Repeat after me, “Blocking, blocking, blocking!” If there is one thing on a rent-to-own storage building to cabin conversion that will break your heart if you don’t do it, it is blocking!
This is Part 2 of a two-part series on converting a rent-to-own storage building into a permanent, livable, house or cabin. You can read “Secrets to Turning a Rent-to-Own Storage Building into a House, Part One” here.
If you read and followed Part 1, then you learned how to buy a rent-to-own shell with the right additions and adjustments, such as raising the interior walls to 8 feet. You learned how to evaluate your land for the location. You learned some issues regarding water, septic, and electricity. If you paid attention you learned how to place the windows on your building for the most energy efficiency. I’m hoping you also had the builder recess the front door for storm protection.
Now you are ready to start building the interior of the cabin. This article discusses the main areas of construction with an emphasis on what you might miss or do wrong if you aren’t paying attention. Obviously, you can’t learn every aspect of construction in a short article. However, it turns out that you can make a lot of mistakes and still be happy with the results. Just don’t make the wrong mistakes. Let’s get started.
Building Codes and Permits
I am approaching this as a true homestead build. That means I am assuming you don’t need permits and there are very few—if any—building codes where you are building. That’s a big assumption. I live in the country in East Texas. I do not live in a city and the only “codes” that apply to me revolve around the septic system (which I did not install).
I also do not care about any sort of resale issues or home insurance issues. If those things matter to you then a do-it-yourself build might be problematic. So, there’s my only warning. Also, I’m not a construction guy. I’m a homesteader. So, if you know I’m wrong because you’re a pro, then there you go. It’s just an article. It’ll be OK.
You need to have electricity to build your cabin. Nobody is going to build a cabin with hand saws and hammers. You need electricity for the tools, and for lighting once the sun goes down. When I started my build I did not have electricity on site. The electric company wasn’t going to bring the electricity for at least a month. I used a generator. However, I wired the generator INTO the breaker box that I installed in the building. That gave me both options and the ability to check my circuits as I built.
You don’t need to do it this way, but I found it very convenient. I installed my breaker box. You should get a 100 amp breaker box and install it based on how you planned your layout. I put mine in the walk-in closet.
I then used a 220-volt generator extension cord that I wired directly into my breaker box using a 50 amp breaker. This powered the entire breaker box from the generator. I then ran a couple of basic plugs inside the cabin which I could use for construction and lighting.
I can’t teach you how to run electricity in an article. My basic advice is as follows:
- It’s not as complicated as you think it is. It’s just running wires.
- Electricity is dangerous if you aren’t aware of what you are doing, but it’s not rocket science.
- I have some experience with basic wiring because I have wired other buildings that I made, and I installed my own solar power array.
- I found it much more flexible to do my own wiring because I could integrate it AS I BUILT the cabin. I didn’t need to pay someone to do it all at once and then have no flexibility later.
- You should DRAW OUT on a piece of paper what circuits and appliances and lights and plugs you will need. You will have to do this whether you install it or someone else does.
- You will forget things! Which is why I wired the cabin myself. I could add circuits that I forgot originally… like the bathroom exhaust vent and heat lamp.
Draw out your electrical system. Make a list of everything that will need power. This includes all lights, ceiling fans, bathroom, and kitchen exhaust vents, refrigerator, garbage disposal or dishwasher, laundry room, and stove (if it is electric). Don’t forget outside wiring for porch lights and outside plugs.
You need four tools to wire your cabin. You will need some good wire cutters, a good wire stripper, a box cutter, and a 9 in 1 or 11 in 1 screwdriver. This tool gives you everything you need for any electrical work, including screwing nuts, breakers, and outlets.
That’s my advice about electricity. But don’t go crazy pulling wires through walls or headers until you do blocking!
I installed one plug right next to my breaker box and I pulled one plug through the ceiling to the other side of the cabin for an additional plug. That was it until I installed blocking.
