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Creating Your Dream Home

Ready to renovate or build the home of your dreams? It’s not as easy as you might think. Doug Wright joins us to share insights on the complexities of the process, how to approach such a project, and what to look for in a builder when interviewing candidates.

 

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Adam (00:00):

Hey, if it's that easy, why don't you just go out there and do it yourself? Just go [crosstalk 00:00:03].

Doug (00:04):

I'd like to be able to say that sometimes to people.

Adam (00:14):

Welcome to episode 11 of Keepin' It Real. I'm your host, Adam Tabaka. Today, we'll talk about creating your dream home with Doug Wright, a native of Oneida, New York. Doug studied economics at Utica College of Syracuse University, and has lived in Alexandria for the past 18 and a half years. Doug is the owner of Old Glory Property Construction, with seven and a half years of experience building and remodeling some of the most beautiful homes you'll see in Alexandria. Doug does masterful work, and most of the homes that he has flipped, or built and sold, have closed for a price much higher than the comparable sales would've otherwise suggested. A husband, father to three daughters, a huge soccer fan and a bourbon enthusiast. It's my honor to introduce the one, the only, Doug Wright. Doug, it's great to see you. How are you today?

Doug (01:02):

I'm good, Adam. It's great to see you as well. Thanks for having me on here.

Adam (01:05):

Well, thanks for joining us. I really appreciate it. So real quick, before we dig into the nuts and bolts of construction and building your dream home, tell us, how did you get started in this line of work?

Doug (01:18):

It's kind of an interesting story. I think it's interesting. I don't have a background in it. I did not have a background in it, I should say. I had an existential crisis, we'll call it, in my early to mid 30s about what I was doing for a career, and whether I really wanted to be doing that for another 30 years, or whatever it would've been. And it came to a head when I went ahead and, with the support of my awesome, wonderful wife, and basically quit what I was doing completely and jumped over into flipping homes. So it started... I think my first renovation was pretty simple. It was a lot of paint, windows, refinishing floors, new kitchen, stuff like that, and I just loved it. I absolutely, seven and a half years later, still love going to work each day. And I could definitely look back and say it's something I always wanted to do. I just took a long time to decide to actually do it.

Adam (02:28):

Cool. Cool. And so I'm sure there's a lot of them, but tell us about some of the most common misconceptions that the general public might have about someone in your line of work.

Doug (02:38):

Yeah, so there's two that I come across more often than others. The one that I come across more than I'd like to admit is that a lot of people think building a house is easy, or even renovating a house, or doing an addition is easy. And a lot of times that comes up when you're going over pricing with somebody, for what they want to have built. Case in point, I was talking to a homeowner one time and we were going through the process. They had wanted to do a one story addition as well as dig out a basement underneath that addition. And when we got to the point in the process where the architect got involved. And the architect told the homeowner what the fees just for the architectural plans would be, the response back, and it kind of ended the relationship.

            The response from the homeowner was, "We're just building a box on top of a box. It's not that complicated, it shouldn't cost that much." And that's just one example. I've had that similar conversation, unfortunately, probably once every four to six months with a homeowner, where they think it's just real simple and easy. And I don't know if that's because television has... With all the shows about flipping houses and whatnot, I think it's glamorized it and probably made it look a lot more simple than it act actually is.

            The other misconception, I think is more of a societal misconception, is that blue collar, skilled trades are to be looked down upon, which I think is crazy, because I know a lot of skilled trades persons that I work with who make a lot of money, and really enjoy what they get to do every day. So I think, again, as a larger society we need to change the narrative to be that, you can get into the trades, you can have a very good life, so to speak, and you don't have to put on a suit every day to be considered successful.

Adam (04:42):

I think those are two excellent, excellent points. And I think to your point about television, I think it couldn't be more spot on. It's one of those things where, hey, if it's that easy, why don't you just go out there and do it yourself? Just go [crosstalk 00:04:57].

Doug (04:56):

I'd like to be able to say that sometimes to people, and believe it or not, that's sometimes the feedback I get is, "Well, I could just do it myself." And at that point, you have to say, "Okay, then. This isn't going to work out. I'm not going to be the builder for you," which is totally fine as well.

