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December 21, 2017. The air was brisk and chilly. The ground was frozen solid and the fog of our breath lingered. But we weren’t cold — we were sweating it out, moving boxes and furniture at an enthusiastic pace.
That was the day we finally moved out of my mom’s condo and into the house we’d spent the last two and a half years building. It was the day we finally felt like our own little family again. The day we felt like we were actually HOME.
It was a long road to get to this point. From the time we started looking for property in 2014, to when we sold our little midcentury ranch in February 2015, to when we moved in December 2017, we spent countless hours planning for and laboring on our house. We did the majority of the work ourselves; blood, sweat, and tears are literally AND figuratively mixed into every nook and cranny of our home.
Building a home of your own is one of the biggest and most daunting tasks you can undertake. There are so many moving parts! I wanted to take this one year anniversary to reflect on what we’ve learned in the past year living in our off-grid cordwood home.
1. We actually did a decent job!
Sure, there are probably some aspects of our work that an actual professional builder would look at and scoff. But for the most part, we’re pretty happy with the work we’ve done. Nothing has exploded or fallen down. To the contrary, things seem to be holding up pretty well!
Building a home by hand definitely takes longer, but the upshot is that you can take your time and move carefully. You have the opportunity to research the materials and methods you’d like to use and then take the time to truly craft things.
We also hold ourselves to pretty high standards of workmanship, and since we aren’t steeped in the world of professional building every day, it’s easy for us to bemoan some of our work. But then we’ll go somewhere like a brand new house or public building, and when we look closely we’ll notice that the trim was only half done in one spot or that the drywall tape has already cracked through in another.
We definitely don’t wish other builders ill or engage in schadenfreude about it, but it does make us feel a little bit better knowing that our “amateur” work is actually pretty good (and sometimes even better) by comparison.
2. There’s still a lot of work to do.
If I think back to what this place looked like on this day last year, then we have come a LONG way. In our kitchen, we were keeping all of our food in coolers and I barely had any storage! Now I have a propane refrigerator and open shelving galore.
Our loft has shelving and we’re (slowly) putting things away and continuing to purge excess STUFF from our lives.
I even received some nice roller shades from Chicology to help mitigate the sun on the east and west sides of our house! We put some simple white roller shades on the kitchen windows and I totally wish we’d had these last summer! All the light without getting blinded.
But we still haven’t done much of the trim. We haven’t put down an actual floor upstairs in our loft. Heck, there are bits of spray foam insulation still just hanging out all over the place that we should probably do SOMETHING about.
The reason we haven’t? As I explained in this post about how we’re going to continue developing our homestead: WE WERE TIRED! Nearly three years of intense GO GO GO breakneck-paced building left us totally exhausted. The thought of putting up anything beyond what was necessary for us to unpack was frightening. So we didn’t do any of that stuff! Flooring can wait for our sanity to catch up.
3. We learned that we would have designed some things differently.
We spent well over a year messing with different designs. I saved loads of designs to Pinterest, we sketched ideas in a notebook together, and our parents even got us home plan books for Christmas and birthdays.
We did so much research and were fairly confident that we were getting the design we wanted. What we ended up with is exactly what we asked for! And for the most part, we’re pretty happy with it. BUT…
The house you create on paper and the house you LIVE in are two totally different things.
Living in it has shown us how we actually use the space vs. how we assumed we’d use it. There are many things we’d have designed differently if we’d have known.
Chiefly, we would have created a better, more dedicated space for our off-grid components like the battery bank and water pressure tank. We would also have probably made our bathrooms smaller, created a larger pantry, and perhaps a different kitchen layout.
4. But we also learned that some designs were spot on.
We knew that we wanted to live some of our core values through the design of the house. For example, we wanted a space that would let us gather our friends and family and really get to be TOGETHER, so we made the front half of the house an open concept. It’s actually a pretty small area to gather in at roughly 450 square feet (Mark: more than a third of the house), but the flow of the room allows everyone to really BE together. I’m sure that’ll just improve over time as we better arrange our space.
But more than any of that, the one thing we’ve really learned from one year in our home is that…
5. We wish we would have taken WAY more time to plan it.
It seemed like so long at the time. I mean, it was YEARS of time and we wanted to get things done! From selling our old house to buying land to designing and building the house we have, it all seemed like such a long and arduous process when we were steeped in it.
But it FLASHES by.
It’s kind of like people tell you when you have a baby, “You’ll blink and they’ll be all grown up!”
Well, with a house you’ll blink and it’ll all be done.
But it never feels that way in the moment. After all, it feels like forever when you’re trying to negotiate a land purchase.
It feels like forever when you’re putting up board after board or gluing together yet another PVC pipe because you had to redo the
one two three you broke.
And it feels like forever when you have to redo a HUGE segment of your build because you missed something critical.
If we had taken more time to plan in the months or even years before we built, we could have avoided a lot of missteps. Moreover, if we had taken time mid-build to assess what we needed to do to for certain jobs we would have saved time overall. I shudder to think of how many hours of build time we wasted being in the truck driving back to the big box store or some specialty hardware place to get something we just plain forgot.
Every day we look around and see something in the house that reminds us of this.
I’ll look at the concrete holding up our solar panel mount and remember when Mark called me to go pick up another 8 bags because he was short.
I look at our roof and remember the day we put up the trusses, where I had to make an emergency run for more 2×4’s for bracing because we didn’t have enough.
And I’ll look at basically everything in our hall bathroom that wasn’t planned out very well at ALL. The extra pipes that were supposed to be for the cistern (but aren’t because it was moved). The tiny slipper tub we thought was a wise purchase that turned out to be an expensive mistake. Even the excess size of that bathroom speaks to our lack of foresight in the intial planning phase.
If you’re wanting to build your own house someday, my advice would be that it’s never too early to start planning.
If building your own home is seriously on your radar, then head over to get The Owner-Builder Home Planner.
Not sure if you’re prepared? Download our free quick-start checklist here:
AND if you’re just getting started or maybe don’t know where to begin, here are some free resources to get you going:
Our Home Overview and All Monthly Building Updates
19 Awesome Books for the Home Owner-Builder
The Basics of Financing and Insuring Your Build
Natural Building and The Code: A Quick-Start Guide for Owner Builders
Financing Your Homestead (even if you’re flat broke)
6 Financial Tips for Buying Land for Your Homestead
Buying Land: 5 Things To Do Before You Purchase
18 Things to Look For In a Homestead Property
10 Ways to Save THOUSANDS of Dollars on Your Home Build
6 Reasons You’ll Blow Your Construction Budget (and how to avoid it)
9 Ways to Get Building Materials Cheap or Free
7 More Great Ways to Score Inexpensive Building Supplies
Novice builder with questions? Seasoned builder with advice? Let me know about it in the comments below! Don’t forget to join the crew over on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Thanks for reading!
Why did your slipper tub turn out to be a disaster?
Ugh. It was actually a really nice tub, but we got it from a reuse store and it didn’t come with any feet. We didn’t realize at the time that the feet and support structure it was SUPPOSED to come with were as important as they were, and then since it didn’t have any brand markings or numbers on it we couldn’t find anything to buy to match. We’d thought about maybe building some kind of wooden cradle since I’ve seen some cool examples of it on Pinterest, but we just never got around to it. In addition, we originally thought that we were going to need a small tub there to accommodate the water pressure tank, but since we moved the cistern location we ended up not putting the tank in there. This means we actually had a much larger space that could totally accommodate a standard sized tub. This little slipper tub would maybe be able to hold our kid for a bath for a few more years but it’s so small it’d be useless for a teenager or adult to use it. We ended up donating it and cutting our losses.