Buying and Preparing Homestead Land

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/XBRCHX
If saving up the funds to buy homestead land takes you a long time don't be surprised if the property becomes a little dilapidated.

Fact: If you want to be free of the city, you’ve first
gotta come up with the “front money”.

Maybe you’d rather not believe me when I say that you
need 3 bankrolls to homestead. You may, in that case, be in
shock for when you hit the backroads and start checking out
rural acreage prices. We’ve found that those costs are
Pikes Peak high and going higher.

For example, in 1960, when we first decided on an eventual
move back to the land, I could have bought my present 160
acres of Ozark rocks (if I’d had the money, which I didn’t)
by taking over the owners’ $25.00-per-month payments on top
of $100 cash.

By September 1971, when we’d finally gotten our capital
together, the place certainly hadn’t been improved any. In
fact, the barn had fallen, the 24′ X 24′ cabin had
seriously deteriorated and the electricity had been taken
out. Nevertheless, the property cost us $4,500 down and
$132 a month–at interest on our loan–for the
next 10 years. That works out at $90.00 an acre, or a total
of $14,400 for a farm I could have bought 11 years ago for
$ 2,600.

Were we taken? No. In comparison to other acreage in this
northwest corner of Arkansas, we got a fair price. Around
here farmland on paved roads starts at $300 an acre … and
this is a government-designated poverty pocket. If
you need additional proof that front money is essential,
try talking $90.00 an acre to a real estate agent in your
own area.

I’ll say it again: If you want out, it takes down-payment
bucks. Also, besides the front money, homesteading means
tools … and they too cost. Even a biceps-powered garden
till advertised in MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

So, how do you do it? How do you crank up a $500 or $1,000
down payment–plus tool money–for your own
version of Walden or Malabar or whatever?

What follows are some tricks my wife and I used to get that
necessary investment … despite my being in a low-paying
career field (social work) and despite our having five
children. I’ve also included some specific examples of the
kind of money problems we’ve run into since buying and
moving into ‘Outlaws Area No. 1″.

A Front Money Theory That Worked

When we started stashing away our future down payment, we
found we had to throw out some of the old money-management
rules and start fresh. For instance, we learned the hard
way to ignore financial advice given by city experts. I
like this guideline from Sylvia Porter; “You can safely
budget up to 20% of your income for installment payments.”

Instead, we’ve found that the would-be homesteader needs a
whole new economics textbook. And for us, that book’s first
rule was: “It’s not how much you make, but how much you
keep.” Or, in plainer words, cut down the spending and bank
the cuttings.

Here’s an illustration: In 1962, our monthly food
bill–for seven people–ran $75.00 … a figure
that’s slowly inched its inflationary way up to $120 in
1971. According to USDA budget sheets I’ve used to counsel
debt-ridden clients, that monthly sum should have been $300
to $350. Over nine years, of careful shopping we
conservatively estimate that we’ve banked $4,000 saved on
groceries alone, and I can’t honestly say that we’ve eaten
all that badly.

How did we manage? For specifics, I refer you to Joan
Ranson Shortney’s How to Live on Nothing  and to Champagne
Living on a Beer Budget
by Mike and Marilyn Ferguson
(out of print … see your library). For a general guide,
though, I offer a theory “M” and I used: “Anything we go
through today to get our place, we’ll not remember when
we’re on the land and free.”

Extra Money on the Job

Another pointer for anyone who’s trying to get homesteading
money together: Milk your job/career for every dime.
Obviously, I’m not talking about the status racket played
by the pyramid climbers. I mean picking up on the deals
every occupation offers occasionally, deals that no one
else wants because they might mean extra work or
inconvenience. These windfalls give you a chance to keep
more of what you make … to put more “land bucks” away.

Our own wrinkle was working overseas. Of the ten years I
caseworked for the American Red Cross’ military welfare
program, six were spent in such places as Korea, Vietnam,
the Philippines and West Berlin.

Yes, I was separated from “M” for a total of 26 months …
and I was sometimes shot at. But, “Anything we go through
today….” What mattered was that we walked away with $13,400.

You can save like that overseas because of three built-in
benefits. One is that most companies lure you across by
paying bonuses–or extra amounts per diem–for
service abroad. In our case, for my 366 days, 12 hours and
37 seconds in Vietnam, Red Cross shelled out an extra
$4,135.

