Of Small Houses & Cheap Alternative Housing Options

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.


Unknown said...

Well, Michael and Marci, of the blog "Down on the Farm", invited us to live in the second floor of one of their barns, rent-free, if we ever wanted to move to Ohio. We did it and it wasn't bad at all. I don't know how many square feet it was, but it was one large room with some partitions and no bathroom (there was one in the main barn). I built a 2x4 & plywood bucket toilet that we still have and use. It was a good experience. I keep thinking, more and more, that I would much rather have a small house, again. I have gone through times of wanting a tent, yurt, shed, cave, etc. ;-) I suppose I will see what the Lord directs my husband to do. :-D

Anonymous said...

My choice is the used house trailer. Leah and I bought ours for $1000 and its its been "home" for years now.

the momma said...

2 1/2 years ago, our family of 8 (then, there are currently 9 of us) purchased 9 1/2 very rundown but potentially beautiful acres with a 975 sq ft poorly-built termite infested house on it. Most of our friends thought we should just bulldoze the place. We had to get a consumer loan, because the bank wouldn't give a home loan on it (for some odd reason, they consider it substandard!)we spent over 1000 hours just making the house habitable, got rid of a ton of 'stuff' & moved out of our beautiful 2-story 2000+ sq ft house in town to begin our new lives. We paid the property (and house) off June 1st last year :-) We are now saving to build something a bit roomier ~ with cash and a bunch of hard work.
It has been a slow & often times discouraging process - turning this place into a productive 'farm'.
Every once in awhile, when things are exceptionally rough, I wonder, did we mis-hear? was this not God's will for us? but He quickly reminds me that we just need to stand firm.
Your blog has been a source of encouragement & knowledge for us.


Lynn Bartlett said...

We bought our land, then used what money we had left for housing. We started out in a pop up camper (until it was too cold), then moved to a retreat center & paid $100/month (which included everything but food) until our basement was finished enough so we could move in. It's been a very slow process to work on the main floor of our house, but we are doing it as we can afford it. We have the semi trailer we purchased to move everything up here, and some day that will be a shop. The guys are in the process of tearing down an old cabin, & the wood will be used for a small shed for our goats and a small shop for our son that enjoys working on engines. We also have an old Norwegian cabin on our land, but I drew the line at living in that critter infested thing!

Anonymous said...

Quoted from a family genalogy book:

"Byron Kimball went to Radville, Saskatchewan in 1903 and built a sod house...
Byron's son Blair joined him in 1905 and they eventually obtained Government land. He received a One Quarter section of land by 1913 after having farmed it for a few years. They lived in the sod house at first and eventually built a better house from wood boards".

Byron Kimball was an uncle of Dr. Herrick C. Kimball!

Hollis K.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Ginny-
Well, kudos to Michael & Marci for their generosity. To have additional room like that, either in an extra room in our house or an outbuilding on the peoperty, to share with others, is something we hope to be able to do one day.

Good story. Thanks for sharing your family's experience here.

House trailers will do the job. But they are taxable. In many areas the building codes and zoning laws make it hard for people to set up an old house trailer. That is a subject I have been intending to write about.

Having lived as you have, you sure are going to appreciate your house when it's finally done, or, at least when you can finally move upstairs.

Hi cousin Hollis-
What a nice surprise to read your comment here!

The early 1900s was not all that long ago. There are people still alive today who lived then. It is fascinating to know that my relatives were homesteading in sod houses such a short time ago. Now that's some real alternative housing!! I wonder what the building code authorities would think of that today?

Best wishes to you and the rest of my Canadian branch of the family.

Anonymous said...

I haven't ever lived in any alternative housing but my fiance and I were looking at small green prefab homes and small home plans. When I started doing research I found that according to the law some of them do not constitute "homes" because they do not have enough square footage and you can't get a home loan to build one which is very discouraging. I mean considering the world we would live in there should be a rebate for building a small green home not a penalty. Right now we are living in an apartment but our goal is to find a small house on some land and revamp it ourselves. In the meantime we have started a container vegetable garden.



Beautiful Each Day said...

My family of 5 is about to move into a yurt on our 22 paid for acres. We will be doing without conviences like plumbing and electricity until we can afford to install them. When my husband and I were debating leaving our cozy suburban house on 1/4 acre I was sometimes scared of stepping out of the "normal" flow of American life. Now I read the news and am soooo relieved that we made the decision to become more self-sufficient.


Herrick Kimball said...

