How can my wife and I make our ill-defined vacation home dream a reality?
April 20, 2011 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Please help me figure out how to build or buy a vacation/summer home or cabin within 3-4 hours of New York City

My wife and I are longtime NYC residents and we've been thinking of buying a vacation home or cabin on the cheap to provide some non-NYC time in our lives. We've been talking about it for years, but a very recent askme post ( inspired a long discussion that ended with "We will do this!" The problem: we have no idea how to do this.

The dream involves plenty of manual labor fixing up a farmhouse or building a cabin from scratch. We're both fit, young (early 30s), and relatively handy. The hope is to make, more or less, a family heirloom, a place to escape to, and, because we've done so much work on it, a place we "own."

The initial budget starts at $5k (some cabin websites talk about buying land and building for around $3k, which blows my mind), and goes up to $40k. I'm in the "build from scratch" camp (start very simple, learn as we go, add on amenities), my wife is in the "buy an old place that's already sort of livable and make it more so" camp.

The range is about 3-4 hours around NYC. We're okay with it being in the middle of nowhere and having a 45-minute drive to town. We'd consider anywhere in that radius - Pa., NY, Ct. even So. Mass., but we do like the Hudson Valley/Catskills. The fact that the area is so large means that we look at an individual realtor's site - but clearly miss 95% of the possibilities (I've been casually searching on and off for years, not just the last 24 hours).

Any suggestions on how to REALLY begin? Any books to consider (numerous are mentioned in regard to cabin plans in previous askme's)? Is there a that we've missed? Hell, any suggestions on how to stop thinking about this as "that thing we want to do, but kind of have trouble really imagining we could do it"?

I realize this is a big, open-ended question that is - hopefully - the start of a really long project. Please help us get started!
posted by lieberschnitzel to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Have you looked at ads in weekly bugles and small city newspapers?
posted by jgirl at 9:14 AM on April 20, 2011

Have friends selling their cabin in the catskills---perhaps a bit more finished than you want ---but plenty more yet to do!! Me mail me if you want to hear more.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:18 AM on April 20, 2011

Ithaca is gorges and only about 4 hours away.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:19 AM on April 20, 2011

Find a realtor to help you. We're in the same situation (but in the Pacific NW) and our agent has software that she can program to bring up hits on the MLS within our parameters (which are pretty expansive, like "no more than a 45-minute commute" so not quite as expansive as yours). She also got the county's list of FSBOs. A realtor can also find more information on any property you find that you think looks like a possibility.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:32 AM on April 20, 2011 has plans (including a $1,400 one room cabin) and a great forum full of people learning and building small houses and cabins. I built a small (12x14) cabin based in part on their plans and it worked out fairly well considering I spent $800.

At your price point you will probably have difficultly paying for permits, septic, well, electric, etc for new construction so you should be comfortable with off-grid living, perhaps in a county with no building codes. I'm not sure that is available within four hours of NYC but I'm not from the area. You may be able to build to code with the proper permits for $40k but that doesn't leave much for land.
posted by ChrisHartley at 9:33 AM on April 20, 2011

As to where to find property, I use Trulia. If you take your time you can craft a fairly meticulous search over a wide area. Just browsing now I saw a fixer-upper cabin on two acres for $25k in Delaware County, NY.
posted by ChrisHartley at 9:53 AM on April 20, 2011

I'm an architect in Seattle and I used to have a general contractors license as well. A couple of quick thoughts with elaborations later if you'd like...

We have a lot of mountains, islands, and wilderness out here and a significant getaway cabin culture thrives all around the area. Given your budget range, my strong advice will be to build from scratch. What you are hoping to undertake can be a milestone event that becomes woven into the history of your families. It can also be a nightmare that doesn't accomplish what you hope it will, which would be a shame since the idea and project can be such a fantastic thing.

Simply put, at your budget range, whatever existing structure is likely to come with the land you purchase will need work. And I know that's the point; you are making your own story and history. But the kind of work it will need will be difficult compared to building new. Renovation, restoration, and even significant repair all require that you kinda know what you are doing and have the appropriate tools to do it. It's not rocket surgery, and the skills are well withing reach to anyone who is committed to seeing the project through, so I'm not suggesting that you need to involve professionals. But what I am suggesting is that if you are relatively new to this kind of work, what you want to do is to keep the project within your control and be able to do it on your own terms as opposed to the terms dictated by whatever happens to be existing there already. This is most critical if you have a limited budget and plan to do the work yourself.

If you build from scratch, you maintain control. You can purposefully build something simple AND beautiful. All your motion will be forward. You maintain the control, by thoughtful design, to build something that plays to your experience and budget strengths. Limited time? Design something that can be built in manageable chunks of time that coincide with your city schedules. Plenty of time but limited experience? Build a single, simple, glorious volume. Emphasize scale and light and view and integration into the site. None of these cost you and extra dime.

