Building the Dream: (Part 2)
I'm tired of looking at property. But making a poor decision at this point could be costly. What can you do but prioritize your needs and keep looking? We have searched far and wide for the promised land, looking at places through realtor websites and Google Earth, then driving to see closest and most promising ones.
We could move back to the Midwest again if it meant survival. Though we felt out of place there, the land is excellent for gardening, farming and animal husbandry. We still have good friends there as well. And there are many properties for sale far enough away from the cities that drug and poverty problems are mitigated. The occasional meth cook in a farmhouse wants to stay unnoticed, and its more likely that you'll have good neighbors. Property is cheap, and if the economy collapses a person could make it there as well as anywhere in the world.
But we also looked at properties in Tennessee and Texas, finding very reasonably priced homes in small towns, or in the countryside. They looked very attractive and were priced at 15-30% of homes located near cities. One property in Tennessee had 5 acres, a nice home, a barn, a pond in your front yard, and was located 60 miles from a city of any size. $50K takes it all—perhaps with a desperate family trust that just wants it sold. What a fine place to retreat to and live off your own land. I even considered a $10,000 property in a small town next to a large lake north of Amarillo. The house had burned down, but the land was nice with a good garage standing. I also like Texas because it’s the most likely state to secede and form its own nation. I see advantages to that and wouldn’t mind being a Texan beforehand.
We have also looked at many places in southwestern Colorado where my cousins live. Homes with acreage are reasonably priced in the Cortez area, a farming region which is located far from just about anything, but with beautiful weather and abundant water.
Our son has relocated to Northern California. We partnered with him to purchase a threeplex property there. He lives in one and earns his keep by managing the other two rental homes for us. Given that we eventually want to live close to our children when we get older, that property is a realistic possibility in the future.
We even looked at property in rural New Zealand. It’s reasonably priced. I suspect Australia would be a good option as well. At one point my wife and I lived in Mexico and loved it. But Mexico has changed since the 1980s. One can also purchase inexpensive homes in Russia. The international options are endless, but perhaps not wise for an American these days. I am not certain we can afford to expatriate since I’d have to earn a living once we arrive. And would we ever see our children again?
Each area of the country has pros and cons. Nothing’s perfect except BillHilly’s place in British Columbia. I wonder what cabins cost up there?
I suppose the factor that tipped our decision towards staying in the Southwest is the need to care for our aging parents. My wife’s mother is 84 and will soon need full-time care. The wife’s father has passed away. My own mother is 80. She’s doing well for now, but the step-dad is older and in poor health. We probably won’t have to take care of both mothers at once. My father is 82, in good health, and wealthy enough to live wherever he likes. But he’s fully invested in the system and could be broke within 48 hours after a collapse. He and my stepmother will probably live with my stepsister in Colorado at some point.
So, out of all the possibilities, we are constrained by family obligations to stay in a land of scarce water, but with many resilient neighbors.
The wife’s mother used her nest egg to build her dream house when she retired 15 years ago. She also bought the lot next door because it had an old rundown trailer on it. Fearing that some riffraff would move in next door, she had the trailer hauled away and planted fruit trees. In 2010, when my wife and I took the red pill, we started thinking we might have to move in a hurry one day and this empty lot could make a good place in a pinch. I drew up plans for a small home that we could build ourselves, not requiring highly skilled levels of carpentry.
Then the county got involved. There is a river 100 yards away, making the property at risk of a 100 year flood. The county never cared much until recently when they decided that every new home built on that stretch of land needed to be raised 5 feet above the ground level to keep it high and dry. To save money the county engineers adopted formulas used by the Army Corps of Engineers for calculating the flood levels on the Mississippi River. So, the historical floodplains on our street were raised significantly, putting us underwater, theoretically, if our valley ever receives over 40 inches of rain in a year. 13 inches is the average. (Don’t you just love government bureaucrats?)
Thus, we abandoned our idea of building a traditional ground-level home on that particular lot. We purchased another property, on the cheap, shortly after arriving in the area. But it was not suitable for a self-sustainable lifestyle—no irrigation. One must have irrigation rights in this area. So we looked for a better property on which to build.
Meanwhile, the economy has pretended to get better, and people in our region started paying outrageous prices for property and homes. The average home price doubled in the past five years. Though we had considered purchasing an existing house, now it is mostly out of the question because we don’t want a mortgage. We passed on several pieces of land seeing nothing ideal, always keeping an eye on the existing home sales in case we might get lucky again.
