Introductory Note: Please forgive the length of this essay, which will be posted in four parts. My project took me 10 years, so I have a lot to include.
As a public service to those of you who are considering building a retreat for your family, I humbly offer a few of the lessons I’ve learned through the blood, sweat and tears I spilled to build a 480 square foot cottage in the woods.
Prior to this project, I had no real construction experience, and no clue what to expect. The effort wiped out my savings, caused tremendous stress, and generally consumed all my time and money for a decade. I would never, ever recommend that anyone build a retreat the way I did … Which is exactly why I’m writing this article: I hope that you – the readers who are just starting or considering this type of endeavor – can learn from my mistakes!
A Little Background
First, a little background: My family lives in a coastal area that is at risk for every form of natural disaster other than volcanoes. In 2008, Inspired largely by SurvivalBlog, my wife and I decided to purchase a piece of land, with the intention of building a small house on it. We made sure it checked all the boxes:
- It had a water supply
- The neighbors were friendly
- It was in a rural area, but within easy driving distance of a decent-sized city
- The soil was in good shape
- It was set back so that you couldn’t see the property from the road
In those respects, I followed the good advice presented on this blog, and I agree that they are important qualities in site selection. However, in the decade that I’ve been working on this project, I’ve learned that quite a few other things are important as well.
First of all, let me say that it IS possible for someone with zero construction experience to build a house from scratch. I promised myself I would not submit this article until I had a certificate of occupancy in my hand, so the fact that you’re reading this means I was successful. I still have to finish up the cabinets, but otherwise the place is done.
With that said, everything cost five times more and took 10 times longer than I anticipated, so here’s what I wish I would’ve known when I started.
Site Selection & Planning
There’s a famous quote attributed to General George S. Patton: “A good solution applied with vigor now is better than a perfect solution applied ten minutes later.” The same could be said of retreat locations: a good piece of land close to home is better than a perfect piece of land a little too far away.
We got a great patch of land, no doubt about it. 20 acres of pine trees with a little creek, and fantastic neighbors. The problem is, it’s 4 hours from where we actually live. Having to drive up there, on a Friday night or Saturday morning, sleep in a tent or (eventually) an unfinished house, and then drive back on Sunday night, made progress for the few first few years painfully slow, and consumed thousands of dollars in gasoline over the course of the project.
Lesson #1. Unless you have the scheduling flexibility to take off weeks at a time to work on your project, choose property within two hours of your home.
Trying to find plans for a house that would be small enough to be feasible, but large enough to be worthwhile was a bit of a challenge. I wound up paying $700 for a set of blueprints for the “Lowe’s Katrina Cottage.” This was a complete waste of money. Not only were the plans poorly designed (as an example, they had a bedroom in which the closets took up so much room there was nowhere to put a bed), but some of the design aspects it specified (such as using lattice to enclose the crawlspace) weren’t even up to code, which caused tremendous headaches for me later when I had to go back and fix them.
Today, there are plenty of options for tiny home designs, and the plans by Tumbleweed and Rural Studio are excellent.
Lesson #2. Get plans from a company that specializes in affordable, tiny houses.
Permits, Inspections And Building To Code
If you want to be completely off the grid, you are going to have to build in a county that does not require building permits/inspections. However, if you do this, you will probably not be able to get construction or homeowners insurance, which means a fire, tornado, or falling tree could wipe out years of work and leave you with nothing.
I made both mistakes: I built in a place that required the permitting and inspection process, but I didn’t get insurance until I was finished, which meant that I was in terror of my hard work being destroyed for the entire 10 year process. By the grace of God, I never had anything major happen, but if I were to do it again, I would definitely get insurance.
Lesson #3. If you’re building with a permit, get construction insurance for peace of mind.
The burden of construction inspections cannot be overstated. Most municipalities are set up to inspect and approve projects that are finished within a few months. My permit expired and had to be renewed twice before I finished the project. Many months, I had to call the inspector just to check in, even though I had no progress to report.
On a related note, those hankering for an off-grid haven should know that it is virtually impossible to pass a final inspection unless you’re on the grid. Building codes are written mostly by the housing industry, and a building that doesn’t have enough power to run all kinds of energy–hogging appliances is considered unfit for human habitation. This means that you WILL be required to tie into municipal electricity. To add insult to injury, many rural power companies will charge thousands of dollars to run a line out to a remote property, not to mention all the trees you have to cut down to let them get their trucks in.
Lesson #4. A building permit will require you to pay for things you may not want.
Municipal water is not a bad idea, especially since wells run dry a lot more than you might think they do. Unless you’re a confident plumber, you’ll also have to pay somebody to run a water line from wherever the meter is to your building site. in my case, I hired the same guy who put in the septic system. That worked out okay, although before the county would let me put septic in, I had to pay $2,000 to have the entire property re-surveyed. This was utter nonsense, but when you’re trying to build something, you are at the mercy of every petty official.
Lesson #5. Municipal water is convenient, but the expenses add up quickly.
Several years into my project, I heard that a friend’s brother had found some retreat property closer to our home town, in a county that did not require inspection. He was going to be able to build whatever he wanted, without having to report to anyone. Believe me, I was kicking myself for picking the place I did!
The land I bought was heavily forested. This meant that before I could do anything, I had to cut down trees. Lots of trees. On YouTube, this looks as easy as cutting a notch on one side and a straight cut on the other. In reality, trees fall in exactly the direction you don’t want them to. Even worse, they often fall against each other creating what are aptly called “widow makers.” Also, once you get them to the ground, you have to cut all the branches up, and cut the trunk into pieces small enough to move. it’s not really difficult, but it is time-consuming, and it can be very aggravating when your chainsaw gets stuck in a tree.
