Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Want to Buy a Remote Property? Think Again or Think Ahead


        (note:  this has been a very popular article.  For more detail on the topics below, scroll           through the articles at alaskauu1.blogspot.com, particularly the FAQ article of March,             2015 and others about power, water, heat, storage, etc.  I welcome your comments               and questions - Laura) 

We routinely hear from friends or colleagues who say that “one of these days... I too will move out to the boonies.” Are you sure that is what you want to do? Developing a remote property is challenging and perhaps that is good, because living there is, too and it is not for everyone. In fact, it may appeal to one family member immensely and to another not at all. Below are seven suggestions based on our experience buying and clearing woodsy land for a cabin and various outbuildings in the middle of Alaska, 42 miles from the nearest road.  However, several of the points are also valid even for people who decide to move across the country to a condo in Boca Raton.



In general, the suggestions are to take stock of what you do and don't know about yourself (and your spouse), the land, and the people in the targeted area before you commit to move long distance to an isolated property.

16x24x2 + porches

  1. SPOUSAL COMMUNICATION:
      a) Do not buy the property before your spouse sees it. He/She will never let you forget it.
      b) If you make the mistake of #1, make sure that the property looks REALLY GOOD when you take your spouse to see it. Do not, as in our case, take your Texan wife up to Alaska in her little Land's End jacket when it is 30 below zero and windy and act all enthused about walking around the property in snow shoes. (When my father-in-law showed his wife his proud, rural purchase, the appealing log cabin was obscured by several rusted cars up on blocks and empty barrels of diesel). I promise you, your spouse will never let you forget that first impression, either.


2.  LEARN ABOUT THE LAND AND WEATHER before you build, garden or buy virtually anything.

    a) If circumstances allow, visit the property in different seasons before committing AND TALK TO LOCALS. Ideally, rent a property in the vicinity first. This information absolutely will save you money, time, and regrets. Before even considering the obvious importance of seasonal variations for future buildings, gardens, landscaping, clothes, and activities  is the relevance of allergies!  If you have never lived in the region you are now contemplating, you need to find out first if you are allergic to anything there or if you will be miserable at certain times of year!  In Alaska, for example, the trees bud out so quickly (in Fairbanks, literally overnight) that the pollen count is astronomical during that period, but it is brief.  My sister's dogs are on allergy medications in Phoenix, AZ (!!!) 

    Relative to more mundane building placement possibilities, are assessments of where does the sun rise and set at various times of year?   From which directions are the prevailing winds (and rain and snow)? (See websites such as www.suncalc.net).   Such data will impact your desired activities,  your placement and sizes of porches and windows, the angle of your roofs, positions of gardens, trees to keep, and many other decisions. Our location is protected by the ridge behind us, but the hunting cabin at the end of this lake had to have the roof tied down with pulleys to the ground because hurricane force winds tunneled up between the ridge and the mountains!  

    Some places that are particularly beautiful have tortuous rainy seasons.  If that was the time of year you most wanted to be there, think again or ask early about adding on huge porches that can function as outdoor rooms.  Add grow lights for plants, etc. Long rainy or dark seasons can be depressing for people.  Research precipitation by month. Plan ahead.    


    In retrospect, we had several good and bad ideas. I wish we had cut our outhouse and shower house doors higher in the wall, to reduce constant shoveling of snow and ice accumulation that routinely blocks the door from opening at needed times! By contrast, I am very glad that our front porch is so deep, because the door is protected from wind blown snow and we enjoy an “extra room” when the temperature is pleasant, but there is a light drizzle. On our first floor, we have a picture window that faces the lake, but it doesn't open, so we don't get the breeze from that direction. I wish we had an arctic entry on the east side back door. 

      Other observations of natural drainage patterns, light, precipitation, and temperature are particularly important in mountainous areas, where one side or altitude level of a mountain can have entirely different weather, rain/snow, and soil than another.   Particularly in places attractive for "eco-tourism," relevant elements may have shifted in a way that substantially changes the value of the property - to buyers savvy enough to ask.  How is water accessed for example?  In drought ridden parts of Texas, the depth of wells has dropped hundreds of feet as aquifers are depleted, skyrocketing the cost of getting H2O.  How about fishing or hunting populations and licensing costs?  For example, in our part of Alaska, pike moved in ten years ago, culling trout and salmon from entire river drainage areas.  I actually like to fish and eat pike, but since they are widely available in the northern Midwestern states, too, that population of tourists has dropped off the map.  People who bought lodges in the late '90s and later without first checking with Fish and Game Authorities lost their shirts and started offering owner financing for someone else to take those remote properties.  Contact knowledgeable local and regional resources regarding fish, water, mineral rights, pollution, or business potential, etc. before signing a contract. 
    b) If, as in our case, the property is heavily forested and has never been developed, it is difficult to see the lay of the land through the brush even if you are there at different seasons. The word, “brush” sounds benign, like a broom, but in our case, it meant canary grass and devil's club 8 feet tall and dense thickets of 20 foot alder housing a quadrillion mosquitoes that made whole swaths of the property impenetrable as well as invisible except in the winter, when the terrain was suggested but vaguely. For several years, we had no idea what my husband had bought, except that it was higher at the back and lower at the lake front. Slowly, year by year, we'd explore a new hill or vale as we peeled back another few feet of “brush” with a chainsaw and a weed whacker, piling up huge piles of branches to dry and burn the following year in a safely snowy fall or spring.

      We concluded that we put the cabin and power tower at the right locations, but we situated the chicken coop in an unfortunately low and damp spot. Our future gardens will be in more appropriate places than our prior ones because I have learned to study the land and the arc of the sun throughout the year.



      c) Buy a naturalist's guide for the region of your property. The types of plants and animals inhabiting that region provide important clues as to the natural tendencies of the land (as well as food/predators/pest species). For example, willow, alder and elder tend to like damp areas, so these plants indicate places you don't necessarily want to garden or to build. Blueberries like acidic soil (under spruce trees, for example) that most home gardens can't tolerate. Plants appear naturally in a particular succession when you clear land, and the plants that appear may not be those you expect or want. For example, my husband loved cutting down huge swaths of alder, but the sudden sun exposure prompted thick growth of tall, sharp canary grass, whose pretty purple seed heads soon spread the infestation everywhere a tree wasn't growing and effectively eliminated any desirable plants until we fought hard, week by week, season by season, to cut and weaken those assertive weeds. Now, we have wild raspberries, roses, elderberry, and cranberry thriving in those exposed areas. In terms of animals, we could see game trails running through the property and both bear and moose scat. Fortunately, though, our property turned out to be a transit area between the lake and a ridge, rather than a congregating area for those animals (like bear fishing grounds and moose willow munching “salad bars”). To tell you the truth, we were just lucky in this regard. At the time we bought, we didn't know what to look for.   

      d) SOIL: If you plan to live in a remote location, you surely plan to raise some of your own food.  Find out what grows well there. Early on, transport soil samples to a county extension agent and buy guides or take classes for appropriate plantings in your new area. These proactive steps can save you a great deal of time, effort, and money.  Our forested soil, for example, was HIGHLY acidic – in fact the most acidic soil sample the county extension agent had ever tested (because it was untrammeled forest). Between that acidity and my own ignorance, the land and I killed most of the seedlings I brought out!  One winter, I took an on-line Master Gardening course from the University of Fairbanks. This taught me a great deal about gardening at 61 degrees of latitude compared to 31 degrees (in Houston, TX).  Then I took an on-line Permaculture class, which helped me even more.  Our land needed quite a bit of remediation over several years to support the flowers and vegetables that I wanted to grow and to discourage the weeds that flourished when we cleared some spaces. Even then, I learned that my chickens, as well as native hares, voles, and moose ate quite a bit of what I grew. Over the ensuing years, I fenced m veggie gardens and as we evolved,  the land did, too. A mulcher was great for surface additions to muddy pathways as well as gardens.  A compost pile never worked for me (in our short summer season) but I started making compost tea in recycled bins with aquarium air filters and local greens, dried debris, and rabbit manure (we raise rabbits) for feeding plants. For the vegetable gardens, we hauled in bags of agricultural lime to raise the pH.  But for the "yard" - a term I use loosely - we decided, "why fight it?" We bought berry plants and lilies that LIKE acidic soil  We plant lots of potatoes (that like it, too).  We think that many of the native ferns, elderberries, huckleberry, prickly rose, dwarf dogwood, etc are lovely.  So we have some areas that are cultivated and others that are not. 
    3.  SOCIALIZATION: People are different in various parts of the country, and in cities vs. rural areas. These differences can have a huge influence on the mover's ability to fit into his or her chosen location and to find appropriate service people. So, when circumstances allow, I again recommend renting a home for several months before buying or building to size up the population. Cautionary tales: A Southern friend of mine never felt at home when she moved to upstate New York. She didn't get the dry humor and was regarded as too friendly, almost pushy, herself. She moved back to the south and then to the Northwest. A colleague in Connecticut moved to a rural, mountain village in North Carolina and, after a year there, moved away from people he described as “scary hillbillies.” A single professional woman moved from Houston to a small town in Texas, where she found herself very lonely. Married women were very nice in female groups but may have regarded her as a threat, because she was rarely invited to events involving their husbands and families, and there were few other single adults in town. In our case, the only neighbors within about ten miles were exceptionally nice during the three years that we hired them to build our cabin and house us on vacations, but when we finally sold our TX home to move there full time, we got two long emails with six reasons why they didn't want us there. Ouch!   

    4.  CONSTRUCTION: Construction always takes longer and costs more than people expect. The bigger the population, the greater choice you will have for service providers whose skills you may need to develop your property. If you choose to build or develop a property in a remote location, you will need to do a great deal on your own or pay A LOT to transport the skilled workers or end products you need, and you may need to wait. It costs a lot to set up even a primitive homestead in a remote location. 

    The first consideration for remote properties is not so much the home as the utilities. How are you going to provide heat, water, communications, and sewage containment? We have no municipal services – no roads, electricity, plumbing, but fresh water from the lake and lots of trees for firewood. Less remote properties around the country may have road access but rely on septic systems, wells, and wood stoves. If you rely on wells, get the water tested early by a county agent (in Anchorage, one test is free and an arsenic test is $40). Some parts of the country have restricted water or mineral rights, or rights of access across your land, or permitting issues, so be sure to find out early. Figure into your budget the costs and time to provide any desired utilities yourself. Utility information may influence many of your other construction decisions, particularly location, location, location.  It may cost a whole lot more to dig a well at one property you are considering than another that you like just as much.   
    Greenhouse left, power shed and tower
    center, solar panels right


    For example, our first priority in construction was a 120 foot power tower with solar, wind, internet, and telephony, which naturally went on the highest part of the property, to be taller than the surrounding trees.. The quality of those utilities would determine how much time we could spend in this location. (The first “generation” of components cost about $12,000. We have since upgraded several elements and changed source companies) Our second priority was fresh water, and this determined the location of the cabin, down near the lake. I guarantee you that hauling five gallon jugs of water several times a day gets R-E-A-L-L-Y old. At first we tried various hand pumps and drip systems but they were far too slow and inefficient for long term use. So we built a pump in the lake, bought filters from an alternative energy service provider and dug a trench by which to plumb first the cabin and later, the shower house. This was a fantastic resource … as long as the lake was liquid. The rest of the year we had to rely on snow melt or, when there was no snow, a 55 gallon drum and several jugs of water we stored from the summer. After two years, we got on the wait list to have a well dug. We waited for three years. Only now, after five years, do I have a source of potable water (in the yard) when the lake is frozen. It cost about $11,000 to dig a 61 foot well (and to haul the heavy equipment out here by helicopter).  

    Another element of construction is what the locals do or don't know.  For example, the neighbor who built our cabin had no running water in his... for more than a decade.  For whatever reason, it never occurred to him to plumb a line from a lake pump or well to his cabin (despite 4 children!).  However, as soon as we did so, one of his kids whom we employed ran back and told his mother.  Guess what.  The next week, there was some serious digging going on there!   Similarly, the neighbor and the local telephone company both doubted our ability to receive cell phone service.  However, my husband had worked in Latin America for ten years, setting up telephony systems in remote locations, so he disagreed. Sure enough, he build a 120 foot tower that could receive transmissions from another tower, 45 miles away.  Perhaps nobody in this part of Alaska had built a tower above the tree line before.  Let's face it; there aren't that many of us!   

    5.  SERVICE PEOPLE: Given my husband's remote choice of home location and our negligible carpentry skills, we were exceptionally fortunate that the only family who lives on the same lake included a skilled carpenter and his brother-in-law. They agreed to build our little cabin for us (16 ft x 24 ft x 2 stories, plus porches) as long as we bought some construction equipment they lacked for the job, like a small wood mill and a portable cement mixer.  These came in so handy for our work that they used them for some of their own projects, too! This arrangement was a win/win for both parties.  We got a pretty little cabin and it was the shortest commute for income that remote people could possibly have, at a time when their kids were just about to enter college. They did a fantastic job, relying on chainsaws and a generator for electric tools, but it took them 2 ½ years to complete it, and after that arduous task they decided they didn't want to do any more outside construction jobs. We paid in three tranches, at particular construction milestones, but in retrospect, I would recommend inserting finish date bonuses for each component, such as foundation, walls and roof, and finish work. We certainly didn't expect our two room cabin to take so long. 


    Because our goal was to have our buildings built well once and be done with them, we started to search for other carpenters and construction workers. Fortunately, the man who built our power tower had a partner whose multi-faceted skills included construction/architecture. He gathered three burly friends whom we flew out to build an insulated, elevated shower/wash house in four days. They camped out for the duration while I cooked massive meals for them. The following year, we hired a young dad from a nearby village who constructed various sheds, to great testimonials by customers. He snow machined (snowmobiled) out to our property (3 hours each way) to assemble our insulated chicken coop one winter day and did such a great job that the following winter we contracted him to design and build a much larger, four part structure (greenhouse, winter shed, fuel depot, and rabbit hutches). He worked in temperatures ranging from 0 to +17 degrees a few days a week, for a total of five or six days. We rely heavily on one man who specializes in alternative energy construction for remote locations.  This means that he is skillful at just about any kind of plumbing, electrical work, etc.  We fly him out once or twice a year for several days at a time.  He arrives in a plane full of every potentially useful tool and part to rig up some solution or enhancement. I feel very lucky that in a location where we don't have many choices, we found such honest and skillful service providers. 


    6) SELF-ASSESSMENT: One of the main reasons for renting a place first is not just to size up the people and the land but to have time for some self-assessment, too. Will you be happy out in the middle of nowhere? What skills do you have or lack? What budget will you need to acquire those skills and tools or hire the work to be done? At the end of the process, even with a great looking cabin and well assessed land, you are going to be isolated. Some people enjoy the solitude and the "do-it-yourself" requirement.  We do. My husband and I were never TV people, for example and we are both content entertaining ourselves – me if I am learning something and he if he is doing something physical. My husband's power tower communication components enable me to keep up with my scattered family and a select group of friends and enable him to maintain a profitable business. I fly away from our cabin to Anchorage, or other cities Outside (Alaska) about every three months and get my “city fix.” I appreciate the resources, such as Costco, a haircut, and hotel/restaurants/museums, but I do not miss the traffic, the ugliness, the crowds and the mindless banter with people I don't know well. However, other personalities might find the silence of a remote home deafening and lonely. Living remotely may also mean, for friends who want to visit but wouldn't understand the lifestyle, “no thanks; I'll come visit you in your city sometime.” If you are going to move to a remote location, it is likely that you will change more than the people you leave behind.

    7) PLAN AHEAD AND BUILD IN REDUNDANCIES: Living remotely means that you are remote - duh - from conveniences. Going “to the store,” even if one lives on the road system, may mean a trip of three hours. So well organized storage and updated inventory lists of food, tools, odds and ends become very important. For example, we store about 200 pounds of back up foods, such as tofu, powdered eggs, butter, milk, dehydrated vegetables and fruit. We have several 50 lb bags of animal feed, flour, sugar, and beans. 


    Where we live, on a fly-in only lake, there are certain times of year when we could be stuck for more than a month at a time. (The lake usually breaks up on May 15, but this year, it was not until May 30. We were down to our last onion and potato, but we had lots of dry goods). Being remote means you buy two identical chainsaws so you can cannibalize one when the other breaks, and have more than a year's worth of propane and gasoline, and have taken some Red Cross classes and can sew up socks rather than run to the store when you get a hole in them. We make our own wine and beer and bread, eat dandelion greens, raise chickens and rabbits.  Being remote means that you find it desirable to do things yourself and to be alone. It certainly means NO WHINING. 

    I like it here now a lot more than I expected, but I admit I was always a few years behind my husband's enthusiasm and vision for what the place could become, and I, along with it. 
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    For a more detailed geographical treatment of this topic, feel free to see Joel Skousen's book, Strategic Relocation.


    If you enjoyed this article, feel free to post it or a link to your favorite social media website, with attribution to Laura Emerson.

    If you have any suggestions for future topics on this blog, or future places to post this sort of content, I appreciate your recommendations.


    Note: I write a monthly column on off grid life for Alaska Adventure Media publications. The column is titled, “Off the Grid.”  See: www.coast-magazine.com.     





    10 comments:

    1. So appreciate this blog entry. Grew up in a small town and spent most of my childhood in the woods. Get the sense you really understand how important it is to dance with nature and be real with yourself in that dance. Nature can surely test the limits of what know ourselves to be...and that is the God space in it for me. I grew up in a small town church, yet I never felt the power of connectedness like I do in nature. God is pervasive for me there. I could feel it in your writings. Thank you for that. Victoria

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    2. Great info. So much in details. Information to make YOU THINK. Appreciate you.

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    3. Thankssssss Admin.... I think all searchers like this kind of article................... solar panels cost

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    4. How do you afford taxes when living remote off grid?

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      1. Dear Ahab: Thanks for your question. We are both telecommuters. See article on this blog site written in August, 2015 regarding issues for people interested in living remotely while retaining a job that can be done with the help of communications technology. -Laura

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    5. Laura,

      Wow, your blog is very informative, very entertaining, and set the tone for the realities involved in living off the grid.
      My wife and I are entertaining the thought of going off the grid ourselves along with our three children. We have been researching off the grid living in Alaska for over year now and trying to hone our skills and abilities to be able to do so. And your entries Will contribute to our learning curve.
      There are so many skills and "need to know" facts about going off the grid ,I don't think any amount of information will prepare as for the reality of going off the grid in Alaska but, I look forward to your future post .
      We plan on setting foot on a few different properties in Alaska in the coming spring. Hopefully through research and articles like yours we will be able to determine the best property, one that will fulfill our needs and be abundant enough with wildlife to sustain a life off the grid.
      Haven't seen an entry yet that didn't immediately grab my attention!

      Thanks shawn

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    6. Thank you for sharing this knowledge. Every day, a family picks up and leaves their house in the suburbs of America and heads north. They are heading to the wild, untamed earth in Alaska. It is one of the last places in the United States that has thousands of acres of land available for a reasonable price. See more http://survival-mastery.com/skills/living-off-the-grid-in-alaska.html

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    7. Surprisingly, Mr. Olson, I disagree about acreage available at a reasonable price. Only 22% of Alaska is available for private purchase. The rest is federal, state, or native land. The housing market is tight and prices on the road system are surprisingly high for both purchase and rentals. However, you are right, that acreage off-road is inexpensive and taxes are low. There are many interesting rural properties listed at www.remoteproperties.com - some vacant land and others complete with everything the prior owner hauled out there. The big cost is getting people, food, supplies out there. I have been surprised by the number of Alaskans who are surprised by how and where we live. I thought they would "get it" more.

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    8. I'm curious what the six reasons they didn't want you there were. I have chatted with a handful of ppl in Alaska and have found them very rude. Which I truly don't understand

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