Dick Proenneke is a name familiar to many who have made the decision to live the homestead lifestyle. For some three decades, Proenneke went it alone in a handmade remote log cabin in the wilds of Alaska. He documented many of his adventures and that body of work now lives on as a testament to what an individual can accomplish with a desire and a few hand tools.
That said, ole Dick used what he had on hand to build his homestead. That’s what we’re going to discuss here but in a very different, modern way. Let me preface this series of stories by saying up front that I’m no Dick Proenneke. Ironically, at the newspaper group offices where I serve as managing editor over a trio of newspapers and several niche (specialty) publications, many of my coworkers consider me as about as much of a modern-day mountain man and jack-of-all-trades as you could ever find.
But the fact is that most of the people I work with are simply far more domesticated than I am – they like their land covered in manicured grass, their food from the supermarket, their lunch from the restaurant, and their transportation small and shiny. You can always tell when I’m at the office because my old 4-wheel-drive sits head and shoulders above the tops of all the cars and shiny SUVs, the break room refrigerator will have a container of fried venison or farm-raised pork or braised rabbit or fried chicken or squirrel for my lunch, and many of my days off are spent tending my land or cutting firewood and such.
The fact of the matter is that having land is not enough. Sure, that’s where we all start. You get the wanderlust to leave the bright lights behind. You want to commune with nature, or get back to your roots, or escape the hustle and bustle in favor of peaceful ponds, starry nights and honest labor on a place you can call your own.
Companies such as OzarkLand.com can put you on that ideal acreage. The old saying “buy land, they’re not making any more of it” is both wise financial and life advice. There’s some level of security in holding deed to your own piece of property, and while the world’s population continues to grow, at this point in time there’s still an ample supply of ideal homesteading tracts available to escape from the crowds.
So, you buy your little piece of heaven. All seems ideal, but eventually making the drive to visit your property and work on it for a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday just isn’t enough. You begin longing to be there more, to linger and let the solitude completely wash away the stresses of outside life – and that takes more than 8 or 10 hours. You want to experience your land on a starry night or wake up to a new blanket of snow on the ground. You long to see the sun come up through the trees. Nothing will do but that you spend more time in your own paradise on Earth.
A Fork in the Road
At this point, you have several options to consider and some decisions to make. You need some kind of housing on your property. If the eventual goal is to be there and homestead it properly you’ll likely be looking into building a permanent home yourself or having one built by a professional. In that case, you might go traditional stick construction, log, cordwood, brick, block, metal siding, or some other non-traditional construction method.
But if you’re on the fast track to relocate there as soon as possible, whether by choice or circumstance, there’s an entirely different set of options that deserve a closer look. Your property may or may not have restrictions concerning mobile homes, campers, or portable buildings. Once you have that answer you can proceed.
Why a Portable Building?
I’ll just cut to the chase here. Short of building a permanent structure, I think a portable building is the best way to go. They’re more substantially built than most mobile homes or campers, they offer more open-concept living space, they hold their value better, such a building can be customized to your own preferences and tastes, and they’re often easier to purchase and finance. And trust me, I’ve explored all of these options in recent months.
Here are our particular circumstances. In recent years a portion of family-owned land had been left in my care. My grandfather inherited a small piece of land and then added several acres as neighbors or relatives wanted to sell over the span of several decades. When Grandpa died, Grandma had to leave the farm for health reasons, and the land was handed down to my dad and his siblings (and he eventually purchased their portions when the desire for money outweighed the desire to hold onto a piece of the family land).
Eventually, Dad grew too old to drive the 50 miles from his own farm and home to keep the distant property up. It was handed down to the next generation and immediately began diverting back to wooded land for hunting and timber growth.
I’ve spent the past two decades cutting firewood and hunting on the land. The old farmhouse still stood among a handful of other decaying small outbuildings and barns. But with the passage of time, and some questionable building methods back in the day, the house eventually deteriorated to the point of not being worth the time and materials to keep it up. My wife never wanted to spend nights there, and the past couple years even the motley crew of friends and relatives who show up to deer hunt with me each year have been questioning my sanity for wanting to hang out in the old decaying house.
