Jim and Lou Hammill live rent-free in The Smokies, in a house they fixed up themselves.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
For years, we sat on our backsides and flapped our gums about getting back to a simpler, more agrarian, more rational way of life. But — like many folks — we hesitated to "take the plunge."
Then one day the apartment house we were living in changed hands and the new, money-hungry landlord doubled our rent. And that was our cue to stop talking and start doing.
About the same time, we "discovered" a little-known (to us) way of getting back to the land that'd been right under our noses for years! You see, in the course of our previous outings to the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, we'd noticed hundreds of dilapidated and (apparently) deserted old houses scattered across the countryside ... yet, we'd never (until we were forced to move out of our apartment) thought to ask the owner of one of these places if we could live — rent-free — in an abandoned house, in return for fixing it up.
After deciding that we didn't have anything to lose, we went out and started knocking on doors. And — to our surprise — each of the 30-odd landowners we approached welcomed us, literally, with open arms! Most of them were only too glad to find someone who wanted to maintain and protect their vacant dwellings.
We were swamped with offers. In addition to shelter, owners offered us such "extras" as free building materials ... part-time employment ... even financial assistance! (In every case, we were told we could have at least a half acre of ground for gardening.) We found it a pleasant task to select a domicile that would be suited to our own personal needs, yet could be easily repaired and winterized.
Ultimately, we chose a one-bedroom, single-story house with a large attic (for future family expansion), situated in the midst of 20 acres of forest and pasture. (The structures we turned down ranged from a one-bedroom, hand-hewn oak cabin all the way to a three-story-tall, eight-bedroom mini-mansion built before the turn of the century.)
Our place's number one problem — structurally speaking — consisted of some damage that'd been caused by a mudslide 20 years earlier. (Mud had knocked the foundation away from the rear of the house, and damp rot — along with a few termites — had taken over from there.) The repair job involved digging away the earth in back of the house, jacking the structure up, and rebuilding the damaged area. Cost of the project: nothing! We already owned a shovel, replacement lumber came from a tumbled-down barn, we salvaged bricks for the foundation from a nearby burned-out house, and our landlord loaned us the jack.
Since each old house comes with its own unique set of problems, we can't offer many rules of thumb with regard to the restoration of dilapidated dwellings. (Sorry. You'll just have to play it by ear.) We can, however, offer a few very general pointers for anyone who wants to try our method of finding a home in the country. They are:
- Don't choose a house that's within 20 miles of a tourist area. Your landlord may be tempted — after you've renovated his property — to rent the place out from under you for up to $300 per month (unless, of course, you have a written agreement that protects your rights).
- Don't jump at the first offer that presents itself! Chances are, you can find another house — one needing many fewer man-and/or woman-hours of labor to restore — within only a couple of miles. In other words, shop around.
- Make sure you have access to water, even if (as in our case) it must be hand-carried from a nearby stream. Water is something you cannot do without.
- Plan ahead. Spring is when you should start to insulate your house for the following winter. And winter is when you should start planning your summer garden.
- Don't be discouraged when you first begin to restore your "new" home. You'll make all the needed repairs eventually, and your body will (believe me) get used to your new work schedule. (You won't always pass out from sheer exhaustion at the supper table!)
You say you don't know anything about farming, gardening, house repair, or keeping warm in winter? Read back issues of MOTHER. Buy Euell Gibbons's Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Study the section in Joy of Cooking on how to dress and cook wild game. And — most important — don't be afraid to ask someone for help. The folks hereabouts are proud of their skills and knowledge, anti are only too happy to share their know-how.
If you've been wanting to live in the country but (for one reason or another) haven't made your move just yet, start knocking on doors. With a little luck, you'll soon be fixing up a splendid old house and (like us) living rent-free!