Staking A Claim: Property

We began looking at properties in the spring of 2020. We used the usual websites like Zillow and Trulia, as well as some off-grid real estate sites, although those seemed overpriced and the selection was sparce. Because we were both still working, we limited our search to within a 10-hour drive of our home. We figured that would allow us to spend the weekends working on the property while we continued going to our regular jobs during the week.

Also, because I’m always anticipating the worst, I wanted to stay within our state. The lockdowns seemed really unpredictable and arbitrary and I anticipated a statewide lockdown, similar to what was happening in Australia. That hasn’t happened as of writing this, but it ain’t over yet…

Our search criteria started as “home/structure with well and septic on at least 5 acres of land”. We started with a pretty small budget and, like I said, we’re handy, so we went into the search looking for “potential to build on”.

The areas we were searching were pretty remote. At the time, I drove a Mini Paceman. It’s a 2-door, 4 wheel-drive little mountain goat of a Mini and it gets great gas mileage. Since we were putting in a lot of miles, we drove my car instead of my husband’s truck. Anyway, the realtors who met with us took one look at my little car, looked back at us, back at the car, and with concern asked, “You know this property is off-grid, right?” Understandably, they had no desire to spend their Saturday towing some ignorant city dweller out of a backwoods mudhole. But it wasn’t a problem and our little Mini kept pace with their 4X4 trucks just fine, prompting more than one realtor to say, “I’ve got to get me one of those!”

An unexpected benefit of our search was how much we got to learn about our state and all the gorgeous, remote areas we found. The many lakes and rivers, bridges, forests, little coffee huts, vegetable stands, oddly delicious roadside chicken fingers… little things you don’t find when you’re sitting on the couch at home.

Just looking at properties was an exercise in endurance and bravery. We had a small budget so most of the places we looked at were…well, kind’a scary. Think pack rats, bees and snakes scary. Twice in one weekend we had guns pulled on us because, like I said, we were out looking in very remote areas (which is reason enough, right?). We’re not afraid of guns nor are we afraid of people with guns, and we look pretty harmless (middle-aged couple driving a Mini, remember?) so it didn’t escalate into anything. Both times we just kind of ignored the guns and the folks went on to help us with directions. Neighborhood watch takes many forms.

Cute? Maybe, but it’s still a rat.

I want to say something about buying a house or property sight unseen. We obviously didn’t do this, but we know people who have. Apparently, properties post frequently online and people jump on them because the price is low. Well, it’s low for a reason. Don’t think you’ve magically come across gold when you see one of these “too good to be true” deals. I’m not saying there are never great deals out there, but you’d be the exception. If you’re too far away to get in your car and go see for yourself, get someone you know to visit the site and take some realistic pictures, if possible.

Along that same line, the descriptions of most off-grid properties are, let’s just say, generous. We looked at houses that were described as having a full off grid set up – they were “self-sufficient” with a well, solar system, bathroom, etc. In reality the well pump didn’t work (so was there even water?), the solar system consisted of one obsolete panel and the “bathroom” was a composting toilet. If you’re not familiar with a composting toilet, it’s basically an outhouse indoors. I’m sure there are better ways to do a composting toilet, but this wasn’t that. Best to investigate a seller’s claims in person. Do your due diligence.

Composting Toilet

Another property we visited had a decent house, but the land was a boneyard. Seeing a few bones is normal in the wild. Coyotes are common and they can take down some large prey, but the more we explored the land the more bones we found, and I’m talking large piles of large bones! It got creepy. Wolves, maybe? We didn’t hang around to find out.

We looked at one cabin that a guy had built himself in the 80’s. He had since moved to Alaska but we spoke with him on the phone. It was a 1-hour hike on foot from the main road to get to the cabin because the path was so overgrown (he said 20 minutes, but it was a good hour). Anyway, the photos we saw were promising – hand hewn logs, high ceilings, huge windows and the price was amazing! Finally, after a long hike, we arrived at the cabin and climbed up into the doorway (the stairs were gone). It was full – FULL! – of pack rats! They were scurrying everywhere and then they got eerily quiet. John shined a flashlight into the loft and hundreds of their beady little eyes shone back at us. This was their house now and they were prepared to defend it.

The hike back to our car was much, much quicker.

For months, we spent every weekend looking all the cabins, small farms, and homesteads within our area and price range. We’d start the weekend with a list of properties, our state atlas (because there is no GPS in these areas), a full tank of gas, and some snacks. Most importantly, we had optimism and an adventurous attitude.

The search was a lot of fun because we were dreaming of what it could be. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of the view or the quiet stillness of your own space but, don’t neglect to check for issues that cannot be remedied. Sometimes people skip the home inspection of an off-grid property because they’re paying cash and the house is sold as-is. But, we learned, don’t neglect to do a well report and have the septic checked, if these are preexisting. In one of the well reports we requested, the lab analyst actually used the word “horrendous” to describe the water. “Never seen iron levels that high,” he said. Dodged that bullet.

A positive attitude is important as you sift through the few off grid properties out there. We put offers on several homes and, for one reason or another, they all fell through. One was abruptly taken off the market with no explanation; there was the one with “horrendous water”; another deluded seller wanted us to pay her more than she was even asking… It was frustrating at times, but now, after the fact, we see that a larger force was at work looking after our best interests.

Finally in mid-July we found a beautiful, unfinished cabin near the top of a mountain with a perfect view. It had a working well and septic, a large industrial generator and a full propane tank. And it was in our price range! It was on a steep hill, which wasn’t ideal for our gardening and farming plans, but we could adjust.

Enjoying the morning view in the dream cabin

We were so excited! We began working to finish our new cabin immediately. John took some time off work and repaired the well pump (it needed some tweaking) and he designed and built a framework for the solar panels. Meanwhile, I got busy deep cleaning from all the things that “happen” when you leave a cabin empty for many months in the wild (mice, bats, bees, spiders, etc.).

Panels up!

About three days after John installed those panels, the cabin we had looked so hard to find and were so excited to call our own burned to the ground. We were heartbroken.

Nothing left. At. All.

The day of the fire, we watched a bunch of planes flying in front of the house all day but, since we didn’t have a radio or cell signal, we had no idea what was happening. Turns out, the planes were Fire and Rescue planes dipping into a nearby lake to get water to douse on the fires. Meanwhile, we just kept on working on the house – oblivious to all.

As you can see, the front of our cabin was all windows. There were no windows on the other side, so we never saw the smoke. Finally, later in the afternoon, the wind changed direction and we finally saw (and smelled) the smoke. I realize that sounds a bit daft and we’re not stupid people, I swear! The sky was clear and blue all day from what we could see, until it wasn’t…

From the time we saw the smoke to the image below was probably just over an hour. It moved very fast. It came right over the mountain top behind us.

We lost the house completely, as well as everything we had moved into the house. All the work we had done was for naught. We weren’t the only ones who lost homes, though, and even worse. It was a rough summer for so many folks.

The silver lining is that we had great insurance. After that, I can’t stress enough the importance of insurance. Not all insurance companies will cover off grid properties, and not all structures can be insured. Each person has to decide what level of risk is acceptable and live with that. I realize that one day insurance may not be an option out here but, while it is, we’ll have it.

The happy ending to our story is that, after grieving the loss of our “dream cabin”, we found a home even better suited than the one we’d lost.

We were blessed to end up with more than twice the amount of land, including flat, farmable land. John got an enormous workshop, and our well has great water, although it’s not the best producer. There’s an existing septic system, and a flushing toilet. There’s still much to do, but this is a really good place to start. Life is good.

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