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A lot of people dream of home ownership. The fact that it takes a lifetime to pay for a lot of the giant houses on the market today means that it seems like a dream that can never be realized.
In some ways, the whole idea was what drove Matt, and I get started doing things ourselves. My father built a small house we lived in awhile when I was younger, and Matt’s Dad built a house that got them their start. Of course, the time and place can make a difference, and both of them did not have to deal with all the codes and hassle.
This article is not about building a tiny house on wheels. Not at all. After seeing these homes and the cost, I think they are not a good investment unless you completely build them yourself and realize they are a temporary or vacation home. They are not built in a manner that is conducive to the lifestyle people usually want.
We build a cabin with a floor plan that is 480 sq ft on the bottom with a 160 sq ft loft that is a bedroom and office space with some additional storage beyond the 160 sq ft.
Finding House Plans
When in comes to house plans you have to be very careful. There are plans out there in a wide price range. We paid a grand total of $58 for two copies of our house plans after realizing we just needed something basic to satisfy the building inspector. There were plenty of plans that cost $500-$1,000 back in 2009. The company was called Sheldon Designs. Sadly I cannot find their website any longer so I think they are out of business.
At the time I was working for a financial planner by telecommuting. I was answering phone calls in North Carolina and conducting secretary duties for a place based in Ketchikan, Alaska. It was not a high paying job but at the time the rates were better than a lot of jobs in my area. Budgeting for a house is something we really did not do beyond saying okay let’s just do this as we can.
So $200-$500 at a time, we started.
The frustrating thing when you are first starting out building a house is the $650 or more you have to shell out before you even get to stick a shovel in the ground. Yep there are a lot of fees. First is the septic tank. You cannot build a house where it is impossible to put in a septic system. $300 was a lot for us at the time but that was the cost. I was terrified that something stupid would happen and it would not perk.
Then there is a the $50 fee to get permission to dig on your own property and the $300 building permit fee. Keep in mind that the cost has went up and it is more for homes over 1,000 sq feet. Sorry to get on a fee rant but it is important to realize the cash you need to come up with before breaking ground because you can get in a bit of trouble and get on the bad side of your inspector. Do your homework and make sure you are going by the rules. It would be unfortunate to get a fine for not following the rules or have to tear down what you are building.
Be ready for stress…a lot of it and conquering fears.
I had no idea what I was doing when I started out with Matt building this house. He was the director so to speak. He had at least built some decks and helped his Dad with various projects. I was scared to go up a 10 foot ladder. You just have to take it a day at a time and make sure to read books and utilize resources like the internet and Youtube. We bought some books because at the time there was no possibility of internet anywhere near our building site.
We started our house at the age of 25. If you are older or have physical limitations you may still be able to build a house but it may take longer, or you may want to hire more work out.
I just want to clarify where I was at in life when starting this house project. A broke 25 year old that had come back home after living in Alaska for 2 years. My advantage was determination, my future husband, and an overgrown 11 acres of property that my Dad was unable to do anything with. I also knew that my Dad would need some help over the years as well. At the time his health was ok and he was getting out and about.
When it comes to building a house, it always takes longer than you want or expect.
If you had told me how long it would take to get our house done at 25, I would have been shocked or possibly not believed it. There were delays related to money, other work, taking care of elderly relatives, weather, learning how to do specific tasks, etc. You just have to keep plugging along and get through it. Remember that home ownership without a mortgage is worth a lot in the long-term scheme of things.
Digging The Foundation
We dug our foundation out the hard and least expensive way we could. We decided to do a post and pad foundation. The ground was very hard and there was so many roots. We rented a 2 person auger and used that to loosen the soil. Unfortunately when squaring up the foundation and laying out where the footers would go, we miscalculated a bit so some of the footers had to be dug out much larger and filled with concrete.
These things happen, and I remember we were both ypset about it. We had to mix twice as much concrete for the back and front footers because you do not want a bunch of fill if possible. In fact, if you are going by the code book, you can fail the footer inspection that you need before you are allowed to pour your concrete.
