Financing the Dream

I’ve been investigating loans for 8 months, and I may have finally found a bank that is not completely terrified of what we’re trying to do.

This is the sobering reality of trying to build off-grid, even in a state like Arizona which has very lax building regulations. The County informed me that I could be an owner-builder, and that as long as it was conventional construction I did not have to get an architect stamp on my plans, provided they were up to code.

Enter the banks. Who provides construction loans for off-grid, owner-built projects? This is a question that the internet cannot seem to answer very well, and options vary from state to state.

Let’s start with Wells Fargo. I began my search with the local Flagstaff branch, who referred to me to their Prescott, AZ branch. I was told they could not do owner-builder loans, that I would need to hire a builder, and that the land had to be completely paid off before we could apply. We still owe about $30,000 on the land, having thrown as much money as we could at it last year before purchasing our trailer. The pros – we have equity in our land, which looks good for banks. The cons – Reality Check: we can’t take out a construction loan till the land is paid off, so that would take at least another year for us to do if we continue to be pathetically frugal.

I kept calling around to other “big name” banks. I learned quickly that having the land paid off was a big plus, though not an “absolute” for every bank. Some were willing to usurp the land loan into a 30-year mortgage after the house was done. Where we really hit a wall was with water. No City hook-ups, and no wells = must use cisterns. Reality check: Cisterns = scary for most banks. This was very disappointing to hear, since cisterns are a common off-grid option – and sometimes the only option, like in our case.

I talked with Owner-Builder Loans, which serves only three states (one of which being Arizona). They said there was a 6-month waiting list for our application to even be considered, and even if we got the construction loan, they could not carry it as a long-term mortgage. That means we would have to find another bank to convert it into a 30-year mortgage = a bit too risky for us.

I’ve been learning about how construction loans work; they’re not all the same, of course, but most of the time you’ll find that they are short-term, giving the owner a year to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy. The interest rate is very high (usually 9-12%), but it’s just for that year, and only for the amount you draw for the build, and then (hopefully) it will convert to a traditional mortgage through the same lender. With the exception of Owner-Builder Loans, you really can’t expect to be allowed to build the home yourself. Reality check: You’ll need to hire a builder if you want a loan.

I started looking into other kinds of loans in late fall last year, namely unsecured and secured loans. I filled out an information form online and immediately received tons of calls from lenders wanting to charge me 9-14% interest with 5-year terms on amounts up to $20,000. Awful, right? At this point, though, I was willing to consider anything. (What that means, specifically, is that I run it through my spreadsheet which is full of amortization charts and my family’s long-term financial plans, all connected with formulas. It’s beautiful.)

So I began to crunch numbers related to a series of unsecured loans, taking a new loan out every year or so to fund a certain portion of the house. The monthly payments would have approached $2,000 (awful), however the house would have been paid off in less than 8 years (awesome). Doable if my husband and I both work full-time; devastating if one of us lost a job or was cut to part-time (and both of those things have happened to us before).

Around New Year’s my husband and I had a heart-to-heart about the feasibility of our plan. How long could we really live in a trailer, especially with no running water, no quick source of heat, and our little boy quickly growing too long to sleep on the couch? Short-term it’s not that bad, but… more than a year….? If we didn’t have a child, we might be willing to give it more time, but… the clock is ticking. We want our son to have a home that is comfortable.

We decided that if we could not secure a loan, and move into a home on our land before the end of 2016, that we would purchase a home in town and slowly save up enough to pay cash for a home on our land one day. I felt relieved to have a “Plan B,” but also… sad. Like we were giving up, or chickening out. But we have to do what’s best for our kiddo.

Enter BBVA Compass Bank in Prescott, AZ. I’ve been working with a gal whom I expected to laugh me off the phone after our first conversation. I think it went something like this:

Me: Hi. I want a construction loan that converts to a 30-year mortgage. I am building an off-grid house.

Loan Officer: Okay, we can help you with that.

Me: …. It’s off-grid.

