Selecting a Homestead Site

Get advice on what to look for when choosing a homestead site, such as climate, soil type, water supply, available space, length of the growing season, and more.
By Ken Kern
January/February 1971
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See scores in various areas, such as climate and land use, for homestead land potention in the regions of the United States.
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Will Rogers gave this advice: “Buy land ... they ain't making any more of that stuff.” And modern day population alarmists predict standing room only for the future. All the land will be occupied, they say, to feed and house and transport people. The population of the U.S. is estimated to be 700 million in one hundred years. Of the 2 billion acres of land in the U. S., only one-third is considered favorable to crop production. Alternative solutions appear to be 1) State socialism with overhead control of births; and 2) a strict limitation on population growth, keeping business (and private ownership and land speculation) as usual.

But there is now a Third World Front that is viewing the land and population issue in the new light of the primacy of the home. First of all, if we used only our prime cropland and cultivated it as intensively as the Japanese, and reduced bureaucratic wastage, and consumed more firsthand foodstuffs rather than processed trash and animal products, then we Americans could feed a tremendous population (2 billion people, according to U. S. Department of Agriculture, 1958 Yearbook). The population explosion scare is overdrawn: It diverts concern from the real issue, which is the comfort and beauty of people, versus 1) making money (capitalism); and 2) worship of the state (communism).

Finding Land for Your Homestead

We must come to terms with this so-called land question before selecting or acquiring our homestead site. Understanding the issues will most definitely influence our choice of location. For one thing, anyone who has done any land shopping realizes that there is currently a strong demand for land. The same demand in the 1930s had its origins in unemployment and insecurity. Today's influence is more sophisticated: Industry is dispersing to the countryside, as is the suburban growth of population. An estimated million acres is taken up yearly by residential, industrial, highways and other nonfarm use. Farms are enlarging to make labor and machinery investments more efficient.

The amount of land now being withdrawn from the market for speculation is frightening. Traditionally, the investment in land is especially high during and immediately after a war. Land is considered a safe hedge against inflation. Speculative land is just not available — certainly not to the prospective one-horsepower homesteader. We must therefore outwit the carpetbagging speculators by finding attractive homesites that are not attractive to their investment dollars.

A brief study into rural appraisals indicates clearly the speculative value of various property features. Closeness to rail transport or a main road may be important to a commercial farmer but it is probably not worth the additional land cost to a small acreage homesteader.

Hilly or Level Ground?

Level ground is far more valuable to a land speculator than sloping ground. The speculator knows that level ground farming permits a more uniform type of vegetation. He knows that power equipment can be used to more advantage. But a small homesteader may find that drainage is poor on level ground, water accumulates and leaches nutrient materials down into deeper layers forming hardpan and poor aeration, which becomes impervious to plant roots. A hilly site location may not be adapted to large-scale farming operations, but there are actually more advantages to the homesteader in choosing a hilly or mountainous location.

A level, protected valley receives much radiant energy from the surrounding slopes during the daytime, and is consequently warmer than the surrounding hillside. At the same time, wind movement in a hilly region provides better ventilation and therefore less heat build-up. At night, air drainage is accentuated in hilly regions and a process of temperature inversion takes place. Reservoirs of cold air drain from surrounding slopes to the low-lying basins.

Consider the Climate

The climatic comparisons of a valley and adjacent hilly regions was made in Ohio some years ago (Wolfe: Microclimate and Macroclimate of Neotome Valley: Ohio Biol. Survey; 1949). The hilly site consisted of a sort of grotto, weathered out of cliff-faces and located at the cove of a valley. The grotto had 276 frost-free days, while the valley frost pocket had only 124 frost-free days. Maximum-minimum temperatures for the grotto were 75 and 14; for the valley, 93 and 25.

A southern slope receives more insolation than a northern exposure. The degree of slope determines the amount of insolation received: According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture Yearbook (1913), land in southern Idaho that slopes 5 degrees to the south is in the same solar climate as level land some 300 miles south in Utah. Also, ground sloping 1 degree to the north lies in the same solar climate as level land 70 miles further north. The warmest slope is the one most nearly perpendicular to the sun's rays during the growing season. Steepness should therefore increase with latitude.

The southwest slope is warmer than the southeast slope. Sunshine on the southeast slope occurs shortly after the prolonged cooling at night. Also, evaporation of the morning dew requires energy. The west slope of a hillside has the highest average air and soil temperature and the longest frost-free season. Cold injury to plants is greatest on the east slope; heat injury greatest on the west slope. Slopes facing north tend to be more moist than slopes facing south.

