In ten years on my homestead, I have built many buildings from scratch, including living spaces, some better than others. This spring, I decided to turn a portable rent-to-own storage building into a house. Rent-to-own buildings are more expensive than what I could build me, but they are constructed better. This multi-article series shares some of the secrets that really help make such a project work out in the end. Let’s get on with Part One.
Where I live, you can’t go far without seeing a place that sells “rent-to-own” wooden or metal storage buildings. They are built in a way that makes them very easy to repossess, so they can be offered with “no credit check” to just about anyone with a bank account. I have purchased three of the wood buildings and three of the metal buildings over the years. I converted each of the wood buildings into liveable spaces.
Why Not Build Your Own Building From Scratch?
Building your own structure from the ground up is possible and it is cheaper than buying a storage building. Building it yourself gives you better layout options. You can build in whatever shape you want and you have complete control.
The downside of building your own house is a lack of experience and skill. I’ve seen skilled workers build a 640-square-foot building in a day. It would take me a month, and I would mess it up. It’s not “hard” to build a building like this. You could go look at one at the local dealer, take pictures and notes, and probably work out how to build it yourself. If you feel comfortable doing that then go for it. I, personally, have built a number of buildings from scratch and I wanted professionals to build my “retirement” house for me. It’s not a chicken coop and it needs to last 30 years.
When you rent-to-own a portable building like the one shown here, you also free up your current cash to use to finish out the inside. I have “some” money. When I took all of my savings and extra cash, I had enough to finish the interior of my cabin. I did not have enough to both build it and finish it out. That’s another reason why I chose a rent-to-own portable building as a base. It gave me the opportunity to pay the building off over three years (or more, I chose three).
The interest rate on a rent-to-own building will make your eyes bleed. Typically, if you pay the building off in three to four years, the building will cost TWICE what the cash price would be. The cabin shown in this article could be purchased for about $15,000 cash or paid off over three years for about $25,000. But, anyone can buy one regardless of credit. If you have great credit then it would be better to get a personal loan from the bank and buy the building for cash. Those of us with less than great credit just swallow hard and make the payments. It’s a HOUSE! And it will be paid off in three or four years, not thirty.
As a side note, a 30-year mortgage on a $150,000 house at 3.5% interest also has a total payoff of $250,000. So, tomato, tomahto.
Choosing Wood or Metal
Typically the wood buildings are a much better choice than the metal buildings. The metal buildings are not nearly as watertight and they “sweat” or condense moisture out of the air onto the inside of the metal. Unless I knew exactly how to make a metal building dry and airtight I would not make a cabin or house out of a metal storage building. Also, the wood buildings are placed on raised foundations, which makes them more flood-proof and easier to install plumbing.
The wood buildings are more expensive than the metal ones, but they are really well built and can be made into a cabin “easily.” I put “easily” in quotes because the devil is in the details. I would choose a wood building for my cabin. It’s a great platform to start with.
Land, Water, Electricity, Septic
Before you get the building you need a rock-solid plan on how usable the land actually is plus water supply, electrical supply, and how to deal with waste. Local building codes may limit what type of building can be used as a residence. I live in the country in Texas. The only codes I have to deal with are regarding septic systems. Just about anything else is fair game.
From a distance, all fields look lush and ready to just plop a house on. This is often not the case. Rain and water management are very important. In my case, I put my cabin deep in my east pasture. I have driven in this pasture plenty of times. However, once the cabin was placed and I drove back and forth to it multiple times a day during rainy weather, I realized that I needed a $4,000 gravel driveway installed. When the rainy season arrives, nice dirt tracks often turn into soupy mud. Plan accordingly.
Where is the water supply? I served on the board of directors for the local water company. It’s amazing how often people don’t think about water until it’s too late. They are often shocked to learn that they have to pay large fees to get water moved to the other side of the road. Sometimes people can’t get water at all for some reason or another. Find the water company and talk to them BEFORE committing to the land or the cabin location. Do the same with the electric company.
Land that already has water and electricity “on-site” is worth its weight, not only from a cost perspective but it also saves you from a world of hassle.
Even if water and electricity are already on site you must plan for how you will get it to the actual cabin. How hard will it be to trench? Where I live the land is sand and clay… easy digging. I rented a trencher for the morning and was done by lunch. Other areas may be rocky or filled with tree roots. How will the water and electricity get run to the cabin? It’s very important. Also, have a locator service come to check for existing lines before you dig.
What will happen with the water that LEAVES the cabin? Cabins produce GREY water (sinks, showers, washing machines) and BLACK water (toilets). Know what your local authority requires. Where I live we can just let greywater run out on the ground. We made a little greywater pond. However, blackwater (sewage) is highly regulated.
We have a septic tank on our farm but it is nowhere near the new cabin location. I had no interest in spending the money to put in a legal septic system and no interest in making an improper septic system. So we use a composting toilet. This is a toilet that uses a composting medium (ground coconut husks) to neutralize the poop. We bought a really nice one from Nature’s Head that cost $1,000. It works great.
Many people make their own composting toilet out of a 5-gallon bucket and sawdust or dry leaves. While this may be useful short term, I think a proper composting toilet with rubber seals and an active ventilation system is the minimum one would want for a permanent home. $1,000 for a Nature’s Head model may sound expensive, but if you divide that by the amount of time you will use it, it’s cheaper than the toilet paper that will go into it. That being said, self-made composting toilets are also a truly viable option. Barring that, install a septic tank.
Energy Efficiency through Cabin and Window Placement
Look at how the sun goes over your land. I live in Texas where heat is a problem. The vast majority of the heat comes from the south and west sides of buildings. The south is the worst. So I placed my cabin so the narrow end of the cabin faces south. I put no windows on the south-facing wall. I only put one small window on the west-facing wall. I put huge beautiful windows on the east and north walls of my cabin. This gives me the best views with the most efficiency.
