Since I started my “Off The Grid Project” many of you have asked me how I found the my property. A few of you have even noted that it looks amazing, and I’d like to humbly agree. The best part it didn’t cost nearly what most of you think, and it is in the affordable price range for nearly everyone.
But as to the question of how I actually found it… Well, that is not an easy question to answer. It didn’t happen overnight, and there is no magic formula for finding a great place to get off the grid. As I have discussed previously, my property is unique to my wants and desires, and yours should be specific to your own goals as well.
With that being said, I think I have come up with a decent method for locating and evaluating potential properties that will work for most. If you are looking for an easy formula for finding the perfect off-the-grid spot, I will warn you: There is no easy way. It will take time and a great deal of work. Having said that, I hope my story and strategies below will be of some use to you.
Where My Plan Came From
My plan to finally make my dream a reality originally hatched about 8 years ago, while I was living in New Mexico, during my employment with the federal government. Anyone who has been New Mexico knows there are numerous outdoor activities in the area in which a sports-inclined person may participate. In that way, New Mexico brought back memories of my childhood growing up in a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
By that point in my career, I had been fortunate enough to have done a great deal of traveling while working in the government. Because of this broad geographic exposure, I already had a few places I was looking at in terms of buying my ideal off-the-grid land
And at the top of my list was Washington State.
This was for three reasons:
- I love the outdoors, and Washington has tons to offer in this area.
- Affordability. When I compared land prices in other states, such as Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, Washington definitely offered the most bang for the buck.
- Washington has no state income tax. I’m not a big fan of giving the government any more money than I need to.
I had a friend who lived in North West Washington, and I used to go visit him once or twice a year. He lived in a fairly congested part of the state. I knew I wanted something more remote, but I just wasn’t sure of where.
As luck would have it, a transferred back to Southern California for my federal government job soon bounced me back up north, when I was assigned to assist on a case in the Spokane area in the northeastern part of Washington State.
While working there I also met a girl, and we dated for a while. So I was able to explore that part of Washington a bit more, and it was love at first sight (with the area—not the girl, unfortunately).
Now, understand from the original idea that I had eight years ago, this was by now some four years later. I had contacted a real estate agent when the idea first hit me when I lived in New Mexico. However, my first blush of enthusiasm had been quickly dampened because land prices were out of my range, due to the pre-recession housing boom being in full effect. But I didn’t give up, I knew the prices would eventually come back to Earth. And of course, they soon did.
You Just Need A Little Patience
There is one thing I can’t emphasize enough when it comes starting your adventure into a more remote lifestyle – patience, patience and some more patience. Again, there is no road-map for this type of life. Everyone takes their own path, and finds what they are looking for through different avenues.
The part of Washington in which I finally found my own personal paradise is littered with people who had once aspired to a rural and self-sufficient life, but who didn’t do their research first, jumped in too quickly, and flamed out. Every time I mentioned I was from Southern California, and described what I was trying to do, a local would give me the look like: “Yeah, right buddy, you will be gone in less than a year, if even that long.”
Now if you have been watched too many shows about Alaska on TV, and think that you can pack up the BMW (rear wheel drive car in the mountains, not a good idea!) with the wife and dog, you are better off just getting your triple shot, fat-free, sugar-free latte, not too hot, not too cold…well you get the idea. My advice for those folks is to just stay home and watch the Kardashians. I kid you not, I met more than my fair share of these types of individuals while staying short-term at local hotel. These people never make it through the first winter, and honestly give out-of-state people working towards a better, simpler life a bad name.
So what does the above have to do with you finding your ideal, rural land, you might ask?
Here’s my hard-won advice. First, you have to be dedicated to the idea of changing your lifestyle, and it should be with real intention and thought, and not just on some whim. Second, by being from outside of the area in which you intend to build, you will have an uphill climb ahead of you just to gain the trust and respect of the locals. I will expand on this a little later, but it is incredibly important.
Just remember you are not the first one to come up with this remote-living idea, and many idiots before you are more –than likely to have made dealing with the locals in the area a little harder for you.
