Thursday, 1 October 2015

Preparing for house construction

The weather has not been particularly kind to us over the past few weeks. There's been a lot of rain, some of it very heavy. This prevented PartnerBau from applying the necessary coating before handing off the basement. In fact they had to pump out the excavation (at great expense) so that they could work. I suspect that the contractor was actually drawing it out. The water level was always below the edge of the baseplate and nothing a pair of wellies wouldn't solve. But (a few weeks later than scheduled) the coating was finished and the light-wells were attached.

The weather continued to be pretty terrible. I managed to get into the basement for the first time and we pretty shocked how much water had accumulated; over 4cm covered the whole floor area. My earth worker,  Petzold, had been unable to work during the bad weather but as soon as it cleared started with the insulation of the basement.

This was quickly followed by the outer protective cover and the drainage. The drainage required two man-holes, one for the rainwater and the other for the waste water. Within a few days he was done and the excavation was being filled in with free-draining sandy soil. It's very exciting to see it ready for the house after weeks of piles of earth and holes in the ground.

I was initially concerned that he had worked so quickly that there had been no inspection by the local authority, but when I contacted him it was all in hand and he has the pressure test planned. Unlike the other contractors that I have had to deal with Petzold has been ahead of the game, and no micromanagement has been needed.

I've also been working with the electrical installation firm, Brune Elektroinstallation, to plan the location of the sockets, switches, lights etc. They've been pretty variable so far, wanting me to sign plans without costings, then being quite helpful to create costings, then ignoring my response. I think we've done what needs to be done right now, we'll have to see how it goes in the future.

In theory the house will be constructed in 8 days time. We'll see if the weather and fate is on my side!

Friday, 21 August 2015

The basement

The big hole didn't stay empty for long. In the days following the formwork and reinforcing steel was laid (including the earthing loop which is placed within the concrete base) and the the concrete itself was poured. It rained shortly after it was poured but I was reassured that it will not have any affect on the strength. Of course this meant I could see the outline of the house, and it looked tiny! I had to measure it to make sure it was correct and then convince myself that the rooms would be the same size as the ones in my flat. I know that interior spaces always look small when marked up outside but it was still disconcerting.

A week later the wall and ceiling sections of the basement were installed. Each section was craned in and held in place with metal supports. The external walls were hollow with rebar holding the two concrete sections apart. The windows were already fitted. The internal walls were then placed inside before the sections of roof were laid on the inner part of the external walls and some extra supports they had erected. All that was done in about five hours.

The next day they added more rebar to the roof and particularly the ceiling-wall joints. The hollow walls were then filled with concrete which then spilled over to fill the ceiling. The weather was good and there was plenty of time for it to set.

The weather didn't hold though. Just five days later there was an amazing thunderstorm that sat directly over the site for hours. Houses were flooded and buildings were struck. I went to see the site the next day and we pretty horrified to find nearly a metre of water in the excavation surrounding the basement. I couldn't get into the basement but when I peered through the window it appeared to be pretty much dry. The hole for the stairs was open so I wasn't surprised it was a bit wet. The fact that it was otherwise fine inside suggests that it is indeed nicely water tight. And the sight of the water around the basement confirmed my decision to go for the full water-tight design even though it was very expensive.

The water has pretty much drained away now. The basement was inspected by the house company (it passed) and plans and a date for the construction of the house are now being confirmed. I even have dates for the delivery of the staircase. Before that the basement needs to be finished with light-wells, insulation, drainage and the earth needs to be put back. Busy but exciting times!

Monday, 27 July 2015

Digging a hole

Finding a ground worker was somewhat frustrating with only a few replying at all, and even fewer replying with quotes. However I got an immediate response from Petzold who was just about within my budget. He was very helpful and started coordinating with Partnerbau. Unfortunately they moved more quickly than the architects who didn't send me the necessary forms until it was too late to make the first appointment.

There was also an unexpected surprise of further costs to the basement. Some of these were described as inevitable by Allkauf but that they did not have to warn me about them in advance as it was not in the Ts&Cs. This type of unscrupulous behaviour seems to be common-place. These extras they keep adding have had a bad effect on my budget which is now pretty thin.