Adam (05:13):

Yeah. Yeah. So what do you think, given everything that you do and you, you do all lot of things and you personally do them very, very well, what's the most underappreciated aspect of your work and what you do?

Doug (05:31):

Again. Now, when you don't do this for a living, you obviously don't know everything that would be involved in it, and I think that is the biggest misconception is how much has to happen in the background, so speak, or offsite. So when we're building a house, I always try to set the stage with the homeowners long before we start. As we set expectations, one of those things is, "Look, I, as the builder, I, as the general contractor am not going to be at the job site all day, every day, but that does not mean I'm not working towards the completion of this project." The number of phone calls, emails, spreadsheets, plans to be reviewed, just piles and piles of that sort of stuff that I have to do every day to see that entire project through, again, to completion.

            The analogy I like to use, I use a lot of analogies in general, the analogy I like to use is the general contractor or the builder is like a conductor of an orchestra. They have to understand not only what each individual part does, or what each individual instrument does, so to speak, they have to understand how to bring it together, where to put those pieces, and then they're the ones that have to lead the entire, in this case, again, the entire orchestra we'll call it. So it's a lot like that. And I think people then look at that conductor sometimes and think, "Well, that's the easy job. They're just up there waving their hands." But again, a lot goes into building up to that moment, and that's, I think a misconception people have.

            And I personally don't get out there and swing a hammer all that often. Every once in a while I do, but it's real really a lot of time spent, again, offsite, or even in my truck. I tell people my office is my front seat of my truck, because that's where I'm often doing these things from.

Adam (07:30):

Oh, that makes sense. And I would imagine that if any one piece gets delayed, there's just a huge cascade effect. Yeah.

Doug (07:40):

Yeah. Cadence is extremely important. And cadence of activities on a job site have always been important, and it's even, I'd say more important now, or much more stressful now with the way that our supply chain has been disrupted with labor shortages. And it's obviously affecting lots of different industries, not just construction, but certainly within construction. I'll give one example. We used to place a window order for a house. So we might be getting 50 to 60 windows for a house. And we used to be able to place that order generally within four weeks of needing them, which means, at that point you know you're going to be ready in four weeks. Now, you got manufacturers that are requesting 15, 18, 20 weeks lead time, and that's stressful, and that's really hard to predict.

            And to your point, Adam, and again, to stay on the window example, you get to point where you need your windows in, because you need to make the house water tight. There are things you can continue to do without being water tight, but at some point you could come to a complete stop. And I could use the same example on kitchen cabinets right now. Huge lead times on kitchen cabinets. Lead times on a lot... There's a lot of plumbing fixtures now that are no longer readily available. I'm talking faucets, things that we think are easy to get, simple, it's causing a major disruption in the way the whole system works right now.

Adam (09:18):

I can only imagine. It's got to be creating some headaches for you.

Doug (09:21):

It does. Yeah, certainly does.

Adam (09:24):

So in a city like Alexandria, where you work, where you're based out of, there's only a few buildable, vacant, lots left anywhere. How can someone take advantage of what we have existing in the housing inventory to create their dream home?

Doug (09:41):

Yeah. So I don't know where your audience is based geographically, but if we're going to talk specifically about Alexandria, Virginia. So if I remember this correctly, I made a note over here somewhere, our population density is around 10,000 people per square mile, which, if I'm not mistaken, makes us the most densely populated city in the Commonwealth of Virginia. As you know as a realtor, and you live here as well, there's not a lot of dirt left to be built on, so to speak. So if you're going to go to someplace further out, let's say into Fairfax County or Prince William County, Virginia, there are still a good amount of land that you could build a house from scratch, build a house on virgin soil, that's never been built on before, but that's just not something that happens in Alexandria very often.

            So if you were to want to do that, you could definitely buy a house that's already existing, and tear it down to the ground, and dig out a hole, and build brand new. What I've found success in doing is buying properties in the city of Alexandria and not completely tearing them down, but leaving, let's say, the foundation and/or two to four of the exterior walls, or some of the exterior walls. Building up on top of that and/or building out. So we're talking additions going up and additions going out as well. And I think there's a lot of opportunities in the market, including currently. I see houses daily, if not several times a week, when you all update your listings that are ripe for that type of opportunity. And the reason I don't think it gets done as much as it could be done is it takes vision. It takes vision.

