Tell me what I need to know to build an (off grid) home

A few of my friends and I are discussing planning to pool our resources in retirement and build a home to grow old in.

One of the reasons we’re doing this is a paucity of relatives to rely on in old age (none of us have children), but also by pooling resources we’ll make our financial situation more secure. Let us worry about financing this thing, that’s not what I’m interested in researching here although information about costs (and cost controls) are welcome.

Yes, I’m aware there are risks in doing this. Assume the friendship will last, we will engage lawyers to sort out potential legal issues regarding ownership, survivorship, etc. in our planned state of residence. That’s not what I’m asking here.

What do we need to know about building a home?

Some of us are home-owners at present, but none of us has ever built a home before. I should add that will need to hire a contractor(s) to do the bulk of the work as none of us are going to be able to do this as a DIY project due to a combination of lack of building expertise and being middle-aged (I’m the youngest and in my late 50’s).

So… what do I/we need to do to get a home built in accord with our needs and desires? Pitfalls? Suggestions? Costs? How do you calculate costs for this sort of project? (Again, we’ll worry about coming up with the money if this looks feasible)

What do we need to know about building an off-grid home?

At present we are in a research/planning mode on this. We’re looking to see just how feasible this is and what would be involved in making it happen.

We have land. A number of acres owned free and clear, no encumbrances, no liens, clear title and deed. It is also completely undeveloped with no utility connections. If we opted for for “town” power/water/etc. we’d have to pay to have power lines, etc. laid. Which would be expensive. Actually, there’s zero option for “town” sewer, we have no option but septic. Linking to the grid will cost tens of thousands in this location due to needing certain infrastructure installed. There are other homes in the large general area. They are all off grid at present except for those in the nearest town. Yes, the neighbors are also a potential resource of information (they have been very good so far at discussing costs of a well/septic system) but (so far as I know) none of them are here and it’s here I’m asking.

So, since we’re doing this from the get-go, we’re looking into making this all off-grid from the start.

What can you tell us?

What you need to know about building an off-grid retirement home is that you will have little to no emergency services.

I don’t have much advice for you but I find the topic interesting. How many friends? Mrs. L and I thought it would be nice to build our retirement home but as you point out it costs money to get the water there, etc. OTOH if you’re dividing the cost among numerous friends…

Do you plan to build one large home in which you each have an area? I thought something like this would be interesting. You could each have your own space, but maybe have a common building where you come together if you’re feeling sociable or stay away if you don’t. As for when you die…your survivors could have it trucked away?

I have a fair amount of theoretical knowledge about this, but I’ve never done it myself. Decades ago, I bought 80 acres of high desert in Arizona, and I was planning on building a strawbale ski cabin on it, but never was able to find the time. But, I did a lot of research, and I have a lot of books on the subject.

When off-grid energy is mentioned, most people think of Solar, but depending on your location, wind power might be a better option, or a combination of wind and Solar. Hydro is rarely useful. Solar energy has come a very long ways in since the time I was looking at it, but battery technology still sucks. Putting enough solar panels up to provide your daily energy needs is pretty easy these days, but installing and maintaining a battery bank to store that power is still a pain. I’d recommend finding a local solar power firm and getting references from other off-grid clients they have installed.

Wells are generally the most straight-forward way to provide water, but if you are in a rainy area, a catchment system might work. Or, if you have access to a surface water source, maybe you can use that. Either way, you will need a treatment system.

Composting toilets are the way too go. If you are in a low-water area, consider a greywater system.

I recommend contacting other people who have gone off-grid in your area, and learn from their experience (and mistakes).

Water rights, even catchment, should not be assumed.

Energy, clean water and sewage will be your biggest problems.

Using solar can mitigate some of that but probably will not suffice for all of your needs. This can vary depending on where you live (cold climate vs warm climate…but as Texas showed us last year warm climates can be cold). So, while solar can maybe meet a lot of your power needs you will need some backup system to be safe. So, add in a propane generator and propane tank. Solar is never enough for AC that I have seen and struggles with electric cooking.

If you are not hooked to city mains you will need to have fresh water trucked in on a regular basis. I have never priced that out but I cannot imagine it is cheap.