Loan Officer: Okay.

Me: Seriously, it’s off-grid.

Loan Officer: Not a problem.

Me: Oh… Well, I haven’t paid my land off. We still owe quite a bit of money on it!

Loan Officer: That’s okay, we can absorb the remaining land principal into the mortgage.

Me: Oh…. Well, I can’t dig a well. There’s absolutely no water on my land! I would have to use a cistern. Terrifying, right?!

Loan Officer: Do your neighbors use cisterns?

Me: Yes, all of them do.

Loan Officer: Not a problem, then.

Me: …..Okay…. Hold on a sec. *runs into other room and starts woohoo-ing and jumping up and down*

I’m trying not to let myself get too excited, partly because we’re still going through the lengthy application process and goodness knows what wrenches in the machine may await us… and partly because we might be about to take on an additional $285,000 (max) in debt. I need to remember that debt is a tool, as motivated as we are to pay it down quickly.

If you amortize it out over 30 years with 5% interest, that’s about $1,520/month. That’s including utilities (we’ll utilize solar, maybe wind, rainwater catchment, composting, etc. on site). When you look at national averages for comparable housing (and of course the numbers vary depending on where you look), you’ll see a range of $1,200-1,500 per month for rent and $150-300 per month for utilities. So… we’ll be perfectly average. (Hurray?)

I’m meeting with my builder on Wednesday to discuss house design and construction costs. We’ll see what other reality checks are headed my way. Wish me luck.

The Process of Escaping (Part 2)

We live in a 2003 Dutchman Four Winds 5th wheel travel trailer. It is 30 feet in length and includes a 12-foot pop-out in the living/dining room and a 6-foot pop-out in the bedroom. It includes roughly 350 square feet of living space, with ample storage inside as well as in a bay below the trailer (what we call the “garage”).

The trailer is parked with the length running north/south. The wind comes from the southwest in Kendrick Park, so our trailer serves as a wind block for the “yard” and entry which are on the east side. When it snows, the wind blows the drifts northeast… and so far, with over 25 inches of snow already under our belt this season, we haven’t had to use a shovel. (An El Niño winter is predicted, so I’m betting we’ll find ourselves stuck soon. We’ll deal with that when we get there.)

We put together a list of “home improvements” that we needed before being able to live comfortably, especially before the cold winter months arrived.

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Let’s talk about the off-grid systems we have in the trailer.

ELECTRICITY

There are two 100-watt solar panels on the roof, attached to two deep cycle batteries sitting in the “garage.”

We purchased a pure sine wave 1000 watt inverter to convert the DC power of the batteries to AC power for our electronics. The inverter hooks up to the batteries, and the trailer electric cable (which would normally plug into the electric dock at an RV park) plugs into it at the other end.

The lights, ceiling fan, toilet fan, and furnace blower operate off of DC. (The fridge has that option as well, though we are utilizing it in “propane mode.”) Anything you need to plug into an outlet utilizes AC power, and thus needs an inverter or a generator (unless you are able to hook up to the grid, such as at an RV park).

The batteries can power our computers and lights for 6-8 hours during daylight, but much less time at night. Especially since they tend to lose power quickly when it is cold.

12249824_10104036242130450_6479558399773894655_nWhen we need an electric boost (as well as need to charge our batteries), we utilize a 3500 watt gasoline generator (to my chagrin, but when it’s -13º F outside you’re really not in a place to argue). We learned that we needed to turn the breaker off that included the converter when using solar, and turn it back on with the generator.

The inverter will sometimes beep at us in the middle of the night when the batteries run too low to support AC power. Luckily, the inverter came with a button and wire that can be run inside the house so you don’t have to venture out into the cold to turn the inverter on and off when needed.

HEAT

We read another blog post that made us think that a standard propane furnace in a trailer might not be enough to stay comfortable, particularly in Flagstaff.

