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Building Your Retirement Getaway Home on the Cheap

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Who doesn’t dream of having their own little getaway home? Maybe it’s a condo in a favorite city. Or a timeshare at a beach or ski resort. Or a cabin in the mountains.

wood cabinOwning a second home has long been a perk of the affluent. With rising standards of living, now more and more people can afford it.

And I have been critical of the trend. My article about owning a vacation home pointed out the dubious economics and appalling waste of thousands of plush residences consuming land in beautiful locations, sitting vacant most of the year.

In our own case, the closest we’ve come to owning a second home was buying our small RV, ten years ago. It wasn’t cheap, but we got a good deal at the bottom of the Great Recession and have subsequently put nearly 100,000 miles on it, traveling to the four corners of this country and everywhere in between. It’s been a great solution for us.

Last year we inched closer to a second home. For most of the first decade of early retirement, after selling our family home, we owned no real estate. (We rent rather than own.) But, last year, as a long-term investment and portfolio diversification, I began hunting for vacant land.

As part of that process I began researching how to build, cheaply, in case we wanted to develop some land with a small home that would be comfortable for vacation stays or, just maybe, serve as a full-time residence in a pinch.

In the process, I discovered an amazing profusion of cheaper building methods. With site-built home costs reaching $300/square foot in trendy areas, there is clearly a market for these less expensive options. So in the article that follows, I’ll share some of my discoveries, and include links to further resources.

Caveat: I wish I could say I found a silver bullet for simply, inexpensively, creating an attractive small home. But every option has its costs and complications. Also, though I’m a civil engineer by education, I have less experience than many with home construction. So if you can contribute insights or experience from home building, please add a comment below….

Cabins

The traditional solution for a small getaway would be a small cabin with maybe a loft and/or a bedroom or two. These are iconic in rural locations across the country. Unfortunately they are also a dying breed. I found only a few for sale during a half-year long search for property in a prosperous county in the Four Corners area. Real estate has gone upscale. Old cabins have been torn down for larger homes. Nobody wants to make do with a rustic bedroom or two anymore. Fortunately you can still buy plans for a modest cabin online. And if you are handy and have a few helpers, constructing one might be a reasonable retirement project. For me, having to contract out the work, and deal with permitting for new construction and utilities, the costs and paperwork hassles quickly become daunting. If you are still interested, here are some resources:

Prefab/Modular

The first option to come to mind for many when considering inexpensive construction is prefab or modular homes. I don’t have much interest in the traditional “double-wide.” They can be had for cheap, and some look better than others, but it’s rare to see one that looks great or has aged well. But now there is a new generation of higher-end, green modular homes with swank exteriors and well-appointed interiors. Unfortunately, “small” doesn’t mean “cheap.” In my experience, these options can easily cost as much as site-built homes per square foot. And while they eliminate some headaches, they multiply others. The thought of trying to deliver and install one of these — usually requiring a crane — gives me pause. Your driveway and home site will need to be sized appropriately. If you’re undaunted, and like the flavor of small, green building, here are some of the leading alternatives:

Tiny Homes

A developing trend that has reached into every corner of the country is the “Tiny Home.” These are generally defined as fully-outfitted living spaces that are less than 400 square feet in floor area (excluding lofts). You can trace their lineage back to a combination of the cabin and RV. Most are built on trailer beds, allowing them to be towed into place. The trailer is then typically disguised with siding and plantings. There is a certain higher-end design sensibility for tiny homes. These are not old-school mobile homes. They use premium, conventional construction materials, are well appointed with the latest in appliances and furnishings, and have great curb appeal. If you like the idea, you can try one out as a short-term rental: you’ll have no trouble finding clusters of tiny home rentals in popular vacation spots these days. There are even entire communities sprouting up dedicated to tiny housing. But, despite their appeal, the cost effectiveness is questionable. They can easily cost more than a comparably-sized RV, matching what you might expect to pay for a condo in the same area. Yet, unlike an RV, they are not trivial to move from one location to another.

Containers

A recent fad in small, cheap, portable home construction is the “container” home. These are built from stock (8 ft. x 8.5 ft. x 40 ft.) steel shipping containers, like you’d see on the back of a semi, or rail car, or stacked in the hold of a cargo ship. One container is roughly the equivalent of a large RV for living space. Stack or join containers and you can create the floor space of a conventional, modest home. The appeal of container homes, at least for do-it-yourselfers is that used containers can be had for relatively cheap, a few thousand dollars, depending on the condition. If you’re handy with a torch, you can cut window and door openings as you please. And the entire unit provides structural strength: you’re living in a metal box. On the other hand, it seems like overkill. Do you need that much steel around you to live happily ever after? And modifying your living space seems daunting unless you’re a skilled metalworker. But if working on or living in a container floats your boat, here are some leads:

