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Builds Own House : Short of Cash, She's Long on Labor of Love

May 15, 1988|DAVID W. MYERS | Times Staff Writer

When Kathy Kenny completes her rustic home in Topanga later this year, she'll be fulfilling a dream that seemed far out of reach when she decided "to finally put down some roots" just a few years ago.

But for millions of Americans shut out of the housing market by soaring prices, Kenny's tale is an example of what can be accomplished with just a small amount of cash and a whole lot of old-fashioned elbow grease.

Kenny started thinking about owning her own home in 1980, after returning to the United States from a 2-year sailing trip to Australia. Building a home instead of buying one sounded interesting and also practical: She didn't have the huge down payment it would take to purchase a house, and lining up tens of thousands of dollars in financing seemed impossible.

Bargain Property

She bought her Topanga lot, about 4 miles east of the ocean, for a mere $2,500 at an auction in 1983.

"I got the land cheap because everyone said it was unbuildable," Kenny says. "It was small, there was cactus all over the place, and the ground was sheer rock.

"Most people thought I was a jerk for buying it. But I figured I could get a house on there--as long as it wasn't too big."

A few months later, Kenny enrolled in a monthlong building course sponsored by the Owner Builder Center in Northern California. She and 19 other students--all men--built a house under the guidance of professionals hired by the home-building school.

Her enthusiasm fueled, Kenny paid a structural engineer $1,200 to help draw up plans for a one-bedroom home for her Topanga property. Still, it took 3 years to obtain a building permit from the Building and Safety Department, primarily because county geologists wanted proof that the ground under her proposed home wasn't susceptible to landslides.

It cost Kenny about $4,000 to hire private geologists to test the soil and convince the county that the land was stable enough to build on.

The building permit for the home was finally issued in May, 1986, and Kenny set about excavating the dirt to pour the foundation. She and a friend, Art Starz, started out with jackhammers and shovels. When they realized that the digging job was too big for them, Kenny hired two or three day workers and paid them $5 an hour to help out.

They completed the job--which one contractor had offered to do for $50,000--in eight weeks. Then they poured the cement foundation.

Building the wood frame of the house was fun, Kenny says, because she and her friend could see their progress daily. It took them about 500 hours to complete the framing, which one contractor said he'd do for $80,000.

Plumbing and Electrical

Cement piers were then built to support a driveway and carport, the septic system was set up, windows and doors were installed, and a fireplace with 30-foot chimney was put in.

Kenny even bought some "how-to" books and installed the plumbing and electrical systems herself. "So far, the county has approved everything I've done," she boasts.

Kenny estimates she and Starz have spent a total of 3,100 hours building the about 1,000-square-foot house; friends and relatives chipped in another 300 hours of work. About 250 more will be needed to finish the job.

The sailor-turned-home builder figures the entire project will wind up costing no more than $25,000. Kenny figures it would sell for about $200,000, but she has no intention of moving.

"Owning a home is nice, but building one is really satisfying," she says. "Sometimes I look around at this place, and I can't believe that I built it myself."

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