You would think during these days of foreclosures it would be easy to pick up a nice old farmhouse with a bit of land and some serviceable outbuildings for a song. For the past six months or so, this clueless farmhand has been scouring the virtual lands of Central Virginia for that perfect slice of heaven, and let me tell you, it requires more than a song.
Our original criteria as told to our seasoned, no-nonsense Realtor, Bud Kreh (” Ol’ Bud” reads the license plate on his truck), was vague: Minimum of five cleared acres, preferably more, and a livable home. We hoped to pay for it in cash, with enough cash left over to start our small farming business. Ready, set, go!
For starters, there’s cleared land, and then there’s extremely steep cleared land,
completely unsuitable for beginning cultivators. Or there’s cleared land with extremely poorly drained soil. “Blackjack” they call it in Culpeper county parts. You can indeed get that cheap. Maybe we could grow rice in it, but that isn’t in our repertoire of skills yet. There’s also the desirability of a little bit of woods and water, as in a stream, creek, spring, or pond on the property.
Then there’s the definition of “livable.” We thought a home built in 1880 held potential to be charming, and as we weren’t yuppie aesthetes, we didn’t so much care about stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, walk-in closets, and whatever else is selling overpriced houses these days.
Okay, wait. I just have to have an aside here. Has anyone else watched that show on HGTV (I think it stands for House and Garden TV?) about mostly young couples who are buying their first home together? “Property Virgins” it’s called. The hubby and I are drawn to it as if by magnets because it somehow validates our lifestyle being in almost complete contradiction to what HGTV is pushing as the norm. And we think that’s a good thing. Here’s an example. You’ve got this young couple, a couple of years out of college. They’ve both got white collar jobs, a 20% down payment, and a budget of just under $380,000 for their first home. The perky Realtor shows them door number one:
Girl, upon seeing kitchen, which was probably less than a decade “old,” large, well-laid out, and well-maintained: “Oh, wow, there’s no stainless. This totally needs to be updated. There’s no backsplash. And, I mean, these white appliances are so not me.”
Boy: “Yeah, we would need to update that, big time.”
Apparently, we are now defining ourselves by the material on the facades of our kitchen appliances. And we are doing so urgently, as in we couldn’t possibly live with an appliance that didn’t match our personality for a single day. And we are basing our decisions for the largest purchase of our life on the color of these appliances. Or walls, or condition of the carpets. Really, that’s what people are fixated on in the show. Not things like the quality of the “bones” of the house, materials used in construction, floor plans, condition of the foundation or roof. No, it’s all about the hardware on the cupboards. “You know, you can switch that out pretty easily and inexpensively,” the perky Realtor reminds the couples, again and again. But most of them aren’t having any of that. We want what we want NOW. No compromises on that first “starter home.” Rarely see the term in real estate these days. At least not in urban areas.
Which is why we are so pleased to be joining the ranks of the growing class of homesteaders. Who understand the point of a starter home or just good land and how to “make do” or “do without.” Heck, I’ll bet many homesteader-types never even update their kitchen. I bet Joel Salatin doesn’t have stainless appliances and Italian tile in his kitchen. And here’s the really exciting part: They manage to live a somewhat fulfilling life despite the deficits of their appliances!
Okay, I’ll stop there because clearly I’ve crossed a line over into smug territory, and that’s good for nothing.
To give you an idea of the kinds of homes we’ve been looking at, one of the most attractive homes we saw was built in the ’60s and had the original muted yellow linoleum counters and yellow-plated ovens to match. (Those appliances are so ME!) And those charming old farmhouses built in the late 19th century? Lucky to find one without asbestos and leaky single-pane windows, and with a working chimney, safe wiring, and doorways that don’t require ducking. We kept a 1930’s home on our short list, despite its original white and dented metal cupboards and torn up original brown patterned linoleum floors, not to mention it had only one bathroom, adjacent to the kitchen as both were add-ons when plumbing was brought into the home. Closets were usually 2 feet deep, and four feet long. We have yet to see a walk-in closet or a double vanity. We became familiar with what was meant by a “double wide.” Then, we found ourselves considering properties with old single-wides, ruling them out only when there was structural damage to the point where animals had taken residence through the holes in floor. We investigated yurt-living and drooled over the deluxe yurt spaces depicted in a book. And then found out we couldn’t get a mortgage for a yurt. Or a single-wide. Who knew?
Even the new uber-chic and sophisticated single-wides/trailer homes, cleverly marketed as the “i-house,” are not mortgage worthy, because they can be picked up by a rig and hauled away in the space of a few hours. I hate when that happens, and the lending banks do, too. (“Honey, did you see where I left our home? I can’t find it.”) To be fair, the builders do have access to pretty good loans for potential trailer home dwellers.
We thought we were ready to live in the boonies. Until we drove down a private dirt driveway over 1 mile long, the last quarter-mile of which would be ours alone to maintain, which worried us since it went along the edge of a creek and was lined with trees.
We contemplated large properties on the edge of nature reserves, and were told in no uncertain terms that we would need to learn how to use firearms to protect ourselves and our livestock from animal marauders. We didn’t really see ourselves as the gun-toting type, but we dutifully wrote it down on the list of things we best look into learning, and hoped it wouldn’t come to that, lest we be disowned by our parents.
We learned about bush-hogging. Drilled versus bored wells. Septic tanks. Springs versus streams. Propane versus oil heating. Attic fans. The configuration of turn-of-the-century homes (the earlier one, not THIS one) called “two-up, two-downs” (that is, two rooms up, two rooms down with a staircase up the middle and a little kitchen and bath added on downstairs ). We learned how to use the online soil maps to judge potential properties. We learned that having more land than you actually can use is not an asset, but a liability to farmers, who tend to try to expand beyond their means and end up with mismanaged projects that suck time and efficiency from their endeavors. We learned that major renovation was not in our skill set and therefore not in our budget. And as 2010 turned to 2011, we decided that building a home was not suitable for our increasingly narrow timeframe, nor were we suited to the stress of making decisions on building homes and outbuildings together with decisions on greenhouses, seeds, soil amendments, markets, chickens, and tractors.
So, after visiting 29 properties in 5 different counties, and watching the mortgage rates creep up steadily this past month along with the stirrings of movement in the rural real estate market, we’re making an offer next week. It has outbuildings galore and fencing. It’s near a major road. It has views. It has a solid house. It has raised beds. It has the number of acres that can be managed efficiently by two hard-working types. (Does anyone know where we can find these? Just kidding.)
Next Thursday will mark the end of the chicken-processing season at Greenbranch. After that, God willing, the next chickens I kill will be my own. And as much as it would amuse me to call a trailer home, as our extremely helpful and forward-thinking county agricultural extension agent remarked as we surveyed a couple of properties together, “At the end of a hard day, particularly at the end of a bad hard day, I think you’ll be much happier going home to something that doesn’t rattle when the wind blows.”
Now that is some real wisdom, and from the mouth of a government ag agent!