How NOT to Build a Retreat, by The Jewish Prepper, Pt. 4

(Continued from Part 3. This part concludes the series.)

Final Electric

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.
Final Thoughts

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!




21 Comments

  1. RE: electrical. Hard to do sometimes, but planning, planning, planning. It’s very useful to maximize the number of circuits – means more breakers (adds $$), which requires a bigger panel (more $$), more home runs (more $$), run 12 gauge wire for every thing (more $$) but worth it in the end (14 ga = 15 amp circuit, 12 ga= 20; some circuits are NEC-required to be 15 A (lighting) but having only 1 size of wire on hand (except for the 10ga for dryers, water heaters, etc.) minimizes the possibility for mistakes and provides a useful safety margin. When wiring, label everything. Everything. Knowing which switch or outlet is connected to which breaker (and the reverse) is useful beyond belief.

    Running gas lines inside walls for future propane or NG is easy when they’re open, very much expensive later (think stoves, dryers, heaters, propane or NG mantle lighting). Ditto for coaxial cable, Cat 6 for phone, intercom, computer networking, etc.

    After wiring & plumbing, BEFORE wallboard, fasten a couple yardsticks (vertical & horizontal) on each wall and photograph it. Having an accurately dimensioned record – and to measured scale – of exactly where wires/pipes/etc. are inside the wall will save time, money and anguish in the future. Pro Tip: a scale map of each wall is better – pick 2 diagonally opposite corner spots as “zero points” in each room (ex: 4 ft from floor in NW & SE corners, or NE/SW corners, whatever works) and measure and record positions of wiring boxes, wire/cable runs, piping, etc. vertically and horizontally from that point and make a detailed map. Takes one hour for 2 people, saves days later.

    Planning up front – or, better, building it in – a transfer switch means at least one receptacle, preferably 2, in each room can easily be generator-fed (pro tip: put in a transfer switch circuit just for ceiling fans in all the rooms even if you don’t initially plan to have ceiling fans. You will want them later). Fridges, freezers, need their own dedicated circuits on the transfer switch, and another fridge/freezer circuit in the basement provides future options.

    Water – again, more “circuits” is better, and include valves. It’s handy, sometimes critical, to be able to shut water off to one bathroom to fix plumbing rather than have to shut down the entire house. Putting toilets on their own unique water “circuit” – and a “circuit” foer each toilet isn’t excessive – allows future flexiblity for using them during a water-limited SHTF event (don’t forget check valves between toilet “circuits” and the main water supply if there’s ever a possibility of using non-potable water to supply toilets).

    Can’t stress planning enough – changing things with eraser and pencil is free, doing it with saws, nails and hammers isn’t. Tip: using marking paint, lay out the entire house – walls, doors, windows – to exact dimensions on the ground and walk & study it for a few days. You may discover things like a 42″ wide hallway easily allows 2-way traffic, a 36-inch hallway interferes with it, a particular door swing interferes with use of adjacent space, moving a door or window a few feet makes using the space easier. Those extra 6 inches in the hallway will cost money, not having them will cause a lifetime of frustration. Pay particular attention to switch/outlet placement near doors & windows, and adding them to hallways, and common area ceilings – ceiling-mounted LED night lights (all on one transfer switch circuit) are a good very low amperage way of providing the minimal light necessary for easy navigation in hallways, bathrooms, etc. Positioning is important – also think of them as “target identification lights.”

    Plan for options – ex: a pocket door may be the ideal solution, but a swing door is much cheaper. Design & construct in space for the pocket door, install a pre-hung swing door to start with.

    Contracts – a lawyer I know often says “if it isn’t written down in legible and easy to understand black print on a white page, in English, and signed by all the grownups, it isn’t a contract, it’s just an opinion.” Spell things out, clearly and in detail, whether it’s “build my house” or “install a water heater in the NW corner of the garage and connect it to the correct cold and hot water piping and proper capacity electric service” – specify heater gallon size, fuel type, pipe size, wiring size, fitting type, shutoff valves, etc. Humans do lousy jobs at communicating, especially verbally; based on my background what I think I understand may be radically different from what you think you said based on your different background.

    1. Ohio Guy, AMEN! to that. This was a most interesting series. My wife and I built two houses and we can relate to so many of the experiences of Jewish Prepper. Looking back they were great experiences. Of course the first house was the toughest. This series should help a lot of folks contemplating such an undertaking.

    2. Thank you for the kind words! Nosmo, your comment is TERRIFIC advice. The importance of marking things when they’re visible can’t be overstated. I love your idea of photographing with a yardstick for reference.

  2. I applaud you for your honesty in telling of your trials and tribulations so others can learn from you–thank you for this. My husband and I are indebted to those who were honest about their trials and tribulations where we learned from them before we set sail with our children. Of course, we also had our own trials and tribulations which we have shared with other cruisers. Good for you sir, may you and your wife have numerous years in your retreat filled with joy.

  3. Great article. As a retired HVAC contractor and having built my home 25 years ago, this is excellent. I have had to work with many code and building inspectors. A few were good to work with but sadly most were jerks. There is something in human nature, that when they have a little authority and power, they become a**holes. Yes, I knew the good and bad contractors. The lowest bid is not necessarily the best bid. On many occasions, I received calls to fix problems where the customer had taken the lowest bid and could not get that contractor to come back. Eventually those contractors go out of business but not before they sucker a lot of unsuspecting customers. After you have made the sacrifices to build or buy your home, don’t forget to treat for termites if they are problem in your area. I have seen far too many homes in the southeastern US destroyed or damaged when the owner failed to protect against termites.

