The Stay-at-Homebuilder: Kara's $35k Project

When Mike and Kara Stiff got married, they had big plans for a round-the-world honeymoon trip. Kara says those plans changed “when we realized, about a week after getting married, that we were pregnant. Our year-around-the-world honeymoon idea, which we had about $20k saved for, turned overnight into a start-a-family idea. We instantly got serious about how we really wanted to spend the rest of our lives, not just the next year or two.”

Both agriculture majors in college, Mike would go into teaching at a local North Carolina university, and with a second child arriving soon after, Kara became a stay-at-home mom…and head homebuilder.

The Stiff family, a few months before construction began.

As a child, Kara had drawn up floor plans, dreaming of what she might build one day. When she got a little older, she joined a boyfriend who worked as a contractor on various jobs. "We did basically everything you can think of in a small Alaskan town," she shared.

Kara repairs the old barn with her kids

Kids in tow, Kara repairs the old barn on their 17-acre property near Hickory, North Carolina. This and other repairs were done in preparation for the main build.

We spent most of the money we budgeted for our project on this gorgeous, lovely land, and there is nowhere near enough left to pay someone to build for us,” Kara said, adding “but the soil is beautiful…and it will let our kids grow up with a fishing pond and a swimming stream, with trees to climb and space outside to make their own. It will let us grow a big garden and have some goats, have space to build a cottage for Mike’s parents. We started planting an orchard last weekend…”

The idyllic pond

The idyllic pond.

When asked if she was well-prepared or just brazen, she said “I think it’s about 50/50…much of the component work will be things I’ve done, but I have never been the principal designer and organizer of a project this size. I expect I’ll make a lot of mistakes. Personally, I try not to attempt things unless I’m at least skilled enough to make a reasonable guess at how badly I’m going to screw it up.”

Kara hired an excavator for most of the site work

Kara was hopeful that she could handle most or all of the site work, but knew it was a very big job and they might need to hire someone. When she blew a hydraulic hose on the family tractor at an early stage of the excavation, she went ahead and brought in a pro.

Kara explained that she had "hired folks to pour the footer and do the concrete block, so I only assisted on those days, but we’ve done everything else ourselves until my brother-in-law showed up to help with plumbing."

As could be expected, everything didn’t always go to plan. A miscommunication with the foundation contractor who poured the concrete footer led to the house being a foot shorter than Kara had intended, “which is actually perfectly okay,” she said, “but it just about gave me a heart attack at the time.”

Pouring the footer

Pouring the footer. Even with occasional mistakes, Kara was relieved to hire subcontractors to handle certain parts of the build.

When asked about the design, Kara responded that “it’s about checking out the internet to see how others have implemented ideas we like. It’s drawing, erasing, and drawing some more, then sitting at the site and imagining what we’ve drawn very carefully, moving our bodies through the space, standing and looking out our windows before there are even any walls there.”

She added, “we also know that no matter what we do, we cannot build a perfect house. There will always be something I should have done differently, but we need to move forward and do it anyway and then live with it, and this is actually freeing. Realizing that I can’t possibly do it all exactly right, and that has to be okay…that might be the biggest factor in being prepared to build…”

Kara's house plans

Kara's house plans, weighing in at 748 square feet (70m²). The interior walls would be slightly modified, but this plan was enough to get a building permit.

Kara admonished that “almost everything about the physical scale of the project would be seriously inconvenient if it were any bigger. I didn’t do that on purpose, and I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that just about the smallest thing we think we can live in also happens to be just about the biggest thing we’re capable of building.”

Kara (center of photo) finishes up the framed walls she and Mike took three days to build. The concrete block walls are partially buried, enhancing energy performance year-round.

“There is definitely a danger of building too small, because we have a one-year-old and three-year-old who are getting bigger every minute. I don’t think we’re building too small, though. Both of the kids will have their private space, and we’ll have private space as a couple, which is psychologically important to us…”

Regarding making design decisions with Mike, Kara said "we typically make decisions very easily and efficiently together, so we can count on that when things get tough, and that gives us excellent peace of mind. We also naturally prioritize the integrity of our relationship over any particular little thing we want.”

Kara's house with roof trusses in place

Kara and Mike worked as a team to hoist each 80lb roof truss into place.

Kara had mixed feelings about working with the building department, with permits for zoning, the septic system, a temporary power pole, and the actual building permit adding up to $767. “There may be a little more yet to come” Kara said, adding that “it has been both useful and frustrating. There have been aspects they have just said flat-out ‘no’ to, aspects where we’ve compromised, and aspects where I’ve gone and done a bunch more supporting research and ultimately convinced them.”

