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By far the biggest expense the average person will have in the course of their lifetime will be their house.  Reducing or eliminating the cost of housing when you retire, can go a long way to making retirement comfortable.  Imagine how different your life would be today, if you didn't have a payment for housing, and the energy costs of your house were 1/10th that of your neighbors.

I know what your thinking, I can't build a house, I don't know anything about building.

Well, you most certainly can learn about building, and once you learn, you can build.

Very few people can do everything from design to finish trim, but even fewer people aren't able to do anything when it comes to building a house.

First let's look at some simple economics.

Most people buy a house, then take a 30 year mortgage on the house.  At todays interest rates, you end up paying about the same in interest that you do for the house.  Which means you pay twice as much for everything that goes into the house.  Which means you save twice as much for every hour of labor you put into your own construction.  Everytime you save an hour of plumbers time, at about $60/hr., you're saving roughly $120 of the total cost of your home.  Same with electrical, or carpentry, or roofing..., you get the picture.  Now, I've never ever been payed anywhere near $100/hr, so you end up paying yourself some big bucks to do your own work.

Where do you begin?  Energy! Energy! Energy!  If you're thinking of purchasing a new house, and you're not thinking energy, then you are either filthy rich, or you would like to experience what it's like to default on a mortgage.

We are at Peak Oil, and all fossil fuel energy prices will be skyrocketing from here on out, except when we are in the severe recessions that the higher prices will cause.  In the next 10 years, we will look back at $4.00/gal gas as the good ole days.  Remember, every dollar in energy that you save, can go to paying off your mortgage even faster.

I really can't give you a cookbook approach on how to design and build your own house, so I'll tell you about the approach I took, and hopefully others will add their own approach, or how to do it better, then you'll have to decide what would be best for you.

1) The local climate conditions.
What are the local weather conditions?  Are you in a cold climate where solar heating would be plentiful?  Are you in a cloudy area where solar won't be as important as super insulation?  Are you in the southwest where summer cooling will be more important than winter heating?

I live in the Mountains of Colorado.  The winters are long, cold, snowy, and we have brutal winds.  But we get a fair amount of sunshine.  So my local conditions immediately pushed my design toward something that could handle the strong winds and heavy snow, and my energy requirements to solar and wind.

2) Local topography.
Is your property steep hills, or flat?  Is it heavily treed or are there clearings to the south?  Is the soil sandy, or clay, or rock...?  These types of conditions can put limits on your design, or force you to change your design to adjust for the conditions.

I looked for a property that had a good southern exposure, was relatively flat, and had good soils to build on.

3) Your skill level.
The design and construction type of your house will largely be driven by, what is it you think you can do.  You can brake down the construction of a house into many skill types and sub types like, plumbing, electrical, framing, roofing, concrete, drywall...   The thing to keep in mind is, these tasks take a combination of experience and knowledge.  The knowledge can be acquired from plenty of books, talking to plenty of people, and the internet, the experience will be on the job training.  Will you be able to do the work with the same quality of an experienced plumber or electrician or carpenter?  Most likely no.  Can you do the work well enough to pass an inspection, to be trouble free, and to not cause any problems with the rest of the construction?  Most likely yes.

After gathering as much information as you can about every phase of the construction, you have to ask yourself, can I do it?  You'll be surprised at how many times you'll answer, you're darn right I can!  A very important factor to keep in mind is, when you're designing your house, design for your skill level.  If this is your first big building project, you probably don't want to design a house with dozens of corners and bends in the foundation that ends up making for a multi-sloped very complicated roof.  Keep it simple.

For me, when it comes to building, I am about the least skilled or talented person you'll ever meet.  I absolutely don't have an eye for detail.  But I like to read a lot, and I find the whole process quite fascinating.  So I read dozens of books, and spent many hours doing research on the internet.  I was able to understand the concepts enough, and find enough illustrations, that I could do most of the work without too much trouble, but I also designed the simplest house I could.  I also had a skilled friend who I would occasionally ask to come by and check my work to point out any problems.

