Give me a home.
July 13, 2009 11:09 AM   Subscribe

How cheaply can I build a house?

This question is a sprawling mess. I'd love to get all sorts of information and even personal anecdotes on any and all aspects of the question, and things I haven't thought to ask.

I would like to build a one room tiny house, reminiscent of these.

Can it be done for $20,000, with an unfinished interior and no appliances?

How much can a fellow who is generally handy but not experienced in these things get away with doing himself?

Would it be sensible to have the exterior built, plumbing and electricity installed, and the rest (insulation, flooring, appliances, interior wall siding) done by myself? I think I could do those things, but I never have.

Having the house built on a trailer leaves me wondering about ways to reduce labor costs. Where is the least expensive labor in the country?

The Tiny Houses in the link appear to be small enough to literally just tow to wherever I ultimately want them. Gas for the trip would be prohibitive, but what the heck, road trips are fun and I'd be towing my hotel behind me. Is this a stupid thing to consider?

How simple would it be to install RV-style sewage, water, and electricity hookups into the house, and then hook those up to city water and sewer in a regular ol' residential plot? Assuming problems with permits could be waved away/don't exist in my ultimate destination, is this something that tends to be simple and cost $1,000 or a major deal that runs many times higher than that? Local anecdotes from anywhere are welcome.

If I wanted to build on a foundation, costs would skyrocket, wouldn't they? Even though the foundation would be tiny, the same equipment would have to come out to dig the hole and then fill it up with concrete, right? Or would the small size make the cost of the foundation wind up about the same as the trailer ($3,000 or so)?

Are there national codes for plumbing and wiring that are inclusive and will meet all state standards? How much does it run to have a licensed electrician/plumber come out and okay the setup, assuming no extra work is required, were I to move from one state/locality to another? (Ballpark! Local anecdotes welcome!)

Are the Tiny Houses linked to above particularly expensive for their sizes? Are there alternatives?

I know I could pick up a used mobile home for less than $20,000, but I would view any mobile home as roughly having the quality of a cardboard box. Is that an incorrect assumption?

Is the information on this site a good starting point for this sort of project?

I absolutely understand that construction costs are very location specific. Local anecdotes from Oklahoma would be just as appreciated as ones from New York City.
posted by Nonce to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
There's a lot I could say in answer to this question, but I'll tell you that right now, used travel trailers are going CHEAP. Especially in places like Florida. Before we left there a couple weeks ago, there were tons in the 25-35 foot range for well under $12k, in excellent condition.
posted by TomMelee at 11:13 AM on July 13, 2009

posted by mdonley at 11:15 AM on July 13, 2009

You know, you can build a cob house for next to nothing, not portable but really easy to do.

You can also go geodesic and build a small house cheaply that is structurally sound and easy to assemble.
posted by iamabot at 11:19 AM on July 13, 2009

mdonley, the house looks great, but that is apparently the cost of just materiel and does not include the construction itself, which I imagine would double the final cost or so. Still quite reasonable, but I'm hoping to find a price point that is quite unreasonable.
posted by Nonce at 11:28 AM on July 13, 2009

As far as codes go, what you're looking for is the International Residential Code, usually 2003 will suffice but 2006 will be in place within the next year or three. It's adopted on a community by community (usually county, but some city ordinances count) and you'd have to check with and get permits in your locality.

If you want to make it portable, there's additional standards you need to follow -- but it'd probably be cheaper just to buy something and renovate it to your standards. I don't know the relevant department of transportation guidelines or where to find them.

With foundations, not all parts of the country require foundations that are as intensive as you're thinking. In the south, Block and Pad and Pier and Beam construction is very popular and is enjoying a comeback. Block and Pad foundations are built on concrete blocks that rest on compacted dirt pads. Pier and Beam construction requires drilled 12-15 foot holes that are filled with concrete to form piers, and then beams are laid on the piers. Frankly, both are fairly cheap to do and could be done with hand tools, although it's probably easier/better to have someone who knows what they're doing actually do the site prep. Concrete pads are also really pretty easy to pour, but then you have to lay your drain plumbing and stuff ahead of time.

