NORWAY — The dream of home ownership is alive and well in western Maine.

In 2015, Sarah Martin made a commitment to build a home in Norway for herself and her two daughters. 

She enrolled in the Community Concepts Self­-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program and in January, she and several other families and individuals began their yearlong “sweat equity” building partnership to construct homes for themselves and for each other. The goal is to have all of the homes completed by January 2017.

What Martin didn’t expect was a marriage proposal at her home’s construction site. (More on the proposal will appear in a story on Monday, April 18.) 

Martin regularly takes her girls, ages 4 and 7, to their new house to help sweep and do other simple tasks. They even personalized the house by writing their names on the framing.

“They couldn’t be more excited to move in and have their own big yard and place to play outside,” she said. “They share a bedroom now, and they’ll have their own bedrooms in a few months.”

Martin met her fiance, John Tester, over a year ago, after she enrolled in the home-building program, through mutual friends.

“We have been together ever since,” she said. “It was love at first sight!”

On a Thursday night in March, Tester knelt down in front of Martin and asked for her hand.

Since Martin pledged 120 hours each month to build her home — no matter the weather or personal challenges — she and Tester will postpone their wedding until the house is finished.

“Between work, house and kids, our lives are super busy — but we’re excited about finishing our home, so we can enjoy some ‘us’ time with the kiddos,” Martin said.

Tester and Martin both work on Martin’s home on weekends and weeknights while working full time at the Wal-Mart distribution center in Lewiston.

She applied for the Community Concepts program in July 2015 and was accepted on Aug. 11, 2015.

“That was my birthday, so it was one of the best days of my life — except when my girls were born, of course,” she said. 

Martin is among more than 300 families over the past 24 years who will achieve the dream of home ownership through the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program.

The work starts with Self-Help Housing Group Worker Susan Bradford in Community Concepts’ office in South Paris. She processes each application, verifying applicants’ credit, stable income and ability and willingness to meet the labor requirement.

Community Concepts serves as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program agent, with the federal agency providing financing for the land, construction materials and subcontracting for basements, septic systems, and electrical and plumbing work. 

Applicants find their own house lots in a town of their choice and select a house design that meets USDA ­Rural Development-approved plans. They repay the federal loan through a mortgage tailored to their individual income and expenses.

Self-Help program construction supervisor Kenneth Irons works with each team, all of whom share the work to build modest 44- by 28-foot, three­-bedroom ranch homes for each of the participating families.

The homes all must be finished by the entire group before anyone is allowed to move in. 

Many applicants don’t have any prior experience in home-building, but everyone learns valuable skills during the 120 hours each month they are required to work.  

In 2006, when the housing market took a dive, many people either lost their jobs or were worried about keeping them, so the building program had to adjust to the realities of the recession, Bradford said.

“Over the past decade, we’ve faced the same challenges as the rest of the country when the economy collapsed,” she said. “People just were too worried about keeping their jobs to commit to building a house.”

The federal government’s sequestration cuts in 2013 halted many of the USDA’s Rural Development programs, forcing many qualified candidates across the country to postpone their building plans. Today, the economy is more stable, the housing market has rebounded and the home-building program is back in action. 

The Maine success stories haven’t gone unnoticed. In July 2015, USDA Rural Development presented four building programs in the United States with their Helping Hands Award for outstanding grantees. Not only was the Community Concepts building program recognized for excellence, it was recognized for being the oldest Self­-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program grantee in the Northeast.

Community Concepts, a non­profit agency started more than 40 years ago, has offices in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties. In addition to the housing program, the agency operates dozens of well­-established community service programs, including Head Start, the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program and low­-cost or free transportation services for seniors and low-income individuals.

For more information about the building program, go to­, or contact Bradford at [email protected]­ or 739­-6514.

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