Debt-Free Living in Your Dream Home

From a spacious log cabin to a geodesic kit home, readers recount how — with innovation, patience and resolve — they built their own ideal abodes.

article image
by Roy Trembath
Roy Trembathís log home in South Africa is built out of eucalyptus trees, an invasive species.

To read more about the debt-free homes in this article, and to peruse many other reports about mortgage-free living, go to Debt Free Home Reports

Many of us hope to someday own a home that’s perfectly suited to our penchants, but are wary of falling into debt for decades. The reports that follow illustrate the crafty and creative ways that MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers have acquired or built their own homes while avoiding a mortgage. These debt-free homes are diverse — from a geodesic kit home in California to a spacious log cabin in South Africa — but their owners’ counsel is consistent: With innovation, patience and a willingness to learn, you can do it, too.

Log Home Balcony

Plan Your Plot

Do you intend to construct a house by yourself, or hire out some of the labor? Will you build your shelter from scratch, or find a fixer-upper? Decide how large you want your home to be — the smaller you build, the less you’ll pay out of pocket. Also consider whether you’ll need to set up temporary housing, such as an RV or a trailer, as you build. After you’ve moved in, you can sell your temporary housing and invest that money into your home. Starting with a clean slate may feel overwhelming, but by adhering to the following advice from readers, as well as studying the recommended resources later in this article for guidance and inspiration, you’ll embark on your course to a debt-free dwelling with confidence.

Spiral Staircase

Learn the law of your land. After you’ve decided where to build, check with your county or city to find out whether you’ll have to comply with any building codes or inspection requirements. If you’re in a rural area, you may need only an electrical or sewage inspection. Other areas may demand a wide range of inspections and permits. See Essential Advice for Owner-Builders for information you’ll need to know about building codes before you raise your roof.

Revive a residence. Refurbishing an abandoned structure is one route to substantial savings. Julie Pfister and her husband, Tom, were living with their son in Sidney, Neb., near a 400-square-foot, WWII-era kit home that had succumbed to a fire and been condemned. Julie and Tom were able to see beyond its blackened walls, however, and purchased it from the owner for $5,000. They soon learned they would need a city engineer to sign off on their construction plan, and would have to undergo city inspections after each renovation step. They also needed insurance before they could work and live in the unfinished home. Undeterred, they hauled out the structure’s damaged innards bucket by bucket, and the bungalow gradually morphed into a small, energy-efficient home. After a little less than a year, they had moved in. The Pfisters did all the labor themselves, and say they’d do it all again. “You don’t have to start new. You can start with what’s available and make it perfect with a little work and some common sense,” Julie says.

Straw Bale House Construction

Do it yourself. Before you lament a lack of know-how to undertake such a project, ask yourself whether you’re willing to learn. A readiness to study new skills will be the most important tool you can wield — along with plenty of patience. Roy Trembath is a do-it-yourselfer in South Africa, and his advice is to do your homework. Roy studied every action he took while building his house, and discovered that his DIY mindset frequently led to frugality. Roy harvested the timber he used, bought a secondhand saw to cut his own floorboards, and built his own furniture. His 3,600-square-foot home cost about $25,000 — less than the down payment he would have dished out for a conventional mortgage on a home of the same size.

Turn Trash Into Treasure

Straw Bale House

You don’t need to purchase new materials to build or furnish your home. Do a little digging to unearth discarded lumber and gently used appliances. To find what you need, check construction sites and demolition companies, visit Habitat for Humanity ReStores, and peruse websites such as Ebay Classifieds, Craigslist or Freecycle.

Bill and Priscilla Poupore foraged many of the materials for their straw bale house in West Texas. To begin construction, they paid $4,000 for a concrete foundation and tapped into their retirement funds to purchase cement, lime and sand to make plaster. They sought bargains on straw bales, and even scouted free, reclaimed telephone poles to repurpose as roof supports. The Poupores have been working on their 1,100-square-foot house (pictured in the Slideshow) for the past decade, paying for supplies as they go. By wielding reclaimed materials and extending the costs and labor over 10 years, they’ve dodged debilitating debt.

LaMar Alexander also shaped his debt-free home out of salvaged components. While living in a trailer on a piece of inherited land in Utah, he cleared the property, then designed and built a 400-square-foot cabin for $2,000 in just two weeks. LaMar bought lumber at discounted bulk prices from suppliers, and salvaged double-pane, low-e glass windows and steel-insulated doors from a nearby abandoned house. He sourced wood for the porch from a local lumber mill, and made the cabin’s interior trim out of recycled cedar fence boards. LaMar repurposed items in his trailer for use in his new shelter: fridge, lights, shower, sink, stove, plumbing, propane tanks, water pump and wiring. He hand-drilled a well, designed a solar composting toilet, installed rainwater harvesting and greywater systems, and invested in solar panels and a small wind turbine. Without monthly bills or a mortgage to manage, LaMar has been able to pursue creative ventures that bring in enough money to pay for property taxes and propane.

Tiny Cabin With Solar Panels

Make a Move

Just as you can sleuth out recycled wood and low-cost appliances, you can also bag a bargain on the house itself. If you have the perfect piece of land but lack the home to match, you can save a great deal of money by buying and moving a house that would otherwise be torn down. (Read the MOTHER EARTH NEWS article Ultimate Recycling: Relocating a House to learn more and to read firsthand accounts.)

