Chapter 6: Digging into unknowns

In which we once again have many questions before we buy

Where we left off: we had identified our final plot, now it was time to seal the deal.

This post is written by Ben with editing and commentary by Mindy.

“When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” — Margaret Drabble

Coming off of our last adventure in real estate, we were not eager to put ourselves through the same anxiety-inducing experience.

While raw land didn’t appear to be moving at the same speed that houses were, we didn’t want to take any chances.

We were perfectly capable making an offer and doing the legwork around closing ourselves, but it felt like the “right thing to do” to work through the real-estate agent who had helped us find the property. The purchase price of the land was a small fraction of our total home cost, so it felt low risk to see what value they could bring. (Spoiler: It wasn’t much)

Paperwork

As reviewed in an earlier chapter, the first step in a real estate transaction is making an offer. We pulled together a copy of the standard purchase agreement produced by the local realtor’s association. It had a number of standard check-boxes for contingencies and we checked the relevant ones: well tests and title searches.

My parents had suggested that we set up language that allows us to do “any inspections we desire to our satisfaction” (or something like this). But I figured “there’s no house to even inspect, seems like overkill.” (Spoiler: It wasn’t)

We offered asking price. Our realtor though it was fair due to the improvements the owners had made drilling a well and bringing electricity up to the site. (It’s important to note that the realtor’s cut is a small fraction of the purchase price. They’d rather have a deal go through than no deal at all, so they have no incentive for you to negotiate a lower price.)

In retrospect, we should’ve negotiated. But some combination of the small (relative) low cost and the frenzied real-estate environment lead us to aim for clinching a deal as soon as possible.

We set a date to close (read: take ownership) a month out and sent off everything through our real estate agent. 24 hours later: offer accepted! 🎉

But as we learned previously, this doesn’t mean much until you have the (metaphorical) keys to the property.

First, we must go deeper.

What’s underneath?

The Water

Once our offer was accepted, I immediately scheduled a well test to check to see (1) how much water the well actually produced and (2) what we would need to filter out of it.

When you factor in the time it takes to submit a water sample and get results back, it gave us very little time to make a decision before closing the deal.

Since home purchasing was up 50% at the time, nearly all well checkers were booked out for weeks.

Fortunately, after calling around enough, I found a local guy to do it and he sent his son early the next week to pump the well. And to our luck, he reported that the well was healthy: gushing a full 6 gallons per minute.

The test report came back with a few things we’ll need to address (iron and small amounts of radon)— but nothing prohibitively complicated to filter out. It turns out that humanity has done a pretty good job of figuring out how to make pretty much any water palatable.

As part of getting everything arranged, we got a copy of the well completion report when it was drilled a couple years ago.

A footnote in the report caught our eye: the the well was a full 600’ deep, 598’ of which was… solid granite. Dun dun dunnnnn!

First of all, that’s an expensive well to drill! I was relieved that we wouldn’t have to pay to drill a well that deep, through bedrock.

On the other hand: solid granite was going to make excavation… challenging.

The Power

Our architects suggested we make sure that the power that was brought up to the site was capable of providing 200 amps of current for things like electric charging and various forms of potential heat.

So what level of power was brought up to the site? Was it capable of providing 200 amps?

The realtor said, “Yes, it’s wired for 220.”

But this doesn’t make any sense, because:

  1. Residential electric meters don’t come rated for 220 amps, they come rated for 200 amps (or 100A or 50A)

  2. 220 is usually a reference to voltage, but in the US we typically have 240V electricity (split across two 120V “legs”) rather than 220V electricity.

It felt like a fool’s errand to litigate this over email so I drove up to the site to investigate. Because the home location is so far away from the road, the owners buried high voltage line (some thousands of volts) along the driveway and installed a transformer near the home site.

The meter itself was indeed rated for 200A — as evidenced by the giant breaker switch with 200A written on it. That was good.

The pad mounted transformer purports that it’s 25kVA. Now the tricky thing here is that “200 Amps” is really only half the story.

Electric power is defined technically as the amperage multiplied by the voltage. That can be a bit abstract, suffice to say that knowing one without the other doesn’t really give you much info. It’s like telling someone that a house is 70ft long, without specifying how wide it is (it could be 2 inches wide or 30ft wide).

It wasn’t clear to me at the time if “200A Service” is across the 120V we have in most normal outlets in the US or 240V. 25kVA across 120V is 208A of current, across 240 it’s 204A.

I had assumed the former was correct, but as I was writing this, I’m realizing the latter is correct — so while we have “200A Service” we can’t actually use 200A at once.

As far as I can tell, the power utility installed a smaller transformer because a transformer that’s not being used still wastes power (and indeed this one has been left unused for two years). According to the Internet, if we really start using more, it’d be the power companies responsibility to upgrade it.

Mindy’s commentary: I must say, it’s a lifesaver to have an electrical engineer like Ben on this project. Without his expertise, this project would not be possible. It was also thrilling to see my partner in his element and solving problems at such a high level of competence 😍

Ben’s further commentary: let’s wait to evaluate my competence once we plug everything in and the lights don’t dim!

