How do I build an off-the-grid cabin?
October 6, 2020 3:18 PM   Subscribe

My family found a lovely patch of land in the mountains between Central and Western Oregon last year for a great price. The problem that we're running into is we can't seem to find any contractors who are willing to take us from bare land to a finished vacation home/cabin/A Frame/manufactured home, etc. The property is about an hour and a half away from any real cities or towns, and no one I've called seems to want to do the follow through for us to develop and build.

Here's two photos if you'd like to see :-)

It's a 10 acre parcel of land with a very small buildable area that's out of the 100 year floodplain and far enough away from that creek. Neighbors won't let us buy an easement to their electricity so we're probably going to have to go solar. All of the easy options, where a contractor does everything out of the box, seem to be focused on whether you have power to the site. I've never built anything more complicated than a treehouse or chicken coop, and while I'm happy to help out, I'm afraid this is going to take years and years if I'm coordinating a bunch of separate contractors. Also, I need to be able to put the pieces together to satisfy a bank for a home loan, unless I can limit the overall project cost to the size of my home equity loan. I would like to get something for under $200k, inclusive of all development costs, which I think rules out log cabins.

I understand with the devastating fires in Oregon that many contractors are working on things a lot more important than this project, but I wasn't getting call backs for the last few months even before the fires. I'm to the point where I'm ready to start calling everyone within the state who says they're a contractor. I've already tried referrals from friends, talking with manufactured home dealers and cold calling contractors. Surely there must be a better way! Oh, I should mention - the property was inexpensive because of some zoning issues which I was able to deal with already - but the long and the short of it is I need a structure that the county's building department will accept as a permanent building with improvements, more than 200 square feet. So an RV is out, unfortunately.
posted by Happydaz to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is going to be tricky to answer I think! So, you can't get a contractor to build because they need access to power? Makes sense. Rather than buy an easement, could you rent an easement from them while you build? I don't know how far it is but perhaps during construction that would be enough. What about a generator on site? Would that work for temporary power?

I think this is why you often see manufactured homes out in the's hard to get a builder and all those materials out to the site. Builders need to spend time driving out and back and their crew wastes time doing the same. If they are otherwise busy, they may be uninterested in taking on that kind of project - they simply don't have the time. And if they were to charge you for driving/gas/labor time, you wouldn't want to pay.

How is the county helping you with this info? I don't understand the interactions you've had with them. Do they not offer any advice for building and residing in your county? They have banned temporary structures under 200 sf? What if you have hauled out there a "job site trailer" and it just hangs out there for awhile while you figure everything out?

If a manufactured home or a job trailer doesn't get you where you need to go, maybe a yurt with wood stove and a privy with composting toilet. What about a well? Has the county helped you there? Maybe the neighbors can offer a builder suggestion?
posted by amanda at 3:40 PM on October 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Call the local Architechture school. Oregon, Washington, Washington University at St. Louis. See who they can come up with, and design.
posted by Oyéah at 3:46 PM on October 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's been a building boom going on for years here; finding good contractors to even do slightly inconvenient jobs is hard. If there's any level of difficulty, you're not really going to find someone good to do it. This gets more true the further out of the metro area you get; skilled trades have a sort of brain drain around here. Friends who live even in Hood River have difficulty finding good contractors to even get them quotes, let alone do a job.

There are some lovely kits out there for small vacation cabins that might be worth perusing. A prefab might get you pretty close to that price point, at least for manufacture...but probably not for installation. You legit might get more bang for your buck if you build yourself a towable tiny home (or, a large, towable tiny home). In either direction, 200k doesn't seem like it would get you far (again, if the county and local jurisdictions allow for it).
posted by furnace.heart at 4:06 PM on October 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is a useful article, mostly for what not to do.

Works for trades people has been incredibly busy during the covid lockdown and I'm not surprised you haven't gotten calls back. Given that generators exist I don't think permanent site power is really an issue for construction. I think the issue is probably just a general lack of tradespeople. Keep calling, my suggestion would be to try to book someone for next spring and go from there. You don't need to get a log cabin to get some sort of prefab kit, but they're not cheap and they still take at least a couple weeks to put up, which is a fair bit of labour cost. But people tend to build these places themselves and yeah I guess there's a reason.

Finally note that cottages need pretty consistent upkeep - you'll have to be there for a few days a few times a year, every year, forever. Checking a septic tank, water lines, winterizing, un-winterizing, checking for animals, etc. Not that that's necessarily a burden.
posted by GuyZero at 4:15 PM on October 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Are you planning to live there full time or just use it for vacations? In some places, a tiny house on wheels/RV would be legal if it's just used part of the time. An RV like this that looks like a tiny house might work (and can be set up off the grid).
posted by pinochiette at 6:35 PM on October 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

How much time are you planning on spending there and how far away do you live? If you just want to spend a couple of weeks there every summer just get a tent and camp. If you want to spend more than a couple of weeks maybe you could get one of these. Dig an outhouse, haul in water, rig up a solar shower. Living temporarily in a small space will help you figure out what you really need and don't need.

