The Near Impossibility of Building Your Own Home Near Great American Cities These Days

A lot of young people who visit our half-acre compound are inspired by what we’ve got going here. Handmade home, garden, chickens, workshop, office/work studio. How can they get something like this going, they want to know.

Well, it was sure easier 40 years ago. Our land was $6500, building permit $200, I drew up my own plans, was my own architect and engineer, building and health department officials were reasonable, there was no coastal commission…

Since then, the bureaucrats have weighted things heavily in their own favor (bureaucrats beget ever more bureaucracy) and building permits in Marin County (Calif.) are something like $50,000 (more than my entire house cost). Building and health departments do not get their funding from the county, but from fees paid by homeowners (or builders), so guess what? Fees are ever higher, now to the point of absurdity. Regulations also have grown to have their absurdities (having to install sprinklers in single family homes is one such absurd requirement). And to the point of it being just about impossible for an owner-builder without a trust fund to build around here now.

So I tell young people, if they’re looking for land to build upon, they have to get a couple of hours away from any of our great cities.

Tomorrow, I’ll post a few ideas of what I might do now were I starting nowadays. It’s a challenge!

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

21 Responses to The Near Impossibility of Building Your Own Home Near Great American Cities These Days

  1. Very interested to read this, even though I live half way around the world. I wish someone could do this for the European Union…

  2. I built a home and business (pottery) on 10 acres in rural Missouri. No building permit, no codes, no inspections (except by electric coop before installing meter). But I was a two hour drive to St. Louis and a one hour drive to a staffed hospital.

  3. One way to get into an urban area without huge costs is to buy a fixer upper home that can be lived in while you do the work. It is critical to find a home with good bones, in an up and coming neighborhood, and that can be molded into your dream home. Much of the work can be done without permits if you work smart. It is equally critical to keep it financially feasible, keep the work load reasonable, and finish projects as you go. I have spent my life doing this and it works great. Sending your time in a car driving hours for food and building materials is a loser. Hopes this helps.

  4. I agree with Ches. Forget about acreage of any size within a reasonable distance of any city, large or small, and buy a fixer on a reasonable size lot (say, 1/4 acre) inside the city. Or better yet, in a small town nearby. It's the ultimate recycle and is essentially hassle-free.

  5. $50,000 for a building permit….WHAO used to be called Highway Robbery.

    Lloyd, I think you are spot on, however, (and maybe it is different in U.S.), I have heard from some, that moving away from the cities is no guarantee to escape the bureaucracy. It might, but no absolute. I have heard from some, that counties and such often put their own restrictions/inspections requirements on. However not all, so check around.

    Re the idea of buying a fixer up, in town…(again, maybe it is different in U.S.) but in most Canadian areas, cities/towns, you need the all mighty "Permit" to do almost anything. This is a very minor example, but for example, I know of someone with a thirty year old house, with a built in hot tub. They wanted to get an electrician to change something in that room, and were firmly informed (by electrician) best to leave as is, as once they change anything electrical, they MUST update all electrical in that area which would require (by new code) a new breaker panel, and BIG bucks. Even changing a deck/adding a deck, requires "permits".
    And, one might think, oh just do it yourself, get a buddy to do it….This likely invalidates insurance.

  6. The above 3 comments azre exactly in line with my thinking. See the next post. BTW, and you can call it irresponsible, but I wouldn't think of getting a permit for such a simple fix. I can also understand that a licensed electrician would not want to risk doing work without a permit, but I would do it myself or find somebody who could, and not get embroiled in the bureaucracy.

  7. I took out a permit to add a barn on my property and they ended up inspecting all sorts of unrelated issues from the in law house to the driveway entrance, some of which could have been very costly if they had wanted to be pushy. Then tacked on several hundred dollars extra on the property taxes. When I had the roofs re-shingled and the AC/furnaces replaced it required permits amounting to hundreds of dollars that are included in the cost from the installers. They could not fix one of my old furnaces when it broke because it used a little mercury switch to toggle on/off, that has now been outlawed in CA so the whole unit had to be replaced for over $6k.