            It's one thing to see a vacant piece of land and have an architect draw something, and you say, "That's awesome. That's what I want." It's another thing to see an existing house and understand what it could become in the future. So, yeah, I see that, and that's what I specialize in at this point. And as an investor, I'm doing spec builds on my own, and those are the type of properties I'm seeking out. Because I try really hard to work exclusively in the city of Alexandria, because I live here and I like being here.

Adam (12:11):

I'm sure. And once you learn the process of dealing with the city, it's a whole nother process trying to deal with another city, another county,.

Doug (12:20):

They're all different, they're all the same, but they're all... Yeah, the systems are, I'd venture to say radically different in how they need to be processed. And that's a whole nother behind this seems thing that we have to do as a builder.

Adam (12:34):

Yeah. And I think what you're saying about having the right vision is really, really critical, because from what I've seen, I've been in some homes that were older homes, been built out. And some of them, it's amazing, it's really cool the way that they've been designed, the additions have been built out. And then there are some where you sit there and scratch your head, and just wonder what the thought process was. You guess maybe it was just, the owner just said, "No, I'm going to design it and we're going to do it this way." But it's interesting the whole cross section of what you see.

Doug (13:08):

It is. It is. And I feel the same sentiments. Yeah, I never criticize someone else's work when I'm there with say a homeowner. Because you don't know what happened back then or why they made those decisions. But yeah, it definitely takes vision and the ability to at least understand that we could do something much different than what you might see sitting on a piece of dirt right now.

Adam (13:36):

Sure. So for someone who's considering a major remodel or adding an addition to their home, should they be talking to a builder first or an architect first? What's the best way to go about the process?

Doug (13:50):

In my opinion, I like to go with the idea of builder first. I know that seems self-serving, but I'll give you another actual real-world examples of this. So my company is not a design build firm. I don't have a full-time staff or full-time employee that does the design portion of it. There are a bunch of building firms that do do that, and there's, I think some pros to that. And that is you can have the architect and the builder involved from the get go. I think there's some, excuse me, some cons to that set up as well. But what I do is I'm happy to refer people to architects.

            This is the issue I have with not doing the builder-first approach. I'd say, again, probably every three to four months, I get a set of building plans presented me by a really excited homeowner, who has at that point probably spent between 25 and $45,000 to get these plans put together. And they come to someone like me and they say, "Hey, this is what we want to build. We would like to consider working with you. How much is it going to cost?" And most often, the budget they gave the architect is not going to actually work for the builder. Case in point, seems like we'll get a lot of these coming to me where one of them, the homeowners, they told the architect their budget was 750,000. And the architect told him that that's what was going to be designed. When I got the plans right off the bat with little more than a couple hours of review time, I knew it was going to be pushing over a million dollars.

            And when we got down into the details of everything that the homeowner had spec'd out to be built, it came in closer to 1.2 million. And then I'm the bad guy who has to say, "Hey, this is going to cost closer to 1.2 million." Now you can ask 10 builders for a price, you can get 10 different prices. So I'm not saying that there isn't a builder that could do it for their original budget. I think the disconnect that happens is architects, as experienced as they may be, don't generally go out in the field. They don't generally go to the construction site, other than to check in, or maybe make sure that something is being designed at the way that they wanted it. But the reality is, is they're not dealing with the invoices that come from vendors, and subcontractors, and they're not paying for the labor to make it happen.

            So that's one disconnect. I think the other disconnect is architects are, in my opinion, like artists, and they want to design the coolest thing they can given the parameters laid in front of them, and I think they often over design, for lack of a better a term. And they, again, just don't understand what goes into actually making those designs come to fruition. So by going with a builder-first approach, what has worked for me and the homeowners I've worked with that have done this is if I can come in at the beginning, and the way that I do it is I don't lock anybody in so that I have to be their builder. I do come in with a consulting type of contract to say, "I will work with you on an hourly basis or a project fee basis. I will work with you from the beginning as your advocate." And so if they tell me that their budget again is 750,000, I want to be able to walk with them and make sure that they stay at or near that budget number.

