Picture of How to Build Dirt Cheap Houses
ziggy cob.jpg
Ever wonder how to build a simple home for very little money, without going into debt? The key is to use low-cost, locally available natural materials such earth, small diameter wood and straw to keep expenses to a minimum. The real fun is incorporating all of these methods into an optimum, comfortable, affordable home.

Our earthbag projects have confirmed what I’ve known for a long time – that building at $10/sq.ft. (materials only) or thereabouts is possible. Other aspects of earthbag building -- strength, durability, sustainability, etc. -- are all important. But perhaps the most important point is affordability, because building at $10/sq. ft. makes housing affordable to virtually everyone on the planet. The last page of this Instructable includes a list of $10/sq. ft. projects built by others.

A big reason for the growing popularity of earthbag building is its low cost. You can build shelters for under $1,000. For $1,000-$5,000 you could have a nice, small home that would outlast most conventional wood-framed houses, and be quieter, non-toxic and more comfortable.

Are you on an extremely tight budget? (Ha, who isn’t nowadays.) Then I suggest building small using local natural materials, building in stages and adding on as you can afford it. For instance, build one roundhouse and live in it until you’ve saved enough to build another. You could join the roundhouses with arched or gabled covered walkways, vine covered pergolas, enclosed passageways or additions, or just leave them free standing. Extending rectilinear structures (adding one room at a time) would be even easier. Building a little at a time like this requires planning ahead for future doorways and other considerations, but it enables you to build debt free.

Remove these adsRemove these ads by Signing Up
1-40 of 98Next »

I'm continually wondering why the building code mafia has any say over what I do on private property, especially if I build a house that is not connected to the electric utility, or sewer utility or water utility. If I have solar power, my own well/water supply, and composting toilets, where's the hook? I know the building code people fly under the guise of wanting to make sure the next people who might buy my land and house are "safe", but realistically, even if it isn't safe, the code people don't take responsibility for their bad approvals and inspections...they put it all back on the owner. So again, what do they really do besides collect fees and wield power? Answer: Not much.

I actually built an addition to my house after talking to the the building code people and being passed off to supervisor after supervisor all the way to the county attorney who still couldn't answer my question: "How can you legally issue me a valid building permit if I am not a contractor? You say that I have to get a permit from you in order to legally build an addition, and you say that I can build it as the owner of the property, but if you read the building laws in this state, a permit is not valid unless it has the very specific contractor information that is required. Issuing a permit to me, a guy who is not a contractor would make the person who issues the permit personally liable for a $5000 fine; which the law says is a mandatory fine." The county attorney couldn't answer that question and said that if I built without a permit then we would settle the matter in court. I told him that he knew my name and address and that he should stop by and watch me put hammer to nails. I also told him that he would look really stupid in court after I recount my conversation with him to the jury. I never saw or heard from them, even. They removed that part of the building code now, there is no specific provision requiring contractor information on says that part of the information can be filled in when available.

I think building codes have a place with respect to public access to public and privately owned large businesses. There is some merit there. But to make every Tom, Dick and Harry subject to their fees and approvals on private property is nothing but a tax to play scheme.

People have been building home for thousands of years, some of them still standing, and now you'd think that any structure erected without a government official tossing his blessings around and collecting his fees would fall instantly or poison the whole countryside.

Just my 2 cents.

I'll concede that in most places the process is ridiculous and overpriced (though in my own area it's all pretty reasonable). But I'd argue that future owners aren't the only ones at risk of shoddy work. A few years ago it was all over the news here locally when a deck collapsed during a family reunion. No one was killed, luckily, but there were severe injuries among both adults and children. It was discovered during the investigation that the owner-built deck was not up to code, there wasn't a permit issued, and hence, not an inspection done. The number of people on the deck was not at all unreasonable, had the deck been up to spec. Having previously worked in construction, and having dabbled in real estate investing, I can tell you I've seen a LOT of terribly executed owner construction. Sometimes the design itself is faulty (such as the aforementioned deck) and sometimes the design is fine, but the execution is faulty (wrong fasteners, wrong materials, etc). Philosophically, yes, it shouldn't be anyone's business what I'm doing on my own property. But when some shoddy work hurts or kills someone, that casts a whole new light on things. I know if I was hurt on your property due to some sort of accident like this, I'd have a very different perspective if your work was to blame rather than it simply being a bizarre accident or a materials failure. A jury would certainly view it in a different light.