    Really, the best way to deal with this is to just move to Nicaragua or somewhere similar. Yes the Sandinistas are back in power but they are far less intrusive and confiscatory than the various levels of US governments have become.

  8. bayrider
    re " Then tacked on several hundred dollars extra on the property taxes. "…yes, that is a HUGE problem, once let "them" on to your property..(the old saw about it is time to "be afraid" "be very afraid" when someone knocks on your door and says …"we're from the government and WE are here to HELP"….–almost never helpful/almost always gonna COST you.

    time to go back to the "old fashioned" way of finishing outsides of "buildings". Won't always work, as official tax inspectors HAVE to eventually be let in to your home, but it might put them off for a good long while.

    about fifty to more years ago, especially in the rural areas/farm areas, it was common to finish one's home off, on the outside, to look as decrepit and worn down as possible. Back then property taxes were assessed by the tax man "driving by" for a look. Many (most?) of these decrepit looking farm houses were pretty darn nice, inside.

    Lloyd, yup, know what you mean, do it yourself, find "someone" who can. Works to a point, and "has been done". In a pinch, one can claim, "it was always like that/bought the house like that" (of course nasty neighbours might blow that)…But, there is always the worry, re something like electricity, if it does happen a house burns, someone at the insurance company will claim it was homeowner liability and refuse to pay.

  9. Yes, very problematic. There's also no guarantee that the city building inspector is even competent. For some years here, the building inspector, who had worked for years in the arid Mid-West, insisted that contractors complied with his ideas of what the code should be. As this area is a rather damp West Coast rain forest, his ideas were often totally inappropriate and likely to lead to a rapid deterioration of the building envelope. The contractors quietly complied with his instructions then, as soon as he had gone, ripped it all out, did it as it should be done and closed up as quickly as they could before he came back for the next inspection. Of course, there was a cost to this subterfuge that the customer paid.

  10. When I was building a house in Big Sur in the late 60s, I would put on a Jimi Hendrix record loud when I saw the building inspector approaching. He'd be so rattled that he couldn't focus very well and sure enough, he would overlook some of the minor deviations from the code I had made.

  11. Well, at the risk of being drummed out of the comments section, I am a building inspector (in Canada) and have been for many years. A permit for a house here costs about $2000 and includes all of the inspections as well as access to all the information and help you could ever want. People are happy to see me on the site and usually have a ton of questions. We think we are part of a team that's putting up a building to last for life. There are also a lot of nearby areas (within 15 minutes of a good sized town) that have no codes or permits at all if you feel you need to go that route. Oh, and the Hendrix tunes would have kept me on the site.

  12. To the building inspector in Canada:
    When I first moved to Marin County, California, in the early 70s, I made friends with the chief building inspector, Herb Wimmer. I had been doing pretty much everything to circumvent the codes, but Herb, who had been a contractor, made a good case for there being standards. He said that in early America, if you were building a house on a hundred acres with no neighbors, you could do pretty much what you wanted, but that as the population increased, some sort of standards were necessary for public protection.
    Then there is also the fact that there are things about structural safety, as well as electrical and plumbing basics, that a novice builder will not understand.
    What you are doing in Canada is quite wonderful, and in spite of my antics to escape what I thought were some unnecessary requirements, I used to get helpful advice from inspectors back in the day. A lot of them were on my side.
    Nowadays however, in this neck of the woods, the codes go way beyond health and safety and in many cases are a means of generating income for bureaucrats whose departments are funded by fees. Helping owner-builders to create sound and durable structures like you do is a noble pursuit.

  13. Thanks Lloyd, I am the "anonymous" inspector here in Victoria, BC and I caught your presentation here a while ago (enjoyed it very much as did my wife). I am saddened to hear about permit fees generating income for bureaucrats. Here we are required to justify the fees based on the work that is required to check plans, answer queries and inspect the buildings. If a professional (architect or engineer) is involved in the process as well then we are required to reduce the fees because they are doing part of our work. Kinda makes sense doesn't it! I will come and say hi if you are back this way again to do a presentation.

