How NOT to Build a Retreat, by The Jewish Prepper, Pt. 3

(Continued from Part 2)

Windows and Siding

You will often see people recommending salvaged windows for construction projects. Ignore those recommendations! You want new windows, and the ones with a complete rectangle of vinyl trim that snaps into place on the front. I got a good deal on windows that had no interior frame and no exterior vinyl fins, which meant I had to cobble those parts together myself. Every time I drive by a house with beautiful vinyl-framed windows, I feel a pang of jealousy, because mine not only took far longer to install, and they will always look shabby.

Vinyl siding is what it is: inexpensive and not particularly attractive. Large spaces of wall look good, but anytime you have porch railings, electrical boxes, or other things that stick out, you have to build a little frame out of “J channel” trim, and there’s just no way to make it look good.

Lesson #19. Vinyl siding is affordable, but finicky. Cut and install it with care.


Mechanicals, Insulation and Drywall

The mechanical systems of a home – plumbing, electrical and HVAC – are required by code, and pretty much have to be done by professionals. The key here is not to get ripped off. The biggest mistake I made was hiring an electrician I knew from my hometown, and paying for him to travel out to my place, rather than hiring somebody local. My rationale was that somebody I knew would do the job properly, and be accessible if I had any questions. In actuality, the opposite was true. He charged me $3,500 to wire the house, but didn’t explain or label anything, and left me a box full of switches and electrical outlets to put in myself. And, since he was 4 hours away, I couldn’t get him to come back out and sort it out.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t have the original electrician finish the job and put all the switches in at the time he wired it, the answer is: the inspector! When you build a house, each step of the work must be checked before you can do the next step. Mechanicals require a rough-in inspection, before they can be finished. This means the inspector wants to see all the wiring before the switches and receptacles going on. This means that you, as the builder, have to pay your mechanicals people to come out twice. Unless, like me, you’re foolish enough to think you can do part of the job yourself.

Once the wiring and plumbing are in, you will need to install insulation. I had heard great things about spray foam insulation, and I had done blown-in insulation in the attic of my real home, so I was a little prejudiced against good old fashion fiberglass batts. However, after doing a little research into how much spray foam insulation cost, I realized I was going to have to bite the bullet and use fiberglass.

One of the books I read about housebuilding recommended that insulation always be done by a subcontractor. The author’s explanation was that it’s such an unpleasant job, and the cost of materials is such a high percentage of the total cost, it just makes sense to have someone else do it. But since I was beyond broke by this point, I decided to do it myself.

To my surprise, it really wasn’t that bad! It is tedious work, but it is not difficult, even in the crawlspace, and modern fiberglass insulation is not nearly as itchy as the old stuff I remember from when I was a kid.

One note about tiny houses: sound travels, and there is very little privacy. Putting insulation in your interior walls is not expensive, and makes a dramatic difference in how much sound carries from room to room.

Lesson #20. For a tiny house, fiberglass insulation works well, and is cheaper and easier than more modern forms of insulation.

Drywall is another tedious job, but it is also quite difficult to do well. Unlike insulation, where any mistakes will be sealed out of sight, imperfections in drywall will be staring you in the face forever. Screwing 4’x8’ sheets of drywall on the ceiling is another job that required me to pay for outside help. A couple of experienced guys can cover the ceiling of a tiny house with drywall in a couple of hours, while it might take an entire day for, say, one man and his teenage daughter to do a single room. The process of “mudding” – applying joint compound to smooth out the seams between sheets and cover screw holes – is also a job that takes forever for an unskilled amateur, but can be done remarkably quickly by a pro.

I did learn a few things about drywall during this process. I was worried about mold in the bathroom walls, so I chose to use cement board instead of the cheaper “green board” that most contractors use in bathrooms. But what I didn’t realize was that you can’t finish cement board the same way you finish drywall (with joint compound and tape). You have to use the same kind of “thin set” mortar that is used to lay tile. This meant I had to cover the entire interior of the bathroom with a thin layer of mortar, and accept a bohemian distressed look for the walls. It turned out okay, but it took a LONG time. My advice – just use green board!

Lesson #21. Don’t underestimate the importance and complexity of drywall. Expect to either spend a long time on it, or hire somebody who knows what they’re doing.


Flooring and Interiors

One of the few positives that resulted from the project taking as long as it did was that, by the last year or so, my two older kids were big enough to help, and our youngest was old enough to amuse himself while my wife rejoined the construction crew.

