Mortgage Free: Dave and Barbara's $30k Hand-Built Homestead

In 2004, Dave and Barbara, two almost-retired teachers, set out to fulfill a dream. They had purchased land in southeastern Arizona in the Dragoon mountains, eventually building an adobe guesthouse and a strawbale main house on it.

To get started, Dave says “I recommend going out and living on the land in a little trailer or whatever for a while, to learn the land. The land will tell you where to build and all of that stuff.” He laughed as he told the story of the wind whipping up one weekend and rattling their 12-foot tent trailer, with Barbara saying conclusively “we’re going to build a house now.”

Friends help Dave and Barbara make adobes for their guest cottage.

Making adobes with friends.

Construction began first on their 320 square foot adobe guesthouse while they were still teaching in Tucson, 75 miles away. All told, they cast about 2500 40-pound adobes, or about 100 each weekend. Neighbors were in on the fun as well, not only contributing to the actual building, but doing things like turning the heat on or leaving cookies for when they arrived Friday evenings from teaching all week.

Waking up Saturday, they would create their adobe mix and pour it into molds. Sundays they’d build the guesthouse walls with adobes made the previous weekend. Dave says his neighbors may be “trying for sainthood,” as he and Barbara were also invited over for a hot meal every Saturday evening.

The adobe cottage going up, with week-old adobes and freshly cast ones.

The adobe cottage going up, with week-old adobes and newly cast ones.

Dave, who taught English, reads mindfulness authors such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Thich Nhat Hanh, but things weren’t always this peaceful.

He spent his career following his passion and owned a series of private schools working with at-risk kids, saying "I started schools in Washington DC, Salt Lake City, Denver, Minnesota, Dakota, Arizona, I spent all of my time in the airport. It was a terrible life for me, I didn’t like it. I made rather a lot of money and spent most of it, almost all of it."

"By any measure of financial success, I suppose I was there, doing all of the cute things. Skiing Deer Valley, fishing marlin in Cabo and all of that kind of stuff.”

Regarding the kids, he said "I think we got to most of them," but when it came to the exorbitant lifestyle he concluded “I didn’t enjoy it very much. I thought it was important at the time.”

Dave takes in view as the adobe cottage takes shape.

Dave takes in the view as the adobe cottage takes shape.

The dream of a quiet escape where he could read and take long hikes had been a dream of his for quite some time. He’d built his first cabin in southern Oregon back in ‘67, a project he eventually sold due to a lack of employment in the area. Today, he says, things have changed for rural living, noting the myriad of employment opportunities that have sprung up with the internet.

Dave under the newly-installed roof trusses of the adobe cottage.

Dave under the newly-installed roof trusses of the adobe cottage.

When I asked what drove him to take action on that first project, he said “being willing to take a risk. I think that’s the single biggest thing that holds people back, they’re afraid. There are so many people that are afraid of what other people would think if they fail at what they’re doing and that comes to the core of it, in my opinion."

"Is the person thinking about this internally validated, are they the determinant of their life’s path or are they going around seeking other’s opinions on how they should live to be considered successful? If they’re externally validated, they’re going to be afraid to do anything.”

Dave and Barbara, with the 720 square foot strawbale main house taking shape.

Dave and Barbara, with the 720 square foot strawbale main house taking shape.

For home construction, Dave’s advice was to “build a very simple, cleanly designed building. Square is best, rectangle is probably what people wind up with, which is what we did…just keep it simple, within the grasp of a do-it-yourself builder.”

His other advice was not to get overwhelmed by looking at the whole project, but zero in on the sub-system, saying “that way it’s manageable for the DIY builder, because it can be very intimidating to look at the whole house and say, “Oh God, I can’t do that.” But can I put down a footing and a stem wall? Well sure, how tough is that? I’ll form it up if it’s a mono-pour, I’ll lay block if it’s not…and yeah, I can manage that.”

Dave loads bales on the strawbale house, with a little help from a big green tractor.

Dave loads bales on the strawbale house, with a little help from a big green tractor.

I also found the “sub-system” thinking on his website, in a section called “DIY Home Building for Couples.” When I inquired about the "couples" part, he explained that during his research, a good number of projects started by couples ended up with two single people at the end. He explained further, saying that “it was one of the greatest relational lessons we’ve had in our twenty-odd years together and that was this: when you go on the job site, you leave your ego in the car. You look at what works, not what’s my idea.”

Barbara mixes plaster for the strawbale house.

They quickly learned each other's strengths. Barbara, the math teacher, was adept at drawing plans and was also skilled at mixing the earth plaster with the proper ratio of ingredients. She also made sure the buildings were squared up correctly.

When I asked about their choice to be mortgage free, Dave explained that during the implosion of the economy, they’d lost most of the equity in their house in Tucson. He continued, saying “we came to a place where we had a choice. Do we keep teaching for a while and build up more money so we could hire somebody to do this…or do we say ‘We can do this, do it ourselves, still go out there with no mortgage and live in a very lovely comfortable place.’ We already had the land, so we said ‘Well...we can do this.’”

Dave and Barbara, putting on the trusses of the strawbale house.

Dave and Barbara, putting on the trusses of the strawbale house. The bale walls were built, trusses added, and metal roof constructed in 14 days, with help from a neighbor. The key for Dave and Barbara was having their components pre-built and ready to go.

When it came to building your own home, Dave said “you can’t believe the sense of fulfillment. I’d encourage everyone to do it, everyone that’s physically anywhere close to capable of doing this. I’m seventy-two right now. I started this in my mid-sixties and there’s no reason to let age, there’s no reason to let youth, there’s no reason to let any of those things, except a severe physical infirmity, keep you from doing it.”

Dave installs a drip edge for the metal roof of the main house.

Dave installs a drip edge for the metal roof of the main house.

When asked what he would say to people who are trapped in the “rat race,” he sagely replied that “that is a self-assumed trap. It doesn’t exist. Worst case, walk away from it because unless a paradigm is changed from money to freedom and choices, you’re always going to be trapped.”

Dave applies the earth plaster while Barbara does the mixing.

Dave applies the earth plaster while Barbara does the mixing.

“If you can adjust your living, your lifestyle to what you make rather than saying ‘This is a Faustian dilemma where there is no limit to what I should be making,’ that’s a rat hole, there is no end, ever...to that. Been there, done it,” he laughed. “And it’s ugly.”

“But yeah,” he continued, “nobody should feel trapped. It may mean seriously changing some spending habits.”

The finished strawbale house at sunset.

The finished strawbale house at sunset.

Dave concluded, saying “if you're validated outside of yourself, you’re trapped. The only way to get out of that is to go inside and say, “What do I really need here? What’s actually important to me? And nobody gets to tell me that...”

Dave and Barbara live in southeastern Arizona on 10 acres in the Dragoon Mountains. Dave runs Simple-Living-Today.com, sharing their journey of simple living, gardening, and DIY home building. He also offers whatever advice he can to aspiring DIY homebuilders, working with people as far away as New Zealand. Dave and Barbara also enjoy hosting visitors from around the world at the Dragoon Mountains Adobe Guesthouse, their B&B. Check it out at Simple Living Today: A New American Dream.

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Dave and Barbara's story shows what can happen when we build up our courage over time. Although he ended up moving away, that first cabin Dave built at 25 years old undoubtedly led to some of the bigger risks in his life, such as creating schools for at-risk kids and building the homestead in Arizona.

If you found Dave and Barbara's story inspirational, please share it using the buttons below. We can break out of the box. Sometimes we just need a good example of someone who did.

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