How to Build an Under-$20,000 Home: Buying Housing Plans—Not!

Brenda Barnes, President, Home Grown Food Network Inc.
Santa Monica, California
August 13, 2010

In reply to a blog I wrote on the under-$20,000 house, someone asked me for plans for a two bedroom, 1 ½ bath house. We are not allowed to give or sell people house plans. We are a charity to promote and educate about ultra low-cost housing, as well as edible landscaping and renewable energy. Even if we were allowed to, though, I don’t think we would, since the plans are not the problem, the solution, or the key to keeping costs down. They are the easiest piece of the puzzle.

What you need to do in most places is build small, which it sounded like the woman wanted to do anyway, but also build in some kind of configuration that in the jurisdiction where the land is, the building is considered something outside the planning and zoning requirements. In one county where we own land, the buildings we are building have to be below 80 square feet to qualify to be built without a permit. In another they have to be 100 and another 120 square feet. They also have to have 3′ walkways between these small rooms. Don’t think of a house as a house. Think of it as a collection of rooms. Then you will be able to figure out how to come within the restrictions and have what you need for a house. We build rooms that are in that size, with covered walkways between them. There is no prohibition on covering or closing the walkways, so what we end up with is very similar to how houses were built in my childhood, with rooms with hallways in between them. There is no restriction on how high the rooms can be either, so we build with 16′ high ceilings and put in lofts for sleeping, working, storage, whatever we need in the particular room.

One place we had a cabin built as a homestead cabin, which had electricity and water added sometime later. It was just a tiny wooden room, about 10′ x 6′. I think homesteaders had to build something 55 square feet to keep their homestead, so all over the desert in the Southwest you see these tiny little wood buildings, often totally derelict by now but with the shell standing. Ours was in good shape, but it was just a tiny room. Since we don’t actually live anywhere (another key to not needing to follow single-family residence zoning requirements anywhere), we stored an RV and a van there while we owned that land, and when a group of up to 10 people visited, we had a shower, bathroom and kitchen, plus the surrounding fenced five acres we owned with the cabin. If we had wanted to stay there more or less all the time, we could have qualified that land as agricultural, a permitted use in the zone, by planting and watering ten trees, and then we could have built a 1000′ agricultural building there without a permit. If we had done that, the first thing we would have done is put up an impenetrable wall to protect our crops. A side benefit is no one could snoop and see whether we actually lived there or not. As it was, we could add on 500′ per year without paying the school fees, which doubled the fees otherwise due. So the keys here were easy to see, once we started looking for them.

Also, don’t think of even a room as you are used to doing. For example, a bedroom is not somewhere to sleep and leave your clothes in a closet and get dressed and put your underwear and pajamas in bureaus and your makeup things in a dresser. Instead, think of all the things you do in that room, and how they could be done instead in the kind of rooms you have to build to get under your jurisdiction’s requirements for their approval. Never do anything illegal, but figure out how to avoid the problems others have with doing building legally and traditionally.

One key is thinking of separating uses. Almost anywhere, storage buildings are outside building, planning and zoning requirements. How many things in a house really are storage? Food, clothes, books, sporting goods, bicycles, cars, trucks—lots of things we use more or less often are just stored most of the time at our houses. If we organize that storage into rooms that are located close to where we use those things when we do use them, but separately from the other things we do in rooms, we may have an even more efficient home than the ones we are used to. There is no reason carved in stone for makeup items to be stored in the same room as pajamas and underwear, or if they are in the same room, to be in the same room as a bed. These things are not even used at the same time.

In addition, it will be a less expensive home because all that storage will not have to be subject to permit fees, preinspection fees, plan checks with delays and fees, inspections also with delays and fees, school surcharges, park surcharges, road fees, development fees, fire plan approval fees, and all the other fees for building, with rights to disapprove what you are building, that jurisdictions have taken upon themselves in the past 150 years. It is so bad now that in some counties in California, the fees for building are almost $100,000 for a single-family residence, without one shovel of earth being moved or one board being provided. In addition, after the storage buildings are put in, unlike storage that is part of a house, they do not add to property value for property tax purposes.

What we get for all that regulation is “uniform” codes adapted by the local jurisdictions, which do not halfway cover the actual risks of the particular area, but over-regulate for risks the area does not have. Everywhere we build for 4.0 earthquakes, which are not a problem anywhere. Everywhere we build for 30 mile per hour winds, which also are not a problem anywhere. Nowhere do we properly build for 8.0 earthquakes and 120 mile per hour winds.

