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Debt-free Housing

Greg Foyster (left) talking to a fellow Murundaka resident in the garden. Photo by Chris Grose

Many of the original followers of permaculture left the city and became owner-builders on far-flung blocks of land; creating lives for themselves which were free of debt; allowing them to focus their time and energy on what they felt was important. Land was still cheap up to the late 1990s. Building regulations were minimal and, with help from local LETSystems and keen WWOOFers, many young families built their homes without having to rely on banks for a mortgage.

The children of these families are now young adults, and it is a very different world they face when it comes to choice in housing. Land is much more expensive, making saving for a deposit almost impossible. Building regulations have escalated, adding to costs. And major banks are hostile to lending to owner-builders.

To get a house, most young people feel that the only option is to hitch up with someone else with a steady job, buy a house by borrowing $100 000s from a bank, and then stay in a job they may hate for the next twenty-five years. Starting a family along the way is challenging. They may lose their sense of freedom, and become extremely vulnerable to fluctuating interest rates in the global marketplace. Meanwhile climate change and resource depletion loom.

However, there are some other options for people looking to live with minimal or no debt.

Communal compost bays at Murundaka. Photo by Chris Grose

Share Farming

Owning one’s own home is a very Australian concept, often seen as a right. For those who decide that home ownership isn’t such an important aspect of their life after all, rural rental options can be productive, especially if a suitable owner is found. Perhaps a genuine trade is possible, for example land stewardship for that old second shed on the property at no rental cost. The idea of share farming is alive and well, and out of necessity may prosper in years to come.

Family Farm As Home

Many children grow up and leave rural areas as soon as they can for further education and work in the cities. Some return, years later, with a renewed sense of ‘place’ and fresh understanding that where they grew up isn’t so bad after all.

For example, Sam Crowden returned to his family’s lifestyle property at Brogo, NSW, and his parents agreed to let him build a house on their 150 acres. His father welcomes the assistance Sam is able to offer him in maintaining and developing the property. Sam built a beautiful small dwelling out of rock and milled timber from the block, and second-hand recycled timber. He took his time, enjoyed the experience and learnt many skills; but best of all there was no money borrowed, so no debt.

Small, Low-Cost Construction

Planning a small home, using recycled and low-cost materials, and becoming an owner-builder are the best ways to build the house you want to, and avoid a crushing mortgage. Plan your home around the materials you can find, and build as you can afford to. See if you can get family and friends to help, or find like-minded people in the same circumstances and help each other. Or even better, invite someone who knows what they are doing and create a workshop where people can come to learn while they help build the structure – see box. For example, Averil Fink built her home using mud from the surrounding land, recycled timber windows and doors, and paid the people who helped her with LETS credits. As a single parent, this enabled her to build a home for her children, and stay at home and spend time with them.

Averil Fink with her LETS built home. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Cohousing And Cooperative Rental

Cohousing was pioneered in Denmark in the 1970s, to reestablish the advantages of the traditional village in the context of modern life; combining the autonomy of private dwellings with the companionship of communal facilities.

Murundaka Cohousing Community, located in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg Heights, is an apartment complex with eighteen units, plus two freestanding houses nearby, and houses around thirty-five residents. Apartments have their own kitchen and bathrooms, but the laundry is communal, and residents have access to communally-owned facilities.

Murundaka is also a rental cooperative, offering residents the security of long-term tenancy at below-market rates. Greg Foyster, a journalist who moved into Murundaka in September 2013 says, ‘Being a young person on a relatively low income, I have no chance of owning a home without taking on a hefty mortgage. That would require decades of fulltime work to pay off, possibly in a job I hate. Cooperative rental has allowed me to secure long-term housing without a massive debt. ‘

You don’t have to get into heavy debt to live the lifestyle you want: there are alternatives. No huge mortgage means freedom and the ability to choose how you spend your time.



Frank Thomas runs an ethical building business called Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow Straw Bale Construction. Frank will turn a building site into a classroom, and organise one or two dozen people to turn up to camp and ‘barnraise’ a house in a week. Attend three of these events and your home could be next.

‘It is really fast, like a speedboat. When building with straw bale, we can raise the wall systems in four days. It is very empowering for all involved and it definitely keeps a lid on the budget’, explains Frank.

Straw bale wall raising workshops are free of charge for participants, and provide an opportunity to gain hands-on experience at a building site. They include daily theory sessions, audio-visual material, expert guest speakers on related topics, access to a large variety of relevant books and magazines, and comprehensive handouts. And they’re lots of fun.

Frank also has an education centre in Nowra, NSW, where he teaches mudbrick flooring and building, rammed earth and straw bale technology, and rendering.


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