Pole Barns

Pole barns are a kind of post-frame construction, a simple building technique used for centuries. The name comes from the 1930s when depression-era farmers used cheap materials — old telephone poles — to construct additional farm buildings. The key feature is that posts buried several feet in the ground serve as framing members. This simplifies the foundation. Because the building is fully supported by the poles alone (usually on concrete footers), you don’t need a fully level concrete foundation. This holds down costs and speeds up construction, making pole bars of interest to do-it-yourselfers. On the other hand, the simplistic ground/building interface can lead to some obvious maintenance issues. Dirt, moisture, and wood are not a good combination. According to some, pole barns have limited life spans and may cost more in the long run. But, if you like the trade-offs, you can find more information here:

Sheds

A parking lot full of pre-built sheds for sale has become a common site at the big box hardware stores and along interstate service roads. For a few thousand dollars (and more) you can have yourself a semi-portable building with cute faux-barn look on the outside. Some even come with porches, bay windows, and lofts. But these are unfinished and uninsulated on the inside. Further, the construction, to my untrained eye looks “light”: thin siding and roofs, minimal joists, studs, and rafters. Buyer beware. These are storage units meant for quick sale, likely to age poorly after a few seasons in the elements. Can they be finished, fortified, and weatherproofed to serve as a durable residence? Perhaps, if you know what you’re doing with basic hand tools. But, if you’re that capable, you might rather start from scratch with shed plans and ensure the quality of the construction and materials, from the ground up. If you think a shed might be a good start, here are some examples:

Domes

Looking like a throwback to the days of flower children and bell bottoms, geodesic domes, popularized by Buckminster Fuller in the middle of the last century, are still alive and well. These are hemispherical, lattice-shell structures of triangular elements. They have some appealing qualities: great strength, relatively low cost, and small component size simplifying assembly. They make stellar greenhouses. But I can’t get past the “look.” To me, even though it’s a functional design, they are hopelessly dated. Even if you convince yourself this is a timeless concept, there is the “technical” look of metal struts and vinyl or plastic covering which, to my thinking, looks out of place in virtually any neighborhood or environment you can imagine, other than the moon. To each his own. If domes appeal to you, ignore my reservations, and check out these resources:

Yurts

The yurt dates back to nomadic groups in the steppes of Central Asia. It’s basically a round tent. But it employs an elegant and sturdy frame with a tension band at the top of a lattice wall, angled rafters, and a compression ring at the crown. Given modern materials, the tent fabric can be insulating and long-lasting. Yurts are famously strong under snow loads (they’re a favorite at rustic ski resorts), and, unlike domes, in my opinion, do not look out of place in natural settings. Inside, you are surrounded by attractive wood framing, and cozy tent-like walls. Windows, fully-framed doors, and wood-burning stoves are standard. Many yurts are constructed with an adjoining deck, possibly wraparound. For $10-15K you can have a beautiful and sturdy structure that can last a decade or two without major maintenance. If your neighbors don’t complain. Unfortunately, in some counties, yurts are prohibited except at commercial establishments like campgrounds. So do your homework before you get infatuated with this solution. If you can proceed, here are some of the leading yurt manufacturers in the U.S.:

RVs

Though it sidesteps the “building” process, there is one obvious solution to having a small getaway home in a remote location that I must touch on because it has worked so well for us: the small RV. RVs have some huge advantages for simple living: You can buy a fully functional home starting around $15K. Spend more than that and you get something newer, bigger, plusher, and still far cheaper than a stationary home. Yes, those are “used” prices, but most people buy “used” homes anyway. Nothing can beat the flexibility of an RV. We’ve used ours for everything from long road trips exploring new places, to extended stays in one place. If your plans change in the near or long term, moving an RV is as easy as turning the ignition or backing up a pickup truck. The paperwork and transaction costs are minimal compared to home ownership. And then consider maintenance. No, RVs aren’t maintenance free. Ours has cost us thousands of dollars over the years. But the overall costs and headaches of RV ownership don’t compare to home ownership, even a vacation home. There is just less to go wrong. I won’t belabor the point, since I’ve written so extensively on RVs already. So here are some helpful references from this blog and elsewhere:

Buyer Beware

Clearly there is a booming market for smaller, simpler, cheaper homes with a do-it-yourself flavor. In researching this article, and my own needs, I came across dozens and dozens of companies offering housing solutions in this space. Even Amazon is reflecting the trend.

But many of the companies are tiny. And many of them don’t make it. I started this research a year ago, and a number of the web sites I originally bookmarked are already belly-up. So buyer beware!

Nevertheless I expect there will always be a multitude of options for cheaper homes. Housing is essential. Everybody needs it. And many of us who are fortunate enough not to be struggling to put the first roof over our heads, soon enough begin thinking about adding a second.

Yet, after all this research, I’m still not a big fan of owning and maintaining a second or vacation home. Houses are the most expensive things most of us ever buy, and the potential for waste is huge.

Why shackle your retirement to the time and money commitment that maintaining most homes requires? Why make a 5- or 6-digit investment and then let it sit unused most of the year, as so many people do? Why commit to a single location, or two, when you could be traveling the country or world instead?

