Disclaimer –

Disclaimer – This is an “ex post facto” blog. So, in truth, this is not a real “blog”. Although we’ve been diligent in taking pictures and talking to others about our experiences along the way, this has been written after the fact. This road has been so long and winding I have long since given up on writing a daily entry to blog.

So here’s my (our) account of the history of this insanity from the conception of an idea in 2004, all the way to 2009 and the final stages of building a modest home on the Island of St. John in the Virgin Islands.

I’ve posted the entries in reverse order of what you’d normally find in a blog.  The next entry is entry #1 and proceeds until finished!  When you reach the end of a page, hit the “Older Posts” button to continue reading about our adventure in building.

Enjoy!  And if your crazy enough to do it yourself, send me an e-mail – I might be able to save you some pain!

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5/3/2009 – Background and Introduction

Alex & Conner at the helm

My name is Tom. Lori, my beloved wife of 24 years, and I have two boys Alex, age 22 and Conner, age 19, although they were much younger when all of this began.

My first trip to St. John was in 1978 when my parents chartered a bareboat out of Tortola for a two week vacation. Needless to say, I fell in love with the islands, and the hook was firmly set.

While Lori and I have always loved the Caribbean and have traveled to several islands over the years, after the kids were born, we were not able to afford a trip back to the Virgin Islands for a long time. The picture on the right is of our kids in 1997; their first trip down and my first trip back. This is the year we finally reached a station in life that allowed us to show our kids the beauty of St. John.

We chartered our own boat the following year and have been returning as often as we can ever since. Over the years, we have always dreamed of owning a little piece of this rock, and that dream became a reality late in 2005.

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6/1/2005 – Grande Bay? Not so Grand…

Grande Bay - Artist "Conception" - It didn't turn out this way...

The Company I was working for at the time was sold for a fairly large profit, and I made a few bucks on the deal. Note, I said I was “working for” the Company – not an owner- so we did not become gazillionaires or even millionaires. We just had a chunk o’ change for the first time.

Having been burned on a fairly regular basis in the stock market (an insider’s game I am now convinced), we decided St. John would be an awesome place to invest. We began to look at properties and, of course, the real estate market on St. John was white hot at the time…. Please note that if you ever see me buying real estate, rest assured that the market is at its peak and you better get out while the getting’s good.

Eventually, our internet research led us to Grande Bay which over time, has beome the concrete jungle of a condo complex you see as you approach the ferry dock in Cruz Bay. I know this sounds like hearsy to all of you St. John purists, but there was nothing available at Gallows, or anywhere acceptable for that matter, that we could buy for under a million bucks, and the fact was, we didn’t HAVE a million bucks! We looked even closer and realized the original architect had withdrawn from the project and that caused conern. Unfortunately (or fortunately for us), the contracts on these units had already been bought and sold numerous times and we could not come to agreement on a unit. They just wanted too much money ($1M+) – they are now selling for $600K – dodged that bullet!. We decided to track down the architect to see why he “withdrew” from the project.

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7/1/2005 – We meet the Architect

So, who was this mysterious architect? After some detective work by Lori, we were able to get in touch with one of the best architects on the island. It appeared there had been a falling out between the developer and the architect. The builders publically claimed to have designed a project in keeping with the true spirit of St. John, but in typical south Floridian developer fashion, quickly abandoned those ideals for the highest density of dwellings they could get away with. Hence, the falling out. Rightly so, this architect was environmentally conscious.
So, after a few days of correspondence, Lori and I arranged for a trip to meet him in person to look at some property. Afterall, like almost everyone on St. John the guy doubled as a real estate agent. All the while we were operating under the generally accepted presumption that in St. John, real estate was so hot that you could build just about anything and IMMEDIATELY TURN AROUND AND SELL IT FOR 2X what you put in! Well, we certainly couldn’t afford to buy a villa… so this idea of building one did have merit. This presumption of fact has been repeated approximately 2,500 times (surprisingly equal to the number of villa’s that have been built on St. John). To make the trip truly fun, we decided to charter a boat, cruise around the islands (just the two of us) and made plans to meet Mr. Milne one afternoon at Ca

For a 3 hour tour...

neel Bay. So we rented the S.S. Minnow shown here for a week and generally had a great time. The boat left much to be desired, but the price was right.

