By the time the nationwide housing crisis hit in 2008, triggering the country’s Great Recession, my wife, Roxy, and I had done something we’d said for most of our married lives we wouldn’t do: encumber ourselves with debt.
As the demand for more new homes rose in the area where we were living in northern Minnesota, we used our meager savings to launch a homebuilding business in the late 1990s that was to earn one of the finest reputations around. Within 10 years, we were employing four-dozen workers and building five complete homes simultaneously indoors, in a controlled environment. We’d even developed a way to fabricate completely finished basements in our facility. The full-sized homes and basements we built were moved by our own house-moving employees to their sites that had been prepared by our own excavation employees. We were providing more and more customers with fully finished dwellings, from one the first year to over 20 a year as time went on.
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When our balloon-payment loan that we’d unwisely used for all of our business assets (with our home as collateral) came due, the housing crisis was looming and we were denied adequate funds to renew the loan.
Consequently, in a few short months, we had lost everything we needed to sustain our livelihood, including our business, our finances and even our home, accompanied by the emotional trauma that results with so extensive a loss. We were left with no money, no home and no work—just bills and the devastation of a shattered business that had once been a shining light of success in the community. Moreover, we were faced with the real challenge of how to survive the next day, the next week and, in our mid-50s, the remainder of our working days and into old age.
With the help of friends, we relocated 300 miles south to the small, southern Minnesota town where I grew up and where my uncle had left our family a 4-acre parcel of farmland and a building site. Those same friends helped us pay for a couple months of rent on a cheap apartment so we could begin to gather our wits about us.
Four months later, due to my previous pastoral studies and experience, I began serving as part-time interim pastor at a local church—work that came with a house to live in! And two months after that, my past community newspaper employment kicked in when the local weekly newspaper was about to close. My former high-school mate who’d been operating it offered it to me to see if I could resuscitate it. Meanwhile, Roxy began driving 60 miles round trip each day to a part-time housecleaning job she’d landed at a hotel.
At long last we were able to buy our own food and humble, basic necessities once again, and we had a roof over our heads, at least for the time it would take to gather more wits about us. Although the endeavors I was involved in consumed a great deal of time, and our income was still very low, we were granted more than a year of time to help get stabilized, and we eyed the 4-acre parcel of land that my family had inherited from my uncle as our next dwelling place.
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We had little time to devote to developing a more permanent shelter and even less money to fund it. Along with our lack of current assets and our inability to borrow came the realization that our business failure would haunt us financially for the rest of our lives. So not only did we need to live inexpensively at the present, we also needed to plan for the days when we were no longer working and wouldn’t have a retirement plan to fall back on.
Although we were in a temporary reprieve from the nightmarish ordeal of losing almost everything, we were only about a year away from being once again homeless, in addition to being partially unemployed, struggling to revive a small business with limited potential at best and unable to pay “normal” housing expenses, at present and at retirement age.
Old Dream Come True
That’s when it dawned on us. The small, off-grid house conceived out of a dream when we were married in 1979 came to our rescue when it was born out of necessity 30 years later.
Appreciating the comfort of a roof over our head every night, we worked diligently over the next year at our vocations and, at the same time, invested every extra moment and what few dollars we could spare into readying our next—and possibly last—dwelling place.
During the year leading up to the move onto our 4-acre parcel, we scrounged building materials from wherever we could. We found windows and doors, for example, that were actually manufacturers samples, and although they were new, they had no retail value and so we acquired them without cost. A local homebuilder provided us with several discontinued finishing materials at very low prices, and our faithful friends, once again, added some funds when we had nowhere else to turn for a few crucial items to make our new, little home at least habitable.
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We designed the home based on materials we had rounded up, with the knowledge that, for financial reasons, we had to perform all of the construction work ourselves, with little equipment and in only the spare time we had available. With no electricity on site to run even the few power tools we had, an on-again/off-again portable generator helped sporadically as our son-in-law and I framed up the structure and good friends from here and there came occasionally to hand drive a nail or two alongside us, as well.
We leveled plowed soil with shovels and rakes, laid down all the foundation-grade treated wood we’d acquired, and began building, literally from the ground up, a 14-foot-wide, 20-foot-long cabin with a loft. Counting both floors, we framed up 560 square feet of living space, with the loft having a ceiling lower than normal. We’d designed and built the home based on materials we had been able to secure with the funds—and the hours—we had available.
By the time we’d done so, the end of October 2009 had arrived—and so had our moving date. Our home had to at least shed water and hold out the cold by the time we needed to be in it, November 1. And while it lacked amenities that many would consider essential, we had no choice but to make the move into it on the eve of one of the harshest winters to hit the area in decades.
Numerous challenges presented themselves in the ensuing years as we settled into our new surroundings. For example, the gumbo driveway that caused us so much grief for days after every rain shower while we built our home continued to be a quarter-mile-long sinkhole for our vehicle. As soon as the weather cooled enough for our driveway to firm up and freeze, snowstorms of the old-fashioned type that grandparents talk about began their relentless attack.
To many, the word “southern” conjures up thoughts of warmth. Yet to others, the name Minnesota brings to mind cold, winter weather. So, while some may think southern Minnesota borders on the tropical, such is not the case. The truth is that on the wide-open prairie, southern Minnesota’s winters are oftentimes harsh and unforgiving, with blizzard-like conditions erupting frequently from November through March and wind chills at 50 below not uncommon. Drifting snow is also common, and we soon found out that our driveway could clog up with snow in just a few hours.
This meant that, for the first few winters with no snow-moving equipment ourselves, we would be parking our car along the township road and walking up and down our snow-drifted driveway day and night. Since our amenities were few, it also meant hauling everything we needed across the snow: food to eat, water for drinking and domestic use, and our laundry.
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And although we’d brought with us to our new home a beautiful, soapstone, freestanding fireplace, the only firewood we’d had time to gather wasn’t well enough seasoned and proved difficult to light and maintain good heat. Even when we’d make the trek across the snow in the evening after a long day’s work to the comforts of home, the temperature inside was sometimes below freezing until it finally reached a reasonable warmth at around bedtime. If we didn’t wake up to tend the fire during the night, the temperature would likely fall, once again, to between 40 and 50 degrees. Except for a few initial small solar panels and a couple of batteries, we were all but without electricity in the early years, so turning up the thermostat on an electric heater was not possible for us.
Meanwhile, we encountered county officials who wouldn’t allow us to have the outhouse we could afford and told us we had to have a mound septic system installed—or vacate the premises. They also said we were in violation of county laws that required our house to have its own water supply and insisted we have a driller install a well.
So in the middle of our first winter, a septic installer was called upon to place a tank underground that would hold our waste water until the tank could be connected to a mound drain field to be installed that spring. We continued to haul fresh water, winter and summer, in jugs.
Thankfully, the septic installer agreed to accept payments over the next several years on the $13,000 septic system and $5,000 to spread crushed rock on our driveway when weather warmed. County officials stopped insisting on a drilled well when I told them our house would eventually have a water supply of its own, a rainwater system.
We did eventually install a rainwater system, which we now use for all of our water. We have added solar panels, a small wind turbine and more batteries to provide us with all the electricity we need. And we’ve added a solar heating system as well as a hydronic baseboard system to complement our now-seasoned supply of firewood.
Our off-grid small house and 4-acre homestead has helped to take us from merely surviving to really thriving—built on, and sustained on, a small budget. Just how each feature of our house has helped us achieve this is another story.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.