Building a legacy on a budget: How one family built their “fantasy farmhouse” with $350K

What do you do when you can’t find a home you like? Build your dream home! Here's how one did just that.
carrie valentine family
It was spring 2020 and Carrie Valentine and Travis Stearns were quickly outgrowing their St. Paul, Minnesota condo. With the addition of their first child and the restrictions put in place by the burgeoning pandemic, the couple was ready to make a change. The problem? Everything in their price range was downright depressing. When their frustration came up in conversation with Travis’ father, Ted Stearns, he had a solution: I could build you a house, he told them, half in jest. But Valentine, who is an interior designer, had seen enough of Zillow to know that if the “beautiful, romantic” home she had in mind was to become a reality, they’d have to make it for themselves.

This is the story of how two generations came together to build a “fantasy farmhouse” they hope will someday be passed down to a third generation.

Moving to the country

Valentine and Stearns started their home-building process by searching for land. They knew they wanted to be close to water, and they knew they wanted enough acreage to raise animals. It was a big change going from a St. Paul brownstone to a rural setting, especially for two “city kids,” as Valentine describes herself and her husband. But the arrival of their first child had caused them to reconsider their lifestyle. “When I thought about how I wanted to raise my kids, it was set to the tune of the country,” Valentine said. And so, the couple spent every weekend for months road tripping around the countryside surrounding the Twin Cities metropolitan area. When they found five acres of land bordering the Snake River with a magical mix of woodland and sunny pasture, they knew it was home.
A woman wearing a white dress with blue flowers carries a baby wearing a white bucket hat as she walks across a field of golden grass with a woods behind her.
Valentine and Stearns knew they had found home when they stumbled on five acres for sale along Minnesota’s Snake River.

Dreaming up the “fantasy farmhouse”

Although she had plenty of experience designing within existing homes, this was Valentine’s first time creating a whole house completely from scratch. A challenge to be sure, but one she embraced. “When we decided to build, the first thing I thought of was tall, elegant windows. They were a must, along with flat ceilings,” Valentine said. Coming from a home she lovingly described as “a bit of a cave,” she knew natural light would be key. A clear understanding of her priorities and an inclination toward simplicity helped her not only develop a clear vision, it also helped her stick to a budget of $350K. While looking through a book, she came upon a historic Georgian-style home. The symmetry and proportions of the design spoke to her, and the historic plan became the inspiration for her home’s blueprint.
A man and young boy sit on the front steps of a black home with a green front door set in the middle of a grassy field with woods behind.
Valentine was initially hesitant about committing to a black house. She worried it was too much of a trend, but the more she researched, the more historic examples she came across. “They felt so modern, even in the 1800s. I would choose this color all over again,” she said.

Building a forever home on a starter home budget

With a modest budget, Valentine and Stearns soon found themselves facing tough choices. The sky-high cost of materials forced them to shrink their square footage from the originally planned 2,400 to 1,800. They said goodbye to a breezeway/mudroom. Valentine did most of the interior painting herself. Her brothers-in-law spent Saturdays “unloading crates, hanging a very heavy limestone fireplace, and nailing down hardwood floors.”

Still, the house was coming together. High ceilings on the first floor were able to accommodate the tall windows she’d imagined, creating a feeling of spaciousness. The deleted 600 square feet weren’t noticeable, but the gracious proportions of her vision were coming to life. A historic Belgian limestone fireplace was definitely a splurge, but it became an anchor for the room. Similarly, a rustic hearth-style range hood is a central feature of the kitchen, but Valentine constructed it herself to save money.

The limitations of her budget, along with her inclination to seek inspiration from the past rather than from current trends, helped her stick to her priorities. “You’ve got to learn to say ‘no’ to yourself when designing,” she said.
On the left is an interior shot showing a living room with a couch in front of two large black-framed windows and a limestone fireplace. On the right, is a kitchen with a hearth-style range hood, light wood cabinetry, and a central island.
Turning away from trends and looking to the past, as she did when selecting a historic plan, also helped Valentine practice restraint as she worked to execute the design.

“Windows are the art of our home”

After spending months searching for the perfect piece of land and thinking deeply about every design decision, the last thing the couple wanted to compromise on was the quality of their windows. This was their dream home after all, and they wanted to protect it. On the advice from her builder/father-in-law, Valentine chose Andersen 100 Series Single-Hung Windows with black frames and colonial grilles applied to both the interior and exterior.

Her selections were informed by both functionality and aesthetics. Valentine views windows as “architectural elements.” On the exterior of her home, there are no dormers or porch — t’s just windows. Arranged in a “five-over-four" pattern, or five windows on the second floor above four windows plus a door on the first floor, they create a classic Georgian façade, which makes her home stand out. On the interior, the windows serve much the same aesthetic function, i.e., harmonizing with the furnishings in the room to create a composition on a smaller scale.

“Form or function is often a debate, but I find magic when they come together,” she said. Part of the magic of Valentine’s windows certainly has to do with their black color, which was “100% necessary.” On the outside, they match her siding, creating a striking look. While on the inside, they have a framing effect. Popping against the white trim, they put the emphasis on the landscape, which is why Valentine considers windows the “art in our home.”
bathroom with copper tub and checkered tile
Valentine chose a 6-over-6 grille pattern, rather than a more historically accurate nine-over-nine or 12-over-12, to give an updated look to her windows that still fits her home’s aesthetic.

Ready to build your own dream home?

You might not be an interior designer, but you can start to think like one with this advice from Valentine.

  1. “Close your eyes and envision your dream house.” ” If this is a challenge for you, start where Valentine starts when designing a space: Tell yourself the story of how you want to live in your home. Valentine envisioned “getting lost in the woods all afternoon, dirt roads, foraging for berries, chicken keeping, the whole idyllic scene.”

  2. ” Scour your favorite design sources for examples that’ll help you home in on what you love. She suggests triggering your imagination by spending time on Pinterest, looking through design books, or simply driving down the street and really taking in your surroundings.

  3. “Edit down and stick with the vision.” After you've dreamed big, you must rein it in again and focus on the big picture. She points out that limitations, like budget or people’s opinions, naturally force restraint as you work through the design and building process. And in her experience, that’s a good thing, because restraint is the key to executing a strong vision.

One last thing to keep in mind is that a home is not a masterpiece to be completed. Valentine describes her own home as a “work in progress.” Just as your life evolves, so should your home.

Looking for more inspiration? There’s plenty more for you to explore.

Sign up for emails

Get inspiration delivered

Beautiful projects, useful selection tips, and tools for planning your project — get it all in your inbox.