Cheap Land Deals

Can you own and live on 100 acres, build your house on that property for less than you currently pay for rent?  Yes, certainly, and find time you never knew existed, enjoy your “work,” and do almost anything.

The qualifications are simple: an enduring desire, adaptability, moderate intelligence, and a little faith in God’s provision.  Anything else is optional, but always useful.  Once you can save a few thousand dollars, you’re in.

The cheapest land is rarely a gorgeous “finished painting,” but rather a bare pallet, just waiting for anything and everything you want to include.

My wife and I chose our last two homes, going back over 20 years, on land where pavement refuses grow.  We would still consider a bunch of acres in a remote area if we were in our 50s.  Most states have places to buy big chunks of land for next to nothing.  We have them out here in the great Southwest, but they exist in areas of TN, KY, LA, MS, and AR, too.  Probably almost every state has them, but I haven’t checked.  The value increases as your demands shrink.  If you can “make do without,” it isn’t difficult to find 100 acres for $10,000 or less.

Sometimes the trees and water included are worth thousands of dreams, even if you only want a “get-away.”

“Doing without” means serious hardships for some people.  Living without running water, electricity, plowed roads, neighbors, nearby stores or hospitals, for instance, can plow down interest for a lot of people . . . but that is precisely why those great deals exist.  Imagine the life you could establish on 100 acres!  If you can live without TV or a cell phone, maybe.

My wife and I talk about it often.  Just 10 years ago we could have turned our lives around with such opportunity, but we just didn’t know what we didn’t know.

The biggest obstacles may vary.  Some properties, for instance, are inaccessible.  You can’t reach them.  That’s not inexpensive, that’s worthless.  Or, the property can be completely under water.  We actually looked at 5 acres in New York State that was a pond.  There were less than 200 sf of dry land along a dinky strip beside the road.  Not impossible, of course — even exciting if there was somewhere to park and store building materials.  What a great property for hydroponic and water gardening, fishing, swimming, etc., and a cool place to simply anchor a floating house.  We decided against trying — mainly because it was New York, and almost certainly more hoops than jumps left in us.

Water?  At first that issue can kill a deal, and in a very few places (like the badlands) it may prove impossible, but bear in mind that one inch of rain collected from one square yard is over 5.5 gallons.  We live in the “high desert” of Arizona, getting 15 inches of rain per year.  Every square yard of our property gets 84 gallons of rain each year.  A basic 20×40 foot roof (800 square feet) would provide 7,480 gallons of water per year —  slim pickings, but over 20 gallons of stored water per day just off the rooftop!  In the desert.

The cost of wild living is unlimited, in both directions.  It’s easy to live cheap or flamboyant, hidden or pretentious.  Withdrawn and alone or all lit up with guests and parties makes no difference to anyone else — it’s up to you.  On the extremely low side, here are some numbers to work with:

Land:  Currently, “the average house” costs somewhere around $165,000.  That generally includes about 1/4 of an acre, driveway, maybe a garage and fence, and a patch of land.  You will be plugged into the sewer (or septic) water (municipal or private well) and electric, and your street will most likely be paved and somewhat maintained.  There’s a pretty good chance of cable access, cell phone coverage, and reasonably local shopping.   On a cheap property, whatever you paid is paid.  Unlike the conventional mortgage, that’s it.  Once you plunk down $5,000 or $20,000, you’re done paying.  Better still, land taxes are usually based on “value,” and “remote” usually translates into “cheaper” at the tax office.

Food:  On a big lump of land, you can raise rabbits and chickens for almost nothing, eat eggs, vegetables and fruit you grow.  You can also hunt and fish, buying just staples like rice, flour, potatoes,  lard and oils, for about $100 per year per person.  You will most likely need that much plus an allowance for “treats.”  Farm animals are also quite possible.

Utilities: What utilities?  The rustic ideal is heat and energy from the sun, wind, your own wood, and water.  It gets very comfortable with a small windmill, a few solar panels, and/or a gas generator.

Taxes and fees: That will vary from place to place, State to State, but most of New Mexico land is known for “no code” and cheaper taxes.  Plan on $500/year and prepare to spend the overage on gasoline or another rain collection tarp and bottles.

Transportation:  One of the benefits of remote, barefoot living is you don’t have to go anywhere, but you can probably use a 30-year-old 7 cylinder 3/4 dead $250 Chevy or even a tractor for emergencies.  You probably need a tractor, and they cost between 10% of a used pickup and 5x as much as an Italian sports car.)

Building costs:  A safe and nominally comfortable lean to, yurt, or very small rustic cabin from your own timber start around $0.  Realistically, you probably need a few thousand, especially for a quick move-in and basic plumbing.  We have an old RV that cost us nothing, so we’re ahead of that game.  Ingenuity always counts double.

Other: Really, it’s more about what you want than what you need.  Children can cause added considerations too numerous to name.  (But they’re worth every one of them, and might be the very best reason to leave our current, polluted “advanced civilization”!) and a bad marriage can doom the whole idea.  My love and I both have health issues, so we had to decide that death is as viable in the middle of nowhere as it is within the speedy range of a hospital.  It happens to the rich and famous in jets over the ocean or on safari in Africa, so why not at home in our peaceful desert?

