Steps to Building a House with DEN

You Have the DEN Plans, Now What?

A cabin requires three things: vision, plans, and a place to put it. There's more to it than that, but, like every great novel, everything starts with a vision of where you are going, a road map to get there, and a canvas to work on. This guide is designed to provide people who already have DEN plans, or who are considering a set (or two!) of DEN plans, with step-by-step instructions to turn enormous potential into an outstanding reality. 

  • Buying your DEN Plans
  • Purchasing Land for Your Den
  • Budgeting for Your DEN
  • Securing a Boundary Survey
  • Hiring a DEN-Friendly Builder vs. DIY
  • Pulling Permits for Your DEN
  • Finding the Cash for Your DEN
  • Building Your DEN

Details on each To Do item are mapped out in this guide, and to help you along the way, here is your printable building checklist. Follow these steps and you'll break ground on your project with everything in order.

To Do
Do you already have or are you in the process of purchasing land?
Have you completed your budget, resources audit, and vision statement?
Do you have a recently-completed survey that contains details like where your Den, well, septic, driveway, electric, gas, or any other utilities or hardscaping, will go?
Has an engineer signed off on your survey?
Have you decided to DIY or to hire a builder?
Have you sent your DEN plan to your local building supply shop to request a materials take-off yet?
If you are hiring a builder, have you sent your DEN plans to at least 3 local builders?
Have you received their costs, checked their references, and seen their past work?
If you don't need a permit, hooray for fewer headaches!
If you need a permit and the permit is granted, build on!
If a permit is denied, review the changes required with an engineer and resubmit.
Do you have your money in hand?
Made it here? You're ready to break ground!

Buying Your DEN House Plans

If you haven't picked your plans yet, we recommend browsing through our A-Frame, Barnhouse, and Classic collections before you start worrying too much about applying for a construction loan or sourcing materials. If you have trouble choosing, take a look at our post all about picking the right plans for you. In it, we guide you through surveying your options, narrowing down your must haves, and making your final decision.

If you already have your plans but aren't sure where to put your new place, your next step is to find a plot!

Picking the Right Plot for Your DEN

If you haven't found your perfect plot yet, it's time to put down roots.

You need to go into the land search process knowing what you want (woods, meadows, to be near water) and what you definitely want to stay away from (the highway, swamps). But there's another thing to consider — if this spot won't be your full-time home, you need to calibrate for travel distance. If you want a lake retreat but the closest affordable waterfront property is 10 hours away, that's a problem. You can't move the lake, so something else will have to give.

You should also consider the cost of land and construction in the region you are considering. On average, the South is less expensive to build than the Midwest, the Midwest less expensive than the West, and the Northeast is the most expensive of all. And remember, the distance you need to travel will be especially vexing during the home building process. If you're hoping to DIY, you need to be able to get to your property fairly easily and very regularly.

For most people we've worked with, having the cabin within an easy(ish) distance ends up taking precedence over the absolute perfect setting or even getting more acreage for their buck. After all, using the awesome thing you've built is better (for most people) than having a cabin you can only reach a few days a year. As you start searching, we recommend turning to resources like, BillyLand, Land Elevated, LandWatch to find a few acres. Or, if you are sure of where you want to live, contact a local realtor. Working with someone on the inside can lead you to places you would never have found otherwise.

You should also take a look at our DEN Land Buying Guide.

DEN plans are designed to be versatile, but they aren't intended to be built in the middle of a seasonal swamp. Nothing is perfect, but dry is always better than a wet steal. You should also set up a meeting with the building department local to the land you are considering. Run your idea by them and see how they respond. There are places where you are not permitted to build a house under a certain square footage. There are places where you are not permitted to forgo a septic system in a primary structure.

It is vitally important that you know what is absolutely out of the question before you buy a plot of land and discover you won't be able to use it how you've imagined.

DEN Checklist Item #1
  • Do you already have or are you in the process of purchasing land?

If so, it's time to build your total project budget and conduct a resources audit. (see next step)

Budgeting for Your DEN & Your Resources Audit

Before you sign on the dotted line, you have to do the most important part of your Pre-Build Homework: budget.

Did you know that an experienced architect could charge as much as $37,500 to get involved with a project that costs as little as $250,000, and that many architects charge as much as 10-15% of the total project build? The most expensive plan from DEN starts at $599.

Our unique and innovative approach of offering accessible modern design has been recognized by architecture and construction industry leaders, spotlighted in global media (like Dwell!), and celebrated by our DEN community of cabin-lovers. We aim to make spectacular design affordable, and we often see customers buy a few different plans they're deciding between so they can take the decision-making process offline and into their own hands, literally.

