small house: zoning, jobs, schools

runcyclexcskiSeptember 16, 2007

Hi all,

I found this forum when doing internet research on small house design and construction.

As a newbie, I apologize for rushing with a long post, but I wanted to make it clear where I am coming from.

Me and my wife are have always lived in urban apartments of no more 600 sq feet. With one or maximum two kids coming up, a 1,000/1,200 sq ft house is all we need.

We are young scientists working in academia, thus, can only find jobs in metro areas with hi tech jobs like San Fran, NYC, Boston, DC, Minneapolis etc. We currently make 100K combined, and, being foreigners, do not have parents to help us with a down payment. Thus, "standard" single famliy $600K 2,500 sq ft american houses in the metro areas mentioned above are out of question (even if I had $600K I would not buy a McMansion). Let's say I want to build for $200,000, including land, how ever small house and plot of land I can squeeze into this amount.

Finally, I have chemical sensitivity and get sick in standard woodstick-fiberglass-plywood houses.

Therefore, I was very excited to discover the "small house movement". Hey, I could build a tiny house to my own requirements, knowing exactly what goes into it, with the best materials with least outgassing. The idea is to get a prefab steel house.

The main problem with small houses that I could not find an answer for was:

***If you want your kids to go to a decent drug-free school, how can you get a zoning permit to build a small house in a decent neighborhood, if all of the houses around you are 3000 sq ft mansions?***

And even if you get a permit, don't you run into nosy neighbors who fear their precious plywood mansions losing value?

So far all resources I have found on small houses seemed to be for people who can afford to build a 5,000 sq foot house, but chose to build a 500 sq foot one just to make a point. As a result, these small houses are all in deserts/mountains/wooded areas in Montana/Nevada/Northern Minnesota where there are no zoning rules and, coindidentally, no jobs. It was not clear how someone with a commute and kids in school can build a small house.

Again, I apologize for the long post.

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Wow, you do have a tricky one.

Unfortunately, it's most likely not going to easy to find a town within commuting distance of the kind of major city you are looking for where you can build such an "unusual" (ultra-green/chemical-free building is b*tch expensive) structure on that budget. Maybe Midwestern cities like St Louis or Kansas City where an hour out of the city you're dodging cows. (Or that was the case when I lived in central MO, although that was - man, I'm getting old - almost 15 years ago.) I can tell you it's pretty much Not Gonna Happen near Boston or NYC. I live an hour outside of Boston and a half-decent building lot by itself is almost your entire budget, forget your site work, bringing utilities in, etc., before even getting the house framed you're well over budget.

But one phrase jumps out at me: "young scientists working in academia" - aren't there quite a few big universities that are NOT in major metro areas? Two that come to mind are University of Wisconsin in Madison WI and Purdue University in West Lafayette IN (which is far enough "out there" that cheap land/homes should be feasible).

Consider private schools as an option for your children as well - this may open up some more locations where the jobs are available, the land is available, the neighborhoods are to your liking, but the schools aren't quite up to par.

I do have to ask, though, have you considered an older existing house with minimal restoration/modernization? Materials 75-100 years old would have done all their offgassing decades ago, and the materials used would have been less likely to offgas in the first place anyway - no plastics, no plywood and particleboard, etc. Then you can do the needed restoration using safe materials. There are lovely houses in the suburbs and exurbs of Midwestern cities that would be WELL within your budget even accounting for some immediate restoration costs.

I think you do have one idea that is totally erroneous - most Americans don't have anyone to help them out with down payments either!

    Bookmark   September 16, 2007 at 5:15PM
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It's going to be tough, given your requirements. Many, if not most subdivisions have hard and fast rules about minimum house size, even away from cities. We bought rural acreage outside Greenville SC, and many properties had such rules, so we bought un-zoned land, and we can do as we please, as long as it is code legal. We are only 15 miles from down town Greenville, a small, but surprisingly dynamic city, so we lucked out there. I assume you teach at a university? There are a number of those away from cities- have you considered that? An example would be Clemson in SC, which is away from any cities, so you could have quiet country living as well as employment. SC public schools are among the worst in the country, though. You'll have an easier time meeting your goal with an existing house, although your chemical sensitivity would be a limiting factor. Do you know what in particular bothers you? Almost every house today has 'woodstick, fiberglass, plywood' present- it would be a challenge to not build without any of those! But fiberglass is a known irritant, ditto the glues in things like plywood and particleboard. Then there's paints, carpet, plumbing (which is worse- copper or plastic?) I think you need to do a lot of research to find an area that meets your particular needs, like we did in SC. Good luck!

    Bookmark   September 16, 2007 at 5:21PM
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Thank you, johnmari and flgargoyle, for the understanding responses.

You got a point about teaching at a small school. Madison, WI is near the top of my list.

I could probably stretch the budget to $300K. As for the cost of the construction materials, the idea was to get a ~2.5-3 times smaller than normal house, much smaller than normal lot, and get ~1.5-2 times more expensive materials for the money saved.