One topic that took a lot of convincing were the adobe floors. With a chronic spinal condition, Kara opted for the poured adobe floors because they’re easy on your joints. This didn’t go over well with the building department when they learned she wanted to build interior walls on top of the adobe.

Kara leveling the infamous adobe floor

Kara levels the infamous adobe floor.

For a seemingly common building material like soil, everyone was afraid to put their stamp on it. An engineer who’d done a drawing for the concrete block wall on the back of the house wouldn’t touch it, as he was unfamiliar with adobe. The out-of-state engineers who could do the load calculations were unacceptable to the building department. They needed someone in-state.

That’s when Kara took things into her own hands, adding up the weights of everything bearing on the adobe floor, and discovering it would easily support the loads with a wide safety margin. After explaining it to the building department, “they gave me a permit” she says, “and I gave myself the confidence of proving with numbers something I intuitively knew to be true. All it cost me was a couple days of hair-pulling. I think that’s pretty cheap.”

Mike's family works on plumbing while Kara builds interior walls

Mike's family installs plumbing while Kara works on the first interior walls, which are non-load bearing.

When it comes to building green, Kara admitted that sometimes it’s worth being “less green” during construction, to lower emissions and costs during the house’s lifespan. For instance, she designed the house to be buried on two sides to combat the 100-degree, 100% humidity summer conditions in North Carolina.

Kids playing in the dirt before it was backfilled against the house.

The buried walls required not-so-green concrete block, along with mineral wool insulation, on a house that was otherwise walled with wood, straw bales, and light-straw clay (an insulative, natural wall material). “It requires higher embodied-energy [materials] up front than not burying the house, but it will use less electricity over the lifecycle of the building, and enable us to take it off-grid in the future.”

“Our electric folks have been wonderful so far, and our local lumber yard too. But the roofing supplier screwed me big time,” Kara explained. After doing a takeoff on her 1100 square foot roof, they quoted her $2200 for an SL-16 aluminum roofing kit, complete with panels, eave trim, and ridge cap. “I taught Mike how to lay the panels and he did most of those, while I worked on the trim" she said. The problem was, before the roof was finished, they realized they were short 10 panels, 5 feet of eave trim, and several feet of ridge cap.

The almost-done roof.

“So I ask them, ‘Are you going to take responsibility for your mistake?’ and they said ‘…no.’” Kara explained. Needing the exact same product so it interlocked, and was hopefully from the same color batch, Kara’s back was against the wall and she angrily agreed to cough up another $400 for the missing pieces, which, to top it off, included ANOTHER delivery charge from the roofing supplier, and also set Kara back two more weeks on finishing the roof. “When the schedule calms down and my vitriol lessens, I’ll be making a complaint through the BBB,” Kara vented.

She also acknowledged that friends and family had thrown their weight behind the project, once Kara and Mike decided to build something themselves. Along with helping with the actual build, there was a loan for the land that helped them negotiate as a cash buyer, overly generous Lowe’s gift cards and construction-related Christmas gifts, and the critical babysitting offered by Kara’s mother, who visited from Alaska to give her 6 or 7 days a week on-site…instead of 2.

Friends would often bring their kids on construction days. Here they help Mike mix a batch of adobe using their feet, the method found to be the most effective (and fun).

Kara keeps everything straight with a master spreadsheet, which she adds to randomly, thinking of things while doing the dishes or falling asleep. "Then I go add those lines into the budget, price them out at Home Depot, and consider how I might get them cheaper or better quality or both."

Having started leveling the site in April of 2016, as of September, Kara admitted “No way are we moving in October. But then, we already knew that, and there’s really no rush except for my relentless obsession with the project. The other night I was quiet for a while I guess, and Mike said, ‘what are you thinking about?’ and I said ‘you had better just assume the answer to that question is electrical components for the next two weeks or so.’”

To be continued…


Books and resources that influenced Kara and Mike:

The Hand Sculpted House *

A Pattern Language *

Building Green *

The Cob Cottage Company

*Affiliate links  

Well thanks for stopping by. I think Kara and Mike's story demonstrates that you don't have to have all of the answers, you just need to be brazen enough to leverage your existing skills and go after your dream. They have a loan on their land, but the house itself will be built with cash savings and paychecks as they arrive, making it practically paid off by the time they move in. Not a bad plan.

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Would you ever attempt a project like this? Let me know in the comments!

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