‘We built our own home on the disability pension’ by Liz Hall-Downs
(Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald’, ‘Money’ section, June 28, 2017
I am on a disability pension and owning a home seemed an impossible dream.
I have had severe rheumatoid arthritis since I was 20 and I see my “job” as staying out of hospital. My partner Kim is on the carer’s pension.
Most disabled people have incomes well below the poverty line and only 13 per cent of disability pensioners own their own home or have a mortgage on one.
Yet Kim and I have managed to beat the odds. We built our home on acreage just outside Brisbane on our combined pension and the little extra income we bring in from writing and music.
How did we do it? Well, first, we sought out cheap acreage in 2000 just before the boom, and resigned ourselves to living rough for a while. Building took more than a decade and we did it through a combination of DIY, recycling, sacrifice, the support of friends, tight budgeting, creative thinking, and a massive adjustment of expectations. But our experience shows that it can be done.
We bought a small nine-by-nine-metre kit home, and raised it a couple of metres off the ground on steel posts. We bought joists second-hand from a Brisbane timber merchant, which being old, were of longer, non-metric lengths. This gave us offcuts that were eventually made into shelving. Erecting the kit home was a steep learning curve for my non-builder partner, but with the help and advice of friends and neighbours we were able to get this life-size Meccano project erected.
It wasn’t all hard work. We held many weekend parties where friends helped with major tasks – so over the years we have had a “pouring the stumps” party, a “raising the roof” party, and a “celebrate (and test out) the new composting toilet” party. They brought with them a heap of goodwill, and we provided slabs of beer, barbecued sausages and campfire singalongs at night.
Kim did all the internal fitout himself, and did it as cheaply as possible. He frequented demolitions with our trailer and picked up stacks of old timber flooring and wallboard that were otherwise destined for the tip. These became kitchen walls and shelving. A friend working on a new housing development gave us water-damaged timber flooring that was being thrown out after a storm, which we cleaned up and used for two internal walls, then plastered over with stucco and painted as feature walls. We debarked and chainsawed trees, mostly ironbarks, that we had felled to clear the house site, and turned them into funky-looking posts and rails. We used sheets of toughened glass, previously shop fittings, for a second verandah. Flooring and roofing for this verandah, plus a houseful of free insulation, came from a demolition that friends were involved in.
When fitting out the bathroom we asked around for leftovers from renovations. This brought us a terrific haul of large blue and white floor tiles, as well as some medium sized white ones. At a bathroom supplies liquidation sale, we picked up a stack of mosaic tiles for $2 a sheet. We bought a second-hand bathtub, a liquidation sale sink, and did the woodwork and tiling ourselves. We now have a colourful, unique bathroom, complete with mosaics, and the only large cost was paying the plumber.
With tank water, choosing a dry composting toilet saves us 60,000 litres a year. We have a solar hot water system and hope in future to go completely solar. The home is positioned to minimise heating and cooling needs by catching the winter sun and prevailing breezes. Timber off the property feeds an old “Fat Boy” cast iron wood stove through the short Queensland winters, and fans cool us in the summer.
We’ve made a lot of sacrifices to get here. There are no movies or dinners out or spending money on new clothes or coffee dates. We buy everything in bulk, cook all meals from scratch, keep ducks and fruit trees and, if we socialise, we entertain at home. It hasn’t been easy.
Our home is quirky and original, cheap to run, and embedded with the goodwill of friends who helped. But, best of all, it’s ours.