On Inspiration & Getting Started Building Houses

Here’s what I meant to do tonight: After lifting some seriously heavy weights at the gym, then doing farm chores, then snuggling with my new Nuggets, then eating dinner and staunchly refusing to do my dishes, I meant to sit down at my computer and finish one of the three different posts I have sitting in my drafts folder, waiting to be cleaned up and published.

Instead, I opened my inbox, and it it was an email that contained the excerpts below:

I’m nineteen, and I live near St. Louis. My boyfriend and I are completely infatuated with farm life… Although jumping right into a hefty bank loan and taking on our farm plans head first seems remotely doable, we honestly have no clue what we’re doing. The idea of knowing how to build my own house myself excited me; I started Googling and found your website. After some hellacious and painstaking note taking and word definition, and feeling like a student again, I actually really got into your homebuilding instructions.  I’ve discovered that I actually really really reeaaaallllly want to learn how to build homes, especially excavation, footing, foundation and framing.

Anyway, after taking down all your home notes, I wondered what else your site was about, and read the story about your homes and projects and your current farm with MINI DONKEYS and got really excited. All I could think was, hell yes, I wanna be this woman when I grow up. The point of all this is, I’m hoping for advice on where and how to begin. I’m wondering if you’d know what classes I should take to get started in carpentry.

First of all, HELL YES. If there’s one thing I could fill up the world with, it’s nineteen year old girls who think, “You know what? I want to build an effing house, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

It is so incredibly inspiring to me to know that there are younger people like this out there, so instead of writing a post about the now-finished downstairs bathroom, or the progress I’ve made on the Liberty House Master List in the last two years, I wrote this response. And after I hit send I thought that this right here is the exact thing I needed to write and share today. So for anyone who has been in this same spot, or may be here in the future, here’s my advice about getting started with building houses….

This is, by far, one of the best emails I’ve ever gotten. I’ve been writing on DIYdiva for the better part of a decade (since I was just a bit older than you, actually, and bought my first house) for exactly this reason… so that some day some girl might decide she wants to build a house, and will see that it’s totally possible. Not easy. Not without risk, pain, tears, hard work, frustration, and a whole lot of “what the fuck do I do now?” But, frankly, I think the best things in life come with all of those.

No one can tell you what the right path to take is… the important thing is being able to determine that for yourself. For example, I work best when I take on pretty big (some might say impossible) tasks all at once, but I’m also very risk-averse financially, so I only take these things on when I feel confident in my “back up plan.” People often ask my why I don’t just take on smaller, more manageable projects, and I know myself well enough to know that I need the challenge to motivate me, but I also know myself well enough to know what is “too much”. So, this is weird, but the first thing I would recommend is gauging your comfort with your decision-making abilities. Do you tend to dive in over your head and then get overwhelmed or stressed? Does it bother you when things don’t go as planned? Are you overly cautious in what you take on and then lose interest because you’re bored? Understanding these things will really help you decide what your own path to building your own house should be, but I’ll tell you a little bit of my story and how I came to be a girl on a farm with mini-donkeys (you definitely need them, they are awesome) who works a corporate job and also builds houses…

When I was twenty years old– just graduated college with a degree I didn’t know what the hell to do with– I decided I wanted to build furniture. I couldn’t imagine myself working a 9-5… I wanted to create things, to use my brain in different ways, to smell sawdust every day. I didn’t have the capital to do this, so I moved in with my grandparents, took a job at my family business, and in my spare time started fixing up furniture, going to estate sales, writing business proposals, putting together a website for my “future shop” (I’d been planning to have a retail store + workshop, with a living space up above.) I was already an old pro at using the sanders, but then I started using other tools more regularly– my jigsaw, my grandpas radial arm saw, my dad’s miter saw. I started tiling the tops of tables which taught me how to adhere and float and grout. I built some shelves to hold all of my unfinished projects.

I also didn’t know how I was going to work a regular job and do all of these other things I wanted to do in my “free time” and eventually start a business. I remember thinking it would take me ten freaking years to learn everything I needed to learn, and become established enough to do what I actually wanted to do. Which seemed like forever, and also total bullshit. That struggle was actually one of the most difficult periods of my life.