4) Financing.
Financing is a complicated subject that I really can't comment too much on.  But keep  in mind, by doing much of the work yourself, you won't need as much financing as paying someone else to do it.  You might be able to get a construction loan, but not likely.  Family and friends might be a possibility.  A 2nd mortgage on an existing property?  Or, pay as you go.

Since I was limited to weekends and free time to build my home, It happened to work out that I could pay as I built.

Make no mistake, building your own home is a lot, and I mean a lot of work.  And hammers and frustration are often not a good combination.  But the satisfaction of living in a place that you built with your own hands, and where the energy costs are so low as to be laughable, and where your mortgage will be payed off in a very few years, is something that makes it well worth the effort.

This diary is already too long, and this just scratches the surface, but I hope it's enough that people will understand that they really can free up their lives from the life long mortgage debt, and they really can gather enough knowledge to build their own home.

Here are some of the books I used.  Some of these books will help you decide what you shouldn't be doing as well as what you should.

Modern Carpentry-Wagner  (The bible of carpentry, although a bit dated)
The Passive Solar House-Kachadorian
Earth Sheltered housing design-University of Minnesota
Complete Book of Underground houses-Roy
Building the Timber Frame House-Benson
Plumbing a House-Hemp
Foundations-Fine Homebuilding
The Solar House-Chiras
The Solar Electric House-Strong
Working alone-Carroll
Framing Roofs-Fine Homebuilding
Wiring simplified-Richter
Home design software (don't get the cheapest, and you don't need the most expensive).
The Internet.
Talk to people at lumber yards, electrical outlets, plumbing stores...

Below is a listing of some facts about the house I built and some pictures.

Climate is very cold. -40F wind chill is common.
1800 sq ft.
Simple ranch style, with earth berm 20" on 3 sides.
About $100,000 cost, including well, septic and energy.
Walls are insulated concrete forms R25.
Ceiling of R40.
Large thermal mass in concrete floors with solar radiant heat system.
70% Solar heat, 30% wood, propane fireplace backup, no furnace.
95% electricity from PV's and wind generator, 5% from gas generator, off the grid.

Here's a few links to some pictures.
house photos

Originally posted to pollwatcher on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 02:07 PM PDT.

Also republished by Living Simply and Aging In Community.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Are those floors concrete with (5+ / 0-)

    acid treatment for color and design?

    "Lets show the rascals what Citizens United really means."

    by smiley7 on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 02:28:27 PM PDT

  •  looks like 1500 watts wind and solar (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pollwatcher, GussieFN, Lujane, terabytes, cai

    peak that's only 3KW, is that enough?

    i figure big house, you need closer to 7 KW

    George Bush is Living proof of the axiom "Never send a boy to do a man's job" E -2.25 S -4.10

    by nathguy on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 02:42:35 PM PDT

    •  very close, 400W wind, and 1200W PV (7+ / 0-)

      If you're going to live off the grid, the first thing you think about is conservation.  Compact fluorescent lights, efficient appliances.  I have enough batteries to store 8.5KWH.

      We don't have the big electrical appliances, and our lives are really centered around the sun.  We don't have an electric range, and we don't have a furnace, so that saves a lot on electricity.  We don't microwave a lot in the evenings, we do laundry on sunny days, I bake bread in my breadmaker on sunny days...

      We have a 42" TV and the computer is on all day long.  I only run my gas generator about a dozen times a year, so I guess it's all the electricity we need.

  •  It`s do-able! (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pollwatcher, sarvanan17, Lujane, cai, Renee

    Two of our sons (with the help of friends and family) have done most of the finishing work on homes they built, and saved a bundle. Roofing, siding, flooring, window installation and painting  isn't rocket science...but leave the tough stuff for the professionals.

