How two couples combined forces to afford a vacation home

Many families dream of owning a vacation home, but few are able to make that a reality. But what if two families teamed up?

That’s the story here: By pooling their resources, two Portland couples built this 925-square-foot getaway in Washington’s San Juan Islands.

Paul Blanchard was the catalyst. One day about seven years ago―after the telecommunications engineer worked a string of 10- to 12-hour days―Paul decided that if he was going to work that hard, he wanted to put his energy toward something he really enjoyed.

Two years later, he and his wife, Henriette, a nurse at Oregon Health & Science University, purchased a small lot on Orcas Island. The lot was reasonably priced because a building moratorium was in place (the local water-treatment facility was over capacity). This didn’t trouble the Blanchards, because they didn’t intend to build right away.

The plan was accelerated, however, when the topic of building a vacation home arose one evening at a party in Portland. A casual conversation between friends became a formal partnership agreement.

Craig Kelley, an affordable-housing developer, and his wife, Sybil, a community-based science educator, bought in to share ownership of the Orcas Island property.

The four decided on a system for harvesting rainwater for household use that fit the couples’ interest in green building techniques―and provided a means for getting around the building moratorium. Although they were able to swing the cost of the land (about $30,000 per couple), they had to secure a loan for the construction of a home; they now rent the home to help cover loan payments.

Divide and conquer
They split costs and responsibilities 50/50. Paul tracked down possible contractors, found a rental management company, and now markets the property. Henriette took on furnishing the home, and Craig, who was trained as an architect, vetted contractors, oversaw construction, and did the design work―consulting with the other three throughout the process.

“My intention was to make it a simple box―easy to construct and therefore less expensive,” explains Craig. The 18- by 36-foot rectangle incorporates a living-dining room, kitchen, bedroom, and bath on the main floor. A loft houses a second bedroom and a den.

The walls and roof are stress skin panels (see Cost-Saving Tips below), foam insulation sandwiched between oriented strand board (OSB). The panels were delivered precut, numbered, and ready to be joined together. “Using the stress skin panels, we were able to frame, sheathe, and insulate the exterior walls and roof in two and a half days,” explains Craig.

The couples set up a limited liability corporation (LLC) to protect themselves when renting the home. Henriette suggests using the Internet―sites such as, a publisher of law books for the layman―to learn about partnerships and LLCs before approaching a lawyer. “You can save a lot of money in lawyers’ fees by brushing up on the lingo and minimizing the number of questions you ask,” she says.

Henriette equipped the house to be a home away from home―with everything from beach towels to cookbooks. This not only makes the home a desirable rental, it’s ideal for the owners as well. “When we decide to go, we just get in the car and go,” says Henriette. Both couples agree in advance on when they’ll use it, then turn over the renting to a property manager

“Sybil and I love the lot because we are able to walk right into Moran State Park,” explains Craig. The Kelleys often wake up, go for a hike with their dog, Bailey, and then―if it’s warm enough―go for a swim in nearby Cascade Lake. For dinner? “We buy a couple dozen oysters and, with a recipe from a local restaurant, we make grilled oysters―we do that three of the seven days we’re there,” laughs Craig.

As for the Blanchards, Henriette says that she and Paul have a love/hate relationship with their vacation home. “We love being there, but we hate leaving.”

Look for undervalued lots.
Keep the design simple and small.
Use efficient building methods, such as a framework of insulated concrete form (Rastra, and structural insulated panels (Premier Panels,
• Balance cost of materials with long-term maintenance costs. For example, exterior finishes like composite decking and copper railings for low-maintenance; interior trim that is stained instead of painted, to show less wear.
• Splurge wisely. If your budget allows, choose one or two high-impact upgrades. (Here, Madrone floors cost about $1.50 per square foot more than oak but since they only had to cover about 575 square feet of space, the extra cost was insignificant.)
• Add sweat equity. The couples did all the design work and construction oversight, helped with some of the construction, landscaped, and moved all the furniture.
• Barter. They traded rental time at the house for services.
• Bargain hunt. Look for stores where you can buy in bulk (for a volume discount).