Second, living is cheaper outside the U.S. of A. Whenever
we were out of the country “The Bloody X” (the Red Cross)
provided free housing, free utilities, and free hospital
care. We also had access to military post exchanges for
such bargains as a $274 Singer sewing machine for $141 and
an $86.00 Winchester .30-30 rifle for $56.00. Then, too,
the foreign local markets are usually less expensive. We
bought our new station wagon in Berlin for $1,975 when the
same car was selling for $2,815 on the East Coast.

Third, there’s no U.S. income tax on overseas earnings
…under certain conditions. If you work out of the States
for 510 days without coming back in for more than 30 days,
any salary up to $20,000 is tax-free (as long as you aren’t
employed by a government agency). We paid Uncle Sam nothing
from 1964 through 1971. See what I mean about deals?

Back to the Land. . . At Last

Did our money-saving schemes work? I think they did . . . they
got us Outlaw Area No. 1. And Outlaw is beautiful. It’s on
top of one of the forested Boston Mountains, eleven miles
from the nearest town and two from pavement. We have a
Pre-Civil War log cabin, a hand-dug well and the already
mentioned 576-square-foot frame dwelling. The place is
remote,quiet, wild and offers a 360-degree view of nothing
but mountains and more mountains.

Next question: Was our long wait worth it, or could we have
homesteaded Outlaw without that much cash? Well, perhaps I
can best answer by describing just one problem we ran into
as beginners on the land.

Electricity Equals Power

Since our arrival at Outlaw (June 4, 1972) we’ve found the
inadequate lighting and lack of refrigeration very
frustrating. In our first month, for example, we lost
$13.00 worth of meat, milk, and eggs because our large
Coleman ice chest just cannot cope with 92°F days.

Same with lighting … we started off primitive and cheap
with four old-timey glass kerosene lamps. Their totally
silent, soft glow, I must admit, is very “homestead
feeling”.

Nevertheless–as any optometrist will tell
you–trying to read by kerosene’s flickering 25-watt
light will eventually damage your eyes. For an alternative
you can go to pressurized 100-watt Coleman or Aladdin lamps
… but, to quote The Whole Earth Catalog, the
Colemans “clank and hiss at you, like civilization”. And
the Aladdins cost from $22.00 to $44.00 a crack.

So, for us, Ben Franklin had the answer … but before we
throw a switch, I reckon that the final tab will run $700.

Big Brother is Expensive

After we’d been here a week, I rolled in to the office of
the local Rural Electrification Administration to find out
what we’d have to do to get power at Outlaw. And here’s
what I learned.

The REA’s standard written agreement provides
that–before anything else can happen–the party
of the first part (“M” and I) must clear a 20-foot easement
from the company’s closest main powerline to our property’s
meter, or main power pole. After we cut the initial swath,
the party of the second part (Big Brother) will put in and
maintain the poles and exterior lines. Also, thereafter,
Ol’ Big keeps the aforementioned easement open.

It all seemed no sweat … until the company’s survey team
arrived. We then learned that the REA people only put in
their service on a straight line (it saves them money not
to jink all over the landscape). Unfortunately, that meant
the Administration wouldn’t be stringing the wires up our
curving mountain road, as I’d hoped, thereby reducing our
clearing operation to nearly nothing. No, they’re coming
through our north pastures . . . a distance of 1,730 feet!

The problem is that in the thirteen years since this place
last had people and the eight years since it last had
electricity, those fields have grown to a jungle of buck
brush, greenbrier, sticker trees (honey locust), and
persimmon trees. And, even before we started putting in the
second Alcan Highway through that undergrowth, some other
miscellaneous costs had to be met.

The first expense was $15.00 to join Big Brother (a co-op).
Next we were required to buy a 150-amp “meter loop” . . .
the gizmo that contains the meter and links the main lines
with our house. REA supplied the meter housing free … but
the guts, weatherproof casings and inner wires had to be
connected and stuffed into a not-free, 15-foot pipe affair
which will attach to our main power pole like a rain spout
to a house. A local lumberyard put this arrangement
together for $106. (We could have had a smaller-capacity
60-amp loop for only $60.00–or a 100-amp model for
$85.00–but we’ll eventually want electricity for
future outbuildings without having to pay for another loop
installation.)

The final good news came by letter: Our minimum monthly
bill for the next three years will run $11.47. It seems
that Ol’ Big allows $1,000 for the poles, lines and labor,
and our hookup will cost $412.94 over that allotment.

