Build or Buy?

Resolving the perennial second-home dilemma
Photos by Tim Porter

When it comes to owning a second home, some people like to build from scratch, some like to renovate and some would rather be boiled in oil than go through major construction. Marin residents with second homes have done it all and learned good lessons worth sharing. Here are a few of their stories.
 

Building in the Bitterroot

“We really built our dream house,” says Holly Green of the lodge-like home she and her husband, Bill, built in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley one hour south of Missoula. “It’s not a large one, but it’s right on a beautiful rocky creek. We feel a lot of our life came together there.”

The Greens, who live in Kentfield, built their 4,500-square-foot home alongside an old log cabin already on the land and next to sparkling Lost Horse Creek. It was completed in 2002 on the morning of their daughter’s wedding.

“We had been looking for a property for 20 years,” says Green. “The most important thing was to find a good property on the water.”

The home features river rock and brick walls, milled wood siding, wood-beamed ceilings, wood and stone floors, and chandeliers made from elk antlers. It takes in the natural beauty of the surrounding national forest with a 25-foot-ceilinged great room, which, like the bedrooms, has sliding doors opening out to the creek.

Each bedroom has a theme, from moose to cowboys to fishing. A pine bunkroom has six Pullman berth–like beds where the grandkids sleep. The house features whimsical details like a bear’s claw
carved into the front door and colorful ceramic bathroom sinks adorned with fish and moose motifs. In the octagonal kitchen, a three-dimensional hand-tossed ceramic tile backsplash displays a nature scene with eagles, ducks, moose and bears. An 11-inch-high tile trout stream scene runs below the windows on three walls.

Owning a second home that is not within driving distance has its challenges—and its rewards, says Green. “You would probably use the house more if it’s closer, but if you really want to escape then you need to be farther away. Once we’re really away, Bill cannot be called back to work.”

Building long distance can pose problems. “We had a wonderful builder who oversaw everything. But you have to be there a lot. We were there the entire summer living in an RV on the property. I was there to catch any errors. One day I realized if I sat down in the study I couldn’t see the creek. But since all that was up at the time was framing, all we had to do was a little reframing and order larger windows. Your presence is essential.”
 

A Second Home, But Close to Home

Patty Rock believes a second home should be within striking distance of home base. That is why she and her husband, John Fetzer, a second-generation winemaker, renovated the house that sat amid 600 acres of Fetzer family ranchland and vineyards in Mendocino County. It was also where, in 2001, she and her husband built their boutique winery, Saracina, whose wines are served at Gary Danko, the French Laundry and other top restaurants.

Married since 1998, Rock and Fetzer had long considered a second home.

“When we were visiting Connecticut we dreamed of Connecticut, and when we were in Italy, we dreamed about having a second home in Italy, but both those places were too far away,” says Rock, who works with her husband at Saracina. “The reality was we would not use it and in our case it became a place where we work as well.”

Today, they split their time between Sausalito and Hopland, 90 minutes up Highway 101. There, with the help of Oakland architect Michelle Wempe, Rock and Fetzer gutted the pedestrian-looking 1960s ranch house.

“We kept the same footprint because the siting was so nice,” says Rock. “It looked out onto the vineyards and my husband wanted to see them from every window in the house. Also, we renovated instead of built for practical reasons: the pool and a guesthouse were already there.”

The project, done while the couple occupied the house, took five years and produced an elegant but country-flavored retreat that balances high style with a rural feel. The house is awash in glass and has French limestone and Australian boxwood floors, oak fireplaces and landscaping that balances bamboo with hundred-year-old olive trees.

It’s exactly because construction needs supervision that a second home should be easily accessible, Rock adds. “I remember walking into the guest bathroom one day and the tile installer had used the wrong color grout and it was all custom-cut marble. We had to rip it all out, reorder the marble and have it all custom-cut all over again. If you’re not close enough to catch those things, it can be a real nightmare. Contractors don’t catch everything.”

 

 

A Turnkey Getaway in Sun Valley

To avoid those type of problems, many people prefer second homes that are move-in ready. Tim Harmon, CEO of Solage, the newest brand of hotels from Auberge Resorts, bought a four-bedroom house last year in Idaho’s Sun Valley.

“We found exactly what we had been looking for,” says Harmon, who lives in Ross with his wife, Katrina, and their two young children. “We just love our Lincoln log cabin on Warm Springs Creek at the base of the mountain.”