Formulating Your Plan
If you think you may want to head off-the-grid for a simpler and more self-sufficient life, I recommend you begin by asking yourself: Why do you want this type of lifestyle?
Is it because it looks cool on TV? (I do not recommend using this as a valid reason!) Do you just want a simpler life? Do you want a remote vacation house to get away from it all?
Everyone will have their own reason , but this soul searching has a concrete point. Moving away from urban areas has to be something you truly want to do, and be a lifestyle you really want to adopt.
There are many variations in what “living a more remote lifestyle” looks like in practice. However, the process of finding an ideal piece of land upon which to build your new home will be similar no matter what your preferences. All that will be different is how remote your piece of property will be.
In my experience, the best way to start was by traveling to various parts of the United States and seeing what places I liked most and coming up with a short-list of potential locations. I have been fortunate, and have spent a great deal of time traveling for my job. But for many people, this may not be a possibility. For those who have no idea where to start I would begin by looking on the Internet for States or areas that have what is on your wish list (climate, land features, state taxes and laws, and so on).
Once you have 5 to 10 locations in mind, search the Internet for land for sale in those places to get an idea of the size of the lots that are available, and what the price range for real estate generally is in that area. A website I like to use is www.realtor.com, as most types of properties for sale are listed on this site.
Of course, don’t rely exclusively on this type of search. This is just to give you an idea if what you are looking for is affordable and/or available.
Once you narrow it down, know that the hard work is about to begin. I would keep the list to five states or areas or fewer, if possible. Just like anything in life, you have to experience it first hand in order to figure out if it is the right thing for you. I planned my vacations in the area I was interested in, so I could explore the vicinity further.
Now, don’t make the mistake I made, which was jumping right out and contacting a real estate agent who happened to be listed on one of the properties I found interesting. Trust me, this type of blind internet-based fishing expedition for a realtor is a complete waste of time.
The best way is to visit the area yourself, then find a local real estate agent who is either from (or at least very familiar with) the area you think might fit your needs..
Eventually, I figure this out. The right way looks like this: I did all my research first, so I knew exactly what I was looking for, and then found a real estate agent local to the area. If you try to use a real estate agent too early in the process you will end up looking at land they want you to buy instead of the other way around.
I wasted days going to dumpy, un-buildable lots, with a real estate agent who was not well versed in the type of property I was looking for. Lesson learned!
Keep in mind also that some remote lots are not listed, as they are “for sale by owner” only. Your local real estate agent will probably know about these lots, or other people in the area will know of someone trying to sell some land that is also not listed.
At this point I realized I needed to do my own homework first, because I was relying on the real estate agent to do it for me. As you can see this was and is a really bad idea.
Right Place Right Time
After this failure, my new plan was to spend 3 to 4 days traversing the area in which I was interested by car. Take my advice: This is the best way to figure out if that region suits your needs, hands down. I put about 1,000 miles on my rental car in three days. But I’ll tell you what, I knew exactly where and what I wanted after that.
Once I had narrowed down my search to a specific place I needed to find a good local real estate agent.
During this time I had been getting to know the locals in the town I was staying in. I asked everyone I could about land, and if they knew anyone who had property for sale. This approach didn’t get me any new leads on lots for sale, but it eventually led me to the right person to get the ball rolling.
Someone told me I should go to the local bank, and see if they had any foreclosed or short sale properties they were selling. Now, this was an excellent idea, so with my new-found enthusiasm I headed off to the local bank. I ended up speaking with the Vice President of the branch, and asked if they had any land for sale. They didn’t, but she knew a realtor at one of the local real estate offices, who specialized in the type of land I was looking for. One better, he was a local from the same area I was interested in.
It was pretty funny, I didn’t even have to get in my car to go to the real estate office. I literally walked two blocks from the bank, and I was there. After introducing myself, and my master plan, he said he thought he knew of a property that was exactly what I was looking for. Of course I was a little skeptical, because the last real estate agent had said exactly the same thing. But after he brought up the listing on his computer and showed it to me, I was encouraged to think that he just might be right. In addition, he found another lot not too way from the first one that he thought could work as well.
