Here's my plan: buy land, build cheap. How do I make it happen?
January 12, 2017 1:38 PM   Subscribe

What's the best resource for learning about buying land and building a tiny prefab house?

It's only recently occurred to me that home ownership is a goal of mine. At my income level, in my area its well out of my league to purchase even a small flat. I love the idea of a small pre-fab home, but I'm not sure how realistic this dream is. I've been googling around but all I've found so far is vaguely inspirational (look at the prettiness!) or a sales pitch from a company. I'd like to read real stories of people who have actually done this-- I'd be especially interested in anyone who's done this internationally. I really don't know the first thing about doing this, but I'd love to own a home and I know it's unlikely to happen the "regular" path.
posted by Calicatt to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
According to your profile you're in the Boston area, right? Buying land and building a house around there is going to be a lot more complicated than buying land and building a house in, say, rural South Carolina. Where are you hoping to do this? As you dream about this and save up your money to do it see if you can find some basic carpentry classes. Even building a kit house will require some knowledge of building techniques.

I have friends, both men and women, who have built their own small houses in rural areas. It's not all that hard to do, but getting all the permits you might need can be, unless you're in rural South Carolina- I work there so I'm using it as an example.

I'm currently rehabbing a decrepit dilapidated old house in Georgia with help from skilled family members and friends. As the homeowner I am legally allowed to do much of the work "myself." I consider family and friends to be part of that "myself". If I had to pay licensed contractors I wouldn't be able to afford it. Feel free to memail me with more specific questions.
posted by mareli at 2:04 PM on January 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

A relevant recent article: The Tiny-House Revolution Goes Huge. (Of course, pre-fab ≠ tiny).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:06 PM on January 12, 2017

Keep in mind it is difficult to get mortgages/loans to purchase vacant land. Loans for construction are also challenging and structured differently than a regular mortgage. Basically, the lenders worst nightmare is they are stuck with a half-built non-code compliant home on rural property that will not sell for enough to recoup their losses. You also mention international experience. Gernally, you cannot get a loan for a property in another country (how would the lender claim if you defaulted), nor as a foreigner you cannot get a loan (how would they recoup their money if you left the country?). So you will need to have the money on -hand for the purchase of the land (although you could then probably wait and save the money for the build)

I'm in Canada and we have varying requirements for permits (anything from you can't build anything unless you are a developer with big pockets to "go ahead, build what you want, it isn't like there is a fire department to save you when your wiring catches fire"). As someone who lives in a rural area, it is more expensive to live and expects a high level of self-sufficiency (our local volunteer fire department's motto is "we haven't lost a foundation yet!").
posted by saucysault at 2:28 PM on January 12, 2017 [9 favorites]

Talk to the local planning department (or whatever the American equivalent is) to help unearth any unexpected costs, before you buy your land. In my area, planning permits and costs like having to build a driveway to exacting specifications, can add tens of thousands to your project. Staff should also be able to give you an indication whether your application stands a chance of being approved.
posted by brushtailedphascogale at 2:31 PM on January 12, 2017

Locally it's probably doable in northern Maine. If you do build, build to code, know a guy that did this and it burned down in the middle of winter.
posted by sammyo at 2:39 PM on January 12, 2017

Cost of land is a huge thing. I don't know how this works in your area, but you have to get out where the land is really cheap. Then, you need to find a pre-fab construction company that will deliver in accordance with local permits. They exist and can be great. I helped my aunt with this and she loves her house. At the end of the day, it is a lot about finding the land in a place where you can live with the conditions.
posted by mumimor at 2:47 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this is pretty impossible to answer without knowing what area you're looking at. For example, I was convinced it would be a great idea to do this near Blue River, Colorado, which is not that far from Breckenridge. Online I saw plots of land that were going for $30k. I figured $30k for land, plus 100k for the house got me there on the cheap. But then it turned out $30k gets you a 45 degree scree slope and it would cost $200k to run in utilities and get it buildable, which is why it was surrounded by $1mil homes.

Generally, the more rural you're looking, the more likely you'll be able to build something to code on the cheap, but it's all very location specific.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:56 PM on January 12, 2017

A longer commute will reduce quality of life more than you expect.
posted by Baeria at 3:17 PM on January 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

Costs you might not have thought of:

sewer hookup or septic tank and drain field
fresh water hookup or well drilling and well pump
power hookup or alternative system (if you're really in the boonies)
natural gas hookup or propane install
driveway access fee
building code fees
basement or foundation costs

