A Homestead Without A Home

NOTE:  I have removed the names of our architect and the engineer from this post and replaced them with their initials.  The reason?  We live in a litigious society and some people, who I will NOT name, may not want to accept the truth about their poor business dealings.  I do not forgive them, nor will I forget, but I don’t want to spend time away from building our home while in court defending the truth.  So, if you read this post and want to know who I am referring to, let me know and I may get in touch with you in a less public format via e-mail.  Thanks

What’s a homestead without a home?

We have been working for two years… TWO YEARS, trying to get our architect and engineer to produce working and legal house plans.

Here’s the backstory.

Ray and I purchased five acres of mountain property fifteen years ago and have slowly developed it over the years, while we lived and worked in our home in the Sacramento Valley.  First was the septic system, then came the well.  We blazed a driveway through our property and brought in four truckloads of gravel. We planted our orchard.  We prepared a nice place for our travel trailer (you can see that post HERE), since we would be living in it while we were building our new house, and beefed up the solar system (see that post HERE) to minimize the need to run a generator, lessening our dependence on fossil fuels.  The house site has been graded and leveled for more than a year now.

This is our nice, level building spot! The orange tape on the stakes indicate where the septic tank is. This picture was taken in April of 2016 and our building lot has remained empty since!

We also built our beloved outhouse.  We built the outhouse for many reasons, some of which you can read in a previous post about the outhouse HERE.

how to build an outhouse

Our outhouse.

The summer before Ray’s retirement, we had a 20 foot long cargo container (read about that HERE) delivered to our property, to store the household items that we were keeping, and over the next ten months we decluttered our house, spruced it up and started filling up the container, getting ready to put our house up for sale upon Ray’s retirement.


We must have done a good job, because we put our house up for sale by owner before Ray actually retired, just to feel out the market, and sold it sooner than we expected.

Fortunately, we were prepared, the escrow went very well, Ray finally retired, and we moved up to live on our property permanently in late March of 2015.

The family room of the house we sold so that we could build a new home on our mountain property. Oh how I miss that house!

So, that’s the backstory.

We have planned to build the outside walls of our home with Faswall ICF (insulated concrete form), which is a mineralized wood product formed into what looks like a very large concrete building block. These are stacked much like Legos and then the voids are filled with rebar and concrete.  After studying several ICF systems and weighing the pros and cons, we felt the Shelter Works Faswall was a superior product and decided to contract with them.

This is a screenshot of an e-mail I sent to our architect, dated February 6, 2015. You can click on the picture to make it bigger and easier to read.

We were referred to an Engineer, D.S. (whom we will now call Engineer), who was familiar with the Faswall system and, although he lived in Oregon, had a California Engineer’s license.  In several e-mails we told Engineer that we were DIYers and were wanting to build on a limited budget, as we did not want to have a mortgage.  He assured us that this was definitely a DIY project and that in the long-run, the house would not cost more than a house that was stick-built.  He also said that his costs would be very reasonable.  But first, we would need an architect to actually draw the plans, and Engineer referred us to J.S. (now called Architect), also out of Oregon, to draw the plans.  Architect does NOT have a California license, but Engineer assured us that it was okay, because his California license would cover everything.

So, we signed a contract and sent a deposit to Architect TWO YEARS AGO this month.

This is the main floor plan I sent to the Architect, so that he could convert it to easily build with Faswall Blocks and also to bring it up to California Code.

I sent the house plans I had been working on for several years using a software package I had purchased at Staples. All Architect had to do was make them fit with the Faswall system (each block is four feet long) and make sure the plans passed California Building Codes.

In fact, other than the final dimensions, his preliminary plans almost exactly mirror the plans I sent him. Again, we emphasized to Architect in e-mails and phone calls that we wanted to build as cheaply as possible, and that we were planning to do the bulk of the work ourselves, though we were NOT licensed contractors!  Thank goodness we saved every single E-mail, in case this ends up going to court.

This is the plan the architect came up with. Not much different than mine, is it? So, why in the world would it take so long to come up with the final plans?

FOURTEEN months later, they finally had everything necessary to submit our building package to the planning department for inspection and review.