Blocking, Blocking, Blocking
Your cabin will look like it has the proper studs and joists needed to just start throwing up drywall and installing everything. It does not!
When you install drywall (or whatever you use) for the walls and ceiling you need to ensure that every edge has a 2×4 to which you can screw the drywall. This will not be the case in a basic storage building. First, the corners will need an additional stud to screw drywall from one direction or the other. Also, the “ends” of the building will require you to install an overhanging piece of wood (2×4 or 2×6) so that you can screw the ceiling boards.
Every door and wall you add to your cabin will need to have blocking so that drywall for all the walls can be properly secured. You will want to install blocking to attach any cabinets in the bathroom and kitchen. Blocking is also required for the “wet wall” of the shower to install the fixtures.
Go watch YouTube videos on how to do blocking. Installing blocking before you start drilling holes to run your electrical line or plumbing is imperative. You could run your wires and pipes only to realize that you forgot to install a blocking stud first. Or even worse, go to hang your ceiling only to find that there is nowhere to screw it off! That’s bad. Blocking, blocking, blocking.
Drill Your Holes for Electricity and Plumbing on the Perimeter
Once my blocking was done, I drilled all the holes to run the electrical wire. I also installed all the boxes. Whether or not you actually pull the wire at this point is based on your wall insulation plans. Again, if you are scared then you can hire an electrician. But have your blocking finished first and a complete drawing and list of appliances.
This involved drilling ½” or larger holes through the studs. I drilled ¾” holes. Some of my electricity ran through the ceiling, so I drilled through the top plate to bring electricity down into the wall.
Whether you install insulation before you pull the wires or after depends on what type of insulation you are installing. I used batt insulation for my cabin in both the walls and ceiling. So I installed all the wall batting before I pulled my electricity wires.
If you are going to use expanded foam spray-in insulation then you will need to have all your wires already pulled and all of your electrical boxes installed, even if you haven’t installed plugs yet.
One thing that almost all storage buildings lack is any sort of moisture barrier installed in the walls, such as a house wrap. That means the building is more prone to moisture than a house that is wrapped. One way to fix that is to have expanded foam spray-in insulation installed. It is waterproof and will seal up your walls. Talk to your installer about what has to be done before they show up.
It’s not a bad idea to buy a case of tube caulking and to go around all the outside of your cabin and caulk everything: doors, windows, and any horizontal joints.
When to Lay Flooring
I laid my flooring very early in the process of my build. Give some thought to when you want to lay your flooring based on what flooring you will use and your expertise.
I’m bad at flooring. I’m not good at making it fit around walls and doors. I also just laid vinyl flooring. So, very early in the process, I laid my floor. That way I could do it in one big roll. It’s probably a bad idea. But I liked doing it that way. I then built my walls on top of the laid floor.
The downside of this is that it exposes the floor to being damaged during construction. The upside is that it makes laying the floor very easy. I chose easy.
If you are going to put vinyl flooring down then you will need to skim the floor with high quality ¼” plywood first. These are “storage building” floors. They have nails and knots and voids. You need to cover up all the defects and keep the nail heads from backing out over time. I would skim the floor before installing ANY flooring personally. When you skim it, use a pneumatic staple gun and about a million staples. That way the skim floor won’t bulge up due to moisture and heat changes.
I used between 100 and 200 2x4s in my build plus lots and lots of drywall. I also had kitchen cabinets, countertops, appliances, bathroom shower stall, water heater, electricity supplies, ceiling fans, lights, plus a lot more.
Have a system for managing these materials. They have to stay dry and they have to be managed in a way that keeps them out of the way during construction. I stored a lot of these materials inside the cabin as I built it, but I had a plan on how to move them around as the build was completed—sort of like one of those little square-moving hand puzzles you played with as a kid.
I found that it was worth paying to have my construction materials delivered. I own a 24’ trailer, but I still paid for delivery. It saves both time and effort. It saved me having to load materials onto a cart at Home Depot then load them on my trailer then unload them off my trailer before using them. With delivery, I just had to use them.
