A friend of mine recently told me that in his town the building code does not allow anyone to build a home that is less than 900 square feet. That got me to thinking about how I really hate it when the government makes such stupid and oppressive laws—especially local governments in areas that are mostly rural.
When Marlene and I built our house—the one we live in now—back in 1985 it measured 16 feet by 24 feet with two floors (no basement). That amounts to 768 square feet. We have since added on to the house so it now amounts to 1,650 square feet. The house is still relatively small, especially with three boys (all in one bedroom). We would love a larger house someday, but what we have is sufficient. Our house is a home. We are content and thankful for what we have.
I can tell you that small houses have their advantages. For one thing, they are cheaper to build. As I explain in my book, Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian, Marlene and I borrowed $10,000 from her father to build our house, and we did the work ourselves. The house is not fancy but it is built very well. There was never a bank loan and the house is now paid for. I’m thankful for that too.
Another advantage to a small house is that it costs comparatively less to heat in the winter, as I have mentioned here a few times in the past. Maintenance costs are also comparatively less. After 23 years, I’m going to need a new roof on the original structure and it won’t break the bank to get that done. Of course, it helps that I’ll be doing the actual roofing work myself.
Looking back, if I had it to do all over again, and I had the same limited financial resources, I’d build a small house just like I did. Perhaps I would incorporate more salvaged materials. I did that with some windows and a staircase, but could have done it to a greater degree. I have an uncle in Ohio who built his house and several outbuildings using almost all salvaged materials, including a slate roof. His house has been featured in Fine Homebuilding magazine.
Or maybe, in retrospect, I would do it just a little bit differently. I now think it would have been wiser to find a good section of land and buy that first. Forty acres would have been nice, with some woods, and some field. The one and a half acres I bought back then, and live on now, is hardly big enough to hold us with all of our homestead projects. What's funny though is that I've gotten e-mails from people who lament that they have only 8 or 10 acres to homestead on.
In any event, with my 40 acres in place, I would have lived in some sort of “alternative” housing to start, while saving to build a more permanent and conventional house. The best alternative housing would be low-cost and not incur any additional property taxes.
One such form of alternative housing would be some sort of camper/trailer. I’ve heard old pull-behind campers can be had surprisingly cheap. And I know people who have lived in them, on their land, for a long time.
Another option is a yurt which is the traditional home of Mongolian herdsmen. I once watched a very unusual documentary movie titled The Story of The Weeping Camel. The best part of the film was seeing the yurt the the Gobi desert herding family lived in. It was roomy and strong and warm in the cold weather. Since yurts are portable structures, I don’t think they would be taxable.
I have long had a hankering to live in a yurt. In fact, I have this idea that someday, when/if I can finally afford to buy a section of woods and field, I will talk The Lovely Marlene into living on our land in a yurt. I have not told her about this yet. She is less adventurous than I when it comes to things like this. Such ideas of mine must be presented with care and wisdom on my part. Hopefully, I’ll be able to persuade her of the many advantages of yurt living and she will agree to try it for one year. And then maybe she would want to live in our yurt for one more year. I don't know which will be harder...saving to purchase the land (debt free) or getting Marlene to try yurt living. Well, one step at a time. :-]
Another possible alternative for housing could be a big, walled tent, like is used on African expeditions. If you think tent living would not be comfortable, check out the pictures at Mary Jane’s Farm Bed & Breakfast. I have written about Mary Jane's Farm HERE. The tent idea would not be much fun in the winter where there is cold and snow. But it would work comfortably for half a year here in upstate New York.
Have you ever been inside a common box trailer that truckers use to haul goods all over the countryside? There is a surprising amount of room in one of those things. I think they measure around 8 foot wide and are something like 60 foot long. Evidentally, the undercarriage wears out and will not pass inspection. Find such a trailer box, with wheels, buy it cheap, park it on your land, and you can set up house in that thing.
My pastor once told me of a nifty tax-free housing idea he had. If your land has a pond on it, build a small floating house on top of empty 55-gallon drums. It would be a house “boat.” The tax assessor around here doesn’t raise your property taxes if you park a boat on your property.
I once knew an old Italian fellow who told me of how, as a young man, he had plans to build a small home for his family out of the lumber in used packing crates. He got the crates free from the factory where he worked. Every day, on his way home (to an apartment) he dropped the crates off at the little section of land he had bought. On weekends, he would take the crates apart and neatly stack the wood under cover. Then World War II came and he went into the military. His plans were put on hold. When he came home from the war, his life had changed course. He never built the house. And he regretted it.
I have a friend who got married last year. He and his wife have been renting a house, and paying utilities. He is very discouraged because it costs so much (especially for fuel through the winter) and they can’t save any money. I could suggest to him that they live in a nice wall tent or a cheap camper for the summer months. Then they could save a lot of money. But I know my idea would not be well thought of.
With the economy the way it is, and people loosing their homes, they need places to live. Most are probably moving into apartments. Marlene and I lived in a two-room apartment for a couple of years when we were first married. I’ll take a wall tent, or an old camper, or even the back of an old tractor trailer box, on a little piece of rural land, over an apartment in town any day, thank you. But a yurt would be preferable.
There are ways to live cheaply, especially in rural areas, where you can get away with “camping out” when you are just starting out, or even starting out all over again. But to live so cheaply requires that you take a socioeconomic step (or two) down from the typical modern lifestyle. It’s a humbling situation that few people are willing to place themselves in. But I think it is easier to do if you see it as a means to an end, not necessarily an end in itself.
Whatever the case, even a shack in the woods can be a beloved home, especially if it is inhabited by a family that loves each other and is thankful to God for the blessings they have. That is what I believe.
I’m wondering... do you have an example from your own experience of living in some form of cheap, alternative housing (under 900 square feet)? Or do you know of others who have done this. If so, I invite you to tell about it here.
StoryCorps - The folks with StoryCorps travel around the country recording brief oral histories to preserve in the Library of Congress (details HERE). The format is int...
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