Letter Re: Inexpensive Building and Gardening Techniques

I am writing this article to give suggestions and my experience of finding, buying and building my retreat so people can see that you don’t have to spend tons of money for one.  First off, let me tell you that it took over a year to find my retreat property, actively looking almost every weekend.  It included looking at more properties than I can count, and making an offer on 11 of them, before I got the price and property that I wanted.  It is a long and tedious process, but my family and I really enjoyed it.  We used to spend most weekends hiking different state and national parks in our area, so we used the retreat hunting to enjoy new areas to hike.  First, we found a realtor that we felt comfortable with and that grew up in the area we were interested in.  He also liked hiking, so he didn’t mind exploring the hills and hollers with us.  We found a few we liked, but they were  all priced more than I felt they were worth.  We made offers, but couldn’t get anyone to come down much on the prices.  Then, early this spring, we made an offer on one and it was accepted!

It is only 12 acres, but has some nice features.  I’ll go into them more in a bit.  I offered about half the price that most property around there was going for(there are many state parks, and BLM land all around, so everyone prices it for the scenic rustic value).  The woman that owned it was elderly and could not keep up with the land, so she was willing to give it to us for what we offered.  My point here is not to get discouraged if people won’t come down to your price range.  Keep looking, and you will find your ideal spot.

When we bought the property, it had a run down trailer, a small metal garage, and small log sheds that were falling down, along with a lot of junk that her son dumped there after she moved out, so we had our work cut out for us getting it cleaned out.  First thing we did was go to work making the trailer livable again.  We replaced the floor and carpet with mainly free or very inexpensive materials that people gave me, or that I found in the “Free Stuff” and “Materials” section of Craigslist. All the while I was collecting reclaimed wood and other materials and storing it in the garage.

Next, we made use of a small clearing, and started dropping trees to make a larger area for our garden/livestock area.  I put my oldest boy to work splitting the wood, and my younger boy stacking it up.  Once it was clear, we used our tiller to till the whole area, while adding manure that we hauled from a stable down the road.  We came by every weekend and cleaned out the stalls for the farmer, and got rid of his large pile behind the barn.  He was more than happy to have the help cleaning up the stables.  After we tilled it 4 different times and added the manure and some green sand that I found for very little money on Craigslist, we started planting apple trees and some grapes that we got from a local nursery.  Growing along the border of our garden area are some wild raspberries and blackberries that act as a natural fence.  But because there is a very large deer population in the area, we decided to put a fence around the whole garden.  I found four 100′ rolls on Craigslist for 20-35 bucks each.  That was a great deal. We decided to skip planting the vegetable garden since we weren’t there every day, and because we have a nice size one at our home in the city.

The whole time this was going on, we continued to collect building materials and make friends with the other people in our area.  Once the garden area was prepared, we decided to start building a more suitable retreat building.  One of the neighbors down the road had a backhoe that was just sitting around collecting dust, and rust.  He agreed to let us use it if we would haul some dirt and rocks away from his property.  We piled up all the rock and dirt close to a valley that we were intending to dam up to make a pond.  We used the backhoe to dig out for our partially underground home and shelter area, and also to push down some smaller trees to open it up a little more.  After the digging was complete, we started on the footers, walls, and floor.  We used rebar that I had gotten for free from a jobsite that I was working on, and concrete blocks that we got from Craigslist for free or very inexpensive (a lot of people just want the material off their property, so with a truck and some hard work, we got most of it for free).  The gravel and drainage pipe we also very inexpensive.  The most expensive part of this part was the bags of concrete to fill in the blocks.  We thought about just using dirt and sand to fill the blocks, but decided to make it as strong as we could.  We used block to go up four feet above the ground, and then stick built the rest and put local stone that a farmer had out in his field for the outside of it.  We used quite a lot of reclaimed lumber from old barns around here and from the buildings on the property.  The only things we paid close to normal price for was the concrete and the metal roofing. 