Immediately I thought of a wood stove. My husband thought I was nuts at first, which he normally does, but then he comes around. I humored him as we explored other options for heat, such as a Dickinson stove (often featured in Tumbleweed homes and also used for marine applications), as well as some other propane options. The BTU outputs of these units were… well… underwhelming. I’m sure in other climates, or with better insulation, they work very well.

I can put up with a lot (as you will soon read), but one thing I cannot tolerate is being cold for extended periods of time. I can’t do anything until I am warm. (Seriously, I just curl up in a ball, breathing warm air into my clothes, rocking back and forth. It’s pathetic.)

Unforgettable Fire, LLC caught my attention in 2009 with their Kimberly Stove, supposedly the most efficient-burning stove on the market. While it is impressive, beautiful, and space-saving, the price tag makes it inaccessible to anyone on a budget. So Kimberly was eliminated… at least, for the time being. Bummed.

We stopped by Flagstaff Hearth and Home and spoke with Troy Baker about our project. He showed us the Avalon “Camano” wood stove, which burns at 80-85% efficiency, is mobile-rated, and works well in small spaces (under 1200 square feet).

The stove was installed halfway through October – just in time to battle the freezing nights. A friend from our church generously purchased a cord of juniper for us, and we later purchased a cord of oak. Other friends from our church kindly gave us their seasoned pine in exchange for hauling it out of their backyard (they had just installed a gas insert). The Forest Service also held its annual free firewood pick-up at the end of September, so we took full advantage of that with another friend’s pick-up truck. We ended up with around 3 cords of wood to get us through the winter… or, at least, part of the winter. (We have yet to find out how much wood we’ll actually need.)

So far we burn 7-10 split logs, 14-16″ in length, per night. My husband is much better at wielding an axe than I am. As long as we wake up every few hours to stoke the fire with another log or two, we can keep our trailer between 65-70º F even when it’s below 0º outside.

The stove, hearth pad, 10 feet of chimney pipe, outside air kit, chimney bracing, and installation cost around $3,000. Considering we want to use it in our future home one day, I figured we might as well enjoy it now rather than wait. At this point, I would consider it a necessity for our life out here this winter.

It’s hard when we arrive home late at night, after an evening meeting or event, and have to start warming up our trailer. It takes about two hours to become “comfortable.” We’ll turn on the gas generator, crank the propane furnace up, and work on creating a roaring fire. The stove itself takes about an hour to get truly hot, and then it takes another hour for the heat to emanate throughout the trailer. After that, though, it’s wonderful. We hope that most days we can get home around 4:00pm, before it gets too dark and cold. Even a little bit of sunlight does wonders for the interior temperature of the trailer.

WATER

Long story short, we enjoyed running water and hot showers for about a month before we realized that it would take an insane amount of fuel and power to run heat tape around our water tanks to keep them from freezing.

12249724_10104036230194370_8248574332222308794_nOur trailer has a 35-gallon freshwater tank (as well as 35-gallon graywater and blackwater tanks). We used to fill 5-gallon water jugs and fill the tank using a funnel and my husband’s brute strength.12208343_10104036230638480_985746169770431656_n

Then it got very, very cold. We had hoped that the heat from the wood stove would somehow transfer to the tanks to keep them just above freezing. We also had installed insulation along the water lines.

But everything froze. So we emptied the tanks and bought a counter-top water container with a spigot so we can have drinking water, wash our hands, brush our teeth, and do the dishes. We shower in town.12240131_10104036240324070_6197275115612318615_n

I’m looking forward to the warm months when we can utilize our cute little 6-gallon water heater (propane-fired) and lovely shower stall, adjacent to our bedroom. (We had bought a “bathtub” for our son but it didn’t quite fit in the shower stall, heh.) In the meantime, it’s really not so bad. When I’m cold, I really don’t want to get wet anyway.

HOUSEHOLD WASTE

Our neighbors share garbage and recycling dumpsters as part of a service. We really don’t create enough waste to need to hire anyone to pick it up, and instead take a small grocery bag full of garbage and a shoe-box amount of recycling into town every 2-3 days. In warmer months, I’d like to start a compost pile on our land. Most of our household waste is organic and thus biodegradable.

