A New York Homestead
August 11, 2010 12:34 PM   Subscribe

I've been idly dreaming about building a small house someday, something along the lines of the small houses (not the tiny ones) designed by Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. I'd like to know more about what this would entail in the area where I currently live.

I live in New York City. In my ideal world, I'd be building this house somewhere in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx, or somewhere upstate along the Hudson.

Here are my specific questions:

1) The Tumbleweed website gives detailed instructions for estimating building costs using Build-Cost.net. Has anyone used that website before? Is it reliable? Are there any issues specific to New York or New York City that it clearly overlooks?

2) Before I could build a house, I'd have to have a place to put it. How does one go about finding land for sale in the outer boroughs of New York City? Where should one look?

I have a feeling that #2 is where this dream would come to a giant, crashing, thud, because while it seems that the costs for building a small house would be cheaper, in many cases, than buying an apartment, land is probably ridiculously expensive, even far away from Manhattan. On the other hand, if one were to build a tiny house—like the ones on trailers at Tumbleweed, it seems it might still be less, and then you'd have lots of space for a yard!

This is likely never going to be more than an idle dream, as I suspect it is highly, highly impractical, but it would be nice to know what it would take to make it happen.
posted by ocherdraco to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Of course, one could put such a house on top of an already existing building (particularly one of the tiny ones). I've seen a few such houses on top of other buildings in Manhattan. So I guess I have one more question:

3) How on earth would one find a way to do that?
posted by ocherdraco at 12:37 PM on August 11, 2010

I'm in love with the Tumbleweed tiny houses, and have been for years. I'd love to do one myself, on the right piece of land out in the country somewhere.

Your third question brings to mind this recent piece from the Times about structures (i.e., a quasi-legal penthouse) on the top of a NYC building. A friend had a deck on the roof of her top-floor apartment, and the permitting was phenomenally difficult, and she was a tax lawyer accustomed to the ins and outs of arcane regulations.

Good luck!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:42 PM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: Okay, let's consider #3 a no go, then.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:25 PM on August 11, 2010

I'm not sure how draconian zoning and covenants are in NY but there may be restrictions, most likely related to minimum size or build of the house (arguably to help inflate the tax rolls and the local real estate market). Parcel sizes may also play into this. You may want to check this out and do your homework on how things work in the counties and municipalities you're interested in. I think this will steer you somewhat to which #2 options work.
posted by crapmatic at 1:52 PM on August 11, 2010

Where I live (Idaho), a house with no kitchen and 600 square feet or less is considered a guest house and does not have to meet all the requirements as a real house. For example you are allowed to add a guest house in your backyard where you would not be allowed to build a 601 square foot house.

So you should call your local county or city planning office to find out what their rules are. Because If I had to cook on a grill outside but I could sublet someone's backyard to keep the house on it would be worth it to me. Plus if they have the same kitchen rule ask them what a kitchen is because here you can have a sink and counter but no stove and it will be called a guest house.
posted by cda at 2:00 PM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: I guess I should have made it more clear, but question #2: where and how does one buy land in New York City, is the one I am most interested in knowing about.

But thanks for the info on covenants, etc.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:56 PM on August 11, 2010

well, i don't know squat about new york, but you might want to start with the assessor's office and look into delinquent tax sales. (that might not be the exact proper term but it essentially means that people who don't pay property taxes can have their property sold at auction. at least here in the south.) there are opportunities to buy property at a fraction of the 'retail' cost (for lack of a better term). that would at least give you an idea of what kind of money you'd be looking at spending for land, which will probably be a hundred times what you'd spend building the house.

best of luck, though! i've got the small house bug, too, and wish you nothing but success!
posted by msconduct at 5:24 PM on August 11, 2010

Since you are very unfamiliar with the process you should just contact a few realtors and ask for recently sold listings in the areas you are considering so you have an idea of costs (here they are called comps or compatibles - I don't know if that is true in the United States). That service is completely free. When you find an area with a balance between cost and location you are comfortable with, ask for listings still on the market. I can search all MLS properties online, I would imagine something similar is in NYC. You can also start looking at FSBOs, craigslist or even tracking down the owners of vacant properties (zillow) and making a fair offer. But right now your search area is too big for that.

Land cost, especially serviced land (meaning bring utilities to your house will only cost 10-20 thousand instead of much more), and especially land properly zoned and permitted is crazy high where I live, out in the countryside of Canada. Sadly, I think NYC will also be expensive. Keep in mind too, that it is VERY difficult to get a mortgage on vacant land so you will most likely need cash in hand for the purchase.

Good luck, it is a great idea.
posted by saucysault at 8:58 PM on August 11, 2010

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