The event that made all of those pieces fall into place for me was buying my first house. (Actually, if I’m being honest, it was when I started dating a guy who had a little fixer-upper house that he wasn’t fixing up. And I thought to myself, if this dude can have his own house and not fix it up… I’m pretty sure I can have a house and do really amazing things to it. Unsurprisingly, that relationship didn’t last long.) Buying that first house, for me, was the embodiment of all the things I wanted to do. I had to work a full-time job to pay the mortgage, but I’d been building some skills in working with furniture that were transferable to the work I wanted to do on the house. I started with smaller projects, that turned into bigger projects, that eventually turned into selling my first house and building my second one. By the time that second house came around it didn’t even occur to me that I couldn’t build a house if I wanted to. (It did occur– frequently, and often loudly– to the boyfriend I decided to build that house with, but I basically ignored him. Unsurprisingly, that relationship also didn’t last too long.)

Here’s the funny thing… Now, it’s ten years later, and everything I did in the last decade that I was so worried about “wasting” led me to the place where I had enough skill, confidence, and experience to buy my little farm a couple of years ago and start fixing it up. I still work a full-time job and do all of my learning, building, fixing, and writing in my spare time. And that’s what worked for me.
Your story may be totally different, but I think it’s important to embrace the lessons you will learn along the way. The little things that teach you the skills that will help you build the bigger things. All of the projects and experiences that help you build the confidence to take on larger and more complex challenges. There’s no way to immediately download all of the information you’ll need to build your own house, but there are a ton of different ways to start learning. Here are a few I would recommend:
  • Volunteer– If you have Habitat for Humanity in your area, this is a fantastic, free way to start learning the basic skills of house-building and how that all come together. I’ve been on Habitat builds with some old veterans that STILL teach me new tricks after a decade of doing this, and those old-timers LOVE to teach people what they know. My advice would be to volunteer for a few different builds and be curious. Tell them you want to learn about building houses, ask questions about how to use tools and why things are done a certain way. You’ll get to see things done (so much better than reading about them), and get hands-on experience.
  • Invest in the basics – This is true both for tools and for classes. If you buy crappy tools you will HATE using tools. Because they suck. If you start off with good tools, you’ll realize how much easier your life will be… as far as I’m concerned, this makes all the difference in building things. Same with classes… if you have the opportunity through your community college, I’d take a basic woodworking class to learn to use the tools and the basics, and then if they offer any building science, drafting, or architecture classes, those would be great too. Learn how to read blueprints! When I was getting certified for my builders license, I took all of the classes through the continuing education department of the local community college, and they were awesome.
  • Immerse yourself in the business of houses— This could play out so many different ways. Seeking out a job with a builder or at a home-improvement store, reading blogs, watching YouTube tutorials, going to home and garden shows, making friends with farmers or people who are fixing up houses. So much of this is learned through what I would call “casual contact”… knowing someone who did something this way once, or helping a friend with a project, or hearing the language used every day. It’s so much easier to pick these things up when it’s a part of your world.
  • Try it – Sometimes you just have to dive right in. I always recommend “stretch projects”– things that will really-effing-impress you when you manage to do them (and you will) but are easy enough to give you a rep or two with the basics so that you can build confidence in your skills. Look at other peoples projects, think about how you might do them and think about how you might do them differently based on the tools/skills you have at your disposal. Then try something bigger. Next thing you know, the “something bigger” will be a whole house.
  • Don’t give up — You’re going to fail at things. You’re going to fuck things up. You’re going to find yourself in spots where you don’t know what the hell you’re doing or what to do next. THAT DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN’T. It means you’re learning. It means that maybe there’s something you don’t know right now, but you will next time. As much as it pains me to admit it myself, sometimes it means you need help. You learn from it, you do something different the next time… but if you want to build a house, the most important thing is to believe that you can. And not to give up when things get tough.
I am so incredibly impressed by your drive, excitement, and desire to jump in and learn how to do some awesome things (like foundations, and framing, and yes, eventually, roofing and electrical!) I have no doubt that you’ll be building your own home one day.
Here are a few of my other favorite DIY and house building ladies, to lend you a little more inspiration!
Sandra @ Sawdust Girl

And for everyone else out there thinking of diving into the world of building things or building your own house one day? Same goes. You all are an inspiration to me every single day.

35 Responses

  1. I love this post! I’m 32, married almost 11 years, childless, didn’t finish college, am a jobless actress/singer/dancer, ex-web content manager…who doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. So many things I want to do, but don’t seem possible. But I love making things. Building furniture, designing furniture/clothes/interior spaces, painting/crocheting/knitting/sewing…I LOVE to create. (But I can’t cook!) But there’s so much to learn, that I’ll dream about doing stuff, but get too scared to actually DO it.

    After reading this, I think I need to look into community college classes or something for building, designing…ALL of the above. Because if I want to learn to really do this stuff, I want to learn to do it RIGHT.