Why would it take so long?  We wish we knew!  We begged, we nagged and we pleaded, to no avail.  Is it because we made a lot of changes to our plans?  NOPE!  We had Architect remove two windows on the second story that HE put in and we didn’t want, and I had him flip flop the shower with the toilet room in the master bath on the preliminary plans.   That’s it.  Seriously!

Why am I naming names? Because these are the cold, hard facts.  I am not worried about slander, much less libel, because I am telling the truth, as hard as it is to swallow.  I have saved all our e-mails, and our local county personnel will back me up on all of this, and so since I refuse to sugar coat anything, I am naming names.  Perhaps I can prevent someone else’s heartbreak.

When we finally submitted the plans, we got the results of our first review back from the “plan checker”  within two weeks.  There were pages and pages and pages of things that were missing, incomplete or just plain wrong in our house plans.


UGGGGHHHHHHH!  This was in late July of 2016.


In the meantime, we had a bunch of contractors up to our property to give us bids on the foundation work.  That was one of the only things we were not planning to do ourselves (besides the roof), because we wanted to have a good foundation to build on!

Contractor after contractor told us that just the basement alone was going to cost between $50,000 to $60,000.  Holy @%$&


Because our home was essentially three stories (basement, first floor, second floor) some of the footings were to be seven feet wide!  And one of the basement walls had to be a solid concrete wall (filled with rebar) 35 feet long, 10 feet high and eight inches thick, to hold up the house above.

Did someone forget all the e-mails about this being a DIY project with a reasonable cost?  Why did they ignore our requests and communications?  Were we speaking Chinese?

You hire professionals to work for YOU, to listen to YOUR problems, to understand what YOU need and to provide that service!  Wouldn’t the Architect and Engineer know that the basement with the huge footings and that concrete wall were going to be extremely expensive and certainly NOT a DIY project?  If one of them had warned us of that in the preliminary stages, we would have nixed the basement right away! But after the preliminary plans were done, there was very little communication, other than the bills they sent us.

Which we always paid with a week of their receipt.

So, after realizing that a basement was not worth a huge chunk of our budget, we asked the architect and engineer to remove it from our plans, along with correcting the pages of errors the plan checker had sent.  Oh, and we added a small retaining wall across our back patio and removed the fireplace.  It took more than six months for them to do this.  SIX MONTHS!  Because of that, we missed out on another building season.  And then they had the audacity to charge us thousands of dollars more!  Oh, and I forgot, since Oregon does not require electrical or plumbing plans (apparently those inspections are done in the field), Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer refused to do ours. But wait…  we were assured by Mr. Engineer that since he had a California license, he would make our plans California compliant.  I have that in an e-mail and told him so, but they still refused. So, we had to hire a house planner who is licensed here in California to do this! 

Do you see a theme here?

We finally were able to turn in everything for our second review in February 2017.  Were we good to go?  NOPE.  Again, errors and omissions. To top it off, now WE have to pay more than $160/hour for the next building review (the third), for mistakes and omissions our Architect/Engineer are responsible for!

What a scam.

This past winter was brutal.  If you have been following this blog for very long, you know that we moved from our travel trailer into our “cottage” over a year ago.  See the post of our cottage HERE.  Travel trailers are not meant to be lived in 24/7, and we were burning way too much propane just to keep warm.  We were having to drive 45 minutes to get to town just to buy more propane!  It was insane!  Hey…  that rhymes.  😉

Living in a tiny cottage

Our saving grace this past winter has been our tiny wood stove.  Thankfully, it heats our little cottage really well…  sometimes too well!

Anyway, this past winter here in Northern California was the fourth wettest since recording began.  While living in the cottage to stay warm, every time I had to use the bathroom, I had to go out into the cold rain and sometimes snow. We were still showering and cooking in the trailer, so I was having to constantly go back and forth between the cottage and the trailer, oh, and the outhouse.

In the rain.

And snow.

The truth is, this is not what we signed on for.  I thank God that Ray and I are best friends, because this has really been a strain on our marriage and I wouldn’t wish this situation on our worst enemy.

So far, we have wasted two precious years, our retirement years, waiting for Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer to do their jobs. When Ray sent ANOTHER e-mail to them to see what the status of our plans are, essentially they responded that they were working on them.

Yeah.  Right.  If you believe that, I have a bridge in Taiwan I will sell you cheap for $10,000!

We need a house.

