Building is the new mountain climbing

Building a house is somewhat similar to climbing Mt. Everest. The routes need to be carefully planned, your body (and mind) needs to be prepped, and materials and equipment needs to be sourced. Thankfully, it is less fatal. Approximately 800 – 1,000 people try to climb Mt. Everest every year, with only 50% achieving the Summit. Six deaths were recorded in 2018 (already an increase from previous decades) and the numbers for 2019 already point to 11 deaths. There are many causes for the fatalities but many are claiming the increase in climbers, many inexperienced, causing a traffic jam on the mountain. The cost to experience this “anxiety-inducing conga line” in sub-zero temperatures and high altitudes starts at a modest $25,000 but can be as high as $130,000, depending on your desired level of comfort (and how comfortable your bank account is).

The stats on building your own home are far less clear. It seems that no one has died from taking the hammer into their own hands (though I’m sure there are the fair share of accidents). In fact, Jimmie Carter is proving that building your own might be good for your health! Without digging into each city’s permitting office, it is hard to say how many individuals file a building permit annually and how many of those actually pass final inspection. But a 50% success rate might be right on target, especially if you add people that start the process (like drawing floor plans, applying for loans, etc) before giving up.

So skip the sub-zero traffic jam and overrated view at 8,000 meters – apply that payment towards building your own home at an altitude to your liking. Plus, you get more bang for your buck: though the prep-time is somewhat the same (12 to 18 months to train for the climb vs 18 to 24 months to figure out design, engineering, and permitting) the actual building phase can be 12, 18, or 24 months filled with time management, budget review, and quality control.  Talk about anxiety-inducing to get the blood flowing! Your emotions will run the gamut from frustration to euphoria as your dreams slowly become a reality.

Building your own home will be hard and fun. And at the end, you have a home.

Ariane Roesch’s “How to Build: a House, a Life, a Future” is a memoir and how-to book recounting her journey to homeownership, outlining the steps to building your own.

Finding Land

I wrote “How to Build” to inspire people to build their own home and a big part of that journey is to find land on which to build.

Whereas a home taps into our emotional state, land is usually seen in a more black & white manner. Both are a commodity, an investment to be profited from, but land is more often purchased with the purpose to “sit on it”. Land purchases drive the real estate market – the more you have, the better – and the speculation and churning over of land is what can change neighborhoods and raise property values.

So what can one do to get theirs as investors, developers, and even the city are clamoring for chunks of prime property? How can you get your own little slice to build your home and put down roots? Just like building your own house, securing land for a home stabilizes the market. But how and where do you find them? Are there any affordable options left?

The answer is yes, especially in Houston. Although the classic options of going into unattractive neighborhoods or moving further away from the city center are still good options, I can also recommend being on the look out for small or irregular shaped lots. Anything under 5,000 square feet is not attractive for developers as it is too small to build a profitable house to sell. Here are some resources:

HAR (Houston Association of Realtors)
This website is a great resource to locate properties currently listed on the market. You can even filter out to find out what properties have recently sold for. Just doing a search for land & residential lots under 1/4 acre costing $40K or less, brings up 250+ listings in Houston – with many even available within the inner 610 loop. Since these properties are in the marketplace, you will need to deal with realtors and should probably find your own representative to help navigate this complicated process. Properties can be purchased with cash or by qualifying for a lot loan through a bank or credit union.

Tax Auctions
Following the city property auction sites is another way to find property at a lower cost. The Harris County Delinquent Tax Sale is the monthly public auction of real estate for past due property taxes. The downside is that you do have to have cash in hand to bid and pay in full once the sale is finalized. Even though you purchased the property, you are kind of in a holding pattern. The previous owners have 2 years to pay the delinquent back taxes and fees at which point your money would be refunded. The process to register can be a bit tricky (more info on their website here) but to get an idea of what is out there, you can browse their current listings here.

Making Offers
In our digital age, it might seem strange to say “keep your eyes open and ask questions” but that also works. If you already live in the neighborhood and you have your heart set on a certain property, or you see someone start cleaning up a property out of the blue, say hello to the person on the tractor and ask if they know what’s happening with the land. They usually can give you the contact info of the owner or representative who might be happy to sell without having to deal with listing the property. Or if you don’t see anyone, research on HCAD can lead you to a contact.

This is how we secured our property: we saw the land get cleaned up, had a conversation with the person hired to do the work, made an offer to the owner’s representative, and were able to purchase the property without it ever hitting the market.

Even though these resources are specific to Houston, similar situations can be applied across the country. Check the real estate listing sites, research what your city has to offer, and keep your eyes open – your lot might be just around the corner.

Read more about my journey to homeownership in my forthcoming book How to Build: a House, a Life, a FutureThe story is a meditation on affordable housing, the student loan crisis, and what happens when a generation can’t afford to invest in their community.