            So it's generally me being the one in the meetings with the architects and the engineers going, "Oh, hold on a minute. No, no, no. If you do that, if you design it that way, we're going to blow our budget." Or, "Hey, if we can change the design and tweak the bathroom layout, maybe we can align the plumbing in the house a little bit better and save 10, 20, $30,000," whatever it may be. So by doing that approach, I hope at some point I get hired to be the builder, at the same time, it, I think, saves a lot of headaches and a lot of potential money. Because again, if you're spending 25, 35, 45,000 on architectural plans, it hurts, I imagine, to get to that point and then realize you can't afford to build what you just had designed.

Adam (18:31):

No, I can only imagine the disappointment. So-

Doug (18:35):

Now, for what it's worth, I think architects would have a different viewpoint on that, where they would want to be the first ones in. I think my opinion is more taking the collaborative approach. So even in your case, Adam, as a realtor, I like to say, "Look, let's get everybody involved. Hey, if you want to find a property to do this on, let's get everyone involved as early on as we can and do it as a team approach, so that we're all looking out for the homeowner, we're all looking out for the betterment of the situation, and not just each individual doing what they feel is best, not having communicated with the others." It's like a team sport.

Adam (19:12):

Sure. And I know things have been really busy for you, for architects. I mean, this is something that people, if they're thinking about, "Oh, I want to do some work on my house next summer," I mean, they need to start now or months ago, maybe.

Doug (19:30):

Now. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that's another issue in the general larger conversation of supply chain and labor. Architects, engineers, there's a huge amount of work that they've already taken on. And as you, again, probably know from what you do for a living, there's a lot of homeowners that are wanting this type of stuff done. And I think we can go back and look at COVID and stay-at-home periods, where a lot of us were working from home. We had spouses or partners working from home, and kids at home, and dogs at home. And we're all trying to find our own personal space where we can have calls like this, and not have interruptions. And that led to starting, I think it was June 2020, my phone started ring off the hook with people wanting more space.

            Some of them were just additions on existing homes. Some of them, they wanted bigger homes. And that has led to across, again, the industry, a lot of people wanting those services, and that's making it difficult. I'm running into a lot of situations now where we cannot find architects to take on the projects. Or, to your point, you need to get on the list for, and then you have to wait many months, to get in front of them to then have the project designed, which it's tough right now, because people, like you said, I'm getting calls from people saying, "Hey, we want to start this project as soon as school lets out in the spring, so that we can go away for the summer and come back to the finished house." And the reality is it's too late for that in most cases.

            And I don't want to be a Debbie downer, so to speak, I'd like to be optimistic in looking at this sort of thing, but I don't see that changing anytime in the near future. I don't see the demand for the services of construction changing in the near future around here.

Adam (21:29):

Yeah. No, I don't either. And I don't think that's a Debbie downer thing. I think that's just that's information that people need to know.

Doug (21:35):

It's a reality. And that's, I think, the other thing to do is to be realistic with homeowners how these situations work. It's not because people don't want to take on your project. Actually, that's the other thing I'm hearing. I heard it the other day from some homeowners I've been talking to. Where they said, "We can't even get one of the architects to call us back." And while that is a problem in and of itself, a customer service issue, it's not that the architects don't want to design those projects, it's just they don't have the bandwidth. And that's been another builder first...

            Back to the builder-first thing. I've had those meetings where I've said, "Look, your timeline's not going to work. It just isn't. Let's be realistic now, and then let's plan a way to make it work for you." But yeah, we're at the end of the year. We're getting into winter, we're getting into the holiday season where people are generally going to be taking time off, and that's when I tend to take time off. So if we're going to do this, we need to be very realistic about the timelines, and not just be hopeful and tell people we can do it when we know we can't.

Adam (22:45):

No, that's good. That's good. Now, what do you think are some of the most important questions that a homeowner or a home buyer who's looking to hire a builder should be asking when they're going out and interviewing prospective builders?

