Burned-Out Abode Becomes Couple’s Homey, Debt-Free Bungalow

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The house that the author, Julie Pfister, moved into with her husband was a Nebraska kit home.
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The Pfisters were able to see beyond the blackened walls to envision what they could reclaim and embrace.

My husband and I have had a lot of experience with building and still wish to perfect the perfect green home. This report, however, is about a home that we built up from a fire.

The house was World War II-era kit home. It was 400 square feet and had a basement with no windows. We were living with our son in his basement in Sidney, Neb., because we had sold our house to pay some bills. We had witnessed this house burn earlier in the summer. My husband felt drawn to the property. One day, he asked me to visit it with him. I was hesitant because of the fire damage but went anyway. My husband broke the door open and all we saw was black! It was a scorched house inside. But it is funny — at that very minute I could see the little kitchen and the chimney and it was calling out to me. It was so cute that I couldn’t say no to it. My husband had already been taken in by its quaint floor plan. This home had been sealed up and condemned. It was unsafe for the general public. My husband talked to the owner and we were able to purchase it for $5,000. It was a lot of money for us but we had that much cash from the sale of our other home.

At the city level, we found that we would have to go through inspections after each process was done. We would have to have a city engineer sign off on the plan and the work done. This also required hefty insurance to be able to work and then live in it undone. That didn’t scare us away.

We started in right away with demolition. The house had plastered walls, oak floors, vinyl siding, a tiled tub, and surround that was all damaged and melted. If the fire and smoke didn’t ruin it, the water from the firefighters did. Bucket by bucket, we hauled out the sand plaster. Slowly we got to the studs and found them to be rough-hewn studs. We worked during the day as we had no electrical — the fire had melted it all.

We went from room to room to get to the studs and then started coming back with new studs and subfloors. We repositioned walls, moved plumbing and put in all-new electrical. We put in new beams under the floor for stability. We insulated and drywalled. We made this little bungalow an efficient home that was easy to heat and cool. It was built to be maintenance-free or to require little maintenance. We used 50-year-old shingles on the roof and cement siding for the walls outside. It survived several hail storms before it was all done, with zero damage. This project took us just less than a year. We moved in when it was OK to live in, but we had no kitchen yet.

We only spent money that we earned at our full-time jobs. We didn’t take out a mortgage on this little house. We did all of the work ourselves and would do it all over again. This reclamation was big in our lives. It showed us that you don’t have to start new — you can start with what’s left and build on it. It might not be perfect to begin with, but you can make it that way with a little work and some common sense. And I don’t want to forget the fact that it was only 400 square feet. This house had everything we needed in a condensed state. It was truly awesome!

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