Homesteading 101 – Prospective Homestead Priorities
by Patient Momma
I have heard of and read some sad accounts of people purchasing property to begin their dream of homesteading, only to find thousands of dollars of expenses facing them. I’ve watched some of those ‘Homestead Rescue’ programs on TV and wondered what in the world were those people thinking? This article is based on the premise that you’ve decided to get out of the city, to purchase some land with an existing on-grid residence and start homesteading in the country.
Life Style Change
Moving to the country and establishing a homestead is a major lifestyle change for the entire family. I strongly suggest a family meeting and the reality of the situation be discussed before you even think about looking at property. If you have to work outside the homestead, how long will the commute take? If children are part of the family visit the appropriate schools and find out if there is bus service to the prospective homestead or decide if you want to homeschool. If your spouse is not in total agreement with to moving to the country you might be better off just getting yourself some acreage with a hunting cabin for a BOL.
Are you healthy and physically strong enough to do the work a homestead requires? How far are the closest gas station, grocery store and doctor? What are the roads like? The further away from civilization you get, the worse the roads are. Many country roads are gravel and oil or just gravel or dirt with blind curves and hills. The countryside is dark…there are no street lights, no painted lines or curbs. Just realize that you leave convenience behind when you move to a country homestead. The road I have to travel is dangerous in the daytime and deadly at night.
When You Decide to Make the Move to the Country
You have been looking for your country property for a while and you made the effort to look at the property in person, not just on the internet. You have finally narrowed your choices down to two places you think would make a good homestead. This article is about taking a serious look at the homestead you are about to buy, so you can put some contingencies in your contract, if needed, to protect yourself.
No offense meant, but most city folks are somewhat oblivious to how things work and what goes on in the country on a regular basis. Not because they are stupid; but because they are used to the city proving water, electricity, sewage, trash removal, etc.; all for a hefty fee of course. They are also used to the landlord fixing the all the problems in their abode. Unless folks were raised in the country, they usually don’t have any experience with well pumps, septic tanks, propane stoves/heaters, wood stoves, plus big bugs, mice, snakes and predators, etc.
Is the property within city limits or is it just part of the county? It is possible to have a city mailing address but not be in city limits. So what; why do you care? If you are within city limits you are subject to city taxes plus all the little annoying rules; like you can’t have chickens, you can’t burn your trash, you can’t fence your property, you can’t build an outbuilding or anything without a permit, etc. Most country properties are zoned as farm or ranch; but some are not. You should have a list of questions the seller or the realtor needs to answer so you can make an informed decision.
If you are negotiating with a For Sale By Owner (FSBO), make sure you are familiar with the standard real estate contract for your state. If you are purchasing a FSBO in a new state, you should consider having a real estate attorney work your contract for your protection. Country folks are not as dumb as TV makes them out to be.
Inspect the Property
Looking at pictures on the internet is not accurate enough to base a purchasing decision on. You must have an in-person visit to see if 13 of the 15 acres advertised are up a mountain and only suitable for goats. When you see a photo of a beautiful view of a river and rolling hills, remember that the view is looking down and the advertised property has been carved out of a mountain that you have to drive up and down on a dirt or gravel road in all types of weather.
When you go to look at the homestead walk or drive the property (ATV or 4-wheel drive truck) and have the seller point out all the water sources. Is there a pond or lake? Does it flood over in the spring runoff or go dry in the summer heat? Is there a stream moving through the property; if so what is upstream and does it flood during the spring runoff? Are there natural springs on the property or waterfalls off the hill or mountain? Is there wildlife roaming the property or is it strictly cattle pasture?
Inspect the Residence
When negotiating on the property, make sure you know the condition of the residence’s structure, roof, electrical wiring, plumbing, water well and septic system. If you are not knowledgeable, you will need to get specific people to do these inspections as the average city home inspector, who charges $400-$700, does not do structural, wiring, pipes, wells or septic. The team of experts you need to do each inspection (structural, roof, electrical, plumbing, water well, septic) will add up to about the same cost but it would cost you more if you use a standard housing inspector plus the team of experts. These inspections can save your sanity and thousands of dollars.