I think that is the entire purpose behind tort claims and criminal negligence laws. It's nice to want to prevent any and all accidents, but who gets to draw the line at cost vs. risk? Maybe there should be insurance incentives instead of codes? Anyhow, I've also heard of code approved decks and houses and commercial buildings failing, burning, flooding, etc., is that liability, being approved by code inspectors, now on the country or the city? Nope, it stays with the owner and his insurance (if he has it) -even if the inspector was negligent. I'm more with Owen on this, I think freedom and disclosure and buyer beware are the best solutions we have... it sure beats the tax racket that building codes sure appear to be today. (I'm talking about private residential property here only, not commercial or industrial, or government buildings that the public frequents.)
A simple solution is to offer homeowners the option of not getting a permit for their home and small projects around the house like decks. This would have to be declared if they ever sold the property. Future buyers would be alerted and have the choice of either not buying or hiring a home inspector to see if everything is safe. This option would slash housing costs and enable many poor people to afford homes. It's particularly appropriate in poor areas and rural areas. Another option is to go back to what was done 100 years ago. Create a 25-50 page set of building guidelines instead of all the complex codes of today. It worked then and could work today. Again, give people options.
I agree and have written about this many times on our Natural Building Blog. It's a money making scam, and a way to control/intimidate people = wielding power. After complaining about it for years I moved to a rural area with no codes, no harassment, no problems. Now I can build whatever I want. Vote with your feet and your wallet.

The main reason for building codes initially was to prevent fires in cities. The initial codes were very short and simple common sense steps like "Wood chimneys are not allowed."
I really think there are three routes, move to a code minimized place, challenge their legal authority knowing you will be fighting your own tax dollars, or be as nice and friendly as you can to the local authorities and try to work with them. If you challenge them, do so in a "I'm stupid and just wondering sort of way" so that they don't just start throwing their authority around. But while doing so, use the actual law and words contained in the law. Ask them where definitions are, etc. That's all I did, and they couldn't defend, quote, or explain the law.

I'm not against building codes for commercial, industrial or government buildings where the public visits or works, but it makes no sense to put codes on private individuals, especially in light of our Constitution and rights. If we have to ask and pay for permission to build on our own land, and only build how government wants us to build, then it's not really private property is it?

I checked out your website and really like it. I can see we are cut from the same mold. Thanks. I'm sure it will be a great resource going forward in life. We are moving internationally soon and my goal is to be as debt and utility unenslaved as possible. We'll cross paths in life I'm certain!
0m1kr0n6 months ago

Frost lines change sometimes by city or smaller

All US States have residential zone structure requirement changes even down to city level, but at least by county

You have to have licensed contractors for every stage of building and approval everywhere else you can be legally made to stop or even demolish construction. At the very end every stage needs a licencor. Even if you're rural and finish the structure, contractor records are referenced by anyone who wants to research you or your property, and if it's a blank you can be forced to destruct.

These are the things the 'green' type blog posts on escaping society tend to totally ignore..

Owen Geiger (author)  0m1kr0n6 months ago

There are places in the US with few or no codes. There's even a book you can buy that lists them. Everything is explained in this blog post called Counties With Few or No Building Codes:

In most places you can actually build a structure with ANY foundation and design as long as it has no electrical or plumbing and is around 120sqft or less..

The trailer type houses are a DOT problem and once you get them legalized they are considered RVs. Which in best case scenario from the codes I've came across for different state, are only allowed temporarily and on a time-limit bases where there is a perminant structure being constructed and requires an additional permit that costs, unless you go through a commercial based application for recreational zoning the deeded lot.

I've yet to come across any city or county that has no codes and I've spanned the country.

I forgot to add in my original comment: Your contractors licenses are audited by a final inspector in most places and even if they are all legit it's super easy to fail.

there are no building codes in Dent county Missouri unless you live in or near any city or town.

0m1kr0n 0m1kr0n6 months ago

Just to add: I'm no expert by no means, I'm a owner/builder who has dug into city and county laws with the help of some agents and attorneys in various states. I'm interested in what others know on the subject and love to be told I'm wrong with explanation.

