For two years, Damian Schmidt and his girlfriend, Kristine Knight, have been looking at beat-up homes above their price range.
On a whim, they applied for the Hands on Housing program in Hayden, though they suspected their chances of qualifying for a new home in the project were slim.
"When I found out we were getting it, I was blown away," Schmidt said.
Schmidt and Knight are among eight families, couples and single residents who will help build one another's homes in the Sagewood subdivision.
The group made its partnership official Friday as the future homeowners cut shovels into the moist earth off Honeysuckle Drive during a groundbreaking ceremony.
Each family has agreed to dedicate 30 hours a week to the project. That time and hard work will serve as the down payment on their homes.
"We know it will be a long year," Schmidt said. "It's going to be a lot of work, but it's exciting."
The Yampa Valley Housing Authority coordinates the Hands on Housing program, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development department.
Seven families were involved in the first phase of the project in West End Village in Steamboat Springs. The official ground breaking for two duplexes and a single-family home in Oak Creek will be soon.
Participants must qualify financially for the program: A family of four can make no more than $58,000 and a single person must make less than $40,600 annually. Qualified families receive a 100 percent loan from the USDA, which helps cover the costs of the lots and subcontractors.
Christene and Nicholas Planansky are looking forward to having a yard for their three young boys to play. The family has been renting a trailer in Oak Creek since moving from Lubbock, Texas, last fall.
Hands on Housing is probably the only chance the couple has to own a home in Routt County, Christene Planansky said.
"I think if we didn't qualify we probably would be leaving," she said, adding that mortgage payments for the home will be less than what they now pay in rent.
Although each home and lot will cost about $155,000, appraisals should be about $225,000, which amounts to a big chunk of equity for the families, said Heidi Nunnikhoven, program director.
Lots for the Hayden project were cleared in March and, depending on the weather, the families will start getting their hands dirty affect the concrete foundations are formed this month, Nunnikhoven.
A construction supervisor will help the families through the process.
"I'm a little nervous about the time to dedicate," Christene Planansky said.
Her family will have the help of Nicholas Planansky's co-workers at Atmos Energy. Several co-workers from Greeley plan to take a week off of work this summer to help with the construction, she said.
Through the process of constructing their homes, residents in the Hands on Housing program take a lot of pride in their work and gain the experience and skills needed for regular maintenance, said Cindy Hill, USDA rural development technician.
"It's been proven (that) people in this program take better care of their homes," she said.
The Hands on Housing projects in Routt County are the first of their kind near a resort area.
Other projects have been built in Alamosa, Grand Junction and Delta. Another program may be in the works in Eagle County, Hill said.
It's not easy to initiate Self Help Housing projects. Although families must undergo a lengthy and complex application process, nonprofit organizations face an even more stringent process for applying for USDA grants for the program.
"It's hard to find good, quality nonprofits," Hill said.
If support and interest for the Hands on Housing program in Routt County continues, YVHA may apply for another USDA grant for more projects after the Hayden and Oak Creek builds, which should be complete by the end of the year, Nunnikhoven said.