We also ran the downspouts down into a 1,500 gal water tank that we bought from a farm supply store and ran a pipe and pump into the house.  We then had a finished 40×32 defendable home with a decent water supply.  (I did have to buy a water filtration system from a local dealer)   We also added a 12×32 safe room/shelter with reinforced concrete.  The concrete we got for dirt cheap by paying cash for leftover concrete from a job 10 miles away.  I had made a call in to local concrete companies a few months prior, telling them I would pay cash for any concrete that they had extra from a big job down the road.  A week after we finished building the block part of the structure, one of the companies called and told me they had sent too much to the job and had enough concrete for what I needed.  I already had the footers ready and had built the forms with used plywood.  I was planning on ordering concrete the next week.  Great timing.  We poured the walls and floor that day.  Then using some metal pour deck and some used steel beams bought for scrap prices from a job site, we built the roof, and ordered enough concrete for a 3 inch pour over the roof.  This made us a 12′ x 32′ foot shelter and a place to keep most of our beans, bullets and Band-Aids since theft is common around since most of the properties are weekend getaways.  We also hid the steel door behind a bookshelf.  We left holes and room for a blast door and the safe cell air scrubber from Safecastle for when we get the money for them.  Once all this was done, we back filled everything and put about a foot of dirt over the shelter. 

The most expensive things for the inside of the house was the wood burning cook stove which I found used on Craigslist and the composting toilet.  We also added an outhouse to save the composting toilet for when it becomes extremely cold, and for the wife and kids at night.  We got all the cabinets we could ever need from Craigslist for next to nothing.  We also got a couple used sinks that were in very good shape.  I then made some furniture with some of the choice pieces of wood left from clearing the garden area.  When designing and building your retreat, waste nothing.  You can usually find a use for it down the road.  We then found a free sofa bed that was in good shape that someone just wanted hauled away.  We also found quite a few oil lamps from garage sales and flea markets.  The kids love going to flea markets and garage sales and trying to find stuff we can use.  Their eyes just light up when they drag us over to something and tell us how useful it would be.  We make a game seeing which one can find the best deals.  They love it.

Our next project was to dam up a small valley to build a pond for a secondary water source.  We saw in the local paper that a excavating company needed somewhere to dump a lot of chunks of concrete from some sidewalks that they had torn up.  We decided that this would be a great interior for our dam.  They dumped it right where we needed it.  Then we used the dirt that we had piled up, which has a high concentration of clay to pack around the concrete.  We added a two-foot wide used drainage pipe for our overflow.  The pond isn’t filling up as quick as I would have liked, but with the small amount of rain we have had lately, that is to be expected.  The kids are really looking forward to going to a large lake down the road to catch fish to stock the pond with.

We have recently started to work on a couple of small caches around the property.  We borrowed the backhoe again and dug a few holes.  Then using rebar and old railroad ties we built the walls.    We then used some of the larger logs that We saved and used them as beams.  We then used the plywood from our forms and nailed it to the top of them.  The some salvaged rubber and contractor plastic was glued to the plywood and ran four feet across the ground in each direction [beyond the roof].  We then added dirt and branches over the top of it until it looked like the rest of the area around it.  The entrance to them are junk refrigerators with the backs cut out of them, painted olive drab, and camouflaged with netting and more sticks and branches until they were completely invisible.  While we had the backhoe, we decided to dig out two LP/OP positions.  They have yet to have anything else done to them, but that is in the works.  The next project on the list is to use all these free windows to build a greenhouse and passive solar heating system.

We did all of the work with the help of just a few close friends and family.  Most of the materials were free or very inexpensive.  My suggestion is to start stocking up on any building materials that you can find.  If you don’t use them, then most will make great barter or charity items for TEOTWAWKI.  Don’t overlook anything as a possible material.  Tires, railroad ties, scrap metal, car hoods and an almost infinite numbers of other manufactured materials can be used for retreat building.  I suggest that anyone looking to build inexpensively should purchase The Fifty Dollar and Up Underground House Book by Mike Oehler.  It has many useful ideas that I modified to suit my purposes.  Just use your imagination and get the whole family involved.  I found it most encouraging that a couple of our ideas we started by my five year old son. Semper Paratus, – Chris in the Midwest