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7/10/2005 Virgin Grand? – Not so Grand either

Of course, we had previewed many plots of land via the MLS for St. John prior to taking off and thought that the “refreshed” Virgin Grande Estates development looked like a pretty good bet. It was right above the Westin, had good views and was selling like hot cakes. Virgin Grande had once been a major development with a vision that had fallen upon hard times. If you’ve ever read “Don’t Stop the Carnival” you get the idea.

Virgin Grande?

The development was just coming to life again thanks to Virginia veterinarian John Daly. Certainly John was a decent enough sort, and we went home confident we had found a place in Virgin Grand Estates on which to build a home

Unfortunately, by the time we put in an offer, a new price sheet had “just” been printed, and the flower was off the Virgin. Mr. Daly would not negotiate and refused to accept the asking price from just the week before. Next, we discovered you couldn’t actually get to Virgin Grande by driving through the Westin property but had to go quite a ways around several neighborhoods to get there instead. Between the two issues, we simply could not bring ourselves to come up with the new price point, and yet again, we were back at square one! We flew home empty handed. Sigh… Trust me on this, you guys are getting the SHORT, KIND VERSION of this whole adventure!
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8/1/2005 – The trusty architect scours the island for the right fit…

The view window from the lot

As we continued our search via the MLS, we thought we had found a winner. We quickly returned to St. John and stayed at the Tennis Cottage. Its owners lived in a main house and rented out the little cottage. What a brilliant idea! It was like we’d just had a V8! We had always wondered how we could make a living on St. John and this seemed like an ideal type of retirement plan… Find a lot zoned as such that we could build not one, but TWO villas. Then, upon retirement, we could live in one house and rent out the other for income, just like the folks who owned the Tennis cottage! Genius!

Our guy had found a lot (almost one acre) on Mamey Peak. It was among an set of homes located on the crest of a ridge and on one of the highest points on St. John. It was 940 feet above sea level over-looking Coral Bay and the southern group of the British Virgin Islands. Located near the geographic center of the island, Mamey Peak was within the National Park boundries. If you looked hard, you could even see Maho Bay throught the trees on the other side of the road. It was owned by a Trust which had purchased several acres in early 1970’s. We took the above picture through a hole we were able to find while climbing around and looking at the property. We quickly reached an agreement with the trust and were FINALLY on our way to owning our piece of the rock. Now the fun really began…
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1/15/2006 – We FINALLY close on the land.

Ok, I know things work differently on “Island Time”… We had the down payment, went to FirstBank and secured a loan. Forms to be stamped here, taxes to be checked there, attorneys to be hired… ONLY TOOK FOUR AND ONE

Mamey Peak Road

-HALF MONTHS! So, with the land in hand and our interest only loan, money began leaking out of our account faster than a Madoff investment plan

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1/16/2006 – 7/15/2007 – The “Design Phase”

Six months later, we finally had a design. It took time, but after all the topographies, sketching, and drafting was compete, we had worked to make it perfect, and it was!

The Main House

I apologize for the quality of this drawing, but you can get the general idea of the lot shape and the location of the “main house”. We thought we had been very clear on our budget, but as you shall see, there were some big misunderstandings when it came time to get bids regarding how much it would take to actually build the masterpiece we had designed…

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The Lower Level Floorplan

Lower Level

Off of the pool deck, we have two guest bedrooms. The “owner’s retreat” on the right is a killer pad for the master of the house (or who ever had taken the initiative to make the reservations for the group once the villa was ready for rentals).

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Upper Level Floorplan

Upper Level

Wow – what a killer pad… Let’s go! Let’s build it!!!! NOW! All we need are permits! About now, If this was a “real time” blog, it would get really, really slow. In fact, you’d hear only crickets.

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“GIVE ME MY FREAKING PERMITS MR. LEWIS OF DPNR!!!!!”

