How Did We Choose This Place?
A friend recently asked me for the list of prerequisites we had when looking for a place out in the country. I hope that means he’s ready to make the move! I ended up typing way more than I thought I would, and since we get asked a similar question on a weekly basis (How in the world did y’all end up here of all places?) I thought it would be a good idea to go ahead and paste my response into a blog post. So here it is!
First, he asked if I knew anyone who might be interested in going in on a bigger piece of land and splitting it up. This saves money by adding buying-power, and also ensures you get a few neighbors that you know you can get along with. Here’s my answer:
We were looking for exactly that type of scenario at first, but couldn’t find a place that wasn’t too “communey” for our tastes. We tried getting some friends interested, but it just turned out to be too complicated at that point in time. It was hard enough just to make the move without adding in all of those other variables to deal with. We wanted “community” but with a small “c”. Everyone would own their own land, their own home and could do whatever they liked with it. There would be no mandatory “meetings” or “councils” or “committees” or anything like that. However, it would also be a somewhat planned community of like-minded folks (not exactly the same, but at least compatible) who are interested in similar things and are open to helping each other out to make life easier and more enjoyable for everyone. There may also be a part of the land that gets put into a trust so nobody can develop it or sell it, but everyone can enjoy it. This land would have some trails, maybe a fishing pond and lots of woods. It could be used for firewood for the families, but nothing other than that and simple, non-motorized recreation. Aside from that little communal thing, it would be just like moving out to the country to your own place – only you would be assured of having good neighbors.
One of the reasons people do the commune thing instead of this, I think, is that they get worried about what will happen if one of the founding members decides to “sell”. If they own their own property, after all, they could sell it to anyone; even the Cheney family. Then we’d all have to worry about getting shot in the face. But my thought is that only people of a somewhat similar mindset would even want to buy it in the first place. Who wants to buy a home in a community of people that are totally different from themselves value-wise? So, in my mind, that problem sort of takes care of itself.
OK, enough digression. Here’s what we looked for in a property which, over the Internet and through several week-long trips out to this side of the country, eventually landed us where we are today:
- Rural enough not to be threatened by urban sprawl within the foreseeable future. I’ve seen too many places on the edge of a city turn from farmland to suburban hell in less than a decade. If you can get to a skyscraper in less than an hour on a Saturday afternoon – you’re too close.
- Mountains. They don’t have to be big mountains, but the more obstacles there are in the way of tract-housing, culdesac-ending, monopoly-house-crowded suburban developments the better. There is a reason they like to build in flat places: It’s cheap and easy. Plus, we just liked living in the mountains.
- Within 15 minutes to a “town” of some sort that has all the basic needs (bank, grocery store, post office, gas station and a non-fast-food restaurant or two).
- Within half hour of a bigger town or city that has a movie theater, coffee shop, some place to see art, listen to music, etc… but not a major city that could sprawl out to us.
- Rural enough to be affordable and ‘country’ as opposed to over-priced and a place for people to ‘summer’. We wanted it to be a “real” country town, not a fake one, in other words.
- A mixed dish in terms of political leanings. We prefer somewhere open-minded where they don’t use the N-word (at least not in public) or lynch gay people. But a place like Boulder was way too Liberal-Yuppie for us so… somewhere in-between. To put it more simply: A somewhat left-leaning centrist area where a socially-liberal, fiscally-conservative, legislatively-libertarian person like me can feel at home.
So you can see how those first five things sort of overlap and can cancel each other out in places. That last bullet point was the tough one. We were very picky, and still didn’t end up getting what we wanted there. I can think of some places for you to start to look though. Places like Berea, Kentucky, Boone, North Carolina, Floyd, Virginia (close to where we are) and, if you can stand the humidity of the Ozarks, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, seemed to be the best-suited “towns” out this way. City-wise we really liked the outskirts of Asheville, NC, and Winston-Salem, NC in terms of being closer to skyscrapers (which we didn’t want). Staunton, VA is near where Joel Salatin lives and it’s really nice up there. With all the press the Shenandoah Valley has had in books and magazines the last few years, it has pretty much turned into the local-beyond-organic-foodie capitol of the United States. But it is starting to get overpriced and I can totally see the DC suburbs reaching all the way out there in another decade or two.
- Plenty of water. Water will be the oil of the 21st century. H2O is the cornerstone of any self-sufficiency efforts. Without it, you are beholden. A well would work (that’s what we have here) but it would be nice to have a spring, creek or river as a backup and to fill a pond with.
- It should be green. This goes along with the water thing, but also has to do with the general climate and growing efforts. Gardening here makes gardening in Denver look like rocket-science. Just as important, green means less fire danger. The fact that there are MAJOR forest fires every year is one of the main reasons we didn’t move to Northern California. Well, that and the tax issue mentioned below. And being close to family. And cost of homes. And…
- It should be affordable now, and into the future. If it was expensive at purchase, that would have made it difficult to pay off the mortgage (a major goal I will reach in the next three years, if not sooner). Getting in early on a place that is about to explode (speaking in real estate terms) is good for the equity side of things, but doesn’t do you much good if you don’t plan on selling. In fact, all it does is increase your taxes, and if you have to pay thousands every year in taxes, it really throws a wrench in the whole economically self-sustaining thing. Our annual tax is about $350 on 15.5 acres and a house.