If I lived in the north I might have done the opposite and faced my windows south and west to maximize heat gain in the winter. When you are placing and finishing your own building take the time to make deliberate choices. Don’t just face the front of the building toward the road because everyone else did. Proper placement can save hundreds of dollars per year in heating and cooling costs.
Choosing How to Have the Building Built
You can customize how your building is built. First, upgrade all the windows from storage building grade to house grade windows. Also, lose the storage building door and replace it with a house door. That’s easy.
GET 8 FOOT INTERIOR WALLS!!! Most storage buildings come with 8’ EXTERIOR walls. That means the interior walls are shorter than that. Pay the extra money to get proper 8” interior walls in your new cabin. If you don’t then you will regret it. Trust me.
Next look at the interior. Does the building have proper rafters or is it completely open? Unless you are really going to use that extra ceiling space I highly recommend asking them to install proper 2’ on center rafters in your building. The open ceiling “lofted” look is appealing, but it is very inefficient and makes building interior walls and running electricity tougher.
With proper rafters you have space for 10” ceiling insulation. With a lofted ceiling you only get about 5” of insulation. With proper rafters, you have a space to run electrical wires, AC ducts, or anything else between the ceiling and the roof. With lofted ceilings, you don’t have any options. With proper rafters and 8’ interior walls, you can easily build rooms with precut studs, standard drywall sheets, etc.
I use window AC units to cool my building. Instead of taking up window space to install them I had the builder cut and frame out a hole through the wall on each end of the building for the AC units. This allows me to use my windows freely. It’s a minor additional expense that is well worth the trouble.
It is worth having them (the guys building the building) do as much of the work as practical. It is possible to get an entirely finished cabin delivered. Just move in! This is expensive. It is also possible just to get the basic shell with no changes. That requires you to do a lot of the basic construction that you could have avoided. The money saved is often minimal and not worth the trouble. Choose how much you can have them do for you. You may want them to stud out the walls for you!
At the least I would have them replace the windows with house grade, replace the door with a house door and raise the interior wall height to 8’. I would also strongly consider having them install proper ceiling rafters.
Finally, if they can create a 2-foot recessed area for the front door, I would recommend it. If the door is flush with the outside wall then heavy rain will get into your house. If you can have them recess the door 2” and give you a small landing/porch that is best. Otherwise plan on putting an awning or porch on the place ASAP. The rain will blow in under the door otherwise, ruining your floor.
WHEW! That was a lot and the building hasn’t even arrived yet!
Most wooden buildings need no site prep. They use large blocks as foundations and support the building well on undisturbed ground. Ask the rental company, but no “foundation prep” or “leveling” is required on generally flat locations.
They will either build the building off-site and deliver it on a truck or they will build your building on site. Most commonly the largest building you can buy is 16’ x 40’. This is often the largest building that can be transported on a trailer. I have seen them go as wide as 18’ and as long as 50’, but it is rare. The basic buildings are generally 16×40’ or smaller.
What can you do with 640 square feet?
I went online to a site called Floorplanner.com to lay out the floorplan for my cabin build. There are many sites like this. It is very important to spend a lot of time with your floor plan. Good floor planners have an inventory of furniture, appliances, and fixtures. This allows you to lay everything out exactly. You want to make good use of the floor space in your cabin. A few inches can make a big difference, or make a big headache! So take your time.
After I planned my cabin online I used tape to lay it all out on the floor. I actually did this on a display unit at the rent-to-own lot before I ordered my building. This allowed me to be 100% certain of what I was doing.
I did make some adjustments as I built. For instance, I pulled the wall behind the kitchen counters (center on the right) forward but left a deep area for the refrigerator. This lined the cabinet fronts up with the front of the refrigerator. I also shortened the wall slightly in front of the door for better flow into the room.
You can see from the following pictures how the furniture layout in the software matched what actually happened. First in the bedroom, then in the living room. You may see how the rooms still required a little work. For example, they need some more trim or outlet covers. The cabin is still being finished as I have money for bits and pieces.
Conclusion to Part 1
Part 1 of this series was an overview of decisions to make before starting construction on your portable building to cabin conversion. Some of these secrets are not obvious and can make all the difference. In the living room picture above you can see how the window AC unit integrates into the wall. Once I add trim it will simply disappear into the wall. Having the builders frame out the hole helped me not have to build that myself and I didn’t have to put the AC in a window! Having the front door inset with a 2-foot deep porch saved me from having my cabin floor flood during hard rains.
You can also see how taking my time to plan the design and do a full-scale layout—including furniture—helped ensure that everything fit properly with plenty of room for walking around. This also allowed me to properly do the next steps of the build which include: materials lists, budgets, and doing the interior work myself.
I finished this cabin entirely by myself with just some occasional assistance from my son to help me lift heavy things like large drywall sheets. It is possible to build a nice home by yourself with the right guidance. The next section will talk about how to ensure you don’t miss critical steps that will cause major problems later in your build.
I chose to build a cabin that I can live in for the rest of my life. That means proper amenities like a full-size shower and kitchen, nice finishes, and enough space to live comfortably. While I like the idea of “tiny houses.” I, personally, need some elbow room; particularly when the weather outside is cold or wet for weeks on end. I’m not camping. This is my home.
How long does it take to finish a cabin like this? How much does it cost to finish a building like this? What items are commonly priced wrong, built wrong, and done wrong that will cause major headaches after the fact? What are the secrets to building the interior quickly, easily, and inexpensively?
Those are questions for the next installment! I will see you then.