Getting Solar Panels in Charlottesville

As I write this, our 6.9kW Solar Panel system is almost ready to go, pending Dominion installing a new meter. I’ve written before about the economics of solar power and how they make financial sense even in a state like Virginia with no incentives. I’ll talk about the power production from the panels a little later. First, I’ll go about the shopping process. All prices below are before federal rebate.

Solar Panels

To start with I emailed or called almost every solar installer I could find that worked in Charlottesville – Altenergy, Sigora Solar, Genesis Home and Energy, Solar Connexion, Baker Renewable Energy, Entero Energy and some more that I can’t recall.

I got initial quotes from everyone and they ranged from ballpark estimates of $3.50/W – $5/W installed for a 5kW system. Eventually, after some negotiation and attempting to maximize the system in our budget, I got prices ranging from $2.50/W – $3.10/W from my top three choices based on the responses I received.

The first was Solar Connexion, based out of Blacksburg. Their quote was the highest of the three but they have been in business the longest and offered the longest workmanship warranty on their work. They offered me a choice of various panels from LG Monocrystalline Panels to Chinese Polycrystalline panels. However, they did not do micro-inverters. For slightly over our 3$/W approximate budget, they could give us 20x260W LG Mono panels or 22x240W Trina panels. They wouldn’t do >300W panels because they didn’t want to deal with the larger physical size.

The second was Sigora Solar. They exclusively offered SolarWorld Mono Panels and offered the second longest workmanship warranty. They initially offered 220W Panels and if those suit your need, I’m sure they can get you a fantastic deal on those. But after some negotiation and research, they offered me some very nice 270W Mono panels for a very good price, slightly under the price/W that Solar Connexion offered. They also do not do micro-inverters.

However, we finally ended up going with Genesis Home and Energy because Randy from Genesis was flexible with designing a system in any way we wanted. He offered us the widest possible choice of panels to use with either string or micro-inverters and gave us pricing for both options with various different panels. He was willing to use any top-tier manufacturer panel that was currently available on sale. He managed to find us a great deal on 315W JA Solar panels and came in significantly under the price of the other two. In fact, our price with micro-inverters would have been comparable per Watt with the other two. But thanks to the great deal on the panels, we decided against micro-inverters, instead going for more wattage. Randy also used a PowerOne dual MPPT inverter, instead of a Sunnyboy, which seems to be the most popular choice, because it treats the panels like two independent strings. Even with the SolarWorld 270W mono panels, which friends of ours are also getting from Genesis, their price was well under the other two.

Now that the shopping is done, on to power production from the panels. On average we use about 1200kWh/month (taken from the last one year of data, this is higher than usual thanks to the current insane winter – one year monthly average before this winter was 1030kWh). According to PVWatts, the system will generate about 725kWh/month or 60% – 70 % of our energy usage.

Since we are in the Dominion Solar Purchase Program, our payoff for the panels (using price after Federal rebate) is about 10 years. The chart below assumes that the Solar Purchase program will no longer exist after five years. It assumes 0.7% annual panel output degradation and 3% increase in the price of electricity every year.

If you are considering the Dominion Solar Purchase program, you need to act quickly. They only have about 50kW of additional space in the program as of this writing. If you are unable to get into the Solar Purchase program, the payoff increases to 12 years. Still assuming 0.7% panel degradation and 3% electricity rate increase.

Construction Financing in Charlottesville/Albemarle

So you want to build your own house? Not a single large bank and no online banks that I contacted (and I contacted lots)  offer construction financing. I called almost every bank that I tried to refinance my existing mortgage with and none of them offered construction loans. I called up Wells Fargo, Bank of America and larger local banks and none of those offered construction financing either. The only larger banks that did offer construction financing, like SunTrust, wanted a 25% down payment.

Then I started calling all the smaller local banks and mortgage companies and found that almost everybody wanted at least 20% down except these three:

1. Fulton Bank (80/10/10 conventional without PMI, One time Close 5/1 ARM convertible to 30 yr fixed, Interest only during construction)

2. Union Mortgage (10% down conventional mortgage with PMI, Prime + 0.25, minimum 6% during construction, refinance to 30yr fixed when complete)

3. Stellar One (3.5% down FHA with PMI or 80/10/10 conventional without PMI, Construction-Perm, Prime -? 0.25 currently 3.75% interest only during construction, refinance to 30 yr fixed when complete)

The UVA Credit Union was another one that does offer construction financing on a case by case basis but their criteria are very strict and I have no idea what their loan terms are.