  •  unless you manage to find free land lying around (5+ / 0-)

    you're still going to have to find a way of financing the dirt beneath the house, which makes up a significant % of the total cost of real estate these days.

    •  No doubt about it, land can be expensive (7+ / 0-)

      Where the land is expensive, so are the houses.  So no matter where you build, you're going to save some, but the lower the land/house ratio, the higher the % you'll save on the entire cost.

      •  True, my friend said if she had to do it (0+ / 0-)

        again, she would have done more work on her house. Instead, the bought the property and had the house built. She and her partner were both working fulltime but do some work on weekends but she said not nearly enough.  As it ended up costing her a greal deal and her home loan ended up far higher than a similar home she could have purchased.  

        So much depends on how much one can do themselves or the cost of contractors and hiring the right people at the right prices.

        As she now regrets building and wishes they had not.  
        They did sell the house and sold it fast and she ended up buying a house at a far cheaper price but granted, not as nice as the new one built.  But she said she cold not afford the loan for the house based on one salary after her partner had to retire due to health problems.

  •  We've thought about building our own house (6+ / 0-)

    and greening it. We're much more likely to save up for a very hefty downpayment of say, maybe $75K to $100K over four years, and then use that towards a house that we'd get with a 15 year mortgage, and then aggressively pay that off sooner than 15 years. That way we wouldn't pay as much interest as we would on a home on a 30 year mortgage.

    I work with B2B PAC, and all views and opinions in this account are my own.

    by slinkerwink on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 04:01:18 PM PDT

    •  Been there, done that (9+ / 0-)

      Both what you're thinking of doing, and what the diarist did.

      We built an energy efficient house in 1984-5 (passive solar/lot of insulation - heat was less that three-quarters of a cord of hardwood per year) for about $85,000. We subbed out the masonry and plumbing, and had a great framing carpenter (paid) help us, got a crane and crew to set big ridge beams (the biggest was 9X24) for a 6-pack of beer, and virtually everyone we knew - family, friends, co-workers - did something on the house.

      We sold 10 years later for triple the initial land and building cost, and only had $30K left on the mortgage.

      We move halfway across the country, plowed most of the proceeds from the house sale into the new house and land, got a 15 year 7% mortgage and paid it off in 11 years a few years ago.

      We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. - John F Kennedy

      by badger on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 04:16:38 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  About early payments (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      slinkerwink, cai, Bluefin

      If you're very disciplined, you might want to reconsider making those early payments.  You might want to think about stashing those extra payments away in some safe account, just like you were making the early payments.  Then, when the savings = the loan balance, pay it off in one big payment.  Stashing the money away in an account makes a great emergency fund, just in case something really unexpected happens.  But once you give it to the bank, it's mighty hard to get it back.  Of course you have to be really, really, disciplined and use the money only for real emergencies.

      Just a thought.

  •  It's beautiful! And the setting is gorgeous. /nt (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lorinda Pike, cai, DawnN

    Wolverines and Badgers and Buckeyes - Oh My! Be Afraid Kochroaches. Be very afraid.

    by mrsgoo on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 04:10:02 PM PDT

  •  That's great! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lorinda Pike, cai

    Thanks for sharing.

  •  I have been a fan of alternative, (6+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pollwatcher, freesia, ybruti, cai, DawnN, Timaeus

    owner-built houses since I was a charter subscriber to Mother Earth News lo those many years ago.

    You did a wonderful job!

    I would still like to build my own (earthbag/cordwood masonry is my current obsession) but I might be just a tad too old...

    However I keep telling myself that Scott and Helen Nearing didn't build their first stone home in Vermont until Scott was 70...

    Beautiful pictures; great diary - thanks.

