell it to sub-prime people so THEY can move up into their 5-bedroom, 4-bath. But THEY can't move till they sell THEIR house and so on and so up the ladder. And suddenly, it laps at the shore of the custom builders because the Californians can no longer sell their double-wides with pop-outs.

As demand decreases, raw materials costs will decrease because supply will increase. Competition for labor will be weaker. Costs will come down. In six months or so, we've been told that Brands A-Z will come down on their prices - and I've no doubt they will.

BUT THAT WON'T HELP US IF WE CAN'T SELL OUR CURRENT HOUSE IN THIS DELIGHTFUL MARKET. So we put our lot up for sale a week ago and haven't looked back.

God looks out for stupid kids. We figure if this house was meant to be built at this time, it wouldn't have been so hard (and we at least would have been in the ballpark to afford it). For the record, the only way we could've afforded it would have been if we'd have sold our house at 2005 prices, we'd have invested the proceeds in Apple computer last spring or Taser last year, we'd have won the Powerball, we'd have planned to spend the rest of our lives eating free Jenny Craig food and Ramen noodles, we'd have never been able travel again (and had been able to figure out how to survive on one car with no DirecTV Sunday Ticket and no furniture, and we'd have taken out a 3-year adjustable rate mortgage that would've had us living in a double-wide with pop-outs in Ringgold, Louisiana by 2012.

The only way we could've thought we could build this house is if we'd started smoking crack.

So it looks like Mardi Gras is still at 24952 North 74th Place this year and for the foreseeable future. But it's been a fun ride and we're glad we took it. Truly, we're not so upset as we are a little dumbfounded and overwhelmingly relieved. We have a good life, and if anything, this experience has reiterated that fact.

So if you've been looking for a little piece of Arizona to call your own, please call Liz at 480-473-4737. Remember, they don't make any more land.

September 10, 2007

Stacy Bertinelli: Enemy of Technology

My sweet husband bought me a Bluetooth headset yesterday. I hope to return it to the store tomorrow, as I am relieved I did not throw it out the car window today.


It's not that I don't appreciate advances in communication, or that I wasn't moved by his heartfelt longing to save his fellow motorists from the physical trauma and extensive body work derived from my swerving attempts to talk on my cell phone while shifting the MINI into third. Brings a whole nother dimension to its nickname: The Menacing MINI.


Know this, fellow Luddites: Had my husband not given me this Bluetooth as a gift, I would have placed it beneath my 18-inch sub-dubs and backed up... and then rolled forward... and then backed up... and then rolled forward... and then scooped up what was left of the damned thing and deposited it at the base of Coolidge's favorite tree to await a yellow christening by the smartest dog in the universe.

I don't hate the Bluetooth because I hate technology. Rather, I hate technology that is supposed to make my life simpler but instead makes me feel like a dumbass. The gloves come off here... Don't say you weren't warned.

Dah dah dah dah - DUH NUH - DUH NUH NUH!

It is the triumphant sound of Monday Night Football - the Pat Bertinelli ringtone! Hooray! I rifle through the passenger seat detritus in search of the silver Bluetooth headset - it's the size of a dollar bill folded into fourths. Its white light blinks insistent beside my cell phone. I flip open the phone - it keeps ringing. The Bluetooth keeps blinking.

Dah dah dah dah - DUH NUH - DUH NUH NUH. SHIT.

I pick up the Bluetooth, screw the wirehook around my ear, untangle my hair from said hook, throw my sunglasses on the floorboard, steer away from the on-coming traffic, try to bend the hook away from where it's poking my ear lobe, overcorrect into my neighbor's lane, jam the ear bud into my external auditory canal, shift to fourth, make sure the rectangular "toothy" part of the Bluetooth is touching my jaw, depress its little on-button bubble ... and nothing happens.

Duh na - na na na! The violins are coming in now.

I mash the button again and again, flip open and closed my stupid cellphone shouting, "HELLO? PAT? PAT! CAN YOU HEAR ME!" Silence. The violins fade away. Repeat 12 times. I called the office and hung up on them twice before I shifted into sixth. How's this for "hands free;" I'm driving down Scottsdale Road this morning, pounding my Bluetooth ear with my right hand and trying to answer my cellphone with my left. And this is safe in what country?


STUPID BLUETOOTH: I suspect it uses my dental work to channel radio frequencies into my skull. Because how the hell can you talk into something that doesn't have a microphone next to your mouth. Do not mock me, friends, you know that Bluetooth Decay is undermining polite society as we know it. The technology transforms its users into those slicked-back-hair / no-socks-wearing / smell-em-a-mile-away-cologne-abusing / self-important assholes who think EVERYONE IS INTERESTED in their stupid conversation and proceed to cell-yell it to the unsuspecting universe. You know them by the jut of metal implanted in their ears and the bark of their insistent voices - and when they are polluting your auditory atmosphere with their Bluetooth Bloviation, you want to join me in screaming: HEY MORON: PULL THAT PIECE OF CRAP OUT OF YOUR EAR AND GET A FREAKIN' LIFE! I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR KILLER STOCK TRADES OR YOUR TROUBLESOME COLONOSCOPY OR THE GIRL WHO BLEW YOU OFF LAST NIGHT - CATCH A CLUE, FOOL, SHE BLEW YOU OFF BECAUSE YOU WOULDN'T EXTRACT THE STUPID BLUETOOTH WHEN YOU WERE TRYING TO MAKE A MOVE ON HER.

Don't even get me started on cellphone users who call you back when you didn't leave a message. That's a story for another time, but it was spawned from the same cavity as Bluetooth Decay.

Much as Pat has patiently tried to instruct me on the elegant function of the Bluetooth, I don't get it - and it's not like I'm an idiot: I have solved differential equations before - I didn't enjoy them, but I could do them. And here I am on the verge of breakdown - or at least a single-car rollover accident - because "advanced" technology that is supposed to make my life simpler and instead makes me feel like I have vienna sausages for thumbs and creamed corn for brains.

And so, just as I heap more scorn upon this tiny techonological tincture to my telephonic teleology, an even more elegant solution presents itself: Instead of trying to figure out the Bluetooth, I could just shut up and drive.