How to get free materials for building projects

How to get free materials for building projects

Today’s post is about how and where you can get FREE or heavily discounted building materials. So, read on and learn how to make your project dollars go further. 

Almost all the projects I want to tackle here on the off-grid homestead require building materials. These materials can get really expensive and at some point, can make a project cost prohibitive. We’ve built every structure on our property from free or very cheap materials.  

Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. This means offgridmaker.com could earn a small commission, at no additional cost to you, on the things you purchase.

The up-side and the down-side to salvaging building materials 

The up-side is kind of obvious, right, It’s the money. The amount of money saved by salvaging material is crazy. I’ve built so many things from free material, some of them cost absolutely nothing. The picture below is our hen house and chicken yard. I built it for absolutely nothing. 

The hen house and chicken fence built from cedar slabs that were sourced for free from a local sawmill
The slabs used to build the hen house and the fence were salvaged from a local sawmill for free.

You can also feel better about using materials that where likely on their way to a landfill somewhere. Lumber especially, is so costly to us environmentally and so much of it ends up in a landfill. 

The cabin we live in is a Gambrel style 14’ x 18’ cabin with a loft. We have running water with full kitchen, bathtub, washing machine, 8 windows, a tin roof, a small solar set up for lights and phone charging, carpet and tile. All of this we built ourselves and we don’t have $1,500.00 in it yet.  

And now we get to the down-side. When building a project with salvaged materials it is going to take longer. It takes time to locate and gather the right type and amount of materials for any project. The larger the project the longer it will take. It has taken us 5 years to get our cabin this far and it isn’t finished. It took 3 years to get it dried in so we could move out of our 7’ x 9’ shed. Yes, we lived in a shed, but when it’s all said and done, we will have an off-grid cabin in the woods free and clear with full equity.  

When you salvage certain items that are harder to find or have specific dimension sizes that need to be met, like doors and windows, you may not be able to find a specific style or type. You may have to accept a style or type that isn’t your first choice. We have three different styles of windows in our cabin. They’re all white in color, but they don’t exactly match. 

Now let’s get into the reason you probably clicked here. 

Free material sources 

Residential construction sites 

My all-time favorite place to get completely free building materials is new construction sites. For one thing, you can get so many different types of material from one location. You can get framing lumber, siding, roofing, brick, stone, sheetrock, insulation, trim wood, paint, nails, plywood, etc.   

When I go to town, I will take different routes just to make sure I don’t miss a new home being built somewhere. Ideally, I like to find a home addition being built. Many houses being built in one location at the same time can be like winning a lottery.  

I once roofed a 10’ x 16’ shed with asphalt shingles I had picked up 1 at a time around new houses that had just been roofed. I got them from a single housing addition where every house had to have the same shingle per housing covenants. 

 When a roofer is on a house and a shingle slides down the roof to the ground the roofer is not going to waste his time retrieving it. From the ground it will end up in the landfill unless you put it to good use.  

One thing to keep in mind is custom homes (homes sold before they’re built) are typically not as fruitful as speculative homes (homes built in the hopes they will sell in the future). Custom homes already have an owner who may want to save all the same materials you want to get. Either way, remember to always get permission to remove anything from a construction site. Even taking things from a dumpster without permission can be considered theft. 

Commercial construction sites 

Commercial construction sites are basically like new home sites except the types of materials you will be able to get will be more varied and it will be harder to predict what you might be able to salvage without stopping to check. 

 It will be a bit tougher to get permission on a commercial site for two reasons. One, the general contractor may have very strict insurance policies regarding people other than authorized personnel being on the site. Two, these sites are more frequently hit by thieves and so there is a higher level of paranoia about letting strangers have any kind of access. 

