What would it take to make a cabin?
September 23, 2008 6:13 PM   Subscribe

How cheap is it to build a small house in the middle of the woods? Can someone with no carpentry skills do it?

So my girlfriend and I are debating building a small cabin outside of the city. We're thinking less than a thousand square feet, basic electricity and plumbing, able to handle winter and rain, and mostly for weekends and short stays year round.

A lot of the prefab designs look like a basic living room area, a bathroom, and a sleeping loft. I think we're imagining something close to something like that. Basically a cabin for us to work or unwind.

How difficult would this be to build ourselves? How cheaply could we do it if we both participated in the construction? Could we build it ourselves with a carpenter? How long would it take if we dedicated real time to it?
We have some free time, a small budget, and want a space to go chill. If you were in our shoes, how would you do it?
posted by history is a weapon to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Read this and see it here. Admittedly, a little over done, but it's the same concept.
posted by webhund at 6:21 PM on September 23, 2008

I live in a small house in the woods, that I bought from a friend. It's about the size you're describing. He told me the materials cost him about $25K.

I helped him build an addition to the original house, and I would say you could do it with a carpenter. I wouldn't do by yourselves. You could also get experience (and I have some basic experience framing and using a circular saw) by working with Habitat for Humanity.

There's pictures on my Flickr page, linked on my profile.
posted by atchafalaya at 6:22 PM on September 23, 2008

I have little to no carpentry skills and have been thinking of building a Unit One for a long time, precisely because it seems so doable. It doesn't come plumbed, but looks easy to mod. Go for it!
posted by cocoagirl at 6:32 PM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A couple of years ago I designed and built a 2-story 1000 sq ft house in the woods from scratch with my own two hands. That's about as cheap as you can do it. And the results were awesome; it can be done. My words of wisdom:
- Sounds like you're in New York so there may be some real zoning issues. Where I am, the county doesn't care what you build.
- Get a carpentry textbook and just study the chapter on framing. Learn how to frame a wall. That's the key skill you'll be using. If you intend to design a small cottage house you should get well versed in all of this.
- A stud is 92 5/8".
- Learn about nominal dimensions of wood and learn and memorize the ACTUAL dimensions of your garden variety 2x4s and 2x6s. This is a skill you'll need.
- Don't put any more slope on your roof than you need. If the pitch is too high you're going to have a hell of a time working on it and may have to hire people to do it safely.
- Most of the money will end up being spent on plywood (decking, sheathing, subfloors, etc). You may not want to cut corners here; plywood will hold up nicely in most weather as you find time to build the house; OSB and waferboard may fall apart.
- Plan on bringing in electricity as early as you can. If you are able to saw all your wood by hand, you're a greater man than me.
- A good Paslode nail gun and compressor will be the best purchase you ever made.
- Avoid two story. This is the one thing I would not do again unless I had help. There's a real difference between putting 4x8 sheathing on a 1st floor and doing that on a 2nd floor.
- Water is easy to deal with, but toilet/waste disposal will be the main problem, and when you start talking septic fields, you're often talking permits. I think that the cheapest way to deal with this is design a grey vs. black water system which uses an RV septic tank ($200) and a septic pump ($200 to pipe that away to a well-maintained compost pile. That may not be feasible if there are zoning/permit restrictions.

I would do this again in a heartbeat. But no more two-story houses.
posted by crapmatic at 6:34 PM on September 23, 2008 [18 favorites]

The couple who built this small house put the initial cost of materials at about $6,000, not including land; I think that they've put more money into since the initial build. Building materials have gotten more expensive since then, and they were building in an area with little (or no) oversight — so they avoided a lot of administrative and permitting costs you would have to pay in some other places. They saved big money by not putting in a real foundation; many (if not most) houses around the world are built this way, but it's not optimal in terms of high winds, settling, or other potential problems. But it cuts the cost enormously, so they took the risk.

More examples of small houses can be seen here, ranging from cheap DIY to ultra expensive.

The difficulty is really pretty low. There are a thousand "build yourself a small house" books out there, a lot of them written during the hippy era. If you can follow step-by-step directions and use basic tools, you will be fine. The planning stages, and taking the care to make things square and level, takes more time and effort than the actual building, which is surprisingly easy. Saying this, I'm assuming you aren't doing something physically hard, like building with stone or logs, or using strange and unusual materials, or getting into really skilled carpentry (like the photos I have seen of Japanese-inspired wood work, for example). But standard construction, the kind where you can buy all your materials off the shelf at your local building supply store, is not hard at all.

Even things like electricity and plumbing are well within the reach of the DIYer, if you can be trusted to work slowly, carefully, and triple-check your work. (Check your local regulations on this, though — almost all places allow for owner/builders, but there are exceptions.)

There are a lot of trade-offs between cost and efficiency. For example, you can work a lot faster with a compressor and a pneumatic nail gun than you can swinging a hammer, but a good quality compressor and air tools are not cheap. Those same trade-offs happen at almost every step of the process, and there are rarely clear-cut answers.
posted by Forktine at 6:37 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

How difficult would this be to build ourselves? How cheaply could we do it if we both participated in the construction? Could we build it ourselves with a carpenter? How long would it take if we dedicated real time to it?
We have some free time, a small budget, and want a space to go chill. If you were in our shoes, how would you do it?

Its not difficult. If you can find a couple of other people to help you its possible that you could have the basic structure set up and roofed in a long weekend.

The budget items here -- the big budget items here -- that I don't see you mentioning are a) the land itself (which won't be cheap in any area within a decent weekend drive of NYC; b) the septic system; and c) the well. (I'm assuming here you actually mean "in the woods" as in building in an undeveloped area that's not connected to city water or sewage.) The well and the septic system are not things you can do yourself, you will need to hire contractors for this.