TEN MONTHS. TEN MONTHS TO GET A BUILDING PERMIT. Finally, we could put the plans out to bid! Being a faithful follower of the Bongo-Bongo blog, we were scared to death of the next piece of the pie… Everyone we had gotten to know over the previous 18 months (yes, we had made the offer on the property a whopping18 months earlier), had me scared out of my wits. Reading that blog and then the Reef Madness blog, I was sure we were in for the ride of our lives. Apparently, homes cost twice as much to build as the estimates, and this was just accepted as “the way it is” in St. John. I began to get cold feet.

So, the construction loan was ready to go based upon the the appraisal estimate, and now all we needed to do was to select our general contractor. Sounds simple, right? We interviewed several potential firms, and came to a “short list” of builders. One particular firm seemed to be courting us big time, and while we were waiting to talk to them one day, we ran into one of their clients whose home was nearing completion. The man quickly gave me his cell number and told me to call him later… When we spoke, he said, “Run. Don’t walk, RUN!”
I won’t bore you with the selection proess, but it did have a remarkable resemblance to what occurs inside a sausage factory. After we had our short list, we put the project out for bids… We began to joke that this place would get built when Pigs Fly… what a foreshadowing notion that was…

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5/15/2007 – Shock and Awe – The bids come back…

Much to their credit, the general contractor bids were remarkably close…. not to the predicted price, but to EACH OTHER!- and each was nearly 50% greater than the amount that had been projected and our construction loan had been approved for. Given everything we had heard, multiplying that number by 2 clearly put us on the autobahn to financial ruin. We had kids and college looming large on the horizon, and we decided we couldn’t take the risk. We needed a new plan…

Remember our grand plan to build TWO villas – a main house and a cottage? We’d retire in style to the main house, rent out the cottage and wile away our golden years collecting retirement income from our housing compound. Reset! Main house on hold, cottage, here we come!

Architect! Please give us a cottage plan quick! The interest only loan plus money already spent designing a home we couldn’t afford was beginning to take its toll on available funds for this project. I’d heard it before. Building on St. John is not for the faint of heart or weak of bank account. At the time, both seemed wobbly!

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6/1/2007 – Time for Plan “B”

After considerable gnashing of teeth and out-right disbelief – how could we be so far off? We began working quickly (St. John quickly at least) to get our “cottage” plan in place and see if we could even afford to build that! We contacted FirstBank and told them that we were re-thinking our original design and were scaling back. They were suprisingly accomodating, and frankly I don’t think anyone had ever asked for a SMALLER loan on St. John! They really didn’t know what to do with us. Below is the new “site” plan with the cottage occupying the far eastern edge of the property. Plan “A” had become a distant dream.

Site Plan "B"

We got hold of some basic plans for a cottage our architect had been noodling on and after some modifications, we arrived at what would become Apito!

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6/1/2007 – The first draft of “Apito” Floor Plan – Main (Top) Floor

While we’ve made some changes to this initial plan as we’ve built the place, it is very similiar to what you’ll find below. We moved the spiral staircase out to the left to reclaim some room for the upper and lower terraces, added side lights to the french doors and replaced the french doors that open over the pool deck with a wall of windows. The pool deck was also greatly expanded. The reason for the wierd angle in this rendering of the pool deck was due to set back constraints. We solved that problem when we broke ground and “staked” out the site!

Main Floor

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6/1/2007 – The first draft of “Apito” Floor Plan – Lower Floor

The pool is now more centered on the pool deck and we have room on both sides of it. Moving the spiral staircase out to the left allowed us quite a bit more room downstairs. We also added sidelights to each of these french doors and the room has great light. The view from the bed is stunning – a nice way to wake up in the morning!

Lower Floor

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6/1/2007 – Elevations – Not much “flat” land on St. John…

One of the major adjustments we had to make on our thinking was how to build on a hillside. In this case, a pretty steep hillside. In fact, once we actually get to the “construction” part of this blog, you’ll see that our topography guy was off, way off… The definition of “slope” and “gentle” take on whole new meanings in the bubble we love known as St. John.

