The No-Mortgage Natural Cottage

From treehouses to tiny homes on wheels, a no-mortgage shelter can help you eschew expensive rent and debt.

| April/May 2017

When our oldest daughter was 9, I caught her dragging my air compressor into the woods, where she had stashed a bunch of my building materials in preparation for building her first treehouse. Fast-forward 10 years: When she started attending the local community college, we were pleased that she chose affordable schooling and excited that she would be hanging around longer. But then she announced that she was moving out — not into a house or apartment that would cost more than her tuition, but into a treehouse that she would build herself.

It isn’t just children who dream of escaping the rent/mortgage treadmill in their own little cottage in the woods, but as we get older — and more weighed down by our jobs, responsibilities, and stuff — we accept the notion that we’re trapped. That only an expert can build a house. That shelter has to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That zoning and codes make living your no-mortgage dream impossible. That you can’t just go out into the woods with an axe and a saw and build something you can live in. Fortunately, my daughter didn’t get those memos. Instead, the time she spent in her formative years with folks who had done just such a thing convinced her that she could do it too.

Locating Your Cottage

I like to think of a DIY, no-frills cottage as a way out of being trapped. Moving into an apartment of her own would’ve cost my daughter at least $600 per month in our area. Instead, her total expenditure came to a little less than $2,000. If she stays there for four years and pockets the difference, she’ll walk away with more than $26,000.

To someone who’s just starting to dream, or who has their hands full just trying to keep their head above water, this type of living may seem impossible, but variations on this theme are quietly playing themselves out all around us. Most of the people I know who have done something like this haven’t owned the land they put their cottage on. Many of us didn’t have the cash or even a credit card when we started, but we had a plan we were willing to take a chance on.

If you don’t own land, such a plan might include a proposal to a landowner where you want to live: “Let me build a cottage on your land in exchange for five years of free rent. At the end of five years, if you like me, let me stay with low rent. If you like the cottage, let me build you another on similar terms. If you don’t like me or want to do something else, start charging me a higher rent.”

At first, building a cottage you might walk away from could seem silly, but this type of agreement works for landowners because there’s a set timeframe and something useful offered in exchange. I love my daughter, but knowing I would get a treehouse out of the bargain may have boosted my enthusiasm a bit. I might’ve also been a bit more generous in giving her cool building materials from my hoard of treasures because, well, I want my — I mean her — treehouse to be nice.

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