Also, I'm an engineer but not licensed to build. I may be looking in to getting the licenses to do a complete home build on my own. I know I won't be able to do electrical though because you need to be licensed for that which takes a four-year apprenticeship and you have to basically beg electricians to do do that and they are typically grumpy.. You would be amazed what you can do by just learning foundation design and concrete work though(there is only like one quality book in existence on the subject).

kaboomx4 0m1kr0n4 months ago

in texas there is no restrictions if building is under 1000s and on owned property.

Owen Geiger (author)  kaboomx44 months ago
There are lots of places with lots of exceptions. Read our blog post Counties with Few or No Building Codes.
BenniGholami3 months ago

There are some village areas in the Phuket area which are reminiscent of cheap housing, although definitely not as well built as some of these. If these houses are for sale or at least the techniques of how they were built are shared, these people might get a good chance at a better and cleaner standard of living I think!

Owen Geiger (author)  BenniGholami3 months ago
Good, common low cost housing methods in Thailand include recycled wood, CEBs, bamboo, thatch and adobes. A family built a small but nice adobe home near Khon Kaen for $100. My girlfriend saw it on TV and called me to come watch. Keep looking around and you'll find projects like this.
Owen Geiger (author) 6 months ago

Put a layer of gravel under the floor with a perforated vent pipe that vents through the soffit or roof, then plastic sheeting on top then your floor. Talk to local builders for details if necessary.

In some places the building code involves a gap between the foundation and the ground in case of radon gas. How would you solve this?

wmlaveck1 year ago
Sounds like a great way to build a home, however in Indiana, USA we have to deal with building codes and permits.
Owen Geiger (author)  wmlaveck1 year ago
Contact They can supply plans or tweak my plans at Earthbag House Plans to meet code.
please can you advise,,Im in the process of selling my place,ready to buy a piece of land but the money to build a regular house is not there,in other words,the budget is very tight,I want to build some thing around the 1200 sqft including in it two porches and no garage,,,I would like to either build or have some one build one of your earth bag houses,but there may be a problem with the county codes etc,,please advise,how can I have one of your houses build.,thanks
Owen Geiger (author)  cking347 months ago

It all depends on your code situation. Rural areas with minimal codes are by far the best, lowest cost places to build with alternative materials such as earthbags.

Owen Geiger (author)  wmlaveck7 months ago

Yes. We always recommend moving to rural areas with few or no codes. You can build at 1/10th the cost this way.

Hi Owen! I have LOVED the idea of an earthbag house for awhile now! My small family of 3 is in desperate need of a place of our own. We're sharing a bedroom in a family member's house... 3 of us crammed in one hot tiny 10x10 room is getting OLD. I would like to know if these types of homes stand up to hurricanes ok? Everyone is telling us to get a trailer, but they're trashy and you *have* to evacuate when there's a hurricane (I live in Florida). I was thinking of purchasing a lot and eventually building one of these homes on that lot. But I don't know how I can convince anyone that this is worth the time and money, as much as I think it is. Have any helpful advice or links? Thanks!

Owen Geiger (author)  histechnoangel7 months ago

Earthbag structures can definitely withstand hurricanes if they're built correctly. The problem is the codes in Florida (and California, etc.) are super strict and it's hard to get earthbag houses approved unless you spend a lot of money on engineering and extra steel and concrete. We always recommend moving to rural areas with few or no codes. You can build at 1/10th the cost this way.

threiner7 months ago

I like that type of building , but the local buildings authority told me that there is no way to build that here in Spain... Any advice on this?

Zdaddy3 years ago
The problem I am facing is where to build. I've seen countless of very cool and interesting alternative home building methods. So I know I am capable of doing it and I'm not ever going to be out of ideas.

I bought 0.25acres of land in the mountains about 45 mins away...only to find out there is no where in my state that you can get away with this kind of living. Luckily I was able to back out of the deal due to the seller not disclosing certain things to me as the buyer, I got my money back. That was a close call!

There is a case right now in San Diego of a man that is being evicted from his land even though he is paid in full and paid his taxes for over 20 years, the new neighbors just dont like that he lives in a mud hut on his acreage. It devalues their home. The city is backing up the neighbors.