Hi N.-
Thanks for your comment. I agree that building small homes is something that should be encouraged, not discouraged.

Have you looked into yurts? :-)

Wow. You are the first person I "know" who lives in a yurt...or is going to live in a yurt. How did you come to decide on a yurt? Do you know someone else who lives in one? It sounds like you have made a wise move onto the acreage, without debt, and into a Yurt!

I had to read your comment to my wife just so she would know there really is a woman out there who is willing to live in a yurt. Bravo!!

Anonymous said...

We downsized when we moved out of state. We had lived in a typical suburban box, about 1900sq. ft. You would not believe how much space was wasted, even with seven kids! We hardly ever used the front half of the house. We're in a smaller home, but it is much more comfortable, especially dealing with snow for the first time in my life. I totally agree about using alternative housing on debt-free land...it just takes a little thinking outside the box.
A yurt sounds like a hoot...I know my boys would love it. :)
BTW, I went to MaryJaneFarms website. Wow! What a story. I admire her hard work. She also says that women are the fastest growing purchasers of farmland. Is that true? What would make that happen? Also it wasn't clear if those were single women or not.
Personally, I know I have more of a hankerin' for farming than my husband, but I still find it surprising that women would be purchasing farms on their own, considering the work involved.
Great post!

Beautiful Each Day said...

When my husband first suggested we live in a yurt I said no. Then I learned that people live in them in very cold climates, so I decided we could manage to survive in one on the central coast of California. We considered building, as you did, a very small simple wooden structure. We both work full time at our small business, though, so the yurt was appealing because it arrives as a premade kit and can be errected in a week or so. The cost was affordable for us. We chose to order from a company called Spirit Mountain Yurts because they offer the Fortress yurt that has real windows and pine paneled interior walls.

Before we settled on the yurt we were able to visit an acquaintance who lives in one. From her we learned that the vinyl windows in most yurts yellow with age and are a week spot in terms of heat loss. I also realized that the ceilings are very tall, 14 feet at the dome in a 30 foot yurt. That makes it feel very roomy inside. We will probably build a partial loft for sleeping space for the kids.

By the way, I've been reading your wonderful blog for more than a year now. I have learned much from you, it's nice to be able to share a little bit in return. For anyone who is interested, I will be blogging about our move to an off grid life.


Anonymous said...

My husband, two kids, and I currently live in an ordinary 1200 square foot house in a small town. We are currently working on plans to build a 800 square foot or so house on a few acres in the country. People think we are crazy for considering such a small house (heck, I'd go smaller, even!) but you know where we all currently end up most of the time? In one tiny bedroom that we use as a den. The rest of the house is basically just a pass through.

James said...

Herrick, make that two people you "know" from a yurt.

I lived in one on my 22 (mortgaged :( ) acres for almost a year. It was a great alternative to expensive housing, but had some drawbacks.
First, as a single guy, I had no one else to convince or pacify during the yurt experience. I moved out of the yurt when I got maried and moved to her house in the city.
Second: a yurt is a great shelter for the climate in which it evolved. In other words, wind-swept praries with cold dry winters and hot dry summers. Lots of windblown rain is going to be a problem. They do tend to shrug off heavy snow pretty well, but I learned to brace the center ring with a pole when I was leaving for a few days.
I also learned that a wood-heated yurt is not compatible with running water. They loose heat very fast, and if you let the stove die, the water will freeze in a couple hours. They also heat up pretty quick (which made more than one midnight sweating session in the dead of winter!!). I saw temps below -20F that winter, and didn't die. They vent easily in the summer, just open the dome, and windows and the heat escapes.
I built my 18' yurt from scratch by myself. Here's how:
The walls were made from willow poles cut from a nearby swamp. I build willow furniture on the side, so that was no big deal. They were screwed together and worked just like a normal yurt-wall. The insulation was "reflectix" brand foil-backed-bubblewrap, just like the factory yurts use. I covered the inside surface of the insulation with white bedsheets to make it look better. Today I would have just used Remay row covers for the garden, cheaper and better looking. I would also think about using two layers of bubblewrap instead of the expensive reflectix.
I'm particularly proud of my yurt-cover. I sewed it myself from 7oz cotton canvas and coated it with two coats of latex house paint. The paint stiffens and seals the canvas, making it very strong, waterproof, resistant to tearing and flapping in the wind, and protects the stitching from UV decay. I know a guy who had to have his whole yurt re-sewn after a few years in the sun. Another advantage to painting is that you can change the color if you don't like it!
I spent about $800 for the yurt, and another couple hundred for the insulated deck. A borrowed woodstove kept me warm all winter.
Two years ago, I sold the yurt on Ebay to some guy in Portland Or, for $2000.
Even though I was a single guy, I know a family of four that lives in a 24' yurt not too far from where I used to live. He owns a small local newspaper, and a laundrymat. They homeschool thier kids. They are waiting to build a nicer home, but have been waiting for several years.
I keep kicking around the thought of writing a How-to-build-a-yurt book, since the ones on the market currently aren't much use for building a house-yurt (I know, I read every one of them before building mine) they are more focused on how to build a camping-yurt.

