Monday, May 12, 2014

House Update

We're coming up on a year of being in our house. Because Matt and I had to save like crazy just to be able to build this house (not because it was expensive but more because I was only working part-time), we weren't able to afford things like landscaping for the front or back when we first moved in. 

We finally saved enough to have the front yard done, and we made the decision to go ahead and take out a loan in order to have the backyard done. Normally, we are save-first-and-then-spend kind of people, but we thought about it quite a bit and realized that we were okay with taking out a loan to build a pool and landscape the rest of our yard so we can enjoy it sooner and longer. 

Of course there's a huge part of me that feels guilty about even wanting a pool. Pools are ecologically irresponsible, financially irresponsible, and just one more indicator of economic disparity in our country. 

What I really wanted to do was build an intentional neighborhood with at least three other families. Then we would have shared a pool, a garden, lawn tools, occasional meals, etc. When that goal fell through, I realized that I didn't want to give up on having a pool. As a kid, I spent every summer in Florida with my grandparents and my aunt. Pools are common in Florida, and I loved everything about my summers there. Even when it was sweltering and the heat was oppressive, I was perfectly content to play outside in the pool. 

I want that same kind of active, fun lifestyle for my family, too. I want my boys to enjoy long summer days in and out of the pool. I wish that we were reducing the ecological and financial impact by sharing it with other families in a pocket neighborhood, but this is where we are right now. While we have a beautiful neighborhood pool just 0.8 miles away from us, it's only open for a very short season (because the lifeguards are mainly in high school). I've also heard from neighbors that it gets overrun with teenagers and isn't actually a fun place to take your family. We do swim at the YMCA sometimes, but they also close their family pool for most of the year and limit swimming to the lap pool (and they don't let you bring in any floats or toys). 

We will work hard to pay it off as quickly as we can. The only debt we want to carry is our mortgage. 

I'm so excited about getting even more settled in our home and our community. I'm brainstorming ways to create more of that "pocket neighborhood" feeling. One thing I want to start doing is sending out spontaneous invitations via text (like, "We're hanging out in the garden if anyone wants to come over!" or "We're jumping into the pool if anyone wants to come over for a swim!"). With families, the spontaneous is much more appealing than the planned. I really want to create the "Hawaiian life" I read about a couple years ago. I want people just to stop by and to stay awhile. 

It's starting to happen a little with our neighbors, which is really fun. One family stopped by to see if we wanted to go for a walk, and another family stopped by just to hang out in the garden. I'm excited to create the kind of backyard that welcomes and relaxes people.  

Overview of the landscaping plan:
  • Bocce ball court on the left (a really great way to take up a lot of space with crushed granite which reduces watering)
  • An orchard with 7 pear trees, 3 peach trees, and 4 plum trees
  • A firepit area
  • A mulched kids' play area 
  • Two small areas for playing on grass
  • The part you can't see on the plan is the hill that goes down to the creek. The landscaper is going to use the dirt from the pool excavation to make the hill less steep. I'm really excited about that part. 
When I was growing up, we moved every couple of years. Up until high school, the longest I stayed in one place was for 5th and 6th grade. It feels really good to settle into a place, knowing that we're going to be here for a long, long time. 

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k said...

We have a google group where people send messages about playgrounds, walks, etc.

That way people can sort of control their own settings, unsubscribe from email notifications if they are away.

Amanda said...

But aren't public parks, pools, playgrounds, community gardens, rec centers, neighborhood schools etc., the real way to be part of a community? Otherwise you are closing yourself off from the diversity and variety that make a community interesting. You clearly know this from the way you feel the need to justify the pool, but why not put time and money into improving the neighborhood resources so they are better for all, not just for those who can afford to build their own. Think about your politics and values, and then live them!

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, Amanda! Thanks for sharing your criticism here. I really do appreciate it.

I did think about trying to work with the community to extend the pool schedule. I talked with another (more resourced) neighborhood that tried to do it and they were ultimately unsuccessful with the Parks & Rec. Department. It was very discouraging to hear that even their neighborhood (with more money and more voters) was not able to make it happen.

There's also the issue of the neighborhood pool being overcrowded with teenagers. I talked with multiple families to see if I could get them excited about going to the pool this summer (and tried suggesting that we find less-crowded hours), but they've all had negative experiences with it and were not optimistic about what it would be like this summer. And it's not like I want to run off the teenagers; I'm glad they have an awesome place to spend the summer.

