HOMEGROWN Life: Tools and Tips for Homestead Hunting
What a few months this has been! Sometime last year, before the leaves started falling and the frost arrived and the Polar Vortex descended, we began homestead hunting. I decided to start the search early, many months before our prospective move date, which revolved around what most things in my household do: a teen girl. We moved school districts almost two years ago, and I really didn’t want to move her again, let alone in her junior or senior year of high school. That seems like cruel and unusual punishment during some already punishing years.
My boyfriend and I sat down and wrote The List: what we want in a home and what we need. Here are the basics: three, or preferably four bedrooms; two bathrooms for sure (reference teen girl above); room for two large pit bull rescue pups (one half lab, the other half mastiff); parking for multiple pickup trucks; trailer parking; RV parking; a large kitchen in which to prepare homemade meals and teach classes; a yard with adequate space and sun for a three-season garden; and room for a goat shelter, a chicken coop, and, eventually, a horse paddock. For goodness sake, is this too much to ask?!
Maybe. But here are some tools to use and topics to consider when choosing a homestead:
- I’ve used several websites to scout listings, mainly realtor.com and Weichert, because they allow me to filter properties by acreage and school district.
- Great Schools allows you to see school districts’ ratings, test scores, and reviews.
- You’ll want to look into the zoning and animal restrictions for a given area, as well, since that might rule some places out right away. For instance, I initially chose a nearby community, assuming they were animal friendly, but it turned out they heavily restrict animals on anything less than three acres. You can’t even have one chicken unless you have three acres. In fact, that town is suing a woman for keeping chickens! Needless to say, I crossed that community off the list. Your township building or city hall is an excellent first stop; they should keep a copy of the guidelines and ordinances on hand or on their websites.
- When considering a property, carefully inspect the lay of the land. Several we’ve seen have been on sloping lots, which will wash my garden nutrients right down the hill unless I build leveling raised beds. A sloping lot will also make the animal shelters challenging to build. Consider whether that’s the sort of work you’ll want to tackle and, if so, if your timeline will let you get it done. Will you miss too many growing seasons and blow your budget?
- I also use Google Earth’s tool for tracking sunlight at every time of the day, which is helpful if a home is surrounded by woods. Once you’ve downloaded Google Earth, you simply type in the address of the prospective property and use the slide tool to change the time of day. While the results aren’t always super conclusive, the tool gives you an idea of what to expect. If there are surrounding trees that wouldn’t be on my property and thus couldn’t be taken down to let sunlight in, I couldn’t grow a garden.
- It doesn’t cover all of the country, but Redfin allows you to pull up all kinds of info on a home and also to see its property line. This is important especially with irregular lots and unusual layouts.
- Begin to consider the logistics of your move: Will you hire a mover? How and when can you transplant your favorite plants? Is it time to plan a yard sale? Will you move your chicken coop and, if so, how? Shed movers are an excellent resource for this; Google “shed movers” and your area for local services. If you give them the dimensions of your coop and the mileage of the move, they should be able to give you an estimate. You can also find shed movers on Craigslist, but make sure to request references and ask whether they’re insured.
- Make a plan for transporting your animals, including chickens. Read up on stress-reducing transportation tips, especially since changes of environment can result in changes of behavior and egg-laying patterns. Will you need to find them a temporary shelter while you rebuild a run?
- You’ll also need to clean out and dispose of the bedding in your coop, and you’ll need to replace it quickly once the coop arrives at the next location. Order or purchase your bedding ahead of time, as well as materials to rebuild a run if needed, and have those ready to go ASAP at the new place.
Since the property we eventually land on will be our “forever” homestead (we hope!), I’m much more careful in choosing it than I have been with rentals and past moves. I know my pickiness baffles my friends and family—especially my unwillingness to decrease our acreage in order to be closer to everyone. (We’ll still be within an hour.) While I would love to stay right in my town, finding a large, affordable lot has been nearly impossible. I’ve had to open up my search radius and keep an open mind.
In my own search, I’ve found two things to be the most important. First, find a realtor who understands your lifestyle. Many people looking for a home ask for things like hardwood floors, stainless appliances, and a beautiful center-hall colonial for hosting dinner parties. That’s not us. We’re asking for chicken- and goat-friendly neighborhoods, a house with character, and adequate space to can preserves and make cheese and teach others to do so. Out of the ordinary, perhaps, but pivotally important to folks like us. We needed a realtor who understood that passion.
Second, try not to make the decision overly personal. It should remain business. Many months ago, we found the perfect homestead. It was close to everyone, had adequate acreage, lovely flat ground for gardens, and a beautiful farmhouse with possibilities. It also had a painfully awful seller. But as the negotiations dragged on, the deal deteriorated, and in the end, he demanded $20,000 more than we’d agreed upon. (The mortgage was contingent on him making some repairs.)
In the end, we walked away. We had been pushed past our budget and were no longer able to the trust the seller to do the right thing. While it was difficult to walk, it would have been more difficult to pay a mortgage that was outside of our parameters—and to use all of our savings to make that happen. Finding a balance has been challenging at moments, but I’ve decided that I will keep certain things personal (buying a house that’s our style, versus one that simply works) and other things purely business (like the budget).
Sit down and make a list of your deal breakers and makers and stick to it. That way, you never question your decision or get in over your head. If you’re buying with your other half, make sure your list is clear and approved by both of you. Hold one another to it firmly but kindly. It’s much easier to defuse a heated discussion when you have a written list to refer to as your original goals.
I do believe you’ll know your home when you find it. You’ll imagine yourself cooking at the stove or you’ll picture your kids doing chores in the lawn. It’s worth the struggle and the devotion to have a place you’re in love with, year after year. After all, there’s no place like home!
Although she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.