When Peter and I build, we cover the actual usual reasonable risks of the area where we are, and no others. If there hasn’t been a flood for 50 years and canals have been built around the valley we’re in since the last flood, to take the water from the mountains to the other side of the valley, we don’t build for flooding. Only an idiot would, but if we followed the local building code, we would have to, which would make the cost of building on our site prohibitive, as well as inviting triple fees and inspections. Moreover, the filling that would have to be done to supposedly cover that risk is atrocious in its environmental costs. I could go on and on about how ugly the levee is the city made a developer build there, when the last flood was 50 years ago and the entire area has canals in it built since then, but I won’t. Instead let me say, if there is a flood we will rebuild our $20,000 house or whatever part of it is hurt by the flooding. We won’t have to cry about losing our life savings in that flood.

So back to that bedroom and the other uses you make of it besides storage. If you sleep in the same place where you put your makeup on or read a book, you have to have it dark some of the time and light other times. Why not have a dark sleeping room, period? And a light place to bathe and put on your makeup, lit by sunlight and solar tubes? Separating uses into logical categories makes buildings much better than the traditional ones, anyway.

How about security needs in a house? And privacy? Combining those needs makes us build high, impenetrable fences around our properties and then need no security or privacy at all inside them. We can garden in the nude if we want to (and some people do).

Some jurisdictions have different restrictions or allowances from just limiting size. For instance, if the building is “temporary” in some places, it does not have to go through planning and zoning. The “temporary” quonset huts built in World War II are still there in lots of those places, and working well. In others, if it is an “agricultural building,” it does not need to be approved and inspected even if it is up to 1000 square feet. Whatever brings us under the radar of the building and planning authorities is what we do.

Once we get past the restrictions , then we build in whatever way we want to. We have experimented with straw bale housing, earth housing, shipping container housing, continuous plastic bags with earth-concrete-water mixtures put in them and formed into a dome with barbed wire fencing in between the layers to keep them from falling apart while the water in the earth and concrete mixture is drying out, papercrete, tires filled with earth, building with logs from trees on the site (not common in the desert parts of California, Arizona, and Nevada, which is where we have done this experimenting), building a series of lean-tos onto RVs, building greenhouses from old windows and/or greenhouse plastic and then covering them with shade cloth and using them for growing people as well as plants, and building with both new and reused and recycled conventional building materials.

What all those kinds of building have taught us is for the most part they are just differences in framing. They each have pluses and minuses depending on the site. Pick what you like, and pick what is best for your site. However, they do not constitute the difference in cost between the kind of building we are promoting and the traditional kinds in America for the last 150 years. The latter have just become expensive because of over-regulation and improper regulation by more and more layers of intrusive government. That is it, pure and simple. (My brother, a licensed clinical psychologist, says you have to realize that in America if something doesn’t work, we do more of it.) So to build an ultra-low cost house, you have to build outside the restrictions of all those governments. If you build far enough away in some places, there are no governments regulating you yet. However, if you want to build in a populated area, in order to keep the costs down you have to build outside the norm, outside the restrictions of the governments involved.

This is not as difficult as it sounds, and you will not get much help other than encouragement and tips on how to do it from the Internet. That is not to discount how important these are. I have told you how to start. Go to the website of your jurisdiction and read the building and planning code for the zone the site is in. If you have not bought land yet, look at all the possible zones where housing of any kind is allowed, and figure out what would be the best kind of land to own for your purposes. Then make a drawing on a napkin of how you could build rooms that would give you what you need and come within the restrictions. It’s easy once you see what the real problems are. We built an 8′ x 10′ room literally for $40 this summer, mostly from free materials we found in alleys. You will become so creative and have lots of fun, as well as saving up to several fortunes on housing expenses.

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2 Responses

  1. You also don’t need to bring power or heating/cooling to the rooms used for storage — only to the rooms you actually live in. 🙂

  2. Hi Stephanie:

    For the storage rooms, if you want light, you can put up those Tap-It things that run on batteries. For the rooms you use, separate little solar and wind systems are made for RVs (and purchased easiest at RV suppliers) for as little as $25 up to a few hundred dollars. When you separate each room’s power needs, you see you don’t need much for some of them–e.g., lamps take very little power. If all you’re going to do in a room is read–why not have a separate library? With this way of building, you can build like a rich person!–the little $25 solar panel from the RV place is enough. Of course you can live like a chicken–go to bed at dusk and get up at dawn–and need less energy, but there is no reason you can’t live like a modern person too. A very interesting thing I found when I started figuring out how much power each item in a house needs is it is so much cheaper and easier to use propane gas for cooking that I don’t want to use a lot of the electric appliances I was used to having in my kitchen. However, if I am producing my own electricity in a green way–with solar and wind power in the desert, where one works when the other doesn’t, so I don’t even have to have batteries unless my energy needs are really immediate, such as in the computer room, where I want it to work 24/7 and the emergency webphone is–I don’t have to feel guilty, no matter how much electricity I use. And if I’m worried about the mercury in CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) I can use regular bulbs, which are so much cheaper. The result of all this for me is I make conscious choices all along the way.

    Thanks for your comment and for checking with us. When one writes for the cybersphere, one oftten wonders if anyone but a google robot is reading!


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