A slideshow of Mike and I building our home.
The natural light throughout the house is the first thing you’d notice when coming in the front door, or maybe the large timber bones. Everyone says, “it feels really good in here," and I certainly agree. The walls are sheet-rocked but not mudded; electrical wires poke out of their blue plastic boxes; we charge phones, the laptop and headlamps with a generator; we only just installed hardwood flooring on the first floor. We carry in water from a spring at the town hall, we use a composting bucket for a toilet, we bathe in a rubbermaid tub in the middle of the kitchen with water we heat on the stove.
I have never lived in such a comfortable situation.
This is the story of how we did it:
June 20, 2009: We meet. On our first date, a seven hour walk around Binghamton, NY, we find out we both want to build our own house in the woods.
June 2010: Our plan to fund building our home and homestead begins with the owner financed purchase of a two unit rental property (my student loan debt disqualifies us for bank loans). Our down payment is credited back to us at closing for security deposits, taxes and water bills, we only have to bring a couple of hundred to closing. We spend the next five months gutting the basement-turned apartment-turned basement back into a one bedroom apartment where we live until Spring 2011. We live “free” without paying a landlord and have part-time jobs, but money is always tight.
October 2010: We tour a 2.4 acre parcel outside of Ithaca, NY. It is southwest facing, sloped, densely wooded on the uphill acre, with a seep spring at the front of the property. We love it but can not find a way to buy it.
January 2011: I find out the property is being auctioned for back taxes after the corp that owns it failed to prove they serve the public good and are denied tax-exempt status. I attend the auction on a rather sad whim, thinking I was going to watch someone else whisk it away from me. Heavy deed restrictions banning the sale or lease of gas, mineral, oil and timber rights limit the folks looking to buy any of the dozens of parcels up for sale and I walk away with the property for $1,200 (we wouldn’t sell or lease those rights anyway). I had to borrow the money from a friend with me at the auction. Mike and I would later pay her back in labor.
May 2011: When the two-unit across the street goes on the market our real estate agent from the first deal finds us a private investor who loans us the money at 12% for twenty years with a five year balloon payment. The idea was to put all of the net income from this property against the mortgage every month, paying the balance down quickly. The reality was a problem property that lost money the first three years we owned it. We sold a car I really liked to cover the down payment. I’m still a little bitter.
July 2011: I show the above property to a potential renter. Turns out her father is also considering buying a two unit for his daughter to live in while attending school. I meet with him and eventually he decides to invest in real estate by loaning us the money to buy a $34,000 dollar two unit. You get what you pay for.
October 2011 - April 2012: We learn about a building materials auction 45 minutes away and start buying up material. Most of the windows are brand new replacement windows we got for $25 a piece; metal roofing that will cover the house, a shed and the chicken coop for $500; a new $350 french door for $50. The list goes on. We’re paying for this with part-time jobs that we leave in March 2012 for many reasons, but now I think perhaps the most salient: we’re not good at working for other people.
May 2012: We buy a second house from the guy who sold us the first (having moved to a different city to start a family he wants out of his Binghamton business). It is by far the nicest property we own and the only one we’re not currently trying to sell.
June 2012: We buy a used camper trailer. We put in a driveway on the property. The highway superintendent drives by to see us hand digging out the culvert ditch and offers to send one of her guys down with a backhoe. Delighted, we return to Binghamton but are disappointed to discover, a week later, that they removed far more material than was useful. We have one day to get 40 tons of fill and stone delivered and formed into a driveway using shovels and rakes. The next day the camper is delivered.
July 2012: Several tenants stop paying rent and move out, the remainder of the summer and early fall is lost to expensive and lengthy renovations. We’re once again buying groceries on credit cards.
November 2012: We move back to Binghamton after discovering the camper batteries will not power the furnace ignition once outside temperatures drop below freezing.
Winter 2012-13: This is a disheartening time. I feel as if I’m moving too slowly and not being effective in achieving my goal of writing in a house in the woods.
April - June 2013: We move back to the land and build a room addition onto the camper using free, reclaimed material. We put in a reciprocating living roof that is lovely and time consuming. Money is particularly short, the properties are taking up a lot of our energy.
July 2013: In one week we felled, cut to length, sorted and labelled for future milling (rafter, joist, beam, etc.) 28 trees. We hired someone to come drill out six below frost holes for our piers.
August - September 2013: The pier bents are installed along with one 20’ long 8”x 8” sill plate. Mike’s dad comes up for a week to help us out. I start to have mobility issues and nerve pain in my left arm but we don’t have health insurance so I ignore it until we get ACA coverage. Turns out I injured my rotator cuff, probably while processing the timbers. I mention it because it took me years and months of ineffective physical therapy to take this injury seriously. I’m only now finding relief through chiropractic care, so I’ve been in varying levels of daily pain for two and a half years over an injury that probably could have been healed in a few months if I’d taken care of it.
Winter 2013 -14: We live in the room attached to the camper in the winter of the polar vortex. The rocket mass heater we installed fails by January and we live in a 45 degree home for months. We can’t keep fresh produce, it freezes. The dog’s water bowl freezes on the ground. We sleep in a cocoon of blankets with sheets of mylar stapled to the wall and ceiling over the bed.
April 2014 - August 2014: Timber framing is heavy, hard work. Mike’s dad joins us several weekends throughout the summer and into the fall. Money is tight, we do odd jobs for a local retiree, have rental issues and make slower progress on the house than hoped for but but the frame is done in time for us to start preparing for our wedding.
September 2014: We get married and go on our honeymoon, a cabin in the Adirondacks. We really like being in the woods.
October - December 2014: We roof, side, install windows and doors, run electric and insulate.
December 21, 2014: After three break-in fires, we spend the first night in our home. I’m sure we cried from happiness, we’re happiness criers. The wood stove we installed is beautiful, the glow of the fire fills the first floor, and we spend this winter blissfully lounging in shorts and t-shirts because it keeps the house so warm.
May 2015: We were making steady progress with the house and outdoor projects until Mike was injured at work (a part-time job at a small market and deli three miles down the road). A pan of hot oil exploded and he suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns to 27% of his body. Weeks in the hospital, grafting surgery. Saying this stalled work on the house seems unnecessary. He is healing remarkably well and weathered the situation with determination, grace and humor.
I have trouble talking about the experience, still. Coming so close to losing Mike has changed me. For one, thanks to the last few years, I've seen what we’re capable of living through in several, dramatic examples. I’m also learning to be easier on myself and more impressed with us, rather than frustrated we’ve not arrived at our fully completed goals yet.
That being said, I don’t think we’d buy rental properties if we got a do-over, though I still haven't thought of an alternative that would have worked better for us.