Building my house on Guemes Island
Part 1: Finding and buying my lot

(Part 4: Foundation)

In January 2020, renting a room in Seattle and working at Safeway supermarket, I started preparing to return "home" to my apartment in Cebu, Philippines.

Villa San Rafael apartments

But in February, as news reports poured in about a deadly new virus rapidly spreading around the world, I began to realize that I might be stranded in the USA for awhile.
By May, after the Philippines had closed its borders to foreign tourists, I started thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
In June, I asked myself "What's on my bucket list?"
Number one on my bucket list has for a long time been to build my own house, something I never got around to and had always thought "Well, I'll do that some day when I'm ready."
So when is ready? How about NOW?
And where?
Seattle has gotten too expensive to buy an empty lot, and besides, metro Seattle traffic has gotten out of control. I don't wanna live in the big city permanently.
I'd lived up north in Skagit County in 2002-2003, working at the county hospital. The Skagit Valley is a lush green valley bordered by the Cascade Mountains to the east and Skagit Bay to the west.

Skagit County map

I rented a car and drove up to the Skagit to look at property. In three trips, I checked out about 20 places.
One afternoon after looking at about five properties for sale, I came to the last one on today's list, on Guemes Island. I remember thinking, "Nah, I'm not interested in living on an island."

Guemes Island map

AW, what the heck. I rode the short-hop Skagit County Ferry over to Guemes, drove to the waterfront lot for sale and thought "WOW!" I walked over to the bluff overlooking Guemes Channel and saw a river otter swimming by near the beach below. Was this an omen?
I made a low-ball bid on the property, the seller came back with a counter-offer which I agreed to, and thought I had it. But at the last minute, another buyer jumped in with a better offer (full price and zero contingencies) and bought the lot.
OK, now what?
I really liked Guemes! I spent the next month looking at other lots for sale on the island, but nothing pushed my buttons.

August 12, 2020: A local real estate agent told me about another waterfront lot that had just come back on the market. "If you're interested, you better move quickly," she suggested.

Zillow ad

I noted that the ad said "Lots of work already done making this lot near build ready!"

August 13, 2020: I rode the ferry to Guemes again and spent two hours inspecting the lot. It was so overgrown with thick brush that it was difficult to walk around.

thick brush

Still, I was smitten. What a view! That afternoon I made a full-price offer.
Next day the buyer accepted, giving me three weeks before closing to decide if I really wanted to buy it (my offer included no contingencies, so if I backed out, I'd likely lose my earnest money).

Before closing the deal (i.e. coughing up the cash), I wanted to find out if I'd be allowed to build a house. There was a possible permit issue with installing a septic system, a prerequisite for building a house. Would a septic system on this lot pass muster with the county health and planning departments? Without a septic system I couldn't get a building permit.

I made phone calls and discovered that in 2017 the seller had contracted with an Orcas Island company to do a septic feasibility study. I called them and found out the owner was on vacation and wouldn't return until just before my closing date. Nobody else in the office could help me.

Orcas Island Sewage

Sept 7, 2020: I finally spoke with the septic designer at Orcas Sewage. He remembered inspecting the lot in 2017, and was very skeptical about the potential for health department approval of any kind of septic system, due to the sparse soil (the lot is very rocky). He said "I just want you to go into this with your eyes open, because if you can't get a septic system approved, then you've got a very expensive campsite" (you won't be allowed to build a house).
He said he wouldn't be available to re-inspect the lot for at least a month. Our conversation left me discouraged about carrying through with the purchase.
I decided to search for a different septic designer willing and able to inspect the lot fairly soon, and perhaps offer a more positive outlook. I secured an extension of the closing date.

Sept 17, 2020: I found a local septic designer who expressed confidence that she could figure a way to design a system for this lot that would would get approved. She came out, measured the old septic test pits on my lot and pronounced "You definitely have enough soil for a septic system here." Yippee!

escrow document

September 22, 2020: After two delays in the closing date, I took a risk and closed the deal, hoping that I'd be allowed to build a house.

Part 2: Permits, permits, permits