Footers had to be reinforced with rebar, and then rebar had to be stuck in the footer so we could place the round concrete forms or tubes on the footer and tie them into it for strength.
The concrete forms had to be cut and leveled off. We started with a few and poured concrete as we could. This involved a concrete mixer, some buckets, and sometimes climbing a ladder and pouring it in when doing the large ones in the front that are 6 ft tall or more.
Unfortunately, when we had someone drop gravel, they refused to put it where we wanted it so guess who got to haul 13 tons of gravel in a tarp-lined wagon. Little did I know that eight years later this same person would allow their bull to stand around and eat my young grapevines while I was on my first true vacation in 10 years. It was t; he only times in my life besides a few week long camping trips in college that lasted a week. I have not taken a real vacation since!
The gravel had to be lifted 3-4 times. Once the gravel had to be put in the wagon then it had to be shoveled into the cement mixer then the cement had to go in a bucket and get carried and dumped into the tube. For the actual footers, it was a bit easier because we could set the mixer up close to the footer. Oh, wait I forgot that the gravel had to be hauled up a bank? It wasn’t a quick transfer at all.
We were so determined and young. We were sore as a boil every night and had no energy to do all the things other people our age were doing. We didn’t go to parties, bars, restaurants or anything. We sat at our tent or camper with our dogs and had a beer and meal in the shade read books and eventually I started writing some articles about what we were doing. They were simple times in a way. We also spent some time fencing and raising animals to help clear the land and provide meat for the table. At the time we thought we might be able to raise some inspected meat and sell it too.
The waiting is sometimes very hard. Concrete footings needed a week to cure and then every column needed about the same amount of time. As you may have gathered, we could not pour all the columns in a day, so the foundation took awhile.
Since there was no way to get a delivery truck up our road, we had to buy portland mix in town. Those bags weigh 94 lbs. Then there was the sand that was required to mix concrete from scratch. Sand had to be hauled and then manually unloaded onto a tarp on the ground and then it was shoveled in the mixer as needed.
I have to be honest. Everything is a huge challenge when you have very little money, no plumbing beyond a spicket, and very limited electricity.
We stuck to ourselves because, to be honest; we were worried that someone would come in and say we couldn’t live the way we were. I thought others would think less of us for what we were doing.
We were continuing on the house despite the fact that I had lost my job working for a financial planner on my computer. It was a good job with decent pay for the area. I started picking up some writing awhile after and in the meantime there was odd jobs and taking care of the elderly folks in the family as much as possible. My dad was still getting around okay back then but my grandmother was showing signs of her age which happened to be far older than we realized. Some people, especially those born to mixed women, didn’t get birth certificates or social security numbers. She lied about her age to make herself seem younger years ago when they gave her a birth certificate.
What we did when we were out of building money or waiting for inspections
We kept busy with improvements around our property that took work but not a lot of money like clearing trails and fencing. We did a few hundred Shiitake mushroom logs. When you are clearing and cutting firewood some of the logs we saved for mushroom logs. These logs still give us a few mushrooms strangely enough. A lot of them were Chestnut Oak logs that were very dense. These trees were 12 inches thick but 80 years old. This made for some excellent mushroom logs.
The steps after the columns were building the floor and joists.
Our house required 20 ft boards unless we wanted to patch a lot together. We had to special order these and have them delivered to my Dad’s house. Now the challenge was moving them up the mountain about 1/2 a mile so what did we do. Why we carried them 1 at a time or that was the plan. After we got one up the mountain someone felt sorry for us and strapped them to the top of a truck and drove very slowly. At the time we has just a Honda Civic. No truck, no 4 wheeler, just a little car.
It was slow going and a lot of hammering constructing those beams. Oh and then there was the weight of lifting these beams. We had to construct them in place so we would life a single board and put it together with patch plates.
The actual joists were put in place with joist hangers and nails. That was a lot of hammering and also cutting the boards to go in-between all those joists.
I remember being so excited with Matt that when we got the sub floor and put it down. We had a platform! A platform that would one day have walls. At this point we started feeling like this was going to come together and one day we would have a real little house of our own on the land my grandfather worked so hard to acquire so many years ago. I wish I had got to meet him at least once.
