Building Our First House on a $125,000 Budget (Featured in Fine Homebuilding)

Started by sjdehner, March 16, 2009, 08:29:22 PM

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In April 2007 my wife and I, both in our thirties, left our home town of Point Roberts, Washington and moved across country to the small town of Belfast, Maine. With little experience (we'd remodeled our old cottage in Point Roberts, and built a first-rate shed and chicken house, which ignited our desire to build) we took on the challenge of designing and building our own house. Since we were on a $125,000 budget and tend to enjoy a good challenge we did as much of the work as we could safely do ourselves.

Knowing that we were moving to a cold climate we took a broad approach to energy efficiency incorporating passive-solar design, spray-foam insulation (Icynene), energy-star rated windows, and energy efficient appliances, including an on demand electric water heater. We also use a mixed-fuel heating system that includes a wood stove that allows us to use wood from our land combined with a forced-air propane back-up. Although tall, the house has only a 24 x 32 footprint with an additional 8 x 16 lean-to utility room. Our house continues to be an incredible learning experience and a great deal of fun as we complete the finishing work. A year and a half later we're nearly done!

Although this is our first official posting at the Country Plans forum we owe a thank-you to Jimmy Casson for his photo-diary, which aided us in some of our framing. Also, the 24 x 32 house plan we developed was partly inspired by the 20 x 34 2-story cottage plan that we purchased off the Country Plans website several years ago.

Our house (to our surprise) was featured on the front page of the Fine Homebuilding website in February 2009: - This link will take you to the article.

Click HERE for the Gallery pages on this project.

This is a January 2009 photograph of our house in Maine that we began building in the summer of 2007. While we have some work ahead of us, we still expect to be finished completely by April of 2009!

The editors of Fine Homebuilding have been extremely kind and encouraging. They are a wonderful resource for dependable building information. Many of our ideas were inspired by Fine Homebuilding contributors, like builder Gary Striegler. Along with the Country Plans website, Fine Homebuilding (magazine and website) has been one of our central resources while building. We appreciate and recommended both resources to other new builders.

"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do" -Wendell Berry


Very nice looking house!  [cool]

You must of been hard at it to get all that work done in a year and a half! 

glenn kangiser

w* to the forum.  Thanks for posting.  Nice project.  Jimmies project was a great help to a lot of people. :) 
"Always work from the general to the specific." J. Raabe

Glenn's Underground Cabin

Please put your area in your sig line so we can assist with location specific answers.


A fellow Mainer  ;D

Looks beautiful, great job!

How much per sq ft did it come out to?

How much did it cost to have the foundation put in? You went with a contractor on that right?

Does the $125,000 include the cost of the land?


Thanks for the welcome and the nice comments. Building our house has been an adventure from day one.

Currently, we're putting together a cost analysis for the work we had help on (i.e. the work we paid for) for the Fine Homebuilding gallery. However, I will post that information at Country Plans as well. This should happen within the next day or so.

I can tell you that the amount does not include the 18 acres we bought in Belfast, Maine. Since we do not have any heavy equipment we did pay someone (Derek Davis of Davis Dirt Works in Thorndike, Maine) to do our site work and he did a superb job, which is typical of the Mainers we had the good fortune of meeting along the way.

As for numbers, the site work was $31,000 exactly and included:

1. 250' driveway with turnaround & culverts
2. Complete septic system (gravity fed) with tank, piping and field.
3. Earthwork & De-stumping (we felled trees by hand for firewood) over roughly an acre
4. 24' x 32' stepped concrete basement with perimeter drains
5. Seeding

I hope this answers your question, please write again if you have more.

P.S. Bishop Knight: Do you have any information posted regarding your solar set-up? And how are you planning to heat water (wood?)? The amount of work you've done on your own is impressive. And I liked the v-match loft you put in your cottage. I've been mulling around the best type of flooring to put down in our attic and seeing yours gives me some possibility. Thanks for posting, too.

"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do" -Wendell Berry


"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do" -Wendell Berry

John Raabe


Welcome to the forum and thanks for posting your fine project. A first cabin job! :D

I see you used the Better Homes and Gardens program to do your floorplan layout. Very interesting. Were you able to put together you own permit package with that?

Link to floorplans:
None of us are as smart as all of us.


Sure do. To answer your questions:

I have 3, kyocera KC130-TM solar panels ( $565 on sale at wholesalesolar, cheapest I've found lately )
A "Go-power" 12v 1500 watt, pure sine wave inverter ( I bought for $300 on craigslist ) and a 20 amp fuse
4, 88 AH , AGM batteries ( bought for $30 each on craigslist )
A Tristar TS-45 charge controller w/ remote display ( cost around $250 ) and a battery temp sensor ( $20 )
Various 4 guage battery wires from walmart/autozone
A 20 amp shutoff box for the solar panel feed
12-2 outdoor extension cord used to feed the solar panel to the controller.
A 45 amp sub-panel box with 3 , 15amp fuses to feed the cabin receptacles

I'm planning on using propane for my oven, dryer and water heater.