The Septic

In case you aren’t familiar with septic systems: it’s where your poop goes when you live in the boonies. It’s basically a large tank underground where the solid parts of your bodily outputs are collected, connected to a “leech” field where the liquid parts seep into the ground. Every few years someone comes by the tank and pumps out all your (literal) shit.

The previous owners had gotten pretty far along in setting up the property for a home, purportedly having a septic plan designed and going so far as getting a building permit approved. (They never told us why they didn’t end up building the house. There were a thousand personal factors that could’ve contributed to this — and they weren’t obligated to disclose anything.)

Importantly: Not all land is suitable for a septic system. Often, the land will fail a percolation test. In this test someone digs a big hole, dumps a bunch of water in it and then times how long it takes to seep into the earth. If it takes too long, that means your leech field could back up. If you’ve ever had a toilet come close to overflowing, it’s kind of like that — except imagine it’s your whole backyard.

To make sure we could avoid this fate, we asked for the plans and our realtor sent us a blurry photo:

If you’re trying to click in and zoom in: you can’t. It’s already full size. Not to mention it’s a small fraction of the actual plan — no one could actually build a septic system with this.

I replied diplomatically that we can’t use these plans designed for ants (not my exact words). Could they just send us a PDF of the original plans? Apparently not. She scanned it and sent along a bigger JPEG.

I could now read the words! But it was still an unknown fraction of the total plan. More curious, I could see that there were test pits that were dug — could they tell us more about the granite underneath?

“We’re getting closer!” I replied, asking for the full plan again.

A couple days later I get back a black and white scan of the full plan. I excitedly opened it up, rotated it and found the part of the plan that listed out the test pits and what soil and rock was found at various depths. Still too blurry to read, I tried using deep learning to enhance the text so I could read it, but even that wouldn’t do it.

After a few more back-and-forths, I finally wrangled a PDF from the civil engineer who did the original design. He was clearly annoyed because he had sent the PDF attachment to our realtor and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t legible. For some reason our realtor was printing it out and scanning it rather than forwarding it.

Mindy’s commentary: I worked on file sharing and collaboration at Dropbox, so I’ve seen many archaic workflows in user research sessions. This file transfer struggle didn’t surprise me one bit. The “late majority” is a tough segment for SaaS companies to crack.

At any rate, we now had real plans to build a septic system and some sense of the kind of dirt underneath the septic field. Unfortunately there were no test pits by the actual potential house location.

The Ground

When you build a house, that house sits on the ground. Generally speaking, you want to make sure the ground doesn’t shift over time. The most common way this happens is that the ground freezes and shifts in soil density causes your foundation to crack. This is very, very bad.

To avoid this, you’re generally required to build a foundation that extends below the “frost line,” which is the depth that the ground freezes in a particular climate in the winter. In Connecticut, this is four feet.

At a certain point I realized, based on the septic plan that it was very likely we’ll hit bedrock before we reached that depth and freaked out.

We could spend a ton of money to make sure, but we couldn’t get permission from the owners to tear up their property and check.

There are two solutions to bedrock.

  1. Cast your foundation directly against it (this is called “pinning”). The bedrock doesn’t freeze so this is safe. The downside is that you can’t have a basement — I really want a basement for my future lab.

  2. Blow it up with dynamite. Depending on where you are, blowing everything up can range hugely in price. So I estimated how much we would need to blast and called around to excavators to ask how much it would cost.

It would be significant, but fortunately not deal breaking. This was the cheapest plot of land we looked at, and now we had perhaps discovered why.

The Title

The way in which land ownership is recorded is a system steeped in antiquity. It boils down to someone notarizing a document saying they own a piece of property and are transferring it to someone else, then giving that document to a municipal records-keeper.

This workflow can break in a variety of ways, namely that someone may claim to have been given rights before the previous owner and insist that they still maintain those rights. Maybe a company has rights to drill for natural gas on your property, or the surviving relative of a previous owner claims they were willed some piece of land. Legal battles ensue.

So how does one get around this landmine? You pay someone to look in all the right places for claims of ownership and then sell you “Title Insurance” that covers your legal costs if someone tries to come after you claiming they own your land.

The title insurance company didn’t find anything we didn’t already know and issued us the insurance. The only notable thing (again, which we already knew) was that we don’t actually own the driveway that leads to our property. The previous owners of the property had been granted an ‘easement’ to use it in perpetuity for access and utilities, which transfers to us.

Mindy’s commentary: I’m both amazed and depressed by insurances that protect against information that may or may not be floating around in the ether and could come back to haunt you.

Boss Fight: The Missing Conduit

None of these quests prepared me for the next investigation: finding the missing conduit.

When they trenched the high voltage lines up to the building site, they said they also installed additional underground conduit (read: a long tube) for low voltage utilities (read: internet) from the road all the way up to the site.

Remember that we bought a flag plot, which means that the site of our future home is 1,800 feet from the the road. Trenching a new conduit would be very expensive, so I wanted to prove the conduit existed before we closed on the property.

