Budget Breakdown: A Young Couple Turn a Termite-Infested Shack Into a Luxury Home For $46K
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Budget Breakdown: A Young Couple Turn a Termite-Infested Shack Into a Luxury Home For $46K

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By Lucy Wang
Eager to test their design chops, an American couple go to Costa Rica to tackle their first design-build challenge—for under $200 per square foot.

Tired of the daily grind and city life, junior architect Mike Donahue, 27, and self-taught designer Lauren Walker, 30, packed two suitcases—and their poodle—and left the U.S. for the tropics of Costa Rica. But it wasn’t a vacation that the couple sought—they wanted creative freedom, and saw the move as a chance for a year-long "self-guided study abroad," where they would design and build in a different culture.

$7,000
Original Structure
$2,136
Demolition
$1,326
Plumbing
$4,620
Exterior Walls
$4,803
Interior Walls
$3,155
Electrical
$1,326
Gutters & Drainage
$2,777
Doors & Windows
$2,568
Paint
$1,077
Woodwork
$4,435
Kitchen
$1,912
Bathroom
$2,725
Furnishings
$1,645
Flooring
$4,776
Miscellaneous
Grand Total: $46,280
Before: The original house, purchased for $7,000, was a "termite-infested nightmare made of diesel-soaked palettes" say Mike and Lauren. The couple were drawn to the home's renovation potential, its proximity to San Jose and Pacific Coast beaches, and its elevation (over 3,000 feet) that affords stunning views.

Before: The original house, purchased for $7,000, was a "termite-infested nightmare made of diesel-soaked palettes" say Mike and Lauren. The couple were drawn to the home's renovation potential, its proximity to San Jose and Pacific Coast beaches, and its elevation (over 3,000 feet) that affords stunning views.

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After: The couple renovated Casa Terrosa for just $46,280, including labor, in a span of seven months.

After: The couple renovated Casa Terrosa for just $46,280, including labor, in a span of seven months.

"Without a real plan, we went on Costa Rica’s version of Craigslist and found literally the cheapest house in the country within two weeks of arriving," says Mike. They purchased the home in August 2018 for a mere $7,000. 

"It had an amazing view, perfect climate, and access to water and electricity, so we offered half of what they were asking, and it was ours. It very quickly became evident most of the building had to go. It was a termite-infested nightmare made of diesel-soaked palettes originally built as a very cheap rental cabin."

Before: A look inside the living space of the original home. The duo salvaged everything of value and reused the roof, windows, structure, foundation, and balcony railing.

Before: A look inside the living space of the original home. The duo salvaged everything of value and reused the roof, windows, structure, foundation, and balcony railing.

Before: The existing balcony and the stunning views helped cement Mike and Lauren's decision to purchase the house.

Before: The existing balcony and the stunning views helped cement Mike and Lauren's decision to purchase the house.

Although the house was in bad shape, the design duo strove to reuse everything that was salvageable to keep costs low and minimize waste out of respect for Costa Rica’s reputation for sustainability. The rebuild was kept within the home’s existing 1,185-square-foot footprint to reduce permit costs. The couple stayed within—and occasionally camped outside of—the house for most of the renovation process, which lasted seven months. On weekends, they stayed in San Jose to rest, source materials, and regroup for the next week.

After Mike and Lauren's efforts, the house looks almost unrecognizable. Note the cutouts in the floor of the loft above that provide air circulation to the entire home, and how the once-exposed truss is now hidden.

After Mike and Lauren's efforts, the house looks almost unrecognizable. Note the cutouts in the floor of the loft above that provide air circulation to the entire home, and how the once-exposed truss is now hidden.

With help from a local contractor, Mike actively led a small local workforce. He also oversaw the demolition, design execution, budget, and purchasing decisions, while Lauren helped with sourcing, interior design, and finishes. The pair drew on their experience in design and construction gleaned from the workplace, their family, time spent together restoring classic sailboats, and an ongoing 1900s farmhouse renovation project in Michigan.

The couple stripped the original home's rusty red cladding and replaced it with cement board with a painted stucco finish. All doors were custom made by Mike and Lauren out of laurel, an affordable and beautiful tropical wood native to the mountains of Costa Rica.

The couple stripped the original home's rusty red cladding and replaced it with cement board with a painted stucco finish. All doors were custom made by Mike and Lauren out of laurel, an affordable and beautiful tropical wood native to the mountains of Costa Rica.

The foyer is lined with square coral imitation concrete tile. The door to the left of the entrance leads to the bathroom.

The foyer is lined with square coral imitation concrete tile. The door to the left of the entrance leads to the bathroom.

Grappling with a foreign language and cultural differences weren’t the only challenges Mike and Lauren faced. Since they started rebuilding during the rainy season, torrential downpours, scorpions, and a couple 6.0-magnitude earthquakes threatened to derail plans. The couple likened sourcing materials to a "treasure hunt" that took them from the underbelly of San Jose to the thick jungles outside Uvita.