Spend more time there and get to know local people. Right now you're just some outsider who wants a vacation home. Be patient, these are crazy times.
posted by mareli at 6:35 PM on October 6, 2020

Thank you for the answers thus far! To clarify: I'm not really asking whether to develop the land. I need to do so or I lose the permit I negotiated. It's just very difficult to get a contractor to commit. I guess to further follow-up: would I have better luck running this myself and hiring a bunch of specialist contractors to do the well, septic, leveling, foundation, etc?
posted by Happydaz at 7:50 PM on October 6, 2020

What about a pre-fab off-grid house? Here are some fancier versions. You can google around for more things like that. I think there are folks in Washington and Oregon building houses like this, and then they bring it to you.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:58 PM on October 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

I’ve done a TON of work on this over the years so I’m gonna share it all, even if it’s a little unstructured.

My wife and I bought 20 inexpensive acres in rural Oregon with the idea that we’d either remodel the decrepit house on site or build a new one. I spent 4+ years volunteering weekly with Habitat for Humanity building 30-some homes to learn how to build our own home, while we also gutted the house in the country and built a nice outhouse/shower building. My wife took some introductory electrician classes at the local trade school with the plan that she’d do all the electrical work.

My local hardware store owner spent about a decade building a cabin for himself near you, near Odell Lake. He said it was a terrific pain in the butt, both logistically and energetically. He had similar issues finding any contractors who would come out there. He said he hated having to spend his free time finishing the place and was ecstatic when he sold it.

Here are a couple ideas for you:
A: For finding contractors, join local Facebook groups - see if there’s one for the county. Hang out at the local gas station. Talk to locals. This is how we found well drillers and electricians.

B: If you want to be your own general contractor, you’ll need to do a lot of reading, and ideally get some practice building. Coordinating everyone will be a challenge. I’m unsure that a bank will give you a construction loan if you’re the GC with no experience. Construction loans also require you build in a specific amount of time. Building permits also usually have limits on how long you can be building. Like you said, this will take years and years of your time.

C: As far as budget, do you have an idea of the size of home you want? $200k will not get you much, I’m afraid. The well, septic, power, grading, and road connection alone could exceed $100k. One option we considered was having contractors build a *very* basic home for us that satisfied the county’s code and legal dwelling requirements, for maybe $120-150/sqft (not including well or septic), then doing all the finish work ourselves, and upgrading as we could afford it.

So, how to make it happen? I think a manufactured home is going to be your fastest route to living on the land the soonest. You may need power on site to qualify for a loan, so be prepared to pay cash if need be. Without power you may not be able to insure the home against loss. If you *are* able to insure it, your insurance company may require a 5,000-ish gallon firefighting tank near the house. If you’re on solar, you’ll want an additional tank for the house water.

Many manuf home suppliers should be able to do some site prep for you. Rent a big generator to supply power.

I really didn’t mean this response to be so discouraging. Follow your dream.

On preview, I see this is out of the question:
How do you know you can’t have an RV? What questions did you ask the county building dept? Most counties here seem to have a law that says you can’t “camp” on your property for more than 6 months. We asked our building dept what “camping” means and what resets the clock on the 6 months. They said no one had ever asked but leaving for a day seemed sufficient. If you’re not getting the answer you want, start asking different questions.
posted by MonsieurBon at 9:15 PM on October 6, 2020 [8 favorites]

I design and plan and do permitting for remote dwellers here NZ, IMO you need some local professional planning advice; I often save people $10s of k by finding loopholes, exceptions and simply knowing the rules (and the people behind the rules).

In Lloyd Kahn's Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter there are several PNW contractors who are quite happy to work well of the grid, Kahn's book may be a good place to start.

"Running it yourself", unless youre savvy about contractors and know building I wouldn't recommend it.And yes, make yourself known, rural places people wont trust or deal until they know what they're dealing with. Be willing to trade some skills too.

MonsieurBon is on the money, get Wee House to install their small model ~75m2, mount on screw piles (quck, saves lotta time), get the biggest concrete watertank you can afford (fireproof as opposed to plastic ones).

Here you can do a legal shell building and make it liveable yourself.
posted by unearthed at 10:17 PM on October 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Do you own the land? I’d pass if there is bad history between neighbors.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 4:39 AM on October 7, 2020

Not sure if this has been addressed but if you plan to get a mortgage to build the house you MAY have challenges with the solar part. I have been helping friends look for a house in Vermont and any house with solar only meant they couldn’t get financing.
posted by terrapin at 9:12 AM on October 7, 2020

Wow! These are great responses! I really appreciate all the insight. In case there's any more comments or suggestions, let me try to answer a few of the questions: Yes, we own the land. The neighbors didn't want anyone to buy it and fought us every step of the process. I qualified to be able to build on the land because the seller had had it in the family since the 1920s, before Oregon's zoning laws went into effect. But I have to use the permit within the next 3 years. The property is zoned forestry use so without the home permit, the only permitted use is camping up to 14 days every 6 months.

