Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Waconda: The Prologue

If you read this blog regularly, you might recall this post about the summer cottage we bought in 2012. The original owner christened the house “Waconda” when he built it. Our plan was to eventually renovate the cottage into our permanent year-round home. 

It’s really important to us that the finished product retains some of the original character of the house and if possible, remains true to its roots. The cottage is something of a local landmark due to its location. The setting is ideal, just outside of town with beautiful lake views and a long shoreline. Everyone seems to know the "little red house on the bay". We've had great times there with our kids and our friends, having cookouts, watching fireworks and just pushing off into the lake to float. The Girl engineered a fire pit and The Boy was inspired to write this song while sitting on the fishing dock. It was easy to overlook the peeling paint and sagging roof and the chimney that looks like a domino run. The house had a fridge and running water. Not much else was necessary for a day at the lake. But with no furnace and less than 800 square feet of living space, it wasn’t going to work for us to move in full time.

So shortly after purchasing the cottage, we contacted Crest Homes and had some plans drawn up. Meanwhile we put our other house up for sale and waited. And waited. And waited. We showed it more than thirty times without an offer. It was located in a high-end subdivision but didn’t have all the high-end finishes that are a requirement for the HGTV generation. So after six months we took it off the market, got out our cookie cutters and made it picture perfect. Last May we listed it again, encouraged by the news that the housing market in Michigan was starting to upswing. Within 5 days we had accepted an offer for more than list price. We set a closing date in mid-June and called our builder to tell him to dust off our housing plans.

Last year, before we bought the property, Senior met with the local township and showed them a statement of work describing what we wanted to do. The inspector said everything looked fine and we should have no issues.  So imagine our surprise when our builder went to apply for a building permit and was declined.

Our biggest obstacle is that the house was built before the current zoning laws were written. Grandfather rights allow us to continue using the property in the same way without restrictions, but any changes may violate the zoning code and have to be approved. We aren’t trying to build a McMansion that covers the entire lot, but we do want to extend the house a few feet towards the road. Years ago there was an attached one car garage (you can still see the cement footer) and we want to reclaim that square footage. 

Our builder was convinced that he could talk the inspector into approving the plans. He spent the better part of two weeks trying to convince the township to see it his way. After all, there was no other direction we could expand, and our neighbor’s garage extends right out to their property line. The inspector steadfastly refused, saying his hands were tied by the setback requirements. After their game of chicken ended in a tie, I went down and filed the paperwork requesting a variance to the zoning law, paid the application fee and waited. And waited. And waited. It took 5 weeks before we were put on the agenda.

In August, after sitting through 3 hours of zoning appeals from Starbucks and Sonic Drive-in and one other resident, we were unanimously granted our variance. We were now clear to begin our project! Step 1: a basement. The current house rests on pilings and dirt and, in one corner, a house jack. Again, because we are grandfathered in we are not allowed to tear down the existing house, but we are allowed to lift it up out of the way. We contacted the house-lifting guy we had lined up to see when he could start. He told us that due to the delay he was now fully booked and couldn’t get to our project until late October. Ugh.

All setbacks aside, we are finally ready to get the project underway. We've found a new house-lifter who will (hopefully) be prepping the site this week. We are working with a great designer, Toby Fraifogl, who is helping us visualize the metamorphosis. 
After many months of planning and dreaming, we are on the verge of reality. My job is to chronicle the transformation, which I’ll do in this blog. If you are curious, check back in and see our progress.