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Lowest-Cost Way to Live on Zoned Land

Mori no Niwa

Joined: Aug 10, 2009
Posts: 25
Location: Van Buren Co., MI
Hello all,
I've been wrestling with this conundrum for quite some time. I'm buying a few acres of land from my grandmother, adjacent to her property. The land isn't currently being used for anything, but it's been mowed once a year or so so there are only a few trees on it. It's located near the edge of a small town in Michigan. I'm in the process of converting most of the land into a forest garden and maybe a small market garden eventually. It's flat, featureless land with dry sandy loam soil.

Since I'm going to be spending as much time as possible there, and because I'd like to minimize the amount of $ I burn on "rent" elsewhere, I've been thinking of all of the possibilities for an inexpensive dwelling. Since it will be visible to some neighbors, that is a concern; even if I plant fast-growing screen plants all around, it will still take quite a while to be "hidden," and I don't want to wait that long. As you can imagine, I don't want to build a conventional house, or build "to code". I will catch rainwater and have a composting bucket toilet, and even electricity isn't essential, though I suppose it would be nice to have while I get my solar panels going, and when it's cloudy, etc. I will have some access to my grandmother's house, so I could maybe claim that I'm "living" there and not in whatever structure below:

My first thought was to buy a travel trailer and stay in that for a while as I paid the land off, figuring that I could claim it was "movable" and hence not a permanent dwelling. There was a case in the news recently here of a family being "saved" (i.e. coerced into moving) from a travel trailer, into some kind of crappy Modular home (like that's any better quality, ha!). So while I might get away with it for a few months, eventually the word would get around and someone would come knocking to do the same to me. Cost: $1,500-3,000?

I also thought about yurts and tipis, they too being "not-permanent" enough to elude the authorities...but the unusual appearance would make them the talk of the town and everyone would want to know what I was doing. Not sure on the legality, though I'm sure I'd get a hard time about anything short of a built-to-code, 1,000-sf house. Cost: $2,000-10,000+?

I have Mike Oehler's book and the underground house concept appeals to me quite a bit, but again I worry about someone coming around to visit and having a fit about it. Cost: depends.

I love strawbale and cob construction, though the latter may not be warm enough for the MI winters. I need something that I can insulate fairly well (another reason why the travel trailer idea is kind of poor for the winter). One issue is that I don't really have clay to work with for earth plasters or I thought about earthbag construction...maybe not very well-insulated either.

I have a relatively imminent need for storage on the site, so that no matter what I have a place to put my things out of the elements. I started thinking about sheds, garages and pole-buildings...if I could get one built at a relatively low-cost, to the code required for such buildings, I'd have the facade of "normality". Once it was done, I could start to retrofit and insulate the interior and make it livable. I'm wondering how unconventional I could be with the design before attracting suspicion (if it were on a slab I'd want it insulated and to have pipes laid in for radiant floor heat, etc). That and a south-facing orientation (I could maybe add some windows in after the fact, as South points away from the road). Cost: $4,000-20,000+ depending on size, floor, method, etc.

Another thought I had was putting a travel trailer inside the pole building, though that might be tricky to ventilate and insulate if I want to have a woodstove... Hell, I think I could live in a tipi if I had a dry place to store some of my junk.

I've also considered all kinds of tiny houses, (under 200sf), maybe having several different small buildings, one for sleeping, one for storage, maybe one for cooking, etc. Again these may not be legal for "occupancy" thanks to the bass-ackward laws that state minimum sizes for dwellings, septic hookups, etc.

Sorry for the long-winded post, anyone ever done something similar, and any words of advice? I'm hoping that as the economy continues collapsing building inspectors and zoning officials will disappear as a brief and unfortunate blip on the radar of history...but in the meantime they're here.

Joel Hollingsworth

Joined: Jul 01, 2009
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
If I needed a lot of storage cheap, and had time, I might try out a plan that's been floating around in my mind for a few months, of building a truss structure out of shipping pallets.

My plan A would be to build several trussed arches, and fasten them together with more pallets to form something in the shape of a hoop house or Kwonset hut. For the roof, I might borrow from Paul's WOFATI plans, and lay down some cushioning, then a few layers of paper & polyethylene, then soil. It seems like you could use re-claimed polyethylene film, if you overlapped it properly and fused it together with a warm clothes iron (using paper to keep the plastic from sticking to the iron). If you can stomach the fire risk, maybe the old-fashioned cordless (i.e., charcoal-powered) clothes irons would be more convenient to use on top of a large structure. Also, it might have to be roofed in narrow swathes, if you want to climb on the pallets rather than using scaffolding.

The buildings I've been imagining have been simple, windowless structures only open at the ends, but I could see fitting dormers between the arches. There are lots of options for filling the (very thick!) space within the truss, too: my first thought would be a mix of paper fibers and subsoil, inspired by the domes at Holy Scrap Hot Springs.

I've heard from a couple other sources (including the link above) that working with an engineer can help a lot with code issues.

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Joined: Jun 03, 2010
Posts: 17

Here is a site about a very simple and inexpensive cabin that can be built quickly. Not the most "permie" type dwelling, but a good option until a more permanent and energy efficient dwelling such as a strawbale/cob dwelling could be built.