Doug (23:02):

So I think one question not to ask early on is about pricing. And the reason I say that is, look, this is a going to be a huge investment for most people. It might be the biggest investment of their life, including the purchase of the home. So it's not that pricing isn't important, but a lot of people come up and say, "Hey, I want X, Y, and Z done at this house," or, "I want to build a house that looks kind of like this, or has this square footage. How much is it going to cost?" And the answer is, I don't know. Unless you're going to a production builder that builds one of a handful of floor plans only and knows how much it's going to cost, the fact is a custom house, you can't really truly price it out until you've spent the money, and spent the time getting the plans together.

            So when people come and say, "How much?" I like to respond with another analogy of, if I came up to you and said, "How much does a car cost?" Your answer's going to vary wildly between what is a Honda Civic cost versus what does a Mercedes cost? There's a lot of difference there. And so just ask how much the answer... There's not a good answer to give.

            What I think is more important than price is the relationships. So choosing people that you get along with is just paramount. And I think, again, it's way more important than the price. So when I say people you're involved with, you could have a realtor, if you're looking for a property, architects, all the various engineers, the builder. If you're more concerned about price, I think in a lot of cases you're going to pick the people that can fit those parameters. And what I think a lot of homeowners don't realize up front is to build a house, it's a very long process. And in most cases, from the builder's perspective, the relationship is going to start out at 18 months at a minimum, and probably look closer to 24 months. And that includes all the planning, all the permitting, the building, and then what comes after the build.

            And so you don't just pay the final invoice to the builder and then they're gone out of your life, they're still involved. I'll later on, whether it's a week later, a month later, or six months later. And we do little punch list items, doors that are misaligned, or things have shifted a little bit. There's involvement long after the build. And when you don't get along with somebody and you're paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you're going to be involved with... Again, beyond the actual finish date, they're still going to be in your life. I think again, to sum that up, the relationship is of the utmost importance over, again, even how much money it's going to cost.

Adam (26:03):

Absolutely. I think that's very sage advice. Now, talk us through briefly what does the process look like for clients who choose to hire you?

Doug (26:14):

So, like I said, I don't do design build, which again, has its own timeline, and steps that go along with that. What I typically like to do, first off, if I can get introduced to somebody through a referral, that goes a long way to what I just explained as far as relationships are concerned. So if Adam, you, for example, have a client and you obviously, I assume you like that person because you agreed to work with them, if someone like you, and since you and I have a relationship, if someone says, "Hey, Adam referred me to you," that goes a long way in starting that process.

            And in fact, most of my business doesn't come from cold calling, meaning from somebody cold calling me. A lot of it is, "Hey, we heard about you from a realtor," or, "You worked on our neighbor's house," or, "We love the work you did at our friend's house." The process I like to do is, again, I keep going back to the relationship part, I like to have the initial meeting to start to try to understand whether I think we're all going to get along. So very informal meeting. "What is it you want to do? Let's go see the space. Let's talk some very, very big picture, not numbers, but big picture items. And again, I want to understand what you think the timeline's going to be, or not necessarily what you want the timeline to be, but yeah, what you think it's going to be, so I can understand what expectation you have."

            Assuming that we get along, the next steps, I would say, again, to further the relationship part is, "Hey, I can give you a bunch of referrals to local architects and designers. Let's have you find someone that you get along with." And again, I harp on this with them is, "Don't just pick the person that's the cheapest, let's pick someone that can understand what your vision is and is aligned with that vision. So if you're wanting a more traditional type of house built, let's not get you signed on with an architect that does mid-century modern as their primary design." Or we could flip that around the other way, "If you want mid-century modern..." To be fair, I don't build that type of house, "but if you did, let's align you with people that understand that."

            So from there, like I mentioned earlier, I will tell people, "If you're willing and onboard at this point, let's sign a consulting contract, where I will consult for you, I will be your advocate, I will be along with you for the ride as you go through the design process." Once that culminates, and that process alone, for what it's worth, that could take six months easily. So from the time of the initial meeting with an architect, to the time you have what we call a permit ready set of plans, it could be easily six months, and that's stretching out even longer now, with, again, the workloads that we all have.

