Can we have the house we want near Boston on our budget?
March 11, 2014 7:36 AM   Subscribe

We like the modern amenities, but hate the lack of charm of nearby tear-downs. Could we get what we want in a custom build within our budget?

Through a combination of hard work and a lot of luck, my wife and I find ourselves with the money to buy a very nice house in the Boston area. Our dream is to find an old farmhouse with a bit of land and renovate, leaving all the charm but giving us modern amenities. But, that situation, in a town with good schools within an hour commute of Cambridge would cost twice our budget.

So what to do instead? To our chagrin, we went to an open house over the weekend and found a lot to like in a place like this.

Pros of that house:
* New construction. We're growing tired of our 1930s house in Belmont. The creaking, falling apart baseboard heaters, the crumbling porch, the low ceilings, lack of a second shower, tiny, unusable garage, lack of insulation or ventilation and awkward floor plan. New construction would fix most of those issues.
* Big, but not massive. We're feeling cramped in our current place with a baby, a toddler, the twoof us, and my sister-in-law living in 2000 square feet of broken up living space. 4000 square feet is almost certainly too much, but having a bit more room for my in-laws, who visit frequently from out of state, would make everyone happier. We may also have another kid, and having a room for a nanny would be convenient too.

* I'd be breaking a lot of promises to my 23 year old self about McMansions.
* That house has a bit of charm (lots of light, decent looking exterior, French-ish kitchen) but it is mostly bland and built around convenience.

So, finally, to my question. For a budget of roughly $1.3-1.5M, could we find a piece of land and build a custom 3000 SF home with amenities we want (nice kitchen, open-ish floor plan, tdl windows, patio/deck, 2-3 bathrooms, 4 bedrooms, 1-2 car garage, opportunity to finish the basement) with some charm and character. In Lexington, I expect we'd pay $500-700K just for the land. In Belmont, there don't seem to be many lots that would work (either too small or too big). Is this possible? I'm worried developers buy up tear-down properties without them ever going on the market. I'm also worried that you can't really trade square footage for quality, as quality costs a lot more than the square footage. I'd love to see example of people who have done this in near-in Boston suburbs.
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm worried developers buy up tear-down properties without them ever going on the market.

So call a developer and ask. If you let them know that you want a custom job, they'll probably be more than happy to work with you. And if you pay $500k-600k for the land, with a $1.5 million budget, that still leaves you $1 million for the house. Around here that'd build a very high-end home in excess of 5000 sq. ft. Even allowing for a premium on construction costs, I should say that you're well within the realm of possibility here. Construction as such doesn't cost as much as many people think. Land, and the premium that goes with it, is an enormous component of housing costs.

Basically, if you can find houses in your area that approximate what you're looking for in your price range, then yes, you can do this.
posted by valkyryn at 7:47 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

So what you need to know is what the cost per square foot is in your area. Here's an article (although industry supported) that gives you an idea of what those computations look like.

Go to your bank and speak to a loan officer about what construction loans look like for residential building in your area. That person should have a ton of information for you!

If you plan on buying a teardown, you'll need to understand "in-fill" development in your area. Also, there can be some serious EPA issues with a tear-down, asbestos, removal of an oil container, etc.

If YOU want to buy lots before they come onto the market, you can do this. My Mom did this. Drive around the neighborhoods you like, look for empty lots, vacant houses or places that are just falling apart at the seams. Then go to the county assessor's office and see who owns the property. Send them a letter saying that you're looking for land, and that you're interested in buying theirs, what would they consider taking for it. You'd be surprised. My parents got 10 acres abutting a municipal park just by asking.

Now for building. Interview a shit ton of contractors, look them up on the state registry to confirm that they're licensed in good standing, check their references, go to houses and see their work, verify their insurance, and be there for inspections. Go to the site regularly and be sure that things are moving along. When you do the contract, put milestones in it, and put in penalties for missing milestones. Serious, expensive penalties.

Get all changes in writing and don't make ANY changes once the plans are filed and the permits are pulled.

Good luck and enjoy the process!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:02 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd buy the land, and then buy something from Connor Homes, customized to your preferences.

(I live in Cambridge. I've given this some thought!)
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:16 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think Yankee Barns also sells prefab houses. I know someone that grew up in one in Connecticut and her family LOVED that home.
posted by jbenben at 8:23 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I live in the town of the house you link to. We have much bigger lots sizes than Belmont although not the acreage you'll find in Concord. Our land is very expensive.

Our schools are among the top in the country. We have a town public facility center with 4 pools, a high dive board, tennis courts, a lot of athletic fields, 5 community pools in town, hidden tennis courts everywhere, and we were kind of a big deal during the Revolutionary War.

