March 5, 2014 § 19 Comments
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.
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.
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.