DEN plans are the tickets to a more connected future — connected with nature, family, the earth, and each other. With a set of plans in hand, you can talk with your family, neighbors, contractor, banker, and the Town Building Department in detail down to a 1/16th of an inch. DEN plans result in faster approvals, more accurate budgets, higher-quality outcomes, and, ultimately, a DEN of your own.

DEN plans are so affordable that they leave more room in your wallet for bringing your vision to life. Figuring out what you can afford is one of the most challenging quantitative questions you will ever tackle. The average nationwide construction cost for a new home is $223.50 per square foot if you have traditional plumbing and electricity, and you work with a professional team to get things done. Based on our customers experiences and the many unexpected costs that can pop up when building any home, we like to put a flat estimate of $153/sq ft. Of this, about 75% is cost. The remainder is the builder's overhead and profit.

The estimated cost per square foot for DIYers building their own homes is less than half the cost of working with a builder: $70/sq foot. However, doing things yourself can come with drawbacks. It tends to take longer, and mistakes can be costly undercutting the savings DIY implies. However, DEN plans are designed to minimize mistakes and maximize impact, giving you a simple cozy cabin with the looks of a high-end custom home through clear plans, clean design, and minimalist interiors.

Estimated Construction Costs of DEN Cabins Based on Square Footage

Model Square Footage Builder Cost est. DIY Cost est.
A-frame Bunk Cabin 168 $43,806 $19,712
A-frame Weekender 415 $92,752 $41,740
A-frame House 1000 $223,500 $100,575
Modern Cottage 600 $134,100 $60,345
Modern Loft Barnhouse 748 $167,178 $75,230
Barnhouse Retreat 756 $168,966 $76,034
Tiny House Cabin 144 $32,184 $14,482
Loft Cabin 240 $53,640 $24,138
Modern Alpine Cottage 448 $100,128 $45,057
*All costs are estimated based on national averages and do not include cost of land.

If you've spent some time Googling questions like "What does X cost in my area?" and $223/sq ft (or even $70/sq ft) sounds astronomical, we understand. While your DEN won't cost as much as building a full home, it is a significant financial undertaking. Luckily, there are services in place that can lighten the load if you use them properly and we'll get into those later in the "Finding your Cash" section.

Before you even get to that point, though, you need to map out your overall budget to determine how much you can afford to spend on land. After all, your goal is to have a DEN on your own sliver of paradise, not just the piece of land. We recommend setting a total max budget and then breaking it down into buckets using the percentages below. Where you are building and which Den plans you pick will alter the precise percentages that you'll need for each category, but we've found that these are the best place to start.

Allocating Your Budget

Total Budget 100%
Land 20%
Site Fees 4%
Well 2%
Septic 8%
Foundation 10%
Framing 12%
Exterior 14%
Interior Finishing 22%
Major Systems 5%
FFE 3%

Resources Audit

As you determine what financial resources you can bring to the table, you'll also need to pinpoint the personal skills and resources you can contribute.

Some people want nothing to do with their DEN between buying the land and picking the plans and moving in. That's perfectly okay, and often the easiest, but it's not precisely what DEN was created for. We love working with people who want to be involved in bringing their vision to life. If you've spent years daydreaming about building a cabin from scratch or, at least, hitting a few nails in, we speak your language. Before you scream from the rooftops that you're going to tackle the whole project alone, though, it's crucial that you audit yourself as to your skills, strengths, and weaknesses.

Make a list (Yes, write it down.) of what you can bring to the project. And, while enthusiasm does count, we think it's best to focus on the more immediately productive stuff.

Do you have a well-stocked collection of tools, or do you not even own a hammer? Are you comfortable putting in flooring, or was the last thing you built a bookshelf at summer camp? Do you have a sister who can pour a mean foundation, or a partner who doesn't know a measuring tape from a level? This list of skills and resources will be essential later on in the process as you determine whether to DIY or to hire a builder to take the project from start to move-in day.

Before you break ground, we hope you'll also sit down to write a one or two-sentence vision statement that defines your project parameters and goals. Having a clear vision of how the cabin will function within your life will serve as a guide when you hit snags in the process further down the road.

DEN Checklist Item #2
  • Have you completed your budget, resources audit, and vision statement?

