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I’m building my own Swedish summer house – here’s what I’ve learned

I'm building my own Swedish summer house – here's what I've learned
The roof of Mia Orange and Richard Orange's house. Photo: Mia Orange
Having a summer house is close to obligatory in Sweden. But with prices now sky-high anywhere near the big cities, it's out of many people's reach. So our reporter Richard Orange's Swedish wife Mia decided to build one herself, and he reluctantly agreed. Here's what happened.

It took me about four years to work out what was going on. My Swedish wife kept sending me links to housing auctions featuring enormous tumble-down renovation projects in Värmland, abandoned farmhouses in Småland, or cabins in the wilds of northern Skåne.

At first, I thought she was fantasizing about abandoning our life in Malmö to grow our own vegetables and keep goats. I’d humour her, say a few encouraging things about the houses, then immediately forget about it. 

It was only when the first of our friends started to buy getaways an hour or two outside Malmö that I clicked that this was something normal, even expected, for Swedish families. 

At home in the UK, you generally don’t start thinking about a holiday house in Cornwall or Devon unless you’re very wealthy. In Sweden, it’s something less well-paid professionals, such as teachers, journalists, and academics, aim for too. It’s typically the next milestone after your children are in school. 

For my wife, it was also a passion project. While I can’t wire a plug (at least not without recourse to YouTube), she, like many Swedes, is practical. When we bought our flat, she put in the kitchen, installed new taps, basins and toilets, plastered the walls, and put in a new wooden floor, more-or-less single-handed (I did help). 

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When she was studying, she worked part-time at a big out-of-town DIY store, and had long wanted to put her extensive knowledge of building materials and power tools to use.

She is also addicted to Husdrömmar (House Dreams) the SVT renovation programme where presenter Anne Lundberg and architect Gert Wingårdh visit a succession of Swedes embarking on perilous renovation or self-build projects, only to go wildly over budget, but somehow come out OK in the end. 

Anne Lundberg and Gert Wingårdh were part of the inspiration behind Mia Orange’s house project.

Initially, Mia fixated on a two-up, two-down brick house near a friend of ours’ summerhouse in Österlen, Skåne’s desirable southeastern corner, which she called the ruckel, or ‘ruin’. 

It had a hole in the roof through which water had been leaking for decades, rotting right through the ceiling of the ground floor, and then down through the floor to the cellar below. This was terrifying, so when she instead found two small adjoining plots of land for sale at a nearby area reserved for holiday cottages, it was such a relief I quickly agreed.

We are now coming up to our third summer working on the house, and it still feels like we’re barely halfway. We have a roof, walls, and windows, and Mia’s done the insulation. The aim is to be finished by the autumn, but I’m betting on one more summer.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. 

Is it cheaper to build your own house? 

The plot we are building on cost 300,000 kronor, which is three times as much as cheaper plots in other parts of Skåne, but will hopefully pay off as we will end up with a house in an area otherwise outside our price range. 

The module house cost another 300,000 kronor, and I expect we will end up spending at least another 500,000 kronor on laying the concrete foundation, installing plumbing and electricity, and buying second-hand windows, stairs, doors, etc. 

So the cost quickly catches up with that of buying a house that’s already been built: for that amount of money, it is still just about possible to find a well-situated holiday house an hour from Malmö (although you might find you’d have to pay quite a bit for renovation and upkeep going forward). 

However, in the area where we’re building, holiday houses have in the last year been selling for two, even three, million kronor, so if the market holds up (a big if), our efforts will hopefully be worth something.  

Are there any other advantages to building your own house? 

If you’re got an interest in design and a big budget (or modest desires), you can of course build the house of your dreams.

Some of the more outlandish Husdrömmar episodes I can remember include a house with a tree growing through the middle, a house encased in a giant greenhouse, and a house constructed as a giant geodesic dome. 

You might be able to find a plot with a view over water, or down into a stunning valley which is better than any existing house you can find. 

Also, if you’re into that sort of thing, it’s the ultimate DIY project. 

Is it a good idea to buy a plot in a holiday house area? 

Our plot is in a fritidshusområde, or ‘holiday house area’, with I think around 80 other holiday houses and cabins laid out along a network of small roads. The negative side is that, even though we are in the popular Österlen area, it feels a bit suburban. You are watched over by your neighbours, many of whom are retirees from Lund and Malmö, and have to be careful to limit the noise and mess you make. 

The positive aspect is that electricity and water supplies run right up to the border of the plot, there are potential playmates for our children, and a little community.

It was surprising that what was delivered from Piteå was little more than a pile of planks and beams. Photo: Mia Orange

Is it a good idea to buy a modular house? 

We bought a modular house from Lundqvist Trävaru, based in Piteå in the far north of Sweden. The advantage of this is that once you’ve ordered the house, you get architecture plans sent to you which make it relatively easy to apply for planning permission. If you designed your own house, you might have issues over whether the structure is stable.  

Lundqvist also have a very good online system to help you choose what dimensions you want, as well as instruction videos showing you how to erect the walls, put on the roof etc. 

On the other hand, when the container lorry arrived to deliver the house, I was surprised to discover that what they unloaded was more or less just a pile of planks and beams. The planks for the walls had been nailed together into 1.2m modules in Lundqvist’s factory, but that was about it. 

