Buy vs. Build: Maine style.
December 14, 2011 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Should we buy (and renovate) or build? (Portland, ME filter)

We just relocated to Portland Maine (from Portland Ore). Contrary to typical economic trends in the area, my wife just got a killer job out here, and my prospects are pretty good too.

Our long term goal is to have a small farm near Portland (ME, not Ore.), and we're just starting our education process of home-buying, and getting to know the area much better.

We're not back-to-the-landers by any stretch, but we take comfort in a certain level of self-reliance. More importantly we really like high quality food and drink and we like to make it ourselves. Things we make at home; Charcuterie, Beer, Wine, Moonshine, Cheese, Canned good of all types (salt cod, sardines, fruit, veggies, pickles, etc). We joke that we want an "estate" not a farm. We want to grow and pasture enough things to give us some high-quality food for our little family of four (Me, Wife, Kid and Dog).

With loan rates the way they are and my Wife's current, sometime in the next year we think we might be able to be at a point where we can purchase a home, with a little bit of acreage (3-6 acres is our aim, depending on the landscape). Very exciting!

The big question for us, is to buy vs build. We've heard from several independent resources around here that with so much unemployment in the construction sector that it might be pretty reasonable cost-wise to build a house. We see the pros on this side primarily being energy efficiency; we can build a house to match our climate. Another huge pro, is that building would allow us to custom make a secondary kitchen of sorts, as our 'production' kitchen...we don't really want to use our primary kitchen for breaking down a pig or three.

If we buy an older home, with land, we've been seeing that most of them would need pretty extensive work, especially to get them up to a comfortable level of energy efficiency. Some of the farm-homes we've been seeing are pretty atrocious, in terms of heating and energy efficiency, which is a fairly prominent concern of ours. Older homes have their charm, but we're also somewhat concerned about lead use in the area (not enough to keep us from buying an older home, but it's something that gives us pause).

But again, either path we choose, we're total noobs at this, so we need some education.

TLDR; Is it cheaper in Maine (including long-term energy costs!) to build a house, or buy a house*? How different are the processes in getting a loan to build, vs getting a loan for a house?

I should note, we are not 'bigger is better' when it comes to any house, but we're also not looking at building a tumblweed tiny-home. We wont be buying, or building a McMansion or a 12 room palace.
posted by furnace.heart to Home & Garden (10 answers total)
Right now it is cheaper to buy and renovate, than build.
The foreclosure crisis has pushed existing home prices down - but builders can not lower new homes prices that much, or they will not make any money.

Besides, an older home has more character.
posted by Flood at 12:22 PM on December 14, 2011

Welcome to Maine!

A fair amount of existing Maine properties have in-law cottages/apartments along with the main house. If you get into that kind of setup you can use the separate in-law unit as your production kitchen.

Since you're not rushed for time you can get a lot of quotes from different builders and compare to purchase prices for the areas you are interested in. Another option to consider is prefab homes where you can mess about with layout etc. to an extent, but it is cheaper than building a home from scratch. There are a few companies in Maine for this, around the Oxford area I think. One of my now-neighbors (who is also a builder) dropped two of these (different styles) onto a big plot of land then added on porches, etc. and they look great.

I'm just a few miles away in Westbrook so don't hesitate to contact me if you have any other Maine questions! Also, if you end up looking in the region around Sebago Lake my aunt is a great realtor.
posted by mikepop at 12:37 PM on December 14, 2011

Welcome to Portland! The winters are long, but I love it here.

My guess is that Flood is right: buy and renovate will likely be cheaper than build-to-suit. Real estate in Portland hasn't gotten much cheaper since the bubble, but in the outlying towns I believe it has. If time is not of the essence, then find a realtor you trust/like and look at a lot of properties. There's bound to be a groovy old farmhouse or New Englander out there on 5 acres of mostly clear land that would suit y'all perfectly.

Also, if you really just relocated, have you found the winter farmer's market yet? There is a thriving small farm scene around here, so you're in good company!
posted by that's candlepin at 12:46 PM on December 14, 2011

Have you found anything post-1978 but already developed? That might be your sweet spot, since energy efficiency will be better (although not awesome) and post-78 housing should be lead-paint-free.