            From there, I take those plans and I do a very detailed pricing. I call it a pricing exercise, but at least to a very detailed proposal, broken out into as many as 30 to 40 line items. I should probably double check that. Somewhere in that range. And then from there, I present that to the homeowners, and we make tweaks to it, we make adjustments as they see things. I like to sit down with the homeowners and spend an hour or two going through the proposal, so they can really understand where their money's going, and to which component of the build it's going into, and why those components cost what they do.

            Backing up a little bit. During that pricing exercise, I do go out to a number of vendors and subcontractors, and I ask them, "Hey, how much is it going to cost me to get you to do this portion of the build?" So it's a very transparent process that I go through. All my numbers are shared with the homeowners. I do have a markup at the end that they see, but all of the individual component numbers are what I'm paying to do that portion. Generally, at that point, again, if we're all still on the same page, and hopefully at this point, because we've been involved since the beginning, our budget is pretty close to what we want it to be. Now, that being said, homeowners always upgrade stuff and always want more expensive stuff than they think they're going to want. But if we, at that point, can agree on a price, then we move on to actually signing on a contract to build the house, or do the addition, or do the renovation.

Adam (30:53):

Excellent. No, transparency is huge. It goes a long way, because-

Doug (30:58):

I agree. Absolutely.

Adam (31:00):

... you're dealing with a lot of things that most homeowners, they don't have the slightest clue of what you're doing unless you're showing them and putting it out there.

Doug (31:09):

Exactly. Yep.

Adam (31:10):

So before we wrap up here, I just wanted to real quickly get a sense. Tell us about maybe the most satisfying project that you've worked on recently.

Doug (31:19):

Most satisfying project? So let me go to a 30,000 foot view for a minute on that question, Adam. And look, it's extremely satisfying to see the product when it's all done, when you compare it to what you started with. And it's probably vein and conceited of me to say that, because it's the satisfaction you get from seeing the finished product. And because of how I operate, I'm very involved on the job site on a daily basis. So I'm seeing a house... Let's take an existing house that we're going to deconstruct and then reconstruct into something new. I'm seeing it every day. I'm seeing the most minuscule changes that happen. And when you're at that point of detail, oftentimes the changes, you don't see them because you're there all the time watching it happen.

            So at the very end, when you can literally and figuratively step back and go, "This is what we started with. This is what we ended with." It's pretty satisfying to see something... You're taking a house, generally in the Alexandria area, most of our houses were built between the '40s and the '60s. You're taking something, in a lot of cases, that hasn't been updated. More often than not these houses have original bathrooms, original 1950s bathrooms, that you've now completely changed the layout, how the house looks. It's extremely satisfying. And specifically, again, I don't know if your viewers are all local, but I did recently design, build, and sell a house on Cameron Mills Road at 3075, if I remember the house number correctly. That was a cool project. And we designed and built and changed that house pretty significantly. And I was really, really happy with the way it came out.

            In fact, I remember the first day... I put the house under contract. It was probably a month or two later that I first walked onto the property with my architect. And his words to me were to the effect of, "I don't know what you're going to do with this house." Even he was like, "You may bought something that you can't turn into a gem. You may have bought something that we just cannot make look nice." And I said, "No, I think if we can get this vision put on paper, we can make it into something wonderful." And that house came out pretty awesome. But again, I'm probably biased and... I'm biased, but if I take into consideration the comments that we got during the period when it was for sale, I'm going to say, yeah, people were pretty happy with the outcome on that one.

Adam (34:13):

You do great work, Doug. Don't worry about being modest here. You really do.

Doug (34:18):

Thank you. I'll owe you 20 bucks for that comment. No, I appreciate that. Thank you.

Adam (34:23):

Well, no. It's been great having you on here today. Folks, if you want to reach out and contact Doug, his contact info is going to be below. Doug, thanks so much for being here, and love to have you back again sometime if you're interested in coming back in the future.

Doug (34:42):

Adam, thank you for having me. I always like talking shop, so I'd be happy to get back with you again for another subject here in the future.

Adam (34:49):

Awesome. Thanks so much. Take care.

Doug (34:51):

All right. Take care. Thank you.

 

Adam Tabaka

Long & Foster Old Town Alexandria, VA - Realty
400 King Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
703-683-0400
703-589-6513
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