Still Jumping

March 5, 2014 § 19 Comments

Penny and me, standing in the framed dormer wall of my office. I'm looking out this window opening right now

Penny and me, standing in the framed dormer wall of my office. I’m looking out this window opening right now

On another note, I was wondering if you might be willing to share some of the process you and Penny went through designing and building your house? Any pictures you’ve put up that include the house look so lovely, and as my husband and I are looking for someplace outside of town building our own is definitely on the table. I’ve been looking longingly at the beams across your ceiling for a while now, and wondering how you went about it all. Even if you could just recommend a resource, that would be very appreciated. Thanks!

I’ve told this story in bits n’ pieces, so I’ll try to avoid repeating myself a whole bunch. But I also think the story is in many regards pertinent to some of the discussions relating to work and success and luck and all that happy stuff, so maybe even repeating myself wouldn’t be the worstest thing.

We bought our land in ’97. We had saved $15,000, which was quite a feat, considering I was making about $8/hr at the time, and Penny not much more than that. But we’ve always had a capacity to endure in the name of thrift, and so, through no particular cleverness on our part, we were able to save a tidy chunk of dough working low-wage jobs (me alternately fixing bicycles, banging nails, and selling the odd piece of written work, her working on an organic vegetable farm).

The enduring I speak of relates to our decision to live in a string of low-rent hovels, most of which did not feature running water, and only some of which provided the luxury of electricity. We also lived in a tent for a summer and fall, until the first significant snow chased us into something more commodious. During this period, we never paid more than $100/month for rent.

We bought this truck for $200 and hauled pretty much every piece of our house in it. I even shaved for our wedding in one of its side view mirrors

We bought this truck for $200 and hauled pretty much every piece of our house in it. I even shaved for our wedding in one of its side view mirrors

Anyway. We bought our 40-acres of land for $30,000, which was the absolute upper limits of our budget, since the bank would only grant a land loan with a 50% down payment. Shortly thereafter, we were able to borrow $10,000 from a friend, and that, coupled with the generosity of another friend who gave us two weeks of labor as a wedding present, is how we erected the humble beginnings of our house.

Elizabeth asked about designing our house. I’m sorta embarrassed to admit that there wasn’t much designing involved. I mean, sure, we made some sketches and we talked a lot and generally had a rough idea of what we wanted, but mostly, we started building. Both Penny and I had a modest amount of construction experience, enough that the idea of building our own place wasn’t totally overwhelming, but it’s also true that without the help of our friend, an experienced builder, it wouldn’t have gone nearly so smoothly.

Our place isn’t actually post and beam, at least not in the old world sense of craftsmanship and snug mortise and tenon joints. Befitting our skills, patience, and financial limitations, we banged together a lot of the posts and beams you see with huge barn spikes and sharpened bits of rebar. Indeed, our place is full of these sort of compromises, and while there’s part of me that occasionally wishes we’d taken more time and maybe spent more money, there’s another part of me that’s quite content to live in a structure that was built in accordance with our particular skill set and that mirrors, in ways both beautiful and less-than-beautiful, our characters. Yeah, we had lots of help along the way, and by gum are we grateful for that. We could never have done what we did, as cheaply as we did it, without that help. But despite all that help, in ways both tangible and intangible, there’s no getting around it: This place is ours.

Pre-addition. Note the propped-up front door. It was like that for months

Pre-addition. Note the propped-up front door. It was like that for months. We sometimes wish our home were still so small

We put an addition onto the original 16 x 32-foot cabin in 2001, which involved jacking up the cabin, removing the piers, and pouring a foundation. This time, we hired our dear friend Bob to help us for a summer of weekends. At the time, Bob was working 7 days per week, and since our funds were limited, we got him only on weekends, which worked out right nice, because Penny and I had taken most of the summer off work and could muddle our way through the weekdays, saving all the tricky bits for Bob come Saturday morning.

We worked real hard that summer because, as you see, Penny’d gone and gotten pregnant (ok, well, I had something to do with that), and it seemed only right that our child be born into a house with a roof and maybe even some windows. Which is what happened, though let me tell you, it was right down to the wire. In fact, Penny actually went into labor at the lumberyard, where she had the presence of mind to finish loading the truck and then went grocery shopping before driving home to have Fin.

Our addition was a bit more carefully designed, this time with the help of an architect friend who visited our place and drew up some basic plans in exchange for dinner. Still, it’s a very humble space, simple and perhaps even a little rough around the edges. Again, it feels like ours.

For the addition, we borrowed $50,000 from the bank, which represents the most debt we’ve ever held. Of the many things I am grateful for, the ability to buy land and build a house without assuming an overwhelming debt burden really stands out, and again I have to note that it wasn’t merely hard work that enabled us to do what we’ve done (which is inhabit a debt-free homestead well before the age of 40); it was also luck. We were lucky to have bought land at the right time, before it was priced beyond our reach. We were lucky to have obtained certain skills, and when those skills failed us, we were lucky to have friends to lean on. We were lucky to have the inflated sense of confidence that told us we could do it all in the first place. We were lucky that we worked well together; I honestly can’t remember a single argument over all the months and even years we spent building this house, though I’m sure they happened. We were lucky, we were lucky, we were lucky. Lots of friggin’ luck.

And we worked hard. No harder than lots of people we know, and perhaps even less than some, but still: Real hard. But of course, it never really felt like work. Because it was ours. Because it was what we both wanted. Because as hard as it was, it felt good. It still feels good, and thank goodness for that.