Remodeling companies 

A trailer of lumber salvaged from a roof rebuild. 2 x 6 x 14 dimensional lumber plus more
A load of lumber I got from roof repair.
It had about 12 14′ 2 x 6’s

Large scale remodeling companies are a great place to get used fixtures. These companies are taking out plumbing fixtures, electrical fixtures, cabinets, appliances on a regular basis. Sometimes these items are too old to have much good life left in them, but sometimes they may only be a couple years old. Companies that specialize in kitchen and bath remodels will have lots of fixtures they will be happy to let you reclaim. 

The best way to get in with these companies is to call their office number and ask to speak with their site superintendent. Ask if there are any demolition projects going on where you could salvage some usable fixtures. It’s good if you can tell them specifically what you’re looking for.  

Door, window and siding companies 

Door, window and siding companies always have used doors and windows piling up at their shop. Again, some of these items won’t be in great shape, but some will be hardly used.  

Fence companies 

Fence companies always have the problem of hauling away old privacy fence their replacing. Most of them will be happy to let you haul it away. Sometimes they will sell used privacy fence panels really cheap if they’ve already hauled them away from the job site. 

If you can agree to be on the job site on a certain day to haul away a fence that’s coming down, they’ll let you have it for free to save them the labor of hauling it back to their shop. 

This material can be used for all kinds of things from furniture to bird houses. If a rustic theme is something you like then you can use this material for finish products like trim wood, cabinets, walls and ceilings. 

 How to ask for free materials 

When approaching general contractors or company owners you should introduce yourself. Tell them where you live. This tells them you’re local, you’re a neighbor. Describe the project you’re wanting to complete. This can peak a person’s interest and in some cases a contractor familiar with the build process may suggest to you something other than what you’ve asked for that they are willing to let you have. Don’t be long winded with this. Get to the point and leave out unnecessary details. Be prompt about hauling things away. Always be very thankful and express your gratitude. You may want to ask for something else in the future. 

How NOT to source free materials 

Most of the free material you are likely to find will be waste material from new construction or remodeling sites. It’s usually obvious that this material is going to be thrown away. It will be piled up like a big trash pile or it will be in a dumpster. This material isn’t free game. It is still the property of the property owner or the contractor doing the work. If you’re seen taking waste material from the site you will most likely be asked to leave and possibly have the police called on you.  

If, on the other hand, you take down the phone number on the contractors sign that is almost always posted on the construction site and call to ask for permission, it’s likely you will be granted permission to take what you want. 

Contractors continuously fight theft on their job sites. They will jump very quickly to the conclusion that you’re there to steal something if you haven’t asked for permission. So, even if it’s obvious something is going to be thrown away you should still ask for permission to take it. 

Big box stores 

Big box home improvement stores always end up with damaged or defective goods they will usually discount these items pretty heavily. I’m sure all these stores handle this differently. For example, My local home improvement store sells their busted bags of concrete to me for .50c each. They even give me heavy duty plastic bags to put the broken bags in. 

busted cement bags and sand bags for sale for $.50
cement bags and sand bags for .50c each

The same store will bundle up their damaged lumber. Maybe it has a crack at the end of the board, maybe it’s warped or damaged by a forklift. The store calls this a Cull Pack and they mark all the material down %50. You can usually get it for another %50 off just by making an offer. The down-side to this is you have to take it all. Sometimes there may be some materials you don’t need that you have to take to get the stuff you do need. 

Cull Pack bundled up for sale
Cull Pack. $372 retail. We got it for $40

Labor barter 

Another great way to get free material is to barter your labor for it. I tore down a horse coral for a lady. In exchange I got to keep the material. It took my wife and I 2 days to get it done, but we were able to build a winter greenhouse with just a portion of the material. I am currently helping demo a 400’ long commercial chicken barn in exchange for materials. These materials will help us add on another 150 sq. Ft. To our cabin. Craigslist is a pretty good place to find these kinds of offerings. 

Conclusion 

The techniques for salvaging materials for building projects can save a bunch of money and will make an impact on waste in consumerism. It will cost less to build something, but it will take longer. By using this information to go to construction sites and construction companies for either free or heavily discounted materials you can significantly reduce your costs for building projects. 

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