never built a house before, but thought, why does it have to be so complicated?
150 years ago
people did it on the middle western plains, in the forests of the Oregon
territory, and elsewhere in the THEN wonderful USA. They built their
homes out of sod, timber, bricks, even straw bales.
to 21st Centrury America--housing is a nightmare of regulations, high
priced materials, impossible building standards, and vastly inflated prices.
You sign your life away when you get (if you qualify) a 30 year mortgage,
paying possibly up to 3 times the original purchase price in bank interest,
taxes, and minimal improvements/maintenance.
No wonder people
with any common sense want to skeedaddle out of the USA, for these reasons
alone. And no wonder so many are homeless, or threatened with being
When I tried
to build my strawbale house in Washington state in 1995, I naively thought
I could convince everyone it made sense.
to make sure I wasn't sticking too much of my neck out, I hired an
architect (and he had an engineer), played politics with the local building
official and county supervisors, and gained the blessing of the subdivision
developers. It all came to naught, and I lost EVERYTHING--home, land,
wife and business.
But just as
I would advise you to have an escape option from the U.S. today in the
form of foreign real estate, I had a lease lot in a resort in Baja Mexico.
And they were starting to embrace strawbale building as eminently sensible
in many ways--SO MANY ways that 100 plus such dwellings exist there today,
from modest to luxury.
I got started
with a foundation and storage building three months on my 80x80 lot
after flopping in Washington. The lot cost $1800 with septic in,
the foundation was $1500, the storage building about $500. There
the project stood for three years while I tried to jump start my life again.
After I remarried
I put $6000 together and that was enough to hire a local Mexican contractor
to raise walls, stucco the inside and outside, and instlall window and
door frames. I was less than $10,000 into the project and was at roof level
roof I built with scrap lumber for another $1000-$1500 or so. A couple
more thou got me a basement, basic pvc plumbing, and a small solar electric
system. There is now 1000 sq. ft under a flat roof--you figure out the
cost per sq. ft.
And it WASN't
so complicated, though challenging in parts. The plumbing
was the biggest headache and I'm still without enough pressure for the
toilet, or dependable hot water. Sealing the entire house from dust,
rodents, snakes and ants has been tricky, but they are mostly at bay now.
this house when you still spend 90% of your time stateside has been
taxing and frustrating, but what can I say--it's now basically done,
and impressive with just a few rough edges. My cost annually: $450
for dues to the resort! That's it.
I never thought
I'd ever have to keep up with the Joneses in Mexico, but the downside of
this project is that the resort has almost been TOO successful, and salespeople
are selling lots and houses to disenchanted Americans (and snowbiridng
Canadians) at a brisk pace. Prices have doubled, easily.
The sales guys
cruise by my neighborhood regularly. San Felipe may one day have
the feel of Cabo North.
house in fits and starts is messy (had a had the $$ I wouldn't have). It
has been a challenging to keep the exterior, and grounds, attractive
even though it has been an ongoing Construction Site.
There is a
definite possibility I will be able to get clear title in the near future
as the laws are changing. (Right now I have a renewable 60 year lease).
Century 21 and Remax have offices here and, unless the Mexican government
shoots itself in the foot, us "prosperous" gringos are here to stay.
can't imagine ever selling this, unless I lose my good health (in Mexico
I always feel great). I am writing an advance medical directive to
make sure my kin do not force me out of my "castle" for superfluous reasons--THIS
is the place to retire for so many reasons--cheap labor, low crime,
generally balmy weather, outdoor recreation, proximity to U.S., friendly
natives and spectacular scenery. I fell in love with it long before
I had even turned the sand over for footings.
I just can't
wait to start living here at least a few months out of the year.
It all began
about ten years ago -- though I’d once been to San Felipe on the Sea of
Cortez in my first marriage, it was only in late 1989 or 1990 that I bit
on a invitation from an outfit called El Dorado Ranch Estates to get a
“free” lot in a soon to be spectacular seaside resort just north of town.
I said, what
the heck, for only $28 a year I could get the “free” lot plus a membership
that entitled me to the amenities at a soon-to-be-built swimming pool,
cantina, stables, on site campground, etc. If the lot actually
existed, and was buildable, well, at the age of 43, it was more than
I owned at the time, having recently gone through a divorce.
later learned that thousands -- maybe hundreds of thousands -- of these
invitations had gone out to gringos all over North America. We all
were told we had won a prize -- either the lot or a synthetic diamond ring,
I think. Having at least BEEN to San Felipe, I figured the lot could be
more valuable -- I remembered the place as kind of a “poor man’s Hawaii.”
I’m sure many said it must be a scam just to get your annual $28 dues,
and opted for the ring--or tossed the package with its fancy photos in
later I have to tell you I may have lucked into the deal of a lifetime
-- and those deals don’t come along very often. I’ve owned real estate
since, and presently live in a very amiable part of the California right
now, but if you’re nearing retirement age and love the idea of residing
inexpensively and well -- at least part-time -- in coastal Mexico,
Ranch Estates did, as promised, build a pretty spectacular resort (and
is still abuilding, with a hotel planned). The “free” lots were there,
but as you may have guessed they were pretty UNspectacular -- ten miles
from the main highway off a dirt road, totally impractical for all but
the kinds of folks enamored of a “Survivor” type lifestyle.
