How I Built This Off-the-Grid Cabin for Under $15,000

Tim Tedesco is a Catskills, NY based designer, woodworker, cabin builder, and project manager. If you are a builder or designer that would like to be featured on FARM + LAND, e-mail us here.

When my friend and I bought a 5-acre plot of land in the Catskills, we were going to wait to build anything until there was a well thought out plan in place. However, living in Brooklyn at the time I couldn’t wait for the weekend so I can escape from my nine to five and go up to the property to be in nature. Sleeping in a 35 square foot homemade camper on the weekends was fun for a few months, but I wanted something more – so I jumped right in.

Building a cabin, no matter how small, for under $15,000 doesn’t come without free labor and a lot of sweat

Luckily, I have been designing and building furniture and interiors for over a decade in NYC. I have a vast array of hand and power tools and the experience to go with them. But when working on a property at the top of a small mountain with no electricity, most of those tools can’t be used.

There are two tools that are essential to building any structure

A saw, like a hand saw or circular saw, and a tool to fasten wood together. That can be a hammer to drive nails or an impact driver (screw gun) to drive screws. While using a hand saw and hammering every nail in by hand would make me feel closer to the process of creating my own cabin, I went with the battery-operated circular saw and impact driver. I went with the brand Makita. Their cordless circular saw and impact driver retail for approximately $150. This meant that the entire cabin would be built with screws instead of nails. Generally, screws have a low shear strength, meaning they break in half easily if there is movement in the structure. Nails have a very high shear strength. I chose to use the brand Spax, which make their screws with a much higher shear strength than a normal screw. A 5-pound box of their screws retail for about $30 (I used about ten boxes building this cabin).

Think about what  function the cabin will serve

We wanted something where two people could spend two days at a time, year-round,  and be able to take in all the nature around them while inside the cabin. This meant choosing the perfect location on the property, adding insulation, and installing as many windows as possible. I walked the property and chose a location on the edge of a small outcropping of rocks overlooking the back half of the 4 acre property. The bedrock was at the surface of the ground, so I didn’t need to worry about movement of the footings due to freeze and thaw cycles in the soil and placed the concrete footings directly on the rock. I stood on the ground in the center of where the cabin would be and chose the best angle for the cabin to get the best views. This determined the exact placement of the cabin. The outcropping of rocks below and the 8-foot drop-off directly in front of the cabin created a loft-like feeling of being at the edge of a mountain in the wilderness.

I was ready to start building

On a shoe-string budget, I decided a big-box-store would be the most economical way of getting all the materials needed. Creating a materials list using a spreadsheet is crucial to knowing exactly how many studs, sheets of plywood, roofing panels, etc. you’ll need (organizing all your building plans ahead of time is also key to staying within budget). I used standard 2-by-4 studs and half inch plywood to build the shell on a platform built with 2-by-12 pressure treated boards, much like an outdoor deck would be built. 

The windows

I went to a supplier called Sunshine 39 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The aluminum-framed, double-pane glass, three-foot by six-foot tall windows were only $120 each. There were twelve windows in total. The metal roofing was a special order from Home Depot and cost only $400. I constructed the shower using a round galvanized tub, which came from a local farm store for $20. Using PEX tubing for the plumbing, I was able to create a shower for under $100. I added a small electric hot water heater, bought on Amazon for $100, in the PEX line for future use in case the property acquired electricity.

The kitchen

I constructed a butcher block countertop from a desk I took apart. All of the cabinetry and trim in the cabin was built using rough-cut boards bought from a neighbor who milled them in his backyard. The sink, refrigerator, and 2-burner stove all came from Amazon. I found a wood-burning stove on Craigslist, refinished it, and installed it for under $300.

Moving in

After a few months of sleeping in the mattress-sized, homemade camper I had previously built, a lot of sweat, and no electricity, I had a cabin overlooking our beautiful 5-acres of forest in the Catskills. I staged the cabin with furniture I had previously designed and built, along with some items acquired at antique shops and thrift stores. Armed with the proper motivation, skill, and creative thinking, I was able to finish the cabin within budget, on time, and enjoy it for the rest of the season. 


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