  4. I would suggest that you invest in a SimpleSafe alarm system. It is relatively inexpensive and you can install it yourself. I had one installed in my remote bug out. I also had a self-installed 8 cam video security system.

  5. Thank you to everyone who stuck with this very long series all the way to the end! The many excellent and useful comments that were submitted add tremendous value, and I hope that future readers will take the time to learn from the expert advice provided so freely on all four parts of this series.

  6. I admire your stick-to-it attitude; 10 years is a long time to endure all the problems you faced and solved. And congrats to your spouse for staying with you!!! Hopefully you can pass your self-built homestead to your kids and grand kids.

  7. Wow! I am so impressed by all that you were able to accomplish! The lessons you have shared with us are valuable, and we owe you a big debt of gratitude for sharing so openly, even when things did NOT go well! I salute you and your family, and wish you many happy years in your homemade palace!

  8. @Jew Prepper…

    Excellent post. I too had a post similar a year ago. You can read all about it here. The wife and I had the same conversations. Sounds like you’re from the east coast just by reading through this–we were leaving the Communist regime of The People’s Republic of California.

    You can see us here:
    https://survivalblog.com/?s=X.+liberal

    A few things [not for you since your done] for other readers attempting this feat of DIY [building you’re own retreat home].

    1) Go to a region of the country were there are NO permits and NO inspections unless you want them–we did!

    2) Spend 100s of hours watching YouTube videos, talking to contractors, Journeymen in the trades, and hardware professionals that know their stuff! I did this for a year straight without ever digging ground. My notes were copious and piled high. But I knew what I was doing, had all the calculations of weight, load bearing walls, electric load, and all internal guts of the place well in advance of construction… [Just thinking of your electrical box cut out of the sheet rock which would’ve been easily mitigate with a search “YouTube video on how to cut out an electrical switch from sheet rock”].

    3) We purchased a log home kit from a reputable company and they included the plans in with the kit. They even milled all the logs and assembled the logs in their factory before shipment. They labeled each log and gave an informative schematic.

    4) I was an electrical engineer by bachlor’s degree so had no issues there, taught myself about plumbing and septic installation and did it myself–then had the plumber lay the gas lines but I already had the plumbing all set but not PVC glued–told him to spot check- he did and that was signed off.].

    5) I rented my own Link Belt 210 excavator which cost $800 per day- I used it two days and the excavating company was going to charge $4000.

    6) I spent months on site due to being a CPA and can work remotely or just didnt take a contract during those times.

    7) This is the big one for us… ALL off grid! No CITY electric hookup, water hookup, sewer hookup, or even gas hookup. We have solar panels, buried propane tank, septic tank, and well water. NO GOVERNMENT HARASSMENT– I can’t caution this enough–the US GOV is recording all your appliances by their load on the electrical line and when they turn on and off–who’s home and when. After living in KALIFORNIA, it was attack the state legislature or remove ourselves from Communism. We made the right move!

    Anyways Jehovah was good to you!
    God Bless!

  9. I built two houses myself that my family have lived in. The kids are gone now but my wife and I are living in the second house that we built. I can sure appreciate what you and your wife have gone through. While building our second home I shot my wife in the hand with a nail gun. She couldn’t have carried on more about it if I had taken a chain saw and cut her arm off. And then a few weeks later I shot myself in the hand and the three inch nail went in on the left side of my hand and was sticking out on the right side. The nail head was visible so I took out my pliers and pulled it out. It put up a good resistance coming out because of the paper that was glued to the nail. Surprisingly it didn’t hurt that much. A few months later I accidently slid off my roof after stepping on a piece of tar paper which had blown loose in a storm the night before. That cost me three broken bones in my foot. The old saying “blood, sweat and tears” became a reality through it all but my wife and I survived. Now we’re living in a paid for house out in the country which also happens to be our survival retreat. It was all good.

  10. OUCH! Hats off for your efforts. After building 2 dwellings for self use in the 1990’s,. three recommendations for 2019 and beyond, be it off grid or on grid. #1 – get pre-approved by lender of choice for adequate funds. #2 – rudimentary Spanish to comprehend all subcontractor. #3 – closely review ALL applicable local building requirements, especially hook-up fees for public utilities , grading , reforestation , etc. Remember, to your government, your project is its ready made profit source.

  11. This was an excellent series! Great advice. Through it all, it sounds like you had a kind, patient attitude. God saw you through in your perseverance. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  12. For the layman or really anyone who cares about quality construction and is trying to manage subcontractors — this book is the, lowercase b, bible: https://www.amazon.com/Residential-Light-Commercial-Construction-Standards/dp/0876296584

    In hot climates given proper ventilation, higher ceilings and steeper roof pitches do keep homes cooler/liveable w/o electricity/ac.

    Agree w/ comments regarding contracts, and also agree that paying for AT LEAST a third-party construction inspector to do an open wall inspection prior to closing walls is worth it’s weight in gold.

    Also, while walls are open, spray everything w/ borate/boracare. Largely prevents termite and mold/rot damage across common woods.

    Mentioned in earlier article that mineral wool insulation is far superior to fiberglas, and I prefer it to spray foam due to it allowing a house to breathe (and also eliminates concerns about off-gassing).

    Should have mentioned in earlier post — but don’t notch structural members w/o adding add’l support. Your hurricane straps likely would have required a 2×6 at top and 2×4 at bottom for code had you notched them, if not an add’l 2×12 to each side…

    Thanks for the story!

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