To the right of the entrance, sliding tongue-and-groove laurel plywood doors open up to reveal the bathroom.

To the right of the entrance, sliding tongue-and-groove laurel plywood doors open up to reveal the bathroom.

The stylish and cost-effective bathroom features a concrete countertop, subway tiling, and laurel plywood cabinetry.

The stylish and cost-effective bathroom features a concrete countertop, subway tiling, and laurel plywood cabinetry.

Subway tiling wraps around the enclosed shower, while operable windows provide airflow without compromising privacy.

Subway tiling wraps around the enclosed shower, while operable windows provide airflow without compromising privacy.

"Very quickly it became clear this was more than just a building’s renovation," explains Mike. "We were learning how to embrace the symbiosis between each other and of the built and natural world, and how to respect its role and our role. Very rarely during the entire process did we have access to Internet, which in retrospect was a blessing. Learning how to trust just yourself, your experiences, and the moment became inherent to our process. Detached from the pressure of precedents, and Pinterest, expectation, and Amazon, we were able to remain completely present with ourselves and builders."

The breakfast bar from the original home was given a modern refresh. The existing stools were refinished and paired with concrete countertops. Designer pendant lights hang from above.

The breakfast bar from the original home was given a modern refresh. The existing stools were refinished and paired with concrete countertops. Designer pendant lights hang from above.

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Mike and Lauren in the kitchen, which is outfitted with GE Profile and Ariston appliances.

Mike and Lauren in the kitchen, which is outfitted with GE Profile and Ariston appliances.

A close-up of the kitchen countertops, which are made of three-inch board-formed solid concrete finished ultra smooth and sealed.

A close-up of the kitchen countertops, which are made of three-inch board-formed solid concrete finished ultra smooth and sealed.

Thanks to their active role in design and construction, skill in sourcing and reuse, and Costa Rica’s lower labor and material costs, the couple completed the renovation for just $46,200 in April 2019. They named the renovated two-bedroom house Casa Terrosa (or Earthy House) for its close relationship with nature.

New full-height glass doors blur the boundaries between the interior and the outdoors.

New full-height glass doors blur the boundaries between the interior and the outdoors.

On the 100-square-foot covered balcony, a perfectly positioned hammock takes in panoramic mountain views in Puriscal.

On the 100-square-foot covered balcony, a perfectly positioned hammock takes in panoramic mountain views in Puriscal.

Mike and Lauren currently live in the house, but they have plans to sell it—it's currently on the market—after which they will return to San Francisco with hopes of tackling more design-build projects down the road.

The design couple: Mike Donahue is a junior architect pursuing licensure. Lauren Walker is a self-taught artist and designer.

The design couple: Mike Donahue is a junior architect pursuing licensure. Lauren Walker is a self-taught artist and designer.

"We came for the tremendous natural beauty, but low cost of access," say the couple. "We have stayed because of a culture that deeply believes in life far beyond materialism. And when you are designing, that is an important lesson. This is a land where yearly salaries average $12,000 a year, yet is consistently ranked as one of the world’s happiest countries—there is a contagious contentedness here we realized we were missing."

Gray wood-look porcelain tile features throughout the living areas and bedrooms. The duo reupholstered the couch, which came with the existing home.

Gray wood-look porcelain tile features throughout the living areas and bedrooms. The duo reupholstered the couch, which came with the existing home.

The light-filled office overlooks stunning views. The stairs to the loft include built-in storage and shelving—a space-saving solution inspired by the couple's experience living in a tiny house.

The light-filled office overlooks stunning views. The stairs to the loft include built-in storage and shelving—a space-saving solution inspired by the couple's experience living in a tiny house.

This little recessed nook at the heart of the home houses a small reading bench but can be converted into storage space if needed.

This little recessed nook at the heart of the home houses a small reading bench but can be converted into storage space if needed.

A look inside the larger of the two bedrooms. The leftmost door opens up to a wraparound outdoor balcony, while the door to the right conceals the washer/dryer unit.

A look inside the larger of the two bedrooms. The leftmost door opens up to a wraparound outdoor balcony, while the door to the right conceals the washer/dryer unit.

A peek into the second bedroom. All the original windows in the bedrooms were kept intact and reused. The bed frames were custom made to match the doors.

A peek into the second bedroom. All the original windows in the bedrooms were kept intact and reused. The bed frames were custom made to match the doors.

An additional sleeping space is located in the well-ventilated loft.

An additional sleeping space is located in the well-ventilated loft.

Case Terrosa floor plan

Case Terrosa floor plan

Related Reading:

An Olson Kundig Tree House Peeks Over the Treetops in Costa Rica

Moveable Walls Amplify Sublime Views For This Costa Rican Home 

Project Credits: 

Builder/General Contractor: Luis Carlos Quiros 

Interior Design: Mike Donahue