As I mentioned earlier, when you have land and visit it regularly it’s only natural to want to be there for longer periods of time. While I like being away from the crowds, I still want someone along for the ride to share my adventures – both successful and oft-misguided. For me, that sidekick is my wife (and around deer season a handful of other hunters).
Our ideal scenario is to spend a couple weekends a month hanging out on the property in addition to some daytime visits. We want to make some aesthetic improvements to the land by doing some brush clearing in areas and continue improving the habitat for the wildlife found there. We also want to get away from town life and listen to the coyotes howling at night; to be able to escape the encumbrances of technology where everyone around us thinks that since we have cell phones and a computer that we should be available at their beck and call. Never mind some cell-service provider installed a tower just down the gravel road from the farm a few years ago and we have a strong signal. Only the close friends and relatives know that – the rest think we’re “unreachable” when we’re at the rural property.
While we have no code restrictions on our land, we did face some other issues when considering a site-built cabin. We’re just in the early stages of exploring what purpose our land will hold moving forward. It’s already transitioned from old growth forest to farm in my granddad’s day, to hayfields and eventually overgrown fields in my dad’s time, and now is a mix of overgrown fields and thickly forested hunting land. But there’s already talk about the next generation perhaps cleaning up and farming at least a portion of the land again. And if that happens they’ll need to build a house of their own somewhere. We would hate to build a weekend cabin and then eventually discover that its location would be better suited for a homesite or a greenhouse or new barn.
And our desire to spend our cabin time “off grid” means we have much more flexibility in location. There is a power line to the old home site and a well and septic in place already (although their validity is in question after all these years). But we want our away time to be spent in a simply comfortable cabin with a mixture of modern solar power and antique heating and cooking and lighting. And if three years from now we decide the cabin would be better suited elsewhere on the land we can detach the deck, roll up the welcome mat, take the dishes off the shelf and the pictures off the walls, and move the self-contained home-away-from-home to a better location on the property.
Let’s admit it, how many times do you go into a project and then once you’re really into it you learn that it would be better if you had done something a little different. You never really know your land until you spend a little time on it. See how the sun rises and if it shines through the right window at the correct angle to wake you up in the morning, or whether you’re positioned best to combat blowing snow or runoff from a downpour rain. These things come with being on the land, and a portable building offers enough flexibility to make big or small changes without a major outlay of cash.
Finding Your New Dwelling
The portable building industry has fully embraced the “tiny home” craze and responded accordingly. Three decades ago a portable building usually meant a “some assembly required” flimsy metal screw-together 8X10 shed with a low roof and no floor. The sheds were available at Sears, Walmart, and larger building supply stores.
Nowadays when you hear “portable building,” you think a dozen or more buildings on display at the local lumber yard, or dealership lots where 20 to 40 buildings or more might be on display. Most all will be stick built construction on a treated floor set on runners. You’ll find a mixture of metal and shingled roofs. There’ll be wood, composite and metal wall options. Doors will either roll or fold up garage options, shed style built from the same materials as the building, or a metal-clad exterior home door with optional window. Windows can be single pane storm windows, on up to triple pane vinyl-clad house windows. You’ll also find a few buildings will have built-in porches.
Porch options are, for the most part, located on one end or inset into the side of the building. They’ll come as porches with rails or decks without rails. Some companies, such as the one we purchased our building from, offer on-site building of both buildings and decks or porches. The builder we used would build something on-site for a six percent increase over the cost of something built and delivered.
Most portable building sales lots around where we live allow looking at and through the building selection during off hours. Most either have a staffed office 9-5 and maybe Saturday morning, or a prominent sign with a phone number listed and someone on the other end ready to talk options. But if your schedule doesn’t allow for that, or you just like looking without sales pressure, most lots will leave at least a few of the buildings open so you can inspect construction methods and materials.
