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Extreme saver: Just build it
Robert Levine built his own castle, and saved a lot of money doing so, too.
March 16, 2005: 2:23 PM EST
By Deshundra Jefferson, CNN/Money staff writer
Robert Levine, extreme saver
Robert Levine, extreme saver

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - If a man's home is his castle, he may as well build it to suit his needs -- and save a few bucks, too.

Robert Levine built his own castle in greater Seattle some seven years ago, after obtaining a home equity loan from his first house to finance the construction. It was a project he built, literally, from the ground up.

"I hammered almost every nail in my five-level home," Robert said. "I did the carpentry, plumbing, electric, gas, cutting and polishing of the granite for the kitchen and just about everything else."

There were a few things that he just couldn't do. He paid to have concrete poured, to install the furnace and to connect the drainage to his municipal sewer system.

Robert also splurged on a few niceties. This 3,000 square-foot plus maison boasts custom-fit Douglas Fir windows, cherry wood cabinets, and a Sub-Zero refrigerator.

In all, his do-it-yourself project cost $150,000, including the lot.

Not so extreme?

Robert, now an retrofit engineer, earned his GED at age 16 before landing a job at the San Francisco shipyard. He held a variety of jobs in his early years, including a stint in the Air Force that helped pay his way through the University of Washington.

The 53 year-old moved to Washington at age 26 after visiting his brother, David, who was working as the head waiter at a Seattle Steak and Ale. The brothers decided to buy instead of rent, settling on a $30,000 house they found on their own.

"It was for sale by owner and was undervalued, but it was great for us," he said. "The owners wanted to carry the paper, so we jumped at it."

Robert eventually bought David out after the younger sibling decided to return to California for law school. He is now remodeling that home, a process which he expects to finish this summer.

He concedes that he is losing money on the house as it has been vacant for three years, but he's "not starving" and knows how to save where he can.

His everyday savings techniques are fairly straightforward: Robert lives beneath his means.

"I learned to be frugal out of need," he said. "As I became more financially secure, I no longer have to fret over prices, but it is a part of my being."

Robert likes movies, but prefers to stay in. His two teenage daughters will go out for the major releases, but their separated dad often borrows videos from the library and will occasionally add a new title to his DVD collection.

There's no real incentive to eat out either, as dining in is much cheaper and often much healthier as well. Coupon clipping does little to save money, he says, as it is more like a "discount off over-priced goods" that are still more expensive than the generics.

He's a comparison shopper, too. Buying in bulk hardly serves his needs because he often finds that it doesn't result in the biggest savings. Robert uses the Internet to compare prices of non-perishables. Google and eBay are two of his favorite sites.

Robert lives a credit card debt-free life, as he hasn't paid interest on his credit cards in over 20 years. If that balance is more than 30 days old, he figures that you aren't managing your expenses well.

He says that he is well on his way to retiring at age 55 with a sizable asset base and is irked when his peers question how he can afford to retire. His silent reply is that he doesn't understand how they squandered their resources so that they cannot afford to retire by the same time.

Robert hardly sees himself as an extreme saver, but rather a rational one. Then again, he knows his lifestyle is not for all.

"If everybody lived like I do, businesses would not be so successful, the economy would not be as robust, but perhaps society would be less frenetic," he concluded.  Top of page

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