Simple can be sublime. Simple is something you can do. Simple moves forward. It allows you to have fun. Less head scratching, less two steps forward, one step back, three steps sideways. Maintaining physical control over your project lets you maintain financial control over your project. Maintaining financial control over your project lets you maintain emotional control over the project...over the act of creating this history for yourselves.

I have designed and built a number of these over the years. And I have witnessed from the sidelines many others. I applaud your idea and enthusiasm, and your willingness to just get in there and get dirty with very little cash to start with. These projects have the rare ability to transform those that are successful. Making a home, a physical home, a family home, with the purpose of housing the parts of your life that isn't all hustle and bustle...amazing stuff, that.

TL;DR - Build from scratch, keep it simple so you can keep it cheap. Keep it cheap so it keeps being fun. Keep it fun so it becomes the place you are dreaming about.

I'd be glad to offer some more specific advice or help if you'd like. These projects have a special resonance with me, so I'm always glad to help in any way...just drop me a MeMail. Good Luck!
posted by nickjadlowe at 10:35 AM on April 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

On the "build it yourself" suggestions from nickjadlowe, I grew up about 3 hours north of NYC on the eastern side of the Berkshires. Been back once for a quick drive-through in the last 20 years (and haven't lived in that house for about 30), so I don't have anything current to recommend, however...

That house was built around 1790, and in the 7 years we lived there my parents added water and plumbing and central heat and electricity. I'm not sure how much was in there before, but I know that I learned how to do all those things before I hit high school.

But the important thing: It had foot-by-foot chestnut beams. It's trite to say this, but in Realtor parlance, "it had great bones". I think my parents are of the mind now that if they had it to do over again, they'd tear it down and reuse the lumber. There were similar barns in the area. If you're building yourself, over years, and have the room to store materials (even if under tarps or makeshift sheds), you can pick up materials when you have the opportunity (I'm currently planning a workshop, and have seen a number of cool things flow by on Craigslist that I could use, at deal prices, but I've got no place to store them...).

I agree with nickjadlowe that building yourself is probably less hassle, remodeling can be way more work than doing it from the ground up. However, keep your eyes open for opportunities to do tear-downs. Old barns, and even houses, in that area are legion, and have some fantastic lumber in them.

Also, there were two local families (within two miles) that had some sawmill capabilities. Don't underestimate local sawmills.

Even back then, Columbia County had lots of weekenders from "the city". It took me quite a while to learn that not all rural areas had lots of people with multiple big houses who drove Mercedes. And on the east side of the state, once you get out of the NYC zone you're into the Saratoga zone and then into the Adirondacks, not that you won't find bargains there. So I guess I'm saying "go west", but I don't have any good info there.
posted by straw at 11:13 AM on April 20, 2011

This is my favorite build-it-yourself vacation cabin story, which might spark some ideas.
posted by EvaDestruction at 12:17 PM on April 20, 2011

Pick the land carefully. In that part of the world try for land that has unobstructed southern exposure. Look for a piece of land that abuts some kind of conservation land. Driving more than 3 hours each way from NYC will mean that you don't go there as often as you could. consider eastern PA.

Make sure there is water available. In some of those mountainous areas wells have to be several hundred feet deep before they hit water. Make sure you have proper drainage for septic. Make sure there is a power line close by or that you will be allowed to put in a totally off the grid system.

check out local building codes. Some places will be more demanding than others. The right to do your own plumbing and electrical varies from state to state. In one that I lived in you could do electrical but not plumbing, in another it was the reverse.

I lived in Ithaca for 20 years, usually takes more than 4 hours, especially in winter. Oneonta is nice too, and closer.
posted by mareli at 12:58 PM on April 20, 2011

I bought a place upstate on the Delaware a few years ago and have been overjoyed with it. The budget was different from yours (although not massively so), but it is indeed possible to get land cheaply--but you have to be incredibly careful about land purchases, especially in New York; local planning laws can be very hard to navigate, and to be honest, in many counties in your radius, property taxes are very high (and based largely on acreage).

I have a few good resources to share that you'll find helpful, but it's probably too much for this space. Shoot me a MeMail.
posted by yellowcandy at 1:08 PM on April 20, 2011

We looked all over the Catskills, but we ended up with a place in Phoenicia. Given your range and budget, I would say that Delaware County would be good. I think it's pretty much all with 4 hours drive of the city. The land there is a little more gentle than the other parts of the catskills, which more open, lovely, views

We had dealings with Ray Pucci of Timberland Properties and he was pretty good.

I would recommend you get at least a 5 acre plot to do the cabin thing properly. Given that, I think you're going to blow most of your budget on the initial vacant land purchase anywhere in the catskills. From there, you can treat it as camping as you slowly build your site up. Put a tent on a raised platform (plywood on pallets?) string up a big tarp and build a picnic table you could be pretty comfortable if you decide to be.

It's my wife's believe that if you put up a "temporary" structure like a yurt, you won't have to deal with the permits or increased taxes.
posted by jefftang at 12:18 PM on April 21, 2011

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