One that we can call home.

If it takes any longer just to get plans to build a Faswall home, it’s not going to happen and we are truly heartbroken!  The Faswall folks have had our money for the blocks for a year and a half now (we made our final payment December 2015), and we will be asking for a full refund.  Luckily, Faswall won’t lose one cent, because they don’t manufacture the blocks until arrangements have been made to pick them up.  The truth is, they probably MADE money through interest over the past year and a half!  Luckily, our contract with Faswall states that if we don’t get a permit to build, and we haven’t (through no fault of our own), we will get a full refund. We are talking almost $24,000 here, folks!

We are also considering whether we will sue J.S. and D.S..  We have contacted quite a few architects in the area, and have been told that two years for a residential house (nothing fancy here, just a normal, everyday house) is not even fathomable…  It’s insane!  It’s unheard of!  In fact, ONE year (according to EVERY contractor we asked) is crazy!  So, I don’t think we will have a problem winning that one.

If you have made it this far in the story, I would really like to have your opinion.  You, my faithful followers, have given me great advice in the past.  What do you think?  Should we give Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer another month to get the plans right and hope to get our Faswall dream house, knowing that it will be ANOTHER year before we can get started?  Or, should we cut our losses (time), go to court to get all of our money back, and start again from scratch?

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34 thoughts on “A Homestead Without A Home

  1. If you get the plans back in that time there is no guarantee they still won’t be right. I’d start from scratch and I’d sue. Sorry you’ve had to go through this. I wouldn’t have let it drag on as long though

    • Yes, unfortunately you are probably right on all counts, Annet. We are currently getting ready for the third review. If it isn’t right, again, I think we will go forward with a new method of building. Thank you so much for your input!

  2. I am so glad you shared your story. Life is short and retirement even more so. I’d say sue. There is so much more to this story; you are being kind. They have charged you for services they did not provide but promised, you have been patient, and it is time to enjoy all your hard work. Go public with yelp!, contact Better Business Bureau and the contracting license department (do you have his license #?), and be done with them.

    • Haha – well that’s saying it! Yes, as you know, I have actually been quite kind in this story and haven’t spilled ALL the beans. Unfortunately, it isn’t necessary to list all their sins against us because just the few mentioned are enough. Yes, we DO have their license numbers and we may just take them to court. Thank you, dear sister, for giving us a little backbone!

  3. I am so sorry you have had to endure this type of unprofessional behavior and operated on the good faith principle that you hired these two blokes to provide what they signed a contract TO provide. I am with the first person, Legal action needs to be taken. You have honored the contractual agreement, they have not.

    Get another architect and engineer that is in California to help you get this done post haste. it is ridiculous. Don’t waste anymore of YOUR precious time and hard earned money. Don’t give them another cent either. They have been paid far beyond what they were worth.

    Take care and wish you well, from Iowa

    • Thank you so much for your sentiment, Melody! It’s true… they are the professionals who are acting completely unprofessional! The biggest problem is that the architect does not have a California License and therefore does not know what is required in California, which is apparently a lot more than is required in Oregon. However, the Engineer, who does have a California License and promised (in writing) that he could get us house plans that are California worthy is our biggest problem at this point. And it is the Engineer who developed that monstrous plan for our basement, after telling us that it was a DIY project. So, in a nutshell, I blame him more than the Architect. The Architect is just ignorant, the Engineer is criminal!

  4. If you do decide to have another inspection, I would get it in writing that the architect and/or engineer have to cover the costs of the inspection in writing. If you decide to sue, I would include in the damages the interest on the money you put down on the bricks (money that would have been yours had you not paid the company). Also, find out about lodging a complaint with both the engineer and the architect with whatever boards regulate their licensing (both in CA & OR), not to mention the Better Business Bureau. Also, include something about your husband’s heart attack since I’m sure the stress of dealing with those to nimrods (sorry, only polite word I could think of to use) contributed to it.
    Also check with the agency responsible for the inspections to see if they have any correspondence from the engineer and the architect regarding your plans. The correspondence should be available to you as a public record.

    Hoping things go better from this point on.