This meant finding where it came back out of the ground at the building site. Finding a 2.5” pipe buried in a 5 acre piece of land is a “needle in the haystack” exercise, so I asked our agent where it might be.

She sent back a photo of the conduit at the beginning of the driveway where it goes into the ground.

Well, okay. That’s where the conduit starts, but we wanted to confirm that it was in fact pulled all the way up to the building site, so that we could actually use it.

When I pressed to find out where the other end was, she insisted that I not worry, it’s surely there somewhere.

By then, I knew better than to not worry.

The Map

Amidst the back and forth trying to coax our real estate agent to properly send an email attachment, we noticed a small annotation on the septic plan:

“1—Conduit: That could be it!,” I thought. I measured out the scale of the map and drove two hours to the property.

I picked up a rusty shovel the owners had left at the site and dug about a foot deep. I found nothing. All I had to show for it was a ton of blisters on my genteel hands.

Mindy’s commentary: I begged Ben not to dig with the shovel. We didn’t even own the land yet, so technically we were trespassing, then digging a big hole on someone else’s property— kind of a legal grey zone. But there was no stopping him. Driving away from the property that day without an answer, Ben was more frustrated than I had ever seen him. Once he identifies a question, he must know the definitive answer.

The Lie

I went back to our real estate agent: The map was wrong. Please ask the owner where the conduit ends.

Agent: “The owner’s agent says they come up through the green box.”

Me: “That’s impossible, I said. The green box is a high voltage transformer. You can’t legally wire low-voltage utilities alongside high-voltage ones.”

Agent: “Well, it’s what they said.”

Knowing this was bonkers, I called the local power utility and asked if they had records of the cable conduit installation.

They said they didn’t. They’re only responsible for the (separate) power conduit—but typically, someone drops the additional conduit pipe in the same trench.

They passed me off to their construction unit and a few hours later someone from their construction department called back.

They confirmed that our realtor’s belief about routing low-voltage conduit through the high-voltage transformer was absolute insanity. Validation!

I found the blueprints for the concrete casing online that makes up the “vault” underneath the transformer to ensure that there wasn’t a secret other compartment hidden away but nope—it’s just a huge concrete silo.

The Owners

It was clear I could not count on realtors to provide accurate information. So I decided to short-circuit them (no pun intended).

I knew the names of the owners, but had no phone or email contact information. Searching the owner’s name, I found a profile for a trucker who had a registered address about 20 minutes away that included a phone number.

But oddly, this address was not the same one as where the property bill was sent to and the middle initials were inconsistent. Were these different people?

Thanks to my recently acquired skill of combing through municipal records, I looked up the Warranty Deed (the document that actually assigns ownership) for the trucker’s address and the Warranty Deed for our property and found the signatures matched!

Next, I had to decide what to ask this person.

It’s against the Realtor Code of Ethics rules to talk to the opposing agent’s clients, but there was nothing preventing me from doing it. I didn’t want to get on the phone because I was worried my frustration would spill over and the owners might get spooked, thereby ruining our chances of closing the deal.

Instead, I composed a friendly text message about how we were mapping everything out for planning purposes and sent it off to the ether.

Later that day, I got the following photo from them, proving that both conduit pipes were in fact installed at some point:

It exists! We’ve found it! I jumped for joy and drove the two hours to the site and started digging…

Nothing.

Again.

What the hell, did they move it? It seemed clear as day where it was before they filled everything back in. Foiled again, I drove home. I texted the owners to get clarification, but they couldn’t really provide anything meaningful.

Meanwhile, the seller’s real estate agent had heard that I went around him and was not pleased. He called our agent to scream at her, who, in-turn, called us to explain that we really shouldn’t have done that. No use in picking fights so I played dumb and apologized.

That said — if you don’t want me to go around you — don’t lie to me. It’s not hard.

The Electrician

I pressed our agent on finding anyone else who might have knowledge of what was installed and somehow she got the name of the local electrician who installed the power meter. I called him up and he graciously offered to drive by and see if he remembered anything.

I met him at the property (another 2 hour drive) and he said, “yeah, they dug their own trench and they did some weird stuff like install an extra conduit way out front here.” We dug around a bit, still found nothing.

He was stumped.

The electrician drove off and I filled in the hole to hide my semi-illegal digging. I used my shovel to even out the ground around the transformer and underneath the concrete slab it sat on.

Ready to head home and give up on the search, I crouched down and…

There it was! The second conduit 🙌

It was on the other side of the concrete silo, about an inch from the silo, finishing directly under a 3” slab of reinforced concrete.

Putting it there was an astonishing level of stupid, but at least now we had confirmation it exists.

Mindy’s commentary: In case it isn’t already obvious, Ben is the hero of this project. I’ve always thought of myself as a detail-oriented, solid problem solver. Not in the least when compared to Ben. He is part engineer, part investigative reporter, part detective. I’ve never met someone who can ramp up on new knowledge so quickly and apply it with such precision the very same day.

Closing

With all of this diligence finished, we were finally ready to fork over the money. I dropped off some checks (which were put in escrow) and a quiet email or two later we officially became landowners!

Up next: Now that we had land, we could finally start to envision what our dream home would actually look like.