The Dream Home: A Cautionary Tale

The Youngs thought they did everything right. Apparently not.

 You may say to yourself, this is not my beautiful house. And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? -- Talking Heads

The date stamp says January 26, 1999, 10:21 a.m. Lucy Young is holding the camcorder, purchased the night before for this very purpose, sitting in the passenger seat, zooming the lens in and out at the oncoming blacktop road beyond the windshield. Husband Andrew Young steers the minivan down FM 2920 in southern Montgomery County, toward the five-acre plot that will someday encompass their dream home. Lucy -- dark-haired, urban-raised and traveled daughter of a Brazilian diplomat -- points out that the camera's vibration dampening feature doesn't help much when the lens is zoomed all the way to telephoto. Blurry video supports her point. Andrew -- bearded and unthreateningly bearish, a mechanical designer of hydraulic pumping units and offshore drilling equipment -- says the jerking image is probably better than it would be on a camera without the dampening feature. Lucy says maybe, but still.

They met in 1985 at a Houston apartment complex where both then lived, got married three years later at the Cypress Creek Christian Community Center in Spring, and lived for the next ten years in northwest Houston, in a patio home that had belonged to Andrew's grandfather. They were saving.

Inspector Bill Rice, consumer watchdog
Deron Neblett
Inspector Bill Rice, consumer watchdog

They'd driven these roads often, since sometime in 1992. Saturdays and Sundays for five years, all through southern Montgomery County -- they'd also driven Waller and Fort Bend counties to the west, but found these counties not quite right -- looking for what lots of people look for: a little bit of acreage, close enough to town to make the commute bearable, but out in the trees, away from the city's "hectic pace," where the property taxes and insurance rates drop a little, and a young couple building its dream home can afford to sink a little more into the house itself. Nicer faucets. The good tile. Maybe a Jacuzzi.

In 1996 they put earnest money down on a five-acre plot in a development called Glenmont Estates before noticing that the land doubled as a rainwater drainage ditch for the surrounding properties. They left the earnest money behind when they backed out of the deal. The Youngs drove around some more and found a lot in another development called Miller's Crossing. The development was at the dirt road stage, and the Youngs bought a 1.24 acre parcel choked with undergrowth.

Andrew says, "You've got no idea how big a lot can seem when you have to hack through it with machetes."

Once the lot was cleared, it was clearly too small for what Andrew and Lucy Young had in mind.

"Your own private little park" is how Lucy describes it.

"Nature preserve," Andrew says, thinking big.

The day their lot shrank, the Youngs started looking for a larger one. They looked half a mile away in something called Woodlane Forest, and they just drove around with a map, picking out lots they liked the looks of, for sale or not. The perfect place might not have a sign on it. Later they went to the courthouse and researched the owners and wrote them letters, asking if they would be interested in selling.

They didn't hear much in response, and eventually put down $500 earnest money on a lot that did have a sign. Five days later one of the letter recipients wrote back. He turned out to be the owner of a five-acre parcel that Andrew and Lucy Young had especially liked, and he was willing to part with it. The Youngs took another $500 earnest money hit and unloaded their too-small property down the road in Miller's Crossing.

They had searched and studied and lost money and waited and learned, and they finally had their hands on their perfect five-acre lot in the trees, with a nice ratio of hardwoods mixed in with the pine. Andrew's grandparents in Porter, Texas, had lived on eight country acres while he was growing up. He remembers finding baby rabbits on their land, so he's at least partly wired for the rural experience. Lucy had been an apartment kid, but she followed her husband happily into the dream.

The Youngs sold their patio home to a man who agreed to rent it back to them so they could continue living in it until their new home got built. This would be the biggest investment of their lives, and the couple tried to be careful and thorough. They weren't building anything with their own hands, but if they were going to pay someone to build the home in their heads, the Youngs were going to be hands-on, educated consumers. They found a residential designer to draw up their plans, contracted with a structural engineer to do the drawings and started looking for a builder to bid on the project. They interviewed several over the phone and ruled them out, and eventually took bids from four others, all of which were checked out via the Better Business Bureau and found to be without serious black marks. This being Texas, where residential builders are not licensed, that and word of mouth is about all the research there is to do.

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