This Single Mom Built a 3,500-Square-Foot Home With Her Kids by Watching YouTube Videos

After surviving domestic violence, this DIY-savvy mom of four decided to rebuild her family life—and build a house with her kids. Here’s her moving story, plus her best tips for building your dream home as a team.

Cara Brookins grew up in Tomah, Wisconsin, raised by parents who she describes as “huge DIYers.” They taught her that absolutely anything is possible if you try, she recalls. It’s no surprise that Brookins grew up to share her parents’ DIY mindset. 

She describes that mindset as believing that no matter the challenge, you can dive in, take one step, then try another, and you’ll “figure it out.” And Brookins managed to do exactly that throughout her career. She became a software developer—without having a degree in software development—and later, wrote nine books.

And when the single mom of four reached a point of “absolute desperation,” it was that DIY mindset that fueled her ability to build a house by watching YouTube videos. 

“We had been through some really tough things as a family, from domestic violence and stalking to having my finances completely devastated,” recalls Brookins. “So we were starting from rock bottom.” 

She was inspired to build a house to solve two problems: “Obviously, it would give us a place to live, but maybe more importantly, it would give us something that my kids and I could do together—something to overcome the tough times that we've been through and a way to kind of reestablish the bonds that we needed as a family and had been totally lost through everything that we've gone through.”

Brookins acknowledges that what was meant to be a solution to her family’s financial woes was also a financial gamble. But it ended up being “a huge risk that paid off in a really big way.” 

And while she had qualified for a loan to buy a small house, she wanted to provide her kids with a big house they could be proud of. 

In order to get started, Brookins had to buy land and supplies. She found an empty acre that cost $20,000. “That was all my savings,” she remembers. “And then, I qualified for $147,000 to buy all of the supplies.” 

When the house was complete, in 2008, it was appraised for $425,000. 

The experience also allowed Brookins to bond with her kids in a way that she wouldn’t have otherwise. “There were so many things that happened in my life that I hid from my children, and it wasn't until we were out on a construction site that we started talking, and I realized how much they knew and how much more they needed to know in order to process and move forward in their lives,” she notes. “Opening the lines of communication, where my kids and I would ask the honest questions and tell the tough truths, changed everything. It changed the way they interact in the world.”

And while the whole family has accomplished something worthy of applause, Brookins beams with pride when she thinks of how far her children have come. “Looking at those four small kids who really didn't have a great future in front of them when we started building this house and to see where they are now, how big and fearless they are, there's nothing I could be more proud of,” she notes.

Here are several of Brookins’ best tips for using the power of DIY to make your own dreams come true, whether that’s building a house or a business.

Team Up

Brookins emphasizes the importance of working with others on a DIY project as large-scale as building a home—or even starting a business. “I think it's important that you don't try to go it alone,” she notes. “I would love to see more people saying, ‘Hey, we could build a house together, or we could build a business together.’ And imagine if you had multiple families on a construction site, how much faster things could go and how you could pool resources, time, energy, money, knowledge, the quantity of how-to videos that you can watch if you have more people involved in the project.”

Be Strategic About What You Spend Money On

Even if you’re not up for building your own home like Brookins, she recommends finding small opportunities to DIY. Then, you can put the money you saved toward hiring someone to do a task you’re not as confident about tackling yourself.

“I play this game with myself all the time,” she says. “I mow my own lawn. I have more than an acre, and I mow it because I know how much it would cost to hire somebody. And every time I mow it, I calculate that amount of money and I take it and I put it into my business in something that I couldn't DIY. So I'll hire that copy editor. I'll hire that graphic artist, because I mowed my own lawn.”

Strive to Improve Your Life as a Family

Brookins encourages parents to remember that they’re not alone or facing challenges by themselves. “Your entire family is going through it with you,” she says, adding that means they should be included in the solutions.

“I didn't go through trauma by myself,” she explains. “I went through a terrible domestic violence situation, and my kids were there the entire time. So when I started looking for ways to make our life better, I didn't say I'm gonna go build a house alone, or I'm gonna go run a marathon to work on my mental health. The kids went through it with me, so they needed to be part of the work and the healing process with me. So when we built a house, we built it together.” 

Brookins acknowledges that some families might opt to build a garden, go on a hike, or improve their finances together. “Find ways to include your children in that process, include your partner in that process,” she advises. “That's how you create a resilient family. You go through the tough stuff together, and then, you work on ways to improve your life together.”

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