  14. To the CA building inspector – am I to understand there are no building codes in rural areas on Vancouver Island?

  15. In much of rural British Columbia, there are no building codes or even zoning restrictions outside the towns. Small communities take the reasonable view that it is pointless to have regulations that you cannot afford to enforce. You can build just about anything anywhere on your own property and, if it collapses and crushes you or burns you to death, that's your problem.

    There are provincial regulations on electrical work, unless you live off-grid and run your life from solar panels and 12-volt car batteries, as many people do. There are also provincial health regulations on septic tanks and human waste disposal, which seems reasonable, because freedom should not include the freedom to contaminate your neighbor's well with your poorly-sited pit toilet.

    Recently, a local island community was very upset because the county forced them to have an emergency 911 system to replace an elderly pager system that was no longer supported by the telephone company. The county did this for reasons of legal liability. The community, which includes many loggers, fishermen and 1960-era draft dodgers or their descendents, takes a fairly dim view of all governments and their operations, so were quite prepared to take their chances without an emergency service.

  16. Peter is quite correct. Not all rural areas choose to go without the Building Code but there are many areas that do go without. There are also areas on Vancouver Island that do not have zoning either. Basically build what you want wherever you want, the only caveats being electrical or health as Peter has described.

  17. Rural Texas is the same as described above in B.C. – no building codes outside city limits anywhere. If your structure falls on you it's your problem. I now live in Washington state, and the codes here are county wide and are very intrusive. I find myself so infuriated at the IDEA of having to face the hyper intrusive and expensive self-sustaining bureaucracy of the local building code enforcement system – to include what they might find on my property if invited – that I do all I can to avoid the "need" for a permit. Examples – if you have a pile of dirt on your property and do not have anti-erosion protections in place you can be cited/charged. Build a non bearing wall inside your house within a certain distance of your septic system and you can be cited/charged. Change out internal mechanical items such as woodstoves, furnaces, etc. – all require a permit even for off-the shelf solutions. It's a very expensive self-licking ice cream cone of a "solution" – and if you do involve yourself it feels a lot like submitting to the vagaries of the legal system. you may get answers/justice you can't afford. It drives me to want acreage in an unregulated county just to have a buffer, but that means a loss of community, connection, etc. GAH!!

    purposefully anonymous

  18. There are still places where community is good and bureaucracy is limited. In northern New York, we have a small cabin, 14X28, on 44 acres. We bought it as a prefabbed shell, and are finishing it inside as we can. The building permit to set it on a gravel pad was 32 bucks. No problems with a composting toilet, and the inspection to hook up the power, after I did the wiring and ran underground cable up to the road, was 50 bucks. Installing fiber-optic internet was free.

    9 miles away is Potsdam, with two universities, and 10 miles further away is Canton, with two more universities. St. Lawrence County was a favorite destination during the back to the land movement of the 70s, and a lot of countercultural folks are still there, still trying to live well and lightly on the land.

    It's beautiful there (part of the county is in the Adirondack State Park, and the county is bordered to the north by the St. Lawrence River. Montreal is a couple hours away, and you can make a day trip out of going to NYC, if you don't mind getting home late.

    The land is still remarkably cheap, though not as cheap as it was 20-30 years ago. Taxes are high, but in unincorporated areas, with a modest home, they aren't terrible. And what's more, those high taxes pay for a lot of good stuff you don't get in low tax states.

    The climate is harsh, of course, but that's one reason the place isn't overrun with people. If, like us, you have a place to go, or can travel during the coldest months, it's a perfect climate.

    Best of all, the people there are the nicest, kindest people I've ever run across. I know that sooner or later, I'll run into a jerk up there, but in three summers, it hasn't happened yet. An example: when it came time to hook up the power, it turned out they'd mailed the paperwork to another address. We had to go down to the National Grid offices in Potsdam to get it straightened out. We got into the parking lot, and the guy in charge was outside waiting for us, with the paperwork in hand, ready to be signed.

    The same thing happens constantly there, with folks going out of their way to be kind and helpful.

    Anyway, there are still Good Places.

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