- A balance of meaningful regulation and autonomy; leaning more toward autonomy. We didn’t want to be around a bunch of trailer parks, semi-commercial dog kennels, and junk yards, but also didn’t want to have any covenants or homeowners associations telling us what we can and can’t do with our land and home. Similarly, we didn’t want neighbors flushing their sewerage down the creek we share, but didn’t want a gestapo style building-code enforcer coming around telling us our house has to be built a certain way. All of this stuff is a delicate balancing act. You never get everything you want, so try to lean toward what you find most important.
- High speed internet was a must. Nothing else would do. DSL was a minimum. Satellite internet is crap; don’t fall for it. When your living depends on a reliable, fast internet connection, don’t take any chances. Pay for a month of service to the house before you buy if you have to. Tripple-check that it is available at your exact location. If we got here and found out that it stopped at our neighbor’s house, or was too slow or unreliable to use – I would have been out of a job. Actually, I would have just had to commute into town and rent an office space, but still… it would have sucked. Just as important is the fact that you’re not going to have much of a local economy without it. The days of rural Americans producing products that don’t involve extractive, non-renewable resources is over – unless they can add value by skipping the middle-men and selling straight to the national consumer-base. In other words – it’s either coal, logging, oil, factory farming or high speed internet. Usually it’s a combination but…
- No vast reserve of coal or oil nearby. There is a reason we’re not in Kentucky or Tennessee, even though there are some spectacularly beautiful areas on both states. Coal mining ruins towns. It brings in jobs for awhile, sure, but it destroys the environment and, eventually, the communities when those jobs leave. And most of that money (logging is similar) leaves the community. These operations are owned by absentee business people, often from overseas. And what little money stays around for a while via the worker’s paychecks, tends to slowly migrate out of the community via national and global franchises like Wal Mart and McDondald’s. I am not speaking to this topic as a yuppie-dude from the city who listens to too much NPR. I’m speaking of this as someone who spent much of his childhood summers playing in the clear mountain streams of southeastern Kentucky (Harlen and Hazard counties) where, now, the jobs are gone and my father can’t leave his home for more than 24-hours because meth-heads and oxy-addicts would steal the copper pipes from his walls just to get another fix.
- There needs to be a local economy. I won’t rehash everything above, but we wanted somewhere that still had local mom-n-pop shops. We wanted a local hardware store instead of big box chains. In the end, we got both, but I’m not sure how long the mom-n-pop places can survive these days.
- Electricity. I would consider going totally off-grid, but if the goal is due to cost-savings or the environment, I’m not sure off-grid is the answer. The money you spend on batteries and the depreciated cost of the system is about the same as you’d pay for electric from the grid over time, and I’m not all that confident that those batteries and the production of the solar gear (but especially the batteries) is much better for the environment than burning oil or coal. We do have a backup generator, and would like to have solar again (or micro-hydro) but we’re also tied to the grid. A generator will do just fine if the power goes out for a few days, or even weeks. In a long-term power-outage lasting more than a month, having a good gun beside your bed and strong locks on your doors is going to be more important than solar panels. It sounds grim, but it’s true. Humanity is just a natural disaster away from collapse sometimes. If you don’t believe that, ask the people who stayed in New Orleans after Katrina.
- A State-maintained road is important to some. We were willing to care for a long drive-way if we could park a car at the end of it when a snow-storm was expected, but without a state-maintained road nearby you can really be stuck in for a weeks at a time during winter. This wasn’t a deal-killer though. I could have gone either way. Just something you should think about if, for instance, you have anyone in your family with health issues that could require a trip to the emergency room during bad weather.
- Charm. We wanted the local town to have some charm. Most old rural towns do, so this wasn’t difficult to find. But some of them have just given themselves over to fast-food and big-box chains.
OK I think that’s enough for now. We were picky and, in the end, didn’t get “exactly” what we were looking for, but got most of it. I do love where we are, but there are some things that I wish were a little different. For instance, our house is right up next to the road. Sure, we only get about one car every 15 minutes during the day and less in the evening, but it’s still all happening 15-feet from our front window. I always pictured a long, tree-lined drive with woods on one side and a fenced pasture on the other. Also, we’re further away from Floyd, VA (the cultural fix we wanted) than we’d hoped for (45-minutes) and don’t find that we drive there more than once every couple of months. The local economy here is hanging on, but certainly not thriving. We’ve seen three family-owned restaurants go under since we moved here. Luckily, they keep replacing themselves with other, so-far-temporary, family-owned restaurants. The bypass they’re building around our town might be the final nail in that coffin. We’ll see. The area we’re in is much more conservative than what we were going for, but at the same time I’ve learned to appreciate other viewpoints – at least on certain issues. And it has forced me to focus more on local issues than national ones that always just got me worked up with no real end-result other than high-blood pressure. Everyone asks us where we go to church, and you’ll hear the name Jesus at least twice every time you go into town. We’re not Christians, so that does get old sometimes. But they are good people, kind to the core, and possessing of a wealth of knowledge and experience about living in these mountains we now call home. And, after all, most of them were here their entire lives, as were their parents and their grandparents. You’ll find more people with my last name in the phone book around these parts than you will in any major city with one-hundred times the population, so I guess I’m more at home here in that respect than I have been in a long time.
I hope that helps!
PS: The cartoon above is from http://www.savagechickens.com/2005/08/country-vs-city.html . You should check out that site. There are some other great ones like this, and this.