A Handmade, Debt-Free Home

Blend vision, patience and perseverance and you can build a handmade, debt-free dream home.

| February/March 2007

The scariest moment of my life came at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, May 15, 1986. That was when I woke up in a wet tent, pitched next to a rusty, 18-year-old pickup truck, 500 miles from the boyhood home I’d just left for the first time in my life. While my buddies were jetting around the country building snazzy business careers around their brand-new college degrees, I was sinking deeply into regret. How could the idea of building a no-compromise country house have seemed so compelling when I signed the deed? How could my dream turn so terrifying now that I was about to begin?

Later that day, as I snipped through the rusty, tumbledown wire fence to make a driveway at the north end of my new 91½ acres, I felt a little better. Later that summer, when a foundation hole was dug, life seemed OK. And as I laid the first limestone blocks in the basement, I celebrated with a glass of sweet wine. Three and a half years later, on a cold, gray November day, I nailed down the final roof shingle — and life was good indeed.

Today, I wouldn’t trade my house or country life for any number of fancy business careers. And now my dream home can be your dream home — I’ve worked with illustrator Len Churchill and Mother Earth News to create “study plans,” which you can use to build something similar.

Welcome to the Maxwell House

On the quiet Ontario island of Manitoulin, at the end of a tree-lined gravel road, you’ll find our three-story Victorian-style stone and timber house. The place looks old, but it’s actually built entirely to modern standards. It’s the most visible part of a lifelong work that my wife, Mary, and I began here in our early 20s. The vision we shared for our field-and-forest property has remained consistent ever since.

With no formal construction training other than a good high school shop program, we depended on research that involved lots of reading and observation. To get hands-on experience, I worked in cabinetmaking shops and construction sites in Toronto (a seven-hour drive away) during the winters, while Mary worked on her nursing degree. Then we’d return each spring from 1986 through 1991 to Manitoulin to continue building while living frugally in the 10-by-20-foot wood frame shed we built for $550. (For more information, see “Build This Cozy Cabin,” June/July 2006.)

Beginning with a clean slate and an empty hay field, we aimed to design and build a place of beauty, peace and permanence. The house is part of a work in progress for our land, but before I take you on a tour, you need to understand three important influences.
5/15/2018 12:17:04 AM

I used the plans at WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG to build my own home – I highly recommend you visit that website and check their plans out too. They are detailed and super easy to read and understand unlike several others I found online. The amount of plans there is mind-boggling… there’s like 16,000 plans or something like that for tons of different projects. Definitely enough to keep me busy with projects for many more years to come haha Go to WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG if you want some additional plans :)

1/12/2015 8:24:12 AM

We are in the middle of building our debt free log home.. While we were planning this article and one other on Mother Earth News were both a huge inspiration to us! Blessed to be on this journey and thankful for His provisions.

1/10/2014 9:32:26 PM

I find it near impossible to imagine building a home while also being in debt. Of course, there's a difference between debt for a mortgage and debt for credit card and automobiles. The perfect solution for our venture would be to have no debt at all, including our house. Thanks for sharing your story about building a home debt free, it is very inspiring.

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