We started out with Stellar One but after the loan officer we were working with left the company, everything was downhill. Our loan was transferred to the Harrisonburg office and after that nobody had any idea what was going on. No one was able to answer any questions or give me any timelines, even approximate, because of the multiple approval processes that needed to take place and some were outsourced. Nobody would even bother to contact any underwriters to speed things up until we literally called the director of Mortgages. From the end of October as an approximate closing period we went all the way to the end of December and at every point we were frustrated. Incorrect paperwork, general lack of caring about accuracy or customer satisfaction and persistent denial of responsibility for mistakes eventually made us really fed up and switch to somebody else.

We tried Union Mortgage next and I felt a world of difference, paperwork was more professionally done. There was a proper checklist of all required documentation and they knew exactly what happens and the process was fairly simple. However they wouldn’t approve our builder who is a relatively new small builder in Harrisonburg.

At this point after almost giving up on building a house, we were recommended Fulton Bank and not only was their loan the best offering of the three they were excellent to work with. The process was smooth and they worked with us and the builder to get everything approved quickly. I would highly recommend them. Contact Cleve Brannock – (434) 975-2319

Finding Land in Charlottesville – Part 1

Let me start by saying that the title is misleading. By Charlottesville I mean Charlottesville and the parts of Albemarle that are just outside Charlottesville (parts of Rio Rd, Pantops, Barracks Rd, Hydraulic etc.). If you’ve looked at the MLS to try and find land you’ll find that there is almost none available. The land that is available is probably not big enough or not desirable enough or too far out of Charlottesville to be really called Charlottesville.

But there are many pieces of land in the city and county that might be available if you are willing to look hard enough (or contact me and we can work something out).  With this and some following blog posts, I’ll go through the steps you need to find the land you want. This works and that is how we found the land for our house.

In Part 1, I’ll cover finding land in the county that is close to Charlottesville. Part 2 will be about land in the city.

Step 1: Find neighborhoods

A good way to find neighborhoods is by going to the Nest Realty Group website. They have a very nice interface to the MLS by neighborhoos and they talk about the pros about each neighborhood. Once you have decided on the neighborhood, begins the search for land. I would like to warn you in advance that there are neighborhoods with no land at all so pick more than one and dont get too attached to any one neighborhood.

Step 2: The GIS

Once you have picked your Albemarle county neighborhood, it is time to go the the Albemarle County GIS to find empty land. Just follow these easy steps.

1. Search for the Neighborhood:

Neighborhood gis

2. House # Sort – Most empty land doesnt have assigned addresses. So you need to sort the search result by House #. That’s it! Here is your list of all empty land.


3. Value Sort – Sometimes empty land can have an address assigned to it. These can be found by sorting by total value. You will have to actually click on the item to see the value of the land and the improvements. This is rare for the county but I’ve seen it a couple of times.

Step 3: Contacting Owners

A good place to find owner phone numbers is Whitepages. Often times empty land will have owners who are not local or PO Boxes. You have to get creative, google the name of the owner, do reverse address lookups but eventually you will generally be able to find a way to contact them.

Tips and Tricks

Google Maps shows plat boundaries for Albemarle county. A combination of looking at the plats and the satellite map is an easy way to eyeball for empty space and to verify if the land you are looking at is desirable or not.

Have Me Find Land For You

If you don’t want to go through this effort, I can help you find land. Contact me for more details. You land budget must be at least about $100,000

Photoshopped Real Estate Photos

Here goes my rant. As we have been passively looking for a new house we have found multiple occasions where real estate photos have been severly photoshopped. The photos were overly bright, very saturated and the photoshopping is plainly visible. We have even visited a couple of houses about a year ago just to see how reality compares. And I can tell you it was absolutely shocking. The houses were in bad shape with dark rooms.

I’m making this  post for the real estate agents who think that buyers are suckers and can’t tell super enhanced photos. I think their real estate licences should be revoked. I guess they will learn the hard way when nobody shows up to see the houses. Generally I’ve found that photoshopping was only done in case of older houses that are probably in bad shape and once buyers see a few of those they will probably avoid all photoshopped houses. Photoshopping agents should probably take a photography class instead of just using some software to turn up brightness, contrast and saturation to make fake looking photos.

Yesterday I found this example of extreme photoshopping. I thought the photo was an awesome rendering for a proposed house. But the house looked very dated. It turned out that the photo is of an existing house built in the 50s
photoshopping real estate

If you would like to look at the rest of the super enhanced photos click here.

Albemarle Baking Company Cake Review

Ahan CakeWe tried a cake from the Albemarle Baking Company for the first time on Ahan’s first birthday.Sidd Cake The cake was really good. It not only looked great, it tasted even better. Almost everyone who came to the party was asking where we got the cake from. The cake we picked was The Albemarle – “Chocolate cake on the bottom, then THREE mousse layers—dark chocolate, white chocolate and milk chocolate.  Covered with a milk chocolate glaze.

We liked the cake so much that for my birthday we tried our second cake from Albemarle Baking Co – The Chocolate Praline Crunch Cake, which was also excellent, especially if you like dark chocolate.

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