Log Blog

Lessons from "Mr. Blanding Builds his Dream House"

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I love Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in this classic 1948 film. As builders and remodelers we see humor in each of this New York couple's antics as they get in over their heads while building their dream home in rural Connecticut. When his business manager and attorney questions the initial purchase, Cary Grant's character states with conviction "We're buying with our hearts not our heads", this philosophy cost him dearly. While funny on screen, it is not amusing when a project gets out of hand or goes grossly over budget in real life.

What lesson can we learn from the Blandings?

Use the professionals and expertise available to you before signing a contract to purchase...have a builder, architect or other design professional evaluate your property prior to buying. Don't get stuck with a lot that is not appropriate for the home you wish to build due to access, slope, size and other factors that can dictate the building. Don't assume you can add an addition or bathrooms when local codes may not allow it. Get a professional to give you a preliminary budget for the remodel or construction work you have planned prior to beginning work.

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Two of my favorite scenes both have to do with communication.

On the first meeting with architect, this couple decide the prelim plan that fits the desired budget was too small and conventional. By the time the meeting was over the couple had doubled size of house, made the second floor larger than the first, added sewing rooms, play rooms, 4 additional closets and 2 additional bathrooms. " You need to cut something to stay in budget." The Architect begged them to just get rid of one bathroom. Myrna Loy says with a straight face " I refuse to endanger the lives of my children in a house with less than four bathrooms" Cary Grant's reply "For $1,300 they can rough it!"...in 1948 that was a $1300 extra or 10% of the initial project budget. Today that one extra bathroom will cost you $20,000; an extra fireplace will be an additional $7000; that 40 foot wide 8 ft covered porch will cost you $10,000. It adds up fast! Lesson learned: Make sure you and your spouse are in agreement for the needs vs. wants in your project. Be willing to compromise for the sake of your budget and the sanity of your marriage. Listen to the experts and take their advice on what is appropriate for your neighborhood, lifestyle and budget. Also, do not get caught up in the excitement of the design process by letting a builder or architect talk you into more square footage or bells and whistles than you either need nor can afford. Rooms look smaller when on a flat piece of paper.

Understand ramifications of change orders. When Myrna Loy wants " a little flower sink" in her pantry, Cary asks if she approved a $1,247 change order. She adamantly denies approving it. She then elaborates that she saw 4 pieces of left-over flagstone and asked the contractor to "give me a little stone floor" for my potting area. Architect then asks "did you authorize a drain? "Of course not. I just asked for a nice dry floor". The Architect then goes on a 5 minute explanation of what this "little stone floor" caused in a chain reactions. "Carpenters had to pull floor already laid, add the drain, had to support to handle weight of stone, .hot and cold water pipes moved, and power to the main panel and junction box, then the drywaller had to patch the hole..."you get the idea...Moral of the story, always ask for a bid or estimate of what any on-site change will cost before authorizing it. Know if the "little change" is worth the cost. Understand that sometimes there is no such thing as "a little change". Everything in your home is connected to each other and can cause a domino effect when touched-off just right. The numbers were much smaller in 1948, but when all the change orders came in for the Blanding's home, their $20k project turned into $38k, it represented a 70% overrun! In today's dollars, a $700K log home budget would put your project over $1.2 million if you followed Cary and Myrna's methods of decision making

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Be specific and give samples when communicating with your builder, or hire a professional Interior Designer who does know how to communicate specifics to your sub-contractors. I always laugh out loud when Myrna Loy is talking to the painter she tells him " I want it to be a soft green, not as blue-green as a robin's egg, but not as yellow-green as daffodil buds. Now, the only sample I could get is a little too yellow, but don't let whoever does it go to the other extreme and get it too blue. It should just be a sort of grayish-yellow-green. Now, the dining room. I'd like yellow. Not just yellow; a very gay yellow. Something bright and sunshine-y. I tell you, Mr. PeDelford, if you'll send one of your men to the grocer for a pound of their best butter, and match that exactly, you can't go wrong! Now, this is the paper we're going to use in the hall. It's flowered, but I don't want the ceiling to match any of the colors of the flowers. There's some little dots in the background, and it's these dots I want you to match. Not the little greenish dot near the hollyhock leaf, but the little bluish dot between the rosebud and the delphinium blossom. Is that clear? Now the kitchen is to be white. Not a cold, antiseptic hospital white. A little warmer, but still, not to suggest any other color but white. Now for the powder room - in here - I want you to match this thread, and don't lose it. It's the only spool I have and I had an awful time finding it! As you can see, it's practically an apple red. Somewhere between a healthy winesap and an unripened"... Painter just says "got it, red, green, yellow, blue, white". While this sounds ridiculous, you would be surprised how often clients are vague about things they really feel strongly about. If you want specifics, give your contractor specifics to avoid misinterpretations. Paint color numbers, fireplace specs, model numbers on appliances and more will help make your project go much smoother. If you are not sure, come armed with photos of your desired outcome with resources like www.houzz.com, www.pinterest.com, or an number of interior design and architectural magazines on the market today to make sure you are on the same page with your Design/Build Team.

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Finally, expect the unexpected when developing a piece of property. In the film, The well driller worked for a week at $4 per foot and finally hit water at 227 feet, almost immediately the excavator hit water at 6 ft by accident and had to pump out the foundation-and redirect this underground spring before they could pour a foundation. Every construction project has something that was not planned for. Make sure you have surrounded yourself with the best professionals to keep surprises at a minimum. Choose a team who know how to solve problems efficiently and timely when they do arise.

Luckily in the end, they all seem very happy in their new home despite the cost overruns. You don't have to end up in the poor house if you plan ahead, listen to the experts, and minimize your change orders. With good pre-planning and communication with your design/build team major changes should not be in your future.

Before you build a new home or tackle a major remodel, this movie is a must see to keep your sense of humor in tact. It is run often on TCM, or download and watch it on-line for under $1.00.

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