Once the drywall was finished, the whole family started feeling a lot more positive about the project. We still didn’t really have any money for it, but it was easy to see how we would wind up with a livable house and no house payment. What had started off as a refuge from the zombie apocalypse started to feel more like a place for weekend getaways, and perhaps even for the kids to live in, if they attended college in the area.

When we had to evacuate to the retreat for two separate hurricanes in one year, not only did we feel great that we had a safe place to go, but we were able to use the time to hang vinyl siding, put in flooring and start painting the walls!

We are a family of active people and multiple pets. After looking at the various flooring options available, I decided to use luxury vinyl plank. Commonly referred to in the construction industry as “LVT” or “pet flooring,” this material is very durable, water resistant, and easy to install. It’s slightly more expensive than Pergo, but much more pleasant to work with and walk on, and less expensive than wood or cork flooring. I have to say, this was one of the best decisions I made. My wife and kids love the way it looks, and I love how it takes a beating and doesn’t scratch or dent. The seams between LVT planks aren’t watertight, so I did put conventional linoleum-style sheet vinyl in the bathroom.

Lesson #22. Flooring isn’t cheap, so get something you can live with for a long time. Luxury vinyl tile is a good compromise between cost and quality.

At this point, some more mistakes started to cause problems for me. Hanging drywall is not fun, and cutting out the holes for electrical receptacle boxes is the most aggravating part of the job. What you’re supposed to do is outline the boxes with cheap lipstick, hold the drywall in place, push it against the box, and then use the transferred lipstick lines as a cutting guide. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that little trick, so I spent hours painstakingly transferring measurements that always seemed to be a little bit off. It’s true that you can cut a hole bigger, but you can’t cut it smaller! This means that I wound up with most of my receptacle boxes sitting in drywall holes that were a little more generous than they should be. I thought this was within acceptable margins until I went to put an outlet cover on, and realized that it didn’t cover the hole. This was after we had painted. I had to go back with patching tape and spackle, and build out the wall around every receptacle in the house.

Around the same time, I noticed yet another problem related to the work done by my electrician. All the switches and outlets were set too deep in the wall. Another angry phone call to my electrician, and the best I got was that he thought I had been planning on putting in paneling, and that I could use washers to push the outlets and switches out a bit. Worried not only about the inspector but also the possibility of a fire hazard, I opted instead to purchase a multi-pack of “outlet extenders” online. These are up to code, and worked quite well to solve a problem I shouldn’t have had in the first place.

Speaking of spackle, I also got into a bit of trouble trimming out the inside of the exterior doors. I used drywall on the inside of the doorways, but once I put the decorative molding around the doorway, I had very unsightly cracks. I had to use patching tape and spackle again, only this time I had to line the entire interior of the doorway. I would have been much better off just using wood for the narrow space around the inside of the doors.

Here’s a tip on baseboards: just use wood, not the fancy composite materials. I was attracted to the claims of durability and water resistance, but I did not realize that the material was so hard that my finish nailer wouldn’t even be able to fire into it, and hand hammered nails wouldn’t bury their heads in it without unacceptable puckering that also had to be spackled and covered.

Lesson #23. When in doubt, use wood for trim. Just because you can make something out of drywall or plastic doesn’t mean you should!

In order to finish out the plumbing, I needed to have a kitchen counter. I had been looking forward to building the cabinets myself, so I did just that. This is completely optional (and, frankly, I’m still working on them), so I’m not going to say too much about it, except to mention that you really need both a biscuit joiner and a Kreg jig if you want things to look nice and not have to go back and cover up screw holes with wood filler.

(To be concluded in Part 4)


  1. I’ve enjoyed reading your article, but I have to say that while your tenacity is impressive, your choice of materials and methods isn’t. I’m a 30+ year construction professional, so I do have an advantage. My recommendation for folks in your shoes is to tap into someone experienced in the industry before moving forward.
    Again, I’m extremely impressed with your tenacity and congratulate you on your success.

  2. A tip I’ve picked up is to hammer in nails most of the way, and then use a [nail-setting] punch to finish them in. If done correctly, you won’t get the puckering from the face of the hammer.

  3. Many thanks for your comments! Nathan, I’d be very interested in your suggestions re: materials. I am still no expert, and am always looking to learn.

  4. Insulation — I think mineral wool is always the way to go. Not standard in much of the US (it is in Canada), but it doesn’t sag, it doesn’t burn, and it doesn’t grow mold.

Comments are closed.