If so, it's time to confirm your survey. (see next step)

Boundary Survey

Before you sign the deal, or if you've had the piece of land in your family for a long time, make sure you have a full up-to-date survey completed to confirm the boundaries of your property, pinpoint any potential surprises, and map out current or potential utility access. Remember that not all land is equal, and if you've found a deal or a corner of your granddad's plot has been sitting vacant for decades, there is probably a reason why. The reason may not be a deal-breaker, but you should figure it out before it gets to that point.

If you are initiating the boundary survey because there isn't a recent one already for the property, make sure that the surveyor includes where your DEN, well, septic, driveway, electric, gas, or any other utilities or hardscaping, will go.

If you already have a boundary survey and it does not include this information, it's time to hire an engineer. If you have a survey and it seems to include this information but you want to be extra sure, it can't hurt to get an engineer to sign off on it anyway. Work with them to provide a detailed "site plan" using your DEN plans to guide things like well placement, driveway, and more.

DEN Checklist Item #3
  • Do you have a recently-completed survey that contains details like where your DEN, well, septic, driveway, electric, gas, or any other utilities or hardscaping, will go?
  • Has an engineer signed off on the survey?

If so, proceed to the next step: Builder vs. DIY!

Building Your Team: DEN-Friendly Builder or DIY

When you're ready to start executing, you'll need a team to work alongside you.

Most people who dream of building a cabin have, at one point or another, envisioned doing it all by themselves. We get it, and we've felt the same. Going full DIY saves money and carries a sense of pride, but there's also a steep learning curve, it's inherently time-consuming, and mistakes can be costly. Working with a contractor can be expensive, but their knowledge and expertise, extra hands, and all-in-one offerings may make up for additional costs.

Before we continue to break down the pros and cons of contractors vs. DIY, we should make one thing clear. When we say "DIY," we aren't including everything. Even if you are a skilled DIYer, you will most likely need to tap on friends for extra hands and to bring specialists in for the jobs that should be handled by a pro. Foundations, electrical, plumbing, and certain roofing styles should not be learned 'on the fly.' For those, we expect even the most enthusiastic and well-tooled DIYer to call in an expert.

If you do want to DIY the majority of your project, these are the core skills you must have to qualify for the job:

  • Knowledge of how to square and bolt sill plates
  • Knowledge of basic framing techniques and methods
  • An ability to read and interpret blueprints
  • Knowledge of how to sheath a structure
  • Knowledge of how to lay flooring, hang wall coverings (drywall or sanded plywood)

You also need to have a willingness to spend significant amounts of time learning what you don't know and an acceptance that this may require doing certain jobs twice (or more), resulting in additional time and material costs.

If you choose to go DIY…

  • Hire certified tradespeople: Apply the same attention to detail to hiring certified tradespeople and specialists as you would to hiring a builder. Interview plumbers, roofers, builders, and electricians until you feel comfortable with your team. Never work with someone simply because they responded to your call first (although prompt replies do come in handy on the job site). Ask for references and build a rapport. You'll be working together for a while, so it helps if you like each other.
  • Request a Takeoff: Your DEN plans include everything you need to access a comprehensive materials list at any well-stocked hardware store. Whether you are hiring a builder or taking the DIY route, first take your DEN plans to your local building supply store or a big box store like Home Depot or Lowes and request a takeoff (typically, a free service). The building supply store will give you a list of the materials required to build your DEN tailored to what they supply, down to the last box of nails. You should also submit the window and door schedule so they can provide you with a cost per unit from whatever major brands they carry. DEN designs make use of standardly available catalog items from Marvin and Anderson. Remember, though, that "standard" doesn't mean "in stock." Windows must be ordered at least three weeks in advance of when you'll need them.

Requesting a takeoff is important because it gives you the most accurate cost of materials based on where you live. It will help you shop around for the best deals and suppliers and, if you decide to work with a builder, you'll be able to estimate how much of their proposed all-in cost is going towards the materials.

DEN Checklist Item #4
  • Have you decided to DIY or to hire a builder?
  • Have you sent your Den plan to your local building supply shop to request a materials take-off yet?

If so, proceed to hiring a builder or directly to pulling permits.

If you choose to hire a builder…

If you aren't already well-versed in building lingo or you aren't up for the idea of spending tens of hours on YouTube, hiring a general contractor or builder may be your best option.

Finding the right builder can make or break your project, and labor is highly localized. Most home builders are unwilling to drive more than 45 minutes to a job site, so you'll need to start your search close to your future home. Strike up a conversation with your future neighbors, Google search for contractors, carpenters, and builders near you, and scroll through Instagram using local hashtags. Keep an eye out for people who specialize in smaller-scale projects, like additions and remodels. Ultimately, you want to compile a list of 3-4 possibilities.