YouTube is a great source on how to build walls and door openings. I would give one suggestion, however. Use screws, not nails. Particularly use T25 screws. Why? If you aren’t experienced, then you WILL make mistakes. It’s easier to unscrew something than it is to unnail it. I haven’t used a nail in construction for 15 years. Use T-25 screws.
You have your layout. Check it again. Triple check everything as you are installing internal walls. When I was installing my kitchen wall I measured and taped the outline of the refrigerator on the floor to make sure I had enough space for it. I also bought the shower pan for my shower and put it on the floor as I was building the bathroom wall. This made sure it fit perfectly.
A one-inch mistake with wall placement might be no biggie or it might require a complete teardown and rebuild. Double-check all of your door placements as well. Are the doors opening in the right direction? Will they hit something? How about your kitchen cabinets? Make sure everything is going to fit exactly to your plan before installing the wall.
Remember blocking? After the wall is installed, make sure you have places to finish off drywall at the corners and the ceiling. Did you just put up a kitchen wall? Install the blocking for the cabinets now.
Finishing Plumbing and Electricity Rough-In
The walls are up, so now it’s time to finish pulling wiring, installing electrical boxes, and running plumbing. Remember where water comes in it will also have to go out. Don’t forget the drains. What about the dishwasher and icemaker?
Where is your water heater located? What about the clothes washing machine? Did you pull proper 220 volt wires for your dryer and electric stove? What voltage is your AC unit? I have both 120-volt and 220-volt window AC units on my homestead. You need to know what you are installing. Did you put in the right kinds of plugs for all of your appliances? Too many plugs are better than too few.
If you install plumbing make sure it is all strapped down and secure. Are you installing shower plumbing? Watch a YouTube video to make sure it’s installed properly.
If you go slow, use a checklist, and watch YouTube videos then you’ll probably be OK. My attitude was I can always hire a professional to fix a problem cheaper than paying them to do everything for me. That may be a bad idea, but it works for me. I didn’t have to hire anyone to help me.
After you have pulled all of your wires and have all of your walls built you can install your ceiling insulation. If you put in ceiling joists (like I recommend in Part 1) then you can install 10” ceiling insulation batts. They will keep you toasty.
Did you put everything in the walls and ceiling that you needed? What about exhaust vents? I put an exhaust vent in a really weird place in my cabin. If you look at the floorplan in Part 1 of this series you will see that my floor plan has one long central wall.
I decided to put an exhaust vent between my bedroom wall and my walk-in closet. My logic was that I wanted to be able to circulate air. It looked to me like there was no way heat would ever get into my closet, so my clothes would be cold in the winter. Plus I wanted my cabin to be all the same temperature. I have a heater and AC in my bedroom and I have a heater and AC in the living room. I installed a vent to get that air into my closet and bathroom. This creates a circular air pattern in my cabin that keeps it all comfy.
My point is to get everything installed before you put up the drywall.
The CEILING goes in FIRST. The walls go in Second. That’s how drywall works.
Can you guess how fun it is to try to hold drywall over your head while fitting it in place and then screwing it? It’s NOT. I rented a drywall hoist. You should also. It makes installing ceiling drywall a snap.
You don’t need one for the walls. If you are a professional then one day is all you need. If you’ve never put up a ceiling then you will probably need the hoist for two days. You will make lots of mistakes and need to take breaks. But, maybe you can do it one day. For a 16×40’ building, you will only be installing 640 square feet on the ceiling alone.
If you put in blocking, then the drywall will go up pretty easily. The tools you need for drywall are a drywall T-Square and a razor knife. I use my handy T25 screws and a standard screw gun because I hate drywall screws. Professionals use a drywall screw gun and drywall screws. They will use it constantly. I only hang drywall 2-3 times in a lifetime. But to each his own.
