Frugal Homestead Series Part 7: On Visiting Properties (And Getting Lost)
Greetings fellow frugal weirdos! Welcome to Part 7 of our Frugal Homestead Series, which explores the finer points of how we’re going to reach our version of financial independence and move to a homestead in the woods in 2017 at age 33. Mr. Frugalwoods and I plan to buy 20+ acres of wooded land, likely with an existing home and outbuildings, in rural Vermont. While this series isn’t your standard personal finance blog fodder, it’s a uniquely personal endeavor for us and, it’s essentially what makes us the Frugalwoods.
This past weekend, Mr. Frugalwoods and I ventured up to Vermont for one of our most favorite of activities: homestead hunting. We’ve been on the lookout for our early retirement property for the past 2.5 years and each trip north yields new ideas and knowledge about this life we’re embarking on. By giving ourselves a generous timeline in which to find our eventual homestead, we’re hoping to ensure we don’t feel rushed into buying a plot that’s less than ideal. With a target move date of no later than fall 2017, we’re optimistic we’ll be able to land on a worthy Frugalwoods home by then.
Patience and flexibility are both integral to the experience of buying rural land. There’s not much supply at any given time and the likelihood of finding the “perfect” estate is essentially nil. Fortunately for us, we’ve embraced the imperfection inherent to both extreme frugality and charting an unconventional mode of existence. That being said, we do have a number of requirements for the land we’ll buy, which include such factors as septic soundness, well safety, the sheer amount of land (we’re unwilling to go in for anything less than 20 acres), and the size of the house (we don’t want an enormous, inefficient abode that’ll be expensive to heat and maintain).
As we learned when we purchased our “city home” in Cambridge, MA three years ago, more research and more data make for a happy buyer. The more houses we see, the better informed we are about the market, what constitutes a good deal, and what we should expect when putting in our actual factual offer. Prior to netting our single-family home in Cambridge–which we scored for the lowest price per square foot of houses sold that month in Cambridge–Mr. FW and I visited upwards of 270 open houses. Why? We wanted to be well-educated buyers. And the more houses we saw, the more we honed our real estate savvy. Plus, it’s really fun to snoop around people’s homes and check out their decor.
Just as we research chest freezers, coffee, and Babywoods care and maintenance, home buying is no different. It’s not an emotional jaunt through whimsical worlds of paint colors and sentiments like “it just feels right”–it’s a heavily data-driven, investment-oriented purchase. And while we certainly don’t expect to see any great return on our homestead investment (rural land just ain’t gonna work that way), we also want to be smart about our decision and not purchase something that’ll be unsellable in the future.
And so, we set out on Saturday morning to scope out five different homestead properties in a slightly new geographic region for us: central Vermont. We’ve heretofore concentrated our search on southern Vermont, in the vicinity of Brattleboro, but we decided to expand to the White River Junction area. Having yet to find what we’re looking for in the south, we figured it couldn’t hurt to travel a tad farther north. The driving distance from Boston isn’t much greater, although the properties are a tad more expensive, owing largely to the nearness of Dartmouth College and the associated medical center, etc. Since we won’t be taking advantage of this geographic proximity per se–as we won’t need to hold down traditional jobs thanks to our financial independence–we’re not entirely sure if paying a slight premium is worth it. However, the resale value of these homes is likely a bit more robust as well.
How We Select Properties to View
Organizing a homestead hunt requires a good deal more advance planning than simply popping around to open houses in the city. Indeed, there are no open houses in the country. Hence, one must map and route quite carefully. Good thing we enjoy doing our research! I will say that homestead hunting is not for the faint of real estate heart.
Since these properties are often a healthy distance from one another, it’s not possible to visit more than a couple each day. Thus, it’s important to prioritize and winnow down the list of possibilities in advance. Fortunately, the internet comes to our rescue and we utilize both Zillow and Realtor.com to make our initial assessments. We prefer the search interface of Zillow–plus it has for sale by owner listings–but Realtor.com features more comprehensive listings because it captures all MLS data. Between the two, we feel pretty confident we’re seeing every available property.
We input our minimum acreage requirement (20 acres), maximum price ($400K), and take a gander at what pops up. Our first pass is a quick screen to eliminate properties based on factors like:
- Too close to a busy road
- A home without power
- High-voltage power lines passing directly over the house
- Located in an obvious flood zone
- Unsuitable for year-round living
- If the house is either wildly too small or too large
- Entirely cleared land (this is Frugalwoods after all, we want woods!)
- A house in deplorable condition for the asking price
- Something bizarre or funky about the listing (ok I realize that’s kind of vague, but we know it when we see it)
We then click the favorite button for the houses we’re mildly interested in and from there, select our optimal candidates. Since we perform this ritual of identifying properties relatively often, we’re becoming accustomed to the nuances of evaluating land. Check out Mr. FW’s Frugal Homestead Series Part 4: Searching For Land for a more in-depth discussion of this thrilling topic.