In the mean time I had been organising the water, electricity and toilet. I was able to get a standpipe from the local water supplier and a portaloo was delivered to site with minimal fuss. The electricity was a bit more hard work but after a week or so a local company, Wüsten, gave me access to a box on site.

Petzold began work on Wednesday. I went down to the site to see if anything was happening, honestly expecting nothing (after all everything else had been massively late), but there he was with a digger and several large trucks. There was good progress already and by the end of Friday he had completed the excavation.

Unfortunately the second part of this work is the earthwork for the sewer connection with a cistern for rainwater. I had taken up an offer by Vewoplan to create the plans for this but when I asked them about it they said it was not in the contract. I pointed out that I had actually taken up their offer and they have ignored me since. They have let me down yet again and I am beginning to suspect them of pure incompetence.

Depending on the whether the base plate for the basement should be poured this week. Unfortunately my contact person at Partnerbau went on holiday without passing on any information. Having received an out-of-office reply I sent a rather angry email and got another contact. We may be able to build the rest of the basement from the prefabricated sections in the following weeks but time will tell.

Following that I have to thermally insulate the exterior and sort out the sewer connections before the earth (well gravel mainly) can go back, anchoring the basement in place. There's such a long way to go but at least we've started!

Friday, 19 June 2015

Building application, basement and sampling

There's been quite a lot of progress since my last post. First was the approval of my plans by the planning office. There shouldn't have been any problems but given how long it takes to get approval it was a relief that there had been no trouble. In the end it took less than the average 10 weeks I had heard of but it wasn't quick. Along with the permission to build came the requirement to have two large trees (to take the place of the large hedge that had been there previously), a load of forms that will need to be completed during the build, warnings and rules about damage to local infrastructure and, of course, a big bill.

Next came a meeting with the basement manager. He wanted to meet at the plot to discuss the basement and what I needed to do before they could start. He took some photos at the site (which is now a hive of activity with houses going up quickly) and the said we should find a café where we could fill in a large form that he estimated would take an hour. As there is nothing much in the village we ended up at a McDonald's nearby. I have to sort out water, electricity, a toilet, crane permit and, most importantly, find a ground worker. He will send me some suggestions and I am contacting a few others to try and get a good deal. The amount to organise is concerning but should be doable. More worrying was his comment that the basement may need to be anchored at extra cost. He wouldn't say how much.

Most recently I went for the sampling at a warehouse about 90 min drive away. I had to choose the tiles, flooring, toilet, shower, internal doors, front door, door handles, taps etc. I was dreading this, expecting to be pressured into upgrading beyond the standard options that are included in the price. As it was the staff member was very helpful and did not apply any pressure at all, he also had some useful comments and suggestions. They didn't have much of a range of paint colours so I decided I would do this separately later. Their small showers (for the downstairs toilet) were also expensive so I passed on that too. In the bedrooms I want carpet, this is not very German thing, hard floors are king here. So it's no surprise that they didn't have a very good selection and that will be a later purchase.

I spent a bit more on the flooring to get the one I like. I'm also very please with the doors, plumbing fixtures, front door, windows, roof tiles etc but I'm not totally convinced by my tile selection. I think I'm happy with the bathrooms but the tiles for the hall are still a question and I think I may swap them for a slightly warmer tone.

As I left I had to sign for everything. I had clawed back quite a bit of money. Of course that will need to be spent on paint, carpet and a small shower, but even then it's pretty good. Finally they gave me €30 for my lunch and an iPad Air which I can download instructions onto.

So a good bit of progress. The next step is really to get digging!

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Kitchen planning, but mostly waiting...

After I submitted one copy of the plans to the Swisttal planning office (in triplicate) and the other copy to Allkauf things went quiet for a bit. About a week later I received the confirmation of the costs of alterations to the plan which allowed me to do my accounts. I had been worried about this because thus far I had been keeping a running total of adding this and then taking away that. But it was a pleasant surprise, it was actually lower than my rough calculation. Obviously it won't stay this way but I was worried that the budget was running away before we'd even begun.

