5511 Park Lane new exteriorThis story about one of the biggest scams in sport history may have been my first reckoning that when I write about homes, I write, really, about dreams and aspirations…  homes today have become statements of personal success, trophies, our financial statements on display. Eight thousand square feet is not enough — I want 15,000 and a room of animal heads. Or I want a waterpark for my kids.

Reading over the Spano story I wrote for D in 1998, I am laughing like a woman looking at herself dressed in 1980’s-era padded shoulders and big earrings. What the hell was I thinking? 

“Late November 1997. Our Preston Hollow home had been on the market for almost a year and was probably overpriced. We had shown it to so many people I was dizzy. The neighborhood was overwhelmed with tear-down fever, but our home-a stately, traditional two-story listed for S 1.05 million-was moving like Geritol in molasses. By November, my husband and I had dropped the price to $990,000, eager to move on.”

ONLY $990,000 for an effing 1.20 acres corner of Park and Hollow Way in the honey pot?

Park Lane tear down

It’s funny how we look at real estate during different time periods. In 1997, I thought a million dollars for a home was jackpot. Unattainable, almost.  But as I wrote just this week, lately a million looks almost paltry compared to the double-digit homes out there that are bigger and more complicated than any of us could ever imagine! In fact, no one can imagine all the media rooms morning rooms panic rooms security safes barre ballet studio Zen garden enhanced putting greens bedroom basketball courts multiple fireplaced triple master bedroom separate master baths with sauna bidet and Toto rainfall showers gourmet kitchens (so 2006) butlers’ kitchen butlers’ kitchens’ kitchen pastry kitchen pantry wine cellar underground garage parking for 18 and — how can I forget — waterpark in the back-yard that are going into these trophy homes today. Remember Kelly Ford’s home in Highland Park with the Turkish Bath?

My point is this: what I thought was hot stuff in 1997 is like, well, not so hot today to put it mildly, including my 1990’s wardrobe.

I write this because Hot Shot is showing at this weekend’s USA Film Festival, Sunday night at 7:30 at The Angelika.  It’s an ESPN 30 for 30 production focusing on one of the biggest scams in sports history, the scandal surrounding former New York Islanders owner John Spano. It debuted in New York mid-April. The documentary will air in October on ESPN. It explains and examines how the New York-born, Ohio-raised John Spano agreed to purchase the New York Islanders in October of 1996 from then-owner John Pickett for $165 million. Here’s the problem: Spano turned out to be a fraud, his net worth barely more than $2 million when he claimed $200 million. But for four months, from when the NHL approved him as owner in February until July when New York’s Newsday published a story and blew his financial bs wide open, John Spano actually owned the Islanders, all without paying very much at all. Spano also had some fun in Dallas.

Reading this now, I almost feel like I am back into Michael Lewis’ The Big Short. News for you: people were faking it ’till they made it all over the place in the mid-2000’s. Likely they just didn’t lie on their financial statements, which is what John did allegedly, along with sending out phoney letters of recommendation and bank statements.

“Big Shot” thus “is a twisted look at the sometimes corrosive power of the American dream.” Big houses are always, always included in that dream, preferably five of them. Kevin Connolly, an actor who plays (played?) Eric Murphy (a.k.a. “E”) on “Entourage,” is the documentary filmmaker who made this film and traced Spano’s rise and fall. He interviewed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, former Islanders business managers and even Spano himself to tell the true story of a man who managed to con so many into believing he was incredibly wealthy. I’m told Spano sat in the audience for one of the premieres.

What did John Spano do in Dallas? Oh, just try to buy the Dallas Stars in 1995, this before he tried to buy the Islanders.  Maybe he was warming up.  As I wrote back then, and forgive me because I have slept a little since 1997,

“…in a complex financial maze spanning more than two years, this guy had managed to con some pretty savvy people in his quest to buy Dallas’ hockey team — Stars president Jim Lites, investment banker Robert Innamorati, then Staubach Company president Jim Leslie. (The Staubach Company was acquired by Jones Lang LaSalle) (He also took down a banker who believed him at Comerica Bank.) In nearly every case, Spano displayed wealth, promised to wire money, and produced phony bank letters assuring funds that never materialized.”

The Dallas Observer had a long story on John Spano, great piece. It details his background, though his family did not return phone calls. It explains the detailed nuances of what he was trying to do with these teams, how he did it, and reminded me that we all used to use fax machines before we could scan and email. I saw John Spano’s fax machine in his home on University, and I remember thinking like the typical dramatic writer/woman I am, this is the machine — this right here is where it all happened.

And I almost got stuck in the home elevator, too.

But if you read the Observer piece, tell me if you feel a little like I did, that perhaps what Spano was doing foreshadowed the games played on Wall Street just a few years later. The games that brought down our economy for a good five years, maybe more. Sure, Spano may have been more blatant, and you certainly don’t lie about your ability to pay for something when you seek financing. That’s fraud. But also, isn’t it every big shot’s dream to take $2 million and turn it into $200 million or more, buy a home in the Park Cities, a couple ski homes and at least a private jet membership, then give it all to charity like George Soros?

That’s what the movie is all about.

And houses are a major part of any Big Shot’s ambitions. This story may have been my first reckoning that when I write about homes, I write, really, about dreams and aspirations. Homes are the way we nurture and protect ourselves, our families, but let’s face it: that can be done in 2500 square feet. No sir, homes have become statements of personal success, trophies, our financial statements on display. Eight thousand square feet is not enough — I want 15,000 and a room of animal heads. Or I want a waterpark for my kids.