Grouping by Geography (aka How Not To Drive In Circles)
After we’ve identified our top choices, we plot them out on a map to determine the most efficient route for our grand tour. We run down the list, enter each location into Google Maps directions, then rearrange the addresses into the order that appears least circuitous.
Since we’ve searched for available properties via Zillow and Realtor.com’s map views rather than list views, we’re relatively assured they’ll all be in a roughly similar geographic region. However, plotting them out in Google Maps is our opportunity to discover any dramatic outliers located wildly far away from the rest of the pack.
Reaching Out To Realtors
Although we have a realtor we’ve been working with in southern Vermont… central VT is uncharted territory for us and we don’t have an agent yet. Thus, I simply contacted all of the listing agents for the properties we’re interested in directly. We typically like to allow for a full hour at each location to enable us to walk the land a bit and spend time assessing the feel of the property.
A full hour also provides leeway in case we get lost, or the realtor is late, and gives us the opportunity to ask as many questions as we can dream up. This particular trek also served double duty in allowing us to meet regional realtors to determine if we might want to use one of them as our agent for our eventual purchase.
On Getting Lost
Invariably, despite advance planning and mapping–not to mention our ever-present GPS, who is named Geraldine–we usually get lost for at least some portion of these expeditions. It just wouldn’t be a homestead hunt without a few egregiously wrong turns. The misdirection typically crops up when our directions and/or Geraldine instruct us to drive down a road that looks rather un-passable for the likes of Frugalwoods-mobile (who, by the way, rolled over 207,000 miles on this trip). Knowing one’s vehicle and not ensnaring oneself on a rugged road is a salient move for all concerned.
On this sojourn, we spent about an hour meandering through back road after back road attempting to wend our way to what passes for a highway in these parts. For a period of time, we just kept dead-ending at “roads” that appeared more fit for snow-mobiles than Frugalwoods-mobiles. There was also the issue of erstwhile roads, which now appear to be little more than footpaths leading into dense woods.
Additionally, our gas gauge began to lurk perilously close to empty just as Geraldine tried to divert us down yet another so-called road that is apparently now only traversed by horses. In the spirit of attempting to enjoy every experience in life, I decided to snap a few photos for posterity. If nothing else, I figured these would serve as our final images before the car ran out of gas, night fell, I went into labor, and it started to rain with a vengeance. Not that I was considering worst-case scenarios by any means…
But, we persevered and eventually succeeded in finding a paved road that led back to other paved roads (and fortuitously a gas station that doubled as a venue to gut and skin your fresh-killed deer). The whimsy of getting lost in Vermont is that everywhere you go is beautiful, rife with trees, views, mountains, streams, and farm animals, so at least being misplaced is always a scenic experience.
Since Babywoods is due in just 4 short weeks, we decided to stretch this foray out and make it our little version of a Babymoon. Thus, we elected to stay overnight to make our house hunting far less truncated and much more leisurely. We usually perform these jaunts all in one day, so it was luxurious to conduct it over three.
Anytime we do sleep overnight in Vermont, we try to find what we consider a “value-added” spot to lodge. AirBnB is our go-to for sourcing locations that offer the opportunity to stay with people who are living our dream: homesteading and running a small AirBnB operation. It’s a win-win since we get to savor a few days in a gorgeous, relaxing setting and pick the brains of our like-minded hosts.
This time around, we lodged at the lovely Stitchdown Farm in Bethel, VT where the inspiring young proprietors run a 300-acre vegetable, flower, and future sheep farm. It was both a delightful place to stay and also a wonderful chance for us to hear about homesteading from the source. I actually wrote this post sitting in their living room being warmed by a woodstove with a farm cat eyeing my lap and gauging if she could squeeze in between my baby bump and laptop. Verdict: nope.
The Properties We Viewed
On this specific trip, we visited five different properties spread out over two days. Our online research can only tell us so much about a homestead’s idiosyncrasies and unique features, so viewing in person is an absolute must for determining if we’d like to advance the relationship with a given home. Case in point: two of the five were almost immediately disqualified owing to a nearly mile-long, extraordinarily steep driveway at one and a rather unfortunate proximity to neighbors at the other. While we’d noted both of these drawbacks via Google Maps, seeing them in person reinforced and confirmed our suspicions that these two just won’t do.
Of the remaining three contenders, the verdict is still out and we’re currently engaged in the engrossing practice of gathering more information. With rural properties, there’s almost no end to the amount of data one ought coalesce prior to making an offer. There are now forestry management plans to peruse, septic systems to inspect, internet availability to confirm, Frugal Hound suitability to consider, and much more.
It’s a fascinating process and I will say that it helps to view it as a hobby as well as a means to an end. If we hated exploring real estate and putting in the background research that’s required, I daresay we might’ve given up long ago. But, since we consider the journey nearly as enjoyable as the eventual purchase, its been a delightful and educational romp.
And on that note, I conclude Part 7 of the Frugal Homestead Series. Want to make sure you’re among the first to receive Part 8 delivered hot and fresh to your email machine? Sign-up in the Frugal Hound email box below and she’ll send you a message.