Then one fine day, an idea popped into my head when I saw a set of blueprints of a garage with a house built on top of it (I love muses). I talked with the city to find out if building the living quarters above a garage satisfied the regulations regarding the floodplain, and they said “Yes.”
So, we drew up our own modified blueprints. We designed a larger model with a 2-car garage and living quarters on top, well above the floodplain, except that the garage could get flooded and has to be built from water resistant material. (We will keep a boat moored to our deck.) I estimated on the back of an envelope that we could build for $75 per square foot, with much of the labor performed by yours truly (before I nearly sawed off two of my fingers). That’s me in the pic waving. Three months later the fingers still are having problems.
Then we met with an architect who quickly burst our bubble. He told us we were looking at $125 a square foot … and that was cheap. Many builders in the area are charging $200+ per square foot. We were biting off more than our checkbook could chew. Our goal is to be debt-free, not have another $100,000 mortgage. And frankly, due to a low “curb appeal,” spending 150K+ for a home on that particular lot would put us underwater immediately. Bluntly put, building a typical home was too expensive… Damn!
Thus, we abandoned our plans and started looking around at multifamily housing in the area. Everything was overpriced. But we finally found one that looked intriguing. It was a very large building on 2 acres with nice living quarters on one side, and a huge open room where we could build living space for two elderly moms. There was also a three bedroom house built directly behind the main building along with a couple of outbuildings. But when we looked in person, even my untrained eye could see the flaws in the carpentry as well as substandard plumbing, electrical and many other problems. This house did not have good bones. Moreover, the prior owners had forfeited irrigation rights when it went through a foreclosure. You never get those back in that town.
Back to the drawing board then.
My wife and I sat down and made a list of everything we were looking for in a property.
- Mature fruit & nut trees
- Good dirt for gardening
- Elbow room
- Close to Mom’s house
- Within 60 minutes of my employer
- Plenty of interior space
- Man cave for all my tools
The next day I was watering the fruit trees on that empty lot next to mom that we had just rejected for building a traditional home, and I started comparing our list with the features of the lot. It had irrigation rights. It had young maturing fruit trees. The soil was good. Location was great. Frankly, it had everything we wanted—especially irrigation, cause if you don’t have irrigation in that valley, your property looks like this-- quite Arizona-ish.
Then, with the watering hose in my hand, another idea just popped into my head (I really love muses). So we rushed to the city planners office sat down with Carmen (who kind of looked like a muse). She took us into the conference room and displayed her computer on the big screen TV and we asked her about merging the two lots into one lot and what kind of building would we then be allowed to build on it. She was very helpful. She explained that the city allows "accessory dwellings" on a property--specifically so people can care for aging relatives. After kicking ideas around for a bit, after merging two lots, we realized we could have a contractor build an industrial-style metal garage building. Within that incredible man-cave, we could construct a second-floor apartment above the flood level. Carmen was happy with that plan. I was happy also.
Metal buildings come in kits that a contracting crew puts together in a week. We have enough fiat to pour a concrete pad and raise the building. Then we can take our time building the apartment inside as we can afford it, saving the equity in our current home and two rental properties for a rainy day. My stack is much smaller these days, with its value transferred into a mortgage-free rental property.
I talked to my architect about the idea and he concurred that this could work well. It will increase the value of the entire property with mom’s house on it through the addition of the large garage with the accessory dwelling place for a caretaker. We can afford the cost out of pocket if we build out the interior as we can pay for it. We added a clause to the Family Trust that will reimburse our building costs upon mom’s passing when wifey’s 4 siblings out-vote her to sell the place and get their inheritance.
So we’re back to building in the original location, but constructing a very different kind of home--certainly not one that will impress the Joneses, but we can build the inside the way we want. Total cost estimate: $50K. Unassuming. Low-keyed. Restrained. No gold hidden here folks, only a few firearms … and this is a neighborhood where survival is realistic.
But, who will take care of us in 20 years? We’re hoping our daughter settles down somewhere near our son one day, as she has stated a desire to do. Then after our responsibilities to parents are completed, we can relocate to where our children are.
I can dream, can’t I?
Hopes and dreams keep me motivated, sometimes unrealistically as my wife points out. But its better than being unmotivated and getting pessimistic about the future.
Hopefully, our kids (and future grandkids) will be living nearby each other and we can rebuild our “dream house” all over again … and by the word “dream” I mean “survival.” Hopefully Northern California has become the state of “Jefferson” by then, or perhaps southern region of “Cascadia.”
That's a lot of hopin' and a lot of "ifs." Unfortunately decisions have to be made now. All we can do is the best with what we know, stay flexible, and use our resources wisely.