Can you? It’s a question I get asked once in a while. In 1960 it was simple,. You could draw up your own plans. You could use recycled wood and single pane windows and french doors. Very few people built with recycled wood, so it was cheap. Building inspectors held you to decent safety and health standards, but were reasonable. You could build a gravity-flow septic system (mine was about $3000 in 1971, and has worked flawlessly for 37 years). Even in 1973, when I built this place:
• The building permit was $200, water meter $250.
• I built as I could afford it, never borrowed from a bank. No interest payments — that saves over 50% of total cost.
• I saved a ton by doing most of the carpentry and wiring, half of the plumbing.
There are drawbacks. Cooking and living in unfinished rooms. Sawdust on the floors each night. Wiring not yet hooked up. Moreover, building a house is a BIG project (I figure it takes an owner-builder a year to do it all). It also isn’t like doing a painting or sculpture, where you can toss out an unsatisfactory result.
Could you do it today? Unless you have a chunk of cash, you won’t be able to do it within an hour of a cool city. You’ll have to be farther out, farther from draconian bureaucracy and overblown regulations. But with the state of the economy now (and in the future), doing it yourself is still a viable option for creating a home. The principles are still the same. You can do it.
A final note: these days, keeping it small makes infinite sense.
Addendum: Here’s to the memory of Ken Kern, author of The Owner-Built Home (1961), my bible and inspiration in the mid-60s.