    (-7.62/-7.90) .....It was their destruction. They delved too greedily and too deep... Gimli in Moria, JRR Tolkien

    by Lorinda Pike on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 04:39:15 PM PDT

    •  Mother earth news (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lorinda Pike, freesia, cai, Timaeus

      I still have the first 30 or so issues.  Those early issues sure could get you thinking in a different direction, and "living the good life", by Helen and Scott was truly inspiring.

      •  Gave mine away to a friend, and wish I had them (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        pollwatcher, cai

        back. The first issues, IIRC, were on early recycled paper and had turned really yellow, like ancient parchment.

        I wonder what would have happened if I had followed my heart then, and did what I wanted to do - built a house somewhere off-grid?

        Ah, I guess everyone has regrets.   Mais c'est la vie ...   :-)

        (-7.62/-7.90) .....It was their destruction. They delved too greedily and too deep... Gimli in Moria, JRR Tolkien

        by Lorinda Pike on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 05:01:35 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Pictures! Where's the pictures? (9+ / 0-)

    This is a nice diary, but it cries out for pictures.  Small, energy efficient homes can not only be affordable to make, they can be beautiful as well.

    There's also floorplans that show what kind of living space you might have in such small homes if you can accept a minimalist lifestyle...

    tiny house floorplan Pictures, Images and Photos"

    "Pragmatists don't DO things! They explain to you how things CANNOT be done." - AndyS In Colorado

    by Uberbah on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 05:04:50 PM PDT

  •  Nice house and property. It has to be Idaho, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pollwatcher, cai

    Wyoming or Montana? I am on Kauai and do so want to get off grid.

  •  A substantially simpler way to do same thing: (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    raines, Timaeus, Bluefin, pollwatcher

    Retire to low cost housing area. I chose 3rd World SE Asia and bought a house over 4 times larger than the one I sold in the USA for the same price. Additionally, there is zero heating cost, we don't even use central hot water, and property taxes are low by Western standards. Essentially, this savings allowed me to retire many years earlier than if I had to work to support the cost of a currently non-appreciating North American house. But, this solution is not for everyone.

    I voted with my feet. Good Bye and Good Luck America!!

    by shann on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 06:18:41 PM PDT

  •  Other ideas: (4+ / 0-)

    1.) Yurts.

    2.)  Tiny houses.  (Can be built on a trailer.)

    3.)  Getting experience with Habitat for Humanity, solar barn-raisings, and the like.

    I wish my health would let me build a house.  I don't think I could manage a bird house in under six months.  :/

  •  Wonderful Diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cai, pollwatcher

    Thanks for sharing your great story!  You did a great job on the house.  So many smart ideas all rapped up in one beautiful home.

    It is interesting on how many comments question the amount of power generation you have.  People don't realize how easy it is to slightly modify your life and get by with a ton less energy.

    Good for you for doing such a great job all the way around, and thanks for sharing.....

  •  diary is so true (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cai, pollwatcher

    I wrote a diary about our experience in Maine. Land is much cheaper in rural areas but figuring out how to make a living is the problem. Glad to hear some of the same books are around. I think Wagner is still published and includes the use of all the newer composites. Richter is what I used for wiring. I tended to overbuild which is not a bad thing. I sheathed with 1 inch rough boards, then did 1 inch rough boards for board and batten siding. I removed the battens later and shingled with cedar so with a full 2 inches of sheathing it doesn't matter where the studs are for attaching things. Our strategy for avoiding the the mortgage was to build small and add small additions as we had the money. Started out with 560 sq. ft. and and 8 additions later now about 3600 sq. ft. (not all heated, but mostly finished). Now 56 windows after starting with plastic and old storm windows and over 50 different roof facets. I don't recommend such complication but I just had the need to build so I did. It's also somewhat critical to avoid building in highly regulated areas ie. planning boards, permits etc..if you want to build quirky structures.

    music- the universal language

    by daveygodigaditch on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 08:21:18 PM PDT

    •  Excellent post (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Adding on as you get the money is a great idea.  I think it also helps people avoid the McMansions that people have trended towards.  When you start small and add on, you come to realize you really don't need all the space you thought you needed.

