Life Aboard Your Own Caboose: How to Buy a Train Car

An old railway car can make a practical yet exotic guesthouse, vacation home, workshop, or roadside business site.

| November/December 1990

Is there an empty spot on your property that could use a unique workshop, studio, roadside store or guesthouse? If so, you might want to buy a train car—an old caboose, or a bunk car (a boxcar with windows, converted to house railroad track workers) could be the perfect structure to fill that space. Right now, North American railroads are in the last stages of updating their rolling stock, modern train operations having made most vintage cars unsafe. In addition, most trains no longer carry cabooses, so thousands of these veterans are now sitting idle.

The purchasing agent for your nearest railroad can tell you whether the company is selling any old cars. A couple of years ago, one big railroad company had more than a thousand cabooses for sale. Soon, however, all wooden cars and most of the steel ones made before the '40s will be gone. Most will be scrapped, but some will be purchased privately. Typical prices for steel-bodied boxcars and cabooses run between $2,000 and $4,000. Wooden cars, when they can be found, are generally cheaper.

Over the past 10 years our family has acquired four wooden cabooses and five kinds of boxcars (along with rails, ties and assorted artifacts) that we use for studios, offices, guest rooms, playrooms, warehouses and workshops. We live in the wilderness without phone, electricity or running water, and our four teenaged kids do their schooling at home. Together, we own and operate Good Medicine Books, the publishing and mail-order arm of our Good Medicine Cultural Foundation and Historical Society, for which we have assembled these cars as the Rocky Mountain Freight Train Museum. Got all that? Good; then we'll proceed with how you can do something simultaneously practical and exotic like buying a caboose.  

First, before you get too excited about the whole idea, see if your local zoning laws allow it. Most caboose owners have their own land—usually rural acreage, where regulations and clearances tend to be more accommodating. Often property taxes do not apply, especially when cars are put back on their wheels (they lift off for moving), since they are classified as portable structures. However, don't let that classification fuel any fantasies of main-line railroads hauling you and your car around on their tracks or letting you camp on their sidings, as some used to do. Today, they just want to get rid of their old cars. Period.  

Railroad-car buyers are often disappointed when they look at what's available. Most of the cars are beat-up or worn-out. My own caboose—in which I'm writing these words—sat on a weed-grown siding for more than two years before I first saw it. By then, every window had been smashed, doors were off their hinges and the floor was so littered and dirty I could hardly walk on it.  

But several days of sweeping, mopping, patching and painting left us with a handsome, sturdy car—a fine testimonial to the Canadian Pacific Railway carpenters who built the caboose in Montreal back in 1922. For 50 years this car followed CPR trains of all kinds, traveling an estimated million miles or more and becoming a living piece of railroad history.  

11/12/2015 6:41:23 PM

Hi, I used to read Mother Earth News 40 years ago when I lived in the Smokies. My how everything goes in circles!! Looking forward to receiving any info regarding retirement living and being somewhat self sufficient. I'm even thinking of going back to the great Smokey Mtns. I'm sure many things have, new heaters,land prices, etc. I feel like a 66 year old novice at everything I'm wide open to any and all advice. Thank you Nomad

11/9/2014 2:02:59 PM

Thank you Adolf for this interesting and informative information! I once leased a caboose, but had no idea it could be so inexpensive to purchase one. :)

2/25/2013 7:13:50 PM

"The hard part is moving it and sexing it up" ... Lol... Sexing it up sound more fun that setting it up! ;)

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!