How to Design and Build a Low Budget Seasonal Second Home

As summer approaches a certain segment of the population will start thinking about the advantages of building a low budget seasonal or vacation second home. While some will opt to dream about it others will start making lists and begin considering whether it’s better to buy an existing place or to start your second home from the ground up. If you decide you want to build your seasonal home there are some things to consider that may not be obvious to you. By doing much of the design and legwork yourself you can keep the project within an economical budget.

Whether it’s in the mountains, on a lake, in the woods, at the shore or some other place where you want to ‘get away from it all’ this article assumes you have acquired suitable land. By suitable we mean that it is zoned for residences, the terrain and location are appropriate, there is road access, and preferably power within a reasonable distance. Drilled or shallow wells and septic systems can typically handle water and sewage on site. Further assumptions are that when we say seasonal second home we really mean seasonal cabin (camp or cottage) to be built on a budget and thus limited in size.

As a starter it is likely you have clipped articles, read books, looked at other places and started to form an idea of what your ideal getaway will look like. In addition we suggest you start and maintain a room-by-room list of features that you would like. Don’t worry too much at this point of whether your budget will allow them all. This can include the style of windows, doors, kitchen appliance layout, ceiling fans, floor type, electrical outlets, phone/TV antenna/cable outlets, deck, etc. A seasonal home built on a budget can be a labor of love that will be enjoyed for many generations.

The starting point should be a careful review of your financial situation and a detailed assessment of what you can afford. Actually you need two numbers. One is the amount you can afford for the building stage and the other is the ongoing budgetary cost such as taxes, utilities, maintenance, etc. This should be done independent of what you think the place will look like and how big it will be. There may be the temptation to build beyond your means but it is generally more prudent to build to your means. In other words treat it as a financial calculation whether the money is going towards labor and materials, mortgage payments, infrastructure improvements, etc. Keep those numbers handy and revise them as you see fit. They will help you maintain a focus on your budget. Later you may determine that a mortgage is necessary to build what you want however keep in mind that a mortgage on a second home is not always easy to get.

Next you should obtain a copy of the building code and ordinances from your local town government where your land is. More and more locales are enacting ordinances and stricter building codes limiting the size, height, proximity to lakes, and a diversity of other considerations involving wet land development and ridgeline development. If you personally don’t understand these, ask questions of the local government officials. Be wary of special situations such as wetland development that may require environmental permitting since these can take a long time to acquire. While the input of builders, architects, other owners can be useful it also can reflect unique situations which may not apply to your situation. Making faulty assumptions at this stage can be very costly later on. Nothing knocks a hole in your second home budget faster then a lot of unexpected change orders.

Once you get a feeling of what options you have for developing and building on your land you can start to mesh that with your idea of what you want your cabin or cottage to look like and what features it will have. During this stage you have to determine if what you want will require the application for a variance, if there will be room on your lot for both a septic system in addition to a well and any other infrastructure improvements such as having electricity brought into the site. In the latter case more then a few cabins have been built only to find out later that the electric company did not have a right of way or easement to put in power poles on the neighboring land.

Now you need to determine who is going to design your dream cabin. If you’re from the big city you may think that an architect is the way to go. This may well be but one thing to keep in mind besides the added cost of an architect which can negatively affect your budget for this project. That is many times small seasonal places will be just that. Small, seasonal and economical. It may seem like designing small cabins and cottages is no different then designing larger residences but that is not the case. Our experience has shown that building a small place requires a unique expertise and skill set since you want to maximize the use of every available square foot. Features such as bookcases under the staircase, benches built into decks, seats that turn into tables, pull out trundle type beds, are only a few of the things that an experienced designer of small places will be familiar with. An architect used to designing five bedroom homes may not see some space saving opportunities. Our personal preference is not to use an architect for a second home but rather to do much of the basic conceptual design ourselves with the aid of magazine articles, online information and other inputs and then to locate an experienced local builder to flesh it out. Several home PC software programs are available for you and can be a major help in exploring different layouts, traffic patterns and scale model furniture.

Locating qualified builder takes some legwork but should pay off in the end. After talking with several you’ll want to get a list of references for people who have used the builder and are willing to show you their place and talk with you about the builder. You should be prepared to ask questions including some frank ones such as; once the builder started did he stay on the job, was he reasonably close on his cost estimates and stay on budget. Also consider whether he came up with creative ideas on the design collaboration, did his crew clean up the job site, did they finish the job when promised. We feel a locally based builder is preferable since they have a reputation to maintain in the community, are more likely to pay their employees and for the materials they buy. Being local they also can be given a proxy to interact and make presentations with the local planning board on your behalf if you live a distance away.

As mentioned earlier the design process should be a collaborative effort that is usually iterative as you trade off features, costs, land use restrictions, and what is reasonable to build on the terrain. Once you have the outer size and shape defined and the interior layout decided you should consider presenting it to your local Planning Board for a building permit. Note that local governments have a wide range of processes and procedures on what is needed and when to apply for permits. These requirements should be understood at the start of the process so you don’t spin your wheels and waste your or your builder’s time.

About the time you acquire the building permit you should refine the list of features you have been accumulating. It is convenient to format this in a room-by-room layout. You should feel free to write down any and everything you feel you want in your finished dwelling. We feel it is imperative not to assume your builder will know everything you will want. For example if you want half of every double power outlet switched from a wall switch write it down. If you want three-way switches, a garbage disposal, overhead fans and lights, slider rather then double hung windows, also write it down. This is not limited to electrical items but also floor covering, amounts of insulation, location of outside water faucets, built in cupboards, etc. You get the idea.

Once construction commences keep a close watch on the progress and try to be readily available, if possible, to answer the builders questions as they arise. If you cannot be in the area consider locating a trusted friend or relative who can serve as your proxy in addressing issues near real time. Also ask your builder to email you photos of the progress on your cottage periodically and tell him that you want regular reports of the progress via email or phone. If you have done your homework on your specification there should be very few unforeseen problems that arise.

Building a seasonal home on a restrictive budget can be a rewarding experience if you are prepared to stay personally involved, especially in the design and planning stages. By methodically following a progression of logical steps you will end up with something that is not only economical but also meets your expectations.

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