(Continued from Part 3. This part concludes the series.)
Up until this point, we had been working off generator power. Flashlights and battery powered LED lights were our only light source, and a kerosene heater and an old window AC unit were our only climate control.
Once I had the drywall up, the inspector signed off on permanent power. This meant I was legally allowed to have the power company hook up a line to the house. There was only one problem: they needed to be able to get a truck in to set a pole. To get a truck in, I needed to cut down a whole lot of trees. Also, since this wasn’t a permanent residence, they were going to charge me quite a bit of money for their services. With the house so close to finally being done, I rationalized all these final expenses as house payments. I wanted to have everything done debt-free, but that just wasn’t going to be realistic. I gritted my teeth and put the electric company charge on a credit card.
After a lengthy, several-month detour for me to cut and clear the trees, I finally had an electric line hooked up to the house. Now it was time to get the lights on!
But… Here’s where things got interesting.
You see, I had never quite understood how my original electrician had wired the house. What he left me with didn’t look like any of the diagrams in my electrical wiring book, and his explanations didn’t make any sense. I had actually been losing sleep for three years over this. I had just figured it would make sense, once I had power.
Well, now that there was power running into the house, it didn’t seem that there was electricity going to any of the light switches. The more I checked, researched, and tested, the less it made sense. Upset, I called the electrician. He told me that he surely did not leave it that way, and that I must have messed it up somehow. I told him I did no such thing, and that he should either come back and fix it, or I would have someone else do it and send him the bill. He told me good luck, because he has a license and he pulled the permit. Furthermore, he told me that it was my fault for trying to do part of it myself, and waiting so long after the rough-in. He also told me that I was cheap and incompetent.
After this unpleasant conversation, I had to stop and think. I knew that I had not cut or covered any of his work, because I had personally hung every sheet of insulation and drywall in the house. Hoping that I was somehow mistaken about the lack of current going to light switches, I realized I would have to bring in somebody who knew what he was doing.
Old School Wiring Tracing
I did what I should’ve done in the first place, and got a local recommendation. The HVAC, plumber and concrete guy that I hired all told me the same name. He was a 66-year-old man, who had seen it all, and could fix anything.
I was hoping this expert would have some fancy tools that would let him trace the wires hidden in the walls. He didn’t. In fact, the only tool I saw him use was a pair of pliers. I explained to him the situation. He took an extension cord, plugged it into one of the outlets (which did have power), and then stuck the bare ends of the wire from a light switch box into it. The ceiling light lit up. “Well, right there, that tells you he’s a liar,” he commented. He went through all the bare-ended wires, and using a simple extension cord, figured out where they all went. By plugging a lamp into the outlets, he figured out which circuit breaker was which. There were a few that I had not been able to identify, and they turned out to be the one for under the sink, the one for the fridge, and an exterior outlet.
Every wire and every breaker was accounted for. I was absolutely right. The electrician had simply forgotten to run power to four out of five light switches in the house. He had also made a number of other errors, such as using the wrong amperage of circuit breaker for the type of wire running to the stove, not running a wire to the hallway for a smoke detector as required by code, and so on.
Perhaps surprisingly, instead of being angry, I was elated! Finally, I was vindicated. I wasn’t stupid or crazy, and I haven’t missed anything up. The guy I had hired had simply done a horrible job wiring the house, and had been gaslighting me for three years while I complained about it.
Because all the walls were covered with sheetrock, the electrician had to cut a few patches in the drywall, drill holes to the floor, and run wires in the crawlspace to provide power at all the outlets. This took about a day and a half, for him and an assistant, and cost me $1,000.
I have to tell you, I have never been so happy to pay a thousand-dollar bill in my life. Being able to walk through the house, turn on all the lights, turn on the air-conditioner, and wash my hands with hot water was an indescribable joy. After 10 years of work, strain on my family, and pressure on our household finances, the hard part was finally done!
Lesson #24. Hire local tradesmen, recommended by other local tradesmen.
