Building a Cheap House


Have you been shopping around for ways and means to building a cheap house? Are you shocked at the cost of building a conventional stud frame house?

I rather cringe at the use of “cheap” when talking about building a house that’s affordable. To me “cheap” means slip-shod construction with subpar building materials. Think of your typical mobile home with thin and weak materials that are usually very quickly slapped together to produce some semblance of a weatherproof and cozy house.

I suggest replacing “cheap” with “affordable” while continuing to keep an eye on quality workmanship and construction. If all the basics of a house… the foundation, framing, wiring, plumbing, insulation, roofing, etc…. are soundly put together, then half the battle is won. The battle of trying to keep you budget in check when building a cheap house.

Challenge yourself to think of high-end finish materials (maple floors, cherry cabinets, marble tubs) as totally unnecesary in building a quality house. There are many interesting and innovative ways of using salvaged, but still serviceable, building components at the local salvage store. Some of that stuff, if used in the right way, is really quite chic.

In building a cheap house I strongly urge you to consider resale value. Even if you currently plan on staying in the house you’ll build for decades to come, there will come a time when you’ll have to sell. This is not to discourage alternative building methods–which I’m really all for. But, to consider the quality of construction and craftsmanship that goes into the project.

Even if you decide on building a cheap house with something alternative like cob (clayish dirt and straw) the quality of the craftsmanship will be rewarded if and when you sell the structure. Nothing hurts worse than putting months or years into building your beloved house and have it not be able to sell in any market.

So, what is this elusive “quality construction”? As I’ve heard Rob Roy say: a house should have “good boots” (ie, a good foundation) and a “good hat” (ie. a good solid roof). That’s the very basics. After that you need to look at framing being square and plumb, electrical wiring that’s up to code (or beyond), plumbing that doesn’t leak and is pitched correctly, and weatherproofing the exterior with house wrap and caulking.

And the quality of finishing can be a huge factor in perceived quality of the house. If plastering is haphazard and moulding not square I know it gives me pause to wondering what care was taken in constructing the underlying bones of the house.

Using quality materials is also important. It can be very tempting to salvage lumber from old buildings. Some of it can be good quality yet, but be careful about dry rot, insect and mold damage, and too much notching or holes from pipes and wires. A good, quick way to test for dry rot is to try and insert an ice pick into the wood in question. You shouldn’t be able to push it in at all. If you want to be more thorough use a moisture meter to assess if there’s any moisture left in the wood.

If you’re looking into building a cheap house on your own I might go so far as to recommend taking a class or two in cabinetmaking. I myself find the detail and precision of quality cabinetmaking difficult to do– I’m definitely more of a rough carpentry builder. But, having attempted to do mitering and coping I greatly appreciate the fine workmanship of such a detailed craft. Taking a class or attempting to try fine woodworking like this will, at the very least, give you an eye for detail… and when to hire someone else to do it.

Do yourself a favor and put down the “Architectural Digest” while you’re dreaming of building a cheap house. It will become a siren song for going way over budget.