Mortgage-Free Living On a Mountain

Betsy and Larry Mehaffey built an off-grid home on a mountain in Idaho. Their beautiful cabin is comfortable and economic.

  • Before the author, Betsy Mehaffey, and her husband built their primary residence (shown), they lived in a smaller cabin on the property.
    Photo by Betsy Mehaffey
  • After they decided to build their main cabin, the Mehaffeys worked through a summer to put up the walls and roof. They got the windows and doors in just before the first snow fell.
    Photo by Betsy Mehaffey
  • The Mehaffeys heat their home with an Earth Stove. Significant thermal mass traps the heat indoors to keep them warm.
    Photo by Betsy Mehaffey
  • The Mehaffeys built their own cabinets, doors and furniture. They continue to build cabinets and furniture to sell for extra income.
    Photo by Betsy Mehaffey

In May of 2001, my husband and I flew into the tiny mountain community of Dixie, Idaho, and knew we had found our home. We came to hold church services, Larry being both a pilot and a pastor. We soon sold the plane and purchased 5 acres 3 miles south of town. Three years later, kids off to college, house sold, and debt-free, we moved into a 12-by-16-foot cabin we built on our property. By 2006 we were ready for our log cabin. Using plans drawn more than 25 years ago while in Alaska, we poured the 24-by-30-foot footings on a bench overlooking the Salmon River Valley.

In early June, we pitched a tent on a friend’s log yard two hours down the mountain, purchased 55 36-foot logs, and began peeling, scribing, v-grooving, and coping them for the walls. After four weeks of 14-hour days, through rain, wind, and 100-degree weather, we got the walls up. By early July we had poured the foundation, and with the help of some friends and a boom truck, we hauled logs to the property and reassembled them on the newly constructed floor.

The long hours continued for the next four months, cutting and peeling the purlins and posts, building the loft and roof structure, and installing the metal roof. Kids came for weekends and friends dropped by, but for the most part it was Larry and me. We had the windows and doors in just before snow came in early November.

We paid about $22,000 for the foundation, logs, roofing, windows, septic, framing, plumbing and wiring, from the sale of our home and from Larry’s periodic carpentry jobs. Much of the lumber and materials came from a local saw mill and a lumber yard, along with continued diligent scrounging. Over the next five years, we piped in propane for the refrigerator, stove, reading light, and a small heater in the bath (2007). We also built all our own furniture, doors, cabinets and trim in a shop we built on our property (2008). Building cabinets and furniture is a continued source of income. We installed a generator/battery system (2008), dug a well (2010), and installed a new pilot-less, on-demand water heater we found at one-third the original price (2012). This added $10,000 to our material cost.

With a little less than 1,000 square feet inside and 350 square feet of covered deck outside, our cabin is both comfortable and economical to heat with our Earth Stove. Its thermal mass and southeastern exposure makes it an efficient passive solar home. By doing 98 percent of the work ourselves, it was slower, harder, and at times frustrating, but also more affordable and much more satisfying. By entering the project debt-free and choosing to live a simple life, we were able to invest our own labor and avoid a large building debt. Even with the long hours and hard work, we are daily amazed to be living in the cabin of our dreams.

Read other debt-free home reports like this one by perusing Debt-Free Living in Your Dream Home or visiting our Debt-Free Home Reports collection page.

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