Backstory to the build

Every home holds a story. Ours begins from the ground up – the second house we’ve built – as a fresh take on the modern farmhouse layout, settled on 20 acres just outside the city limits.

Having built 2 houses in our 30s sounds kind of crazy as I type this. The reality is not quite as out of touch. We do check the college educated, upper middle class boxes. However, it was having access to additional resources and help, and frankly, some serendipity, that we built at all, let alone twice. None of this would have been possible without it. And it goes to show how resources beget resources (but that’s a whole ‘nother conversation). With that preface, I’ll start at the beginning…

House #1, the one we didn’t build

We purchased our first house back in the early 2000s, at the height of the housing bubble. It was a 90s ranch whose selling point was its picturesque views. The house was tucked away at the end of a road with a tiny pond and a river passing through. (Unfortunately, this also resulted in corresponding swarms of mosquitos all. summer. long.) It seemed like a perfect mix of Luke’s norm from childhood, having grown up on 80 acres in the country (when they moved to the smaller farm), and my own neighborhood upbringing.

The location tipped in my favor, with a relatively short 15-20 min commute to work from our small town. Luke on the other hand had 45 min in the opposite direction, on a good day.

Building backstory - our first house, the one we didn't build
Aerial view of our first home.
Our first dog, Bran
Our first dog, Bran. Named after Game of Thrones before it was cool.

Within a year, I changed jobs, to one within walking distance from Luke’s work. The commute no longer made any sense. Fast forward to the birth of our first, and the frustration of the commute was palpable. We eventually put the house on the market (for the first time) just as it crashed. 4+ years later, after many tears and many prayers, we finally sold it. At a crushing loss. So much for the investment returns in paying off the mortgage, but at least it afforded us the option to relocate.

House #2, the surprising advantages of building

We had a lot of time to scope out where we could land over those years of waiting… However, home prices in the college town where we worked (and I had grown up) were double for half the size. Yet our family was getting bigger, not smaller. After considerable research, we discovered it was surprisingly more cost effective to buy property and build an efficient floor plan. (Note: this was also just as building was beginning to resume after the recession.) A new house was anticipated to appraise above the build cost, as well. This meant we could avoid PMI even without money for a down payment. We planned to use IKEA for the kitchen and bathrooms, and complete some minor finishes ourselves, as well. (Aka, me + generous friends installing the kitchen backsplash, painting kids’ bedrooms, etc.)

Building backstory - our second house, first build while under construction
View of the property, pre-framing. The garage is the block in front, with the house sitting behind it. Relative scale courtesy of the orange can of spray paint on the left side of the garage area.

Even so, it was only possible because of my family. My parents loaned us money after the buyer’s bank appraised the house below the (already painfully low) contract price. More importantly, my sister took us in during the length of the build. We completely overwhelmed her house, and no doubt added considerable stress to her life… for twice as long as we anticipated. Our third was an infant, and had a habit of crying in the evenings, despite us pulling out all our happiest baby on the block strategies. I’m pretty sure the neighbors could hear her. Yet my sister was gracious and patient with us. She was a life saver. And also very glad when the house was finished.

Our second house, first build, interior construction
No tears here – just happy little people as the house progressed.

The golden years

We spent over 7 wonderful years in that house. Our family grew, both in height and number. We had ups and downs, as we all do in life. But lots of love, dance parties, kid craziness, and a side of occasional bickering filled that home. We occupied every inch of our 600 sq ft of common area; living, dining, kitchen, front entry, and main play space in one. (We invested the majority of square footage in bedroom space.)

Our second house, open floor plan design: the living room
View of the living area, from the master bedroom doorway.
Our second house, open floor plan design: dining/kitchen
View of the dining and kitchen area, from the front entry. The couch is millimeters to the left of this shot.

There is such a thing as too efficient

Perhaps it was the new goldendoodle that pushed us over the edge (sadly, Bran passed a few years after moving). But either way, as our finances stabilized, we grew hopeful for a little more room to move and more comfortably open the house up to others. Additionally, as much as we were aware of the things we did right in building, we (more accurately I) could see all the lessons learned. In my day dreams, I had a running list of what we could improve on should the opportunity arise.

Our second dog, Appa, the goldendoodle.
Meet Appa. He seems so calm now.. it only took 3 years!

The shock of home addition costs

As our very active kids stretched the tight open plan layout to its limits, we reached the tipping point and finally looked into expanding out the back. We were shocked by what we found out after getting a few quotes. It would cost more to add 5′ onto the back of the house and a small den, in place of the screened in porch (with some other minor changes), than it cost to build the house to begin with. (Note, this was due in part to the daylight basement below, and the septic field to the side; both complicated building off the main floor.)