This costs confirmation was followed by a request for confirmation of funding by me and my bank. Thankfully I have an agent and he will sort this out for me. I haven't seen any report of it arriving at Allkauf yet but it shouldn't be too long.

In the mean time IMPULS contacted me about my kitchen. As part of my deal with Allkauf I have a built-in kitchen, or more accurately a voucher of unspecified amount with IMPULS. Then sent me their catalogue (without price list) and an 'example' of what could be bought with it. I replied quickly with a plan and 3D render of my plan. A week went by without response. Only when I sent a slightly miffed email did they reply, very quickly, with an implantation of my plan, and a cost estimate. I was pretty disappointed that a few additional units was so expensive, even with the cheapest finish. And the standard oven isn't good enough, even for me! It's still cheaper than going with another supplier but far from a full kitchen.

My main concern over the past weeks has been about the planning application. I heard nothing. Not that I was expecting approval so 'quickly', but there was not even a confirmation of receipt. The concern was that I had sent it to Swisttal but it might have been quicker to send it to Rhein-Sieg-Kreis (the administrative body above Swisttal). Given what had happened earlier this was a worry. Emails were sent and voice messages left but there was no response. I sent another slightly miffed email and got an immediate response. They had received the application and had sent it on to Rhein-Sieg-Kreis  with their recommendation. But they didn't say what their recommendation was. Nor do I have any idea if it needs to be rechecked by Rhein-Sieg-Kreis  or if it will be rubber-stamped. And how long this will take is anyone's guess. But I at least know that it's not stuck in Swisttal.

My neighbours are already building. The house opposite looks a lot like I expect mine will be. The others that are building are the developers behind my plot. They took one of the smaller plots and divided it in two to make a semi-detached house. They are building right up against the boundary limits putting all their garden in the front, south side, of the house. It's a bit of a shock to see these two story buildings backing onto my plot after months of it being totally open. But if they're like other buildings from these developers, they should be ok.

Back to waiting...

Friday, 24 April 2015

Drawings and planning application

It's been while since I last posted. That's because the architect, Vewoplan, has been very slow in producing the 1:100 scale plans needed for Allkauf and the planing application. To say it's been a bit of a struggle would be an understatement. Following my meeting with the architect I began to become worried when preliminary plans didn't arrive although they had been promised the week following the meeting. They were still responding to emails but many of my questions were being ignored. As I became more insistent stories of the whole office having the flue and a serious operation for a key member of their team appeared. Then just as everyone was 'well' again the architect went on holiday for two weeks! This appalling lack of communication and professionalism mirrored my experience with G+S Wohnbau and adds weight to a worrying precedent.

Eventually, after more than a month, I did get the first draft of the plans (which had minimal changes to the blueprint) and was able to check them thoroughly. I made a few more minor changes and asked a few questions. Again, only some of these questions were answered.

Finally the architect returned from holiday and was angry with me for pestering her staff. However after more than 40 days of almost no news from the Vewoplan I don't know what she thought would happen. Anyway we did eventually the questions answered and the drawings finalised. Today I posted them off to the planning office and they will also be sent to Allkauf. That's another milestone done.

There seems to be a cultural difference here that I'm clashing with. The professionals in Germany seem to just want to tell you the answer and then you should accept it. That's not enough for me, I need to understand how they came to that conclusion. Why? Well the buck stops with me. I'll be the one left with the problems long after they've gone. Oh, and no, I don't trust them at all! They seem rude and arrogant - I expect that's how they see me too. But it's my house and I will make the decisions.

In the meantime some of my new neighbours are already building. They really have been waiting for G+S Wohnbau to get a move on. But it also shows that the geologists had been holding me back by refusing to go to site despite access being easy. Nothing can be done about that now.

So now I have to wait for planning permission. It should be straight forward but I expect it to be very slow, this is local government after all!