BUT I, among
a few hundred others, eventually “traded up” to some lots, at $425 a year
and $1500 initial price, which were close to the resort (and town), and
which eventually had a paved road to them, with a water view. And
it was on these lots where many of us over the years began our casas--out
of block, brick, wood or stone; from as lowly a start as a trailer on a
And then there
were those folks, I among them, who around 1996 or so heard about the burgeoning
interest in Straw Bale Construction at El Dorado Ranch Estates.
- Written some time earlier than above
The road that
led to El Dorado is described in some detail in my book, People's Guide
to Basic Solar Power, available at powerfromsun.com
I first became acquainted with strawbale in Washington state, where
I planned a home for my then wife
|I had the
lot in Baja at the time, just hadn’t built anything on it. The Washington
house was to go up in the summer of 1996, and all kinds of official interference
brought down our dreams. When I heard that El Dorado was experimenting
-- indeed, embracing -- the method, it made sense to shift our focus out
of the states. (Now, however, strawbale construction has become code
in many regions of the U.S.).
of money after the fiasco in Washington state, I still was able to get
plans approved for about 900 sq. ft. at El Dorado, and put in a foundation
and 10x12 storage building.
collapsed over the failure in Washington state, and over the next two
years or so I could do little more, but it was a start. I could still
visit, camp on the land, and use the resort. Which I did, maybe a
dozen times. When I met Eleanor I wooed her partly on the promise
of a regular Mexican vacation--fortunately she loved the place, at least
for a week or so at a time. I hired local contractors -- sometimes
on an hourly basis, sometimes on a job basis, to keep the house project
moving. But it was hard doing this from the states, for a variety
Even for those who have heard of it, this is a very misunderstood technique.
As in the Three Little Pigs story, a house CAN be made out of straw--but
as in the story, it’s the first to be blown down by the Big Bad Wolf.
NOT strawbale, however. Basically, the walls of the house are made
of stacked 2’x3’ rectangular thick tightly wound bales. Each
weigh 50 to 80 pounds or so, so no wind--even a hurricane--is going to
move them very far. They are stacked on a wide concrete foundation,
pinned together (with rebar), further stabilized by chicken wire, and heavily
stuccoed over. The finished wall looks much like the walls of an
Walls go up
so fast using this method that whole houses have gone up from foundation
to roof level in a day with a few workers toiling away in a cooperative
manner. This was how I PLANNED to do my house in Washington state.
You can imagine
that a straw bale doesn’t cost very much considering how large a building
block it is (mine were about $3.50 each). Insulation value is R50-60,
excellent for places with extremes in temperatures.
get into the 100’s in the summer. As long as cool air can
be brought into the building at night, it is likely to stay relatively
cool during the day. This, however, is something you have to
experiment with. My not quite completed house has a basement from
which I plan to draw cool air--Baja nights don’t always cool down. Even
if I wanted to I couldn’t run air conditioning --my community is not electrically
powered and my planned for solar electric system doesn’t have the capacity
to do more than run lights, pumps, electronics and possibly a very small
house has been a great adventure. Whenever I go down I try to work
on it, and I know a Mexican family that has helped out steadily under my
supervision. Many have hired contractors to just get a house up in
a couple months or less--I couldn’t afford to to that. If I spend
$25,000 on the entire house, well, I’m going to have a rustic but very
comfortable getaway. Comparable homes are costing maybe $50,000 to
$75,000 at present. Some luxury, two-story strawbale houses have even been
built, and they are in the $100,000-$150,000 range.
I once had
the dream to live in the Baja during the mild months, maybe even seven
or eight months out of the year. I don’t think that will happen anymore,
but I do feel a couple weeks two to three times a year, and maybe a month
at a time every so often, is possible. I see the place as somewhere
I can go if I can no longer afford to live in the U.S., and/or want to
be away from various pressures and threats. I would certainly consider
living here as my primary residence if and when my life changes after I
truly become a senior citizen. There is excellent dental care locally,
and a responsive medical community targeted to the aged--in fact, a hospital
and clinics are being built just for us gringos. Hopefully, the management
at El Dorado won’t change radically, and the land, under a bank trust called
a fidiecomiso (and with title insurance now available) will legally stay
mine for the 60 years promised (and beyond).
Over the years
I’ve tried to lure people down here to see for themselves. It’s usually
a waste of time. Then again, there was the couple who came--the husband
needed dental work ($10,000 estimate in the states) which he got locally
for $2000. He was delighted, and fell instantly in love with the
area. When my sons were teenagers they loved to come down to party--at
our expense--but most adults have irrational fears of Mexicans, the border,
a foreign language, the water, etc. Believe me, most are simply
For a couple
of years I ran one week informal tours down here for people just
interested in getting the lay of the land and having some fun. Everyone
loved them and they were cheap, around $100 a person with accommodations(!)
I could possibly be enticed to do them again if you have a ready-made group
that is looking for an adventure --testimonials on file. (A Boy Scout group
once arranged to do this). Contact me at email@example.com
or (805) 924-1719.
But don’t bother
to call me to ask a lot of detailed questions, please. The proof
is in the pudding. I’m not trying to sell anything. I just
get satisfaction showing people around, and sipping margaritas together
in the hot tub or at the cantina...
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