The Harmons, who met and fell in love on the ski slopes at Squaw and Sun Valley, did nothing more than put in rustic barnlike hardwood floors and new bathrooms. “We’ve used it a lot,” Harmon says. “The kids play in the creek. My six-year-old daughter, Giselle, said, ‘My eyes don’t hurt from the chlorine.’”

Harmon says his decision to buy is linked in part to his line of work. “My job is building new resorts, so the excitement of building your own house might not be as evident for me. You really need to think out your goals and objectives. I travel a lot for work and am constantly in hotels. I wanted a place to spend time with my family. Think seriously about building, because it’s a big commitment. Most people experience a lot of cost overruns. If you have the time, that’s great, but if you don’t, you’re better off buying.”

The Harmons purposely bought a house far from home. “Sun Valley is very special,” Harmon says. “It’s not really near to any major metropolitan area so when we go, we really feel like we are getting away.”

The Harmons recommend getting a holiday home that can be used year round. “We can ski in the winter and hike and swim in the summer,” says Katrina. “Ketchum is a wonderful community and we’ve met so many nice people there. Sun Valley is Aspen without the glitz and pretension.”

 

 

 

Vive la Rénovation!

Some people want to live where it’s not possible to buy land and build, so they buy and renovate from scratch. That’s what Susan and Sidney Goodwill of Tiburon did. The Goodwills, who sold their Bullock & Jones menswear store on Post Street in 1998, have a house in the Tiburon hills with dazzling bay views. In April 2006, the self-described adventurers bought a 2,000-square-foot flat in a 1930s building in Paris overlooking the golden dome of Les Invalides, in whose grounds Napoleon Bonaparte is interred.

Location was the most important draw. “Where are you going to get land and build in Paris?” says Sidney. “We don’t want to be out in Neuilly or the Bois de Boulogne. We wanted to be right in the heart of the city, to be able to walk everywhere. We did this because it was a dream of ours to have somewhere in Paris.”

They hired noted French architecte d’intérieur Bruno Moinard, whose design plan called for coved ceilings to allow for top-down lighting, silver oak and plaster walls, silver oak floors and gracious French doors along the front of the apartment. Demolition began in September 2006 and the couple moved in just before Christmas 2007.

The apartment had not been touched in 30 years, so the Goodwills scooped everything out from the front door in. Two bedrooms and the salon were stationed along four large windows on the front with the dome of Les Invalides just ahead. Susan also requested a laundry room. “The French have never heard of that!” she says, laughing.

During the process, the Goodwills made at least 20 trips to Paris to oversee the work.

They specifically wanted a second home far from their primary domicile. “We wanted two different worlds, two different cultures,” says Sidney. “If you have a house in the wine country here, you go up there and see the same friends you see down here.”

Renovating abroad can be tricky. Sidney speaks French but Susan does not, and dealing with French law was not easy. And of course, things went wrong, like a huge water leak that forced them to rip out the wall of the master bathroom while they were there for Christmas.

“Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep because I was so worried about that leak,” says Susan, “I would find myself up at 3 a.m. And I would go sit in the salon and look at that dome and say, ‘OK, this is going
to be all right.’”

 

 

 

Spanish-style in Santa Barbara

Sharon Bradford also found it was not feasible to buy land and build. Growing up in Los Angeles, she started visiting Montecito, a tony enclave adjacent to Santa Barbara, in the 1970s when her parents moved there. In 1996, when she married David, a former UCSF chief of orthopedics, they decided they wanted a second home there as well. Two years later, they found a small 10-year-old Spanish-style bungalow with colorful tile and mountain views and have been moving between that and their Sausalito home ever since.

“We wanted to build but we found it takes three to four years to build there,” Bradford says. “They are very tough there with permits. We gave up on that.”

The Bradfords have done some minor remodeling such as putting in a new walnut floor and skylights and adding a master bedroom. They also painted and landscaped.

The choice to buy rather than build depends in part on how much money people want to spend on making an old house new, Bradford adds. “Do you want it to have a family room? Because old houses don’t have them. I like the romantic essence of an old house, but I appreciate at the same time having everything work.”