My property is at Crescent Lake Junction which is extremely close to Odell Lake. I found manufactured homes I liked between $80 and $100k, my hope was the combination of that plus site prep could get me in under $200k. I've talked to a few banks, and solar isn't a dealbreaker but they will have to find a comparable home to greenlight the price. The big problem with solar is the low priced home builders (Adaire, HiLine etc) won't touch it if there isn't electricity on site, even with a generator. MonsieurBon's story about the hardware shop owner stuck with something that took up all his time is exactly the scenario I'd like to avoid!
posted by Happydaz at 9:20 AM on October 7, 2020

We are also zoned exclusive forestry use with an exemption for a residence as there was a home built there before there were zoning laws.

I checked out the well logs for Crescent Lake Junction. It looks like you could budget for about a 100 foot well at $35/ft, plus $10k for all of the hardware - not too bad! But just call the well drillers listed in the report; they'll be familiar with the area and can give you a better idea than I can. There's a well record for the property right next to what I assume is yours (10 acres buried in a couple large trust-owned parcels around the creek), but the stupid interactive map interface won't show me the data!

Precip records for that area would contraindicate rainwater collection as a viable water source.

Inspired by unearthed's mention of Lloyd Kahn, I'd also recommend calling the owner of the Minam River Lodge - a backcountry lodge in the Wallowas. It's powered by solar with a backup diesel genny, and much of the new building was done by people living on site, one of whom was a U of O architecture student. It sounds like the owner is incredibly wealthy - much of the building material was helicoptered in - but he could probably connect you with some resources.

I'll add, as caution, what I cut out of my original response. I don't know anyone out here who built or oversaw the building of their own country house who didn't go way over budget and/or end up really worn out by the ordeal. It's easy to get into a sunk cost mode. Most of the new houses out in our neck of the woods are built by spec builders and developers, not people who intend to live in the homes. I'm convinced the only people who say they enjoyed the process are either lying for the Home and Garden magazines and/or wealthy enough to just pick some finishes and architectural bit and have someone else handle everything.
posted by MonsieurBon at 10:23 AM on October 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

I don't know much about building in extreme rural conditions, but one additional avenue for manufactured homes you maybe haven't explored is Tuff Sheds. Getting one delivered to the site might involve delivering it yourself with a rented flatbed, but they're made to be constructed on less-than-ideal terrain without a lot of support equipment. Even the smallest size gets you over the 200 square foot minimum, and the larger sizes can be downright comfy.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:28 PM on October 7, 2020

I went down the rabbit hole on yurts and this article from Pacific Yurts on the basics of insulating a yurt is pretty good. I had a friend who lived in a yurt year-round in Sun Valley for a couple years in a yurt with stove, compost toilet and solar. He said it had its moments of weather weary-ness but was doable and mostly enjoyable. They loved to x-country ski.
posted by amanda at 1:35 PM on October 7, 2020

But I think I’m understanding the situation a little better. You have a building permit with specific guidelines for what is allowed to be built there. If you let it expire, the land is unbuildable per the county.
posted by amanda at 1:38 PM on October 7, 2020

This company is making turnkey shelters out of shipping containers. $50k, tow it into place and done. Well, maybe not done. It would depend on how much housing and budget you are wanting to have out there.
posted by diode at 4:00 PM on October 7, 2020

Here's an oregon-based shipping container home builder that's handled oregon-based permitting and so on.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:56 AM on October 8, 2020

The reason that manufactured homes are so common in these areas is because of all the constraints your are dealing with.

I>I would like to get something for under $200k, inclusive of all development costs, which I think rules out log cabins.

These sort of Lincoln log DIY cabins are within your budget. They screw together so if you are anywhere near being handy you could have the shell up in under a week or of course you could hire someone. You'd still need to find contractors for electrical, concrete, HVAC and plumbing. And the septic and water of course. Possibly roofing though if you went with standing seam metal and you managed to screw the cabin together you can screw the metal roof down.

The larger options will require a zoom boom or something but even the 30K version should be able to be completed all in under your budget.

A manufactured home would probably cheaper per sq ft though not nearly as aesthetic.

This company is making turnkey shelters out of shipping containers. $50k, tow it into place and done.

The 20' containers that Forte Labs convert are only 160 sq. ft. the 40s are 320 though.

Also containers are only good housing in very limited circumstances. The steel acts as a vapour barrier and is on the wrong side for Crescent Lake climate; they are awkwardly narrow; the roofs are weak so they need additional roofing in snow areas; they aren't all that environmentally friendly.

Most people are better served by a manufactured home unless they are moving house on a regular basis.
posted by Mitheral at 5:18 AM on October 8, 2020

A colleague got an entire barn delivered pre-assembled to a rural property he owns - it showed up on a truck and they just dropped it onto a prepared foundation. He got it from Ulrich and I think it was like 14x40 or so. I think they're in Texas, but his got delivered to rural California, so who knows, WA isn't much farther. All you'd have to do is prep a foundation and they just drop it off. It would still require a lot of interior finishing work, but it would certainly meet the requirement to have a building on-site.
posted by GuyZero at 1:12 PM on October 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

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