And for sewage I assume you will need a septic system and will need that maintained too.

So, add the cost of septic trucks, propane trucks and fresh water trucks. Your cost savings start going out the window fast.

We are aware of that.

Leave it as our problem to worry about for purposes of this exercise.



Kitchen and a common room, with everyone having private space. One building due to wanting an option to stay indoors in the worst weather.

It’s an interesting problem as to what to do with the place when the last of us are gone since, as I said, we have no children but that’s not a question we need to pursue here.

Yep, we’re a lot further north than Arizona. I’m thinking a combo wind/solar might be our best option. Not quite as good for wind as where I’m currently living but then nothing is perfect.

A lot more rain than Arizona, for sure. We’re already thinking of using greywater to flush the toilet as that seems a fairly easy/obvious means of conserving water, not because water isn’t available but there’s a cost to pumping it out of the ground/treating it so why waste it? Well water will need a softener system. Rainwater not so much, but still filtration/maintenance/treatment cause cisterns can get nasty if neglected.

We’re still looking into options. Drawing water from the nearest surface water can be problematic, too. Although given the size of the local “surface water” lack of water should never be a problem.

Not a low water area at all, but we’re still considering a greywater system just to to make efficient use of the water we draw for our needs.

We are. Believe me, the Straight Dope is not the only group whose brains we are picking.

They are not assumed. The landowner researched this in August 2021. There are zero legal obstacles to utilizing rainwater. The landowner has water rights on the owned land. We’re looking into our options but we are confident we know the legalities of water in the area.

I’ve built 1 off-grid home (it was a while ago high in the CO mountains). We have grid-tied, net metered solar at our new home in MT. For the record, running about 800’ of 400 amp service and a transformer was about $20k. The 7.2 KW solar system was $21k before the tax credit.

The off-grid home I built was about 2500 square feet, super insulated, and south facing. It had a large solar array, a large lead-acid battery system, and a large propane generator. The generator ran way more than I expected.

Depending where you are, well and septic may be easy, but are unlikely to be too difficult. Well and septic designs are usually public record.

No problem; just stating the blindingly obvious for the record. I’ve known of people who hadn’t considered it.

Right on. Again, just something that I know people have overlooked.

Oh -
In case it isn’t obvious… “Passive Solar” home design is the way to go, in all environments.
This is super insulated, interior thermal mass, south-facing, shaded windows.
The definitive book on this is by Mazria.

Re: greywater. You’re not going to save electricity since you have to pump the greywater also. You’ll be adding the cost of a cistern, pump, and some extra piping. If you have water readily available it won’t cost out. The electricity needs of a well pump are pretty minimal.

Well… aside from building the structure in the first place…

Certainly I don’t see it as sufficient in the darkest part of the year (I have been examining various maps regarding solar and wind resources for the location). Being smart about energy usage and conservation, careful selection of appliances, and so forth can help a lot, but it’s looking like we can’t rely solely on solar.

We want to avoid that. There are several months of the year when getting more propane shipped in could be somewhere between problematic and impossible. Propane heating is an option, but sufficient propane to run a large enough generator to power a home along with sufficient for is not likely to be practical based on conversations with the locals.

The biggest concern is heating in winter. We can live with candles/oil lamps/whatever and get by without computers for awhile but absolutely heat in winter is critical. That’s what we need the backup for, not the lights and TV. European-descent people have been living in the area since the early 1800’s so staying warm in winter clearly is possible.

The place is going to have a LOT of insulation, that’s for darn sure.


Other locals not attached to fresh water do not require this.

Heck, I lived from 1998-2017 on a self-sufficient well-and-septic system.

Yep. As noted, I lived about 20 years with that system and even had the “privilege” of helping to maintain it on occasion. There is a honey wagon service available, otherwise we should be good.

You should only need a honey wagon every few years if you’re treating the septic system properly. Maybe propane trucks, maybe not. Won’t need “fresh water truck” at all. This is not a water-poor area at all.

I assume you will need to clean/filter the water that is collected. I know my water filters on my faucet in my home are expensive. I can’t imagine what it would cost to clean all the water I use. Perhaps you can only clean water you use for drinking/cooking but still…

And what happens in a drought? (Such as California has been going through for years…can you guarantee sufficient water from rain?)

That looks like a lot of prices we’ve been seeing for solar systems. I’m assuming power will be 20,000-30,000 (rather aim high than low on estimates). But we’d have to run MILES of cable to tie into the nearest utility grid. Not going to happen. I mean, there IS a nearby town, it’s not complete wilderness, but one of the things we’re talking about is a snowmobile so we can get to town in winter if we need/want to do so.

Oddly enough, we’re also looking at around 2000-2500 square feet and “super insulation”. We are looking into heating systems other than solar - solar is for electric power. I expected we’ll do a lot of inquiries with the locals. In town people have propane or electric. Some of the off grid are using propane and some are using wood/biomass. If they have propane they have a backup for it because winter deliveries can be problematic. Definitely we need to do more research. Pity geothermal is off the table, it would have been nice to have the option.

Thanks. We’ll look into that. Appreciate the reference.

You may want to look into hydronic heating systems. I have never used one but I have seen people who live in tiny homes and living in vans swear by it as an efficient system.

I don’t have the newest one of these, but it’s a good read/catalog chock full of ideas for off the grid living -

real goods solar living sourcebook

My Wife and I live pretty remote. A passive solar house. We do have electricity. And use propane to heat, though the sun helps a lot. I heated with a wood stove for years. But it’s a heck of a lot of work. A real lot.

We have a well and septic. Never had a problem in 30 years.

We got rid of our land line phone because it was so unreliable. I put a cell phone antenna on the roof which works. The switch over was surprisingly easy. We use a satellite dish for TV and internet. No other option there. But works great.

My Wife and I will be moving when we retire though for two reasons. The amount of snow we get will just become unmanageable. As it is, I have a plow truck and a tractor/loader to manage it. And as Snowboarder_Bo says, emergency services will become an issue (well, it always has been). Looking outside right now, there is no way an ambulance could get up our drive way. They could probably get to the bottom of our drive.

I’m going to have to plow today because it’s getting tricky getting up the drive for us. We both have 4 wheel drives.

We are fine with no restaurants and other services nearby. No UPS or FedX delivery. No trash pick up and no mail delivery. As you can imagine, getting a pizza delivered is right out :slight_smile: . These little things are easy for some to get used to, but can be a problem for others.

Another consideration is planning for the possibility of being in a wheelchair, or ambulatory but not easily able to handle stairs. So wide hallways, lots of space in the kitchen and common rooms and no need to go up or down stairs, not even at the entrance.

Google “aging in place” or “universal design”.

Very good point. And another reason why my Wife and I will be moving. Our house is two story and a loft for my office. So sort of three stories. When I had my hip replaced, I managed because there is a bathroom on the first floor, and we had a place to set up a temporary bedroom for myself.

Every door remodel/renovation I’ve done has included big doors for access. And I checked ADA requirements for bathrooms. Those grab bars really helped when I had my hip replaced.

I don’t know that you are asking the right questions yet. The first ones are:
Are you planning on doing all or some of this construction yourselves? If you are, do you have the requisite skills, which are very many? If you are not, triple the money you’ll need.

Do you have this money? You will need either a shit ton of savings or a construction loan, which may be impossible to get for an “experimental” home with multiple owners. Construction loans are also very high interest as they are risky, and are intended to be short term.

Have you ever lived all together before? Worked on a large physically strenuous project together? Coped with emergencies without access to any professional help?

Have you ever lived in a rural area before? Ever lived without city services before?

If the answer to any of these is no, then living off-grid isn’t your biggest challenge, not by a long way.

I’ve done all these things. Lived rurally for the past 45 years or so. Frankly, living off-grid is just another increment farther along the living rurally continuum. Generally rural homes have their own well, their own septic system. They often heat or supplement their heat with wood or pellet stoves.
Here in New England most heat is provided via a boiler which uses heating oil, delivered only a few times a year.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains and other parts of the mountainous West there are a lot of off-gridders. In the huge forest fires which are now almost continual, those houses all burn even when the other houses nearby are saved. Fire crews don’t know they are there. You really don’t want this to happen. Nor do you want to die simply because the EMTs can’t find your house. Have an address.