Man reviewing construction blueprints

Pride of Ownership

Feb 20, 2020
Empower Insights

How one couple built their own custom home - with cash

When Sam Castner and his wife decided to build a new home on his family’s eight-generation farm in upstate New York, they fell in love with a contemporary steel-truss “kit house” that had been featured on the cover of Architectural Digest. So they bought the kit for $20,000, then went to a local bank for a $150,000 mortgage to cover construction costs.

They prequalified for the loan — but a week into the paperwork, the bank changed hands, and the new management turned them down. “They said the house wasn’t ‘traditional’ enough,” recalls Castner, 44. “They were worried about resale value.”

Fed up with the loan process, Castner decided to build it himself, with cash — including the roughly $1,000 they would have put toward a monthly mortgage payment. A metal sculptor who also teaches art (his wife runs her family’s vineyard), he figured he could do most of the work on his own over time. But the kit proved too complex and expensive. Instead, working with the local zoning board and code officers, he came up with his own simpler design, which would use salvaged building materials.

Not having a mortgage has given us a lot more peace of mind

“We got a used trailer to live in, and started building,” he says.

Castner sourced steel beams from recycled highway guardrails. Lumber came partly from his own forest; a friend with a sawmill cut it to size in exchange for some of the timber. The four-by-eight-foot picture windows were salvaged from a car dealership. “I did all the cork floors and drywall myself,” he says, “mostly working nights.”

The 1,200-square-foot house went up in less than a year and cost about $50,000. Its open plan features ceilings as high as 20 feet, which might seem like an energy hog, but the massive windows generate passive solar heat. “In the winter when the sun comes up in the afternoon, the house heats up by 15 degrees,” says Castner. The rest of the heat is provided entirely by wood from the surrounding property.

Castner says that while building your own house isn’t for everyone, “the beauty of the internet is that someone has already done everything on YouTube. If you’re remotely handy, you’ve got all the instructions right on your phone.”

The money the Castners saved on mortgage payments allowed them to pay cash for an addition to the original house, which comes in handy now that they have four kids. Next up is finally building that kit house, which Castner plans to use as an art studio and classroom.

“Not having a mortgage has given us a lot more peace of mind,” he says. “In hindsight, I’m glad the bank turned us down.”

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