Under $20,000 House


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

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.


    Energy Uses and Savings in the Under-$20,000 Home

Stephanie commented on my recent blog about how you go about planning to build your Under $20,000 home that when you put all your storage in separate rooms you don’t have to heat and cool those rooms the way they would be if they were inside a traditional home. This is such a good point, and as usual, once someone comments, I remember stuff for a whole new blog. I love it…

For the storage rooms, if you want light, you can put up those Tap-It things that run on batteries. I’ve found it isn’t that often I want to get something out in the dark, but if I do, it’s annoying not to be able to, or to have to take a flashlight, so I love those Tap-Its. The batteries last for years if you don’t use the light much, which it turns out you don’t. And of course you use rechargeable batteries hooked up to a solar panel. Someone gave me four Tap-Its for Christmas once, or I don’t think I ever would have thought to try them and find out they are as useful as they are. They attach with velcro anywhere, or you can use screws. Peter also found some battery-powered lights you put on your head, attached with elastic, so your hands are free. They’re called work lights. Useful for going to get something out of storage. That reminds me also, you can attach a motion detector to a regular light, but then you have to jump up every once in awhile to get the light to go on again. Oh well, good exercise. Maybe makes God laugh, too.

For the rooms you use actively often, 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, and you can put in skylights with retractable covers that let in only light, not heat, or the amount of heat you want, and solatubes that bring light from one place on the roof to another inside and magnify it. 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.

Another 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. We also live in the desert, and outdoor cooking is so fun and possible 360 days of the year and every night if the space is covered, that we don’t need much of an indoor kitchen. Most of the cooking is outdoors, so all we need are shade and a breeze—the first easy to provide, the second often too available here—to make our cooking heavenly, not just pleasant, with no air-conditioning needed. (There was a California cheese producers billboard I saw once that said, “California Cheese—It’s why the people in Palm Springs put up with 5 days of rain a year!” I love it—not the cheese, the 360 days of sunshine.)

However, if I am producing my own electricity in a green way I don’t have to feel guilty, no matter how much electricity I use. We use solar and wind power in the desert, where one works when the other doesn’t—the wind comes up at dusk, when the sun goes down. 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 where the emergency webphone is. 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.

The principle here in how to decide on what kind of and how much energy to use for the various parts of the house is to separate and combine uses in logical ways, the same principle I was discussing in how to plan the building itself. Interestingly enough, I found when I was checking on getting solar power for a whole house that the costs of the system increase because first of all you have to have the highest amount produced that you might need for the highest use area, to cover 90% of your energy uses. Actually, you don’t need all of those at once, of course, so if you produce them when and where you need them, you need less overall. Also, you can save on the costs of transmission. Traditionally, you put enough photovoltaic panels and/or windmills in one or two places to cover the whole house, and then you have to transmit that to locations all over the house. On a small scale the problem of transmission for such a traditional house is the same as the one faced by huge solar power factories out in the desert having to go across miles and miles of neighborhoods with high-voltage lines: the high costs of transmission to get the power from where it is generated to where it is used. When you are putting up small systems to produce only what is needed in one small room, you are down to about as local as you can get, with virtually no transportation or transmission costs.

In planning the building, you can plan those rooms that need lots of electricity—the computer room, the indoor kitchen—to be where there is the most solar energy and wind power, which in our area would be facing north and northwest. In those places you won’t have big trees planted that will grow to shade the roofs. You need the coolest rooms and the places where you are going to grow food to be sited facing south and southwest here. (Opposite in Australia and New Zealand.) So planning makes it easier and cheaper, too, to accomplish what you really want to do, which is live well and lightly on the Earth. Once again, also, as with any other decision you make about this kind of building, if you make a mistake it is a small one. When you find out what you have built doesn’t work for what you thought it would, it is easy enough to change the uses around, or even move the room. What a good life!


    What Is Affordable Housing or Low-Cost Housing? Finding New Terms: “The Under $20,000 House

This weekend I came back from Arizona for a few days and was so amazed at all Peter had gotten done on the fence, gates, and arbors for our house. That led us to talking about what to call this kind of low cost house, which has become a Home Grown Food Network demonstration house.

All the terms we can think of for what we have done and are going to do that anyone might use to do a Google search have been co-opted. I actually saw an ad yesterday that called a $249,000 house “affordable”—in this market where houses are being auctioned with no reserve and still, since few can actually get a loan, not being sold. A family where two breadwinners make $10 an hour each or one makes that at two jobs or twice that at one job could not qualify for half of the loan on that house, so who is that house “affordable” to?

Loans used to be given, when there was money to loan before it disappeared for reasons I can’t discuss now, at 28-30% of gross income. The gross income from one job at $10 an hour, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, since I’m sure these people I’m referring to get sick or have to take off at least two weeks a year and don’t get paid time off, is $20,000 a year. Multiply that by two for one person working two jobs or two people working one each, or one making twice that much, and that is $40,000 a year. We’re not even going to discuss who raises these people’s children when parents work all the time they aren’t sleeping and somehow keeping themselves together to get dressed, buy and fix enough food for the family, cool the house in insufferable summer weather or heat it in freezing winter cold, and somehow pay for transportation to those jobs, plus everything else they have to pay for? The gross amount of $40,000 they make multiplied by 30% is $12,000 a year, divided by 12 months is $1,000 a month. This is if the entire purchase price were financed, as most of these people could not save for a down payment, with what we all know are costs of living.
With their $40,000 a year gross (which of course they never get, since at their low-wage jobs social security and unemployment insurance taxes—only higher-wage and salaried people can avoid these–are taken out, so they end up seeing $35,000 if they are lucky), they can “afford” to pay $1,000 a month on a mortgage. How much purchase price ends up being $1,000 a month payments? Looking up amortization tables in Google will show if interest rates are 3%, $1,000 a month will pay mortgage payments for 30 years on a loan of less than $238,000. At 5% it will pay on less than $187,000.

