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One of the coolest things about sharing our story through our blog has been meeting other people who are on the same kind of path as us. I wanted to share some other perspectives on homesteading, home building, and what living a self-sufficient life really looks like.
We’re big fans of being owner-builders (heck, we even wrote the book on it). But we also know that it isn’t for everyone. Is it right for you? Do you know what it REALLY takes? And most importantly, if your dog’s life depended on it, could you move out of a comfortable home and into a travel trailer on bare land to live off the grid while you figure it all out?
This week’s reader spotlight is on Teri French. She’s wickedly funny! She has an A+ good dog. And she has a LOT to tell you about the horrors of buying land and figuring out how to build a house, especially if you’re flying solo.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’ve lived in New Mexico for just over seven years after rolling around for the previous (I refuse to specify) length of time. I had a hard time finding a place that felt like home. The initial decision to come to New Mexico was somewhat random, but on arrival, I knew I had found my forever home, at least in broad terms. The first place I rented here was north of Taos, highly rural and I loved it. Loved the casita, loved my landlady, and loved the land and views. When my self-awarded sabbatical ran out, I was unable to find a job there and had to move to the “big city” – Santa Fe.
I’ve been a legal secretary for roughly thirty years (with two years off for good behavior) and lost my union card to the Girlie-Girl’s Union a long time ago. My carpentry skills are highly questionable (math is not my friend) but do it anyway. I also pretend I can do a bunch of other handy type things under the rubric of “fake it until you make it.” The good news is it appears I am not too old to learn new stuff. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
True confession: I moved for the dog.
I had a perfectly nice townhouse. I had finally gotten the hardscaping in and was at a point I could start planting when this dog came into my life. “Special needs” is the politically correct term. A bundle of nerves, she barked at everyone and everything that came within sight or sound of the house, which was all the time. The picture window overlooked the mailboxes and common area, not to mention a trail behind the house that was in constant use. Within six months I knew either she had to find a new home or we both did, and I wasn’t willing to let her go.
The first of many logic-defying decisions. It’s a good thing she’s cute.
So, I decided to find us a home with neighbors far, far, far, far away.
This meant a more rural living situation was called for. I was born and raised as a suburbanite and have spent 99.5% of my adult life in some version of suburbia. I always thought I wanted to live in a rural area but never had the courage to do it for myself. No evidence to hand, but I rather suspected it was a lot of work. But this was necessary for my dog’s well-being so I jumped in.
I would have loved to find someplace with something resembling a livable structure but such an animal does not exist within my budget. So it was bare land and move a trailer on until the house is built. Easy-peasy, right? My primary criterion for the property was available water. Living in the desert one grows somewhat wary about the unknown but undoubtedly massive cost of drilling a well that may or may not find water. I do not have so much money that I was willing to make that gamble.
I’d been looking at properties before putting the townhouse on the market and not seen much that was “right”. Then I got an offer on the townhouse after seven days on the market (full price!) so kicked the new home search into high gear.
This is the cautionary portion of the tale:
I found a place, eight and a half acres, with water, electricity, septic (in unknown condition). There were of course questions and issues: about the road, and the trashed mobile home and piles of junk on the property. Then the preliminary title report came in showing that the seller did not have title to the property. Something about moving to California and thinking she didn’t need to record the deed in New Mexico??? My 30-year veteran real estate agent said she’s never seen anything like it.
We tried a number of scenarios to sort the title issue out. I couldn’t close on a loan with the mobile home on the property. She didn’t have money to move it and probably couldn’t get it off the property until the road was dealt with. And of course there was no money to fix the road. I might have had the money to do at least some of those things but I didn’t have any rights to the property to do so.
The seller’s initial reaction to every proposal was…hysteria. Then, 24 hours later, she would calm down and propose something reasonable or close to it. Eventually, after being told by seller’s realtor that I could “limp along” with a questionable septic system, I decided to terminate that contract. The termination agreement was signed three days before escrow closed on the townhouse.
Can you say panic?
I had already planned to rent back the townhouse for a week, so there was a smidge of breathing room, at least enough to come up with something resembling one or several contingency plans.
Pulled up every property on the market within the county (commute time is also a consideration) that was within waving distance of my budget and not previously under consideration. With one disqualifying factor or another, it came down to one property: the one I purchased. It had a well (and pump and all the other necessary bits to make it work), and is basically nothing but hillside and rock.
After dealing with a local bank in a series of events that might well constitute another cautionary tale, I finally closed on the property and was able to move the trailer onto the property (after living in a campground for two weeks).
The dog, cat and I have been living in the trailer, off-grid, for six months now and will continue to do so until the house gets built or until we freeze, whichever comes first. There are tales to tell about my learning curve regarding living in an (older) RV but I think I may have embarrassed myself enough.
2. What kind of home are you planning to build?
It will be a small, one bedroom, one bath, probably between 700 and 750 sq. feet. It has been established that there is no place to put an adequate drain field for the septic system for two bedrooms so that concludes any conversation about a second bedroom.
I’m aiming for passive solar/net zero, assuming of course that the money is found. I would like to use as much salvaged building materials as feasible. I also want the house to blend with, be part of the land, as much as possible and not be plunked on top of it screaming its existence at the top of its lungs.
