Questions About Building a Low-Cost Home
with replies by Thomas J. Elpel
To avoid re-writing my book Living Homes for every person that comes along, please read the book before you write to me. Then, if you have any questions beyond what is presented in the text, then yes, please do write and ask away! I may be a little slow to answer, since I have more than a few distractions, but I will get back to you in time, and I will answer your question to the best of my abilities. Please let me know if I can post your letter and name to the website. Thanks!
Also, if you have a better answer to a question than I do, or additional useful information, then please send me a note through our E-mail Contact Page, and I'll add your commentary to the web page. Questions and answers on these pages will help guide revisions of future editions of Living Homes.
Is it still possible to build a low-cost home?
I read your page on Building a House on Limited Means and it's very inspiring to me. I'm 36 years old, married and have a 18 month old daughter. I built a home in San Jose, California and lost it due to loss of employment. I told myself next time I'm going to build it for cash, no loans. Well, it looks like the time has come to build that home. I'm planning to build it for $40 to $50 a sqft. Do you feel this will be possible in 2003? I was wondering if you can provide some pointers since you built yours for $10 a sq ft. I know you must have done alot of the work yourself, which I plan to do too. I have experience in electrical, cabinetry, tile, finish work, painting, finish plumbing, wall framing and so forth even though I'm a software engineer. I'm going to school presently to become an architect the hard way, 3 years of schooling and 5 years apprenticeship.
I want to keep my living expenses low so I can do drafting for a living and still have time for my family. I'll will be going from a $100k job to a $35k to $50k job.
I was wondering if you might have any details on what your challenges were and what materials and methods you used to keep cost down to $10. Thank you so much for your valuable time.
Thanks for writing. Sounds like you have some good hands-on skills for making your Dream come true. The architectural training will certainly be helpful for your design work.
While you are studying, try to keep in mind questions like "How can I design a house to be efficient enough that it doesn't need a furnace?" If you eliminate the need for a furnace and the ducting, then you will save a lot of money and have a much better product.
Also ask yourself what building materials are available free or very cheaply in your area, and how you might best use them in your project. This might include anything from piles of rocks to scrap lumber and insulation, garage sale appliances, doors, windows, and light fixtures, to culled trees that might be peeled for accent work. If you don't have any other place to store the materials, then you might consider renting a storage locker. You could collect just about everything you need for your house in there before you started building. It is much more efficient shopping or scavenging for a good deal when you have three or four years to find something, than when you need it right now and have to buy it new to keep the project on track.
Probably the greatest thing that helped us to keep costs down to $10 a square foot was that we really didn't have any money at the time and even that price seemed high to us. Realistically, I think we would have spent a lot more on the house if we had more to spend. That's just the way it goes.
One result of our ultra-low budget approach is that we have had to redo some projects. For example, our original kitchen cost about $300 for all of the cabinetry, counters, fixtures, and appliances. Basically we built everything out of scrap lumber and installed a used stainless steel sink, plus an older refrigerator and an antique wood cookstove I restored in high school. Although cheap, the kitchen looked pretty decent and worked quite well for more than ten years.
I'm glad that we didn't spend any more money on it at the time, because I don't think we had the skills then to do a really nice job on it anyway, and we needed to live in the kitchen awhile to get a better sense of how to fine-tune the design to our needs. The biggest flaw was that we didn't put cement board under the tiles, so the water worked its way through and swelled and rotted the wood.
We remodeled the kitchen with poured-in-place concrete/flyash countertops.
We recently remodeled the kitchen, and it is much more customized to our needs now. We reused much of the lumber from the old cabinetry, so we just had to buy a few new boards, but we also bought a top-of-the-line $1300 dishwasher, plus a newer, more efficient refrigerator, and a white enamel cast iron sink.
We also decided that the grout lines in the tiles were annoying to clean, so we wanted a solid surface counter. A nearby company made some incredibly elegant counters out of essentially 100% recycled materials (mostly fly ash and ground up bottle glass) and we decided that was exactly what we wanted--until we got the $5,000 estimate for the installed cost of the counter. However, the company owner was very helpful with ideas, and we did our own poured-in-place "concrete" countertop (with sand, gravel, cement, dye, lots of fly ash, and some cement, plus acrylic bonding agent).
I have to say that looking at it or touching it is a sensory experience. This is one elegant countertop, and it only cost about $300. We certainly didn't have the skills to pull that one off when we did the kitchen the first time! Construction details on the project are included in the current edition of Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Also be sure to read my article Escaping the Job Trap
Thomas J. Elpel
Where did you live while you were building your home?
I just have a few questions. I am going to do the same, I am 40 years old now and I am going to build a house first on Lake Livingston and then I will sell in about 5 years and take that money and put into a house on some property we bought a few years back in New Mexico. I thought about building a few houses to sell and then retire and not have to work anymore. That is our dream. How you were able to live in a tent in Montana - was it not cold in the winter? We said we would pitch a tent in New Mexico and do the same. Also, running water and such - what did you do about that? Thanks in advance.
We lived in a tent for our first two summers and worked with in wilderness therapy programs for trouble teens in the south during the winter. By the second winter we had a roof over our heads, but not much else. The water
froze on top of the stove each night. We did have running water available via a pipeline from the spring. Our lives are a bit more complicated these days, and we would not likely take the same approach, but perhaps a simple camp trailer would suffice for awhile.
I am concerned about your plan to build a house to sell before you build your own dream house. That seems like a risky idea, unless you are an experienced builder. Yes, you could profit nicely by salvaging materials,
building a hand-crafted house, and selling it. However, if you are not building your dream house then the process may turn into a lot of drudge work that could kill your dream. Also, if you are just looking at a way to make a buck, then you might build a lower-quality house than you would otherwise, so please consider your goals carefully.
Good luck with your endeavors. Let me know how it goes.
Thomas J. Elpel
Return to the Sustainable Living Page