Building Our House In The Mountains Part 1: Permits, Foundation, Floor, and Beginning Framing

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.

Back in the beginning. The wheelbarrow was an upgrade from the wagon in some ways. I can safely say we destroyed this wheelbarrow during house construction. Notice the jungle around our house site. It was just a mess. I was just glad to have a little power and a spicket at this point for water even if it was far from our camper. There was no way to move our camper up the terrible road so we stayed in the valley of our property and walked up.

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.

Look at that little yellow wagon! Notice the ladder required to reach the top of the column so we could pour concrete into it 6 ft off the ground.

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.

Our camper in the valley we stayed in while building the house. That is 25 year old Samantha with the cow we bought right after getting married.
Walking back to the camper. I think we had a pile of sorghum or corn shocks we were feeding our cow. The pile to the right could have been either. At this point we finally had a 1986 F250 truck to get up and down the mountain. This was taken during framing and getting the roof on the house.

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.

You can see the joists and braces underneath. It took a lot of joist hangers and nails to put those in. Each piece of blocking had to be cut with a miter or Skill Saw.

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.

Matt standing just inside our future backdoor. At this point, I dreaded every time it rained. The next step was some sheathing for support and then it was a race to get the loft joists up and the roof on. We both slept a little better when the roof was on.
Jeb. I miss him so much. He left us far too soon. Cancer at 7. It made me cry to put this picture in this post.

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.

Ignore them.

Until next time,

Samantha

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].

  1. Very well written and it expresses the hope for a safe haven! I am a 78 year widower and have dreams and schemes to accomplish my self supporting life style. Keep up with your good work and good luck to you both!

  2. Dear Samantha, this is an incredible story. I want to thank you sincerely for sharing your house building process. This article probably hits home for a high percentage of people on BDS. Compared to people in general. Even though not everyone here has built their own house, I bet many have thought about it. Really want to share sadness and a hug for the loss of your beautiful yellow Labrador. These wounds are not easy to get over. Most of all I wanted to say how happy I am that BDS has a strong personal voice that we can connect to. All of your articles are both relevant and well-written. But most importantly we are getting a sense of who the writer is.

  3. Great article ! Looking forward to reading the rest of the history of your adventure! Your story reminds me of the (older) widow a few miles up the road from us. After a fire years ago she is re-building her home (mostly) by herself.
    Slowly, but surely, she will be successful!
    Keep up the good work and great articles!

  4. It is none of my business, but in my humble opinion if you need to get a permit slip to dig on your own property, and must pay for it, you are building in the wrong place. You should build farther away from the government, if possible. But to each his own, and best of luck !

    1. There are very few places left where code enforcement is not a reality. Also, the vast majority of people could never live that far away from job opportunities. I live in a very rural county but permits are one of the first things you have to do for construction. It is not worth it to potentially be told that you have to redo something or even tear down a structure. It is ridiculous but it is the reality of life in the majority of the USA. It is basically strong-arm tactics.
      Thanks for reading!

  5. In my state these types of laws/regulations vary by county – they aren’t state laws. I moved to my present property in December, 2015. I moved from an adjoining county where I had lived most of my life. In both counties, assuming that you have property outside the corporate limits of any town or city and aren’t in some sort of subdivision or development that has “rules”, there are NO restrictions. No permits, no inspections, etc. with one exception.

    If you are putting in a septic system (tank and leach field), after you have the system in place, you are required to have the county Health Department inspect and certify it before you throw dirt back on it. That’s it. If you want to go with a composting toilet or pit toilet, then you are free to do so with no government intervention. (I can live with this amount of government interference in the interest of having indoor plumbin’, thank you very much) LOL

    If you want to hire a professional to dig a water well, THEY have legal restrictions on where they can drill or else risk losing their license. For example, the well has to be X number of feet from any septic system and has to be X number of feet from any property lines. If you want to hand dig a well right on your property line you can do so. If your cousin Billy Bob has a well digging rig and is willing to dig your well on your property line and risk his license, HE’S the one that might “get into trouble” for doing so. But no government inspector is going to come out and check where your well is.

    That. is. it. That is the sum total of all possible government intervention in your home building project. (Unless you are messing with ”wetlands”
    that might get the Feds attention).

    Now, assuming that you are not going to be off grid – Before they will connect “new service”, the POWER company requires that the wiring in the structure be done by a certified electrician or inspected by one and approved.

    If you are financing your house, the BANK will no doubt have a great deal to say about what you are building and how since their money is at risk.

    If you are going to have homeowners insurance, the INSURANCE COMPANY may not be willing to insure the home with the way that it is constructed or demand inspections and/or changes.

    But, none of these latter 3 situations involve any government regulations, inspections, permitting, fees, etc. If you want to build a structure that doesn’t require a septic system, no professionally dug well, no connection to the electric grid, no bank loan and no insurance – well then you can do any darn thing you want.

    This is a rural area, but it’s hardly the wilds of Alaska. LOL There are a couple of small towns that are 20 minutes (different directions), but I’m 30 minutes from a small city, that while the city itself (within city limits) is small – the “sprawl” in the surrounding area outside the city limits is substantial since it is located near the convergence of a couple of major interstates. I’m an hour away from a much larger city, less than 2 hours away from the state capitol and 5 1/2 hours from the nation’s capitol.

    It just boggles my mind when I read about places out west where you are prohibited from collecting rainwater, or where you have to have a permit to dig a well and are limited by the government in how many gallons of water you can pull from it. I realize that living in a county with 3 rivers, more ponds and streams (there are 5 ponds on the half mile side road that I live on) than you can count and so many springs that they are problematic in wet weather is different than living somewhere that is dependent on snow pack for water. But I can’t understand why anyone would WANT to live in places like those if they have any choice. Just like I can’t understand why anyone would live in a place where gun rights are constantly under attack. (We have Constitutional Carry).

    I understand your specific circumstances and why you chose to build where you did. But for those who are “searching” , please do a little research. There ARE still places with some modicum of freedom remaining.

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