    • Oh Anne, you bring many points I hadn’t thought of yet! Thank you so much! I love that you call them nimrods! We have called them that also. And Yahoos. And of course, some other choice names I can’t spell out. 😉 Thank you for the advice of the interest. I don’t mind Faswall having the interest because, afterall, they are going to lose a lot of money because of the nimrods, and I do not have a fight with the Faswall company. But, as you said, we could sue the nimrods for that money! Again, Thanks!

  5. So if you have your septic in and obviously electric is on site (for your cottage), why don’t you get a temporary permit for a cheap single wide mobile home that will be removed once the construction is completed. This will give you and your hubby more elbow room. As far as what to do with your engineer and architect, go see an attorney that specializes in contractual law – lay it out to him just as you have us and get his opinion. Do this right away!!! The longer you wait the harder it will be to get any money back, and it might just be that a nasty letter from your attorney could bee the kick in the butt your hired E&A needs. Good luck on all of this, and please keep us informed. Prayers are being sent your way for this to be resolved quickly!

    • The septic is in, but we are generating our own electricity with solar power. Unfortunately, we cannot bring in a mobile home without permits, and that would be ANOTHER nightmare we don’t want to deal with. The truth is, we aren’t even supposed to be living on our property right now, because we don’t have a permit to build! Once we get a permit, we are allowed to live here temporarily, while building. Which brings up another headache, because we could be kicked off our property at any moment for living here illegally! Of course, I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon because there are so many people who are living around us who are building homes without permits and not up to code… but we still worry! Thank you for your thoughts, Mary, and I will definitely keep everyone informed!

  6. I have really enjoyed reading your blog and have followed you for quite some time now. I believe it was prior to your moving to your land permanently. I am so sorry for your frustration and disappointment. There is no question……….I would cut my losses and sue them. You have all of it documented and surely you would win your case. Also, if you can prevent these clowns from scamming more unsuspecting clients you would be doing a community service. Best wishes and keep us posted!!!

    • Thank you so much Linda for your kind words! And thank you for being such a faithful follower! I am finding that every comment so far is to end this nightmare and go to court, and your comment echos this sentiment. It is true that if we wait any longer we will probably lose out on another building season. Yes, it is early in the season, but you see, all of the contractors in the area already have their jobs lined up. In fact, we are about to lose another contractor soon! You can’t blame them, they can’t wait around for Mr. Architect and Mr. Engineer to do their job, because they need to make a living too. I will keep everyone posted. Thank you for your best wishes!

  7. Oh, Vickie, my heart breaks for you, what a nightmare. You should be well settled in your new house by now, not still waiting on plans! I hate to think of this dragging on any longer, what a complete lack of professionalism you have experienced!

    • You are such a sweetheart, Debbie, and you are also right. We SHOULD be in our house by now! It’s a good thing that one of my favorite activities is camping, but not to this extreme. Thank you for taking the time to read the post, because I know it was extremely long, and for your much valued opinion.

  8. I say take them to small claims court. My parents have lived in quite a few custom-built homes (not DIY and not cheap!). Sometimes the builder was a friend, sometimes a professional. Every single one was subject to lots of last-minute changes and some crazy asks by my folks. NONE of them took longer than six months to design. The last one, which my dad is in now, took one year end to end (the design to the final, constructed house). Two years for plans is definitely a rip-off.

    OK, my experience with small claims court is this:
    Get all that paperwork ready. And it does cost, though not a lot (you don’t need a lawyer). Cross your t’s and dot your i’s with the court. If they insist on mediation DO NOT agree to any kind of settlement with the douchebags- a written mediation is not actionable. You will just waste time and money having to take them to small claims court again. This will probably happen in Oregon, so you don’t want to go back multiple times.
    When the judge rules in your favor (yay!) YOU are responsible for collecting. You can go through a collections agency, which will take about 40%, or you can contract with the local sheriff for property seizure and jail time, if they refuse to pay the allotted sum. Most business are concerned about their reputation, so they’ll pay up (people, not so much- don’t take a person to small claims court, even if they owe you thousands, as you will never see the money). Make sure the payment is on a timeline you agree to. The court gives 10 years by default (at least here in WA), but you want to get payment sooner for that, and you can ask the judge- especially considering you need to build a house so you have a safe place to live! If they do not make those payments in the allotted time, report them to every damned agency you can. Leave bad Yelp reviews. Tell the folks who referred them to you how they screwed you over and there’s a public, legal paper trail proving it. If THAT doesn’t get their attention….then go with the collections agency, or talk to a lawyer about asset seizure.

