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Self-help housing. `Sweat equity' programs let would-be homeowners invest labor in lieu of dollars. (EAST COAST)

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IT'S cold at the building site, maybe 20 degrees F., when Terry Parker takes his second brief break of the day. The first flakes of an approaching snowstorm are just beginning to fall. He arrived here at an ``unearthly hour'' for a Sunday morning, and the hot chocolate now cupped in his hands is particularly welcome. ``This,'' he says, indicating the steaming mug, ``is what keeps me going on days like this.'' But the greater incentive to continue is the knowledge that he and wife, Cheryl, will soon move into a home that was beyond anything they could conceive of just a year ago.

It's a three-bedroom post-and-beam gambrel design that, when finished, would fetch between $80,000 and $85,000 on the open market in this rural Massachusetts community. In a Boston suburb, the same house would fetch two and three times that figure. So for a machinist earning $22,000 a year and with no money for a down payment, the home is an ``impossible dream'' come true. ``Look at it,'' he says with obvious pleasure, ``the beams are all solid oak.''

The Parkers aren't the only ones feeling pretty good about life right now. Ted and Terri Matteson, and Matt Battchelder and his fianc'ee, Cyndy Bourbeau, will all move into similarly substantial homes alongside the Parkers in early May.

Home owning for these three couples has been made possible through a ``sweat-equity'' program that allows them to invest labor, in lieu of dollars, as the down payment on the mortgage.

Programs such as this one in central Massachusetts are slowly spreading around the United States. They generally involve a non-profit community development organization, and always require the cooperation of a banker who recognizes the dollar value of hands-on labor by the prospective owners. To be successful, the programs also require the expert supervision of a qualified builder to coach the new owners through the building project.

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