Pre-Orders are now active – item ships in September

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How to Build Book

The day has come… pre-order your copy today!

How to Build: a House, a Life, a Future guides readers through my journey to homeownership, weaving a practical how-to guide into an enticing narrative. The story is a meditation on affordable housing, the student loan crisis, and what happens when a generation can’t afford to invest in their community.

150 pages, plus 100+ illustrations by Kati Ozanic and myself

“The engaging and informative narrative serves as a blueprint that reveals the true dimensionality of complex human endeavor.”

 Harry Gamboa Jr. (artist and educator) 
How to Build: a House, a Life, a Future

A special limited edition of 300 books will be released alongside the hardcover, paperback, and ebook version –pre-order your signed edition now.

This limited edition will also be a hardcover, bound in a vellum dust jacket with printed endsheets. Get Your Copy Now

“Roesch’s refreshingly transparent reflection on DIY home construction offers a practical and creative path to self-reliance and community building, especially for younger generations seeking their own meanings of home. While celebrating moments that are uniquely Houston, this personal case study demystifies the bureaucracies of home construction and encourages both owners and renters to learn more about the physical and conceptual intricacies of where and how we live.”

 Kelly Johnson (Houston artworker, curator and writer) 
How to Build: a House, a Life, a Future

“Roesch has written a warm, intimate and eminently readable book about a major life decision. By telling her own story of homesteading in the big city — and including the good, bad, and gnarly details of the process — she inspires others to find their agency and the means to pursue the dream of homeownership.” 

— Christina Rees (editor of Glasstire) —

Your Homestead

Even in Houston, which does not implement citywide zoning laws, living in a tent (or a shipping container without utilities) on your property will not fly. Whatever structure is used as a primary residence has to be legally sited on the property. Although we opted to build from the ground up, we had researched various ways of getting a shelter in place quickly at the beginning of our journey. Something that would give us a shell, a covering, under which we could then build out the inside. If the thought of starting from scratch is intimidating, then one of these might be a good alternative:

House Moving
Rather than demolish old houses built on piers to build something new, there are companies that specialize in structural relocation; they raise houses off their foundation and can drive them to a new location. If the house doesn’t have an immediate new home, the company will keep them on lots where you can tour them before purchasing. 
Prefabricated Houses
There are now an assortment of companies designing prefab houses that aren’t the standard double-wide trailer set-up. They are modern, made with sustainable materials, energy efficient, and delivered as pre-manufactured parts installed on site.
Container Houses
We were very interested in container homes. Two or three 40 ft. containers can be arranged as structural anchors for a home, complete with a common space in the middle. A flexible layout solution and, depending on the size of your property, can be easily expanded or altered.
Industrial Metal Buildings
There are also companies that assemble industrial metal building in various standard sizes, such as 40 x 60 ft. or 20 x 30 ft. Once a concrete slab is poured, a crew is set out to erect a steel I-Beam skeleton over which corrugated metal is then attached. The project can include windows, doors (roll-up and/or standard), insulation, and gutters. Since Houston has a no-zoning policy, you can stick this anywhere, unless there are neighborhood deed restrictions or a home owners association.

Why Build?

As new housing—even affordable housing—is being constructed, it may seem like an unnecessary pursuit to build your own house. But it might just be a revolutionary response to some of the problems facing our society today.

1. You have quality and budget control.
You get what you want within the parameters of what you can afford.

2. You gain an awareness of the intricacies of life.
Building your own is an exercise in what constitutes shelter, a review of necessities, civic awareness, and an investigation in quality.

3. You have skin in the game.
Owning your own home encourages you to become more involved in your community. You want to live in a good neighborhood and still be able to afford it.

4. You stabilize the market.
Building your own home stabilizes the real estate market due to the house never being public bought or sold; it removes the financial speculation.

My book How to Build: a House, a Life, a Future advocates for a move back to the self, reinvigorating neighborhoods with a self-sufficiency and character that will reignite the complex fabric from which our cities grew.S

A special limited edition of 300 books will be released alongside the hardcover, paperback, and ebook version — get yours while supplies last!

How to Build

Katie Ozanic
by Katie Ozanic

“How to Build” is a memoir and how-to guide to building a house, a life, and a future. It is a meditation on affordable housing, the student loan crisis, and what happens when a generation can’t afford to invest in their community. It follows my journey to homeownership in Houston, and exposes a self-sufficiency and resourcefulness that explains why creatives and makers are still able to call this sprawling City with a no-zoning policy their home.

It will be published this Fall, with a book launch scheduled for October 2019. I am so excited about this new venture and can’t wait to share my journey with you!

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“How to Build” is funded in part by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance.