There are lots of good reasons to escape to the woods. The ding of the notifications on your smartphone, for instance. Or traffic. Or, you know, dirt, trees, and a wood-burning stove. One guy went because he “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” You might know that guy as Henry David Thoreau.
The people behind Cabin Porn have been into this for years. And their philosophy has a lot in common with the Tiny House movement—which is a lot like what it sounds like. Cabin Porn is, yes, a website (and Tumblr and Instagram) devoted to insanely beautiful photos of little nature-y redoubts that you can spend your afternoon scrolling through when you’re supposed to be working. It would be understandable, for instance, to spend an hour just watching this video of a guy riding a bicycle-powered elevator up to his tree house. (They just published a book, if you prefer your Cabin Porn to be of the tactile variety.) But the Cabin Porn guys also happen to be experts at finding really beautiful, inspiring, life-changing places that you can buy while still respecting both the environment and your RRSP. We talked to Zach Klein, the man behind Cabin Porn, and Tom Bonamici, the designer and teacher at Cabin Porn’s Beaver Brook School, to find out how to do it.
To get us in the mood, Klein offered this as inspiration: “Inside each of us is a home ready to be built. It takes a supply of ambition and materials to construct a cottage, but the reward is handsome: a shelter for yourself somewhere quiet, and a place to offer warm hospitality to friends.”
First you're going to need some land
Unless you’re going to be relocating permanently off the grid, the spot should meet the following criteria: (1) close enough to where you live to be commutable, (2) cheap enough to afford, (3) beautiful enough to change your life. The Cabin Porn guys suggest starting with a site like Airbnb. The principle being: Date different places until you fall in love with one. Then take it to the next level by building yourself a little cottage.
When you think you’ve found your parcel of land, be sure you can answer these questions to your satisfaction:
• Is the lot buildable?
• What permits and fees are required?
• What is the property’s zoning district?
• Will your house comply?
• Was the lot legally subdivided?
• Are there any tree-cutting or land-clearing restrictions?
• What type of septic system is permitted?
Bonamici says there’s one unexpected thing to keep in mind: “Drainage,” he says. “Good drainage is not sexy, but it is super important.” One sign your land has good drainage: It’s able to support heavy trees. If those trees don’t fall, neither will the foundation for your structure.
Then you're going to have to decide how much work you want to do
A big part of the Cabin Porn/Tiny House thing is the joy of building your own house. If that’s your thing and you don’t happen to be an architect or friends with one, you might want to start with a nice set of plans, which are purchasable online. If you are looking for a modest two-bedroom, two-bathroom farmhouse this is the way to go; or this one if you prefer a mansion in the woods.
Even if you don’t have a lot of building know-how, Bonamici really thinks you should try your hand at framing with two-by-fours anyway. “All you need are YouTube videos and a good book to get the basics.” And you’ll need only a modest list of tools: a handsaw, a hammer, and nails. “As long as you measure carefully and make sure you are meticulous and accurate in your cuts, you can build a basic structure without experience,” Bonamici says.
If you really want to get fancy, Bonamici thinks it’s worth it to try traditional timber-framing, which is a little more complicated and really cool because you don’t use any metal parts. “The practice goes back to ancient cultures,” he says. “There are Japanese timber-frame buildings that are still standing after 1,000 years.” For traditional timber-framing, Bonamici uses a tool kit consisting of a big handsaw, a chisel, a square, pencils, and the Commander—a large mallet he makes anew every time he starts a project.
Here’s a checklist of everything the would-be home builder would need to tackle a cottage, DIY-style.
And if you decide you'd rather have someone else do it
Companies like Tumbleweed are a great option if you’re interested in a little DIY mixed in with your “other people doing it for me.” Tumbleweed offers workshops around the United States for those looking to start a project. It also offers what it calls Barn Raisers cabins—houses that come partially built—which save between 100 and 200 hours of work in the initial phases of building.
Now for some working examples:
House One: What you can get for $1,900 a month near Vancouver
THE LAND: Start in Valdes Island, a smaller island in the Gulf Islands, which is about an hour from downtown Vancouver. The island is beautiful and has much milder weather than you might expect. It’s great for kayaking and seeing moose and other moose-adjacent animals. Check out this five-acre plot of oceanfront land on the island for around $130,000. And it has beaches.
THE HOUSE: Hamill Creek Timber Homes offers a bunch of timber-frame options that are completely customizable. Remember, timber-frame homes are built to last. The base for the Rocky Mountain model has three bedrooms and three bathrooms, and it includes a master suite. It is completely customizable—you can add stuff like a finished basement for additional money. The base model comes in at about $380,000. All told, this house will cost about $510,000 American. With 20 percent down ($102,000), a 30-year fixed mortgage at 3.625 percent will net a $1,861 monthly payment for your 2,500-square-foot house on five acres.
House Two: What you can get for $80,000 cash near New York City
THE LAND: It’s easy to forget when you’re in New York City that in as little as two hours you could be at the beach, in the mountains, or somewhere in between. We found a one-and-a-half-acre lot in Shohola, Pennsylvania, near the Delaware River for $29,900.
THE HOUSE: This pre-built house from Zook Cabins—which is located nearby in Atglen—is called the Settler. It starts at $49,215.00 for 390 square feet of interior space. The price includes delivery, setup, and crane rental.
If you include the stone foundation, permits, and this wood stove from Home Depot, it’ll be a total of around $83,000. Totally fair for a slice of peace in the woods not too far away from the city.
House Three: What you can get for $150,000 in Northern California
THE LAND: This five-and-a-half-acre lot, complete with woods and a small brook, in the town of Ruth, California, near the Mad River is listed for $60,000. It’s a ten-minute drive from the idyllic Ruth Lake. Yes, it’s six hours north of San Francisco—near the Oregon border. So you if you live in the Bay Area, you should think of this as your place for a weeklong off-the-grid vacation experience rather than as a weekend house. But it’s a small fraction of the price of what you’ll find closer to home, and you won’t have to talk about anyone’s start-up.
THE HOUSE: Little House on the Trailer in nearby Petaluma builds beautiful custom, secondary homes—great as a little guesthouse, an artist’s studio, or in our case, a tiny cottage that would look awesome tucked beneath the giant Douglas fir trees in the Klamath Mountains on the California-Oregon border. For $90,000, you get a 20-by-40-foot house with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large living room, kitchen, and dining room. Included here are a hot-water heater and a dishwasher. The company was started by a guy named Stephen Marshall who dropped out of Stanford to start building tiny homes because he was so drawn to the lifestyle. He is interviewed in the documentary The Tiny House People, if you’re interested.
For $150,000, you can have a custom-built cottage in the woods on five and a half acres in Northern California. A 30-year fixed mortgage with 20 percent down comes out to $548 a month. The taxes are $864 a year.