TOILET

Again, my husband was scared, but I convinced him to stop being a pansy.

Emptying and hauling blackwater is not an option since our trailer will not be moving anytime soon. So we needed a practical way to deal with bodily waste.

Enter the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet. When I showed my husband this blog post, he was willing to give it a try. We had a great conversation piece in our living room at the rock house for a while while we were transitioning to full-time trailer living. It was a bit pricey (around $1,000 with shipping), but that was my compromise at my husband’s request (since I was really vouching for a 5-gallon bucket and sawdust).

There was a bit of prep work to be done in the trailer to accommodate the composting toilet. It came with a small electric fan that needed to be hooked up to DC power, as well as a vent hose that needed to hook up to one of the exhaust pipes coming out of the roof of the trailer. My husband skillfully performed the installation and even created a little base for the toilet to attach to that covered the previous toilet’s drain hole in the floor (which also required a fitted drain plug). He hooked up the toilet fan to the existing bathroom fan wires in the ceiling skylight. I installed a conduit cover over the wires to make everything look pretty.

The urine container needs to be emptied every 2-3 days; just keep an eye on it. The solids container needs to be emptied about once per month, with how often my family of three uses it. We bought an extra toilet base so that the solids can continue to compost in the base for another month before needing to switch it out. The County tells us that this waste cannot be dumped on our land without a septic system, but it can be taken to the City dump.

There is absolutely NO odor. We used to joke that the bathroom smelled better than the rest of the trailer. You can even stick your face down in the bowl (I was curious) and take a deep whiff… no odor. It looks and smells like dirt with bits of toilet paper mixed in it. We used coconut coir with a bit of water to create the “brown matter” base for the “green matter” solids to be mixed with. Coconut coir is very inexpensive; looks like a $16 large block will last us all year.

The key is separating the liquids, which are what cause odors. There is a separate container for urine which is easily emptied. The Nature’s Head toilet is easy to use, not disgusting at all, and I would recommend it to anyone living off-grid!

INSULATION

After looking at the ceiling “mini trusses” while Troy installed our stove, I’m pretty sure our trailer uses 2×2 framing. This means we’ve got about 2″ of pink fiberglass insulation and a bit of aluminum siding and outdated wallpaper between us and the subzero temperatures outside. Yikes.

We’d read about other RVers using straw bales to skirt the bottom of the their trailer so as to not be a “floating box.” Much of the cold creeps in from the bottom of the trailer. So we shopped around and found that we could get 30 bales delivered for about $10 each. I also learned the difference between hay (which animals will eat) and straw (which most animals will not eat); I’d prefer the elk didn’t eat our insulation, as cool as it would be to wake up and have one right outside our door.

The bales are really heavy. We’re talking like 60 pounds. My husband did most of the moving and arranging, though I am proud to say I was able to kick a few into place under the trailer. We then wrapped them in sheet plastic (as best we could) to help protect them from moisture, and screwed wood siding along the bottom of the trailer to “finish it out.” Classy, I know.

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We created what we call the “shed” (underneath the bedroom by the hitch), where we stacked up the bales to make walls. We then designed and built a wood frame to keep the walls upright, as well as installed a tarp to create a storage room of sorts. The tarp helps keep the cold wind out.

Inside, we use skylight insulation pillows that look like they’re covered in fleece. We just shoved them up into the skylight holes and they fit perfectly.

It can get pretty cold (freezing, in fact) inside the trailer if we don’t use heat, however it seems to naturally sit at about 10-20º above the outside temperature, which is pretty good I think. (In the summer, the reverse is true. Most folks don’t use A/C in Flagstaff as the daytime high is usually in the 80s. Get a cross breeze going through your space and you’re comfortable.)

