What could be crazier than building an off-grid homestead on a bare piece of wilderness? Well doing it in your mid-fifties with minimal resources would be even worse. And if that was not enough to get your friends and relatives filling out the papers for your commitment, you could announce that you have decided to build a spare homestead. As unlikely as it seems, that is just what we have decided to do. The reasons we chose this path were a mix of free will and circumstance beyond our control.
We did not originally set out to design and build our ideal homestead from a blank page. After the recession of 2008, turnkey homesteads in rural areas of the country were priced in a very attractive manner. Our problem was that the largest part of our capital was tied up in a piece of land in Alberta. The value of that land was rising, but the property we wanted to buy was rising faster. As we watched property values firm up in 2011, we tried to resign ourselves to lowering our expectations. Then a funny thing happened, we ran across a new listing for 50 acres in North East Saskatchewan. We could just about manage the purchase without borrowing, if the seller would take an offer about 20% less than the asking price. It never occurred to us that we would ever consider making such a purchase without inspecting the property in person. The problem was that our work and other commitments would not allow us to get away to Saskatchewan at that time of year. After following real estate listings and values for the last few years, we felt confident that we knew a bargain when we saw one. We reasoned that even if this was not the right place for our homestead, we should be able to flip the property for a modest profit within a few years. We made the offer, and the reply through the realtor was that our offer would be accepted if we would pay both sides of the legal fees. Since that added only about $300 to our total costs, we quickly accepted.
When we finally got to see and walk on the land in August of 2012, we fell in love with it straight away. The property, the area and the community was everything we could have asked for. With the price of turn-key homesteads progressing further out of reach in 2012, building our dream homestead on those 50 acres made more sense the longer we thought about it. Because the land was essentially without improvements, the taxes were low and no upkeep was necessary. The property would wait until we were ready.
None of this explains why you would consider doing it all twice. The short explanation is that there is no realistic plan that allows us to have a winter ready dream house done quickly enough. Even if we time the move perfectly and get on the ground as soon as the spring runoff dries up, there will be barely six months to establish all basic services and shelter adequate to survive a Saskatchewan winter with some reasonable level of comfort.
We eliminated the idea of a manufactured home early on. Even if the capital was available soon enough, the cost of the “instant home” was high enough to be discouraging. Further it was doubtful that the end result would measure up to our hopes. The available designs and variations were limited enough that many compromises would be needed. Finally the design would require a painful and expensive retrofit to adapt to wood heat and off grid electricity.
Another idea floated was to rent a place in town, and commute to the construction site. Aside from the extra cost and inefficiency of that arrangement, I had a big concern about securing tools, equipment and supplies.
More than one of our unofficial advisors recommended buying a trailer or some sort of RV to live in during construction. My first objection to that idea is that it would require living in that sort of unit over at least one winter. My experience with these kinds of shelters has been extensive, living in them as well as repairing and renovating them. They are perhaps the poorest shelters the human race has come up with in its’ entire history. Value and efficiency were clearly not design criteria. Perhaps I will rant on at greater length about the disturbing nature of the industry at another time. It seems that I have reached that point where I cannot make another deal with a consumer culture.
At this point, I must insist on a fair return on every dollar and every hour of labour. It was this as much as anything that steered us toward building a second homestead. Rather than dumping time and money into facilities that would yield nothing but their temporary use, the east homestead will be a productive asset after we move to our permanent home. Further the east homestead will provide a comfortable and secure base that will provide all of the facilities needed during the construction of the west homestead.
Originally we decided on April 2014 as the right time to move to the property permanently. The delay gave us the time to prepare, to add to the war chest, and to wind down our previous commitments in a responsible manner. There was no guarantee that the land in Alberta would be sold by that time, but we were able to come up with a plan that would allow us to build a small homestead on the east end of the property. By re-furbishing the existing workshop and adding a modest 800sq. foot cabin, a small greenhouse, a woodshed and perhaps a chicken coop, we could establish the east homestead with our available resources. After we made ourselves comfortable and the land in Alberta was sold, we could proceed with the dream “west homestead”. Once settled into the completed west homestead, the east homestead could be sub-divided and rented out or sold off.
Why build a homestead and a spare? Because we expect a return on the extra time and money invested. Because we will have better facilities to use while we are building the west homestead, and maybe most of all it looks to be the best way to make the whole experience more pleasant and rewarding.