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Life After Owner-Built: Home Sweet Homies

Nicole and Shelby

A lovely green house, two cute dogs, and a best friend across the street. The home of Shelby Strang looks like a scene from a movie. However, it was not always as simple and picture perfect as one might think. Behind the picturesque home lies 16 months of hard work and dedication as Shelby built her house from the ground up alongside nine other future homeowners as part of NeighborWorks Great Falls’ Owner-Built program.

This program allows participants to earn substantial equity- known as “sweat equity”- and is what makes the homes affordable. Hard work is the key to this project, and no one can move in until all 10 homes have been completed. Which might leave some asking; after 16 months of intensive work, what comes next? The answer may surprise you: Tacos. We sat down with Shelby and fellow builder Nicole Patch to talk about their experience with the Owner-Built program and the community that formed as a result.

Earlier this month, the pair organized a neighborhood taco night party that included those in their building group (Group One) as well as this year and last years’ groups. With 40 people in attendance, the event was well received.

Taco Night

NeighborWorks Great Falls: What inspired doing a neighborhood-wide event?

Nicole: Meeting new people. We only get to build with our group, so we don’t see everyone.

Shelby: We wanted to celebrate Group Two and welcome them to the neighborhood. It’s good to form a community to know who lives where.

NWGF: Are there any future neighborhood events planned?

Nicole: When Group Three moves in, probably. We try to do other things too. Like during Christmas we started Christmas Eve Lumineers.

Shelby: Well, she [Nicole] started it. She’s like the main person for all the get togethers and traditions.

Nicole: It sometimes stresses me out, but I like to do it too.

For claiming not to be social people, these two certainly know how to build relationships with their neighbors. Sharing multiple laughs, they went on to describe how they have a group they call the “Home Sweet Homies.” Even better yet, the matching slippers that proudly display “Quarantining with my Gnomies.”

NWGF: You two seem close, did you know each other prior?

Shelby: No, I didn’t know anyone. My aunt was like you need to be friends with Nicole, I just know you guys will get along.

Nicole: And we did, we just clicked. We’re like let’s make a Facebook group and go shopping for tools!

Shelby: It’s so cheesy! Some mornings we’d bring the homies breakfast. We still hangout. We had dinner together Yesterday. It’s a fun experience. Honestly these are oversized dorms. We lucked out, everyone has such a big heart and are just so kind.

NWGF: What advice do for those who want to create a better relationship with their own neighbors?

Nicole: Join a Facebook group. It’s easy if we want to plan a Summer BBQ or a neighborhood garage sale. We were actually just invited to one.

Shelby: You got to have a neighbor like Nicole who’s like let’s get together! But put yourself out there, if you see your neighbor outside say hi. Our [neighborhood] age is 28-50 on average. We noticed that Group Two has a lot of kids the same age so for them that’s cool, maybe their kids can be friends.

The Owner-Build program is one of the toughest, yet most rewarding programs NeighborWorks Great Falls offers. Hearing about it fist-hand from the recent builders shines perspective on what it is truly like to embark on the experience.

NWGF: What is your personal experience overall going through this program?

Nicole: The program is really great, it provides homes for people who normally probably couldn’t afford to get into a place on their own. For me, I had a daughter. I didn’t want to just pick any neighborhood. I wanted safe where she can go outside and I feel comfortable letting her. It reminds me of a summer camp or college experience. You’re around these people all the time and you’re working towards an end goal.

Shelby: I honestly never thought I’d own a home before 30. It gives you the opportunity to invest in yourself and helps you kickstart a new chapter of life. It’s so worth it and a once in a lifetime experience. I would do it again if we had the same people.

NWGF: How has going through the Owner-Built program affected your relationship with your neighbors?

Nicole: We definitely keep an eye out for each other. Make sure we’re all safe, we notify each other, we have a Facebook that’s just Group One people where if we see something weird, we’ll message.

Shelby: All the time I’ll get “oh my package is out can you put it in[side]? Here’s my code.” It has built very good friendships. No matter what we will have each other’s back through anything. I feel safe knowing my neighbors from going through this program.

Nicole: We started a neighborhood watch and included Group Two and will include Group Three when they’re done.

NWGF: What advice do you have for those going through the program currently or are thinking about participating?

Shelby: Stick with it. It’s a lot of hard work but end results are so worth it. You make friends, we had so much fun. It’s weird that there was nothing out here but a field. I look around and think how are there three groups now? It blows my mind. Take pictures so you can remember and look back on the experience. I’ve looked back and got teary-eyed. You kind of wish you could go back, but some things I do not want to do ever again. Like top plates.

Nicole: When you’re in it [the program], it feels like 10 years, but it flies by.

NWGF: How did you hear about the program?

Shelby: My aunt. I knew she worked at NeighborWorks, but I didn’t know what she did. She was like, “why don’t you do the self-help program?” I was like, girl I don’t know about that. The only tool I know is a hammer! She explained that there were supervisors and explained how it worked and after I thought you know what, why not.

To drive up and down the neighborhood, while there is some uniformity to the houses, each one seems completely unique. Different colors, different decor, different feel. To some degree, it appears as if each house has its own personality. The inside is no different. Shelby’s is what she describes as having a farmhouse aesthetic while Nicole says hers is more bohemian.

NWGF: These homes all seem distinct despite being built at the same time by the same people.

Nicole: We get to pick out our flooring, our lighting. We make it our own.

Shelby: That’s another amazing thing about the program, not only are you getting a home, you can customize it. This way it’s your own canvas.

Nicole: That’s the fun part too, seeing everyone’s style and personalities through what they pick.

NWGF: Now to go full circle and get back to the theme of tacos…. A certain 2007 comedy movie had the debate of who would win in a fight, a taco or a grilled cheese sandwich. What do you think?

Nicole: Taco for sure.

Shelby: Yeah, taco. Definitely. Taco has everything going on.

NWGF: Well that about wraps it up. Do you have any closing remarks?

Shelby: With the program, embrace it, it’s worth it. Ultimately, it’s worth it.

Nicole: Some of us are closer than others but we would do anything for any one of us. Shelby: Anywhere else you don’t know because you don’t know your people and you don’t know who is around you. I love the communication and support.

A huge thank you to Shelby and Nicole for taking the time to share their experience. For more information on our Owner-Built program, click here.

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