Homes, it turns out, are really about the people inside them. That is why I am so obsessed with House Porn.

Our home on Park Lane is shown above. It was torn down in 2010, a 9882 square foot stone construction trophy home with basement re-constructed in it’s place with bird-houses built into the stone fence like turrets, a six-car motor court, the pool and tennis court we enjoyed ripped out and replaced with stunning new landscaping. They took down trees, but many of them had to go. Every time I drive by, the lot speaks to me and kind of winks, almost saying, you won’t believe what they are putting in this place!

 

When we first met Candy in 2009, our address was on undeniably emasculating Princess Lane. (She loved it!) The place had just sold, and we were excited about the endless opportunities for the upcoming mid-century modern project under contract on Bobbitt Drive. (We also suffered her endless jokes about Lorena. Bobbit. As in cut off — Remember?) At this point in our lives, we loved reinventing aging, yet special Dallas homes. (Candy could relate!) We also had the desire to incorporate the demands of construction into our already-busy schedules. And then there was the tenacity needed to pull it all off. But, times change. Candy has her own blog. Months before deciding whether to remodel another diamond in the rough or build from the ground up, we decided to hand over the reins to a builder/contractor for the next project.

Careers had become more intense over the years along with increasing work travels. The energy and sense of excitement we had in our 20s and early 30s to take on Goliath-sized re-do projects was also beginning to wane. And then there was that other minor detail about us being clueless on how to actually build a house from the ground up.

But just because we were finally tapping a professional to help us out, it would never change how we are confirmed control freaks when it comes to house projects. (Candy says: join the club!) We have specific opinions on design and finish out for the homes we’ve remodeled over the past 10 years. For us, there’s a shared passion for discovering design, materials, and trends (which we try to avoid… or at least the really trendy, short-sighted ones), and then translating it all into the final product. In our past home projects, the thought of someone else behind the curtain created a little, or a lot of, anxiety. Contractor grade? No thanks.

Would this decision to hire a builder/contractor mean selling our design souls to the McMansion devil? Given the need to let go of the inner control freak, we were on a quest to find the “perfect,” or more accurate, right contractor/builder. Is this even possible? I mean, builders are human, aren’t they? And so we began the challenge of finding the special someone who could create our vision with the quality we expect. After searching and interviewing several builders, including those on this blog, we found the right builder for our project: Mark Hayes, of Hayes Signature Homes.

How did we decide Mark was “the one?” Simple: too many Bachelor episodes. We put the builder candidates under the microscope – everything from interviewing clients to tours of past projects to reviewing copies of their financial statements. On one hand, the quality of construction and ease of the overall process was critical. But on the other hand, their personality was very important too – were we going to like working with them for the next eight months?

Here are some suggestions, based on our experience, on choosing the right partner for your dream home… or in our case, OUR DREAM HOME:

Start dating

Identify three to four builders who could be the one to build or remodel your home. Ask friends, colleagues, realtors (did we mention we think  Alice Simonton is one of the best in town?!) and the owners of homes you like from REPUTABLE names. Stick with folks who have been around for awhile, or have roots in the community, like the builders on Candys Builders. If a builder is new to town, that may be a red flag, and you may have to check references (and the BBB) back where he or she said they were building.

Play 20 questions

You should be able to establish a level of comfort and trust where no question is off the table, and you feel like you’re getting honest answers to your honest questions. What is your builder’s background and does she/he have good diverse experience, perhaps having spent time doing production homes as well? How long does it take to build the average home and what types of warranties are included? Are they open to change or are they too set in their ways of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. There’s a reason they call it a custom home! What level of finish out is standard for them – does it feel like their level of trim package has a higher finish out or does the builder consider everything an “upgrade?” Will your builder be the actual builder and project manager or will they hand it off to someone else once you’ve signed the contract?

 Silence is not golden

Observe how responsive, detailed, and organized your prospective builder is during the initial process. Are they quick to return calls and emails? Do they thoroughly address your questions and concerns, or do they speak in vague and high-level terms? Like any relationship, if there are red flags in the “courting period,” communication and responsiveness probably won’t get any better once you sign on the dotted line.

Dig into the past

Meet with the owners of completed projects. Include the owners of both recently completed homes and homes completed a few years back. Ask other owners how responsive the builder was… particularly after the dust has settled and they have moved on to other projects. Candy, for example, tells us she still calls her builder 12 years later!

Quality control

Ask to tour a few completed homes to get a sense of quality, but be careful to not focus too much on style or finish-out choices, as this reflects more on the homeowner, not the builder. Instead, pay attention to details and craftsmanship. Does the trim match up and look sharp? Are there cracks inside or outside the house? Are the doors square? Can you see lines or waves in the drywall?

Take it to the bank

The last few years have weeded out a lot of bad eggs in the building business, and also a lot of honest, great builders, but also don’t be afraid to ask for financial statements so you feel confident they’ll be around to complete your project and for many years to come. Request bank statements, letters from financial institutions or other documents indicating the builder is in good standing.

Gut reaction

Believe in what your mother always said – rely on what your gut feeling tells you. There will be a lot of decisions to be made and while most of the time you should try to veer away from any emotional considerations, this is one time it’s okay to rely on those feelings and internal voices guiding you to the right decision.

The Rose

Have any advice of your own or lessons learned from you building experience, let us know!

Next time on Building with the Boys: we’ll talk whether to build, remodel or buy a home as is, and how to figure it all out — Justin Kettler and Tim Loecker