All this adds up fast.
posted by H21 at 3:30 PM on January 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've built a free-standing workshop that's fully climate controlled, and done a bunch of fully permitted work, including re-wiring and re-plumbing, on my own house. And thought a little bit about the fantasy of buying some land somewhere cheap and building a vacation/retirement place. From that background, some suggested reading:
Habitat for Humanity How to Build a House by Larry Haun
A good overview of modern stick-built home construction techniques. Habitat builds houses that often survive natural disasters where the contractor-built houses around them are leveled, partially because volunteers drive a lot more nails than people working for money, but it's a basic "here's what it takes to build a house" reference.
Code Check Complete from Taunton Press
A great overview of building code issues that you'll need to understand and resolve.
Wiring A House by Rex Cauldwell
A good look at best practices (not just code compliant) for wiring and electrical.
RS Means used to have a relatively affordable building cost estimate book
I don't see it on their web site now, but the version that's on my bookshelf somewhere was, I think, a 2007 book, and had breakdowns from "bathroom" to individual fixtures in the bathroom. It's great for justifying pricing when I go down to the city building department to apply for permits, it's also a good "how much am I really saving by doing my own labor?" set of guidelines.
Yes, I've got all of the urban urban yuppie "think about the costs of transportation and other issues of rural living" caveats, but I also got tremendous things out of building my workshop, and highly recommend the process of planning and building a structure, even if you never swing a hammer at a nail. Only good things come out of it.

So with that in mind...

As you build your fantasy on paper, consider everything you'll need: Water source, heating fuel, electricity, sewer or septic, access (driveway, etc), foundation. You're probably going to need to contract some element for every one of those things (ie: I paid an electrician to deal with the power company for upgrading my electrical panel, even though I've run all the wiring inside my buildings). When you have an idea of where you want to build, get ballparks for all of those things.

Here in Northern California, I dug my own foundation. It involved a broken rib and being out of commission for 6 weeks during prime building time. In a place with frost, you're going to want to hire someone with a backhoe. Although I did my own forms, I also paid a neighbor who's a landscaping contractor to do the foundation pour, and it was worth every single penny: When that concrete is curing away, he and his assistant and the concrete pump operator had the dance down, in the best case I'd have ended up with something that wasn't nearly as pretty, in the worst case I'd have ended up with an unusable lump.

Similarly, for electricity it's nice to have someone who's dealt with the power company before to manage hooking up your panel. And you're going to want to have that fairly early in the process, to drive a compressor for the nail guns, and saws, and such.

Running feed lines for water is easy. Running drain lines and sewer is hard. Modern PEX can be dragged through walls simply, drain lines need very precise slopes and fitting. Consider paying someone for that aspect. And as you look at house designs, note that often the kitchen and bathroom(s) share walls, to keep the amount of drain line to a minimum.

Take each of these things and break it down to, literally, how many nails are you going to need (ie: When you put a stud in a wall, how many nails do you need to hold it to the top plate and the bottom plate? When you build a corner and sister multiple studs together, what's the spacing on nails you need? When you attach the sheathing... What's the Simpson part # of the anchor you'll use to attach the wall to the foundation?). As you go through this process, every time you find a question about something, draw it out and find an answer.

At the end of this process you'll have an amazing daydream and fantasy life, but you'll also have an executable plan and idea of exactly what it'll cost. And you'll have developed some mad planning and management skills.

Then you can start to figure out how to execute: Can you buy the land? Can you live on it in a travel trailer or similar while you do these things? If you get the well put in, can you put up enough of a shack to have the tank in place so that you have a water source? If you get those amenities in, can you just buy an old mobile home while you build the main structure itself? Is the mobile home enough? What are you doing to pay the bills while you're digging foundation trenches at night? Which friends are you going to call on to help you lift the walls and put up the rafters?

Bootstrapping a project like this won't be easy, probably won't be cheaper than working a second job and buying a manufactured home or a trailer, but you can get a lot of the questions answered by reading and drawing and finding answers to questions like "what roof pitch should I build in this climate?"
posted by straw at 3:46 PM on January 12, 2017 [25 favorites]

Mother Earth News has an article every month about someone building non-traditional homes off the grid, if that is your goal. Unincorporated townships might have fewer regulations. The Tiny House movement builds their homes on trailers to get around building code regulations for minimum size.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:55 PM on January 12, 2017

Someone suggested to me as a resource. I have not personally checked it out.

I will suggest you also consider developing a portable income. Having a portable income can allow you to move to where land is cheaper, thereby strectching the money you do have without having to endure a crazy commute.

You should also research tax lien sales. This will take a lot of legwork, but can potentially get you land with a tear down house on it (or even undeveloped land) for a fraction of the usual cost.

I haven't had any trouble finding articles about people building stuff super cheaply. One guy haunted Craig's List to stockpile building materials being given away for free. He then built his tiny house. Linky.

I will suggest the book "How to survive without a salary" by Charles Long as a general resource that may help you figure this out.
posted by Michele in California at 4:12 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am thinking of doing this myself, except I'm considering renting land on someone's property and installing my house there as a Secondary Dwelling Unit. Something to consider if you don't want to move to an area where land is super cheap.