I’m sorry, Elizabeth (and anyone else who’s interested), that I don’t have any good resource recommendations, at least not off the top of my head. Our resources were primarily those of our hands and of our friends; I can’t recall reading any books (this being prior to the era of Internet immersion), though I also can’t promise that didn’t happen. We didn’t take any workshops or anything like that. We just sort of jumped in.

Truth is, sometimes it feels like we’re still jumping.

§ 19 Responses to Still Jumping

  • Elizabeth says:

    Actually, that is super helpful; thank-you! I’m much more the “let’s just jump in!” half of our partnership, but with the books recommended by the other commentor in response to my question, maybe we can take a swing at it. Thanks so much for responding to my question; I really appreciate it.

  • Eumaeus says:

    Weird, lucky and I think a little crazy too, no? Anyway, it seems to work great and the world is lucky to have you.

  • Seeking Joyful Simplicity says:

    Ben, you are so matter of fact about it all, and I suppose, historically speaking, what you and Penny have done is very normal. But to those of us “in the mainstream”, what you have done is amazing. Seems these days, we can’t do anything for ourselves, without the direction and assistance of Credentialed Experts.

    Of course, that may be my overly-educated, university-diplomaed mindset rearing its ugly head…

  • Thank you for sharing this! The more I learn about the history of your family’s endeavors, the more clearly I understand everything that you share here.

  • ain'tforcitygals says:

    Kind of funny how it is….the harder you work…the luckier you get!

  • Pam R. says:

    We built our first part of the house (16′ x 18′, 1.5 stories) and bought our land for $40,000 in 1983. Everything on the property, except the excavation and foundation, and the 105′ x 30′ tobacco shed, we’ve built by ourselves.

    In 1990 we built a 20′ x 24′ addition while I was pregnant with our son. DH finished the bedroom 3 days before I went into labor for a home birth. He worked full time, some overtime, plus we were running a boarding stable. So we also worked hard and long.

    We actually used a Green Mountain Homes kit (?) for the first part, but designed and built the second on our own.

    There’s something very visceral about building your own home with your own hands. But it also means you know where all the shortcuts and unfinished bits are. :))

  • ncfarmchick says:

    Another important quality you seem to possess is not beating yourself up about what some might consider mistakes made along the way. Especially when finances are tight, it is easy to get almost paralyzed about having things go wrong with homestead projects. We have battled with this from time to time but are learning (if only for our boys’ sakes) that a mistake (as long as it doesn’t result in anyone getting hurt) is really in the eye of the beholder and to get too wrapped up in that kind of thinking just discourages forward momentum. What you have shared about your house is just beautiful especially because it is clearly yours and no one else’s. Thanks for the post!

    • Peter H says:

      Paralyzed is right. But what if finances get so tight that they ***poof**** disappear. (Is that possible?) Might there be a go-for-broke source of courage there, such that one could be “saved” from the fear of losing what one has? (Now I think of a Paul Simon tune and want to change “think” into “have” in his wonderful tune “Maybe I Think Too Much”) From where does the courage come?

      • ncfarmchick says:

        A good question with probably countless answers. I imagine it may all come down to the fear of not doing something (as in, later regret) becoming greater than the fear of messing up.

  • Michael says:

    Ben, that’s some beautiful writin’ there.

  • Lesa says:


    What I always wonder about is the inspections and town approval part of things… I’m down here in Massachusetts where they are pretty particular about such things. Is (or was) it much different in VT?


  • Peter H says:

    While luck is very prominent here, as there is so much of which we are unaware, this topic seems to be also about forgiveness of oneself and partner. Our society seems to ask that we study and be experts before we jump. “Think before you speak” has been taken too far and speaking/jumping has become a source of disappointment and blame. It is not a space from which one can easily recover, as forgiveness seems harder to come by than in the past. There was a time when we did not call in the experts to do the jumping for us.
    I wonder, what would be the impact on our nation’s obesity epidemic if all individuals suddenly understood that they did not need the expert knowledge of dietitians and trainers. Lower expectations, relieving ourselves and thus not need to become professional athletes or professional anything elses. Suddenly, you can sing and dance, jump, and, gulp, Leave a Reply.
    Thank you, Ben and Penny, for showing us where jumping can get us (or for those of us without faith in our similarities, where it got you, almighty super-competent countryfolk)

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Very interesting! Thanks, Peter.

    • ncfarmchick says:

      I realize this is pretty much what I was getting at in my comment above about confidence (although you said it much more clearly, Peter.) We can become paralyzed by indecision looking for a path to something unfamiliar when we might b=get further along just jumping in and doing something, anything. At least whatever it is will be ours, mistakes and all and that should be OK or maybe even more than OK but the way it should be.

  • Britton says:

    I am struck with the difference in relationship we have with our house than you, Ben, (and others, or course). We’ve lived in our home for 10 years, improved it, feel proud of it, called in experts twice for minor remodeling, and did the rest (mostly cosmetic) ourselves. We’ve decided to put it on the market in a year (if not sooner, depending on jobs applied for out of state), and as I start going room-by-room to clean, touch up paint, etc., I am working to make the house nothing more than a commodified product that will appeal to the masses. I’m working to make it a Pottery Barn (or whatever) experience so we can rid ourselves of it. I keep thinking next time we’ll (hopefully) be in the house we’re going to die in, and since we’re taking those radical home/life making steps to get us out of the direct current of the mainstream we’ll be fixing up that house (not building, we’ve decided that) and making it ours- and definitely using the skills we’ve acquired to do it all ourselves, as we can afford it. We hope our house will become imbued with our own heart and soul, just as yours is so clearly imbued with yours and Penny’s.

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