I think I've read everything you have written on your blog! Keep it up, you are an inspiration.

Jennlala said...

My husband and I (61 and 57 retired) bought 4 acre,one mile from the county road,100 year + growth wooded lot with river frontage last June. For 5 months he selectively cut down trees and made a drive and a place to park the camper. If we keep clearing a path we might actually see the river in a year or two ;o). We sold our house in October 2007 and moved out here to live in a 29 foot,w/tilt out, camper while we build. It has been an experience! First we had to haul water but by the end of January we had a well so now we can fill the camper with our own water and not haul it 20 miles. We then had a foundation put in to build a 26 x 40 metal building (I call it the hangar) that was finished the end of April and we have moved all of our belonging and building tools out of storage. While that was being finished we had drain field and septic system put in and superior basement walls put up. Right now my husband is digging and laying the pipes to hook up to the septic system. Then the floor will be poured. He and a friend built the "Hangar" and now things will really slow down because he intends to do most of the building himself and I will help where I can. I am mostly good for the interior building projects. We are a bit slower that others since we have a few years on most people I read about that tried this. We still do not have electricity. Hopefully we will have it by August. We have been waiting since December(a long story). We do have a generator but at 4 dollars a gallon we conserve whenever possible. It would take 15 gallons (60 x 30=1800 agh!!)to run 24 hours a day for air conditioning or power for anything. We do start it up occasionally when it is unbearable, to pump water from the well, charge batteries to keep frig etc running but try not to run it for long periods of time. I intend to get back to the days of summer when we did our chores in the morning and took it easy the rest of the day, drank iced tea, and sat on the porch or by the fan. To be able to realize the change of seasons again. Although with heat index being in the 110-120 range the last few days I can't help but realize the season change. So we just decided to drive 40 miles and spend a few days at our daughters house. I also go to their house every so often to do laundry and have a real kitchen. I don't cook much inside with the summer heat. But I do have a gas grill with side burner to use outside. We live in Central Virginia so winters are not too bad here but campers are not made for winter living and a a bit chilly around the edges. And with the gas for the generator and propane it was a bit costly. But this allows us to be on site and not drive a long distance everyday and save money on rent. It is kind of a little savings account. We intend on selling the camper when we are done. There are lots of great aspects about living in the woods. The beauty, the peace and quiet, (we only hear the occasional jet, dog, distant 4 wheeler)and birds and animals. Except the ones that want to live with you inside the camper ;o). But it can be hard also. Like when it rains for 3 days straight and it is dark and cloudy and you are stuck inside.;o( Or it is 100 degrees with 99% humidity with no air moving. But you just have to try and keep a positive attitude and look towards the future and pray a lot. There are a lot more sunny days that cloudy! Just remember all the people in the world that don't have a place this nice to live in and have to subsist on 2 dollars a day or less. This building will all be done soon. (I just keep telling myself that.) Boy, are we blessed or what!

Bob Cardwell said...

Love all your comments. Some experiences similar to my own. I tried to live in an small trailer in the woods. It was an experience. I had to sell the land, but hope to do it again someday.

For Jennlala,

Get a propane fridge. It will save you money. Someone told me there is also a propane A/C, but they are now uncommon and considered dangerous because of the ammonia.

I wish I was you.


Anonymous said...

I've lived in a mobile home on two acres for twenty years and longed to build a conventional home but now pushing 50 and finding out all my friends with mortgages actually envy me i second guess my desire for a conventional house. we raise miniature Herefords and started gardening. in a sense we have it made but I'm worried about when we are older? what house do i build i have all the skills but also have building codes.(county) feed back please!

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We want to build a small house in our garden by ourselves. I think the cement is made with an impact crusher. I'm excited to find out, if it works.

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