(Continued from Part 1.)
My Detailed Search
I spent the first couple of years looking at real estate online. I’m trying to find a property that is at least 3 hours away so in-person viewing wasn’t efficient for my initial search. I wanted to get a feel for what was for sale, what were prices like, how much money did I need, and what kind of amenities were in certain areas. I would map driving distances and roads looking at drive times, rush hour constraints, fastest routes and number of alternate routes.
Zillow.com and Realtor.com were my favorite search sites. They have maps that show property lines, at least in the areas I was looking. They have tools that let me set minimum property size, min and max price, and other characteristics of the property. They showed pictures of the properties, size of structures, and if there were wells and septic systems. I used these sites to identify and screen initial prospects. For lots that looked promising I would map them in Google, look at the satellite pictures, try to gauge the density of the trees, how much of the properties were open, where were the neighbors, what people were doing with the land around the properties, where were the streams, and google has a terrain feature now that provides some view of topography and elevations.
I mapped distances to home and population centers, I checked on where the nearest big hospital with a trauma center was (not close), how far to smaller medical facilities, how far to find groceries, how far to hardware stores, a lumber yard, restaurants, etc. For properties that I really liked, I went to a USGS site, The National Map – Advanced Viewer, and looked up the properties. The topo map view gave me elevations, streams, where water was going to flow and a relative picture of slopes on the property based on the distance between contour lines. My search area was more than 10,000 square miles.
We found a couple real estate agents we liked, over time. I used the agents to find out additional information on the properties, disclosure statements, maps, deeds (when possible), answers to questions, and to tour the properties. Rarely did the agents find a property I hadn’t reviewed first online. This might be different in other areas. We described what we were looking for, land with a stream, a pond, some slope, good trees, soil for a garden, next to public land for more privacy and places to play. I can build a house, a garage, or a barn but the features of the land are inherent to the property purchased. It either comes with a stream or it doesn’t, it has the contours to fill a pond or it doesn’t, it has trees growing, or planting them now will provide a forest for my grandchildren. I’ve now come to believe the public land would be good in peacetime, but a threat if the SHTF since there is no owner to protect the land. It becomes a place for outsiders to camp in.
Here is one useful tool that I used: The National Map – Advanced Viewer.
My search improved after we bought a tow vehicle and a camper that we started using for long vacations (I love the mountains) and weekend getaways to explore areas. My wife and I would take a long weekend and spend at least part of a day looking at properties. I learned quickly that pictures on the internet real estate sites always looked better than the actual structures. Examining actual lots and comparing them to the topo maps was also important. Land that I thought might be hilly based on topo maps turned out to be too steep to be built on or do more than hunt. Lots that are too steep don’t have enough topsoil for classic septic systems increasing costs, assuming the land would support more advanced septic systems.
We looked at a lot that was previously part of a mine though I didn’t know that until I walked the property. Hard to know if a well could be drilled that yielded clean water with all the tunnels below the lot. There was a lot so steep there wasn’t enough flat land to turn around a car pulling a trailer. It took some practice before I could predict the slopes on a lot from a topo map, and I still frequently underestimate how steep the slopes actually are. Tree density and health can be estimated from satellite pictures, but you have to walk the land to know young trees vs. older trees, and how many vines are filling the satellite pictures.
Using the internet real estate sites was an important screening tool to find the properties that were most likely to fit our criteria and be worth a trip to view in person, but you really need to be looking at the properties in person. The internet sites also helped me develop an idea of fair market value for a property. In the city the house is typically most of the value in a property (though location impacts the cost). In a rural area, the number of acres, and the number of creeks, rivers, ponds, standing timber, quality of soil, and game lands/state forests/national forests surrounding properties are typically a larger portion of the property price. Around 70% of my final purchase price was for the land value. Prices were all over the place too. Some properties were significantly overpriced with days listed running into years. Reasonably priced properties tended to sell quickly, often before my wife and I could arrange a trip to view the properties.
Early in the process, we explored multiple states, slowly refining what we were looking for which narrowed our search area (and we still enjoyed the camping and exploring). This was a six year process from the start of exploration to actually signing an offer for a property. Those six years were really driven by the lack of properties for sale. Initially, I was constrained by cost which reduced the number of suitable properties, and even later when I had more money saved (and after refinancing my main house) I was still waiting for suitable properties to be listed for sale even though my budget doubled. In a typical year I might have reviewed 100 properties online, pulled up topo-maps on 15 properties, and actually tried to visit 5-to-7 properties.
We Found The Right Place
My wife and I persevered, I continued to save money and eventually we bought 50+ acres in a location compromise that many probably wouldn’t make, but you might. In the end we found a lot in rural Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is very tax-friendly for retirement income until you die and the inheritance tax kicks in. So far gun restrictions are not onerous, though I’ve already accumulated a sufficient arsenal in a highly restrictive state. The property is on a quiet road, not that many houses, along with a few farms that don’t seem productive for much more than hay, trees, a few cows, and a few horses. My lot has a small house with a walk-out basement, a large garage 500 feet from house, and a couple old sheds rotting between the house and garage. The house hasn’t been well maintained for a couple decades and the first section was built 55 years ago.