Saturday, 7 March 2015

One step forward, 10 months back

Well it looks my optimism was premature. In an article on General-Anzeiger it seems that I'm not the only on frustrated by delays. The couple in the article are already submitting their planning application and have been trying for several months only to be prevented by both the lack progress on site and re-zoning of the land. Re-zoning may be approved next month but building approval takes an average of 10 weeks so the couple forecast that they may only be able to begin building in September. That's a 10 month delay before even starting!

Allkauf wouldn't prepare my planning application until the land was in my name so I've been stuck at an earlier stage. I knew that the application was now the time-critical step but the fact that the land is not yet re-zoned and the slow procedure means it must go in asap. Then there will be another long wait.

It seems clear that the Gemeinde Swisttal is mostly to blame for the delay. The ridiculous political situation delayed the development by months and the lack of significant progress re-zoning the land will cause further delays. However G+S Wohnbau are far from innocent in this matter. Their slow progress on site has significantly contributed to the delays. But what is more troubling is that they have been aware of the situation at every step but have not been transparent with the buyers of the land. Again I find myself finding out about the project from the local newspaper not the developer.

Friday, 6 March 2015

My land

Things have been quiet since the meeting with the architect. The only news was an invitation to the 'boundary appointment'. All owners of the individual plots were encouraged to join so the border marks could be pointed out and explained.

It was very straight forward, the surveyor took me to each border stone and border mark and showed where it was on the plan. As I was standing in the mud I realised that it was the first time I had actually stood on my land, I had not had access to the original sports field and it had been a building site for the past few months. It was gratifying but also made me realise just how far there is to go.

It has been raining a lot and there were puddles on the land but it wasn't the quagmire that you might imagine. The sand and gravel in the soil are very obvious so this should make it well drained. Hopefully this will mean I can go with the cheaper basement but I suspect that to be safe the expensive one will be recommended.

G+S Wohnbau have still not completed the work there. In fact it seemed that nothing has been done in weeks. Thankfully this no longer seems to be the rate determining step.

Since my meeting with the Allkauf architect (from Vewoplan) there has been no news. I guess they're waiting for the geologists (from Stephan Brauckmann) who have been wasting time by not going to the site for the past few months even though there was very easy access. The architect told me that they would visit within a couple of weeks. As soon as that deadline passes I'll start applying pressure.

I did contact Vewoplan to make a slight alteration to the plan we had discussed, confirm the rest of the changes and ask a question. Unfortunately they haven't yet responded. This lack of communication is disappointing and very frustrating but not unexpected.

I did my accounts in detail following the architect meeting. It looks like I can afford the alterations with the exception of the dormers/gable even if I need the expensive basement. The difference between the sales pitch and the real budget (even at this first revision) still annoys me but for now things are still affordable and that's a relief, I don't expect that this will last though.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Meeting the architect

There has been a lot of progress in the past couple of weeks. As soon as I paid for the land the process of transferring my plot from the overall development into my name started (involving more fees of course). But that, in combination with the status report from G+S Wohnbau's contractors, was enough to spur Allkauf back into action.

Almost immediately I was contacted by the geologist and the architect for more documents and information. I managed to persuade the geologists that they could access the site even though work was not completed. The architect needed no such persuasion and immediately sent their surveyor (an other expense) to take the necessary measurements before I was due to meet the architect.

I met the architect at the show house. I had sent her all of my alterations months ago and she had been able to make a head start. We went though each room floor by floor making the necessary changes to the plan, adding and moving doors, windows and walls. She had some good ideas and most of this was pretty straight forward.

The big questions were over the basement, upstairs gable windows and underfloor heating as these would have a big impact on the budget. Originally I had not specified underfloor heating but had gradually changed my mind (probably after watching too much TV). It's expensive but looked possible.

Now the topic of cost had come up I discovered that with the alterations already specified it was only slightly more expensive than in the original calculation, but that this did not include the gable. The additional windows and doors had swallowed the gable budget and more! And the gable specified couldn't be put on this house anyway (even though it's in the sample picture). We discussed dormer windows but I'm not convinced they look right and the architect was skeptical too.

