Author building wall for the foundation of her forever home.
My family has a long history with the Back-to-the-Land movement—that notion of living more simply, growing our own food, and hand-building your own house. If I’ve learned anything in the process it’s that simple living isn’t really so simple.
In my case, it took three tries over more than forty years for the philosophy to stick. Having fallen off the simple-living wagon a couple of times, I came to my own understanding of back-to-the-landism, one that aims for a more sustainable lifestyle rather than total self-sufficiency. While I may not be the strictest adherent of the movement in its purest form, after all these years I do have something to offer to it: the wisdom gained from experience.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to write a mini-series of tips for new and would-be modern homesteaders—things I wish I’d known way back when. And where better to give a few modern homesteading tips than Mother Earth News? Today’s tips are about building your own home.
Ten Things to Know Before Your Hammer Hits Its First Nail
Do Your Homework
If you’re planning to claim your stake somewhere new to you, learn all you can about the area before you make a final decision. Will the weather accommodate your lifestyle and gardening goals? If members of your family will need outside employment, are there decent job opportunities? How about like-minded people? Are there ample lifelong learning opportunities? Whatever is most important to you, check it out.
Become a Building Code Expert
If you plan to build a house that’s the least bit out of the ordinary, this is the single most important piece of advice I can give you.
Most likely, your community has a building code. If it does, you need to understand what it says backwards and forwards. Want to build your house with recycled tires? Committed to building a cob house? Better know how local inspectors interpret the code, too. They take their jobs seriously. Unfortunately, they’re often a little behind the curve when it comes to things like building materials.
This is no time for the it’s-better-to-beg-forgiveness-than-to-ask-permission philosophy. When it comes to building, you’re not likely to get forgiveness after the fact. Be clear and open about your plans, and be 100% certain that you hear what’s actually said, not just what you want to hear. It would be a real shame to be forced to walk away from a project you've put your heart, soul, and financial investment into because of a misunderstanding over the rules, but I’ve seen it happen. Don't let it happen to you.
The author's family used a post and beam construction technique for their home. Fortunately, they had no problem getting building inspector's approval.
Build a Community
Back in the last century, homesteading was all about going it alone, being completely self-sufficient, living off the grid. Today’s world is different. Technology makes us more connected, and community makes a lot of sense. You’ll do well to seek out a support system and the experience of others.
Make friends with your neighbors. You'll likely be living with them for a long time. Besides, they can help. The folks down the road may have an overabundance of apples, and you may have extra downed trees they could use for firewood. Maybe someone would mentor you in exchange for some of the honey your bees produce. And remember, your neighbors are your true first responders. They'll be there in time of need.
Get Your House Plans Checked by an Expert
We designed our home ourselves and, careful as we were, there were things we didn’t take into account. Unless you’re purchasing a plan designed by experts, have someone knowledgeable check your plans for common sense. Did you forget to include closets? Would it make more sense, from a plumbing point of view, to relocate your bathroom? Is your traffic flow logical?
Start with an Outbuilding
If you’re lucky, your property will already have an outbuilding or two on it. If not, you’d be wise to build one. You’re probably in a hurry to get that house built, and if your funds are limited, it’s your first priority. But think about it. A structure to keep your tools, equipment, and building supplies out of the weather is a smart idea. It doesn’t have to be huge, and it doesn’t have to be a hundred percent finished, but it will serve you both now and well into the future. Perhaps you can even live in it while you’re building your home, cutting out rent. Later, you can use it as a storage building, a barn, a root cellar, or you can turn it into a living space for a parent, a teen, or guests.
Installing floor of a small shed where the author's family lived while building their home.
You Don’t Have to Do It All Yourself
You don’t necessarily have to do every single step of your house-building with no outside help. Yes, it will cost less, but it will also take longer—possibly much, much longer, especially if you have to teach yourself new skills along the way. Maybe, like us, you can’t afford to hire any work out, and that’s okay. But if you can, there’s no shame in paying someone to, say, lay the foundation or do the wiring or put on the roof.
Be Willing to Compromise and Be Flexible
See above. And don't beat yourself up over needing to modify your original dream. I once heard Philip Ackerman-Leist, author of the homesteading memoir Up Tunket Road, say it this way: "Everybody makes compromises. The few who don't—or can't—die alone." As I recalled times we found it necessary to choose expedience over perfection, I realized he made a good point.
Learn to be flexible. If there's one thing you can count on it's that things won't go as planned. When they don't, smile and find a workaround. Think of it as an an opportunity to practice creativity.
Minus equipment or extra help, the author's family found a creative solution to raise heavy metal panels to the roof with winch, pulleys, and ladder.
Expect Things to Cost More and Take Longer Than You Think
This is something else you can count on. It’s a rare person who can accurately nail the time and cost of a building project, especially an amateur. It’s safer to assume you’ll have cost overruns and time shortages. Expect them and be ready to adjust accordingly.
Stay Out of Debt
Okay, maybe like most Americans you’re already in debt. In that case, you first need to stop accruing it. Then, make a plan for getting rid of your existing debt as soon as possible. Learn how much that mortgage will really cost by the time you’ve paid it off with interest.
Credit card debt is even worse. Using an online consumer credit union calculator, I checked out what a $5,000 credit card debt would actually cost if I were paying it off at $100.00 per month without adding any more debt. At a 20% interest rate, the debt wouldn’t be paid off for nine years. Worse yet, at the end of that time, my $5,000 would have mushroomed to $10,800—more than double the sticker tag of my theoretical purchases. Do the math. The reality check may convince you it’s worth going without while you whittle down your debt.
Plan for the Future
When you're thirty, climbing stairs multiple times a day may not be a big deal, but you're embarking on a once in a lifetime experience, and you may want to stay in your home forever. What happens when your knees give out? Or when an elderly parent needs to move in? When someone breaks a leg? Easier to put a bedroom and bath on the first floor now. (Ask me how I know.)
Wrapping It All Up
Here are a couple of bonus tips for a successful home building effort. First, remember to be patient—with yourself, with your family, with your grand project. Sometimes, it will be hard. Sometimes, someone’s going to be short-tempered. Sometime, someone will make a mistake. Take a deep breath and shake it off.
And most of all, remember to make time to appreciate what you’re doing and why. And laugh. Laugh a lot!
I’m happy to say that after thirty-eight years, we’re still in our hand-built home. Our house is far from perfect, but there’s something better than perfection in knowing we did it ourselves. We’re happy here with no plans to go anywhere else.
Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following this link. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well as random reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.
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