I put up 12’ sheets of drywall wherever possible. None of my bedroom walls are longer than 12’, so I only have 6 joints in the entire room that I had to tape and bed. 12′ sheets of drywall are harder to move and heavier, but I prefer to have fewer joints. I still had to use plenty of 8’ sheets as well, so no plan is perfect. The fewer joints that need tape and bed and sanding and jointing the better. Trust me!
How to hang drywall? Watch YouTube videos.
You Are Halfway Done! Yes, Really.
One thinks that a cabin is almost complete once the walls go up. One would be very wrong. Taping and mudding take a long time. Then you have to start installing the kitchen and bathroom. Do you see the in-ceiling lights in the picture? I had to remember to place all of the boxes for those lights before I put up the drywall. I then used a 4” hole saw on a drill to cut a hole. Finally, I pulled the wire down from the box, connected it to the fixture, and popped it in place. This is why you need lists and detailed plans for everything you do.
Finishing Your Cabin
This article is done. I took you as far as I could. I hope you installed blocking. Just keep going step by step. The rest is self-explanatory. You will install the kitchen cabinets. Plumb the sink and shower. Then you can put up paint and trim. Install all the bits and pieces for the plugs and switches and lights. Did you put in a reinforced box to hold the ceiling fan? Ceiling fans are the most energy-efficient appliance you can own.
The details are what take up half your time and a lot of your budget. My cabin isn’t 100% finished yet I live in it. Eventually, I will finish putting in trim, but I don’t need it right now. It took me about eight weeks to go from a shell to something that I could move into and live in. It cost me about $12,000 to do most of the work (before Covid inflation). I still have not put in ANY trim around the doors, windows. I have not put in any floor molding or crown molding. I still have not attached the stove exhaust vent.
I have the insulation that I need to install under the floor, but I still haven’t done that either. There are lots of bits and pieces that have not been done yet, but I don’t care. If my wife lived in the cabin with me, I’m sure I would have done them by now, but she doesn’t. She lives next door to me in her own place. I did build a porch and fenced in the yard for my dog training.
I spent about 8 weeks on the main cabin build. 80% of it was done alone. 20% I needed a hand from my son or wife to lift large things or hold something while I screwed it. I don’t think I could have done it any faster, to be honest; I have more time than most people with a real job. So plan the time accordingly.
My main build happened in April and May of 2021—during Covid. I ordered my building in August of 2020 (before the prices for everything went up). I bought 90% of my lumber before lumber prices went up as well. That’s why I used credit cards. I knew that any amount of interest paid before inflation hit (by using rent-to-own and credit cards) would more than make up for the inflation that was coming down the pipe.
My suspicions about inflation were right, by the way. My $15,000 (cash price) cabin would have cost $22,000 just 9 months later. It was right to buy it sooner and pay the interest. I went ahead and paid my cabin off after 1 year, instead of 3, which saved me a bunch of interest as well. I put most of the materials on credit cards. I paid them off in a year, but using credit cards allowed me to pay $4 for each 2×4 before inflation instead of $9 each after. So, the real answer to “how long does it take and how much does it cost” is… it depends.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. Having someone else build the shell professionally, and then finishing it in a do-it-myself manner makes perfect financial and time sense to me. I hate mortgages. If you don’t mind paying a mortgage, then it might make sense to have a real house built. But for me, I’m happy.
The whole thing (including paying for it all) from start to finish took about 12 months…. “Wait, I thought you said it took 8 weeks?” The literal inside build took 8 weeks. I actually ordered the cabin in August of 2020. It wasn’t delivered until November of 2020. After it was delivered I did the trenching for water and electricity. In early 2021 the electricity company showed up and put electricity to my new meter for the cabin. I also had already purchased much of the materials for the build in an effort to beat inflation.
Finally, in April of 2021, I started the build. By June 1st, I was living in the cabin, even though it still needed (and needs) some finishing. But I got it done and that makes me happy.
Good luck with your build.