Irene and I currently live in
a modest 3 bedroom ranch that I bought in 1980. At the time, I
thought I'd live there a few years, build up some equity and
then move on. It isn't a bad house. It's in a good
neighborhood. It has a good sized yard with some nice sized
walnut trees (courtesy of the squirrels). Most importantly, it
was and is convenient to where I work. My current morning
commute is five miles in the direction opposite to that which
everyone else is going.
The house is a basic 3
bedroom, 2 bath, attached 2 car garage, full basement ranch of
about 1250 square feet. There is a good sized kitchen, the
living room and dining room are combined, there's a fireplace
and a big set of windows (16 feet wide by 6 feet tall) looking
out onto the back yard. The roof has been redone, the water
heater has been replaced, and I updated to a high efficiency
furnace when I added air conditioning a few years ago. The
mortgage was paid off in 1989.
I was a bachelor when I moved
in, and there was plenty of room. I had an office, a workshop,
room for a huge stereo, everything a guy could want. Irene
moved in 1990, but for the first few years she traveled a lot
for her job and was home weekends and maybe ten weeks in a
year. But over the years, things have changed. We got real
furniture, a bird (MacDuff, AKA
"Birgie"), three vehicles (a pickup, Irene's car, and
a Miata), and in general just more stuff. There have also been
some lifestyle changes. We cook more, we have eighteen people
over for the holidays. Gradually the house has just become,
It became apparent that we
needed to move. Our options, then, were to buy an existing
house, or to build. Buying would get us more square feet, but
not necessarily solve our problems. Older homes were either
too small or too expensive in our area. Newer homes, even the
McMansions, were geared to the mass market, i.e. family room,
four or more small bedrooms, etc.
We're just not the typical
family spec houses are built for. We don't have kids. We cook
a lot. We have thousands of books and hundreds of CDs. Three
vehicles. We don't need a family room. We really only need one
bedroom. If we have more, they'll be used as an office or a
guest bedroom for a guest we might have once every few years.
What we do need is a real working kitchen, a dining room that
can seat Irene's entire family, eighteen or so if everybody
shows up, a living room that can seat six or eight people
comfortably, a three car garage, and a real library, that is a
room to store books and to read.
So our options became clear.
We need to build a house designed for us. A house that we can
spend the next 25 years in. And this leads us to our story.
A few years ago I decided to
get serious about woodworking. In the process, I began reading
a lot about furniture styles. One of things that I found was
that I really liked the furniture from the early 1900's built
by Stickley and others. It just looked right to me. It was not
too fancy or ornate, it looked solid, and the lines were
clean. I began making a few pieces of furniture in this style,
meanwhile reading more and more about the style.
Naturally, this lead to the
type of houses that would have had this style of furniture,
bungalows, arts and crafts, and prairie styles. The more I saw
of these styles, the more I fell in love with them. The
woodwork, the open layout, the details.
Having grown up in Racine and
living in Madison, it's hard to not feel the influence of
Frank Lloyd Wright. The prairie style is a natural for this
part of the country and I had seen plenty of examples, both
small and grand.
As Irene and I started
talking about what we wanted in our new house I would show her
pictures. To my delight, she, too, came to appreciate this
So we decided that our new
house would be some sort of prairie, arts and craft, bungalow
type of building. All we have to do is work out the details.
We started looking for a lot
to build on last year. Our ideal lot would be a sizeable lot
with trees in a quiet established neighborhood. One thing we
didn't want was a lot that would force us to build right on
top of our neighbors. It's surprising how many $350-$400K
houses are being built with no yard to speak of and with only
a dozen or so feet between houses.
About the only lots available
in Madison itself are small lots in subdivisions springing up
in former corn fields. Neither of us felt this was appealing.
We did look at lots out in the country. There are some that
are available in this area that were an acre or more and in
our price range, but building out in the country you have to
deal with wells and septic systems and limited utilities (no
cable or natural gas). Our commutes would have been extended
quite a bit as well.
I had noticed an add in the
real estate section of the paper which mentioned
"prestigious, mature, large wooded lots, fully improved
lots with sewer and full utilities" in McFarland. What
particularly caught my attention was the words "use your
own builder." Much of the available land around Madison
is owned by developer/builders who want you to use their
company. None of them built houses that we wanted to buy.
McFarland is a small
community on the S.E. of Madison. While I live in Madison, I
actually have worked in McFarland for many years.
Irene had worked at the same place as well for about fifteen
years before moving
to her current job. What was puzzling was that neither of us
could figure out where these lots could be. There just didn't
seem to be anyplace we could remember in the village that fit
Anyway, on a nice, sunny
Sunday in early March we took a ride in the Miata to scout out
possible lots. We found a few places with lots, quite a few
with new houses already on them. We were about to give up when
we saw a sign for the developer who had placed the add. Sure
enough, there was the development, 28 lots heavily wooded with
oak trees, some as big as 36" in diameter and 60' tall,
and just a few blocks from the town hall in the middle of
McFarland. It was actually only a little over a mile from
where I worked.
We grabbed one of the maps
from the box by the sign and started looking over the lots.
They were laid out on a loop of a road that went up to the top
of the hill and came back down. They ranged from about 13,000
sq. ft. to 22,000 sq. ft. and from $80K to $120K in price. The
cheapest ones were just about in our price range. Basically,
the higher on the hill and the more trees, the more expensive
the lots. Only three of the lots had houses on them, and the
map indicated that about half of the lots were still
We drove around the loop
several times, getting out to look around at the lots that we
could afford. We kept coming back to a corner
lot, one of only
four, that was right at the entrance to the development.
The lot, being right at the
base of the hill was mostly flat, rising just a bit to the
back corner. It wasn't rectangular, with one the side by the
road going off at an angle, so that the rear lot line was
about 35' longer than the front. It was about 14,500 sq. ft.
and just on the upper edge of our price range. Only the front
2/3rds was wooded with one monster oak right in the middle.
The ground was still muddy,
so we walked up and down the road in front and the one on the
side trying to figure just where the boundaries were. We also
talked about where the house would go, how many trees we could
save, and so on. One of the things about a corner lot is that
we could place the garage on the side street so that it
wouldn't be visible from the front.
We left saying that it looked
promising, but that we should check out a some other
possibilities before deciding. We went back the next weekend
to check it out again, and decided to contact the developer.
The developer, who's office
was only a few blocks from where I worked, was helpful, but
not overly anxious to sell. We were given a packet of
information including a plot of the trees and a copy of the
covenants restricting what could be built. One of the things
that did impress us was that the developer really wanted to
save as many trees as possible.
After agonizing about it, and
worrying that someone would buy it out from under us, we
dickered, and made an offer which was accepted. Finally on May
23, we closed on the lot and it was ours.