I can't claim credit for that v-match loft. I posted the pics of that cabin because it closely resembled mine. I found those pictures on ebay last spring and thought they were too good to let dissapear. I wanted others to get similar inspirational ideas as I did.

On a personal note: Those site work numbers sound about right. I almost went the same route but decided to buy a backhoe and do the work myself. Each way has its advantages and disadvantages, of which doing it yourself requires much patience and comes with much frustration. I wouldn't change a thing though.

Thanks for sharing your project  ;D


Hello John:

Thanks for writing...

You certainly have developed quite a forum here at Country Plans, we thank-you for your hard work and creativity.

To answer your question: Yes, we were able to get our house plan approved here in Belfast, Maine using the Better Home & Garden Home Design Suite (not sure which edition since we sold it when we were finished). The entire process took about 20 minutes!

Initially we used the Broderbund architecture software (version 3.0) which you recommended. This prints very good floor plans. So does version 4.0 which we found (by chance) at a thrift store.

Being first-time builders it was not easy for us to determine scale, which is to say it was difficult for us to figure out if a room was, say, too big or too large for our needs. We surmised that an architecture program with contemporary graphics might solve this issue. And for the most part it did since the graphics are such that we could, for instance, "get inside" a room to look around.

Comparing the program to the actual house we'd have to say that the former is extremely accurate in conveying room size. And we would now recommend it over the other software having used both of them extensively.

We found it to be user-friendly all around. It is simple (for building most things) and it prints floor plans, elevations, dimensions, etc. with the added bonus of being able to email images as gifs, jpegs, et al. This last feature came in handy when emailing contractors for insulation estimates, etc.

We're not sure how submitting plans in another town/county might pan out but it worked just fine where we built. Where we're from in Washington (Whatcom County) the situation might be different.

At any rate, hopefully this answers your questions. Please feel free to write again. Maine and soon to be home again! :D

"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do" -Wendell Berry


very nice. i like the wood burning stove, is it a vermont castings?  could you post a better pic of your wood burner and surround. what are the dimensions of the sorround/hearth. i will be putting in a wood stove this summer and this is a very interesting way of putting it in a corner. how many feet of double wall pipe did you use.


We just happen to be online right now -thanks for the comments.

To answer your question, Yes, the stove in the photo is an Encore from Vermont Castings (we also keep a tiny Aspen from VC's in the insulated basement).

We had a 12x12 installed when the mason was here; but we'd recommend a double 8x8 if you're considering more than one stove or wish to have two exits for a mixed-fuel exhaust system.

As for the double wall pipe, this was an unexpected cost: The thimble was installed at a height that brought the pipe too close to the drywall to meet code, which the double wall pipe takes care of just fine, but it was not a cheap oversight.

We had to self-install four pieces of double wall pipe: a connection to the thimble, a 90 degree elbow, a 45 degree elbow, and the flexible connection to the stove itself. My wife recalls the pipe being astronomically high (perhaps $75/ft.?). Knowing a little more about the code reqs. now, if we were to build again, we'd definitely build our fireplace to avoid the necessity of a double-walled pipe.

As a note, the stove-pipe itself can be absurdly astronomical. If you are considering a professional installation then we'd strongly suggest getting bids from some masons for a brick/stone chimney since in our case the cost difference was not all that great.

Thanks for writing!

Hopefully this picture will be of better use:

"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do" -Wendell Berry


Thanks so much for posting the info and pictures, and especially for the link to the layout.  (I had requested same over at Fine Homebuilding!) 



I forgot to ask in my last post whether the basement extends beneath the 8X16 utility room lean-to.  If it doesn't, what did you do for your foundation there?  Thanks.


Hello again Charcoals, nice to see you over here, too! This is a great resource as well.

We're glad the floor plan and elevations were helpful. We may bring them over here at some point when we have the time.

The 8x16 utility room foundation is part of the full basement, however, we built a load bearing wall between it and the main section and simply insulated the floor beneath the utility room. This was strategic so that the room gets cold during the winter (upper 30's-40's) and stays cool in the summer (50's).

Our thinking behind this set-up was to create cold storage, a root cellar, to over-winter vegetables from our garden. It works well and also doubles as a "mechanical room" since our water tank and filtering system are also inside this room.

Most root cellars are dirt/gravel based at the floor; being on a hill (the root cellar side uphill) the hydrostatic pressure may have been such that it would migrate up through the floor so we went with the poured concrete.

It added little to the overall cost of the foundation ($7500) and we are glad it is the way it is given the phenomenal amount of snow we've been getting the past two winters. Last year we had around 10' throughout the season and we're not far behind this season!

Hope this answers your question. Thanks for the comments on both sites.

Shawn & Jamie
"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do" -Wendell Berry


Hi Shawn and Jamie,

Well, I'm glad you discovered this site, because when I saw your home over at Fine Homebuilding, I immediately thought, "That would be much appreciated over at!"  Plus, as I mentioned before, your design is much like the one I hope to build (a two-story either 24X32 or 24X36), so it's really good to see someone who's "done it" and to see the photos and read the descriptions.