Anyway, houses are being torn down here and rebuilt, but there are PLENTY of homes with lots of charm in your price range. The town has a very active historical society and there parts of town where you can't build a McMansion.

The market is this town is HOT. Houses go on the market and are sold within days.

And FWIW, the house you linked to wouldn't be considered a McMansion by our local standards. A house needs 3 garages to be considered that. And Lexington, the closer you get to town center, the higher the land cost. The house you link to is not considered a prime area of the town and it also feeds into the lowest-rated elementary school, so that home is actually less expensive by Lexington standards for a few reasons.
posted by kinetic at 8:25 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd do a Pre-Fab house in a heartbeat! I looked at one for my MIL in KY once upon a time ago. So before doing that, look into it, especially if there are builders in your area.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:26 AM on March 11, 2014

Just so we're sort of clear, if you are potentially bringing in new construction in this manner, you are still part of the tear down culture - just building something ... less McMansion-y. Within 128 in an area with good schools and services? It'll be tough. You'll need to know the setback rules for each town you are looking in - since in most cases the older construction has been grandfathered in. Also, since you are in MA, you'll definitely want a full understanding of what is under you. A former coworker of mine in Belmont started digging, permits already in hand, in his back yard after he had approval from the town, only to find an old (revolutionary-era) storm/drain waterway which apparently had an easement against it. Long story short, it changed the footprint of his porch, upped the cost with the redraw, extended the timeline by a few months, and made quite the moneypit conversation at the water cooler. For permission to build over a certain square footage of your land, as well as within proximity of the property line, you'll likely have to get about 9000 approvals from your neighbors before you meet them.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:31 AM on March 11, 2014

For permission to build over a certain square footage of your land, as well as within proximity of the property line, you'll likely have to get about 9000 approvals from your neighbors before you meet them.

In Lexington you would have to go to the Zoning Board, and they usually say no. We are one of the WORST towns to try to build a dream home in. Our Zoning Board is strict and rarely allows exceptions, and our historical board has all sorts of restrictions on what house can look.

If you're thinking Lexington, you are WAY better off building a pre-existing home.

I cannot tell you how many of my friends thought they could either do a tear down or build on land and it turns out to be a bureaucratic nightmare, unlike any other locality. These homes never got built.

Seriously, any builder who says building in Lexington is no problem is lying.
posted by kinetic at 8:37 AM on March 11, 2014

I cannot tell you how many of my friends thought they could either do a tear down or build on land and it turns out to be a bureaucratic nightmare, unlike any other locality. These homes never got built.

Dunno, I'd say like a great many other localities in the Bay State. It's a tough place to build in.

If the poster would like, I could hook him up with some data about land value in the relevant areas. Memail me.
posted by Diablevert at 9:04 AM on March 11, 2014

Just tossing it out there: For a budget of roughly $1.3-1.5M can you hire an architect to turn your current home into the one you want? All the complaints you list are easily addressed with a major renovation. You presumably own the land, know the neighbors, etc.
posted by gyusan at 9:55 AM on March 11, 2014

I live within a a half hour of Boston. In 2002 we bought a fixer upper with plans to renovate it. Long story short, we soon found out that due to structural issues renovating it would have been more work and just as costly as tearing it down and rebuilding. We liked the area and didn't want to move. So, we tore it down and rebuilt. Without getting into specifics of cost, we did this for much, much less than you have budgeted, though we built a smaller house than you're looking for.

In the Boston suburbs there are still a lot of smaller houses and nice neighborhoods that are for sale. You could buy one of these and build anew. Empty lots are hard to come by.

Many McMansions are shoddily built. If you go custom you can insist on better materials and build a house that will last.

Check the local zoning laws. In our case we are on septic and near the town wells so we were limited to a two bedroom. If you're on sewer this will be less of a problem. I promise you the town will find some reason why you can't build without spending two months going through the zoning appeal process and paying them a few hundred for the privilege.

I loved our architect and our builder. Feel free to me-mail me if you want their names.
posted by bondcliff at 11:19 AM on March 11, 2014

Are you limiting yourself to Belmont or Lexington? Two of the more expensive suburbs...Try a little further out, yet still within your 1 hour commute. Bedford, Carlisle, Billerica along Rt 4 (essentially the Bedford/Carlisle/ Billerica line. Plenty of large buildable lots, maybe even some old farm property.
posted by Gungho at 1:30 PM on March 11, 2014

We're building a house in Concord right now and the city has been a dream to work with, FYI.

I'd consider Carlisle and Acton before Lexington or Belmont. They are not that much further out, have more land available, and as far as I can tell dramatically fewer bureaucratic nightmares with regards to construction.
posted by lydhre at 6:29 PM on March 11, 2014

Oh and if you think that's a McMansion, boy, do I have some houses to show you.
posted by lydhre at 6:31 PM on March 11, 2014

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