Do not purchase anything without knowing the particulars of these categories. If you are purchasing a vacant property and using a realtor, insist that the realtor find out information from the seller or from public records. The realtor is paid on commission so make s/he do some work. If s/he cannot find the information on these critical systems, insist on the seller buying a Home Warranty Insurance Package covering all of these areas. A country package covering well and septic etc., is more expensive than the usual appliance package because they are extra riders to the basic policy. This protects you for a year. Maybe you want the property in spite of the failures or unknowns, but at least make sure you are aware of the true condition so you know what you’re facing.
Get a Structural Inspection
If the residence is more than 15 years old, first on your priority list should be a structural inspection. Earth settles and the structure moves with it. Sometimes older residences were built without spec and codes so determine whether the house sits on a cement slab, footers or other type of foundation. If you set a ball on the floor and it rolls across the floor that is a problem. The structural engineer will tell you what the problems are, which could be anything from foundation cracks to failed supports, sinkholes, crooked walls, warped beams, even fire damage. Sometimes the seller is not aware of the structural problems but you need to be before you sign on the dotted line.
Have the Roof Inspected
Make sure you get a reliable company to inspect your roof. Depending on the location and age of the house it could be a lot worse than it looks. There is no substitute for an expert walking the roof for inspection. In my case the roof had to be replaced because of hail damage and the seller’s insurance paid $10,000 for the replacement.
Beware of DIY Seller Projects
A lot of country properties have homeowner DIY projects done to them; so you need to have experts look at the different things. My brother bought a 23-year-old house only to late find it had aluminum wiring which could not handle the load of a modern home. It cost him $15,000 to have the house rewired.
I anticipated the wiring needed updating in the 40-year old house. I had an electrician come to inspect the wiring and give me a quote on what needed to be replaced, to install new outlets and to put in an another circuit breaker box to safely carry the additional load of newer appliances and multiple refrigerators and freezers. While he was there we found the wiring to barn was run underground from the over-loaded house circuit and without a protective PVC pipes. The entire system for the tool shed to the barn had to be rewired to meet county code. If the work is required to meet county code, the seller usually has to pay for the update; but it is negotiable.
Inspect the Plumbing and Pipes
If your prospective home has a crawl space somebody needs to get dirty and look at the pipes and vapor barriers to see if they need fixing. If your location gets cold snowy winters, you really need to have the plumbing pipes wrapped before you move in. It will save you from having to drip the faucets and spigots when the temps drop way down and the pipes are liable to freeze. In my location we have very mild winters with very few nights below freezing so I decided I didn’t need every pipe in the crawl space wrapped and insulated. However, I found out I did need the exposed outdoor pipes protected and had to do that myself the day before the temperatures dropped to record lows in my area.
Check Out the Water Well
Most country homesteads use well water not city water. Of course, you ask the seller how old is the well pump and how deep was the well drilled. Some counties require paperwork when a well is drilled and installed; some don’t. But checking the records in the county courthouse may give the date the well was drilled or motor last replaced, which is a big help to you. Unfortunately, the well guy cannot stick a camera down the pipe and see if something is wrong. The well is either pumping or it isn’t. Changing out the well pump is time-consuming and if the well guy is going to pull 100’ or 140’ of pipes to get to the motor, you might as well have the entire system replaced. If the property does not have electric power to test the well, just assume it is not working and negotiate the price of a new pump and/or well drilling in the offer.
The more use the well gets the faster the pump wears out. For example, if your well is used by two people for house water and washing cars it may last 10-12 years. But if you have 5 or 6 people in your family and are additionally turning the spigots on and off by watering the garden, the animal barns, outbuildings or filling pasture water troughs from one well, the pump will wear out much faster. Depending on where you live, replacing just the well pump can run you around $1,000 to $4,000 depending on the depth of the well. Drilling a new well can cost between $3,000 to $15,000 or higher depending on your location and geology of the ground. It’s important to be informed before you buy.
What is Your Backup for Water Delivery?
Another priority is your water backup system(s). Ask the seller if they have a backup if the electricity goes out (most well pumps run on electricity) or the pump fails. We added two backup water systems after we moved in. Our DIY rainwater catchment system is a simple series of gutters, downspouts, and barrels. The rain rolls off the metal roofs of our outbuildings into gutters which have downspouts into 55-gallon food grade barrels. Each barrel sits up on concrete blocks and has a spigot to drain water or attach a hose. Our redundant off-grid water system is a separate well with a Simple Pump, which is out of sight in an outbuilding.
Know the Age and Condition of the Septic Tank
The age and condition of the septic system is important to know. The older the septic the stronger the chance of having trouble; which is something you don’t ever want to experience. The size of the septic depends on how many bathrooms, the number of people living in the home and how new the kitchen is; meaning is there a dishwasher, garbage disposal, automatic ice makers, etc. If you don’t know when the septic was last serviced, go by these fabled words: when in doubt, pump it out! It is better if you can negotiate this action as a part of the selling contract, just like you would a termite inspection.
If the septic system is really old, it is possible the tank may be compromised. A friend purchased an older property and found out the hard way that tree roots had damaged the tank and over run the drain field. An instant $15,000 bill, which homeowners insurance may not pay unless you have a rider. The property I purchased did not have a septic tank; they had the old country system of a pipe running out to the woods. I refused to buy the property unless they put in a septic system, which the seller did. On average, a septic tank needs to be cleaned out every 4 or 5 years; but, if you have a house full of females, it only takes 2-3 years to fill up.
Inspect the HVAC System
If the residence has an HVAC system, have it checked out by a reputable person/firm. Just because you can feel hot or cold air coming out the registers doesn’t mean the system works properly. A new heating/cooling system costs from $5,000 to $13,000 for the average 3 bed/2+bath house, depending on the quality you purchase. Getting it repaired vs buying a new system can be negotiated with the seller. When you call for a vendor inspection appointment be sure to ask what the service visit costs; because driving an hour each way to the country is not free.
Check Out the Wood Stove
Depending on the age of the wood stove it may or may not have a blower system. It may or may not have fire bricks. If it has tempered glass on the door, check the stuff that is holding the glass in. I say stuff because it varies by age, brand and if it meets current code. If the stove is free-standing, the stove pipe to the outside needs to be checked for cracks or holes so you don’t die in your sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning. If the pipes are rusted they should be replaced. The insides should also be cleaned to avoid a stove fire which could burn your house down.
If the wood stove is in a fireplace, make sure the flue lining is cleaned and solid. If it has blowers have the wiring inspected and the motor cleaned. It is not very expensive to have the stove, pipes and motor serviced and it is worth it! Depending on where you live and who your insurer is you may have to have a special rider to your policy if you have a wood stove.
Look at the Barn and Out Buildings
Does the property have an existing barn? Does it have existing outbuildings? What condition are they in? If you are planning to farm or ranch you will need these structures. A small metal barn can start at $20,000 and go upwards. Building an 8’x10’ wood outbuilding will cost you around $500 for materials if you build it; more if you hire a helper. If you buy a pre-built 10’x16’ metal shed it can run between $1800 to $3000, depending on quality.
Security of a Storm Shelter
High on your list of priorities should be a storm shelter or safe room. Once you have been through a severe storm that rips your house apart while you cower in the bathtub with a mattress over your head, you won’t live anywhere without one. Your location will determine whether it is a deep basement, a mid-house safe room or an outside storm shelter.
My location gets a lot of thunderstorms, which can spawn tornadoes. The existing shelter was an outside concrete and steel framed storm shelter dug in the hillside. I also had a small basement dug as a backup. I recently saw a new house being built near a town which had a concrete block safe room built in the middle of the house.
How Far is the Fire Department?
You should ask the seller or the realtor how far away is the nearest fire station and does it have a water truck. There are very few fire hydrants out in the country so the fire department needs to bring the water. Other items that are critical for country living are fire extinguishers and lots of them. The further away from a town you are, the more fire extinguishers you should have. I currently have about 8 scattered throughout the house and barn and I’m ordering a few more for the outbuildings. It is better to get the rechargeable ones; they cost a little more but don’t expire.
If you are buying in dry, wild fire country, you should identify methods of protecting your property. I know people who lost a home and then rebuilt using concrete block and slate roof. I have also read about folks who use sprinkler systems in the woods around their houses. That old phase better-safe-than-sorry applies when you live in the country because your house could burn to the ground before the rescue/fire department/sheriff gets to you.
Backup Power Systems
Many country homes get their power from an electric cooperative via above-ground wires, aka telephone poles, which are prone to failure during any type of a storm. During storm season our power goes out, but usually for less than 48 hours. Having a backup power system keeps everyone calm and systems working. Again, it depends on your location on what you get. Do you have enough sun for solar, wind for turbines or do you want to use a generator? For short-term emergencies (+/- 3 months) we have a propane standby generator for the house and a portable generator for the barn. The smaller outbuildings are solar powered. We are still trying to figure out the best system or method for a long-term grid-down electrical outage.
Is There Protective Fencing?
Another item I consider a priority is fencing. Living out in the country you are going to have loose critters; e.g., dogs, cats, goats, pigs, raccoons, armadillos, foxes, opossums, coyotes, deer and the occasional lost cow. Those who choose to be in or near the mountains will have more dangerous critters such as wolves, big cats, bears, etc.
There are no leash laws in the country and some folks let their animals free range. Many domestic animals roaming free are not vaccinated and wild animals carry a host of diseases. A 5’ or 6’ agra fence will keep your family and animals safely inside your compound and most of the stray critters away from your house.
If you have deer in your area you will need an 8’ fence around the garden; a plastic deer fence will do. A friend of mine used a couple of strands of hot wire which kept the deer out, but not the smaller critters. At a previous home I had an 8’ plastic deer fence around my garden. One morning I looked out and saw a raccoon trying to climb the plastic fencing. The fencing swayed back and forth from the weight of the critter and the coon finally gave up and jumped off.
Around your chicken coops, I recommend a 5’ agra fence plus hot wire at 2 levels. The top-level hot wire discourages the owls, hawks and falcons from waiting for a chicken dinner, while the lower hot wire fends off the raccoons, skunks and opossums. For pigs we use 4’ agra fencing with a low-level hot wire. For goats you need strong fencing and multiple ways of locking the mischievous buggers in. Believe me; a stray goat can destroy any garden in one day! If you run cattle or keep horses you will need 4 or 5 strand barbed wire fencing to contain them. All this fencing costs money which adds up so if the property has existing fencing that is a plus.
Check Out the Closest Neighbors
Out in the country, the nearest neighbors might be across the road or 10 miles down the road. I strongly urge you to make the drive and stop by. Pull in the drive and blow the horn a couple of times until someone gets up off the porch or comes out of the house. Stand by the car, wave and say hello. If s/he waves or says hello go and talk to him/her. If s/he seems contentious or yells for you to get off the property, seriously consider if you want that person as a neighbor.
Inquire about Communications
Depending on the population of the area, the communication systems will vary. If you are phone, TV and Internet-dependent you need to ask where the closest cell phone tower is and if there is cable laid nearby. You may have to get satellite TV/internet service and maybe a landline phone. In my area, we are 12 miles too far from cell tower range and while in sunny weather we can call out and receive text messages, most of our incoming calls roll directly to voice mail. Satellite internet out in the country is priced by data amounts so if you have game addicts in your house you need to figure out an alternative to online gaming. If you go over your allotted data amount it slows to dial up speed or you can buy more data at sky high prices.
I hope this article has helped you to consider some of the variables involved when purchasing a country homestead. While setting up and running a homestead is challenging; it is also exciting. Thinking through these basic issues will help you negotiate your purchase. Be wise and be aware before you buy!
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