If I’m honest, I expected it to be a bit more like IKEA. I was expecting to receive more detailed instructions about how to put the parts together, perhaps with colour-coded packages telling you which pieces of wood are supposed to be used in which order. My wife managed to work it out, but it wasn’t easy. 

Mia Orange risking life astride the roof of her build project. Photo: Richard Orange

Should you get a professional to build it? 

For 200,000 kronor, we could have got Lundqvist to erect the house, paint it, put in the windows, and do the roof and gutters, which would have taken them a week, saved us about six months’ work, and probably meant a slightly better structure.

For us though, saving 200,000 kronor was easily worth a summer of hard labour. And for my wife, building the house herself was part of the point anyway.  

What about getting help from your friends and neighbours? 

We’ve been lucky in that the two people living in the houses across the road are local rather than people from Malmö or Lund with a holiday house, and they have been enormously helpful. One is a retired carpenter, and he has given Mia useful advice at every stage.

They’ve also helped us contact local plumbers, concrete and stone suppliers, and given other advice on materials. 

On the day we lifted up the roof beams, we had help from a small crowd of friends who helped guide the various parts into place and screw them down.

During the lull in the pandemic in early September, Mia’s mother came down from Uppsala and helped mount the front door.

One of the things I’ve learned as a foreigner is how generous Swedes can be with their time and advice when it comes to something practical like building a house. While general chit-chat and small talk is relatively rare, when the discussion gets on to subjects like guttering, they can talk for hours. 

Mia’s mother came down to help mount a door in September.

Should you get help online? 

My wife has become an obsessive member of the Byggahus (‘house-build’) website and forum, which is a sort of virtual version of the sharing of advice mentioned above. If you can read and write Swedish, it’s an invaluable place to discuss every element of a building project from how to get your permission to start building from the local municipality, to tricks for putting in windows. 

How tough is the bureaucracy? 

Before you can start building you need to apply for bygglov, or ‘building permission’ from the municipality, and if you are planning on doing any major landscaping, you also need to apply for marklov. You also need to secure a startbesked, before you start work.

It took us two or three attempts before we had supplied all the correct documentation to receive our bygglov, so it can be quite complicated, but still far from impossible. 

Once you have laid out the area where you are going to build your house you also need to get that measurement approved by the municipality.

You also need to employ an independent ‘kontrollansvarig‘, KA, who monitors your work at all the essential stages to make sure you’re not taking any dangerous shortcuts. 

The municipality also has to come out at different stages to check that you’ve done everything according to the plans and building regulations. 

Finally, when you’ve finished you need to get the municipality to inspect your work and issue a slutbesked before you are allowed to live in the structure. 

So all in all, there’s quite a lot to do. 

How hard is it? 

If you’d asked me in September, I would have said ‘surprisingly doable’, particularly if you have a practical partner. But the cruel reality is that while it looks like your house is almost finished once you’ve erected the walls and roof, you are actually not even a quarter of the way there. 

Moreover, as each of the many, many time-consuming jobs you have left make little real difference to the outward picture of the house, it is easy to feel like you’re going nowhere. 

Perhaps the hardest thing is that while our richer (or perhaps just more indebted) friends have for the last two summers been enjoying flitting between their summer houses and the beach, we’ve been spending our time heaving wood about while living in a cramped 1970s caravan. 

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Member comments

  1. Wow. This is great. What becomes of the house, however, during most of the year when it is unoccupied. I’m thinking of from the US perspective. Not just security but things like burst pipes…?

    1. Todd, in general, you turn off the water and empty the pipes when you leave the house for the winter, so burst pipes shouldn’t be a problem. The same is also true for electricity. You don’t leave things there that can’t stand the cold. If you have cold-sensitive stuff in the summer house, you can leave the electricity on and have the heating set on a few degrees above zero.

      Security-wise, neighbors are often glad to keep an eye on the house. It’s part of their own security as well to keep an eye out for burglars.

      🙂

  2. I had a summer cottage off the coast of of Sweden when I previously lived in the UK and found that a thermostat in range of a cheap security camera could monitor the property temp in the winter and keep a lookout for problems, it worked very well..it was also reassuring for security. I now live in Sweden and have a semi rural house without the need to get away to the quiet and wilds – I am a DIY fanatic & get great pleasure in creating from scratch – Swedes do tend to be very knowledgable and practical and as you say very helpful, I was building a jetty on my driveway and my neighbours took an interest and hay presto with their help we now have a floating jetty for launching the kayaks and paddle boards (replacing a dilapidated one). most houses in Sweden are wooden and so some DIY knowledge is a good thing to have. by coincidence my family and I took a little road trip last week to the Österlen area, its very nice & there’s some lovely beaches and countryside. good luck with your project Richard its certainly worthwhile.

  3. Hope it all works out for you. The last thing I ever felt was enticing was having a little home (especially without sewage or central water supply) in the middle of nowhere in Sweden. I’d probably go insane out there, but Swedes do love it.

  4. Oh this sounds so much fun!!! Lycka Till Richard och familj! I hope it fulfills all your Swedish sommar dreams.

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