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— Lori and Micheal Brazelton didn't expect to be able to afford a home in Hayden for five to 10 years.

With no health insurance to cover treatment of Lori Brazelton's many medical problems, most of the couple's money -- she is a part-time caterer and he works for Native Excavating -- goes towards medical bills and raising their two sons, she said.

But that changed when Lori Brazelton saw a flier promoting a Mutual Self Help Housing project in Hayden, in which eight families will help build each other's homes.

"The idea of sweat equity being our down payment so we could be homeowners was very exciting to us," she said.

The Brazeltons are among four families that will spend seven to 12 months constructing each other's homes in the Sagewood subdivision. Groundbreaking for the project is planned for late August or early September, and organizers are looking for four more families to participate.

The Regional Affordable Living Foundation is coordinating the project, which gives low- to mid-income families the opportunity to invest hard work toward their dream of owning a home.

One of the project's stipulations is that none of the families moves in until all the homes are complete.

Families, which may consist of a single person or couple, must qualify financially for the program. A family of four, for example, must have an annual income of $53,900 or less, and a single person cannot make more than $37,750 in a year, RALF program manager Heidi Nunnikhoven said.

"Basically, it's such a great program because it gives families an ability to own a home without paying labor costs," she said.

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development awarded RALF a $388,000 grant to help fund 24 self-help housing units in Routt County through 2005.

The first phase of the project took place in the West End Village in Steamboat Springs, where seven families are preparing to move into three duplexes and one home they have collectively been building since September.

RALF is planning another phase of the project in Oak Creek for the spring.

The USDA grant covers RALF's administrative costs. Each family in the project receives from the federal agency a 100 percent construction loan worth between $126,000 and $146,000. The loan covers the cost of the lots as well as electricity, plumbing, drywall and other projects that are subcontracted to professionals.

From there, each family must dedicate 30 hours a week toward "ground-up" construction that will include framing the house, forming concrete, putting in windows and insulation, painting and helping with sheet rock.

Participants do not need building experience and will have the help of a construction supervisor and power tools provided by RALF. However, they must have builder's risk insurance and a set of hand tools, which together usually cost between $500 and $700, Nunnikhoven said.

In addition to saving labor costs, families benefit from a sliding scale of interest rates and may have more time to pay back loans than under a typical home loan.

A family in the $20,000 a year income bracket could qualify rates as low as 1 percent over for 38 years, Nunnikhoven said.

Families also can expect between $50,000 and $60,000 in equity when the homes are finished.

Project candidates complete several applications and interviews. If chosen, they must attend a homebuyer's class at Colorado Mountain College.

Lori Brazelton, who had no home-buying experience, said RALF representatives made the application process as simple as possible and were very receptive to her questions.

"They were so helpful," she said. "I love that about them, they never made us feel stupid."

RALF purchased the Sagewood lots for between $40,000 and $45,000. Each lot is about 75 feet by 100 feet, Nunnikhoven said.

Families will have some say in planning the homes, which will be about 1,000 square feet for a two-bedroom home and 1,250 square feet for a three-bedroom house, she said.

Routt County is the only resort area in Colorado that has enacted Mutual Self Help Housing projects. There also are programs in Grand Junction, Gunnison, Salida and Cañon City.

Organizers are excited about the program here and optimistic it may be implemented in other resort areas in need of affordable housing, Nunnikhoven said.

Once RALF completes the Oak Creek phase of the program, the organization plans to apply for another USDA grant to complete more projects in the area.

"I really believe in this program," she said. "I really believe it can continue on for years to come as a way for people to own homes."

Anyone interested should call Nunnikhoven at 870-0167.

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