This is what I am hoping we could do. Hubby is not enthused, unfortunately.
Mori no Niwa

Joined: Aug 10, 2009
Posts: 25
Location: Van Buren Co., MI
Thanks Joel and Katchmoleen. I've seen the SSH site before and actually purchased his e-book (not bad deal at $5!), and doing something like that would suit me fine, at least for the short term. The issue is zoning and inspection nightmares; I'm pretty sure his cabin would not pass muster for a number of reasons (too small, for one). IIRC he lives somewhere out West with either no building codes or very minimal ones. It's ridiculous that we now have minimum sizes for "habitable" dwellings, I think the world has gone crazy! 

Joined: Jun 03, 2010
Posts: 17
Actually, he built the way he did BECAUSE of building codes. If a building is below a certain size and does not have a permanent foundation, it does not need to be built to code where he lives, which is why he made it so small and put it on deck blocks instead of a foundation. So it qualified as a storage shed rather than a home.
Jonathan 'yukkuri' Kame

Joined: May 23, 2010
Posts: 488
Location: Foothills north of L.A., zone 9ish mediterranean
Many codes will allow anything under 100 or 120 sf to be unpermitted.  In some cases, such structures must not be attached to utilities.  A little loft could make that into a decent bedroom.

Nihongo o hanasemasuka?
Mori no Niwa

Joined: Aug 10, 2009
Posts: 25
Location: Van Buren Co., MI
Katchmoleen, I think buildings which are small enough and/or considered "not permanent" can be built by DIY-ers, the problem is living in one. I think that if word gets around that you're living in something considered a "storage shed," you'll quickly be forced out of it because it doesn't comply with the laundry list of zoning laws which dictate what a "habitable" dwelling must be, i.e. minimum size, utility hookups, septic (and water connections where applicable), etc. I have a friend near here who built a very cool eco-friendly house on her family's land, but since they have a composting toilet (store-bought!) and it's not very large, it's not legally "habitable," meaning they can use it but aren't supposed to be living there full-time. It's allowable because she has access to her mother's house and facilities.

Jonathan 'yukkuri' Kame

Joined: May 23, 2010
Posts: 488
Location: Foothills north of L.A., zone 9ish mediterranean
Mori no Niwa wrote:


Joined: May 02, 2009
Posts: 262
Location: Coast Range, Oregon--the New Magic Land
I think the operative word for the people getting kicked out of the trailer was FAMILY--if there are kids involved sure the feds will come down on that real quick. If you are just a single person and you aren't a weird Jeffrey Dahmer type and you dont' have garbage all around people should leave you alone.

I would think you'd be able to live in a travel trailer. Unless there are CCRs or HOA stuff in your hood(God forbid! aaaaaaaahhh!). Out here there is land zoned that you CAN"T put any permanent housing onto(as a way to curb development out in the forest). I have neighbors that got around that by either: living in a garden shed, living in a travel trailer inside a pole barn, living in a camper, living in a yurt. In fact my house was illegally built and the builders "begged forgiveness" and it was grandfathered in(though that sure wouldn't fly today!).

I think you got your own answer in describing your friend's eco house situation. It sounds like there are really anal laws in your parts.

Is there some reason you can't just (technically)live with your grandma? and have your little retreat "playhouse"?

My Blog, Natural History and Forest Gardening
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Joined: Jun 23, 2010
Posts: 71
How about using some reclaimed shipping containers. If you get one of the insulated ones you could put it almost anywhere and live in it. Also, the structure lends itself to stacking to get a bigger structure later should you decide to make a more permanent home.

Just a thought for a low cost alternative.....
Emerson White

Joined: May 02, 2010
Posts: 1206
Location: Alaska
In most states you can build it yourself if you will live there for a year (or not sell it for a year, depending on the state). I suspect minimum habitable is more like 450 sq ft. so think 22 feet per side on a single story. If you are very handy and build as cheap as you can I'll bet you could get away with 20,000 assuming you can lay rebar, spread concrete, reuse forms for building, etc. If you do be sure to read the codes well and talk to who ever you can bend the ear of to try and get your plans perfect before you submit. going in again and again and a gain can be a real drag on your finances as you are nickled and dimed to death.

you said this property is adjacent to your grandmothers? Maybe you can use her bathroom and sleep in a tent. I suspect that of all you want to do, the untreated sewage part is probably the most likely to get you into trouble. In most of the state you can sleep in a tent on your property if you want. Just go out and buy one that looks like a normal camping tent and no one will have anything to say about it (not like a yurt) also avoid tying onto anything. Just use a normal person nylon tent, maybe even run out an extension cord from your grandmothers house!

Joined: Jun 08, 2008
Posts: 79
Well. check on legal size on a permanent foundation, then check on legalities of smaller buillding on wheels/non-permanent. So you at least know what you are dealing with.

As far as alternative building-in your area, if you are close to a national forest, check if you can still get permits to harvest logs or not. Used to be, you could harvest something like 300 (logs? Cords of wood?) per year per family/household. If so, saw it up, and build a cordwood/stackwood masonry home. If you collect busted up concrete/stone from a dump site to use for your foundations,  and around doors and windows. That should keep it pretty doggone cheap, alternative, sustainable-because you are using what is at hand-AND look like regular construction. You could go to the tag office in your area and find out what they do with all those car tags that get turned in--they make very good roofing materials-and probably free. Use eco friendly metal paint after scrubbing them-to give a rough surface for the paint to hold-and paint them.

Anyway, hope all that helps. There are several books on cordwood masonry-as well as some websites and photos. The website talks about salvaged/recycled materials of all kinds. There is a forum, check it out.

Good luck
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