Here in Maine, not counting the cost of the land, its not unusual to be able to build a very rustic cabin (ie: outhouse instead of septic, rainwater barrel instead of a well) for under $5K. But I stress that would be a very, very rustic solution. The upside is, of course, that you now have a primitive getaway cabin that you can improve slowly as you have the money to do it.
posted by anastasiav at 6:40 PM on September 23, 2008

You're lucky to own some land in the woods. Plan well and respect the guidelines laid out by the County and State you're in, and you can build cheaply.

Recycled materials aren't allowed for structural use, and you'll need to get any waste disposal and electrical system pre-approved, but you can do this. Key in some woodlands is access to water. Often there are streams, but you're not allowed to pump from them. Wells are actually hard to dig in the woods; there's often no groundwater to speak of, it all runs off.

Good Luck. Take your time and do it right.
posted by reflecked at 6:53 PM on September 23, 2008

"Alone in the Wilderness"

A video about a guy who goes out into the Alaskan wilderness and builds a nice cabin using hand tools and mostly local resources. Not very instructional but considering that the guy filmed it himself and did a very good job, it's well worth watching. It usually airs on PBS during pledge drives late at night if you don't want to pay for the video.
posted by 517 at 6:56 PM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Country Plans has some neat low-cost plans and a helpful forum which includes we-built-this stories from folks who have purchased the plans. I bought a set of plans but have never done anything with them.
posted by maxwelton at 6:59 PM on September 23, 2008

If I were doing it, it'd be a yurt.
posted by hades at 7:25 PM on September 23, 2008

Best answer: I built a 12x14 foot cabin in the woods on a friend's land for about $800. It was a lot of fun and a great experience. The interior was unfinished, there was no real plumbing or electricity and only a camping stove. We scavenged a lot of the materials (metal roofing from an old bar, plywood from a tear-down project) and bought our lumber from a local sawmill (actually slightly more expensive than Lowes for the 2x4s, but they were rough cut and actually 2" by 4"). The living arrangement ended up not working out that well (I don't recommend building on land you don't personally own) so we only lived there for a few months (two people, two cats, two hundred square feet) but in my estimate it could have been finished for full time living with insulation, drywall, 12V electric and a greywater system for $2,000 or less. That would be all you need for a weekend get-a-way to unwind.

It really doesn't take anything other than a good head on your shoulders and the patience to work to a small tolerance on a large scale. I had some carpentry experience from building stuff as a teenager but really you can learn everything you need to know from one good book.

Like crapmatic said above, avoid high pitch roofs. I am lucky to be alive after nailing the boards, tarpaper and metal on my 50 degree pitched roof. Luckily my sketchy knowledge of knots was never put to the test. That said the roof was really the only place that I needed an extra set of hands, mostly to call 911 if I died and also to help lift the rafters.

Country Plans, mentioned by maxwelton above is an invaluable resource. The forum there is full of helpful people all doing exactly what you want to do and eager to help others, either with plans purchased on the site or ones you created yourself. Check out the sub-200 square feet designs -- lots of great ideas. Last week I stayed in a 15x20 cabin that was nicely finished and perfectly sized for a weekend retreat, including a decent sized bathroom and kitchen. The only thing you really need space for is storage, and if you aren't going to be living there full time you don't need to store a ton of stuff.

Good luck with your dream! You might want to try the Living Cube panelized design by Lester Walker to get your feet wet and to have a place to stay on your land while you build a more permanent cabin. We talked about the design on Country Plans awhile ago and there is a link to the plans.
posted by ChrisHartley at 7:56 PM on September 23, 2008

Do some google searches on "your state + cabin", "your state + etc." I'm under the impression that some states are much more casual than others about code and diy.

Also, and this may or may not be a factor, but factor in the cost to drive when you're buying your land. Up here in Canada, cottages are very popular, but with gas jumping up in price people are reluctant to drive to their cottage if it is far away,
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:52 PM on September 23, 2008

If it were me I'd to it with shipping containers.
posted by O9scar at 12:11 AM on September 24, 2008

My brother built a house in a wooded area, from a kit. A bit more than a "cabin" but you might find the blog interesting in terms of issues that came up.
posted by mikepop at 5:35 AM on September 24, 2008

toilet/waste disposal will be the main problem

unless you build a dry composting toilet. Use a design that has a small, always-on extractor fan in the vent stack (a good quality quiet computer fan is good for this - run it off a 5W solar panel and a motorcycle battery) and you won't even smell your own farts.

A well built dry composter is nicer to use than a flusher, and much easier to build and less troublesome to maintain than a septic tank and leach field.
posted by flabdablet at 7:05 AM on September 24, 2008

Also, if anything you read on grey water contradicts Art Ludwig, believe Art Ludwig.
posted by flabdablet at 7:08 AM on September 24, 2008

And if dry composting freaks you out, there's always waste incineration.
posted by notyou at 7:43 AM on September 24, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, there are a lot of great answers here. For those of you who have gone through with the project, I'm really curious about what was the overall cost and the number of people who helped. But this has been really helpful so far.
posted by history is a weapon at 8:31 AM on September 24, 2008

My family did this when my brother and I were teenagers. It wasn't our primary home, though -- just a very rudimentary cabin at the very top of the Adirondack Park, a reasonable drive right across the border from Montreal where we lived. We built the structure ourselves, with occasional help from friends and relatives. We outsourced the cabinetry, electricity, well-digging, and rudimentary plumbing.

I can't help you with the cost -- it was years ago. But it's important to note that inexperience took a huge toll in efficiency. The project took us infinitely longer than we'd anticipated -- vast chunks of two summers and a lot of weekends in between.

It was well worth it, though. I made the roof myself! Not too many other things I've done have made me as proud.
posted by tangerine at 5:39 PM on September 24, 2008

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