If you're mainly interested in taking your home with you, a cheap used small van-based motorhome will only run you about $10-20k.
posted by SpecialK at 11:33 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a great topic and one that I can spend a long time thinking and talking about. Lots of other people are the same, some of them hang out at the Country Plans web forum. It is a trove of information, although there isn't as much discussion about portable buildings. Check out the 200sq ft building thread especially.

You can build a 2x4 and plywood/OSB cabin with a shed or hip roof for less than a grand, similar to what you see for sale in the parking lot of a Home Depot. Depending on your preference it wouldn't be very difficult to install a 12V or even 120V electric system. If you stick to off the shelf RV parts I imagine you can do a minimal plumbing system for not a whole lot of money. Then you can add some R13 fiberglass insulation and sheetrock for a bit more money. You can buy your windows and door from a salvage store like Habitat for Humanity's reStore for one or two hundred bucks. The catch is that nothing you are doing will meet code. Sometimes it won't have to, especially if it all fits on a flatbed trailer. The drawback is that building codes are often just common sense and basic safety precautions written down and not following them can lead to problems/death later on.

If you are willing to learn and make mistakes then you can do all the work yourself, which is good because it may be difficult to get a contractor to work on a non-code approved project.

I believe with the Tumbleweed houses you are paying a lot for fancy -- they don't look like Home Depot lawn care storage sheds -- and for quality. That may be worth it for you, or it may not. If you take your time and do a good job I wouldn't be surprised if you can match or beat Tumbleweed et all on all counts.

If you spend some time reading you should be able to come up with a design and a parts list yourself. Then you just have to head down to a building supply store and fill in the prices on your spreadsheet. if you live in a rural area with trees you may have a local rough cut sawmill that may be less expensive than a big box store for some lumber.

On iamabot's suggestion, I think making geodesic domes water resistent is extremely difficult. That said, I've wanted to build a cardboard dome ever since I saw the idea.
posted by ChrisHartley at 11:53 AM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Permits can add a little or a lot to the project costs, so you might want to call your local permitting authority first (city or county planning/building department). If you're in Coastal California, you'll need a much different permit (more costly and time consuming, if nothing else) than if you move inland within the same County (at least where I work). Building departments can give you rough approximations for permit costs per square foot or for the total structure, based on what you want to (and can) do. They'll also be able to tell you if a certain building type is easier to make, or might even not be permitable in your jurisdiction (there was a problem with getting yurts permitted as living space, for example). Good luck!
posted by filthy light thief at 12:23 PM on July 13, 2009

Check out the EcoPad, a small house built on a trailer intended for use as affordable housing. You might be able to find some good ideas. Here's an article about it.

As iamabot suggested, cob can be very cheap. Most of the materials for a cob house can be found near the building site (so you don't have to buy them). The technique is easy to learn and a enjoyable. It's labour intensive though, so the only way it's cheap is if you do it yourself or with friends, or host a workshop. Cob building is very conducive to reuse of old windows, doors, etc. (usually can be found at recycling depots). To learn how to do it, take a workshop. The more intensive workshops (lasting a month or more) include sections on wiring and plumbing.

With a small building, it's practical to do the foundation yourself. Dig with a shovel, and use rocks instead of concrete.

If you use a composting toilet and grey water system, you can save a lot by not needing a septic system or hookups to sewage.
posted by Emanuel at 12:23 PM on July 13, 2009

check out this blog about a couple building a mini mobile cottage:

not sure if they have specific cost information, but they are detailing the construction process.

it's no question that if you do a lot of the work yourself, you will save a huge amount in labor costs. you are at least thinking about site costs, which is good.

take a look at this cheat sheet for residential design costs for a detailed list:

if you plan to have place you can tow around, would it be worth it to just invest in soemthing like this? or are you more interested in the building part?
posted by dityfleur at 12:51 PM on July 13, 2009

Yes. I know someone who took this course and built a simple cabin in the woods. He did not have proper plumbing; used a chemical toilet and hauled water in. (No, not legal or recommended) You can get some building supplies cheap or free if you are quite resourceful. freecycle, craigslist, Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, etc. I think if you do this, you will learn a lot and enjoy it. Rehabbing an RV looks like a great project, and might be easier to get permissions for putting it on a property.
posted by theora55 at 12:53 PM on July 13, 2009

sorry, about my links...