    I needed this reminder and encouragement, so thank you! Let’s hope I follow through!

    1. as an almost 28yo, it’s comforting to know that you also have no idea what you want to be when you grow up. ^.^-b

      good luck with whatever you decide!

      1. Glad to keep you company! 🙂 Maybe we’ll figure it out…soon?

        Or maybe I should just never grow up. 😉

  2. Dear DIY Diva;

    For the record, I am nearly 60. Most of my life choices stem from what I was told I could and could not do or be based solely on my gender.

    So I became a single Mom & a nurse & college grad & home owner & closet permaculturist. I tried the marriage thing, but houses and DIY stuff do tell a LOT about the man and I am happily living alone again. In a new old brick house.

    I found your website the day the soap dish fell out of the wall and that gave me the courage to try something new with ceramic tiles. I filled the void with decorative stones. So, all I can say is THANK YOU for being you. You are amazing.

    My advice is don’t get hurt & don’t show up on Oprah. Keep it real and keep on living the life you love while sharing it with the rest of the world!

    Thank you!


  3. Great post. What jumped out at me is that sometimes, perhaps I don’t challenge myself enough, and that is the reason I feel unaccomplished.

    Looking back at the past few years, the areas where I feel the most success exclusively include feeling overwhelmingly challenged.

    So, the areas of my life which feel stunted or unproductive, definitely need a more defined challenge. Thanks! Not sure if that all made sense. Children and sleep deprivation can make you crazy!

  4. I wish I had read a letter like that 15 years ago!

    I am 37 have a degree in Construction Management but I have spent my whole life selling auto parts (first in the family business then for the past 4 years to the people who bought us out).

    I feel like I waited too long to use my degree. But construction is what I have always wanted to do.
    If I had read a letter like yours, I might have had the courage to just take the leap instead of staying in the family business where I feel safe.

    And now I feel like I am too old to start over. We tackle every single home improvement project on our house (drywall, electrical, tiling, my boyfriend even makes cabinets) but to be able to immerse myself in it sounds like heaven!

    Good luck to the girl that wrote you! And my advice to her is just dive right in and do it! Most mistakes are fixable and that is the best way to learn!

    1. Reminds me of a Dear Abby column years ago when a writer lamented that they hadn’t pursued their dream of becoming a doctor, and now it was too late because by the time they went back to school and such they would be 40-something. Abby replied, “You’ll be 40-something no matter what – you might as well be a 40-something doctor.” It’s never too late to start anything, unless you’re dead, and 37 is non dead by a long shot! :-).

      1. Yes, I remember that Dear Abby column. It’s what inspired me to go back to school and get a PhD (graduated at age 54) and start a new career. Now I’m 68 and retired and I have the time to learn woodworking — so I am!

        1. That’s awesome Frances! Now I feel like I should get off my not-so-old butt and do something! :-).

  5. Adult Ed courses at a local voc-tech high school or community college are so helpful! I’m taking my first one now “Basic Home Repair” and I can’t wait to take more! Well worth the time and money. Lot’s of info and hands on work.
    Thanks for this post, Kit – I found your blog last year – via Sarah at Ugg Duck – and slowly made my way through start to finish and find you and Sarah incredibly inspirational. My husband knows just who I mean when I say “guess what Kit’s working on now!” or “Sarah just tiled her kitchen – now I want to try!” 🙂
    Thank you for giving more insight into what started you on the road you are on now.
    ~ Alison

  6. It’s funny I think I’m about your age, when I was little I spent summers building things with my grandpa in the garage using a scroll saw. I still have some of those projects. I loved wood shop too. The younger and older generations missed out those things either they were told you can’t or the schools have taken those classes away. DIY is an important skill to have it gives you a sense of pride and independence that nothing else can these day’s. I’m about to buy my first house I’m so frikin excited to rip up carpet, fix the kitchen, and build a new chicken palace. over the summer you taught me to build a chicken coop and I’ve been a devoted reader ever since. Girls can do some pretty wonderful things on their own with tools! We really just need help when we need that third or fourth arm!

  7. I felt as though some girl power rock anthem should have been playing in the back as this post was being read. I think all women should have a little bit of your spunk in them. Keep on kickin butt, Kit.

  8. This was definitely an inspired post. I loved everything about it. Your response and the kick ass, goal driven attitude of this young woman. She restored my faith in today’s youth. I hope my kiddos will have that same fire and drive for what they hope to do.

    I also feel just like her. Your willingness to share your journey and struggles has long been an inspiration for me. I’ve followed you since you were making crooked brooms in your first house. Seeing you take on huge obstacles and drive through them gave me courage to try new things.

