Building Your Own Home is a Huge Project, But Worth It

Reader Contribution by Samantha Biggers
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My husband Matt and I have a 15-acre farm in western North Carolina, about 20 minutes from Asheville. It is a work in progress. Before we moved here the land had previously been used by my family to graze a mixed herd of cattle but had been allowed to grow up for 8 years. When we moved there are intentions were to build a house first and begin acquiring some livestock. This was in February 2008. It took awhile to get the house going, we poured the footers for our house in June 2009. We also cleared some of the land. Most of this was done by hand. We could not walk through any of the pasture in the beginning.

We then got some Speckled Sussex chicks in the mail to raise for laying hens. We started to fence the property in for livestock. Sometimes it went fast and sometimes it went slow since it is just the two of us. In the meantime we acquired several goats and raised a few baby goats to help us to clear up the massive tangle of honeysuckle, bittersweet, and multi-flora rose that covered the majority of the pasture. Clearing out pasture and fence lines also involved felling a large number of gnarled pine trees. In the beginning we used handsaws since we had not yet acquired a chainsaw.

Things have come a long way since then. Our house should be done by Winter 2010. We have two registered Dexter cows and a Dexter bull. We also are raising 4 pig and 100 broiler chickens throughout the summer. This year the farm census will include 7 cows, 100 broiler chickens ( 50 at a time), at least 8 ducks (2 Saxony and 6 Dark Rouens), 21 laying hens ( mostly Speckled Sussex, 1 rabbit, 2 Pilgrim Geese, 3 goats ( with two more on the way), 1 sheep ( A Corsican sheep that everyone thinks is a goat), 1 Bourbon Red turkey, 4 Warren Wilson College pigs and 2 Great Pyrenees dogs, and one farm cat. We sell pastured poultry, grass fed beef, laying hens, ducks, free range eggs, shitake and oyster mushroom logs and mushrooms, and pastured pork. In the future we would like to become a licensed Dexter dairy and produce honey. We try to be as self sufficient as possible and hope to one day soon only have to go to the store for flour, sugar, corn meal, brew supplies, and coffee.

The Groundwork

The land my husband and I farm, used to be my grandfather’s and he farmed it from 1960 until his death in 1986. The whole farm was plowed by a small horse named Thunder who is still talked about to this day. We still have all the plows and singletrees and such and intend on using them with our ox, George, when he gets big enough. When my grand bought the place there was a tobacco allotment that went with the property. He raised vegetables, tobacco, and about 30 head of cattle on 28 acres. Up until about 2001 there was at least cattle on it but the drought forced my father and uncle to sell off the cattle due to the exceptionally high hay prices. Of the original 28 acres we have 15. In 2007 we decided to build our own house. We ordered some very basic cabin plans from Sheldon Designs. We bought the “Classic Mini Cabin Plans” for about $30. We had looked at other plans but found that many house plans cost hundreds of dollars. My husband had previous carpentry and stonework experience so that helped enormously as I had no idea about building a house. I am just going to start at the beginning and not sugar coat it so maybe someone can learn from our experience both good and bad.

Originally we wanted to build in the valley of our property but were advised against it because of the water flow so we decided to build a house further up on the side of the mountain. We had it excavated for a full basement and dug out footers before we even realized just how much it would cost to get a concrete truck up our road. With a pump truck costing an extra $250 for each concrete pour, the price of concrete, and the amount of road work necessary to get a concrete truck up our road, we abandoned the first house site and decided to do a post and pad foundation a bit further up the mountain at 3,000 feet but beside our road. It was frustrating but necessary.

We started to lay out the footprint of our house and get it square, which is harder than it sounds. We had a family friend help us use a two person auger that was rented to loosen up the dirt so we could dig our footers out by hand. At this point it got too cold to pour concrete so we had to wait until it warmed up. My husband and I poured the concrete for our foundation by ourselves mostly. We had assistance for a day or two when we were pouring the largest columns and to haul some supplies. It took 20 bags of Portland cement, about 3 or 4 tons of gravel, and I forgot how many tons of sand. We had a electric concrete mixer but we had to pour the concrete into buckets or a wheel barrow in order to pour it in the right place. The gravel was a little ways from the concrete mixer so it had to be pulled by wagon to the edge of bank and then shoveled in buckets to be loaded into the concrete mixer. It took us from the middle on June of 2009 to the middle of July 2009 to pour the footers and columns for the foundation. This house is being built with a building permit and all so we had to pass our inspection before going on to framing the house.

