For as long as I can remember it has been my dream to have a piece of land to call my own. It’s the American dream, right?
It should be so simple, but on top of all the usual hurdles between me, my family and our forever home is the fact that I never wanted to settle for one tenth of an acre in the suburbs on a zero lot line.
My ultimate dream would be to own about 1,000 acres and become a cattle baron. However my financial circumstances, along with what my wife will tolerate, have significantly impacted what my reality will become and as I close one chapter of my life and move on to the next, we have set out to find our forever home and make it our homestead. As most would expect, the process has not been an easy one.
I have owned two homes in my life and, without question, it is easier to find a cookie cutter house in the suburbs, at a specified price point, with a set number of bedrooms, bathrooms and a two-car garage. The following are the things that we considered when looking for what I hope to be our last home.
Hopefully these considerations can be beneficial for you as you look to find a homestead or make your current property into the self-sustaining home you would like it to be.
What is your budget?
Money is typically the big concern when looking for property. For the great majority of us a house is the biggest purchase that we will ever make in our lives. Because of the need to not only be able to make the monthly payments (including taxes and insurance) but typically place a down payment on the property, financial planning and awareness is paramount.
The best place to start your planning is what you can, and are willing to, spend on the acquisition of your homestead.
When taking a look at what you are able and/or willing to spend for your dream, don’t forget to forecast any expenses you will have as part of the acquisition and repair/improvements that are needed to get your homestead into a functioning state.
At the end of the day don’t forget the cardinal rule… don’t become house poor! Your intent should be to facilitate your dream but don’t do so at the expense of owning a homestead and not being able to do anything with it or do anything else with your life.
Go it alone or enlist help?
As a future homesteader I already possess the drive to do things on my own. I think that many of us have that drive but when it comes to real estate there is no substitute for a professional real estate agent. It is easy to look at the situation and say that 3 percent of the sale price could be saved without having a representing agent but it typically does not work out that way and you will miss out on having a valuable asset at your disposal.
A real estate agent has access to critical information that is needed to find you the right home and putting together the best deal possible. But it is not just about the information. Real estate professional have extensive knowledge about putting deals together and making contracts and don’t forget about their knowledge of the market in your area.
When looking for a real estate agent, ask around and see who had a good agent and which ones you might want to avoid. There are many online review sites that can provide some insight (you can at least find some of the bad ones this way). Whatever you do, do not get fooled by a full color, glossy advertisement; it does not always lead to the best person to do the job.
Do you have minimum criteria?
You probably have a list of things that you want when looking for your forever home. I know I do. But before you find the things you want, make sure that you get the things you need. I have a family so our needs dictate that we need at least four bedrooms and two bathrooms. This is a limiting factor for us but it is what we need so that was the first minimum criteria we had for our search.
In addition to the size of the home, determine what the right size of acreage will be for what you would like to do with the land. Do you have a specific need for a barn or horse stalls? Is a garage something that you must have?
Lastly, consider the fact that you may be there for a long time. Is the property a place you can see yourself in 30 years?
Once your minimum criteria is in place, decide what your short and long term goals are for your homestead. This will allow you to determine if a property will meet your needs or not. Some of the uses that I considered with my property included the ability to raise livestock, grow crops and have fun! I also made sure that I could scale these activities as a potential source of revenue if I so chose.
How is the property now?
What is the condition of the property overall? There are several potential points to consider when looking into the present condition of the property. I will forgo what I consider the given due diligence when buying any piece of property (property inspection, appraisal, etc.). Questions you should ask yourself include:
When it comes to homesteads it seems like outbuildings are a must. It doesn’t matter if it is a shed, barn or greenhouse, you are moving there to hopefully live off the land and structures are key in making that happen.
It is great if the outbuildings that exist are in great working order but do they fit your needs? Can you make them fit your needs?
If the structures are not in good working order then you need to identify what it will take to fix them and figure this into the overall cost of the property. If structures need to be built as replacements or from scratch, this also should be figured into the overall cost.
What is the land’s potential?
Depending on what your intended uses are for your land, make sure to look into what the potential of the land is as well. I want to make sure that I have ground that will support a pond going forward. You will want to look at the condition of the soil and what changes may need to be made if you are going to farm. You should also look at the resources available from the land. Standing hardwood timber is a valuable asset for future monetary gain, construction purposes or even for firewood. If you are looking to eventually create a space to invite others to, ensure that there is enough space to support those activities (parking space is always a premium!).
Be aware of what the taxes are in the area. I looked for a property that is not part of an incorporated city and the only taxes payable are to the county. In addition to what you are required to pay, find out how taxes have changed in the past. Have they gone up? Are they getting ready to go up?
Lastly, talk to neighboring land owners and find out how the tax assessor is in the area. The last thing you want is an assessor that sits in his car on the side of the road and assigns an inflated property value to your land that makes your taxes take a big jump upward. If the assessor is lazy and consistently undervalues the property in the area I would choose to keep my mouth shut. You will have to make your own call on that!