mobile cottage

residential construction cost cheat sheet

tab RV
posted by dityfleur at 12:53 PM on July 13, 2009

It makes sense to check for code compliance and whatever special needs exist for the localities where you initially place the house and where you might expect to move it. For example, where I live in a county on the Gulf Coast there are hurricane-related building codes which don't apply just one county inland. Where I used to live there were earthquake-related building codes.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:15 PM on July 13, 2009

Everything about construction is pretty easy to understand. The assemblies are straight forward. There are great how-to books on every conceivable part of home building. The only thing that can't be communicated in a book is the physicality and time required when doing construction on your own. If you are trying to keep costs under 20K because that's all the money you have, you'd be well served by getting some experience first.
Handy is not the same as efficient.
You'll either have an amazing experience and wind up with a cute little house, or you'll have an incomplete pile of scrap with a bright neon sign hovering above, flashing, "$20,000....$20,000....$20,000...."
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 1:17 PM on July 13, 2009

The alternative building options like cob are cool, but I don't know how practical they are. I assume they're a permit nightmare? I'll read more about them though.

The RV option is not as attractive to me as "house on a trailer" or just plain ol' house on a foundation because RVs, like mobile homes, feel cheap to me. Lots of plastic, high VOC emissions, and added mechanical maintenance for the vehicle itself.

The Tab RV thing looks neat, but it's not a home. The tiny houses have captured my imagination because as long as they can be hooked up to water and electricity, they can be full made into full, if cramped, homes (with tiny appliances).

That's important to me. If the fit and finish is there, and it's a solid, attractive, comfortable home, then it's really an investment. Thirty years from now I'll be able to sell it or rent it out or use it as a guest house or what the hell, live in it after my divorce. If it doesn't meet code and kills me because I fucked up the wiring, well, that's not a good thing long-term.

Outside appearance is not particularly important to me, but durability is. Inside, I hope to be able to use quality components

The mobile cottage link is excellent, dityfleur! And the country plans forum as well, chrishartley.
posted by Nonce at 1:44 PM on July 13, 2009

I'm hearing "Gypsy Wagon". Go for the gold.
posted by okbye at 2:02 PM on July 13, 2009

I had a super-insulated 1100 square foot house built for $60k (no interior finish; slab foundation). So I think it's entirely possible to build the shell of a much smaller house for $20k, especially if you do a good portion of the labor yourself. For pricing ideas, you might look at price lists for garages and sheds.

I'll bet you could do a lot of the work yourself if you're willing to learn. I restored an old house and designed and finished my new one using skills I learned from Sunset and similar do-it-yourself books from the library. I come from a family with no do-it-yourself genes and though I'm strong for a woman I'm not as strong as your average male construction worker, so I think anyone can develop these skills.

Framing isn't hard, and if I were going to build a small structure, I'd at least try to frame it myself even though my framing experience is limited. Plumbing and electrical aren't physically hard but I usually have pros do it because (1) I don't like doing it and (2) screw-ups can be expensive or even deadly.

The interior wood paneling like the stuff shown in those tiny houses is a pleasure to install--I used it in a tiny office. It's easy to work with and a great look. In contrast, drywall is heavy, can be hard to install solo, and to be done "right" requires labor-intensive finishing. However, drywall is less flammable and adds mass, which helps prevent temperature swings.

Re cob: It's cheap, but the wall system is only part of the cost of a house (roughly 20% if I remember correctly). You still have to pay for or scrounge everything else, including a roof, and in my area a cob floor isn't accepted by code folks, so here at least you'd have to have a foundation of some sort and a "normal" floor.

I lived in a $3,000 vintage trailer (built in 1968) for 7 years. Trailers are cheap, definitely, but mine was cheaply made. It wiggled and rattled when the wind blew hard and cost a fortune to heat. The advantage of an old trailer is that it's done outgassing by the time you get it.

If the size is right, you might consider starting with a free trashed-out mobile home and strip it down to the trailer, then build your home on the trailer. In my area, you can get a mobile home trailer for free if you're willing to take apart and landfill the "home" that sits on it. I've got one right now. You could take off the aluminum siding & sell it, keep the sink, appliances, etc. if they're still okay, set aside the "studs" as firewood, and landfill the rest. You'd end up with a perfectly solid trailer and a start on the appliances. Your main costs would be hauling and landfill fees.
posted by PatoPata at 2:13 PM on July 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've spent a lot of time researching this subject and my #1 recommendation in terms of a balance of cost, the resultant house, permit issues, speed and effort of construction, etc is go with a YURT. You'll find a zillion websites on them. They don't cost much, are portable (which often avoids zoning issues), and can be put together by a few people in a few days.

