I have always dreamed of building my own home. As land and construction costs continue to rise, I realized I needed to find an affordable way to make my dream a reality. After lots of research, I discovered it is possible to build a home almost entirely from salvaged and recycled materials. Here is everything I learned about sourcing free or cheap materials and constructing a home from scratch.
Finding Building Materials for Free or Cheap
The first step is gathering all of the materials you will need to build a basic home. While new construction materials can be very expensive, here are some great options for finding recycled and salvaged supplies for little to no cost:
Check Online Listings
- Craigslist – The free section often has building scraps and leftover materials from construction projects. You can also post wanted ads for specific items.
- Freecycle – A grassroots network where people give away unwanted items to others for free. Great for finding used doors, windows, cabinets, sinks, tiles and more.
- Facebook Marketplace – People often give away or sell cheap construction leftovers and scrap materials.
Visit Salvage Yards
- Architectural salvage yards – Specialize in used building materials, fixtures, and hardware at big discounts. I visited my local yard and found windows, sinks, light fixtures, and lumber.
- Scrap metal yards – A great source for I-beams, rebar, corrugated metal sheets and roofing material. I was able to get sheets of metal siding for just $0.25/lb.
Check With Contractors
- Homebuilders – Will often let you haul away leftover materials for free when jobs are completed. I got bundles of insulation and drywall this way.
- Demolition crews – Let them know you are interested in taking any usable materials when old buildings are torn down. I got solid wood beams and bricks for an outdoor oven.
Watch for Local Events
- Renovation projects – Knock on the door and offer to take away any old materials being removed like doors, cabinets, sinks, etc.
- Neighborhood cleanups – You can often find piles of free scrap lumber, metal, and other supplies.
- Auctions & estate sales – Look for deals on tools, hardware, and appliances to stock your new home. I found a sink and bathtub cheap this way.
Planning the Structure
Once you have gathered adequate materials, it is time to plan out the structure and layout of the home. I had to get creative to design the home around the sizes of the salvaged materials I sourced.
Make a Sketch
Start by measuring the dimensions of your salvaged lumber, beams, doors and windows. Then sketch ideas for how to arrange the materials into the shapes of the rooms you want. Focus on making use of all the materials you have on hand. I played around with a few different layouts before settling on one.
While recycled materials make building cheaper, you still need to follow basic building codes for safety. Research the standards for your area early and incorporate required elements like:
- Proper foundation – May require concrete, gravel, or pier footings.
- Structural integrity – Walls, beams, and roof need to meet snow and wind load requirements.
- Plumbing – Needs potable water supply, septic/sewage disposal, ventilation.
- Electrical – Lighting, outlets, and appliances must be safely wired.
- Insulation & ventilation – Helps control temperature and moisture.
- Fire safety – Proper escape routes, smoke detectors.
Most areas require permits for any new construction. Provide detailed plans showing the building’s layout, dimensions, and how you will meet code requirements. Permits ensure your home is legal and safe when complete.
Constructing the Foundation
A proper foundation is key to any structure. Here are some options I researched for DIY foundations using recycled materials:
- Dig trenches 2 ft. wide by 4 ft. deep around the perimeter.
- Fill with compacted gravel and long stones for drainage.
- Lay treated 6×6 beams around the border to support the floor frame.
- Effective and low-cost but raises the home and stairs are needed.
- Dig out 4-6 inches deep and fill with gravel for drainage.
- Build timber edging around the perimeter.
- Lay rebar grid and fill with 4 in. concrete slab reinforced with salvaged metal scraps.
- Attached home directly on slab, no need for stairs.
- Layout pier blocks made from stacked bricks or poured concrete.
- Place 8 ft. apart around perimeter and under main load points.
- Place treated 6×6 beams atop piers to hold floor joists.
- Raises home for ventilation but easy and adjustable.
After comparing the options, I chose to build my home on a pier block foundation using recycled concrete blocks.
Framing the Structure
With the foundation set, it’s time to frame up the floor, walls and roof. Here are some tips:
- Use salvaged 2×8, 2×10 or 2×12 boards for floor joists.
- Space 16-24 inches apart and anchor to beams with joist hangers.
- Add plywood or OSB atop joists, screw into place.
- Insulate floors before adding finished surface.
- Match stud sizes to thickness of salvaged lumber.
- Stand studs 16 in. apart, anchor to end plates and frames.
- Use leftover pieces to frame doors, windows, and corners.
- Add exterior siding and interior drywall.
- Use salvaged beams and boards for rafters and ridge beams.
- Frame out gables, install collar ties and hurricane straps.
- Add metal roofing over boards or battens for drainage.
- Insulate attic well before adding interior ceiling.
I was able to build 90% of the frame using leftover lumber, mostly 2×4 and 2×6 boards. For important structural points, I reinforced with heavier salvaged beams.
While building the shell with recycled materials saved money, installing utilities like electricity, plumbing and HVAC still represented a significant cost. I got creative and found ways to repurpose and salvage these systems as well.
- Rewire salvaged light fixtures, outlets and switches.
- Run wiring through flexible metal conduit.
- Repurpose an old electric panel/breaker box.
- Consider solar power from recycled panels.
- Use salvaged copper, PVC pipes, fittings and valves.
- Install used sinks, toilets and appliances.
- Build a recycled 55-gallon rainwater barrel system.
- Add a septic tank or connect to municipal sewage.
- Build a solar water heating system from old water heaters and pumps.
- Use a high-efficiency salvaged furnace and ductwork.
- Install used ceiling fans, vents and window A/C units for cooling.
- Repurpose an old pot belly stove for supplemental heat.
In many cases, hiring a licensed professional for major electrical and plumbing work is wise for safety. But there are still plenty of ways to reduce costs with recycled parts.
The final step is turning the bare structure into a comfortable home with finishes like insulation, drywall, flooring and paint. Here are some finishing ideas:
- Use recycled denim or plastic bottles for insulation.
- Install salvaged drywall, wood paneling or tongue & groove boards over studs.
- Lay used carpet, laminate flooring, tile, or stained concrete floors.
- Paint with leftover or discounted mis-tinted paint from hardware stores.
- Add character with reused baseboards, crown molding, door trim and lighting.
- Choose recycled cabinets, countertops and appliances for kitchens and baths.
With some hunting at salvage yards and patience sanding and refurbishing materials, I gave my home lots of character for the fraction of the price of new finishes.
Building a home from the ground up using recycled and repurposed materials took creativity, time and persistence to source all the needed supplies. But in the end, I was able to construct a legal, safe, and functional home at a fraction of what a traditional build would have cost. And I get to look around every day and see the results of my hard work and sustainable dreaming. With the right mindset and willingness to do the grunt work, you can build your own affordable home from scrap as well! Let me know if you try this and how it goes!