Deciding to leave the question of the gable unresolved we moved to the basement where more budgetary horror was lurking. She said I may need a more expensive basement because of the risk that the ground water may rise, we wouldn't know for sure until the geologist's report. This type of basement is very considerably (~50%) more expensive than the normal one. And it would need to be insulated but this is something I could do myself.

Leaving the gable, basement and underfloor heating questions open until the geologist's report we then had to complete a form that will be the main part of the information for Allkauf. Suddenly I had to choose roof tiles, door and window colour and frosted glass style. Thankfully I knew exactly what I wanted.

The architect told me that the average time to get the building up is six months from this point, but that this is skewed by a few very long projects. We will see how long it really takes. After three hours of discussion in German I was pretty much done.

Driving home I was a bit frustrated (although not surprised) that the initial estimate had been at least 15% off. It was more than the buffer I had budgeted for the alterations and would eat into my contingency. But I quickly realised that I would be happy enough to forgo the gable, particularly as it doesn't seem possible and that it can pay for the more expensive basement if needed. As for the extra? Well that's what the contingency is for! Right?

Monday, 9 February 2015

A huge bill

Following the last post there was initially good progress on site. The mountains of earth were removed and work was completed on the services. But once that was done the site went very quiet, and it still is.

However there has been more progress on the paperwork side. Following my strong words to G+S Wohnbau they started the process of transferring the land to my name, which needs changes to the land registry, confirmation from the notary as well as tax considerations before actually paying for the land and development costs.

Just as before the tax office was first off the mark with a bill on the same day as the land was transferred, if only everything was so quick! One of the bills was in Deutsche Marks as they refer to legislation put in place before the Euro and not changed since, only in the last line was it converted to Euros.

Finally, last week was the actual bill for the land and development. Needless to say that was the largest bill I’ve ever seen in my life. My agent at the bank took care of it all for me and I received confirmation of the transfer on Friday. That means that the mortgage is now being used and the clock is ticking!

Unfortunately the ground test (for foundations etc) people are unwilling to do their work before the new road is finished, even though it’s marked out, there’s no one working on it and my plot has access from a completed road on the other side. Also Allkauf have apparently put the project on pause, which is understandable given the delay but this is something I need to get going again.

Of course the easiest thing would be if G+S Wohnbau actually finished the development work. They had ignored me again so I sent another frustrated email and only then got a response. In an attached letter from their contractors it seems that the stoppage is due to the cold weather (no surprise there) but that all the work is done except the widening of the road, streetlights and a noise reduction wall (but this doesn’t affect my plot). Of course if they had been on time there wouldn't have been a problem with the weather, in fact they've been lucky that it's not been a problem earlier.

This week is due to be warm. It’s been forecast for a while so I hope they’re ready to go and will make use of it, but somehow I doubt they will!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A little progress

Work on site continues. Since my last post they seem to have completed the drainage connections and sent me the specifications for my plot. They have also laid part of the road surface that will go through the development. You can really start to see the shape of the development. They've levelled the site so that on my side it's a good 50 cm above the nearby street which might help with heavy rain.

But there's still plenty to do. The curb-stones and sidewalks need to laid, they were digging a trench and laying a small pipe in the northern part of the site yesterday and the neighbouring streets are a mess of holes and partially covered trenches.

Most of this was done before the holiday break and nothing much seemed have happened while I was away. However now there's plenty of things happening again.

The house building company and surveyors appear to be raring to go. They've contacted me several times and I keep having to put them back. And the bank wants to transfer the land ownership soon too.

Unfortunately G+S Wohnbau have been as incommunicative as ever. However since they are now beyond their contracted completion date I was able to apply some leverage. Following a couple of very strong emails I finally seem to have some movement on their side. An apology for the delays and the failure of communication and a designated point of contact. But more importantly an appointment with the notary to complete the land transfer and access to my plot for surveyors etc. I had to point out that actually my plot is under a small mountain of earth right now so it's a bit early for surveyors, but it's progress.

G+S Wohnbau say that they expect completion at the end of January or beginning of February. They've said thing like that before. But if I can get access to get started then that's not so important. We will see...