A Homestead Work For Rent Agreement

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Benjamin, aged three, makes friends with a placid milk cow.

I have to begin this tale by admitting that the first time
I read Jim and Lou Hammill’s article “How to Live Rent-Free,” I laughed out loud. A
landlord would have to be bonkers to lease a house
to someone without collecting any money, I thought. Work
for rent? I figured the Hammills must just have had a
once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck. Still, the article did
plant an idea in the back of my mind.

I’m a married graduate student with two small children. My
family lived (actually, existed might be more accurate) for
three years in a small apartment while I obtained a
master’s degree in horticulture at Purdue University. We
really wanted to homestead, though, and read books on the
subject, made lists, and planned. But the dream seemed to
stay well ahead of the small amount of cash we could save
from my graduate assistant’s salary.

Still, when I finished at Purdue and planned to move on to
Penn State to work for my doctorate, my wife and I decided
at least to shop for a small place in the country.
We looked, but could find only exorbitant prices and
imposing interest rates.

Needless to say, we were depressed. But then I recalled the
Hammills’ article and decided that their
idea was worth a try. We quickly composed a classified
advertisement for the county newspaper in the area where
we’d been house-hunting: “WANTED TO RENT. NEED SEPTEMBER
’80, country home 15 miles State College. Two, three
bedrooms, garden, yard. Christian student/family. Rental
preferred, purchase possible. Experienced handyman, will
trade rent for repairs.

We sent the ad off, waited, and prayed. The first
response offered a rental for cash plus labor. Even then, the amount was more than our budget could
afford. A second reply said we sounded like “nice people”
(which we are!), but the woman’s house didn’t
need any work and was far too expensive for us to
lease. We needed to pay most of our rent with sweat, not

Offer number three was the charm, though. A man wrote to
say he and his wife had just purchased a farm as an
investment. The former owner had begun to do some
remodeling but hadn’t completed the job.

Well, to make a long story short, we visited the place and
fell in love with it. It was exactly what we had wanted to
buy but couldn’t afford. (Actually, that’s not
quite true. The homestead was better
than any we’d ever dreamed of owning.) There were
grapevines, apple trees, a huge yard, garden space, two
creeks, a barn, and a pasture. The two-story farmhouse
featured five bedrooms and had a woodburner … and there
was even a timber lot from which to harvest fuel for the

I must admit that I was a bit concerned about the 60-mile
round trip to school every day that living on the dream
farm would necessitate. We soon decided the trade-off was
well worthwhile, however, and worked up a rental agreement
with our landlords: At least half of the rent each month
would be paid with labor. We initially gave the owners one
month’s payment in cash, so that–from then
on–any work we accomplished would be deducted (at an
agreed-upon hourly rate) from the following
month’s rent.

Naturally, it would be in our best interest to work all the
rent off, but my studies don’t allow me that much time to
spend on the remodeling jobs. As it stands now, each
month’s payment includes 34 hours of labor, which
keeps me busy for about three Saturdays every month. Our
landlords provide all the necessary building supplies, and
if we ever need to buy any “last minute” items, we simply
deduct the costs from the cash portion of the next month’s
rent. We’ve found that the setup works very well,
particularly when we keep accurate records of time
and materials.

Everything has rolled along smoothly so far. We’ve already
ripped out an old porch and used the wood to make compost
bins, done a lot of painting and wiring work, and
spent a few weekends cutting our wood stove “fodder.” A
nearby farmer volunteered to plow our quarter-acre garden
space “just to be a good neighbor,” and so–for
the same reason–I gave him a goodly supply of winter
squash at the end of the season.

Furthermore, shortly after we had moved to the farm, a
friend of our landlords began to board her horse with us.
In return for our keeping an eye on the animal and feeding
it whenever she can’t come over, the owner supplies us with
fresh, tasty goat’s milk.

Not long thereafter we learned that another of the owners’
friends needed a place to pasture his small herd of cattle.
We jumped at the chance to be able to practice
livestock tending without having the financial
responsibility! And not only did the man bring five beef
steers, he brought a Holstein cow and calf, 24 banty
chickens, and eight cats as well!

My wife and I have, since that day, learned to milk and
give vaccinations (we doctored the youngest Hereford
through pneumonia), and now possess what we like to call “a
farmer’s eye” which has enabled us (so far) to spot
livestock problems before they get serious. The Holstein
provides us with all the milk we can drink–
plus plenty of butter and cottage cheese–and
feeds the cats and calf. We also deliver three gallons of
milk to our landlords each week, providing another deduction from our rent. What’s more, the bantams have begun to
lay, and those fresh eggs are welcome additions to our

Some series of swaps, huh? And the idea came from you,
MOTHER EARTH NEWS. We want to thank you so much, because the original
trade (and your magazine) allowed us to live on a homestead
we couldn’t have hoped to see for years without either the mortgage we expected to pay or
the cash outlay we thought inevitable. And, probably best
of all, we’re getting a farmer’s education for free …
as well as making good friends along the way!