    • Goodness, Beth, that’s a lot of valuable information. Thanks! Ray and I have never sued anyone before, so this would be a new experience for us. We just got everything turned in for our third review, so we will see what happens. We aren’t going to wait any longer if there are more errors to correct. I will let you know what happens, but we aren’t holding our breath for a permit anytime soon!

    • It sounds like you’ve spent more than $5000. That’s the limit in California for small claims, I believe.

      • Good afternoon, Lynda, and thanks for stopping by. Actually, I have done some research and in California the limit is $10,000 for each individual, so this is still an option for us at this point. I am not worried about the money from Faswall because our contract was very clear and concise, including the provision that we would get all our money back if we did not get a permit. So, at this time, we should be able to recoup all the money we have spent, except what we have paid to our county planning department for their plan checks.

  9. I have no advice! I have never built a house. But once I got started reading your story I just couldn’t stop! I hope everything gets resolved and SOON!
    🙂 gwingal

    • Yeah, I was told by someone else that the post was a page turner 😉 and I know it was loooonnnggg for a blog post, but I sure feel better now that I have written it down. Kinda like therapy! And some of the advice I have received has been great! Thank you for your comment, and come back to see what happens next!

    • Yup – that seems to be the consensus, and it looks like we might be headed that way. Thanks for giving me your two cents, Dwaine!

  10. I am so sorry that it has taken you so long! It is so frustrating!! I don’t understand why things like this happen. I am waiting on wood flooring that I started to the installer in January. Keeps getting put off and now it looks like it’s not happening till the end of summer. UGH is right! Wishing you the best of luck!

    • Doesn’t it seem like good business practice has gone out the window? You would think that in a world of instant recommendations or, in my case, criticism, people (businesses) would be more likely to make a client happy! It seems that doing a good job in a reasonable amount of time just doesn’t matter anymore. Good luck with your flooring. Hopefully it won’t turn into the nightmare that we are living!

  11. Definitely go to court and get your money back! I wouldn’t have put up with them for that long! That’s crazy! Even though it will be another year, it will probably still be quicker than waiting on those two jokers. So sorry you’re going through this!

    • Thank you for your sympathy – it really does make us feel better when our feelings are affirmed by so many people! Thank you for stopping by and commenting today.

  12. So sorry to hear about all this mess! I am hoping you get it straightened out soon and with out too much hassle. Sounds like you have an extra dose of patience.

    • Good morning! Yes, you are certainly right! Poor Paul Wood at Faswall wants us to build our house as much as we do, so he is waiting for these guys to get their work done, also. We finally received all the stuff from Mr Architect and Mr. Engineer last week, and we were able to submit for our third review, so we will have to see what happens next. I think the main problem was our ignorance. We had no idea how long it would take, so when the architect took four months to complete the preliminary plans, we just assumed that was normal. However, we had no idea it would take almost ten more months for the engineering! I will say that the actual engineering of the plan was done in late January/early February, however there are several other requirements that must be included in plans for California, including something called Title 24. Our contract listed Title 24, but for some reason it was like pulling teeth to get Mr. Engineer to include this in our plan! I am hoping this is all done now, and we should know in a couple of weeks whether our plans are approved (finally) or not. If not, we will sue. Thanks for commenting, Connie. Have a great day!

  13. I’m so sorry you have had to go through all of this. I feel so bad. I hope the ball will get rolling soon and this will all be a bad memory soon. Thanks for sharing on the Waste Less Wednesday blog hop!

  14. I am so sorry it seems like these people are really taking you for a long ride. I’d cut my losses and find someone reliable. These people do not seem trustworthy at all. Good luck, I hope you can get your money back. #HomeMattersParty

  15. Oy! I thought WE had to wait a long time for our plans to be finalized and submitted then approved. I agree with everyone else, if it doesn’t go through this time, I’d call it quits with those guys and find someone better!

    • Yes, which is what we plan to do, but we are oh so close! We hate to think of throwing it all away now and starting all over again, if these guys can just do their &%$#@ job! We got a note from the plan checker yesterday saying that he had everything he needed, so we are hoping for the results of the third review soon. We are waiting on pins and needles.