Once you have your list of possible builders, reach out. Be prepared to send each builder your DEN plans and photos of the cabin site, and be ready to do a site walkthrough if they're interested in the project.

While you're getting to know each other, there are a few questions you should ask:

  • How much would it cost in time and money to construct your plans on your property to the level of finish that the DEN images indicate?
  • What is your schedule like for the coming year?
  • When could you begin?
  • Are you insured, and are all your subcontractors licensed and insured?
  • Is there any work you're not able to do for which I would need to source subcontractors? If they do everything, their quote will be an "all-in" cost. If you have to source partners for the well, driveway, or septic, you'll know to account for that in your budget.

Lastly, request for references and examples of their past projects — ideally, similar ones. If they don't have any to share, that's a big red flag.

Aim to end up with three proposals. If that means going back to the drawing board (or Instagram) to find more builders, it's worth the time.

Once you have your three proposals to pick from, it's time to make your choice. The old adage is to choose the middle price, but that's not true in all cases. Selecting the right builder is a combination of price, timing, quality of work, and personality.

If you're still waffling between DIYing and hiring a pro, remember that just because you can do something doesn't always mean it makes sense to. If you would have to sacrifice your income to take the lead on your cabin project, you need to tally up if that loss in earnings is worth it in the long run.

Den Checklist Item #5
  • If you are hiring a builder, have you sent your DEN plans to at least 3 local builders?
  • Have you received their costs, checked their references, and seen their past work?

If so, proceed to pulling permits.

Pulling Permits for Your DEN

Once you have your land, plans, and team, you need to start asking for permission also known as applying for permits. If you've hired a builder, they may take care of this part for you. If you haven't, get ready for some paperwork!

The question "Do I need a permit?" is best answered by your local building department. There are towns where you'll be able to build without jumping through hoops, and there are towns where primary vs. accessory structure restrictions, minimum and maximum build sizes, building codes, and zoning rules and regulations will direct and even potentially shift your DEN journey. In some cases, if the building is small enough, you may not need a building permit at all. However, just because you're DIYing something, or building something small, doesn't mean you don't have to check with the town you are in about the specific rules for that locale.

If you determine that you need a permit:

First, review your DEN Plans. They are your secret weapon to a smooth permitting process, but first you'll need to make sure they have been reviewed and stamped by an engineer. If this happened during your site planning process, awesome. If not, it's time to get it done!

Once you have your stamped set of DEN plans, staple them together with the site plan, septic design (if application), and a permit application from your local building department. If you are working with a builder, you'll include their information in the application as well. If you are DIY-ing, you should include the information for the talented tradespeople you've brought on to help with things like the foundation, roof, plumbing, and electric.

Den Checklist Item #6
  • If you don't need a permit, hooray for fewer headaches!
  • If you need a permit and the permit is granted, build on!
  • If a permit is denied, review the changes required with an engineer and resubmit.

Once you've received any necessary permits, continue on to finding cash.

Finding the Cash for Your DEN

One of the challenges of new home construction is that the bills come in in waves. One day everything is fine, and the next, you have a roofing bill for a few grand on your lap. Rolling with these invoices, even the expected ones, requires cash. As you prepare for your build, there are two primary ways of making sure that you have the money you need when you need it.

The first is self-financing. Self-financing means you have the money stashed away, and you can pull it out as you need it.

The more common option is bank financing. Bank financing comes in handy when you don't have the cash available upfront to pay for the project, but you know that you can pay in small increments over a long period. If you pursue bank financing, you'll be looking for a construction loan, often called a self-build loan or a construction mortgage, through a lender. Be prepared to have some tough conversations, as it's typically harder to get a construction loan than a traditional mortgage. This increase in difficulty is because there isn't a house there (yet) to serve as an asset against the loan. To mitigate the risk to themselves, the bank will want to see your DEN plans and materials list, timetable, budget, and contact information for anyone you've lined up to work, such as a plumber, excavator, roofer, or an all-in-one builder.

In the end, borrow what you can afford and be willing to walk away from deals that would give you more than you need. Banks are often willing to 'over lend' because, in the end, it makes them more money. This can be a tempting opportunity to fill your DEN with splurges (we see you eyeing that fancy stove), but it's a very bad idea that can result in financial disruption down the road.

As you start spending money, whether self-financed or bank-financed, manage your costs by shopping around, buying materials in bulk for discounts, staying cost-conscious, and taking the time to do things right the first time around. Duplicative work is the absolute greatest budget destroyer in the world of homebuilding.