Wading Through Options
Choosing your home away from home, or perhaps your next full-time home, is a very personal matter. So, there’s no way I can tell you what’s going to be best for you. But I can quickly take you through the thought process my wife and I used when selecting our getaway place. Then we’ll talk finance options and the buying process.
Going into buying a portable building for a weekend cabin we had this set of criteria:
- Ample room for two people to hang out and sleep for a few days at a time;
- Enough room for day visitors, and overnight deer hunters or future grandchildren;
- A compromise of minimal maintenance but aesthetically appealing exterior;
After our first visit to a roadside dealer and walking through several buildings we determined our ideal size would be 12X20 feet. While a hip roof design would look more like a cabin than a barn style roof, to get the tall walls we wanted the roof slope would have been minimal – which wouldn’t look like a traditional cabin anyway. My wife had no real aversion to a barn-style roof, and we both agreed after looking that the loft space provided for extra storage and sleeping options was a worthy trade-off.
We both preferred the appearance of wood or composite exterior walls and a metal roof. Like I said, these are solely personal preferences. I’ve built several outbuildings on our properties myself with composite, metal, and rough-sawn pine boards and all have served their intended purposes well. In this case, we thought the wood or composite would look more like a cabin, and the metal roof would hold up better in transit and the location where we intended to place the building beneath the edge of the canopy of a big oak tree. Admittedly in the fall of the year when the wind blows it sounds like you’re in a popcorn popper from the acorns hitting the metal roof, but that only lasts a few weeks each year, and the steel roof likely fares better than a shingled roof would, being pelted by acorns year after year.
We made a few visits to different portable building sales lots in our area before spending a couple hours finally talking options and making our purchase. We went with a Mennonite-owned company which has several lots scattered across the Midwest. Their construction methods and materials were among the best we found – wall stud and rafters on 16-inch centers, full-sized dimension lumber (as opposed to 2X3 or 2X2 found in some mobile homes and lesser-built sheds), no heavy-handed sales pressure, and easy financing.
The day we bought our building we looked through every style on the lot once again just to make sure we knew exactly what we wanted. We opted for a 12X20 building with a barn-style metal roof, four heavy-duty treated runners supporting a treated floor, two lofts (one 8X12 and the other 4X12), a walk-in house-style metal exterior door with window, two double-pane vinyl-clad windows spaced evenly on the front, and one window on the left end (facing the building). We would install another smaller matching window on the right end once we determined the layout of the kitchen area and sink. We opted for no porch, with plans to build a deck or porch on the side once the building was delivered to our property. The salesman offered to have a crew build the deck on site, but we let him know it was something we planned to do ourselves. We went with the best exterior sheeting option they had despite the price increase. We want a cabin to enjoy, not to be rebuilding all the time. We went with a dark red exterior with black roof and trim because my wife liked that color combination on another building we had seen, and we thought it would look good on our site.
Financing Your Getaway
Our portable building ended up costing around $5,000 with several upgrades. Once we had chosen all the options the next step was to talk money.
What we found while looking at several dealerships is that most places will offer three options – buy outright, finance with an interest rate based on your credit rating, or rent-to-own with a small or no down payment and monthly payments. Had we chosen a finance option the three-year loan with applicable purchase fees and interest included would have cost us about $180 per month. Going the “no credit check, no credit needed” rent-to-own route would be about $230 per month for 36 months. All payment options could be handled right there at the dealer at the time of purchase. No dealing with another company and a new set of hoops to jump through required. With financing, either way, the first payment would be due the month after the building was delivered to our land. The entire process was painless.
In our case, a building with the options we wanted was not readily available. No problem… they could build it and have it delivered in about two weeks. We needed a little time to clear some brush and widen the road to the cabin site anyway. We snapped some pictures of the color scheme, lofts, doors and windows found on cabins close to what we were going to get just so we could show family members and friends what we had chosen.
In the next installment of this portable building cabin series of stories, I’ll take you along as we select and clear the site, welcome our new building, and formulate our plan for building out the interior to our needs and tastes.