I hear what you're saying about closing ourselves off from the diversity and variety of our neighborhood. We definitely don't want to do that. That's precisely what we appreciate about living where we live. We'll continue to go to the park frequently. Right now it's pretty empty all the time, but we'll continue to go and let others know when we're going to be there, in order to encourage more connection and community within the public spaces of our neighborhood. We'll continue to garden in our front yard as a a way to connect with people passing by.

Your criticism also inspired me to order "Superbia: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods" from the library to see if it has ideas that will work for our neighborhood. I haven't revisited that book in a while.

I really do understand your criticism and had to process all of it myself (hence the long post justifying our decision). The choice about where and how to live has huge implications for the world, and it's something I think about a lot. In Austin, tons of white, middle- and upper-class families move into particular neighborhoods that have more community amenities and better public schools. Although I want amenities and good public schools for my children too, I don't want to sequester them within a homogenous environment (and the work I do is focused on creating more diverse environments in an otherwise pretty segregated school system).

My family and I are just trying to figure this all out for ourselves in a way that feels okay to us. I appreciate your honest criticism and welcome it any time.

R Anon said...

Hi Sara,

I have been a long-time reader and fan of your thought process and your family's values generally. I think this post is interesting and I totally get how a pool will make your home more of a place your kids will enjoy playing and having friends over (though I also see the community and cost constraints which for me would weigh more heavily against a pool). I am a mom to a toddler and am really paranoid about pools from a safety perspective. What is your plan to keep the kids out? Just curious.

We are also considering moving to Austin at the end of the summer and would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the school systems generally. It seems tricky to move and count on getting a spot in a charter school like yours when it may not happen. As a newcomer, parsing the various school options seems a bit overwhelming and picking a school district with a "10" rating feels like the responsible thing to do.


Megan Miller said...


First, I don't usually read the comments, but I am glad I did, otherwise I would never have known about "Superbia....!" I am excited to check it out.

Second, I very much understand your reasons for wanting a pool. While yes, a community pool would be better in terms of economic and environmental impact, and yes, it would go very far in creating better neighborhood ties, the memories it invokes go a long way towards peace of mind. And personally, though I do enjoy building neighborhood ties, sometimes I just want my family to myself! Selfish? Yes! But I need that recharging time! Good luck with this endeavor!


Heather said...

Love your plans! What a wonderful life you are building/living. I wish you were my neighbor :-)

Erika Andersen said...

Hi Sara,
I've been following you since 2000Dollar Wedding (one of my old Roommates in Houston worked at KIPP), and love following all the ways you've grown. I've been considering landscaping - edible & xeriscpaing (now in Denver your old stomping ground!) and would love reading actual costs for your projects ie - design, installation etc,

Anne said...

Even if you get your backyard pool, I'd encourage you to go to the community pool, too! The City of Austin does such a great job, and my kids always seem to make new friends. That is recharging to us.
Teenagers aren't too much of a problem if you go at 10am! I've found that little ones keep different hours :).
Related: please tell me you've been to Barton Springs! And did you know they even have a learning exhibit right there at the entrance?

One more thing, to the previous commenter about moving to Austin: there are some great schools here. The ratings don't always tell the whole story, as many schools do so much with children who have so little. Where you end up begins on where you start, and I think great schools include ones with student improvement, not just ones where the kids can pass standardized tests coming out of expensive preschools!

Sara and all, be mindful of your assumptions.

Shawn said...

Hi, Sara! I know this is an old post, but I revisited it because I'm thinking of doing some landscaping soon and your front and backyards turned out so, so beautiful! I was wondering if you could let me know what the cost for your projects came to, so I can get an idea of how far my money might go. Any other quick tips on how you found the right landscape architect to work with would also be great. Not sure where to start!

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hey, Shawn! Landscaping is SO expensive. It's awful. They say you should budget 5-10% of your home's value for landscaping!

I recommend getting recommendations from your neighbors/friends/colleagues/Yelp and asking your top three favorite prospects to come give you a quote and ideas for the design.

Good luck! We are so glad we invested in landscaping. Our home is our sanctuary!

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