 

 

 

From Renter to Owner

Sometimes neither building nor renovating is necessary. In 1996, Suzanne Tucker, anointed by Architectural Digest as one of the nation’s top 100 interior designers and architects, bought a two-bedroom, California bungalow–style house with a garden, lap pool and views of the mountains, also in Montecito, where she grew up. But she had been renting the place—the former carriage house on an orange orchard—from the well-known Los Angeles designer Jim Northcutt for four years prior to that.

“I did very little renovation,” says Tucker, whose Tucker & Marks interior design business boasts a blue-chip list of clients that includes Gary and O. J. Shansby (she designed their gorgeous Sonoma retreat). “Jim had bought the original property and remodeled the house very simply and comfortably, and because I had rented it, I already knew I liked everything about it. I was fortunate. Apart from freshening things up, my husband, Tim Marks, and I didn’t have to do a lot, which is rather a change for me! That little spot of paradise is where I feel the most peaceful.”

Proximity to her Sausalito base was an important factor in picking a spot for her home-away. “The Caribbean or Hawaii sound great, but people should consider how they want to use it. If it’s really for weekends, then it does need to be within driving distance.”

 

 

 

Small Steps Lead to Big Moves

Convenience was the main motivator when Michele and Glenn Larsen of Belvedere bought a 3,000-square-foot house with pool in Rancho Mirage for Michele’s elderly mother four years ago. Michele’s sister was living in Palm Springs and her mother liked the desert weather. The Larsens chose an established development called the Springs Country Club, 20 minutes’ drive from Michele’s sister’s, across the street from the Eisenhower Hospital and sited around a golf course. “We thought this was a very well-done club,” says Michele. “People were kind to my mother. We also felt it was a reasonable investment and that we could just use it and see how it goes.”

But once she and her husband started spending time in the desert, they fell in love with the place. Soon, Larsen’s mother bought her own house in the Springs. “Then we realized that our house didn’t have a view except from a bedroom we never used,” says Larsen. “We couldn’t build because we wanted to stay close to my mother, so when another house came up nearby, and it had a pool on the 18th hole and a lovely view, we jumped on it.”

The Larsens gutted the run-down 3,000-square-foot house, installed cool travertine floors and anagris cabinets, raised the ceilings and put in skylights and more windows.
Even though Larsen went down to oversee the project every two or three weeks, she still didn’t get everything she wanted. “You really have to look at the plans carefully. Every detail you don’t figure out in the beginning adds to the original contract price.”

 

 

 

Buy Location and Get a Builder, Too

There is a happy medium in the buy-versus-build question, and Nicasio resident Kathy Jolson found it. Eight years ago, she bought a home in the Villas Del Mar, a gated group of multimillion-dollar hacienda-style homes that front dramatic white sand beaches and the Sea of Cortez adjacent to the luxurious Palmilla resort. The development’s amenities include a five-star hotel, access to Palmilla’s 27-hole golf course, restaurants and spa, and butler, chef, concierge and maid services.

Jolson originally wanted to buy land and build in Cabo. “But after visiting some friends in Villas Del Mar, and seeing how spectacular the homes were, we decided to buy one there,” she says. “But they had sold out of what they had already built. So we put an X on a piece of land there.”

Choosing between four architectural models, Jolson was able to modify the floor plans. “We flipped the master bedroom and the kitchen around and made the washroom tiny. We sat down with their designers and designed what we wanted. If we had bought the lot independently and got our own builder, we’d have had to be flying down there all the time to supervise.”

The property management is first rate, she adds: “They check our house and e-mail us saying, ‘This is broken,’ and we say, ‘OK, fix it.’ We walk out of the front door and won’t think about it until next time. When we arrive, our beds are made, the lights are on, the outdoor furniture is out. They will shop for you for the fridge, pick you up. They will do anything you want. It’s a hassle-free way to go.”

Image 1, 2 and 3:  Holly and Bill Green enjoy living part time in Montana. Middle: Tim and Katrina Harmon spend time in Sun Valley, Idaho.  Right:  Sun Valley in the winter.  
Image 4, 5, 6 and 7:   Paris is the second home choice location for Susan and Sidney Goodwill; they renovated their apartment and moved in December 2007.  middle left:   View of golf course in  Rancho Mirage from Michele and Glenn Larsen’s second home.  Right:  Villas Del Mar was the choice for Kathy Jolson; she worked with the development’s designers and created her dream home.

 

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