Chapter 20 – To Build or Not to Build

At a certain season of our life
we are accustomed to consider every spot
as the possible site of a house.
Henry David Thoreau 

If your dream includes building a house, then buying bare land may be on your mind. An alternative which gives more property choices is to buy land with an old house on it that you can live in while you build. If the house is really humble it will not add appreciably to the property value, especially on a larger parcel. A caveat—the existing house may be sitting on the choicest building site on the entire acreage. That was my dilemma—take it down, move it or rebuild it. I have vacillated on that issue for over twenty years. Beware of the charm of old shacks.

Another option is to buy a mobile home for temporary living during construction. Once your home is built you may be able to sell the mobile unit for nearly as much as you paid for it. If you choose this route you will have to provide temporary electric, telephone, water and waste lines.

Buying undeveloped land requires additional research and inspections. Ensure the availability of water, electricity and telephone service. Talk to local well drillers about the cost of a well and pressure system and the odds on finding good water within a reasonable depth. Verify this information by talking to adjacent landowners. If you are not yet comfortable with the concept of a composting toilet, local backhoe operators can tell you the cost and probable effectiveness of a septic system. Some soils have inadequate drainage characteristics; a percolation test answers that question, is required in many counties. Ensure that you will have legal ingress and egress rights. Inquire at county business offices for building permit costs and requirements. Check for zoning restrictions to make sure you can do with the land what you wish and to determine cost and compliance requirements.

Part of the foregoing may not apply if you buy a lot in an existing subdivision or town. But you must check zoning laws for uses permitted, building codes and whether there is an architectural review board that must approve your plans. In some subdivisions you must build within certain size and style guidelines and, for instance, you may only be allowed to paint your castle an authorized color. If any of these conditions exist you are probably not in real country.

In addition to getting the design you want, a big advantage of building a new home is that you can use modern materials and methods. Home energy conservation technology has made great progress in the last decade and can greatly enhance your comfort and substantially lower the cost of maintaining a comfortable climate inside your home.

Building materials will cost as much and maybe more than in the city because of trucking costs. The wages of rural craftspeople are less than their city kin and often less than they are worth. In our county, you can hire a good plumber or electrician for $15 per hour. Carpenters get between $8 and $15, depending on experience and skill level. If you are not ready to wear the hat of general contractor you will need to pay someone to fill this role.

Log homes are the quintessential country dream home. Surveys show that about one-third of Americans dream of a cabin in the woods. According to the Log Homes Council, a division of the National Association of Home Builders, 20,000 log homes were built in 1992 (Harrowsmith, Sept./Oct. 1993); in 1994, an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 were built (The New York Times, 9-24-95). Most log homes are customized from stock plans offered by log home companies. The better ones are not only beautiful but energy efficient.

Rural residences range from ultramodern dwellings to old farmhouses unburdened with plumbing or wiring. Electricity did not make it to some rural counties until the 1950s. Inadequate and improper wiring is a serious fire threat and should be upgraded before use—rodents love old homes and attic wires are often found chewed free of insulation. Old heating systems, especially wood-burning, may preclude buying fire insurance.

Property with a well-designed modern home is most costly but will give you quality and convenience. The two primary reasons for buying land with old houses are low price and atmosphere. Old farmhouses are typically given little value by the local tax assessor, real estate appraisers and sellers and buyers. In many cases that is appropriate, as the cost of bringing them up to modern standards can be substantial. Many old places are uninsulated, have inadequate electrical wiring, archaic heating, inadequate or nonexistent plumbing, may have a colony of bats living in the attic and leak in the lightest rain. Most important, the foundation may be deficient.

Old houses also have architectural character, history, heart. The atmosphere of an old place can be steadying, reassuring, quieting, a powerful influence on how you feel about living in that place.

An existing house means that certain necessities are in place. An existing road saves the cost of paying a bulldozer or grader operator to put one in. A good existing water supply system takes away the possibility of drilling a dry hole and the costs of drilling, pump, pressure tank, plumbing, fixtures. Existing electricity means a substantial savings over having to contract with the local utility to bring it in or buying and installing a home generating system. It also means the poles are in place so telephone lines may be installed if they are not there.

Where there is an existing house, there also are likely to be outbuildings. An old barn, garage, root cellar or workshop adds to the utility of any property. There will often be other pleasures. Fences, bridges, paths. Existing or old garden spots. Flower beds. Fruit and nut trees.

As with much in life, making the decision to buy improved or unimproved land is something of a balancing act. Quality versus character. Convenience versus cost. The cost factor will change if you have construction skills and want to use them. Most important are your feelings. You probably already have a preference for building or buying an existing house. My purpose here is to alert you to the appropriate considerations so that your choice will be informed.

So now, on your criteria worksheet, write your preferences for property: bare land or improved property. And remember, you can always change your mind later.

Update on this chapter: should you buy unimproved property, please refer to Book One in The Complete Guide to Country Living regarding the best sequence. One good choice is to first build a modern version of the carriage house, a good-sized garage with living quarters above. This gives you a safe place for tools and supplies until a proper shop is built, which should be the next structure. Alternatively, live in a camping trailer while you build. Another good option is to build a big shop with living quarters included, either on a mezzanine floor or at the back.


Log Homes Council
National Association of Home Builders
1201 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005-2800
800-368-5242 Extension 162
Or 202-822-0200
No house should ever be on a hill or on anything.
It should be of the hill. Belonging to it.
Hill and house should live together
each the happier for the other.
Frank Lloyd Wright 

Go back to Chapter 19 – Services and taxes.
Go on to Chapter 21 – Prices.
Go back to Country Home TOC.html