Temperature considerations are different for the Eastern and Western regions of the U. S. A north-south distance is important for a frost-free difference in the Eastern half; elevation determines temperature differences in the Western half. Latitude and elevation are therefore essential considerations in determining the length of the growing season. Growing season is the main limiting factor in developing a homestead in Alaska. (It is the average period between the last killing frost in Spring and the first killing frost in Fall.) The duration of extreme temperatures — both heat and cold, the amount of sunlight, and the amount of rainfall — are further climatic considerations that should be considered when choosing a homestead site.

Soil Type

Next to climatic and topographic factors, soil type is of foremost importance. Soil classification is a very involved subject and will be dealt with later (there are 1,000 types of soil in California, for instance). But a few general pointers about soil should assist one in land selection. A dark soil color usually indicates high fertility. Grey and yellow indicate poor drainage and light colored soil, low fertility. Look for medium-textured soils: Extremes of both sand and clay are usually low in productivity. Sandy soils thaw first and warm up faster in the spring than do clay soils. This is due to their lower heat capacity, lower thermal conductivity and reduced amount of evaporative chilling.

Soil fertility can also be determined by observing plant growth. Fast growing weeds like giant horseweed or cockleburr indicate good soil conditions; red sorrel grows in poor acid soil. If the plant has a deep color the soil in which it grows is probably fertile. Tree limbs that extend upward and do not droop also indicate fertile soil. Walnut, cypress, whiteoak and cottonwood trees are all good soil indicators; blackjack and pine grow in poor soil.

Weigh All Factors Before Choosing a Homestead Site

It may be profitable for evaluation purposes to list all the considerations — in order of importance — that go into choosing a homestead site. There are indeed many, and no one site could possibly be favorable in all respects. So we therefore learn how to adapt and how to compensate for shortcomings. If the latitude falls short of expectations, compensate by increasing elevation. Or one can pick a site that has a proper orientation and slope angle so that the angle of exposure to solar radiation compensates a high latitude that receives little radiation. A low annual rainfall can be supplemented by dew and fog, or by irrigation and water storage. Soil texture may be substituted for moisture: Asparagus thrives in sandy soils in areas where heavy soils would be much too wet for it.

When selecting a homestead site, start with a general evaluation of the region, state, county and community down to specific study of the actual site. The most important tool for this research is maps. They tell all. Start with a set of U. S. Geological Survey maps. They are accurate, show topographic features and cover about one-half of the U. S. The Soil Conservation Service can supply you with aerial photographs for most regions of the U. S. Soil maps are also available from this agency. The U. S. Bureau of Public Roads and the U. S. Post Office Department have informative county highway maps and maps showing rural mail routes.

More specific site information is available on County record. The local Title Company oftentimes has more up-to-date land title information than County offices. But from County Plat Books record information can be found regarding assessed valuation, amount of taxes paid, special assessments for drainage, etc., and dates and prices on sales of adjacent properties. Individual property owners names are indicated on County Plat Books; addresses can be found in the Assessor's Office.

On some remote properties it may be necessary to find site information from Government Township Plats. These are available from the U. S. General Land Office or filed with the State Auditor. Individual counties may also have Government Township Plats on file — check with the County Surveyor.

Map study is one of the finer joys that go with locating a homestead site. Maps have a continual fascination: Nothing short of earth-contact can give one as much understanding and appreciation of the land. A roll of maps (folding maps is like cutting bread: Maps should be rolled and bread, broken) is the one best tool for site exploration.

Buying Your Land

Once a person narrows his land search to a specific county or community, he should move there and begin his quest for the actual site. For starters, inspect the tax rolls in the County Treasurer's office for properties on which taxes have remained unpaid for a number of years. Distressed or unwanted property can often be bought for unpaid taxes. Banks and trust companies are also engaged in liquidating property at bargain prices. Auctions are another good source, or one can advertise for property in the local newspaper. It is a good practice to get acquainted in the community: Ask around for available land and let it be known you are in the market. As a final, rather desperate resort, roll up your map and visit the friendly Real Estate Broker.

Something should be added to this subject of unwanted or distressed property. People — even professional land speculators — are unimaginative when it comes to developing "problem" sites. Their heads are too much into the money earning or commercial aspects and not into terracing, planting, excavating, filling, or the thousand other possibilities for adapting the land to fit one's needs. Also, homestead site requirements are flexible and adaptable — not specific as is the case with a housing development or a commercial farming enterprise. So it is good advice to capitalize on the fact that one can profitably utilize a piece of land that nobody else wants.

After the homestead site is located, start the land transfer proceedings by first making an appraisal map. This map is drawn mostly from on-the-ground site inspection. It should show an outline of the property according to the complete legal description. Important topographic and natural physical features should be shown (such as streams, fields, wood lot, etc.). Any improvements such as buildings, fences or roads should also be indicated. A tentative homestead layout and land-use sketch can also be suggested on this map.