West Elevation

East Elevation

Roof Elevation

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8/1/2007 – The new permit shouldn’t take long… its just a modification…

Ok, we approve – let’s get going before I have NO MONEY LEFT!!! New blueprints, new appraisals, put it out to bid again, deal with the bank – do we need a new loan? Wait for bids to come back… Fortunately, FirstBank agreed to simply lower the maximum draw we could take on our original loan without having to apply for a new loan. I never in a million years thought the bank would turn down the opportunity to work me over for a new set of fees… there is some kindness left in the world! Actually, FirstBank has been excellent to deal with… props to Dennis Dore, our loan officer who was very responsive, and while he didn’t always give us the answer we would have desired, he was always very fair.

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12/1/2007 – Finally get a building permit!

We got the bids back, selected our builder and we’re ready to break ground… In September. Still no permit. October – still no permit. We finally received a list of “issues” from DPNR, to which we responded within 24 hours. November – Still no permit. Around Thanksgiving, Lori and I were leaving St. John and we were not happy campers! Fortunately, the DPNR office is at the airport. For all of you who don’t know this and are familiar with the airport, there are all types of offices located on the 2nd floor of the terminal building. Next time you’re in the ticket line for US Air or Delta, look up… that is where those stairs by the rum cart lead you…

So, we’re at the airport, prints in hand and decide to ambush Mr. Lewis in his office. We went to the front desk, asked for him and the girl said, “Come with me”, with a impish grin on her face.

She took us through a back door, and there he sat, the infamous “Mr. Lewis.” who held our financial lives in his hands… all 27 years of him! He was caught totally off guard! He dug through his pile, pulled out our blueprints and said, “We have these five issues that need to be resolved.” We pulled out the letter we delivered 6 weeks earlier and said, “Do you mean these issues that we addressed 6 weeks ago and have been calling about daily ever since?”

He said we needed to get with our architect and address responses to items 2 & 4. I said, “I’ll call him right now, and we can work through this while we are standing here. ” After some phone hand offs, we end up handwriting some stuff on the blue print and in two weeks finally, FINALLY, had our permit…

Sometimes you just have to be there to advocate for yourself…

Of course, it is now Christmas and we plan on breaking ground in January… only TWO YEARS after we purchased the land…2 years of monthly payments for the land, that is….

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12/ 15/2007 – Finally got a revised building permit from DPNR!

Meanwhile, our chosen builder had so much going on that they told us it would be August before they could break ground. It actually ended up happening in December of 2007. After clearing as little of the land as possible, the first step was to grade the land and reach bedrock. We soon realized the land is a “LOT” steeper than wthe original the topographic map had indicated. About 10′ extra concrete would be needed below the planned pool deck to set everything else right. So, after building and securing the “footings” into the bedrock, they built the “pool column”.

Pool Column Diagram

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1/17/2008 – The “Pool Column”

Wow – the first time I see this thing I can’t believe it. I know nothing about building, and I never would have figured this is where it would start… I didn’t really realize quite what it took to build a structure down here with masonary as opposed to building a house in the states. First, you have to build a form for the “inside of the wall”. Then, you take steel rebar and build an interior cage. The rebar is all tied together with wire to keep it in place . What you don’t see here is that the footing has already been poured, and this rebar is tied to the rebar sticking out of the footing concrete. These guys here are now building a form for the “outside of the wall. The top of this column is actually the “bottom” slope of the pool.

Forming up the Pool Column

After all of this has been “formed”, they call in the concrete truck who hopefully is not out of sand, cement or gravel on the scheduled day of the pour, or you have not been pushed off because they were out of sand, gravel or cement the day before… you get the picture… And don’t ask them to come if it rains, period! At any rate, they then pour the concrete into the “form”, let it sit for a day then remove all the plywood from the interior and exterior and start forming the next piece… It is a very time consuming and labor intensive process. At the end, you do get an amazingly strong structure – 8″ thick steel rebar re-inforced walls that are anchored to bedrock. If done properly, this sucker is not going anywhere ever!
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