Another great option, although one that requires a TON of effort, is EARTHSHIPS. If you don't like earthships there are many other methods (cob homes, etc.) that build a more traditional home at a slightly higher cost.

Finally, just to propose one other option, consider living on a boat. Used sailboats are very inexpensive and open up a whole new world of opportunities.

Good luck. Oh, and check out "Mortgage-Free" by Rob Roy.
posted by glider at 4:57 PM on July 13, 2009

Cob has been mentioned but there are other earthy techniques that can yield functional cheap housing.

Here is a cool Hobbit house and a house built with earthbags.

Yeah, permits are a concern but I suspect the areas that are most permissive would have lower land costs (and also be pretty far from things like large cities).
posted by 6550 at 5:41 PM on July 13, 2009

I helped a friend build a 16x16 two story cabin on skids (it will never be moved but it is portable) about 5 years ago for about $6K. That was the framing, shell, windows, metal roof, doors + wiring. It's extremely sturdy. Probably another $10K for woodstove, insulation, flooring, a lean to shed, deck and fixtures. No water yet but it's on a shallow aquifer so say $15-20 for a well, septic and to add a bathroom. Permits were, ahem, not a problem.

It is nowhere near as awesome as that hobbit house that 6550 linked to, if I build my own cabin I might have to copy them.
posted by fshgrl at 6:43 PM on July 13, 2009

I always wanted to build a strawbale house. Have a google around, and you may find groups nearby that build them co-operatively and have workshops you can attend to learn how and how much.
posted by kjs4 at 7:06 PM on July 13, 2009

Sometimes, things like trailers are used because building permits don't apply to vehicles or "temporary structures". You don't get a building permit when you park your RV. Whether you would need some sort of permit if you tow your house to a new locale, well, you would need to check the laws where you were planning to go. Some areas don't allow people to live in RV's/trailers, not necessarily as a zoning issue either. There are definitely places where you can park something like this and live in it long term with a minimum of hassle.

For towing your trailer, you will need to register it and get a plate. Requirements vary by state.
posted by yohko at 9:47 AM on July 14, 2009

I feel like most of my answers lately start with "this is not an answer to your question, as such...". Not sure what that means about me, but I digress. Anyway, this is not an answer to your question, as such, but I guess my question is: do you want the dwelling to be permanent? Expandable? Or would a temporary dwelling serve until such time as you want/can afford a larger swelling? That is, is the smallness of the proposed dwelling an end in itself, or a restriction caused by budget?
The reason I ask is that, if you're just looking to buy a piece of land and have a small, not-necessarily-permanent dwelling on it until you can afford to build what you'd really like, an actual RV might serve better than using RV parts in a small house. I have long had a daydream of living in a used Airstream and taking my time building a house to my exact specifications. You could certainly do that, and have water/sewer/electricity/gas lines installed on your property (which is in itself a kind of progress) for under $20k.
Alternatively, if you start with a modular kit that allows for adding further modules down the road, you could save some money up front and still have the possibility of adding on later. Shipping container prefab designs come to mind, but I very much doubt even a single module would be under $20k to start.

Naturally, if your ultimate goal is in fact a small, permanent dwelling, neither of those is particularly helpful, but there you go.
posted by willpie at 12:00 PM on July 14, 2009

along willpie's line, and responding to your comment: I agree that most RVs feel "cheap," but that is partly because you need to make a trade-off between portability and weight. Nice stuff is generally heavy and not conducive to being towed around behind a pickup truck. It's also not flexible and resilient enough to maintain tight tolerances after being jostled around on a freeway at 65. It's hard enough to make the pieces fit together when they're subject to variable heat and moisture levels, much less physical stress equivalent to an earthquake. So, depending on what problem you're actually looking to solve with this miniature portable home, I would recommend gutting an old airstream shell and crafting a portable machine for living in, rather than a house on wheels. Make sure the shell is weatherproof and as light as possible, and then copy boatbuilding techniques for the interior work. Could be done as cheaply as you like.
posted by Chris4d at 10:13 PM on July 14, 2009

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