Keeping It Safe
In some municipalities, a home has to be 100% finished in order to get a certificate of occupancy. Fortunately, in this county, it was okay that I didn’t have the cabinets and trim finished. The inspector walked through the house, said, “It looks like you’re done,” and signed the paper. What a feeling! A decade of work was finally drawing to a close.
Of course, now a new fear started to creep in. What if something happened to the house? A lightning strike, or a tree falling, or even neighborhood vandals with an appetite for arson? I needed insurance. This turned out to be an interesting adventure too, as most insurance companies only write policies for primary residences. Apparently, they figure that if you’re rich enough to have a second house, you’re rich enough to pay to replace it. Fortunately, once I talked to a professional insurance agent, I was able to find a very reasonably-priced policy to insure the fruits of my labor.
Also, I mentioned that the property had been robbed earlier in the process. I’m fairly certain this was done by some sketchy painters that my neighbors had hired. Even though my house isn’t visible from the road, it is visible from neighboring property. After that event (for which the police were zero help), I installed a motion-activated trail camera so that I could check on who and what was there when I wasn’t.
Lesson #25. Take precautions to safeguard your property when you’re not there.
Things That I Wish I Had Known
Building a retreat is not a small undertaking. If I knew then what I know now, I might not have taken on the challenge. But, if I could speak to my younger self, here’s what I would tell him.
- Find property within two hours of your house in a municipality that does not require inspections.
- Build an outhouse first, especially since you are working with a spouse and kids.
- Build a small barn second, and have the utility company run water and power to the barn. Not only is this great carpentry practice, it will give you a place to sleep and charge tools while you are building the house. Once you’re done, you can use it as a workshop or storage shed.
- Get plans from Rural Studio or Tumbleweed Homes. Unless you live in an area with heavy snow, build a roof with a pitch shallow enough to comfortably walk on.
- Don’t count on help from friends and family. Even if they mean well, everybody is busy. Assume that you will have to either do things by yourself, or pay for help.
- Take into consideration changes in family size. Not only does having more children affect how much space you need, it impacts the resources available for the project.
- Don’t leave anything at the building site you wouldn’t want stolen. Also, put up a trail camera so that you can see if people are snooping around.
- Get a propane powered camp water heater. Being able to take a hot shower makes all the difference in the world.
- Don’t worry about using fancy materials. Tried-and-true insulation, moulding and drywall are your friends. The only exception is AdvanTech flooring panels. Don’t even think about using regular OSB for your subfloor.
- Get a local recommendation for concrete, plumbing and electrical work. If you find one good tradesman, they can usually recommend others of similar quality.
- Vinyl plank flooring is a good choice. It looks a lot like wood flooring, but is a fraction of the price and water resistant. It is light and easy to work with, and offers great value.
- Don’t assume that professionals will do their job properly. If something doesn’t look right to you, point it out.
- Educate yourself! The more you know, the easier things will be, and the less you’ll have to waste time and money by doing things twice.
Building a retreat is every prepper’s dream. I think that every single person who saw the project – from the HVAC tech to the roofer – commented that they would love to do the same sort of thing for themselves.
I’m glad that I was able to do it, but I do wish I’d been smarter about it. It took me my entire decade of my 30s. I have no savings. My wife and I had quite a few tough conversations. I spent a lot of nights alone, away from home, in less than comfortable surroundings. But, now that it’s done, it does feel worth it. I have a house with no house payment. In an emergency, my family has a safe place to go. Under normal circumstances, we have a second home that – while it’s a little cramped – is a cozy vacation spot.
My hope in writing this is to save you, the reader, some of the heartache that I experienced. I haven’t covered every construction process in detail; there are plenty of books and videos that will do that. Instead, I’ve tried to point out some of the pitfalls that I didn’t see coming, and to share with you the lessons that I learned the hard way.
The best part of building a house is that the end of the construction process is just the beginning of living in it. If you decide to build your own retreat, I wish you the best of luck, and the greatest success!