DEN Checklist Item #7
  • Do you have your money in hand?

If so, it's time to break ground!

Building Your DEN Dream Home

It's officially time to turn your well-laid plans (and DEN plans) into a reality! First, you'll need to get the ground ready by doing any leveling or grading necessary, clearing any trees that can't be worked around, and laying the foundation. If applicable, now is typically also an excellent time to dig a well.

The building process is rarely perfectly linear, but some things need to happen in a particular order. Insulation goes in before wall coverings; windows go in before you can trim them out, and, of course, there are the inspections. Sometimes there are setbacks. The roof springs a leak, or winter comes sooner than you were expecting. That's okay. It's part of the construction process. Just remember that every step of the way, your DEN plans are your most important tool towards success. Your team, the Code Enforcement Officer, and every builder, contractor, or tradesperson you work with will refer to them over and over as the project progresses. If you need clarity, check the plans!

  • Site Preparation and Foundation
  • Inspection #1
  • Rough Framing
    • Floors, exterior wall and interior walls, and roof go up — the skeleton of the DEN — and skin, or sheathing, is applied to keep the elements out. The sheathing is covered with a semi-permeable water barrier called house wrap. The exterior windows also go in at this point, and if you've decided (with the help of your engineer) to adjust the interior floor plan, this is the time to put that change into action.
  • Siding and Roofing
    • From the outside, your DEN will look like a Den!
  • Rough Plumbing and Electrical/HVAC
    • Pipes and wires, sewer or septic lines, and ductwork (if you are doing and hvac system) goes in here.
  • Inspections #2, #3, and #4
    • Rough framing, plumbing, and electrical and mechanical systems each need to be inspected by your local building department before you can move forward to the next steps of your project. These are often separate inspections and, if issues are found, you'll need to address them. Take it step-by-step, though, and you'll be fine.
    • To keep yourself busy while waiting for inspections, consider lining up the materials you'll need for the next stages, like insulation, wall coverings (drywall or sanded plywood), fixtures, and finishes. Remember that, like with windows, there can be a lengthy wait time between when you order an item and when it comes in, so it's helpful to have things picked out well in advance of when you'll need them.
  • Wall coverings, interior finishes (flooring, countertops, light fixtures, faucets, interior doors, etc.), and exterior finishes (stairs, lights, etc.)
    • We love the look of sanded plywood on our walls, and our designs look best with simple finishes, but it's your DEN, and detail like wall coverings, baseboards, trim, countertops, and light fixtures are what will truly make it feel like home.
  • Final Walk-Through, Final Inspection, & Certificate of Occupancy (CO)
    • This is the big one! Any issues found here will require a follow-up inspection, so it's worth getting it right the first time. Sometimes, if the problems are small, like finishing up some exterior steps, you can get a temporary CO to tide you over so you can start moving in while fixing the issue. Once you have the official CO, you're good to go!
  • Decorating and Landscaping
  • Move-In
  • Put Your Feet Up

Timelines & Pitfalls

How much time will this take? That's a tough question. More than anything else, it depends on where you've decided to put down roots. Local zoning laws and approval processes, the availability of local builders and resources, and weather will drastically impact your timeline. If you are somewhere with a rough winter, it will take you longer, if only because you have less time in the year to get things done.

And even with the best-laid plans, stuff happens. Sometimes a builder quits, and you need to rework your plan, or you find yourself slipping over budget with no idea how you got there. If you're building in an area with tough winters, an early freeze can put you in the penalty box for months until the ground softens up again. When things start to go sideways, take a second to pause, step back, and return to your vision statement. Why are you building a DEN, and what do you want for your life within and around it? Sometimes the solutions to problems are simple, even if they can be tough to stomach. Trading a custom finish for one off the shelf can feel catastrophic, but the savings may make something else possible.

The most common 'pitfall' we've experienced, though, is a timeline setback. Sometimes it's necessitated by budget, other times by team, and often by weather. No matter why your timeline is sent through the shredder, it's always frustrating. Build projects take time, and you need to plan for your DEN to take no less than eight months from starting your search for land to having a cabin you can move into. Typically, it's closer to a year and a half from start to finish for those working with a highly-motivated builder or committing full-time to the project. Plan on up to two years if you'll be doing most of the work yourself while juggling a job.

Building is hard and you'll undoubtedly face challenges that press your patience on your path to becoming DEN homeowners, but it's a journey that's worth taking! You have the plans, and you know the steps — now it's time to take action. Our team is here to support you every step of the way, and we can't wait to see our designs take new life as your perfect DEN.