Almost everyone doubted Cara Brookins, a single mom from Arkansas with no construction experience, could build a house for her family. But thanks to a couple of lucky breaks, a few online tips for building a house and her four kids’ remarkable determination, the family created their gorgeous home from the ground up, literally!
The project was inspired by a house she saw at the side of the road during a vacation. It had been destroyed by a tornado, the insides ripped open for inspection.
“I pulled over to look at it, and it didn’t look complicated. A board, nails, sheet rock. I thought: ‘I bet I could build a wall.’”
The DIY-loving family assembled more than just one wall. Equipped with the internet, a hand-me-down construction book and some tips from experienced neighbors, she and her kids built a 3,500 square foot home while working and going to school fulltime.
“Once we got started, it was 1,000 times harder than we expected,” she said. “We had no choice but to go forward.”
But Brookins is convinced that anyone with enough motivation can build a home from scratch, although where you build and how much time you have will greatly affect the outcome.
“We literally built ourselves better lives,” she added.
If you want to learn her tips for building a house, then keep reading. The story is nearly as amazing as the woman telling it.
Constructing a Foundation for the Future
Every great house starts the same, with a sturdy foundation and a plan. It seemed like a metaphor for Brookins’ life when she started building her home’s base. She was starting at the bottom and wanted to make sure she would stay solid and strong for the rest of her life.
“I found myself divorced with four kids, and I had to start from scratch,” she said.
But Brookins didn’t know the first thing about drawing house plans or pouring a foundation, or continuing on from there, so she kept the design simple and did her homework.
“I needed a house plan that was one box on top of the other box,” she said.
She couldn’t find an already-drawn plan and decided to create her own. So the tech-by-trade professional headed to her comfort zone: The internet.
“I Googled every step of this,” she said. “We started looking up how to draw houses plans and regulations in the city and state. What sort of codes and what kind of inspections to expect.”
Brookins began planning her home in 2007, long before DIY videos on YouTube became a trend. But she watched what clips she could find and printed out stacks of instructions from websites.
“When we were figuring out how to plumb a house, a smartphone would have been amazing,” she said.
“It would have taken a lot of errors out of what we did.”
Only one bank approved Brookins for a construction loan. She received the six-figure loan in payments, so the bank could inspect her progress with the city during her nine-month deadline.
And after they green-lit each stage, she asked “What are you going to inspect next?” and used their answers to create a project to-do list.
Today, DIY builders can find several online home building checklists, although everyone’s project will likely differ.
Inspiring Teamwork to Finish the Project
After breaking away from an abusive marriage that ended in a difficult divorce, Brookins wanted a positive project to help strengthen her family’s bond. She wasn’t sure what.
“I didn’t anticipate it would be a house!” she said.
But the group worked together like never before to put a new roof over their heads in less than a year. And they were very practical in their approach.
Her 15-year-old son manned the nail gun, while her daughters, 11 and 17 at the time, marked the wood for mom to saw to size. Her two-year-old toddler was the cutest foreman a construction site could ask for. Together, they lifted the heavy walls.
“The plumbing and gas lines I did myself, but I had to hire contractors for the electric and HVAC, because the City would not let me do those,” she said.
Brookins also hired professionals to finish the roof and construct her home’s brick façade.
She said it’s important to ask city officials a lot of questions before connecting utilities.
“It was a lot of research and learning,” she said. “I learned more about sewer lines than I ever imagined.”
Unfortunately in many urban areas, like Los Angeles, Brookins would not be able to build her own home without a contractor’s license. This puts a lot of low-income families, or single moms like Brookins, in a tough housing spot.
The nonprofit Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles recently had 2,000 families interested in one affordable housing project it was building.
“The biggest hurdle for these families is money,” said Darrell Simien of Habitat LA. “Empty lots are going for at least $150,000, and that’s just plain, ol’ dirt. Then add in the cost of soil reports, permits and materials that cost about $40 per square foot.”
Brookins said she built outside a neighborhood to avoid additional regulations, and she cut the cost of materials by buying clearance and discount bulk items.
“My work boots were small, because those were the ones on sale,” she said. “And we built the house mostly out of tools typically used for small-home repairs.”But just like Brookins, many of the Habitat L.A. homeowners (who must dedicate between 200 and 500 hours to construction) come to build sites with no experience and start hammering nails, installing insulation and painting walls for their dream home.
“It’s so empowering to literally build something bigger than yourself,” she said.
Motivating Others to Build a Better Life
It wasn’t Brookins’ plan to write her memoir Rise: How a House Built a Family, which was published earlier this year by St. Martin’s Press. But she’s now travelling the country and inspiring others to build their dreams.
“Writing a book about my life was way harder than building a house,” she said. “I grew up introverted, and now I’m a motivational speaker. It’s really hard.”
But she was used to hard work by the time she moved in to her home. And she and her family became more assured as their project progressed.
“We were working 19- and 20-hour days while they were going to school and I was working fulltime,” she said. “I was waiting for these teenagers to wake up and give up one morning, but they never quit.”
The thought of having their own rooms at the end of the project may have just been one of the many motivations.
While her kids carried sacks of granite to pour into the 1,500 cinder blocks that made her foundation, the family became stronger – both physically and mentally – every day.
Brookins and her family made plenty of errors along the way, but they learned that mistakes happen, and they didn’t let that get them off track.
“Sometimes, it’s just about ripping it out and doing it over,” she said. “There’s a room upstairs that’s not supposed to be there.”
And it’s rare that any DIY home build comes out perfect the first time, said Gaius Hennin, an engineer and Shelter Institute instructor who built his own home in rural Maine.
He teaches a two-week crash course on home building for average Joes, and Janes, like Brookins.
“We don’t just teach people the building code, but empower them to think about why things get done and how they should be done,” he said. “It’s getting harder to build a house (because of increasing regulations), but I feel like if anyone is committed to building a house, they can do it.”
With the right tools and motivation, Brookins proved that anyone can build the right home after enough research.
“Coming of age stories are always about a journey,” she said. “They’re about building something or going somewhere, never about sitting on the couch.”
Photos courtesy of Cara Brookins