      I love that board and batten approach.  I first learned about it from one of my favorite books, "Your engineered house" by Roberts.  It's an older book but has some really quirky ideas that I still use today.

      •  (grinning) I had that book too! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        His idea that basements weren't important was advice I wish I hadn't followed, though my views go back and forth on it but foundations are important. You must have had the dome book.

        music- the universal language

        by daveygodigaditch on Mon Apr 25, 2011 at 07:27:25 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Not only have it, I built one (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Now a dome is a really strong building, but a big waste of resources.

          I've been going back and forth on basements also.  Right now I have a slab on grade and am very pleased with it.  I'll probably right another diary about single story VS multi-story houses.  Good points and bad points for both.

          •  my observation of the domes (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            I saw built was that the owner builders did okay with the framing and then sort of burned out with the siding (wood in these cases). They either never finished the insides or had paid people do the finish while whining about the excessive costs. Very few right angles and miles of drywall joints as you know.

            Your house looks great and the land is beautiful. I'm curious why so few trees? I'm pretty sure it's natural. I only ask because in NE there's no such thing as a natural field. It's downright amazing how quickly the old farm fields go back to woods, like less than 10 years.

            music- the universal language

            by daveygodigaditch on Mon Apr 25, 2011 at 11:51:48 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  A mountain meadow (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              I live in a transitional zone from high plains and mountain forests.  I'm at 8500 feet, and near a mountain pass.  There are trees all around but they taper off as you go down the valley.

              Unfortunately, we're suffering the effects of Global Warming.  We don't get the long periods of very cold weather we used to and the Mountain pine beetle has been able to explode in population.  In a 3 year period they killed 90% of all the pine trees in the area.

              We've tried to grow a variety of trees and bushes but the winter winds are just too extreme to let anything grow.

              If you go to and do a search for "the meadow", you'll find a book that was written about the area.

  •  A nice piece of work... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    raines, Bluefin, pollwatcher

    Seriously. it completely embraces the K.I.S.S. concept (You should know the acronym by now).
    Good thermal inertia from the slab floors - and no crawl space.
    As a recovering under-the-table carpenter/plumber, unless you're trying to do something spectacular, this is all stuff that any everyday idiot can pull off.
    All the pros have as an advantage is that they're able to do it fast enough to make money. Tools and experience is their only trick.
    Getting it done is just a matter of one step following another.
    Sunset books. Other how-to stuff.
    Anyway, where is this?
    I see pronghorns, snow and rimrock. South Dakota?

    "And each simple wreck In the way-path of might Shall yet be a rock In the temple of Right" Fr. Abram Joseph Ryan

    by crazy old coot on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 08:59:02 PM PDT

    •  I'm an everyday idiot, and you nailed this (0+ / 0-)

      The Thermal mass I have in the floors is really incredible.  They consist of 2" of Styrofoam then a foot of sand, then 5" of concrete.  So there's about 50 tons of mass.  I let my wood stove go out in the evening, and even if the temperature is -40F, the temperature of the house will only drop about 6 degrees.

      Your absolutely right about the contractors.  I certainly can't do it as well as a plumber or electrician, but I can do it well enough.

      We live in a truly incredible place along the Colorado/Wyoming boarder.  We have pronghorn, moose, bears, Mountain lions, badgers, ferrets, eagles...  It's why we live here.  Unfortunately, it's also the heart of Tea Bagger country and it's getting harder and harder to live with these people.

  •  I've been driving over to Steamboat a lot lately (0+ / 0-)

    your house looks a lot like some of the places I've seen on the back routes there. Antelope and moose no less!

    Do you have a freezer? Looks like a lot of meat wandering around.

    "Don't fall or we both go." Derek Hersey 1957-1993

    by ban nock on Mon Apr 25, 2011 at 05:44:45 AM PDT

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