A couple of tips I didn’t learn until late in the process: Using a ratcheting “come-along” strap is the best way to ensure they’ll fall the way you want them to. Also, chainsaw chaps are a must have. I didn’t realize how important they were until I noticed a stripe on the leg of my chaps. I didn’t even realize I had brushed the chain against my leg, but if I hadn’t been wearing chaps, that little mistake probably would’ve been enough to put me in the hospital. Chainsaws are ridiculously dangerous, and as an amateur, you need to take every possible precaution.
Lesson #6. Logging is the most dangerous part of construction. Be extremely careful!
Once you’ve cleared the site, you’re going to need to grade it. My wife’s cousin had some heavy equipment experience, so I rented a backhoe from Sunbelt and let him do it. Once again, the fact that I was working 4 hours from home made this difficult, since I wasn’t there to take possession of the backhoe when it was delivered. I asked my neighbor to do it, and I did, but then they wound up accidentally hitting it with one of their cars while it was parked in their driveway. In a fight between a backhoe and a Honda Civic, I can tell you who’s going to win. For the sake of goodwill (I’ve read enough horror stories about what happens to city slickers who run afoul of their rural neighbors), I paid their $600 insurance deductible, but it was a bitter pill to swallow.
Lesson #7. Anytime you ask people for favors, there is the possibility of unintended consequences and unwanted expenses.
Once the site was graded, I was able to bring in someone to run the water line from the meter, and to place the septic tank. This takes a few hours for a professional, and is virtually impossible to do by yourself.
Foundation & Concrete Work
Remember those plans I bought? Well, they called for a foundation footer that was 20’ wide by 24’ long. I didn’t think I could do that by hand, so I hired a concrete guy to pour it. He drew a 20×24 rectangle, dug out a 12” trench centered on that line, and filled it with concrete.
Sounds reasonable, right? That’s what I thought, until I went to lay block on it.
You see, when the outside dimensions of your building are 20 x 24, what you really need is a footer that is mostly INSIDE that rectangle, NOT centered on it. Think about it: if the outside edge of the building is on the centerline of the foundation, HALF of the foundation is OUTSIDE the edge of your building. Masonry blocks are 8 inches wide, so a 12” footer centered on the outside perimeter of your building will only give you 6 inches of concrete to lay your block on. The other 6 inches of width extend beyond the wall of your house, doing nothing for you!
In my case, the guy actually poured a footer that was about 16 inches wide, so I was able to make it work, but in several areas it was right to the ragged edge.
Lesson #8. Make sure the concrete you’re pouring is where you need to lay the block.
There are two basic approaches to building the concrete part that holds up the building: solid walls, or piers. The plans I bought called for piers, which are nothing more than stacked columns of blocks. This seemed easier to me, but I learned a a few things in the process:
- If you build walls, you don’t have to fill them with anything. If you build piers, you need to fill them with concrete.
- Code calls for straps to be embedded in the piers, so that you can attach the wooden framing of the house to the concrete. This means you have to be extremely careful about positioning metal straps in the wet concrete so that when the concrete cures, they’re in the right place for the framing you haven’t built yet.
- Even if you build piers, you’re going to have to enclose the space between them with something to make a crawlspace under the house that isn’t open to wildlife and the elements.
- Pre-mixed bagged mortar is complete garbage. It has the texture of wet sand, and won’t stick to the trowel. You have to mix your own mortar by combining masonry cement and sand
- If you mix your own mortar, it goes from being too dry to too wet with the difference of about a thimbleful of water.
Lesson #9. Don’t assume that piers are easier than walls. There’s more to them than meets the eye.
Another lesson I learned the hard way was not to backfill the foundation with dirt until I’d had it inspected. Remember that lattice I mentioned? I have no idea why they put it on the plans, but the inspector was having none of it. I had to dig all the dirt out, scrupulously clean all the mud off the footer so that it would hold mortar properly, and lay a couple of rows of block on it so that I could build little wooden walls to keep pests and weather out of the crawlspace.
Oh, and if you want to go insane, I recommend trying to build four masonry block piers that are exactly level. I used string, lasers, old-fashioned bubble levels, and no matter what, each time I measured it, they would be slightly off. Eventually, I built little wooden “caps” on the top of each pier, got those level, and then filled them with wet concrete to make the final height line up.
Interesting thing about concrete: It actually doesn’t mind rain, but it doesn’t like freezing temperatures. If, like me, you’re trying to build your retreat over holidays, you’ll probably be working during the summer and Christmas vacations, when the weather is as uncomfortable as possible. If you’re looking at the possibility of an overnight freeze, you’ll need to cover up whatever concrete work you did during the day to avoid the risk of it cracking and being ruined.
Another tip: mixing large batches of concrete in a wheelbarrow is unnecessary. I was very nervous about making the slabs that the front and rear steps we’re going to rest on. I didn’t want to have to pay for the concrete truck to come out, but I knew it would take more concrete then I could mix at one time in the wheelbarrow. Instead, I built a wooden form, emptied a bag of concrete into it, hosed it down, emptied another bag of concrete on top of it, hosed it down, and used the shovel to mix it together. In this way, I mix the concrete in place, rather than mixing it in something else and dumping it in. It took about eight bags of concrete to pour a relatively small slab, but I have to say, it worked beautifully!
Lesson #10. Don’t let concrete intimidate you. Once you learn how to mix it, you can build anything.
(To be continued in Part 2)