3. Tell us about your property. What kinds of things have you needed to consider about your land when planning your house?
The property is 1.7999 acres and is essentially all hillside, much of it over 30% slope. I don’t know about other places but here you cannot build on a 30% slope. The slope will dictate the final footprint and size of the house and rooms. Might end up to be a maze, it’s too soon to tell.
Finding a place for the septic system was dicey but the Septic Guy says a standard system can be installed. If, when they start to dig, they hit rock or a rock shelf, we may have to bring in more dirt. That’ll simply cost more money. That’s all. Did I mention the property is more rock than anything? Some truly gorgeous boulders/rock outcroppings but something of a challenge to build with/around.
Also, in the live and learn category, a place must be found for fire trucks to turn around (required for a permit here). That’s still to be solved. The ideal place for this turnaround is actually on my neighbor’s property and not within an existing easement. That property is currently on the market so I’m stalling. Hopefully, it will sell soon and I can talk with a human being about a new easement as opposed to the bank that currently owns the property.
The fire department also said that sprinklers will be required in the house as the driveway is too long (350 feet) and too steep (18% slope. This will cost between $5,000 and $9,000. I’m certain this will shock everyone but I do not have an unlimited budget so the sprinklers probably mean I won’t get a finished kitchen for an unknown period of time.
4. For you, what is the appeal of building a passive solar/net zero home?
It’s New Mexico for starts. If you don’t use the nearly unlimited solar here, you’re not paying attention. A lack of utility bills is always attractive, along with environmental reasons. It just makes sense to me, assuming the technology is in place and strong, to go net zero. I see nothing in ignoring the benefits, short and long term, in favor of destroying the planet. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I won’t say I’m not massively part of the problem, but some mitigation might soothe my soul.
5. So what are some of your homestead goals for your property?
I want to keep it fairly simple. Among other things, I ain’t getting any younger so massive physical labor is probably not Plan A. I will have some raised bed veggies and herbs. Probably a cold frame as our growing season is so short. I will have boysenberries if I have to drive to Oregon and smuggle cuttings out. I’d like to put some fruit trees in but will need to make sure I have enough water to make them happy.
I don’t see so much as chickens, much less anything larger, in my future. Maybe more dogs if this one ever decides to chill out.
6. What made you decide against being an owner-builder?
The day job is my primary reason. At five days a week, 8:30 to 5, it sucks up all available business hours in which to chat with contractors. Second place goes to the lack of a home-based partner, helper, buddy, what-have-you. The dog is virtually useless in that respect. She won’t even help with the dishes and frequently brings things home that create more work.
Since deciding on this move, before even shopping for property, I did a fair amount of research on owner building (that’s how I found this blog!) Believe me, I’d love to save all that money. It makes me drool at the thought.
But I know myself well enough to know that talking to strangers, interviewing subs and firing them if/when necessary, are not skills I possess. I’m all for pushing myself and stepping out of my comfort zone, at least in theory, but some days I can’t pick up the phone to order pizza.
The lack of time, potential lack of focus, not knowing what the hell I’m doing even with awesome help, could end up being to the detriment of the house, structurally, financially and/or timeliness. Too much downside.
My designer/architect’s comment on the subject: “With lost money at work, more of my time, and the risk of things slipping through the cracks (let alone the risk of having cracks in the first place!) it might not be a money-saver.”
Then must be considered the old-boy network of construction, with an extra layer of New Mexico patriarchal arrogance. (I’m sorry, is the chip on my shoulder showing?) As a woman, it is very, very hard to be heard. You have to be aggressive in a super nice way, a fine line to tread. I remodeled a bathroom in the townhouse and it was a huge learning experience for me. Once that contractor figured out that I did, in fact, know what I was talking about, the more things became strained and difficult.
7. What advice would you give to someone trying to decide if they should be an owner-builder or if they should hire a contractor?
Know thyself. And/or have a good general understanding of construction. Is there someone to brainstorm with? Someone to help with life maintenance when it’s all-building-all-the-time?
Know yourself. Can you fire someone? Are you comfortable being a boss? When the construction crew is screwing everything up, can you stop them and throw them out? If you are repeatedly ignored, can you jump up and down and get in their face until it is no longer possible to ignore you? The money is tempting but it appears owner building is a full-time job. If you have a full-time job, when will you sleep? Me, I like to sleep.
8. Any other words of wisdom to share?
The past six months on the property have been eye-opening to what life off-grid truly means, how much work is involved in keeping a bare minimum lifestyle, how insanely expensive stupid mistakes are (guilty!).
Research, research, research. And, if your personality allows it, talk to people – anyone and everyone. Me, I’m afraid I’m stuck with the internet. Even if those are some scary people too (present company excepted of course).
Wow! Thanks so much for sharing your story. I hope your cautionary tales and wise words will help an aspiring homesteader avoid the same pitfalls.
If you’re new to our homesteading project, click here to learn exactly what went into every part of building our cordwood home from scratch.
And if you’re thinking of starting your own homebuilding journey but don’t know how to start, download this free checklist to see how ready you really are.