Restrictions, covenants and HOAs
I would like to believe that the idea of restrictions, covenants and homeowners associations was rooted in good intention but what I have found is that there are a bunch of people that are worried about the “value” of their giant green lawn and the McMansion that sits on it and they want no one around them to have an impact on that.
The best way to ensure that this does not happen is to make rules that tell others how they have to live their lives. I would avoid all three of these like the plague. My parents live in a community with more rules than the federal government and it amazes me how people are so accepting of that.
Look into the zoning of the land you may want to buy. As an example, just because there is a house on it does not mean that it is not commercial property. Once such a property is purchased you may find out that what the previous owner was “grandfathered” in to is no longer available to you. It sure would suck to have a homestead with a shopping mall on it!
Find out how the land is zoned now and if there have been any recent changes to the area zoning or if there are any changes in the works. For a homestead, farmland is your friend. It is especially nice to find a lot that protects the land but also the residence on it.
Please, please, please make sure that you look into what rights you have to the property! Some of the biggest fights over land came from issues with access to the land, water rights, mineral rights and the ability to allow animals to eat what grows out of the land.
When it comes to access it is absolutely imperative that you ensure that no one can stop you from getting to your property. This access should be permanent, legally binding and transferable as specified in the deed. In some cases it may be possible to obtain access to your property through a paid agreement but I would be cautious as people and governments have a habit of changing their minds about things.
You also need to ensure that you own the exclusive right to use any water that is on the property. Depending on your intent, water from a creek may not seem important but do not fail to think toward the future. There may be a time that comes where you could really use legal access to water. Across the country there are entire states that believe they are the sole owners of the water that God provides us with and you must ask them for permission for anything when it comes to the water in those states. Make sure that you know what you are legally allowed to do with the water around your property and any rain that may fall on it.
While access and water are probably the most important rights, they are not the only rights to consider. Check into what you have control of when you look to buy property. The existing owner should be able to tell you.
Depending on where you go about setting up your homestead, you may choose to be off grid, on grid or a combination thereof. In my case it is important for us to be close to medical facilities and other services so our property has all public utilities. I know that most of us dream of being completely off grid but I do feel like there are great advantages when talking about the quality and consistency of many public utilities. Considerations should include where you will get your electricity, gas, water, sewage and garbage services. I plan to use our public utilities but always be prepared with my contingency plan.
Check out the neighbors, talk to them and try to determine if they are the types of neighbors that you want to be around. Maybe I have seen too much TV but I know that neighborly relationships go bad. This is also an opportunity to get a feel for the people you will be surrounded by and find out if they will be part of the team if things fall apart around you.
Proximity to services
While it is ideal to have years and years worth of supplies stockpiled around your home, it is not always practical and I promise you that the day will come where you might actually need outside help from a professional. It does not matter whether it is a doctor, lawyer, teacher or firefighter, you should ideally locate yourself in a place where the ways of the world are close enough if you need them, but not so close that you feel trapped by them.
Take into consideration what the local political climate is like. While politics on a national and state level are a concern, nothing will come as close to home as what local politicians are doing in your own backyard. I would look at the state as a whole and work my way down to the local level. Failing to be aware of what rules, regulations and plans exist around your homestead could come back to bite you in a big way when you go to carry out your plans.
If you are going to live on a piece of property that you expect to at least partially provide for you, it will be imperative to know what the growing seasons are. The USDA has a wealth of information about growing zones, weather, what can grow in an area and when all of this will happen. Go forward in your search knowing whether or not you can grow the food that you desire to grow and that you will not be forced into a new diet based on the weather.
From a preparedness perspective, the potential threats that may exist may be the most important consideration of all when it comes to where you are located.
The potential threats on a homestead can potentially be great. In addition to the usual concerns (natural disasters, personal disasters, etc.), there are numerous concerns to consider when living on a homestead. As a result of most homesteads being in more rural areas, there are additional concerns related to wildlife and environmental threats.
Some of the specific things to find out when looking at property should include the existence of snakes, spiders, predators, other wildlife and particularly if there are things that attract these unwelcome guests.
I looked into what the property around me is being used for and what it could potentially be to me in the future. This was for two reasons. The first is that I wanted to know that I could potentially buy that property and make it part of my homestead and the second reason is that I want to know what I am, and potentially could be, surrounded by. I do not want to move to my dream home in the country to find out that Amazon is going to be building a fulfillment center on two sides of my home.
My dream requires that I am able to live in peace and not be in fear that the “scary city people” will overwhelm me. The future of the world is the mega city and one of the things to be aware of is the growth rate of the major towns around you and awareness of which ways they are growing. Look at the map and determine if your property will be at risk in the coming years of being overtaken by urban growth and all that it brings. It will only take one highway being built for your entire dream to be taken on the grounds of imminent domain.
My hope for all of us is that we will one day have the ability and be given the opportunity to live our dreams. For me, having a homestead is a huge part of living my dream and I am excited to move forward in securing my family’s future and living my dream and my life on my terms. I hope that you are all able to do the same and that this article somehow benefits you in your search. Good luck.
— Tom Miller