    You’re awesome. Please keep at it and sharing it.

  9. If your blog were a graphic novel, this would be the issue that contained your back story. And I agree. I think you’re totally inspiring because I, too, am a female who bought my first house at a young age and I’ve been firing up power tools with (sometimes) reckless abandon ever since. My husband, who is awesome, just steps back and lets me fly. He’s totally not into it but he appreciates the outcome, and only slightly raises his eyebrows at the new and inventive curses that can sometimes stream out of my mouth. And somewhere along the line, I found this blog and thought, “this chick is awesome. She totally gets me.” Swears and all. So thanks, Kit. I’d buy you a beer if I could.

    1. A DIY graphic novel would be awesome! You’re the woman to create it Kit! Very inspired by this post – Thanks! Really.

  10. To follow up on the part about asking for help, when you do, make sure you’re looking over their shoulder to see what they’re doing. Not to make sure they’re doing it right (OK, that’s partially it) but to learn how they would do it.

    I almost broke my hot water line that feeds the majority of my house as I was using a demo hammer. Finally had to call a plumber to dig out the part in my foundation to fix it. I sat with them for 3 hours watching them so I could a) learn how to use demo hammer correctly, b) how to repair the pipe, c) find where the P-trap really was, d) made sure they put the new P-trap where I wanted it, and e) pick their brain for any other plumbing information I needed. Sure, it cost me $400 to get it fixed but now I know I could do something similar in the future and I feel a lot more knowledgeable about plumbing in foundations.

    And Kit, your blog has me looking for farms so I too can have miniature donkeys for my girls to raise some day. Thanks so much for posting about your life.

  11. Hell yes! I love hearing about a 19 year old young woman who wants to build stuff! Thanks for this post. As was reading your post, Kit, I started to think about Habitat for Humanity, and the Community College classes… which were the exact things you mentioned later. Great minds think alike and all that. I have two master’s degrees, an MBA and a MS in Information Technology. But guess what… I still take classes at the community college to this very day. I just finished a welding class. I’ve had several HVAC classes and an electrical class. I’m now planning to sign up for blacksmithing. Community college class are bargains.

    Volunteer opportunities are great ways to learn for free. I volunteered at a big horse rescue for two years when I lived in New Mexico. Something always needed to be fixed there and I pitched right in and learned to make and fix electric fencing, pipe fencing, do maintenance on a tractor, spreader, change tires/fix flats, put up a horse shelter, repair underground water leaks, replace a water well pump and a multitude of other things. I’ve also taken courses in solar photovoltaics and straw bale home building.

    The world is wide open to a girl who wants to learn, create and build. Yee hah!!

  12. Well, I’m not 19, I’m 50. While I recently bought my next home, it is a sailboat, not a house. While you run a sander over hardwood floors, I sanded and repainted the bottom of my boat. You rewire outlets and light fixtures throughout your house while I am learning the intricacies of both DC and AC electrical systems so I can troubleshoot and fix my bow lights. While our projects may be different, it was your gusto in going after a life you felt called to that made me realize that HELL YES, I can too. Thank you for sharing your story and for keeping it real. Here’s to many more years of fun and adventure!

  13. For the wanna be house builder: Buying an under priced fixer or foreclosure as a first home can be a big motivation to try new things, make mistakes and learn by doing…and those things don’t have to break the bank…craigslist is like shopping a great secondhand store to find used but still serviceable items to install, or rebuild with and not spend too much while making mistakes as you are learning and doing. There are real estate deals to be had out there. I also agree with Kit that buying the best tools you can afford will be totally worth it in the long run…just having a laser on my chop saw would be heaven, but it has accomplished what I’ve needed it to do without it just fine too. Also, subscribe to magazines like Handyman, or pick up back issues from the thrift store (exactly where I saw Kit and her website years ago); better yet, ask for the subscription as a birthday gift! Just reading about building things will inspire you to try them out. It will also help you to learn which products will suit your needs and how much they will cost new.
    I found my house vs building it but I have an endless list of things I have learned to do, have done, and still want to do inside and out and reading Kit’s blog provides a new and entertaining perspective, not to mention inspiration ;0)

  14. you really are inspiring.

    reading your blog helped me decide that i want to skip the “living in an apartment” phase, and skip right to the “this is my house that i own! :D” phase.

    still working on getting there, but dammit, i’m close! 😀

  15. That email about sums it up for me! I also want to be you when I grow up. (I am, have been, and will continue to be 37 for several years now.) Your advice is spot on and your enthusiasm shines through your posts.

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