My DIY House-Building Adventure: How We Decided To Build A Home Instead Of Buying One
“Can you see me now?” I yell, through the floor. I’m pantomiming a sexy grandma taking a shower, in front of the tub. The overhead lighting isn’t doing me any favours. Why do people keep putting fluorescent lights in bathrooms?
“Oh hey! There you are!"
My husband Scott waves from the bottom of a built-in step stool, positioned in front of the bathroom sink. When flipped up, it’s a step-stool to the sink. Flip it down, and there is a 6x12” slot cut out, viewable from the downstairs den.
Scott made a creeper face and winked.
Oh, that’s definitely a peephole.
After moving back to my hometown, we’d been looking at buying a house pretty seriously. About to have a kid, knowing we’re staying in Alaska for ever and ever, and mortgage rates being what they are--it made sense to buy a home in lieu of renting.
Plus, it felt like a good way to score some Grownups Points at an uncertain time. You know, when you’re scared you’re not doing the right thing, and accidentally buy into the notion that instead of making decisions, you can just purchase answers, generally involving lots of debt. Nothing like some rash decisions to spice up your lifestyle.
The idea of buying a house was also enticing because looking at real estate is one of my favourite pastimes. I love to see the inside of anyone’s house, and peursing dream homes is up there with filling up shopping baskets at pricey online clothing sites and then CLOSING the window at the last moment. Riveting.
Now that you can search online, you can compare hundreds of houses in one sitting. You can eliminate homes based on arbitrary things like type of flooring, size of parking spots, or number of ‘outdoor facilities.’ We’d started looking online a few months before we moved, hoping to minimize the number of moves we’d make before the baby arrived. We didn’t have a lot of criteria, other than small house, a few acres, not too far out of town. Wading through the sea of giant spec houses built on postage stamps, we’d flagged a handful that looked promising, and a few that looked about perfect.
If you ever want to know what good advertising looks like, check out some real estate. A slovenly miner’s shack, all but falling down the hill, that you have to walk a mile down a trail to get to, becomes a quaint cabin framed primly against a lovely forest.
The 50 years of junk, fallen-in smokehouse and pile of moose skulls have definitely been cropped out.
After we’d seen the third or fourth dilapidated house, I felt like we’d seen them all. Unkempt homes, walls whistling with drafts, without an appliance under the age of 50. A house made of a few trailers stitched together with spray-foam and plywood, 30 feet from a very busy railroad track (seriously, have you NOT seen ‘Stand By Me’?). And where we stood, in a house built almost a hundred years ago, a warren of narrow hallways that could not accommodate a modern human comfortably. Though it DID have a peephole installed in the bathroom.
Our budget was obviously pretty low, but still, if we were going to spend more money than we gross in a few years--we’re not going to buy a house we didn’t even like. The average square footage of homes built last year was 2,673 square feet. Which, coming from living in 24 square feet, seemed unnecessary. The average size home on the market in our area is right around 2,400 square feet. There were only a few homes in our price range under 1,800 square feet. Even if we could afford to buy a house that size, we sure as eggs couldn’t afford to heat, electrify and pay taxes on it, especially if it were in an older home with inefficient systems.
We didn’t want to expand our price range, because we had other plans for our time and money--other than working for a mortgage. In a lot of places in the country, the real estate markets are still inflated from higher demand, when contractors were spending $100,000 putting up a house one month, and selling it for $350,000 the next. You’re not paying the actual COST of creating housing, so much as the profit for the builder, in this situation. It’s a common market dynamic in growing areas.
So we decided to save the money, and build our own. Both Scott and I have considerable construction experience, and as avid DIYers, it was kind of the ultimate challenge: design and build our own home. One of the biggest thrills in life is starting with nothing.
Not a lot of people build their own homes anymore, but it used to be pretty common; as the American economy has changed, so has the way people live. After World War II, Americans started buying a lot more of the goods and services they traditionally took care of themselves. People learned how to use typewriters and adding machines, so they afford ready-made meals, buy factory-made clothes and buy a home--instead of learning how to frame and roof it themselves.
From where we are standing, it looked like a good idea to build our skills and some equity by building a home from scratch. All we need to do is find land, buy it, design a house, get funding, then actually build it. Since both my husband and I work full-time, finding the time to build is going to be tough. I did mention we also have a toddler, right?
Our goal is to build a house for our family. A smaller house, built using materials and techniques to make it affordable to sustain in the extreme climate of the middle of Alaska.
Now that all the initial excitement and Pinterest pinning has worn off, we’re seeing things a bit more clearly. Building your own house is a lot less planning sun-dappled reading nooks and drawers in stairs, and a lot more money and endless goddamn banking forms.
But I’m pretty sure it’s totally going to be worth it.