Building Our Debt-Free Home
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Jenny Underwood – We had been married for six years when we became debt-free. Like many couples starting out we had a vehicle loan, a loan for our mobile home, and a few other debts. Honestly, it seemed pretty normal, but we decided after reading some budgeting books that we wanted out. So we scrimped and saved and put everything extra towards paying off our debts. Considering we made about $24,000 a year that was pretty incredible to us. After that milestone, though, we realized we wanted to start a family and our tiny trailer was either going to need a major overhaul or we would need to build a home. That was exciting and scary!
We began to save our money with the initial idea that we could pay for part of the construction. However, that idea kept presenting itself that we COULD build completely debt-free. So, we started in the winter of 2008-2009 with $13,000 in savings and some faith. We thought that it might take a few years to get in it but were contented with that. Instead, we were in our home by September of 2009, roughly nine months after we started it and it was all paid for! So how did we do it?
First, we sat down and drew our design up, planning for maximum use of our materials. I have to be frank, it was small but adequate at 900 square feet. We planned to build this portion and move in. Then in a few years, we would build an addition. We started getting bids for our dirt and concrete work. I cannot stress too much that if you can’t do something yourself, you should get multiple bids. Our bids on the concrete went from $1,200-$5,000. In the end, we chose the cheapest one, but in hindsight, I would recommend getting recommendations from people you trust first. Unfortunately, while he did do the job, he didn’t clean up the mess he made and we shoveled frozen dirt from outside of the foundation by wheelbarrow after he left. Another word to the wise; don’t pay until the job is completely finished correctly!
One thing we found out quickly was that our labor was the cheapest so we learned to do almost every job there was. My brother-in-law showed my husband how to lay bricks and though we paid him to get us started, we finished the rest ourselves, saving hundreds. Following this, we taught ourselves how to roof, install plumbing, wiring, and finish work which included sheetrock, laying tile, and boxcar siding.
My husband did hire the roughing-in and there again the multiple bids were a blessing. This time they ranged from $12,000 and four weeks to $2,000 and one week or less. Since the lower bid came highly recommended, we chose them. If we had been forced to accept the higher bid, we simply couldn’t have swung the cost. In fact, after receiving that bid, my husband had decided we’d just have to do the work ourselves. But this lower bid turned out amazing! They did it in a little over a day and even cleaned up their sawdust! It was incredible.
Each time we completed a portion of the home we sat down and worked over our figures again. I would call all-around and price materials. We found that the big box stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot were cheaper, but when we asked our local hardware/lumber store, they matched the prices or sold them even cheaper because of the volume we were buying. They even delivered for free! That is something I cannot stress too much: ask, ask, ask! All they can say is no, but many times they’ll say yes!
We were incredibly tight and thrifty that year. Every spare cent went to our home and when it was all said and done, we had about $20,000 in it which was almost exactly what I had figured it at. Talk about incredible!
A few things to consider if you want to do this. I stress strongly to get out of debt ahead of time if possible. Live in an old mobile home while you save, then sell it. Think small. You probably don’t need as much room as you think and you can always build on later. If money is very tight, build exactly what you can afford. If we had to do it over, we would build a shouse (shop/house). If one person can learn to do it, so can you!
Get good tools, but only get what you really need. Many stores will loan or rent things like sheetrock jacks. Since you’ll most likely use it one time it’s not a great investment, while on the other hand, a cutoff saw and a good cordless or corded drill will be invaluable.
Cheapest isn’t always best when it comes to building materials. Get quality, but don’t just buy name brands. Ask local contractors and lumber store owners what they recommend. If they’re honest, they’ll give good advice. Ask more than one.
Don’t be discouraged when things foul up, because they will. Besides the frozen dirt incident, we dealt with a major ice storm when we began laying blocks, a broken truss, pickaxing our water and septic lines through solid clay two feet down, and the wonderful adventure of finish work. There were days when something incredibly frustrating would happen and it might be tempting to think “we could have hired this done if we had a mortgage.” But we pressed on and the reward was SO sweet!
This story has a happy ending. We built the original home and lived in it for a year when our first baby came to us! Then in 2013, we found out we were expecting number two and decided we should build on. Amazingly, we were able to build a 640 square foot addition in eight months, debt-free on an income of under $30,000. We were in our new addition before the new baby arrived by applying the same principles we used in the first part of our home.
Today we live in our modest, but comfortable, 1,540 square foot home with our now six-person family. We feel incredibly blessed for me to be able to stay at home and homeschool our four children on our one income. Honestly, this probably wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing blessing of a debt-free home!
Originally published in Countryside September/October 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.