Scalping Our North Pastures

Meanwhile, there was still the matter of that 20-foot
easement. I don’t yet have the time to do the required
clearing, and bulldozing costs 50¢ a foot … so I’ve
hired a local friend at $2.00 an hour. The kicker is that I
must supply the chain saw, gas and oil.

I decided to buy rather than rent the saw because I’ll need
winter firewood. It recently took an axe and me two hours
to cut down an elm tree 30 inches in diameter, and that’s a
poor use of scarce time.

OK, Whole Earth says McCulloch and Homelite are
the Chevy and Ford of chain saws. Looking around here, I
counted one helluva lot of McCullochs, so that’s what I
bought: a Mac 10-10 Automatic, complete with engine oil,
file and file guide, a protective plastic chain guard, and a
quart of McCulloch chain oil. Total expense: $191.72.

Summing Up the Bill

So far, the, here’s what our electrification efforts have cost:

Chain saw and accessories. . . . . . . . .$191.72
Blazo can (used) . . . . . . . . . . . . .$106.00  
18" -wide heavy-duty aluminum foil . . . . $15.00  
3' x 3' x 1/4" plywood base. . . . . . . . $3.39

In addition, I figure the clearing will run $100 (gas, oil
and friendly labor). I also calculate that it’ll take $100
to rewire the cabin, $100 for inexperienced estimating and
a final $75.00 for miscellaneous (foul-ups, supply trips to
town, meals for uninvited but nonetheless friendly labor,
etc.). Total cost, $700.

Maybe now it’s apparent why we took those 12 years to get
our bankroll. We obviously approve of the gentle folk
getting back to the earth. I suspect, however, that the
dudes who are trying to make it on bubble gum and balin’
wire are not going to last. Farming takes money, and anyone
coming to the country with the idea, “Oh, we’ll figure
something out,” had better forget the whole business.
That’s a one-year attitude … meaning that’s about how
long such people will survive.

So, how much is enough? What will it take to really go
a-homesteading? How high is up?

Our answer: Get together every cent you can. Then cut for
the timber, and make your bankroll last.


Full Tool List

Here’s a rundown on the tools we’ve actually used since making the break. We’ve found some especially effective at doing their jobs, and for those good ones we’ve included brand names. Otherwise, prices are from the 1971 Sears catalog.

Garden rake (for seedbed preparation) . . .  $3.87       Wood plane . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $1.97

Garden hoe (for weeds). . . . . . . . . . .  $2.66       Combination square w/ level. . . . . . . . .  $3.80

Standard round point shovel                              Large screwdriver. . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $1.90
 (for latrine duty and other holes) . . . .  $4.87                                                                                   

Grub hoe (digs up stumps and roots) . . . .  $4.50       Staple gun . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $10.85

Pitchfork (for carrying poison ivy) . . . .  $5.50

Axe, 3 1/2 pound (buy a good one) . . . . .  $8.80                In Addition:

Woodsman's Pal (cutting brush and
  limbing trees). . . . . . . . . . . . . . $18.75       20-gauge used shotgun, Mossberg. . . . . . . $10.00

Sharpening stone (for axe and Pal). . . . .  $1.35       .38-caliber revolver, Smith & Wesson . . . . $89.00                                           

Weed cutter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $3.75       2 gallon bucket. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $3.90
Flat metal file (removes knicks from
  axes, hoes, and other implements) . . . .  $1.00       50 feet of 1/2 inch Manila rope. . . . . . .  $4.00

Folding ruler . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $2.40       Kerosene lamps . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $0.87

Claw hammer, 7 oz . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $1.99       Kerosene can, 1 gallon . . . . . . . . . . .  $0.85                               

Claw hammer, 16 oz  . . . . . . . . . . . .  $5.95       Flashlights. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $0.85

Pliers, regular nose. . . . . . . . . . . .  $1.65       Stepladder, 6 ft . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $6.60

Pocketknife, 3 bladed . . . . . . . . . . .  $3.95       2 burner Coleman camp stove. . . . . . . . . $21.00

Rip bar (mini-crowbar). . . . . . . . . . .  $2.50       48 quarter Coleman ice chest . . . . . . . . $19.95

Bow saw . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $3.40       Leather gloves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $2.50

McCulloch chain saw and accessories . . . .$191.72       Woven cowboy hats. . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $2.70

Disson crosscut saw . . . . . . . . . . . .  $4.75       Jeans. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $6.75

Hacksaw . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  $2.65       Boots, heavy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $23.00