One thing to consider, depending on how far out you're looking, is the cost of installing a septic and/or well at new construction. Those can add a fair bit of cost that you might not have if you buy an existing home, or even just tear down or a formerly developed lot with existing septic/well.

Also, if you do look at something with an existing well, get the water tested. (Even if there aren't any known contamination issues in the area. I know of a vacant house in Maine, near a family member of mine, where everyone in town knows a former resident put powdered lead down the well and the water's no longer potable. House has been vacant for years.)
posted by pie ninja at 12:48 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Because I think it's fun, I did a quick search for properties within 20 miles of Portland with 5+ acres, at least 4 bedrooms, and at least 1.5 baths.

Here's one on 16 acres in Windham (30 min from Portland) for $219k.
posted by that's candlepin at 12:54 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'll go against the grain here. I am a fan of pre-built homes. They used to be crappy but materials and manufacturing has come a long way. Their forte is energy efficiency and custom design, without the high architects' costs.

Google 'pre-built homes portland maine' (which is what I did) and check out the many options.
posted by Kerasia at 12:55 PM on December 14, 2011

Portland is awesome, but you're already here so you know that. We live in a condo in Bayside (on the peninsula) so let me know if you have any questions specific to that area. We're actually looking to do something eerily similar to you in just over a year, so maybe we should get together offline sometime and chat about it.

Tons of space to be had for very little the further you get outside of town, but make sure you're familiar with the area. We're finding that school district is far more important than home prices out here.
posted by monkeymadness at 1:08 PM on December 14, 2011

My dad is entering year eleven of his Maine farmhouse renovation. He's had to do some pretty hairy stuff to get the place fixed up, even though it wasn't an abandoned derelict when he bought it. Foundation repair with house jacks, backhoe and cement truck, for example. It's almost done, and it's going to be beautiful, but I think it would have been far cheaper to start with an empty lot. The cold, wet climate and the age of a lot of these farmhouses conspire to create a lot of problems.

An older place is going to have *great* ambience and character, but it's going to come with some problems, so you'd want to get a really thorough inspection before committing to anything, and be prepared for surprises anyway. A newer place, on the other hand, will lack that charm, but you should be able to get a clear idea of the costs up front.

Oh, and I have rellies in Cape Elizabeth. The area has truly great schools, it's close enough that they commute to So. Portland by bike in good weather, and it's well-provided with rural elbow room.
posted by richyoung at 1:43 PM on December 14, 2011

If possible I'd build my own. If you renovate you're basically going to be tearing it down to the wellhead and driveway anyway so try to find a property that suits your needs and be resigned to either building new or tearing down and then building new. There is very very little to gain from trying to work with an old farm house.
posted by fshgrl at 2:37 PM on December 14, 2011

Welcome to Maine. We're overdue for a meetup; maybe after the New Year? I recommend choosing your town 1st. Cape Elizabeth does have great schools. It's also the wealthiest town in Maine. Westbrook is changing, now that the paper mill's is at low production, and there are some nice sites on the river. Towns really vary; if possible, go to town meetings in the spring, have coffee at coffee shops, and check out where you want to live.

I lived in Portland for quite a while, and loved it. But my street got busier, and my kid got through high school. Now I live in Windham, with a great view of a lake, woods next to me (that I don't own) and good neighbors. The Presumpscot and Fore Rivers go through Windham, Westbrook & Portland, and provide some nice water frontage that may be under-appreciated/affordable.

Unlike many parts of the country, Maine hasn't had a surplus of new homes. Some of the older homes are not in great condition. I'd really love to build, so I could have a green-er house. In some places, you have to have a septic system, and possibly a well. You'd have to meet zoning requirements for new construction. However, you can end up with a house that is really well insulated, has good solar gain in winter, and shade in summer, and suits the way you want to live. There are definitely some good green builders here.

You've got time. Price out some sample plans for a home to build, with all the extra costs of surveying, planning permissions, land, water, septic, etc. Go to open houses and see what's for sale. Narrow down your most important requirements. I wanted a house with a view and a woodstove, and I got a (badly renovated) house with a water view, access to the lake, trees, decent solar gain, and a woodstove.
posted by theora55 at 5:21 PM on December 14, 2011

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