The walls came together faster than I thought they would with the exception of framing in the doorways. That is a lot harder than it seems. Matt figured it out like he always does. At least he had some building experience unlike me who was scared to go on a ladder 8 feet off the ground.
Building a house is a lot about overcoming fears. It feels good to do that sometimes and as you have small successes you realize that reaching your goals may take a bit longer than you would like but if you keep at it you will reach where you want to be. Of course you can bite off more than you can do. I know that Matt and I definitely took on way too much at times. It was easy to get enough projects going that sometimes the house stuff would get delayed. Sometimes it would also take us a lot more time to figure out the right way to do something. Sometimes we honestly got frustrated and had to step away from the house. I don’t advise stepping away from something too long but sometimes taking a few days to gather yourself and work on something else can be a big help.
On building a house with another person
This is going to take me awhile to cover, but if I save even one of you out there or your kids from a single one of the mistakes that can be made, then my long dialogue is worth it.
So here we go……
Sometimes people wonder how on earth Matt and I could take on that much together and not drive each other crazy. I think I need to be clear that Matt and I had been together for nearly 5 years when we started building our house. We had each other pretty figured out and had lived in a household together for most of that 5 years. I recommend that you be very comfortable with the person that you decide to build a home with. This is not an endeavor for those that are still in the very beginning stages of their relationship.
If you are a couple that constantly is in competition with one another or that cannot deal with working on a huge project that takes all your time and money then don’t build your own house. Sorry, but I have worked for a financial planner that dealt with a lot of divorces and splitting the finances. A house is a huge monetary investment, and if you decide on down the line that the person is not the one, then someone or both of you is going to have to leave that home you built.
You need to be able to leave behind the drama and setbacks that can occur during a day of construction. You also need to be ready to reduce your social life to almost nothing. Don’t assume that people will visit you if you are far outside of town. I am 4 miles outside of town on a four wheel drive the only road, and I can tell you that people will not show up most of the time and they probably will not help you on any of your major projects.
If you plan on having a home without a mortgage or at least a very small one, you will not have money to go party with your friends and eat out. It seems like that is what was going on a lot with people our age when we were building the house.
I recommend living in the same space with someone for a year before you build a house with them. It is far different living and working with someone than just dating. I am sorry if this offends someone reading that doesn’t believe in cohabitation before marriage but my philosophy is that deciding to spend your life with someone and build a house is a major life decision. You try a car out before you buy it right? Well I think that it is good to know you can put up with each other before committing to having every aspect of your life bound together.
Divorce gets a lot more complicated when there are major assets like homes and land involved. Even if you are not married, if the other person can prove they invested money, they could have a case.
I have seen too many people rush into major choices and then both they and possibly others are affected for their entire life. It can change the course of many lives when major choices are taken with a grain of salt.
Things you can do now to prepare yourself for home building even if it is a few years in the future
Improve your physical fitness
Building a house is hard work even if you don’t take it to the extremes that Matt and I did at times. Let me let you in on a little secret. We were both in not the greatest shape after working office jobs in a town that had terrible weather. I remember panting making it up the first hill to get to our property. I was glad I had started exercising more when I was still in Alaska or it would have been worse.
Learn some building skills
Find reasonable house plans
Get a copy of the building codes if you know where you are going to build in the future
Some areas allow you to do more work for yourself than others. If you are not allowed to do your own electric work for example, then you need to know that so you can budget for having your home wired.
Save up some money to start out with
You don’t have to save up tens of thousands although it is nice if you can! I think Matt and I had maybe $1,500 saved up after the permits were paid and we could break ground. We just did it a few hundred at a time after that or saved up for various stages.
Other things to remember.
People will say you can’t do it and even think you are crazy.
It is worth it to build your own house and ignore the haters. As they say,
Haters are going to hate.
Until next time,
Note: This post is part of a series as it is impossible to tell the tale of building a home and the struggle in a single post!
Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected].