Yes, you can build a house for $20,000

Architecture students take on affordable housing in rural Alabama as a class project. So far, they've designed 10 interesting, inexpensive homes.

By Teresa at MSN Real Estate Jul 27, 2011 12:41PM

Photo courtesy of Daniel Wicke/Rural Studio, Auburn University Six years ago, a group of Auburn University architecture students were presented with a challenge: Could they build a house that people dependent on public assistance in rural Hale County, Ala., could afford?

From that challenge, the $20,000 house project was born.


Since 2005, the students participating in the university's Rural Studio have designed and built 10 different $20,000 houses, which have gone on to become homes for people who previously had lived in substandard housing. The students have kept in touch with the residents to see how they use the homes, to further refine the designs.


"We came up with the number $20,000 because it is the amount people on government assistance could actually afford to pay – the mortgage is only around $100 a month. Also, the homes would be an investment for the person, appreciating in value over time," Andrew Freear, the Rural Studio's director, said in an interview for the university website. "We are trying to get these houses to be built by a contractor, so it is actually about $12,000 in materials and about $7,000 to $8,000 in labor and profit. That was the challenge we put to ourselves."


The first house was about 780 square feet. The most recent house measured 530 square feet, plus a large porch.


The $20,000 houses may be smaller than your standard double-wide trailer, but they are superior in a number of ways. They are more energy-efficient, which means lower utility bills, important to people struggling to get by on limited incomes.

They are also sturdier and don't deteriorate and lose value as quickly as a trailer does.


Post continues below


The latest $20,000 house was featured in The Wall Street Journal. It was built in a square rather than a rectangle because it's more economical to build that way and cheaper to heat because the furnace is in the middle. And it looks less like a trailer.

Freear talked to Krista Tippett of Public Radio International's "Speaking of Faith" program a few years ago about

how the students work with the clients who will inhabit the houses. He explained it this way:
"For my students, we don't really talk about it being charity, I'll be actually frank to you. The, what we see as being the exchange that's taking place here is that our client is a good and willing and interested and observant and rigorous and questioning client. And that's the privilege that we have in that situation. Yes, we will work with you. We want to listen to you. We want you to be very critical about what we do. Don't just say give us anything. 

"And we work with people who don't know what an architect does, so we have to educate them as to what an architect can bring to a situation. We educate them to understand drawings, to engage in a conversation about spaces, to engage in, you know, the question of, what do you want? When people have never been asked what they want. We make lots of models. We make lots of perspectives, so people can begin, or at least try to begin, to imagine themselves in that place, because they have never been asked to do that before. They've never been asked to imagine before. And that's an amazing situation to be in as a student, I think."  

The Rural Studio hasn't yet come up with a $20,000 house that can be easily replicated nationwide, but the students are working on it.

May 9, 2014 3:01PM
I think they are asking the wrong question.  It should be: Why are so many people on government assistance??
Apr 13, 2014 7:06AM
Can't do this in my town of 3,500 people. Code says new houses in existing neighborhoods must be a minimum of 800 square feet ON THE MAIN FLOOR. Houses in the new neighborhoods MUST be a minimum of 1200 square feet ON THE MAIN FLOOR with at least a two car garage, preferably 3.
Mar 28, 2014 4:25PM

how can I get in contact with you I purches a land in Georgia and I am trying to build on but my finance is low can you help me

Mar 6, 2013 7:34AM
Dec 3, 2012 7:06AM
I have been reading about people buying shipping containers and turning them into homes. They can go from $2,500 and a bit more depending on whether they are insulated/refrigerated.  To keep it  cheap you would have to do  the insulating and cut out doors/windows yourself so you need to be handy, otherwise, contractors would have to step in  and  then you are over your budget!   But first you have to buy land, or acquire land * (whether a family member lets you build in their yard or somehow you find cheap land that you can work within your budget)

This may be the best bet. There are two in Atlanta where I reside, that ended up being a very modern pair. The mortgage was calculated at $2,200.00 a month, because is in prime real estate (in actuality this neighborhood was shady but in the last 3 years modern homes and better  income bearing residents have bought distressed property and renovated)  plus architects, etc were involved....( My boyfriend is pretty handy and he is a mechanic, I can see how this would be feasible except we are renting and live paycheck to paycheck so saving for 1. a desirable location piece of land and 2. 3 containers plus materials would be a difficult task now. I really want to do it, but you know how it goes!  We live in  Virginia Highlands where homes start at $350k and up! but we can rent cheap and walk to all the entertainment/prime restaurants in Atlanta. For our income, we would end up buying land in say, Ellijay or the suurbs in Marietta, which we despise. Rock and a hard place! since we pay less than $1,000 a month to live in a 2/1 right in the middle of it all, with utilities included!  I am alsmost 40 and I love modern design. I think a container home is in our future...I would have to make some sacrifices. Also, we want to live near the ocean. Champagne taste and beer budget!

Jul 21, 2012 4:11PM
I need a home of my own in that price range also.  I haven't been able to buy any home in the last 25 years, while rent costs keep rising.  I live on $700 per month.  My rent is $650.
Feb 8, 2012 2:50PM
What you guys have done is absolutely wonderful.  Your selfless determination to help the less fortunate is most admirable.  I've seen houses built by habitat for humanities here and they are very basic in look and in size.  I always wondered why they needed to be that way.  They didn't need to be that way and you have proven it.

As for the comment about the military being a waste of our money, it hasn't occurred to them that if we hadn't developed the A-bomb before Germany you'd either be speaking Japanese, German or Russian right now.  Those without military protection are destined to be trodden upon by those with military might.  Rather than the government giving me a house, I'm proud to have bought and paid for mine by myself.  I don't believe anyone owes me anything and am rewarded for my hard work.  We get out of this life what we put into it.  If you don't contribute much, you don't get much.  It's just that simple.

Your comment was fairly tacky and tasteless.  It would have cost you not a single dime to complement those students and their teacher on a job well done, which you glaringly omitted focusing instead on what the government could have given you.  Anything worth having is certainly worth paying for.  I'm glad my parents instilled in me a good work-ethic by example.
Aug 16, 2011 1:19PM
Added to previous comment:

I wonder why: the rest of the world relies on Americans to do so much. Our basic economy is: Americans need employment, to purchase things – which makes income for others, etc. We are in a current  “Housing Crisis”, “Employment Crisis,” “Transportation Crisis”. Can anyone think of any other "American Crisis’ that I forgot? Any idea that is positive that gets families off the street is a good idea at this point. Let’s leave my speech for today at that.


Aug 16, 2011 12:52PM

I think that this is a viable alternative to the “Housing Crisis”, “Employment Crisis”, “Transportation Crisis”. Can anyone think of any other American Crisis’ that I forgot?

Aug 3, 2011 8:36AM
In my city the government fees for this house would be over $10,000 (Impact fee 4100.00, plot fee 3500.00 park fee 750.00) also you would need to pay for building permits, engineering, architect fees ect. This is all before you drive a nail. It might cost 20,000 to build but after you purchased the land, paid government fees, drawings and landscape required your 20,000.00 house will be over 60,000.00 shed. Then you will have property taxes based on the 60,000 spent so do not look at the 1st price that is the cheap one.
Aug 3, 2011 4:50AM

please contact me i would like to talk to  you about a  house  for me


Aug 3, 2011 2:29AM

HELLO !!! ( DIY ) , You can build a small LOG CABIN fer tha same amount as well as EARTH protected style homes , these concepts and methods of building have been around FOR EVER ... You can get the internet for $10 a month and still be uninformed and unable yet socially up to speed , WOW !!! AMERI"CANS" , WE USED TO BE... PEACE ...

Aug 3, 2011 2:02AM

Without trying to sound confrontational - get a grip. I'm writing from London and I own a flat in what you would call the suburbs of London. It is actually smaller than these "sheds" as you have called them and cost me around $400,000.


Now dont get me wrong, I am not saying I am hard done by over here - but the majority of posters on this comment trail seem to genuinely have no appreciation whatsoever for the world at large. In the USA you are spoilt for space, which seems to be compensated for by an insular nature. By complaining about things you are by definition comparing your circumstances to those around you - expand your horizons to the world at large and you will find you have nothing to complain about and will most likely grow as people.


This is not some sort of "children in Africa dont have enough to eat" rhetoric - this is about trying to add some perspective to the conversation.

Jul 29, 2011 8:16PM
Well folks, here is the future of our country. This reminds me of the old west style houses, where the poor(er) people lived while the rich got richer!  Is this the future that our goverment has placed in the hands of our children and so forth?  Look our here comes congress to save the day. What's next rations on our water? Food? 20k a building? When all is said and done it will still end up comming to around 50+.  However, that being said, at least we know we have people out there trying to solve the problem. Although the insight to create a home for 20k may seem unrealistic, there will always be room for improvement. I give them at least the credit for trying.  How many of us have come up with a reasonable plan and taken the extra step to make it happen?  I too am guilty. Least they tried!
Jul 29, 2011 5:04PM

Minnie L, The article did not go with the article. The video is of a project in Tn if I am not mistaken. THe homes in the article are in Al. People can discount these homes but with genius space planning I have seen homes the size of the "home depot shed" that I could live nicely in. Look small homes up on the web and you will find many that are cool as heck including huge flat screens and the surround sound systems built in. And since they are continuing to ask the home owners after they live in them for awhile they can keep tweaking. Doesn't anyone watch house hunters international? The rest of the world lives smaller indoors as we did in the 50's-60's and 70's. We had a 900 sq ft ranch with 7 people. Mom Dad 4 boys and 1 sister. Guess who got HER OWN room ! Some people are spoiled and live in excess. THen when times get bad they freak out. As someone else said. Living is not in the house. That is for sleep and eating maybe and bathing. The later two in the cold months ! We have lost our edge in this THE USA.

Jul 29, 2011 2:37PM
From their website, the houses look more like sheds!  We have houses here in OK that look like that and they call them shotgun houses because you can stand in the front (or back) door and shoot a shotgun thru the house to the other door!  Also, these so called homes are MUCH smaller than any double wide mobile home I've ever seen!  I had one back in Colorado that had 1400 sq. feet and that was small.  What about the land?  Most people with that kind of income don't own land, so that's going to add to the cost.  Also, what is wrong with a house looking like a "mobile home" (trailer in their words)?  Mobile homes are made very nice these days, and still affordable! 
Jul 29, 2011 1:26PM
Move to Nebraska, find a small town. Buy a $20,000 house. Nice houses are dirt cheap there. Nebraska has a world renowned hospital, zoo, lakes, and so on.
Jul 29, 2011 8:27AM
Would be a great idea to share with Habitat for Humanity affiliates world wide!
Jul 29, 2011 7:46AM

My house is only 768 square feet... 780 would be a mansion for me. Mine cost a whole lot more than 20k, but I do live in california. 2 bed one 1 bath and I have to update it because it was built in 1946.  You don't need a big house. A place to sleep, cool down out of the sun and eat.  I have better things to do than to remain in doors. Work, play and life happen outdoors. It isn't the size of the house it is the heart and warmth that fills it...

Jul 29, 2011 6:38AM

This post links to a Wall Street Journal article, which states that the houses are built on land already owned by the residents or their family.  The land isn't included in the $20,000.  As for other costs, a trailer would need water, electricity and a septic tank too, so that's a wash.  


I'm sure the students follow the Southern Standard Building Code, but most of rural Alabama has no zoning, thus no minimum size, no restrictions on exterior materials or appearance, etc.  And the Alabama Black Belt has the lowest property taxes in the US - that's why the infrastructure and schools suck, and why they can't attract new employers.


Some people here seem to think that the "free" design is a hand-out.  I prefer to think of it as providing architecture students an education about the real world, where cost and size constraints have to be considered.  I live in Alabama, so my taxes are paying for it.  I consider it money well-spent.

Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Powered by



Find local plumbers, electricians, contractors and more.