Construction novices use sweat equity to build themselves a home

Housing Kitsap program is a viable way to enter competitive home market

PORT ORCHARD — New homeowners who haven’t had the experience of even building a birdhouse are seeing their dreams of home ownership come to life, thanks to Housing Kitsap’s innovative Mutual Self-Help Housing program.

The program, which has been in existence in Kitsap County since 1973, is funded by a USDA low-interest home loan program in which mortgage payments are based on the income of a household. Applicants must have good credit and a steady income, said Breanna Littrell, marketing and outreach specialist with Housing Kitsap.

It’s a novel way for prospective homeowners to enter a challenging real estate market, Littrell said. But if approved to participate in the program, they must sign up for a long-term commitment — an agreement to put in up to 35 hours a week of sweat equity in helping construct their new home and others in their build group over an approximately 14 month period.

“We purposely build neighborhoods where you drive past and would never know,” she said of the housing program.

A handful of Mutual Self-Help Housing neighborhoods that include 44 homes are being built in Kitsap and Mason counties. One nearby project underway is the Sherman Ridge neighborhood on Melcher Street in Port Orchard.

Located in a quiet area just down the road from Pottery Avenue, the project has been divided into three build groups, said site supervisor Chris Evertz. The first group of homes was completed in August, and homes sited in the middle and front side of the development were completed in mid-May. A third build group is now under construction.

The home plans include between 1,200 to 1,400 square feet with two to four bedrooms, the most common being a three-bedroom, 2 or 2½ bathroom layout. While simple in design, the neighborhood homes are of a quality design and appearance that would likely appraise at about $450,000, Evertz said.

Evertz said homeowners complete about 65 percent of the construction work, with subcontractors — usually supervising plumbers and electricians — doing the rest.

Learning on the go

The homeowners-turned-builders work on a quick-paced schedule, he said, and learn the basics of construction in short order.

“Ninety percent of our homeowners have probably not picked up a hammer,” said Evertz, who also is a general contractor. “It’s pretty quick training and you’re really learning on the fly. Homeowners have a hand in just about everything that’s done here.”

The novice builders take on construction aspects that include framing walls, hoisting and attaching roof trusses, installing windows, setting doors, adding interior trim and doing end-of-day cleanup. The home framing packages come precut, laid out and numbered, he said, which reduces the need for supervision on weekends and evenings.

“These are tasks that they all have to do,” he said. “What’s interesting is that everybody has that certain skill that they discover in the process. It may take 10 months or so to find it, but we always come out in the end with something they excel at.”

Generally, Evertz said, the homeowners’ efforts have been admirable.

“When I first started here, I thought maybe their work ethic would trail off once their house is built, but that hasn’t been the case.”

The commitment the homeowners sign up for can be daunting for some — it involves hard work that consumes every free moment over 14 months, often performed in rainy, blustery winter conditions. And that commitment continues beyond the completion of their own home — nobody moves in until the last of the eight homes in their build group is finished. But homeowners can get help from family and friends who volunteer to put in their own labor.

“The dedication that every single homeowner has is amazing,” Littrell said. “They are giving up a year of their lives to do this. It’s a commitment that each homeowner puts in more than 1,700 hours during the course of the build.”

The Housing Kitsap outreach specialist should know — she is a homeowner who earlier participated in the program.

There are other requirements that prospective homeowners need to meet, she said. “They must have sufficient income, credit, and work history. But for those still working on their credit or just starting a job, we work with them. It’s a process.”

And there is a wait list — Littrell said some applicants have to wait up to 2½ years in this hot housing market.

“Port Orchard has been the hot ticket,” she said of South Kitsap’s real estate market. “I’m not sure why that is, but I absolutely love it. It has such a hometown feel.”

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Breanna Littrell, marketing and outreach specialist with Housing Kitsap (left), and site supervisor Chris Evertz assist homeowners through the process of entering the Mutual Self-Help Housing program. (Bob Smith | Kitsap News Group)

Breanna Littrell, marketing and outreach specialist with Housing Kitsap (left), and site supervisor Chris Evertz assist homeowners through the process of entering the Mutual Self-Help Housing program. (Bob Smith | Kitsap News Group)