October 3, 2008, New York Times: Starting From Scratch

Illustration by The New York Times, Photograph by Doug Mason

A VISION Doug and Heather Mason’s land on Lake James in North Carolina. The home is still a “work in progress.”


October 3, 2008

Starting From Scratch

STEVE AND LISA LEPITO love their vacation property on Prudence Island, R.I., in Narragansett Bay. The beaches, blanketed with pink and yellow shells, are a bike ride away. Creeks rich with shellfish can be explored by kayak. Hiking trails run through protected land. There are no hotels on the island, and no restaurants — perfect for their nature-loving sensibility.

Along dirt roads, hand-painted signs advertise island-grown vegetables; at a stand that sells honey and jam, the buyer can just leave the money in a cigar box.

“It’s awesome here,” said Lisa Lepito. “As soon as I get on the ferry and leave the mainland, I exhale.”

“You can see seals here in the winter,” her husband added. “Even during July Fourth weekend the beaches are empty.”

Their little piece of paradise has everything they wanted in a vacation spot. Someday they may even build a house on it.

The Lepitos are that rare breed of second-home owner: the pioneers who buy virgin land and develop it themselves, in their own way, without major financial resources. The process can take years or even decades, depending on the owners’ resources and the type of house they plan eventually to have.

In the meantime, why wait to enjoy their getaway? While they build the bank account or solve the initial problems of building roads, digging wells, bringing in electric lines and the like, the pioneers can still visit and plan for the piece of land that represents the getaway of their dreams. They can even vacation there — they just have to rough it a little.

The Lepitos, who live in central Connecticut, bought their 75-by-100-foot lot on Prudence Island from a neighboring landowner in 2006, for $97,500. For the time being, the only structure on the land is a shed.

Built by local carpenters, the shed is 10 by 12 feet, with a standard door in front, a sliding barn door at the side (convenient for taking their lawnmower and bicycles in and out), and two windows. Inside, a rope ladder, purchased at Ikea, leads up to a loft. At some point, the shed may be an ancillary structure. But for now, it is their base camp, the place where they store their essentials between visits and where they can take shelter from rain.

Near Morgantown, N.C., another pioneering couple, Doug and Heather Mason, whose main home is in St. Petersburg, Fla., bought an acre and a half of land three years ago on the banks of 6,000-acre Lake James. They don’t stay overnight there yet, but Mr. Mason refers to it as his “dream lot” and admits to thinking about it almost every day. Like a proud parent with a new child, he has shot a video and photos of their acquisition and will show them off readily if asked. “Everyone has to have hopes and dreams,” he explained.

The land is heavily wooded, and the first task will be clearing enough for a makeshift road and a place to set up some kind of shelter. Mr. Mason recently purchased a professional-grade chain saw and has begun taking down trees. “It would be nice to get an area cleared where we could park a camper, get septic installed and put in a well,” he said. After that, he’d like to make a path to the water.

Mr. Mason fixes up homes for a living, and a house on Lake James is definitely in the couple’s plans. “Of course, we looked at things like log cabins,” he said. “But we do not know what kind of home we want to build yet. It will be a work in process.”

For Gregory Schmidt and Janet Zahradnik, doctors who are married and living in the Farmington River Valley in Connecticut, the purchase of raw land next to the Delaware River in Deposit, N.Y., came with some unanticipated considerations involving what was beneath the surface. The deal was $90,000 for a six-acre plot with mineral rights.

Increasing flows of water being released from upstream made this section of the Delaware increasingly conducive to trout, and Dr. Schmidt, an avid fly fisherman who owns a McKenzie-style drift boat, was delighted less with the idea of a future house and more with the thought of newly acquired access to a long stretch of river shore. He realized, he said, that “I could use it now” to fish, without waiting for a home.

But then the purchase hit a snag. The seller signed a lease with a gas company giving it the right to drill on other plots in the area for the next five years. The possibility that a gas well could pop up next door made banks reluctant to provide financing, Dr. Schmidt said. While a local bank examines the gas lease, the deal is on hold, and they were able to get their initial deposit back.

Dr. Schmidt has not soured on the idea of buying raw land. If this transaction doesn’t work out, he’s not against finding another empty plot — especially since the couple’s initial research showed that it would be easy and quick to put a modular home on it. “Modular homes take the pressure off,” he said. “You can save money, avoid dealing with construction workers, and you’re more likely to stay within budget.”

Often, of course, mulling over what to build on a newly acquired plot of vacation land is recreation in itself — even if the process involves downsizing some dreams.

Ten years ago, Dick Schellens, who works for an engineering development firm and lives in New Hampshire, received a plot of undeveloped waterfront land in the coastal town of Port Clyde, Me. — one-third of a parcel that his parents divided in three and gave to him and his two brothers.

The original plan that he and his wife considered was to put a barnlike structure on the land with an apartment space that could be rented. Then Mr. Schellens began to imagine a companion structure, a large summer house similar to the venerable old homes he’d seen in Watch Hill, R.I. “Back then, it seemed like everyone was thinking in grandiose terms,” he said.

A foundation was dug for the barn in 2005. “Then, at some point, we said, ‘The heck with grandiose,’ ” Mr. Schellens said. The barn idea, too, was set aside. The current plan is to build a two-bedroom house with a small carbon footprint, but he feels no urgency to get started.

In the meantime, he may put up a dock and live part-time on a boat while working to get the land ready for a building. Now he visits mostly to cut trees.

A new idea could help with that, and more. Like the pioneers of old who looked at woods and saw log cabins, why not clear woodland and produce building materials in one operation? He and his brothers are talking about bringing in a portable sawmill.

Back on Prudence Island, Steve and Lisa Lepito and their two daughters settled in one weekend this summer for a couple days on their lot. They unloaded a grill from their minivan, erected an umbrella over their outdoor picnic table, and stretched a couple of hammocks into place for handy lounging.

Mr. Lepito fastened a clip to the top of the shed door to hang their new shower — a garden hose with a spray nozzle. City water had just been connected to the house, but they still had no electricity or plumbing. A portable toilet sat in an alcove built onto the outside of the shed. Drinks and food were in a cooler.

The Lepitos have blueprints for a three-bedroom house, but no definite plans for building it.

“In the beginning,” Mr. Lepito said as he and his wife sat at their table in the shade of a tree, “we looked at every potential dwelling we could think of. It was a little obsessive.”

They pondered purchasing a cottage already on the island and moving it, but learned that because of a wetland between Points A and B, it would have to be cut in two to be moved. At one time they entertained the thought of using metal shipping containers to create a house.

“I want a place with high ceilings,” Mrs. Lepito said as she watched a rabbit hop across the grass. “I’d like to be able to see the bay from the window and for the house to have a really open feeling.”

They’re “still pretty open,” Mr. Lepito said, on the question of exactly what they will build. But over the months and years, as they spend time on the land they love, they’re narrowing it down.

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