A Handmade, Debt-Free Home

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

| February/March 2007

  • Handmade Home
    Steve and Mary Maxwell built their Victorian-style handcrafted house for an out-of-pocket cost of $35 per square foot. Their family of six resides comfortably on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada.
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Timber House
    Steve and Mary Maxwell’s hand-crafted wraparound porch.
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Cathedral Ceiling
    An open cathedral ceiling exposes the pine beams and brings light into the living area.
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Hand-Carved Designs
    Hand-carved designs incorporated throughout the Maxwell house add visual interest, character and value.
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Insulated Door
    The author’s son, Joseph, welcomes you inside through the three-layer, insulated "warm door."
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Debt-Free Home
    The 48-inch-wide outside entrance allows produce, firewood and large tools to be carried in and out of the lower level with ease.
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Home Heating
    Combustion gases allow the masonry heater to accumulate heat and slowly transfer it to the house.
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Fireplace
    Combustion gases allow the masonry heater to accumulate heat and slowly transfer it to the house.
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Skylight
    Solatube tubular skylights add natural light to the kitchen.
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Custom Window
    "We aimed to design and build a place of beauty, peace and permanence."
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • Dream Home Illustration
    Steve and Mary Maxwell built their Victorian-style handcrafted house for an out-of-pocket cost of $35 per square foot. Their family of six resides comfortably on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada.
    Photo by LEN CHURCHILL
  • Steve Maxwell
    Contributing editor Steve Maxwell writes many of our "Do It Yourself" articles, such as "Build this Cozy Cabin" and "A Blueprint for Better Building." You can read all Steve’s previous Mother Earth News articles by searching for his name.
    Photo by ROGER YIP
  • Dream Home
    Katherine Maxwell enjoys a sunny spot in a hammock on the wrap-around veranda.
    Photo by STEVE MAXWELL
  • DIY House
    Steve and Mary Maxwell built their Victorian-style handcrafted house for an out-of-pocket cost of $35 per square foot. Their family of six resides comfortably on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada.
    Photo by LEN CHURCHILL

  • Handmade Home
  • Timber House
  • Cathedral Ceiling
  • Hand-Carved Designs
  • Insulated Door
  • Debt-Free Home
  • Home Heating
  • Fireplace
  • Skylight
  • Custom Window
  • Dream Home Illustration
  • Steve Maxwell
  • Dream Home
  • DIY House

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.

GooseandGillian
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. http://ourdebtfreepath.blogspot.com/


AMYS
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 http://tafarm.us/1eBI5pZ 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.


AMYS
1/10/2014 9:31:42 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 http://tafarm.us/1eBI5pZ 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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