Since we’ve already had a conversation on the economics of home ownership, this series is intended to provide some fodder for those thinking of building their own home on their own piece of land.
The first installment of the series deals with finding land. The following discussion borrows on the experience of those who have ventured before us, helping us avoid some common, and costly, mistakes.
According to Rob Roy, author of the excellent book Mortgage Free (Chelsea Green, 2008), the first question that has to be answered before any land search can commence, is this: “Do you intend to stay close to where you live now, or are you open to moving anywhere that suits your wants and needs?” Seems simple enough but this is tough question to answer and involves all sorts of considerations – growing season, cloud free days, access to recreation and nature, building codes, employment opportunities, community, friends, family, etc. Some serious self-examination is necessary.
Another pertinent question that needs answering is how are you going to earn living. Apparently this is one of the greatest challenges to people wishing to live mortgage free – they forget to plan how they are going to earn enough money to pay the “paper costs” of living, let alone to live in minimal comfort. Though adopting a simple, semi-sufficient lifestyle dramatically reduces the cost of living, there are still costs that need to be accounted for – property tax, maintenance of tools, health insurance, registrations and licenses, school fees, and the like.
Once you’ve answered some of these questions you can begin your land search. Originally published in his book How to Buy Land (Sterling, 1982), L. John Wachtel’s P.L.A.N.E acronym is a common sense formula to help people ensure they negotiate a successful purchase. P.L.A.N.E represents the following: price, location, access, natural features, everything else.
Price is influenced by many factors but, generally speaking, raw land is always the cheapest (and the most work), while land close to major population centres is the most expensive. Figuring out how much land you need based on the types of activities you’ll be doing will help you determine what you’ll need to spend and what you can reasonably care for. There’s no point in purchasing 160 acres when 10 acres will do. Price will often inform you of what you can expect in terms of location, access, features, etc. and it may motivate you to look at other arrangements, such as collective land purchases, so you can meet your particular needs.
Access is another important factor and without it you stand to loose a great deal. Yes, some land is sold without deeded access. An “easement by necessity” may be negotiated but this could cause you a great deal of grief and a pile in legal fees. Also understand who else may have access to your land. Oil, mining, and utility activities may trump your rights as a landowner, so be aware of the ramifications of these activities before you buy.
Natural features and the “everything else” category are crucial in evaluating the land you intend to purchase. Investigating the building and zoning regulations will inform you of whether the type of home you wish to build will be permitted. A good building site is also important and as Rob Roy puts it: “adapt the house to the site, not the site to the house.” Access to clean water for drinking, irrigation and, perhaps, micro-hydro is also important. Determining the rules around septic systems will also save you time and money. Most regions mandate septic systems, which could cost at least $10,000, if the land can even accept a septic system. Are there indigenous materials you could use for building? Clay, timber, and sand could all prove valuable in helping you build your home, saving you thousands of dollars in new material costs. Firewood and access to wind or sun will also be important considerations for determining how you’ll heat and power your place. If you plan on growing your own food you’ll want good topsoil. It’s possible to build soil but if you’re not starting out with much it’ll be a lot of work. Will you have livestock? If so, is there pasture for them? Are there fruit trees or berries?
Whether you engage a realtor, surf the classifieds in your spare time, or prospect for land while you’re on vacation, knowing some of the right questions to ask will make finding the right land a fun and exciting journey. Once you find something that speaks to you, spend some time on it. Set up a tent for a night or more and watch how it behaves. Observe the winds and how the sun tracks through the sky. Listen for birds or noises that could drive you mad. Chat with the neighbours and let them know you’re looking in the area. They might be the source of important information, things that you hadn’t considered. Visit the nearest grocer and coffee shop, and the community hall and school. The more you take in about a place the more likely you’ll be happy with your decision when it comes to making it.
Note: a friend of mine put me onto the book Finding & Buying Your Place in the Country by Les & Carol Scher, which I have not yet read but he claims is an excellent and extremely thorough book on the subject of finding land.