Obviously, local codes and laws re: SDUs will vary.
posted by delight at 4:34 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're considering doing this in the Boston area, this previous question might be of interest. (Condensed version: finding or affording land in the metro area is highly unlikely.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:22 PM on January 12, 2017

This is my future, hopefully. One thing I'm doing now to learn how feasible it is for me to do most of my own building or renovation is volunteering on a regular basis for a local nonprofit that offers financial counseling to low-income families, helps them purchase a severely rundown house for cheap, then guts it and makes it work again. I learn a new skill or three every workday I attend. Combination reality check and confidence booster, highly recommended if you haven't done a lot of your own improvements before.
posted by notquitemaryann at 7:07 PM on January 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

This varies immensely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and you absolutely must check the laws and experience of people who have put up with those laws *and their implementation* within the jurisdiction in which you want to build. You can build a house in some Arizona counties with little more than a few renderings. I built my house in Santa Cruz County, California, which has a famously nasty and difficult - even within California - planning department. To get the permit to start construction required a fourteen-inch stack of drawings and reports that cost over $100k. So find out all the strange rules with which you'll have to cope. Find a "pusher" who is, for example, a retiree from the planning department you'll be working with. Get the low-down on peculiarities in the law. Just for example, in Santa Cruz County, if a single wall is standing from an old, permitted or grandfathered house, the site is OK to build on - but if you seek to build without that wall, you need a 'site review' that will, here, cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Financing in 2001 was not like financing today. My house was financed with a construction loan that wound up converting to a standard mortgage upon receipt of the occupancy permit. It helped that I had a >50% stake in the cost of the land.

All that said, if you like Le Corbusier believe that a house is a machine for living in, when you design your own house, you optimize that machine for you. I optimized the hell out of this one, and it's going to be hard to live anywhere else, since it's damned near perfection for me.
posted by jet_silver at 7:19 PM on January 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I did this 45 years ago. We lived outside of D.C. We read books by Brad and Vena Angier, who moved to British Columbia from Boston and found a trapper's cabin to fix up, and, of course, Helen and Scott Nearing's books about homesteading in Vermont and later Maine. We read Mother Earth News and The Whole Earth Catalog. We both worked and saved one salary and lived on the other for 2 years. We took a summer vacation to look in Ontario w/o success and the next year found our 13 acres with a cabin in New Hampshire just as we had given up hope. We researched everything (without an internet) we could think of. We tried tax sales in Canada and found out that the Mounties were also looking for the sales arrangers, who were running a scam. We had a listing of realtors who seemed to specialize in what we wanted but what worked was dumb luck - being in the right place at the right time.
We lived with an outhouse and no running water for several years. My wife left after a few years for good reasons but I'm still here on the same land, in a better but still small house that I built in '88. Even here I used composting toilets until just 5 years ago. Everything is more expensive now and there are regulations that hadn't been imagined back then, and I doubt there is anything like The Whole Earth Catalog now, but I think something like what you want to do is still possible. It could take a lot of research and a lot of hard work or you could just fall into something perfect, but asking here is a good start and you've gotten some helpful answers. Good luck!
posted by Hobgoblin at 9:11 PM on January 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

We tried to do something like this, in Oregon. We bought 6 acres with a run-down but livable doublewide on it, with the plan of building something, then tearing down the manufactured home.

OMG, the permitting process. And EVERYTHING costs so much money! Just to get gravel on our driveway was $2K. If you need to clear land, or bring in utilities, or put in septic or a well (our well cost us $10K) it gets really pricey really quick.

We decided, after doing our (belated) research, that we'd rather fix up the doublewide since that was already legally in place, but even that was problematic (manufactured homes tend to be depreciating assets, unlike stick-built or modular) so eventually, after dumping too much money into this project, we ended up giving up and moving to a "normal" house. Part of that was that in addition to it being a total money pit, the commute to civilization was long. One or the other I think would have been OK, but having a long commute to a house that was the cause of so much stress really kind of sucked.

If I had it to do over, I would definitely not choose any house that had significant DIY involved.

Edited to add: we bought this place with cash; I do not think we would have been able to finance it. And all the work we did to it was cash or credit card, because there was also no way to get a home equity loan on it. Make sure you have plenty of cash on hand if you want to do this, because mortgage operations are set up to loan to people buying "normal" properties.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:29 AM on January 13, 2017

Thank you all! You've given me a lot to think about and a lot of leads! I haven't decided where to do this, just thinking way down the line and trying to see what was involved in the process.
posted by Calicatt at 9:30 AM on January 13, 2017

If you want to do this to save money compared to buying a "regular" home property, I think you need to widen your scope of "regular" homes and find something there that works within your financial limits. Often even if you can pay cash for a tiny house, the rent or taxes on land you would pay to park it on plus hooking up utilities negates savings over paying rent or a traditional mortgage on a smaller, older starter home in an affordable area.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:31 AM on January 13, 2017

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