We had a lot of trouble getting the rafters right at first because we had changed the plans slightly and that threw off the slope slightly. Finally an old neighbor of ours that used to build houses explained it to us and we were off. It took me awhile to get used to working 20 ft up lifting rafters. Our loft ceiling wound up being a bit lower than we anticipated because of the changed slope.

By November with the help of a few days of hired labor we were able to get to the point of having the house “in the dry” as it is called.

This means the sheathing and house wrap was on and the metal roof. At this point the weather turned extremely wet and then it turned cold. It was very hard to get anything done because of the temperature so we did not get all our siding up until this Spring. Since it didn’t get cold until late in the year we didn’t get to butcher our pigs until the end of January. I was living in the camper and the only place we had to hang the pigs, gut, and process them was the inside of my house which looked like this on the outside at the time. The picture of me standing next to one of the pigs turned out blurry unfortunately. It was dark and snowy and we could not get many pictures to take well. At least plastic was put down on the floor. Sometimes you have to make the best of things. This year I think hog killing time will be a bit easier.

After the siding and such was done we had to embark on the adventure of figuring out the plumbing and electric systems and make sure that they could pass code. We considered just having a plumber come in and do the work for us but quickly learned that the cost was exorbitant. For our 600 square foot house we were quoted $2800-$4000 including materials to plumb a kitchen sink, outdoor picket, bathroom shower, toilet, and bathroom sink, clothes washer, and water heater. We knew that for an experienced plumber that this was only a day or twos work and they wanted that much money. I don’t mind paying a competitive wage for quality work but a few grand a day seems excessive. We are not building this house on a loan but as we can so we have tried to be careful about cost without compromising quality and energy efficiency. We discovered the same thing with the electric system. It would cost us well over a thousand dollars to wire the house. We put 25 outlets in our house, many of which were required by code. Our solution was to get a book on plumbing and a book on electric from Lowes. We hired an experienced carpenter that Matt had worked with before. He had some plumbing and electric experience and we managed to wire and plumb the place for a small fraction of the price a professional electrician or plumber would cost. We did the electric and plumbing for a lot less than what the plumbers wanted for just the plumbing. It definitely will go a lot slower if you try to save money and do stuff yourself unless you have a lot of personal experience with what you are doing. At the same time we are now at the point of having our propane lines installed and then going on to insulating the house. We had to live in a camper most of the time the house has been in construction but it was worth spending two winters in a 1979 Holiday Rambler 18ft camper to build our house without a loan. Our house is very, very small by todays standards. Our bedroom is the loft upstairs. The dimensions of the bottom of my house counting the sun room are 20′ x 24 or 480 sq ft with a 120 ft loft overhead. We built small but solid. We used 2 x 6s instead of 2 x4s so we could insulate the house better than what was required so that it will be more energy efficient and stronger built. It has been difficult to keep all the building code rules straight but we between the books we got and the fact that are local county building inspectors have been very helpful and considerate with us and answered all our questions politely and promptly. There is a lot of fear out there of the building inspector but in our experience they have been easy to work with. I think what happens is a lot of people get a bit surly about all the rules and then form an antagonistic relationship with the inspector. This makes both parties lives very hard. If you decide to build your own house, make sure that you plan everything well and ask a lot of questions. Some places let you do all the work on your house while other areas may have rules saying you need to use a licensed electrician for example. We live in a very rural and relaxed county so we were able to do all the work unlicensed besides septic work. The best advice I can give about building your own house is to make sure that you double check everything before you actually do it. We made a mistake of thinking someone knew how to install a chimney kit and did not look closely enough at the code for wood stoves. As a result our chimney kit was put in the wrong place and we had to hire someone else to move it for us which cost us time and money. At the same time realize that you will make mistakes but even if you do, your house is going to be a lot cheaper and in most cases built with better materials if you are your own contractor. Ask around about labor. Sometimes you can hire someone on the weekends that does what you need done for a day job, at a fraction of the cost of a commercial outfit. Oh and you have to learn to be patient. When you are building or self contracting your own home it never goes as fast as you would like it to. Remember to start small if you don’t have a lot of carpentry experience or help. You can always add on to your house later and it may even be possible to pay for your house as you go rather than have a 30 year mortgage to worry about. Even if it takes you 5 years to build a small house paying as you go, it is worth it because then you own it and that is a good feeling. Plus when people tell you what a nice place you have you can say “Thanks, we/I built it ourselves.”

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