My sensitivities are mold, dust, and fumes. I made up my mind of not buying an used house and building my own. I want to know my house in and out and what goes into it. I understand that it makes things harder financially, but I get a peace of mind by not worrying whatever is growing in the old wood and other materials the builders used to save themselves money.

No carpets anywhere, only hardwood and slate. Yes, expensive :) but... in a tiny house there won't be too much of the flooring.

And yes, no particle boards anywhere. Stainless steel or granite tops. Yes, expensive, but... in a tiny house there won't be too much of casework

    Bookmark   September 16, 2007 at 7:48PM
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...BTW I ***sort of*** know where I am coming from in terms of construction costs. Pre-fab steel houses from Kodiak of 1,000 square footage are under $20K for a full frame. I am giving myself another $100K for the basement and the rest - crasy? I do not need a fancy driveway. Another idea is to make the house inhabitable, and take care of landscaping, driveways, etc later. I am reasonably good with landscaping, sounds like a decent weekend project, plus, it's an exercise.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2007 at 7:56PM
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With sensitivity to mold and dust, make sure you put some effort into a decent filtration for your heat/AC system. I'm not sure what's out there these days, such as HEPA filters, but I'm sure you can find it on the 'net. It's hard to talk specifics about money until you zero in on an area to build. There's a thread on the 'Building a house' forum, asking why the same house by the same builder costs way more in one area than another. And of course, land prices can vary widely, even around the same city. Check out city-data (a website) for lots of info on cities and towns all over the country for info on average incomes, housing prices, demographics, weather- everything you can imagine to preview an area you might consider. Depending on location, one can easily build a small house under $200K. I've seen brand new houses of 1200 sq ft in Athens, GA for $85K! That includes the lot. Of course, that would be a crappy house of really cheap materials in an iffy location, but it shows what can be done. By comparison, in my town in west central FL, a 1/4 building lot costs $200K!

    Bookmark   September 17, 2007 at 7:33AM
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What type of scientist are you? My son worked under an NSF grant, lived in Denver, but spent 5 years going to Antartica. He is now with the U of Hawaii...swimming/sampling the ocean or hanging out on science ships again. The reason I ask about the science you are working with is because he looked at a number of Universities in MT, ID, etc., areas where one could build the home you are hoping for....cost/zoning/schools. The salaries were around the same as you mentioned. Could also be off base here, as I wasn't part of his job seeking. Colorado has a huge scientific research base in a vast area.

If you definitely need to look at the cities you mentioned, there may have to be a trade off of combining driving and using public transportation. I'm in Colorado and many people do this to live in the mountains or plains. Although there are still the common zoning issues which seem to be looming even in small towns.

I am hearing more and more of the prefab steel homes too. Aren't they building these in groups somewhere? Perhaps some searching in the areas you are looking at....steel homes were actually built back in the 40s/50s and still exist.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2007 at 8:06AM
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Have you considered a condo? There are lots of loft conversions in the hearts of urban areas, and many of them are using green construction. That would put you in the close to your work location and give you the option of private or good public schools. Your preferred square footage would give you a generous size condo. I think it might be a better fit for your requirements than building.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2007 at 11:47AM
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Let me add the University of Iowa, Iowa State, and Florida State to the above suggestions of research universities that are in more affordable locations and are in plesant small cities. You will find that you can have an easier time as a family in a not-too-big university town. Lots to do, folks from many places, and short commutes to your school or the kids. Plus lower cost housing. Life is better!

That said--Minneapolis is quite a bit less expensive than Boston and NYC and has some great close in neighborhoods, plenty of cultural and recreational activities. But Iowa City would have a lower cost. Consider places that have a school of architecture--some innovative building usually pops up.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2007 at 9:47PM
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You just missed the Green Builders Alliance Confereance in Madison, WI last week. The have a list of all the Green Builder Cities here:

A lot of cities are having a 'green movement' and encouraging green building and small lots. Milwaukee is one of them. So is Madison.

Right now the city just released a plan to sell lots in the Bronzeville area for $1.00 to anyone who will build on them and offering a forgivable 5/year mortgage to builders who occupy the homes, plus a 10,000 grant if you are a first time homeowner. It is a short bus ride away from UWM, MATC, and Marquette, and other smaller colleges. (You can't find a place to park a car near them anyway.) The area is also right near an expressway entrance to faciliate a longer commute or travel. The lots in Bronzeville are very small as it is an older neighborhood. I believe the outside of the house must look traditional, (no modular dome homes painted purple), but you can build it as 'green' as you want.

There is green building going on in the Riverwest area and the 5th Ward, Walkers Point, Menomonee Valley, and elsewhere. Lots going on in Madison but I am not as familiar with it. You would not have a problem building green, or building small in Wisconsin.

Good luck and keep us posted with your progress and outcome.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2007 at 2:59PM
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