When you are talking about the room that gets cold in winter and stays cool in summer, are you talking about the lean-to room on the main floor, or the space/room beneath it in the basement?  I assume the latter, but I'm not sure.

Also, do you have some sense of how much extra it cost you to add that "bump out" section for the lean-to room when pouring the basement?  It appears to me that if you had not done that, your basement pour would have been a pure rectangle, and I suspect that would have been a fair bit cheaper.  I'm thinking of sticking to a rectangular (full) basement, but I really like your lean-to and how it adds interest to the shape of the house.

Thanks again.

Charcoals (in Minnesota, where we don't get as much snow as you, but it sure gets cold!)


Good Morning from Maine, Charcoals:

We're happy our postings have been of some use to others. It's been a rewarding trip building a house.

We hope your project will be posted here, too. It would be really interesting to see what someone else has done with a similar design! It took us off-and-on a year to tweak the basic plan into something we thought would work - and then it changed again once we realized what our foundation would be, on a hill no less.

The root cellar is in the basement (that's the cold storage room, sorry for the confusion). The utility room above the root cellar has a heating duct even though we keep it closed off from the rest of the house by shutting the door. There's also a water-closet in the utility room part of the lean-to. This is handy for the summer months when we're gardening.

As for adding much to the cost of the foundation, we're not sure it added all that much. We thought the foundation work was surprisingly reasonable here in Maine. We can tell you that it did add to the cost of the overall building project since we had to lay extra flooring, put up extra siding, install plumbing, etc. But it's really great to have a decent sized utility room, especially during the mud/snow season. If we were to write out a figure, it's probably in the realm $6-10K for the lean-to. And this amount would include foundation to insulation and siding, whatever materials went into it.

You are correct in thinking that the foundation would be a rectangle without the lean-to.

Looking back with some experience we honestly think this house could be built for less than $100K if we were able to do more of the work. As circumstances have it, we are planning to return home to the Pacific Northwest where our family lives; we expect to build again, much smaller, and on a smaller budget. For two small people this is a large house! But it's comfortable and in a cold climate where one would be spending a great deal of time indoors, it's really a nice house. We suspect you'll enjoy the size as well.

Hope to see your project as well!

All the best,

Shawn & Jamie

"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do" -Wendell Berry


first off great house!   I was wondering how you changed the orignal plans from 20' wide to 24'??  My wife and I are looking to build a cabin and I love the 20' X30'  1 1/2 story plans but I want it to be 24', to accomadate 2 bedrooms and a bath on the main floor.

Thanks alot,



Good Morning Karl,

We played with the 20' 2-story cottage plan for more than a year until we tweaked it into a "workable" house. To be straight, were we to do it again, we'd stay within the 20' wide plan (or perhaps go even smaller). One reason for this is that it seems plenty large enough "as-is" for two people. And for another, it's certainly easier to build and would cost less. Not to mention that the second floor layout on John's original plan is really well done.

But that does not answer your question!

Perhaps this will:

We originally had two issues with the plan as purchased. First, as avid gardeners and two cook-at-home people, the kitchen area felt too tight for us. Now, we think that this could be solved by nixing the utility area within the main house and adding it as, say, a bump-out of some sort.

The second issue - and this is what ultimately caused the widening of the house - was that we really disliked the idea of walking straight into the living room from the front door. Having a separate entryway was appealing to us so we widened the house by four feet.

The widening also allows a circular pathway on the main floor which admittedly is really nice.

How we did it:

The main load bearing walls run down the middle of the house following the interior wall pattern from the entry to the back. In other words, the load bearing walls separate the entry from the living room and the kitchen from the dining room.

Here's a floor plan image (although the chimney is in the wrong place in the image):

This is a substantial alteration in the plan but it worked out fine. It's a heap of extra work though, I will say that. Looking back with some experience it might be possible to build a similar wider floor plan using an I-joist system rather than a central load bearing wall with basement posts. But I'd consult an architect or master-builder before proceeding on that notion. (Note from John Raabe: The Universal Cottage plans include 20' wide floor framing layouts for both an I-joist full span floor and the interior bearing beam that was used here.)

One final thought. Having spent most of the past two years in New England we are now familiar with the old New Englander houses that dot the landscape. Many of these have almost an identical main floor as ours but are only 16'-22' in width. In fact, John's plan could be set up exactly like ours with a 20' wide foundation (and without the necessity of centralized load bearing walls). We didn't think this would be comfortable during the planning stages. In retrospect, however, I think we were incorrect. If we were to build this house again, we'd stick closely to the plan's original size (or perhaps go even smaller).

Just some thoughts in addition to answering your question.

Please let me know if we can add anything else.

Take care and all the best on your project. Whatever you decide we'd be delighted to see your work. It's fascinating to see what other folks are creating from a similar idea.

Shawn (and Jamie)

"Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do" -Wendell Berry

John Raabe

I recently added some of the Fine Homebuilding article photos to the Gallery page for this house.

See: for the update.
None of us are as smart as all of us.