At this point it would be prudent to confer with any county officials who may be involved in passing approval on the land transfer transaction. First check with the Planning Office for possible zoning restrictions. Find out too about building restrictions. The County Health Department may have something to say about sanitation requirements. At the County Recorders office you can determine if the property can be legally transferred. Most states have land-division regulations and many counties require a legal land survey before property can be sold.

At this stage in the land transfer transaction you probably know your way around the county offices: County clerks likely know you by your first name. You, therefore, may as well do the title search on your prospective land. Title insurance companies customarily perform this service—for a generous fee. They issue a mortgage policy that protects only the value of the land. If you build a $20,000 homestead on an insured $1,000 site, and a missing heir later arrives to claim the property and cloud the title, you recover only the $1,000 from the title insurance.

The whole operation is costly and ridiculous because with very little effort you can determine yourself the legitimacy of your land title. Merely check the Tract Index in the Recorder's office. Some counties keep an Abstract of Title on record. This is a condensed history of all recorded transactions for the parcel of land that you are buying. By examining the abstract, drawing up a simple deed, and preparing a closing (payment) statement, you keep several hundred dollars from reaching the sweaty palms of Title Officer, Escrow Agent and Real Estate Lawyer.

The simplest method of land transfer is to have the seller supply credit to the buyer (if the transaction is not a clean, cash deal). Either a deed is given to the buyer with the seller taking back a mortgage, or the sale is made under an installment purchase contract. In this latter case the legal title remains with the seller until all or a specified portion of the purchase price has been paid. The Contract of Sale is preferred over the mortgage contract. In cases of default, the mortgage contract requires an expensive foreclosure sale; a contract of sale is merely terminated.

Most stationary stores carry Deed of Conveyance forms. After the deed is made out have it signed before a Notary Public and recorded in the County Recorder's office. Then when you move onto the land, file a Homestead Exemption. Most state legislatures have adopted this statute to protect the value of the family home from creditor claim.

At some point in the land transfer procedure you will want to check out or establish property corners. Again, with a little knowledge on the subject, you can dispense with the services of yet another greedy professional. Land surveying was my occupation for 5 years, so I'm especially aware of how expendable the operation actually is.

Homestead Survey

The 13 original colonies used a metes and bounds survey — the most simple to retrace, as it starts from a known point and goes a set distance and set bearing. to the next point. In 1785 the government adopted the rectangular survey. This type applies to 29 states. In this land division a North-South meridian line and an East-West base line is first established. At the intersection of meridian and base an area is divided into 24 mile squares (called townships). Each township is divided into 36 squares (called sections). Section corners and half-section corners were originally set by the Government Land Office. The original survey notes for setting these corners are available to the public from the General Land Office. Missing corners can often be found or re-set by retracing the original notes. Land parcels can be surveyed out of sections by starting from known section corners and following the bearings and distances established in the original survey.

The only tools needed for this "homesteader survey" is a 100-foot steel tape and a pocket compass. The compass should be the type that rotates with respect to the box in which it is mounted. The circle can therefore be turned through an angle equal to the magnetic declination. The observed bearing will then be true and not magnetic. East of the line of zero declination (see drawing above) the North end of the compass points West of North; West of that line it points East of North.

Selecting a site which best satisfies one's homestead needs should be done with care. Many factors should be considered. This chapter falls short in mentioning all the necessary considerations or the way they may vary with individual needs and circumstances. But the following check list does provide a start in evaluating those items considered most important for making a wise selection.

Checklist for Selecting a Homestead Site

(These items are listed in order of importance to the author.)

1. Adequate domestic water supply 

2. Proper solar exposure 

3. Sufficient space 

4. Adequate growing season 

5. Air purity 

6. Reasonable land costs and taxes 

7. Favorable natural topography 

8. Local employment opportunities 

9. Good soil conditions 

10. Availability of natural resources 

11. Adequate precipitation and drainage 

12. Neighbors and neighborhood nuisances 

13. Zoning and building regulations 

14. General cost of living 

15. Natural beauty of area 

16. Local and state political status 

17. Electric power supply 

18. Transportation and road access 

19. Local medical facilities 

20. Cultural and educational opportunities 

21. Recreational facilities 


Ken Kern, author of The Owner-Built Home and The Owner-Built Homestead, is an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land, rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about his experiments.

Eventually, Mildred Loomis started publishing Kern's articles in The Interpreter, Way Out, and Green Revolution. Ken has also issued a three year series of pieces (called Technic) on his own and a greenhouse-sun pit design of his has been featured in Organic Gardening. — MOTHER


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