Building a Cabin on a Budget
by Eric Wichman
Article originally appeared in the November Issue of Off Grid Living
Building a cabin on a budget is easier than some might think, but it does have its challenges. When I say ‘easy’, I don’t mean it’s easy to build. I mean it’s easy to save money and build on a budget when you do everything (or as much as possible) yourself.
The biggest expenses in building are materials and hardware. You must be creative in how and where you acquire materials, the tools, and the equipment needed to build your cabin.
This article will touch on the basics and also assumes one already has proper permitting in place and the building skills to build a basic structure. This article also focuses on sustainability, impact on the environment, and cost.
Depending on whether you’re building your cabin on a permanent foundation or placing it on concrete blocks or stone pillars will also have a large impact on how much you will spend to build your own cabin. There’s a huge price difference in building a cabin on a concrete foundation compared to placing it on concrete blocks or stone pillars. Septic, water, and power are the three big concerns after shelter.
So...Where do you start? With the land. Your choice of property is, perhaps, the single most important aspect to building your cabin. It very well could determine the success or failure of your off grid homestead.
Picking The Land
Before we get into the details of building a cabin on a budget, lets discuss the land. If you’ve done your homework you’ve picked land that has the natural resources you need. This will save you much more money than you realize, especially if you know how to build. Even if you don’t know much about construction, it’s a good idea to source your materials wisely and not try to buy everything from the store.
In the old days pioneer settlers would pick their land based on the natural resources available. They had this whole living sustainably almost down to a science. They had to back then, because it was literally a life or death choice. If they chose a location, which didn’t have the resources needed then they would not survive. There was no Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes or Ace Hardware store to run down to for supplies. They had to fend for themselves, and therefore had to pick land that provided them with what they needed.
In modern times we’ve forgotten how to do that, or rather, since we have all the resources at our fingertips, we don’t need to do that anymore. Picking a piece of land becomes more about the covenants and convenience of location to schools, shopping and entertainment. We’ve become complacent as a society and we take the natural resources for granted, thinking and expecting them to always be there.
Living off the grid is about being self sufficient, and if you’re going to live off grid you need resources.
With these three things - water, timber, and rock – you can do almost anything. First and foremost, you need water for drinking, cooking, and sanitation. The timber and rock will provide you with the materials to keep warm and build your cabin, barn, and livestock areas.
Picking a parcel of land with plenty of trees and rock is vital. Water is kind of a no-brainer. You must have water, whether it’s a lake, stream, river, creek, pond, natural spring or well. You’ll want to pick a piece of land, which already has water or with water easily accessible. Also, for security and safety reasons, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re not too close to a large source of water. In the case of a societal collapse, a large water source will become a magnet for people and could cause risks. Try to pick a property, which has water but is not too conspicuous. Choosing a property with natural resources available will allow you to reap the rewards of having a piece of land that provides everything you need well into the future.
The Right Tools For The Job
I personally have a philosophy that is when you have the right tools and equipment, not only can you do the job right, it saves you time and money in the long run. That’s why when I build my cabin I’ll be investing in the tools and equipment needed to create my own materials from the natural resources available on my land rather than buying my materials at retail stores. Not only does this cut costs exponentially, it will save money for years and years to come because the tools and equipment purchased for building a cabin can be used for as long as you own the land. The use and money savings over the years will not only pay for the cabin, but will allow you to build more, and potentially even give you an income stream.
Tools & Equipment
The first piece of equipment you need (and perhaps the most important) if you’re going to build your own cabin and don’t want to buy your lumber, is a portable sawmill. Yes, that’s right. A sawmill. This almost completely removes the need for you to buy lumber, drastically reducing the overall cost of materials.
Cost vs Reward
According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average cost of lumber for framing, trusses, joists, etc. in 2013 for an average sized home is about $47,000! (this for a 2600 square foot suburban home)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have $47k to drop on lumber, and to build my cabin (approximately 1500 square feet) I know I’ll need about $30k in lumber if
I buy it from the store. So I’ve decided to build with natural untreated lumber that I mill myself with a portable sawmill. There are a few reasons why I chose this route:
COST SAVINGS - The sawmill’s cost versus the lumber cost is huge. Even the 36” sawmill costs less than $8,000. This might seem like a huge cost for a piece of equipment, but you have to weigh this against the total cost of the lumber to build your cabin or house. If you figure the national average for all the lumber for building a typical suburban home is about $47,000 and you subtract the $8000 cost for the sawmill, that leaves you with a total savings of $39,000. That’s HUGE! Even if you figure that the national average size for a home is 2600+ square feet and that your cabin will probably be smaller, you’re still talking about 1500 square feet or so and that’s going to run about $30,000 in lumber cost alone. Factor in the cost of the mobile sawmill and you save $22k on lumber. I don’t know about you, but saving $22k to $39k on my cabin build is a solid reason to invest in a sawmill.
NO HARMFUL CHEMICALS - Most lumber is treated in some way, and I don’t want it in my home with my child, and neither do I want to contribute to damaging the environment. Milling my own lumber just makes sense.
LONG TERM BENEFITS & SAVINGS - The fact is that the sawmill more than pays for itself before you even complete your cabin in the money it saves you on lumber costs alone. Added to that is the fact that if you maintain your sawmill, you’ll use it throughout your life on many future projects and never have to buy lumber again.
INCOME OPPORTUNITY - Most people do not own a sawmill, and if your neighbors need lumber, then you have the opportunity to provide that to them at a hugely discounted price, saving them money, and providing a good extra income for your family as well.
The next piece of equipment you might need is a tractor or backhoe. You will always have a need to haul things around your property, and you’ll need to dig and level and clear land for other structures like barns, stables, corrals etc. A good tractor or backhoe is a great piece of equipment to own, and with the savings you have on the lumber, you have more than enough to purchase a good used one.
I personally am purchasing a backhoe because it’s multi purpose, and I can do much more with it than I can with a tractor.
SUSTAINABLE SELF SUFFICIENCY TIP: Multi-Use Tools & Equipment
I look at off grid living as not just a lifestyle but a self sufficient necessity and when I pick the tools and equipment for my off grid homestead, I make sure that they can be used for multiple purposes. This not only simplifies things, it saves me money because I don’t have the added expense of spending money on “specialty” tools that only do certain jobs. To me that’s a waste. It’s not sustainable, and if a tool just sits in the toolbox or in the barn, I have no use for it. It’s money that’s being tied up that can be used elsewhere. Being self sufficient means choosing the right tools, but it also means making sure you can do more than one thing with them
Hand & Power Tools
Basic hand tools like hammers, screwdrivers, axes, knives, tape measures, and a good pair of pliers and wrench set are all obvious must-haves for your homestead.
Repurposed & Recycled Materials
Since we live in a society that consumes (unfortunately) we can use that to our advantage and recycle and repurpose materials for use in our homes. Construction companies throw away and donate a lot of materials, manufacturing facilities have gazillions of pallets and crates that are normally just thrown away into landfills, and department stores have lots of surplus hardware that can be used.
Sustainability & Conservation
“Wait a minute,” you’re probably saying. “What about all the trees you cut down to build your cabin? That’s not sustainable!” You’re right. If all you did was cut down trees and not replant then yes, it would be bad because it’s just not cool to chop a bunch of trees down and not give back to the earth, in my opinion. So, that’s why I’ve decided to plant 3 trees for each tree I cut down. If the earth is providing me with what I need to build my home, and is giving me the resources I need to provide shelter and a home for my family, then the right thing to do is give back and plant more trees than I use. That is sustainable.