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    Billy Shannon

    For retired, simple bungalows can slash the cost of living

    Here is what life is like in a yurt. You live in the woods in a glorified tent, with fabric stretched over the skeleton of your one-room quarters. You burn wood to keep warm. You have a propane stove for cooking and an outhouse. And if you’re a budget-conscious retiree, you save tens of thousands of dollars a year over what it cost you to live in a suburban house.

    This was all part of the calculation for Dave Cruey, who hopes to sell his house near Houston for $250,000 after he and his wife, Harmony, move to a two-acre homestead in New Mexico. Dogged by the high cost of living in mainstream America, the 56-year-old blacksmith paid $40,000 five years ago for a picturesque plot. Slowly, he has built a 210-square-foot custom yurt with an outdoor kitchen, a bathhouse, a shop, and two 12-foot “guest yurts.’’

    Call it the reverse American Dream. With 78 million baby boomers inching toward their golden years, more and more are seeking a simpler, cheaper, and more adventurous way of life. It makes sense in a nation where, in 2009, 27 percent of Americans depended on Social Security for 50 to 90 percent of their income, according to AARP.

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    Many manufacturers and dealers of simple homes like kit cabins and yurts - modeled after the circular shelters favored by Mongolian nomads - report an increase in interest among retirees.

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    Cruey estimates he and his wife will go from spending about $60,000 per year for property taxes, homeowners’ insurance, utilities, and other living expenses to an annual budget of about $25,000. With little money set to come their way during retirement, the couple needed to shift gears, he said.

    Ivy Fife, marketing director for Colorado Yurt Co., which sells homes for as low as $6,000, said she has noticed an uptick in older folks looking for an alternative. “As they near retirement, they want to simplify and get away from the concerns of having a house,’’ she said.

    Jim Gega, owner of Trophy Amish cabins in Michigan, builds 10- by 16-foot cabins and delivers them for as low as $7,800. He said 80 percent of the customers buying his simple, rustic homes with traditional log cabin exteriors are in their 50s or older. “Their kids are grown and moved out, they’ve got some land. For 10, 15, 20 grand they’ve got a nice place that’s going to last,’’ he said.

    In 1978, Alan Bair started Pacific Yurts, the first American manufacturer of the small, round structures. He said the trend with older people has become clear. Bair thinks the ailing economy has pushed a lot of people into the lifestyle, but said it does “provide a sort of value of life that’s really whole and fulfilling.’’

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    “We’ve got a lot of baby boomers that will not be able to live on their Social Security checks,’’ Cruey said. “We’re trying to develop a product that can help Americans get away from a mortgage. People can build their own home, move in in a couple weeks, done deal.

    Billy Shannon is a master’s candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.