When you really figure it out this way, no wonder millions of people now can’t afford payments when adjustable teaser rates they were given two years ago went up to 9% or even higher, on house prices they were told were “affordable” or even higher than $249,000. The payment on $249,000 at 9% is over $2,000 a month for 30 years! The people we’re talking about are lucky if they have net income that high all together. That payment is twice what anyone ever called “affordable.”

Neither are most houses for sale in America now what anyone in right mind could call “low cost.” Lately people on Home and Garden TV call $100 per square foot “low cost.” The $249,000 “affordable” home did make $100 per square foot seem low cost, since that was less than 1500 square feet, so it was over $177 per square foot. However, what is low cost is not relative. We believe it is absolutely not true that a house for a family is low in cost if it is not affordable to 30 million people.
The main reason $100 per square foot is now called “low cost” is people are talking only about purchased houses, not owner-built ones. Even using new materials and paying for building permits and other government taxes like school fees every step of the way, which both are much higher cost than the alternatives of recycled materials and additions or modifications that do not count as permit requiring changes, houses can still be owner-built for half that cost. “Low cost” has to be avoiding the high costs of labor and other people’s profits, so has to be owner-built.

Compared to this, we bought our house for $7,500 and have spent under $1,000 in materials costs on making it the beautiful, almost 1,500 square feet under roof of living space we have now, plus over 1,000 square feet of gardens, gazebo, and courtyard space we live in outdoors under shade, cool and heat our house, and grow food. Our around $5 per square foot has got to be low cost using anyone’s definition. It was also very affordable for us and for most people. Therefore, we were quite in a quandary discussing what we should call it.

The way we paid this cost was $2,000 down and $1,000 a paycheck twice a month until we paid for it, back when we were limousine liberals making lots of money. The materials we have paid for $5-20 at a time as we had it. No one finances such a small amount for 30 years, but just to provide what amortization payments would be if there were financing, to compare to figures I have given above, the payments on $7,500 would be less than $32 a month at 3%, $41 at 5%, and $61 at 9%. With payments like these, the family we are talking about could quit at least one job and maybe have enough time and energy to keep their kids from becoming gang members or committing suicide or taking drugs over not being able to figure out algebra or peer pressure. We certainly don’t want people to get the trivial amounts we are talking about mixed up with what has been called “affordable” or “low cost.”

We also don’t want to get what we are doing mixed up in people’s minds with what other charities do. I am not criticizing them—each has a niche of deserving homeless public to help, and reasons for choosing that niche. For example, looking at their publicity, the way I understand it a Habitat for Humanity house costs a chosen family in our area $80,000 with no interest, materials and labor are all donated, and Habitat for Humanity uses money paid by one family to give a loan to another. This is only $222 per month for 30 years. This really is affordable. So why are there still an estimated 30 million families who want to but never will be able to afford to own their own homes in America? Because, among other less fatal reasons, no matter how many people volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, there never will be enough volunteers to build 30 million homes. The 30 million families have to have a way to each build their own, or they never will own their own homes.

That is why after this discussion last weekend we at Home Grown Food Network have decided to call what we demonstrate the “under $20,000 house.” Ours is not really that cheap, since we pay $300 per month rent for land, and at amortized values, that is the equivalent of payment on a loan of $55,000 for 30 years. However, we didn’t have to qualify for such a loan, and neither does anyone else to do what we’re doing. We all just have to demonstrate we can pay $300 per month rent and whatever small increases rent control allows over the years. Even Social Security or small pensions or disability payments, to say nothing of two jobs per family, can handle that. We also don’t count our very high litigation costs, which by now are over $150,000 in income we have lost by fighting our landlord’s attempts to evict us for doing this. The reason we don’t count that is we figure this is for the 30 million people, not just us, so it is insignificant on a per-house basis.

Therefore, all in all, we figure the cost of this house is like buying a seller-financed $10,000 piece of land out in the country, putting a $1,000 trailer on it to start with (I saw a freestanding old trailer twice as big as this one was when we started for $350 last week, but ours cost more because it was in a park already and ready to move in), putting in solar and wind power and water tank with composting toilet and simple shower, and growing the family’s own food in natural do-nothing gardens, for a total of less than $20,000. This is not only for the home, but also covers the bonus of food-growing gardens.

Besides our house not actually costing as little as it could, houses like it are also not going to house all 30 million families. Some would rather rent what they can and live in a good school district than live out in the country or fight a landlord to do this the only ways we’ve seen it done. Others are disabled and can’t build their own house and/or wouldn’t live in a trailer such as this one was until it was improved. Mostly, it is impossible to recreate what we have done because there are zoning and planning laws almost everywhere that prohibit putting a trailer on unfinished land and living there while you build this kind of house, so you have to do it the way we’ve done it instead, and we were limousine liberals, not poor people. However, we think that by showing how big, beautiful, cool, warm, gracious, and productive we have been able to make this house for less than the equivalent of $20,000 for us, we are contributing something not contributed any other way to discussion of how to provide housing they own to many of those 30 million homeless families.

This discussion needs to be undertaken realistically, without being muddled by wrong thinking demonstrated by current use of “affordable” and “low-cost” for housing that isn’t. We welcome your input.


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