In San Francisco two years ago, Richard Perkins, an architect's assistant, and his wife Lois, a newspaperwoman, found a way to lick the high cost of a house. They set to work to build their own, although neither had ever done much manual work before. They bought a hillside lot in suburban Tamalpais Valley and pulled on blue overalls. Working nights and weekends, they wheeled in 32 tons of gravel for the foundation, spent 13 weekends raising the framing. Eight months later, they moved into their small, modern redwood home. For their $5,000 in cash, plus their "sweat equity,"...

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