I've been running this through my mind for years now and unless I leave the state or build in secret away from prying eyes (which wont ever happen, too much risk and at least in CA there are eyes everyhwere) or buy property and submit building permits (ha! Good luck!) then I can't build my own sand bag home. All californians are doomed to live strapped down to rent (100% interest home) or a mortgage which makes you a slave to the bank.

What we really need is an instructable on how you can make it possible to build homes like these.
Owen Geiger (author)  Zdaddy3 years ago
We have a blog post on Counties with Few or No Building Codes. It's our most popular topic, so obviously people are interested in learning more about this.

The blog post lists some of the best areas and some general advice. Be sure to read the comments. In general, there are lots of areas in the western US where you can build with earthbags, and other areas too.

California is probably the most difficult state to deal with. Any highly populated state is difficult. We always suggest building in rural areas with few or no codes. I don't know how else to explain it. It's more of a personal journey one has to go through. Everyone's opinion about climate, geography, town size, etc. is different. You'll have to figure out what works for you.
Where did this blog/url go in your above response , Owen? I copied and pasted , and looks like it has been moved. Did a search , found it in older posts and still cannot open. Would love to read up on this and see where may be the best place to go! Thanks!
Thank you for the links Owen! You seem passionate about this, its an inspiration. I wont give up! :)
Owen Geiger (author)  Zdaddy3 years ago
The other alternative is hiring an engineer to stamp your plans. The only engineer at this time is Precision Structural Engineering, Inc. Their engineer stamp will enable you to build virtually anywhere.

However, be forewarned. Code approved structures will cost significantly more than ordinary earthbag houses. Way more. About several times the cost.
gsolano2 years ago
Thanks. I just can't imagine how it could cost more. We'd like to build the Torus. There are 6 of us. What would be the rough cost of just the building, not interior, cabinets, etc.
And how long would it take to build something of that size with 7 workers, for instance?
Thanks again.
Owen Geiger (author)  gsolano2 years ago
See How Much Will My House Cost?

Other common questions (FAQs):
gsolano2 years ago
Thank you so much for this fantastic info. I really want to build an earth bag home. I'm confused by the price per sq foot. I've seen many posts that say that it is much more affordable than a traditional home but when I've called some builders, they've told me they cost the same or more. And that's with only paying the builder as a consultant and all volunteer labor. I was so excited that we could build and be somewhat debt free and now I'm depressed. :( Please advise.
p.s. I realize that you could spend $100 on a doorknob or $5. I am really talking about the basic home; walls, roof, basic doors, windows, earth floor. I can do cabinets and interior over time. Thank you for your help!
Owen Geiger (author)  gsolano2 years ago
Why would you believe a builder who says the cost would be the same if you use all volunteer labor? He's obviously going to pocket the difference! Come on! And who said you need a builder (contractor)? Why not hire a carpenter guy who's low on work? Make sure he's reliable, of course. Don't advance them any money. Take out the building permit yourself so you are the owner builder. If he screws up, let him go and get someone else.
Owen Geiger (author)  dexterm1222 years ago
You don't need GPS. That's the ultra modern, high end equivalent of transits. And besides, it's probably best to pay professional surveyors to ensure it's done correctly.
ttaichi2 years ago
Hi Owen! I need help.My family and i want to build a earthbag house in Serbia.Please tell me how to set the water heater to this type of house?Please answer me on
Thank you very much!
sasham ttaichi2 years ago
Skip earth bags, and come to Vojvodina (area of Serbia) where there are countless superior earthen homes, beautifully designed and skilfully built.
Owen Geiger (author)  sasham2 years ago
How do you know they're superior? Have you carefully studied earthbag building and visited lots of earthbag projects? How many hours have you spent on research?

That said, you can learn a lot from traditional building methods. I like to learn from the old ways and apply a bit of modern ingenuity to make something even better.
xaderz2 years ago
Not only do I love your instructables, but what you stand for. Thank you for making all this available to the public for free. By the way I love love the project you are working with.
Owen Geiger (author)  xaderz2 years ago
Thank you very much! Please spread the word.
1-40 of 98Next »