Like many others SurivivalBlog readers, I hope to one day move to the American Redoubt. In the summer of 2018, my wife and I took the first step: an eight-day trip to Montana and Idaho to look at properties, get a feel for the places in which we were interested, and to meet people. Our goal was not to buy a house or property this trip, but to start what may be a multi-year process that ensures that when we pull the trigger we hit our target rather than making a decision we come to regret. We also want to make sure a couple of Easterners like ourselves would be comfortable out there.
This is a report on that first trip, along with observations and lessons learned. Some of this may be obvious, but we hope it will help someone planning a similar trip next year.
I’ve been a survivalist since my daughter was born some 23 years ago. We’ve been in a multi-family prepper group, we have a retreat in the mountains several hours away, and we have a good supply of beans, bullets and band aids. My wife is an avid gardener and very well organized. We’ve checked most of the prepper boxes, but while we live beyond the sidewalks on a couple of fenced acres with a well and septic, we’ve never lived on our retreat. Having the kids out of house and getting close to a potential early retirement presents an opportunity to address that.
When evaluating property, our objectives were as follows:
- Privacy – we wanted at least 10 acres with no neighbors in our faces. A neighbor down the road is fine. A neighbor out the side window is a non-starter. Less acreage would be OK if we abutted federal or state land. The properties we looked at were from five to 27 acres.
- Remote – We don’t want to be too near town and we don’t want to be on an Interstate or primary road. How far from town is “far enough” depends on how big the town is. We were shocked and the size and commercialism of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and would not want to live within 30+ miles of it. Whitefish, Montana, on the other hand, was not only smaller but quieter and far less built up; we would be comfortable being closer to it. We were also fine with long dirt driveways and needing to do our own snowplowing, but we didn’t want property that offered only snow machine access during the winter. We’re comfortable being 30 or 45 minutes away from the nearest grocery store, but would prefer not to be more than 90 minutes from civilization.
- Not too Flat – We aren’t horse people and we don’t want to farm or raise hay. Yes, we want a garden and some space for small livestock, but we don’t need 20 acres of pasture. We found out on this trip that we don’t want straight steep mountainside either! I also want a hill or berm I can safely use as an on-site firing range.
- Prepping Infrastructure – Our minimum requirement was a wood stove or a good fireplace insert, storage space, and a generator hook up (most rural homes where we looked are equipped with the latter). We were fine with solar and off grid, but it was not a requirement as we can add that later. We also considered outbuildings a big plus. Luckily, outbuildings are common in Idaho and Montana, and all but one property we saw had them. We also didn’t seek out a property with a bunker, but we would not turn one down.
- A Nice Master Bath and Kitchen – This falls under the “happy wife, happy life” heading. During our trip, I observed that a kitchen that was well laid out and usable was more important to her than a poorly designed kitchen with new, top of the line appliances. So we’re talking functional, but not ugly is certainly a plus. A propane stove is preferred over electric.
- Budget – We were comfortable spending $300,000 to $500,000. I don’t think we saw anything in person that was under $400,000.
We booked our flights and reservations about eight months ahead of our trip, staying mostly in bed and breakfasts. We concentrated on three areas that our preliminary research lead us to believe met our criteria: Missoula, Montana, and the area North and West along 93; Whitefish/Kalispell, Montana; and the panhandle of Idaho, specifically between Athol and Bonners Ferry, although we went as far east as Clark Fork. Yes, we skipped huge chunks of both states, but you can only do so much in a week and we wanted to be able to drive from place to place in a reasonable timeframe. For example, when driving from Whitefish to Idaho, we went through Troy, Montana, which is a location where several nice houses have appeared on SurvivalRealty over the years, so we were able to check it out. We also stopped at a property in Naples, Idaho, which is north of Sandpoint.
I have been visiting SurvivalRealty.com weekly since the site was launched. As we got six weeks out from our trip, I started looking at other sites as well, including Black Rifle Realty. I reached out to realtors that had property we wanted to see. I also ended up creating account on realtor.com and was able to save properties there so we could access them on an iPad or phone as we drove around. This proved to be a useful feature. You can also set up multiple criteria and then and save searches for particular geographic areas.
Summer is prime buying time and a number of listings we wanted to see had been placed under contract by the time we got there. Our realtor in Idaho told us that Californians looking to escape sell their houses for big profits and then make cash offers on properties in Idaho. I wish that I could do that!
Speaking of Realtors, let me call out Theresa Mondale with the Western Montana Group of United Country Realty, who we initially contacted through SurvivalRealty.com. Theresa was the best realtor we dealt with – well prepared, knowledgeable, and experienced. (Plus, she and my wife hit it off, which is never a bad thing.) When we go back, we expect to be working with her again.
By the end of our trip, we were leaning towards Western Montana more than Idaho. We liked Sandpoint and spent some quality time on Lake Pend Orielle, but we felt more at home in Montana.
Key Take Aways
Here are a few lessons learned:
Nothing beats a site visit. Take everything you see in an online real estate listing with a grain of salt. Realtors go out of their way to show a property off to its best advantage, and you can’t really blame them – that’s their job. But with some property listings having up to 80 photos online, if they don’t show you the shower in the master bedroom, then you can safely assume it is small, ugly, or something is wrong with it.
Google Earth is better than nothing, but boots on the ground beats an eye in the sky. For example, one house we saw had 10 acres of land. However, eight of the 10 were so steep it would be useless unless you were grazing mountain goats. It took an in-person visit to see that. We also saw properties that had swaths of dead trees from bark beetles. On the plus side, one property had radiant floor heating, and the listing made no mention of it.
No zoning can mean surprises. We saw lots of decks and a stair or two without railings because they were not required by code. I’m comfortable with heights, but I still want a sturdy railing on my deck, just for safety’s sake. We also saw wood stoves that were installed pretty close to walls and had no stone or metal protecting the flammable material, which made me wince. A number of structures were just weird – designed by someone who clearly had no design experience and didn’t really think about resale when they stuck on that extra room. No zoning can also mean your neighbors can have a junk yard or a business, so scope this out before you buy, if that would bother you. While looking online, there were a number of properties where the commercial business run out of the shop was larger than the house behind it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t what we were looking for.
Take notes. Discuss the pluses and minuses of each property right away and take notes. This will be helpful when you’ve seen four in one day and are trying to keep them straight a day or two later. It also helps the realtor to hone in on your thinking.
Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you pull up to a property and see an immediate deal breaker, just keep going. No need to waste time going inside if you already know it’s off the list. Same thing online. You may see something that seems perfect, but then you look at Google Earth and it’s on a four-lane highway. If that’s a deal breaker, save yourself the time and trouble and cross it off the list.
Our trip was also helpful in recognizing differences between the southeast and northwest, including culture, weather and geology. We were very comfortable in both Idaho and Montana and met many friendly folks, often in the booth across from us at a restaurant. I’d have to say that we met at least as many transplants as we did natives. The most noticeable differences were regional differences in menus, the much greater emphasis on fishing and hunting than anywhere I have lived, and the lack of humidity in the air. The forests themselves are also different: Eastern forests have much more undergrowth and shorter site lines than the ones we visited in Montana and Idaho, and far more deciduous trees. I don’t think I saw a single oak tree our entire trip.
We figure we have a few more trips ahead of us and may also look at Maine and the mountain along the Tennessee/North Carolina border.