Deb and Warren Kelln of Clavet, Saskatchewan, decided that moving a house was their best bet for debt-free living. The Kellns originally lived in a mobile home on acreage where they kept cattle, horses, sheep and chickens. In late 2012, a neighbor who owned a 1,200-square-foot house that had been sitting unused on his property for the past eight years told Deb he was going to tear it down. She objected, asking how much he wanted for it. The only payment her neighbor required was 10 dozen eggs — a payment Deb’s chickens happily produced. Deb and Warren then paid movers $6,000 to have the house relocated 12 miles to their property. Building the foundation cost another $6,000, but Warren, a carpenter, performed all of the labor on the foundation and the house with the help of a couple of friends. A rural municipality inspector approved their work, and the Kellns moved into the home in late 2013. Deb has worked to outfit the home almost exclusively by procuring used windows, doors, furniture and appliances at garage sales and online. “It’s not because we can’t afford to buy new — it’s just a conscientious choice,” Deb says. “So many people have so much and dispose of it for no reason. My house is full of antiques that are better than anything you can buy now.”

Log Cabin In Snow

Take Your Time

Deciding to build a debt-free home is a daring venture that encompasses countless big decisions. Our readers repeatedly advised against rushing the process, insisting that patience, persistence and careful consideration of every detail pays off in the end.

Paul Scheckel, a renewable-energy expert from Vermont, says shortcuts will only become headaches later on in the building process. Paul built his home slowly for 20 years. With only a power saw to begin the work — but no codes to abide by in his rural area — Paul designed and built a two-story, 1,500-square-foot home. He used old windows and rough-cut, reclaimed lumber, and located other goods at garage sales. He also relied on and traded with his friends and other homesteaders: “The camaraderie and assistance with the hard, heavy and thankless jobs were the seeds of a lasting community,” he says. Nothing was as fast or as cheap as Paul had expected, but in the end, he avoided 20 years of mortgage payments and loves his hand-built home. “The trick I finally learned in order to deal with stress was to take things in achievable, bite-sized bits: ‘Today I will frame one window.”

Man Standing On Foundation

Larry and Betsy Mehaffey also relied on patience while crafting their 980-square-foot cabin. In June 2002, they purchased 5 acres in Dixie, Idaho, and lived first in a tent, then in a 180-square-foot cabin. They began building their home in June 2006, and persevered through long, hot days to pour the foundation, peel and scribe logs, and put up a metal roof. They installed windows and doors just before the first snow fell. The Mehaffeys used about $20,000 from the sale of their former home and from Larry’s periodic carpentry jobs to finance the structure. Over the next few years, they added appliances, piped in propane, and built cabinets and furniture, turning this cumulative handiwork into their dream home. “Doing most of the work ourselves was slower, harder and at times frustrating, but also more affordable and much more satisfying,” Betsy says. “By entering the project debt-free and choosing to live a simple life, we were able to 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.”

Work Together

House On Stilts

Few homeowners we spoke with embarked on their debt-free journey alone. Many recruited family and friends — often a barter would be enough to secure a comrade’s assistance.

Henry Burggraf and his family brought friends and neighbors together to complete their 1,300-square-foot home in Tennessee. Henry traded hunting rights on his farmland with a construction worker named Joe, who offered to frame Henry’s house in return. The Burggrafs had already laid the foundation and built the first floor. After Joe finished the frame, the Burggrafs raised the rest of the house with an entire community of people, modeled after an old-fashioned barn raising. Six families pitched in to help get the house up and roofed in just five sessions. After about one year spent finishing the interior, the Burggrafs moved into their new dwelling.

Building a debt-free home was a family affair for the Rigoni-Escobar clan in Northern California. In 2013, Jacki Rigoni, Mauricio Escobar and their three young children moved out of their million-dollar home in San Francisco and purchased 9 acres of land outside of San Jose, Calif. While living in an RV on the land, they bought a 400-square-foot, $11,000 geodesic kit home. Along with a foundation and an outdoor shower/outhouse, their modest new quarters cost about $20,000 total.

Dome Kit Home Skeleton

“The hardest part was deciding that the mortgage-for-30-years track wasn’t for us,” Jacki says. “Funny — but it’s not so obvious when everyone around you is convinced that being strapped to a mortgage is what grown-ups do.”

Jacki says the family recognizes what they took for granted about their former home, such as indoor plumbing and garbage service, but that nothing could ever persuade her family to return to shouldering million-dollar debt. “We really savored the opportunity to work together as a family and to model self-sufficiency for our kids,” Jacki says. “It has been a major leap of faith and quite a transition, but the relief from the stress of debt has been totally liberating.”

Where the Heart Is

Dome Kit Home Construction

Equipped with this collected advice from debt-free home builders, you can commence with planning your own project. A blend of careful preparation, creativity and camaraderie will set you on course for mortgage-free living. Your DIY digs will be more than just a shell that shelters you. The house you find or build will be a reflection of your personal style and your approach to self-sufficiency — and in exchange for your time and energy, you’ll gain the security and satisfaction of financial freedom.


Highly Recommended Books 

Home Work, Shelter II and Tiny Homes by Lloyd Kahn
Making Better Buildings by Chris Magwood
Building Your Own House: Everything You Need to Know About Home Construction From Start to Finish by Robert Roskind
Mortgage Free!: Innovative Strategies for Debt-Free Home Ownership by Rob Roy
Building Green by Clarke Snell
Homebuilding Debt-Free: Guide for the Owner-Builder by Lynn Underwood

Handy Online Guides

Development Center for Appropriate Technology
International Code Council
A Guide to DIY Kit Homes

Amanda Sorell is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine.