Sunday, June 8, 2014

Remote Property Skills You Need to Acquire...before you move there

My earlier article,“Want to Buy a Remote Property? Think Again or Think Ahead,” has attracted more readers and follow-up questions than almost any other (besides those about raising chickens).

Some readers have contacted my husband and me to ask for additional advice. One man said he wanted to buy 300 acres in Montana and asked what he should do first. When we asked what experience he had with some of the relevant skills and information below, his answer was virtually none of them. It was our letters to him (and others) that have resulted in this posting.

I decided to pose this as a questionnaire/checklist that you can use to develop a priority list, time line, and budget to acquire some additional skills, tools, and information before committing to a remote location. I hope it will help you be more effective and efficient than we were!  (Note:  Please let me know any other suggestions that should be included here). 

The content is organized in labeled sections followed by numbered questions and then notes from our experience.

If the answer to any question below is “no”, make an appointment, take a class, or start pumping iron.
  1. Do you exercise? Build upper body strength.
  1. Have you had a full physical exam recently? Get copies of your dental and health records. Ascertain any allergies (to elements in your target location, by going there at various times of year).
  2. Have you assembled a good medical supply kit, as recommended by your doctor or other sources for a remote location? Keep supplies both at your remote home and in your vehicle, in case you get stranded.
  3. Have you taken any recent Red Cross, Scout, FEMA, CDC or State courses in emergency and wilderness preparedness? Do you have relevant reference books? Do you know about the medicinal properties of plants on your property. 
Notes: Living on a remote property is physically demanding. We find that we use our back, shoulder, arm and core muscles more for projects on site, and our legs for hunting and hiking. Chainsaws, .30-06 rifles, and axes are all heavy and pull on your dominant side. Let's face it: many people age-out of a remote lifestyle when health or strength problems interfere. The better shape you are in, the longer you can do it and the more things you can do for yourself.

Water is the single most important component of living – anywhere. If the answer to any question below is “no” or “don't know,” do your research with the local chamber of commerce, realtor, Internet, or the county extension office. Then explore products and services that you will need. What is your cost estimate and timeline?
Digging the well

  1. What are the water sources/outlets and regulations in your target location(s) for potable water, grey water (from sinks and showers), and sewage? Early research may make a clear distinction between two parcels you are considering. For example, water resources may be declining or access may be prohibitively expensive at one vs. another.
  2. Have you gotten water samples from your property or the potential properties and have they been tested (in Anchorage, some tests are free, an arsenic test costs $40)
  3. Do you know what infrastructure is in place, is allowed/disallowed, and what will you need to develop yourself? A pump? A septic system? How will you deliver water to your building(s) and gardens? What will you do for fire suppression? Many remote homes cannot get any fire insurance.
  4. How much will it cost to develop various water systems? Examples: delivering and storing drinking water, wash/shower water, fire suppression, garden water or irrigation, animal water at different times of year.
  5. What do you know about annual and monthly precipitation and drainage patterns.
a) For many parts of the US, Internet searches with a variety of relevant search terms will reveal water issues significant to your property goals. For example, particularly in the west, many water sources are drying up, including wells, aquifers, lakes and drainage systems. I'm told that central TX has imposed restrictions even on private well use. Other locations have (natural) arsenic, farm contaminants, parasites or other issues that foul water sources. In other words, don't presume that you will have a pristine source, available to you forever, just because you are in the boonies. Since water is absolutely the most essential resource, research this information before you commit! Have back up filters, pumps, storage containers.

b) Assessing your land's natural drainage and precipitation will help you figure out where to position buildings and gardens to be efficient and effective. One obvious point: water flows down hill. Don't block the flow with a ground level structure.

c) If you have to haul water, keep in mind that it weighs about 8 lbs per gallon. How much water will you use? In winter conservation mode, we got by with 10 gallons a day for us and the animals, without running water.

d) See a prior blog article, “The Cost of Developing a Water Supply” for more detailed information on our experience and costs.

If the answer to any question below is “no,” take courses, buy books, seek out advisors and start gardening/raising animals/hunting/fishing where you are now.

Cold frame to extend growing season (lid off)

Nellie, Cleo, Esther, and PR 

Daylate, Mrs., Dora, and Nellie
1. What gardening have you done? Have you raised fruits and vegetables? Can you extrapolate these skills to a new location with different soil, temperature, precipitation?

2. Can you answer the following questions about the locations you have in mind: latitude, hardiness zone (to determine which plants will grow there), dates of first and last frosts (for length of planting season and feasible plants within that limitation), day light hours at different times of year, precipitation per month, average temperature per month. See and other websites to gather these data for your locations, gardening pests, invasive species. Look for county extension agents and free reports issued by regional agricultural colleges and universities. Pay particular attention to perennial plants for food, function, and beauty. They are hardy, low maintenance and excellent indicators of your property's potential. 
  1. Get soil samples for any properties you buy or, if possible, that you are considering. Take them to a county agent for testing. Read a recommendation for how to collect the best sample for analysis ($40 in Alaska). 
  2. Can you answer the following hunting and fishing questions about the locations you have in mind? Have you gone to the state website to find out the rules, regulations, and costs of hunting and fishing licenses for residents and visitors for the animals and fish you have in mind? How much $? When are the hunting or fishing seasons for your area? Do you know the designation of your property (such as “state zone 16B”) so you can read reports relevant to your location
  3. What fishing gear is appropriate for the fish you want? Do you have it? How much will it cost?
  4. What hunting or trapping gear is appropriate for the animals you want? Season dates?
  5. What guns do you know how to load, shoot, clean, sight in, and store? How is your aim at various distances? How often do you practice?
  6. Have you raised animals before, of any kind, that depend on your care (even pets)? If you have a pet, how much food and medicine do you need for a sustained period of time, such as 6 months? Are your pets well suited to the weather/environment of your target location?
  7. Have you raised any animals for the purpose of delivered (eggs) or butchered food? If not, talk with people who do so, buy books (Storey's various guides to Raising Chickens, Ducks, Rabbits, Goats, etc are excellent), and start estimating their maintenance needs, the costs of building structures, and buying feed for any animals that cannot free range for extended periods of time. Definitely research and invest in aerial and ambulatory predator protection, such as roofing and fencing above/below ground.
  8. What foods can you prepare from scratch? Do you know how to bake bread, beer or wine?
  9. Do you know how to can or dry foods for long term storage? How about storing seeds?
  10. What issues will you have with rodents, insects or other critters that want to get into your food and gardens.
  11. Notes:
a) Here, we are not allowed to use felt soled waders, live bait, or treble hooks.

b) All three pairs of waders and boots cracked or got holes within three years.

c) I have found that the soil readings I paid for were much more accurate than gizmos I bought at Home Depot.

d) If you don't shoot often, take classes, practice at indoor and outdoor ranges. Personally, I found indoor ranges more “women-friendly” than outdoor ranges. Try out a variety of guns before you buy. For example, I am comfortable with my 9 mm Glock because it has no recoil. My husband's .44 magum revolver's kick is so severe that, for me, any second shot goes awry. Since a bear can run 30 mph over short distances, I rely on bear spray when hiking since I have no illusion that I would fire accurately in a close, panicked encounter with a startled bear.

e) Consider your pets: For example, Dalmatians have such short, white hair that they suffer in hot, sunny climates. Chihuahuas and other small dogs are considered “eagle bait” in Alaska.

f) Raising animals for meat and eggs is more expensive than buying either at a place like Costco or on sale elsewhere, but we know our food chain and can feed ourselves for extended periods of time since we are so far from a town. Raising animals for food is something carnivores should explore for a reliable food supply. Chickens are a 2:1 feed:meat ratio, rabbits are a 4:1 feed:meat ratio, and cattle are 10:1. We have found ducks to be extremely reliable egg layers but their water needs render them very high maintenance during freezing weather. Rabbits are very low maintenance and quiet. I'm surprised they are not more commonly raised for meat (and their pellets for gardens). We are starting honey bees this year. 

g) See a prior blog article, “The Cost of Developing a Food Supply” for more detailed information about our experience. Hunting and fishing sounds great, but every area has limited hunting and fishing seasons and even within them, success is never guaranteed.

h) Perennials are the equivalent of no effort, free food.  We tap birch trees for sap and harvest lots of berries.  
Tapping a birch tree in May

If the answer to any question below is “don't know” seek information about your current and potential power usage, and from alternative energy service providers (consider their enlightened self interest in selling you their products) and various informational websites. Look for any tax or sales rebates.
Solar panels are much cheaper
and more effective than in the past

  1. What sources of fuel and power will you use for cooking, heating, washing, and any appliances?
  2. Fuel and utility costs vary by geographic region. What is the price in the vicinity you are considering? If your property is on the grid, utility websites often post price increases and base fees a year or two in advance.
  3. What infrastructure will you need to buy or install early on? How much will that cost?
  4. What are your back ups if Plan A power and fuel fails at an inopportune time?
  5. Is there a season and sequence in which you need to install your power infrastructure? Who will do this?
  6. Are there extended periods when certain kinds of power (wind, solar, water) are most or least available?
a) We heat the cabin with wood that my husband cuts because we live in the middle of a forest and we experience some dead fall on the property once or twice a year. (Alaskans living in tundra regions, with no trees, pay $10/gallon for fuel oil to heat their homes). We also use propane in 100 pound cylinders (about twice the price of locations in the Lower 48) to heat water in summer and for a stove and refrigerator. But once we upgraded our solar and wind power systems, they became so effective that we could have bought, for example, a much cheaper electric refrigerator (for 1/3 the cost of the propane one).
We heat with this wood stove

b) If you will be living off the grid, the up-front costs to power a remote home individually (vs in a community) are likely to be high, depending on what you wish to accomplish. I hear people say, rather cavalierly, “I'll just use a generator.” You need to figure out your power draw to determine the size of the generator you will need. My guess is that you will need to lower your power expectations.

c) For us, the biggest power draw is to move water, from pump to shower or sink, in summer. Appliances that produce heat, like dryers, require the most power so we do without those by drying clothes on a laundry line and washing/drying dishes by hand.

d) We were on a wait list for three years to have a 61 foot well dug on our property. The cost was five figures, because of the remote location.

e) Old, loud generators suck up much more gasoline or fuel oil than many newer ones. So compare up-front and ongoing costs of buying used or new, since petroleum-based prices are so much higher than they were when old ones were designed.

f) How you insulate your structures, the clothes you wear, and the expectations you have for such things as electrical devices will all determine your fuel consumption. Draft a list of the items you think you will want in the boonies. How much power does each one draw? (Check your circuit breaker and look on the back or bottom of various appliances you hope to power, such as computers, blenders, telephones, TVs, ovens, washing machines, refrigerators, freezers, lamps.) That will help you estimate how much power you will need to supply, by generator, electricity, solar panels, wind turbine, or other source. I find that I can easily get along with a lot fewer conveniences than I expected.

If you lack these skills, take courses at Home Depot or Community Centers. Offer to help a friend or service provider in order to learn.  You will be a long way from "Mr. Fixit." 

  1. What are your handy man skills?
  2. What electrical and hand tools do you have, use? What back ups do you have for tools or parts that break or get lost? What tasks do you want to accomplish? Yard work? Furniture building? Log splitting? Simple “honey – do” repairs? What is your list of most important tools to acquire? How much $ and time?
  3. What courses should you take while they are available? Welding? Furniture making? Plumbing repairs? How to build a deck, a dock, a shed?
a)      We did not start out with many skills in this arena, and we paid dearly for local people instead. For example, it cost us $600/day to fly out a multi-talented fix-it guy twice a year. However, my husband “apprenticed” himself to this man, and others, too, so that, over time, he learned a great deal, and could always call with a very well informed question about a system or structure, when needed. Subsequently, he has been able to build and repair structures and systems.

b)      Wherever you decide to move, take into account the effect of environment. Salt sea
Interior Bear Bar (door opens out)
air, ice heave, rain/water/damp/humidity, wind, earth tremors, drought, pests and erosion all work their degradatory magic on buildings. Talk with locals to anticipate regional issues before building anything. For example, because of ice heave, we leave plenty of room between items stored beneath the cabin and the level of the floor. We cut holes in the dock so the metal supports could move up and down. To discourage bears, our doors open out, rather than in and we board up the windows with well fitting plywood “shutters” and lay bear mats before each door (plywood with upward facing screws every inch or two. Freeze/thaw cycles can be insidious. Even though my husband drained all water lines and then blew them out with an air compressor, we still found that in the shower, every pipe and fitting burst, cracked or leaked, meaning that we relied on spit baths for four months longer than we expected. A neighbor needs hurricane clamps to hold his roof in heavy winds.

c) Plan for lots of storage space, since you will not be in a "run to the store" location. 

Realtors, locals, and the local telephone and Internet service providers may be able to advise you as to the quality and reliability of service at your location. What are your communications goals? Emergency only? Spontaneous availability? Running a business with phone and Internet?
  1.     Will you have access to telephone service? Land line (wired), wireless or satellite? Will you have to build a tower to receive and transmit from your location?
  2.     Do you want to use a computer, TV, or radio? Will you need to build a tower to receive transmissions?
  3.     Have you considered buying a ham radio licensing guide (available on-line) and purchasing a ham radio?
  4.     Do you have an emergency contact arrangement if someone does not hear from you within a period of time?
Notes:  The local telephone company told us at first that we would not be able to get service at our location, but with the 120 foot tower, we can and do. Rural telephony is subsidized (by urban users) and we have found it cheap and reliable. Internet, however, is much more expensive for lower bandwidth than in cities. Sometimes, due to weather, the aurora borealis, or who knows what, our communications simply stop, sometimes for several days. My husband's ham radio skills and other back up systems provide peace-of-mind alternatives.

I fully admit that many or even most of this checklist derives from 20/20 hindsight. What we did not know, did not anticipate, did not research cost us years of wasted effort and thousands of dollars in wasted expenditures. I hope this check list will save you time and money and will help you enjoy your remote property purchase.  

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to link it to a social media site, with attribution to Laura Emerson. Note: I now write a monthly column, called “Off the Grid,” for publications within the Alaska Adventure Media consortium.


  1. Thank you for sharing this knowledge. Off the grid means you are on your own. You do not have access to public utilities. It is you and the nature. There aren’t any meters outside the home, no power lines running to and from and no underground cables. See more here

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