But, if you’ve added up the pluses and minuses, and decided that a getaway home is for you, or if you’re just interested in downsizing your primary residence, then the generally cheaper and simpler options I’ve explored above can help turn your dream into reality….

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[The founder of CanIRetireYet.com, Darrow Kirkpatrick relied on a modest lifestyle, high savings rate, and simple passive index investing to retire at age 50 from a career as a civil and software engineer. He has been quoted or published in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Kiplinger, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, and Money Magazine among others. His books include Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence and Can I Retire Yet? How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.]

 

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Comments

  1. IMHO, just rent what you need.

  2. CURT QUIMBY says

    I would suggest this as an option as well. Very well thought out for the DIY builder and cheap to live in. Right down to heated floors run with a hot water heater instead of a furnace!

    http://www.firstdaycottage.com/

    Regards,
    Curt

  3. Darrow, interesting article. so am i to presume you decided to continue to “ride the rv” alternative?

  4. As always, a very simple and thorough review of the options. Thank you!

  5. Great article! We are at this very crossroads now. We’d like a “home base” somewhere beautiful like Coeur D’Alene, ID in the warmer months and a 2nd home or RV to escape the winter months. What are your thoughts on buying a 2nd home/condo and renting it as a short-term rental (AirBnB or VRBO) when you’re not using it? I don’t need to make money on it (although it would be nice)….I just want to offset as much of the cost of ownership as I can.

  6. Snowy Montana says

    I was a building inspector for 30 years, and I can tell you that there is almost nowhere anymore that you can start from scratch and build a cabin in the woods as you could decades ago. By the time septic, well, power and a suitable road are completed, you could already be over $50k.

    There are still a few things to consider. The forest service used to lease land to people for cabins, and there any many still out there. The lease and improvements are commonly for sale for a reasonable cost. If power, septic (or outhouse) and a road is in place, buying an old farmhouse or home in a small town could be extremely cheap. These also eliminate current code requirements as long as you don’t plan big improvements.

    My last advice on alternative building methods is to stay away from straw bale houses. They can be built most places, and are touted as being natural and low impact, but the additional timbers and beams required quickly dispute that. Also, straw is nature’s most biodegradable product. That doesn’t stop just because you build a house with it. Problems continue as long as you own it.

  7. On a Fixed Income says

    My wife and I have yearned for years for a second home in the N GA mountains until we found a beautiful home 6 years ago that rents out on Airbnb. We finally settled on the notion of “Renting the Best, Investing the Rest” plan.

  8. Lorraine Roberts says

    Zoning, zoning, and zoning. For example: ocean shores, WA only allows an RV or anything on wheels for 90 days a year with a permit. Westport, WA allows RV’s all year round. Check the zoning before buying anything.

  9. Growing up my family had a vacation cabin as well as most of our relatives..I never wanted one because first 2 weeks you’re there you are always cleaning and repairing…it will suck money and you always have to go to the same place..we consider our travel trailer our 2nd home..it was extremely budget friendly.. pretty much we go wherever we want..we use it about 3-4 months per year.. if we needed to we could live in it full-time.

  10. Another vote for an RV as a “retirement home.” As a young career woman, I always thought my husband and I might end up with a lakefront cabin in the mountains somewhere as a second home in retirement. Once we started traveling, I realized that I wouldn’t be content retiring to just one place. Fast forward a number of decades. We’re early retirees and on our second travel trailer. The current one is a perfect retirement home and, like Julie said above, we could live in it full time if we wanted to. We don’t, but the option is there. With the RV, we can wake up on the shores of that lake in the mountains. But we can also wake to the sounds of ocean waves outside our door or the hustle and bustle of a big city or the sounds of elk bugling in the meadow or . . . Another advantage to using an RV as a retirement home is that when bad weather threatens – whether severe storms, hurricanes or heat waves – we can easily get out of Dodge without having to worry about a home or possessions left behind. With Alan’s Senior Pass from the National Parks Service, we end up paying between $10 and $25 per night for all of our federal campsites. Since we prefer campgrounds in State and National Parks anyway, we haven’t paid more than $40 per night anywhere. An average of $25 per night translates to monthly “rent” of less than $800 – an incredible bargain considering that we wake up amid some of the most gorgeous scenery in the country.

    As for building your own house, Alan and I spent the two years after our marriage building our home – an extended cape on the side of a mountain in a rural area of the northeast. Whether you involve a contractor or do it yourself (as we did), the project is not for the faint of heart. While it’s probably the most rewarding thing we’ve ever done, it took much planning, diligence, hard work and perseverance. A word to the wise: Be sure you have the tenacity to complete a project like this successfully before undertaking the challenge.

  11. The RV life does sound appealing. I’m sure many have resolved this, but what about not having a real street address? It seems a PO Box is not acceptable for some situations (which I can’t think of now)