The land has a couple wet weather springs (really seeps), a small pond (backup water source for the fire department), two hay fields of which at least parts of each produce some good hay, a dead orchard next to the house, and a creek at the bottom of the property. The well tested good for quality and flow though I need a filter for sediment and maybe iron. An easterly wind blows most days. Top to bottom of the property is about a 200-foot drop. Rocks abound, the grass grows thick to thin suggesting uneven topsoil thickness and quality, parts of the property are too steep to easily climb, other parts are flat enough for planting.
Before placing an offer I spoke to a couple neighbors to assess the property and what the other neighbors were like. At one time my lot had a small thriving orchard. It had a garden that produced enough food to can for winter consumption. Everyone hunts and the deer are prolific in number, though some of the deer are testing positive for one of the prion diseases. Most of my neighbors going either direction for about ½ mile are all related to one of two families, which has me a little nervous as an outsider. Most of the traffic on the road is from people who live on the road. Most of the people on the road are retired though a few of them work out and about.
We have steep ridges to the north and south that will help form a natural barrier to the east/west valley. In a SHTF scenario, the road could be blocked on either end of the valley to slow down access to the valley. In the summer walking through the woods where there is no trail is tough because of the briars, poison ivy and plant growth. In the winter the briars are the only problem and cross-country travel is easier. My next-door neighbor is a former US Marine who shoots his 5.56 every week or two on his range. To entice my son to visit, the property has interesting terrain for riding a quad, I have a river 3 miles down the road that people kayak and swim in, and we have a lake about 40 miles away suitable for fishing, boating, and water skiing.
So, I have a place but in its current state it’s not ready for a SHTF bugout. Finding the land was only the beginning. In terms of buildings, short term I need to fix a few structural problems with the house so I can get insurance. Then I need to replace the bathroom and kitchen so my wife will want to spend time at the property and cook. I want to gut the house to replace the insulation, old paneling, old carpet, worn-out linoleum, rotted window sills, clean out the mouse droppings and to rework the wiring (there aren’t enough circuits in the breaker box for the number of outlets). I have some floors that need leveling and to be leveled with other floors in the house.
The rural housing stock we looked at frequently wasn’t in the best shape, well maintained, built to code, or all built at the same time. Be prepared to fix it up. I firmly believe in HVAC redundancy, having lived without power for days (backup generator ran the house) and a furnace failure in the winter on another occasion (pellet stove kept the house from freezing). I plan to replace the ancient furnace with a heat pump/condensing propane furnace to keep it four-season comfortable. The chimney will then be available for a backup/supplemental wood stove. I’ll hold onto a couple window air conditioners that can be run off a generator or future inverter/solar panels should the grid go down.
Although I will keep the house comfortable when the grid is up just keeping a sleeping room cool after the SHTF would provide a refuge to provide good sleep and avoid personal overheating problems. I’m a firm believer in the multiplier value of electricity and plan to permanently install solar panels. I don’t like putting holes in my roof, since every hole is a future potential leak, but out in the country I’ll be able to construct a shed/pole barn/structure that can hold my solar panels and provide dry or semi-protected storage below. I’ve been looking at some high-efficiency DC cooling systems from Hotspot Energy that could be powered directly from DC.
The garage was filled with trash when we toured the property and I didn’t notice that it needs roof repairs, some of the walls have holes, the place smells and the garage doors won’t close all the way. I think it will eventually make a good equipment shed, but it isn’t going to be suitable for storing most of my prepping supplies. The house doesn’t have space for a shop and storage so I’m thinking I need to go underground. I could dig into the hill and make a big root cellar. Done correctly, humidity and radon would be the big design considerations, but the temperatures would be great for storing food preps.
Longer term, I’ll set up rainwater catchment systems (I have access to IBC totes at a reasonable price), my septic will need to be replaced, I want some sort of composting toilet option for grid down/limited water, and I need covered storage closer to the house for ATVs, wagons, cars, tractors, and my solar panel array. I need to build a workshop and set up hardware bench stock. I’m starting with some infrastructure in place, significantly more than many of the lots I hiked, and it’s still going to be a multi-year effort to reach a reasonable level of comfortable living and survival usefulness.
My progress will be slower because I don’t live on the lot (hence the wisdom of moving to your bugout location), but short of hiring people to do the work (hard to find right now, maybe even in slow economic times and neighbors tell me the good contractors are few and far between) or having enough money to buy a finished product (which most of us can’t afford), there is just an awful lot of work to set up a homestead, essentially what we need to survive TEOTWAWKI. Purchasing the land is just the beginning.
My improvements will be designed to survive in an austere environment after the SHTF, to include fire resistance. A 50-year metal roof was recently installed. I’m looking for metal siding and I’m thinking about building more storage and emergency living space underground. I’m looking for maintenance-free materials and building options. Depending on the severity of a SHTF situation supplies could dry up. Look at the Covid shortages and that was a minor event compared to what could happen. What I have built will be what I and my family have to live in and with, potentially for a long time.
I’ve recently come to believe the underground living space could be even more important in a serious collapse of society. Window air conditioners, central air conditioners, chain saws, quads, and generator sets all make noise that will be easy to hear from a significant distance. Even if I’m part of a protective sharing community with my neighbors, in a serious collapse those noise-making tools could become sources of envy. Underground space can be built to use the ground for cooling in the summer and doesn’t require as much heat to keep warm in the winter.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 3.)