I’d like to spend a lot more time on this topic.  Some of the interest is global (the benefits of remote living coupled with high productivity and spiritual peace) much is truly architectural (what can and should be done to make homes better, more efficient and comfortable, without the terrible impact of the processed, expensive, dangerous, short-lived and ruinous “code approved building materials.”  And some of the interest falls directly on the experiences we have had and want to continue.

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Sky Scrapings

The purest joy of architecture is designing and building an appropriate, satisfying home.  One look at any truly magnificent school, hospital, office, commercial or industrial structure tells us that its design has enormous appeal for someone other than the occupants.  As a rule of thumb, this problem increases with the size , and even more with the height of the structure.

Some of the problems are practical extensions of reality.  As with people, a building’s character is not cheap.  We can understand wanting more within budget, and “more” means size and efficiency, or perhaps impact and awe, but rarely character.

As mentioned before, the corruption of the idea of “code” helps lead to communal architecture, too.  Creative, individualist, unique, inspiring, etc. become enormous challenges when the specifications call for “exactly like this.”

Another problem inherent in the design of hugeness is logistical.  Simply moving people and products from points A to B means a bunch of roads, tunnels, and bridges across the vast lobbies and corridors of real estate.  Highways, with telephone poles, merging lanes, warning signs.  Beside this, how do you decorate and personalize elevators or make them warm and cozy?

The biggest problem in skyscraper design and technology is the mass marketing effect.  The ideal design ultimately appeals to everyone, and the inevitable result is a design that appeals to no one, or just a few.  We can understand that, and even accept it.  Vulgar means common.  Like all communist ideals, mass production for the masses spells vulgar.

A home, however, is only intended for a few.  It is so easy to please the occupants, but we’ve turned the sky scraping conundrum the wrong way.  Rather than liberating us from our workday commons by letting us go home to our joyfully individual existence, architects design one house to satisfy the masses.  With one, or maybe two or three tweaks in the design, they build entire subdivisions to satisfy us all equally.  It never works, even when we live there and try to pretend.

Between this marketing approach and the vulgar regard for putting us in common homes, it would be exciting to see how people might respond to choosing a place — not just of their own, but of their own choosing.

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Architectural Books

Too many architecture books have been written.  Most of them are severely lacking in several areas, and only a few really stand out as stellar.  It seems that there is exactly one great book for each favorite category of study for me, making the list easy to create!

The best reference to the houses in America is Lester Walker, American Shelter.  This book makes sense, offers all the identifying details and origins for the styles, includes excellent illustrations, and has virtually every type of residence from caves and mud huts to neomodern and space.

The top notch book on world houses is Paul Oliver, Dwellings.  Homes around the world, from tents and yurts to dung huts, bamboo, dugouts and almost every local material you can (and can’t) imagine.  Far more text than Walker, necessary to explain some foreign concepts and conditions, but good words in good order.

The premier reference for design notions, terms, and details: Francis D.K. Ching, A Visual Dictionary of Architecture.  Ching has several good books geared to students, and this clever presentation is surprisingly useful, and almost stupidly simple.  Need a refresher on how elevators work, or how much clearance they need?  It’s under E, right after electricity.

Lloyd Kahn, HomeWork, or Shelter II, or almost anything he wrote.  Just a hoot, especially if you grew up in the 50s, 60s, or 70s.  Hippies and freaks.  This stuff is to architecture what joints are to cigars, or bongs to pipes.  I can never get enough.  Just plain fun . . . and good . . . and I’d gladly live in one of these places.

The best book for worldwide how to, ingenious simplicity, and absolutely first rate diy architecture and ideas is Johan van Lengen, The Barefoot Architect.  With just this one book, you can design and build a whole community of comfy houses, with proper sewage, water supply, public schools and roads, sidewalks, etc.  Anywhere in the world. . . except the “civilized” world.  This wonderful and useful stuff won’t pass CODE.  (My friend Jeff D says CODE is an acronym for Can Only Destroy Excellence.)  Every architect should have this book, if only as a reminder why he or she should be grateful to have a job working for the stud and plywood industry.

The following make the short list of good books for your library, but I can’t give them GREAT ratings for a variety of reasons.  (Mostly, they aren’t great.)

David Larkin, Farm.  Romantic, fun, and full of superlative photos.
Anthony Quiney, The Traditional Buildings of England.  Ditto.  Well done.
Mario Salvadori, Why Buildings Stand Up.  Decent non-tech intro to structural engineering.
Jonathon Glancey, Architecture, and Marc Kushner, The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings.  Between them, an interesting collection of possibilities, and not a bad variety of choices.

There are two more that deserve mention, even though they represent the worst of architecture for two different reasons.  The first is LeCorbusier’s Towards a New Architecture.  Possibly the best representation of everything that changed and fell apart in the era of “Control, Universalism, Socialism, Safety.” (CUSS)  And Leonardo Benevolo’s two volume, History of Modern Architecture, presents a comprehensive list of what happened to make the sickness and horrors of LeCorbusier and his peers possible.


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