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12 country building surprises and how to avoid them

Green Acres is the place for me. Farm livin' is the life for me. ...

For those of us who live well off the beaten path, nothing compares to country living. Give me a nightly bullfrog serenade and a morning garden full of homegrown tomatoes over the din, exhaust fumes and road rage of the city any day. Just last week, an AWOL goat, a kid really, made a Piccadilly buffet of my rose garden. Was I mad? Naaaaah. I am glad to live among both stray goats and roses, even if I prefer them separate and apart, thank you.

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When you're finally ready to build the country place of your dreams, especially if you plan to do so long distance, as my wife and I did, you should brace yourself for a few surprises. Things like building codes, landscaping and what city folks call "basic services" tend to be open to an uncomfortable degree of interpretation once you leave the bright lights of town.

Chances are slim that you'll wind up in a rural nightmare like Chevy Chase in "Funny Farm." That said, you can save yourself time, money and aggravation by paying special attention to the ways in which country builders might leave you with costly problems you didn't expect.

1. Building codes
Here's where some of the confusion surrounding country building begins. Your real estate agent will assure you that your new home will be "built to code," but when pressed, your builder will maintain, "There's no building code in the county."

Who's right? In some instances, they both could be, according to Gretchen Hesbacher of the International Code Council.

"Some states adopt a statewide code that says 'this is the minimum standard everywhere,' other states adopt a code and say your jurisdiction can adopt any code as long as it meets this standard, and some states don't adopt statewide codes and each city, or county or township, then adopts a code. The builder in the county could be right, if he is in a state that hasn't adopted a statewide code and if he's in a county that hasn't done so."

In 1994, the International Code Council was formed to combine the three regional building codes: BOCA, or Building Officials and Code Administrators International, ICBO, or International Conference of Building Officials, and SBCCI, or Southern Building Code Congress International. So far, the new International Residential Code has been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Visit the ICC's adoption map to check out your state's status.

Mark Buchanan, an independent home inspector in Oxford, Miss., hears the no-code argument from home builders all the time. He considers it a cop-out generally used to justify shaving corners.

"What they have done with their freedom is they have used it to cheat, when they should consider the code the bare minimum requirement," he says. "By and large, you don't have the quality control in place that you do in the city."

Solution: If the International Code is in force where you plan to build and you fear your builder may not be familiar with it, provide him a copy and have it duly noted in your sales contract. It may help you avoid some of the surprises below.

Country home - before
Click image for larger view

2. Dirt work and drainage
As anyone who has ever built will attest, general contractors are builders, not landscape architects. This is nowhere more apparent than when building in the country. Once the foundation is level and poured, your builder will likely be singularly focused on completing your house and cashing the check.

Our drainage nightmare involved a section of our front yard trapped by a concrete walk that would flood against the house during heavy rains. We solved the problem by tunneling under the walk and installing a pop-up drain in the yard, something the builder easily could have done prior to pouring the walk.

Solution: Walk your property before construction begins, and instruct your builder to contour your lot for proper drainage at the same time he levels the site for building.

3. Fixtures, fans and flooring
If you're building long distance, this is one of the more time-consuming surprises you'll likely face: Carpeting, flooring, fans and fixtures, such as faucets, lighting, towel racks and such, frequently go by different brand names, product codes and even merchandise numbers, in different parts of the country -- even in the national big-box stores like Lowe's and Home Depot. This makes it extremely difficult to instruct your builder on how to buy what you're looking at, locally or online.

Solution: We ultimately found it easier to make our selections locally and have them sent to our builder. On carpeting and flooring, we worked directly with a very patient supplier who was willing to sort out the brand names and item numbers with his manufacturers.

4. Insulation
Not a direct horror story, but close: Some country neighbors of ours spent the first winter in their new home and were alarmed at their heating bills until they thought to visit their attic, where they discovered a complete absence of insulation.

Solution: Inspect your attic to make sure insulation has been laid out or blown in before you close. If it hasn't, make sure it's included on your builder's punch list.

-- Posted: Aug. 18, 2005




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