We made a plan to meet early the next morning and head out to take a look. So the next morning I met up with my new real estate agent, and we went to see a 20-acre secluded lot with a view of a nearby lake (which was one of my absolute requirements for my property).
After weaving through an old logging road for about 45 minutes we emerged onto the property. It was old logging land still owned by the logging company that had worked the area years back. I mention this, because early on I had been discouraged from looking at these types of lots, which I now know is a huge mistake.
Turning A Negative Into A Positive
My first real estate agent wouldn’t even give me logged lots to look at. His rational, was that such spots have been stripped bare of trees. His opinion was that, for someone looking to live in the woods, having no woods wouldn’t make much sense. Now, this may seem to be logical at first glance, but the opposite is actually true. Let me explain.
Now it is true that some logging lots have been stripped bare, but I have found this is not always to be the case, especially with smart lumberjacks on the case. The logging company from which I bought my lot has a business model based on reselling the land. They selectively cut trees, which maintains the forest in a condition ideal for someone who wants to develop the land, or to make a homestead.
Pretty smart I would say. A savvy logging company can make money off the trees, then make money selling the lots if they do it right. So now you know.
The logging company which had once owned the lot I eventually purchased had left me plenty of trees, as it turns out. They cleared most, but not all the good ones. The other trees were not profitable for them to cut, but they were great for someone like me, who was looking to build a house in the woods and live on the property.
Now, here is the real genius in their plan. A logging company has to build a “landing” at its worksites. The landing is the spot where all the heavy logging equipment is placed and the trees are debranched and prepared for transport. In the case of the company that had worked what is now my land, they cleverly opted to build the landing in the spot they thought would be the best building site for a future house.
This was great! The buyer (me!) would have far less work to do, and much less dirt to move in order to make the lot house-ready. By selectively clearing the trees, the lot was appealing to a buyer, instead of seeming like a the scar that is a barren lot.
Most people who looked at the lot before me couldn’t see the potential, because most real estate agents don’t have a clue how to develop such a property. Not my local real estate agent! Both of us walked the property, and saw all the potential, not to mention how much of the deal of the hard work had already been done.
Here is why:
- The building site was already established in the best place, flattened and settled, and would take minimal work to finish. (This is especially important when dealing with sloped land, like on a mountainside.)
- By selectively clearing the trees, it saved me from having to remove literally hundreds of trees to make the property buildable, not to mention the substantial amounts of work was already done in building the logging roads to have access to the site.
- With the combination of dirt work and tree removal, I saved probably around $100,000 and weeks if not months of extra labor.
Here is another very important point that most buyers looked at as a negative, but was actually another very big positive.
The lower portion of my property had transport power lines running through it. Now these weren’t the type of power lines I could tap into for electricity, but the ones that transports high voltage electricity to other parts of the state.
Most people would look at these and think “no way!” But that would be a big mistake.
First, they were far enough away, and below the living area to not be a concern (you can’t see them from most of the property.) Secondly, the power company had to maintain the road used to service them, which went through my property as an access road. The power company road lead almost all the way to my upper building area… big time bonus!
Even better, by the time I had come back to formulate my plan the power company had completely re-done the road, and they did a great job! This left me with only about 200 yards of road that I needed to fix. That saved me probably another $50,000 and years of work, because the road was rough, but drivable in a truck with four-wheel drive (meaning I would have put this project off for a long time).
I know what you are thinking, “Gary this all sounds great, but how much did this amazing piece of property cost you?”
Here’s the kicker. It was a great price because no one had seen through all the supposed negatives. I bought 20 acres of gorgeous mountain land for $23,000. No, there is not a misplaced comma—that is twenty-three thousand dollars. That is far less than what most people pay for their yuppie, I’m-really-cool, competing-with-the-Jones’s sports car they can’t really afford.
As I’ve said before a little luck helps in the process, but I wouldn’t be planning on getting lucky. I had already planned on how to deal with the road issue, but luckily I didn’t have to.
You now can see by being patient and doing my research, I made something that seemed impossible for the Average Joe a reality. I hope my story helps you save some of the time and efforts I wasted, and that you find your dream land soon.
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