Luke also expressed concerns about living through a construction project. He’s still haunted by the weeks of living in the same bedroom as his parents and siblings, to make necessary repairs when they moved into the old family farmhouse as a kid. He joked he’d rather build a new house… (Um, challenge accepted!)

To start over or stay…

Once again, even with the increase in building costs, we could start over with a significantly bigger footprint and better layout for the combined cost of an addition plus what was left on our mortgage – IF we managed the plan well. If we went the addition route, we’d still not quite get the space and flow we’d ideally want, and the total costs might exceed it’s market value. We did not want to be underwater on a house again.

However, there was a lot to love about the location of our house. Our tree lined road is beautiful, and we can’t beat it’s proximity to town (without being in town). We were fortunate to have some great next door neighbors. Our kids could bike or go out back whenever they wanted to explore, catch some crayfish in the stream, or hang out in the “sleeping” tree. These weren’t things we wanted to lose in relocating either… Thus, we put everything on hold.

House #3, serendipity in building again

To our surprise, not long after that, we saw a for sale sign on 20 acres just down the road. Literally within walking distance.

Building backstory - 20 acres down the road.
The old farm road leading onto the property.

It was a unique situation… 3 plots with 2 owners and no septic approval, because the qualifying test pits were located in the first and third lots. (You need at least 2 locations, one for your actual field and a back-up location to act as the reserve field should you ever need it.) The middle plot was owned by a different individual, and updated health department regulations forbade septic lines running across another’s property, even with easement agreements.  But it seemed doable. I was hopeful.

It took work, the help of an amazing engineer, a newfound understanding of soils and septic systems, and lots of time corresponding with (or dropping by) the county health department.  In the end, we finally got verbal confirmation that the separate septic sites were feasible, and we pulled the trigger on the sale. We leveraged the equity in our current home to make the land purchase (thank you college town housing market after all, and being debt free beyond our mortgage), and moved full steam ahead with building what’s essentially become our ideal home.

20 acres ready for exploration.
Here’s a glimpse of one of the many epic exploration spots on the new 20 acres.

Almost 2 years in the making

It took over a year from the point we first moved dirt, longer if you count from the point we purchased the plots. During this time we took our last hiking trip abroad (before the world shut down), unexpectedly switched to homeschooling, COVID happened, and we got some ducks and chickens. And some more chickens. Then some guineas. And then a rooster from some friends. Did I mention we have a lot of chickens?

Building backstory - the beginning of the pseudo petting farm duck flock
Because one batch of ducklings wasn’t enough… we added 3 more (the 2 Pekin ducklings are not pictured).
Building backstory - the beginning of the pseudo petting farm chicken and guinea flock.
1/2 the first batch of chickens… before they got 20+ friends.

Needless to say, it was a bit of a journey. But we got connected with the perfect building partner right at the start, from a recommendation by Luke’s cousin (a builder himself). The builder in turn, connected me with an architect who took my graph paper drawings, made them come alive in the blueprints, and refined the exterior design.

Getting to the view

Each step of the way we crafted our view – to the literal views out the windows (what do we want to see from this corner of the house? and how should we angle the stakes?)… to the look and feel we wanted to capture in each room inside… to the view we intentionally took towards partnering with the builder on the project and life in general during a year that was anything but normal. But sure enough, a year and a few months after we broke ground, we turned our daily visits into an overnight stay and officially moved in to our new home!

Building backstory - modern farmhouse window wall view at night.
Evening view of the main living area from the outside in.

We are incredibly thankful to have this space that offers a haven to be ourselves and recharge, and the opportunity for adventures right here at home, especially in light of Covid and its impact. As the world hopefully trends more towards normal, we’re looking forward to the gatherings and memories to be made with those around us, too. I remember how Luke’s parents’ house was a frequent stop for friends and family driving in and out of town… and was definitely the place to be for game nights and holidays. We’re keeping up the traditions, and strive to fill this house with that same type of “life” and laughter. And with that, you have the backstory on our 2nd (and hopefully final) build!

More to come

Future posts will explore the thoughts (and images!) behind my re-conceptualization of a streamlined, modern farmhouse design. Some building tips, and lots of room by room design posts (with pictures, listings of materials, & more), alongside life and travel musings.

If you have questions or requests, feel free to send them my way – comment here or shoot me an e-mail at Hope you enjoy going on this blogging journey together! Looking forward to hearing from you.


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About Tina

Daydream architect. Designer by instinct. Adventure co-pilot. Living (and parenting) under grace. Dabbling in blogging. Holding down the (backyard) farm.
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