COOKING AND EATING

12239502_10104036246641410_2387153635233122600_nNow that we have the wood stove, we can cook on top of it! We purchased a cast iron dutch oven and pan set from CAL Ranch for about $50 and I have used the pan to cook english muffin pizzas and bean and cheese tostadas so far. When the stove is really hot, they cook very quickly! I’m looking into good stove top dutch oven recipes and will experiment with soups and chili mixes this winter.

When the stove isn’t fired and we need to cook, we use the propane range and oven that came with the trailer. I used to be afraid of gas. When we were little, my mom drove my brother and me past a house that had blown up because of a gas leak. So we always assumed that gas was extremely dangerous and never to be used. Now I light that little stove and oven with little to no fear, and it works well. Just make sure the vent fan is running and the kitchen window is opened just a crack to allow for proper ventilation. Since the vent fan runs off of DC power, sometimes we’ll need to turn on the generator if it’s later in the day and the batteries have been run down.

The trailer came with a microwave that we never use… because we really haven’t needed a microwave in many years. It can work when the generator is turned on. In the meantime, we’re using it to store cleaning supplies.

I hope to build a solar oven this spring.

An apartment-sized DC/propane refrigerator (with upper freezer) came with the trailer and it works just fine. We run it off of propane. Now that we have the wood stove for heat and don’t need to run the propane furnace, we find ourselves switching out our 7-gallon propane tank every 3-4 weeks. It costs around $20 to refill our tank in town.

OPERATING COSTS

For those who are considering living off-grid in a trailer, I thought it would be helpful to list a breakdown of our operating costs compared to when we lived in a little house in town.

Water, Sewer, Trash:

Trailer: $10/week to shower at a very nice truck stop, and we pay a $25/month optional donation to our church to shower, fill up some water jugs for our counter-top water container, and drop off our garbage and recycling in the church dumpsters. (We could have also asked friends if we could have done these things at their homes.) When it warms up, we’ll be able to shower at the trailer again, so we won’t have to pay to shower at the truck stop anymore. The coconut coir for the toilet is $16/year.

House: $50/month average.

Electricity:

Trailer: solar panels create free electricity, but when we need a bit more power, we use the 3.4 gallon gasoline generator. My husband estimates that we use about 1.5 gallons of gas per night that we use the generator (which is not every night), so it’s probably safe to assume that we spend about $12-20 per week during the winter, and will rarely need to use the generator during warmer months.

House: $60 average per month.

Natural Gas/Propane:

Trailer: We use propane in the trailer and refill our 7-gallon tank every 3-4 weeks, so that’s $20-30 per month. It will be less in the warm months.

House: $50-60/month for natural gas.

Heating with Wood:

Trailer: 3 cords of wood cost around $600. We’re not sure if this will last us all winter, so let’s assume we’ll purchase another cord or so for $300.

House: $0, since we used natural gas.

So what are our conservative average monthly costs in the trailer versus the house?

Trailer: $40 for WST, $40 for electricity, $15 for gas, $75 for wood = roughly $170/month.

House: $50 for WST, $60 for electricity, $60 for gas = roughly $170/month.

It’s disappointing that our average monthly operating costs may amount to about the same… but don’t forget that we’re no longer paying rent! We estimate that we are saving roughly $9,000 per year by not renting in town; we’d still have land payments and County taxes on the land whether we live on the land or not, and our car travel has increased so that’s an added expense.

MISCELLANEOUS

We noticed a few droplets coming off the roof-antenna-handle-crank-thing in our bedroom ceiling, so we decided it would be a good idea to check the roof for cracks and leaks before the winter. We purchased a tube of RV roof sealant as well as silicone and went over our elastomeric roof with a fine-tooth comb. We also installed some vent hoods on the roof, that go over the operable skylights and reroute moisture away from the openings. For being a 12 year-old trailer, the roof is in great shape and we didn’t have to seal too much.

One night we came home late to discover mouse turds on our kitchen counter. We bought little plug-in rodent sound deterrents (with built-in night lights!) and put one inside and one in the garage, where we expect the little guy got in. We also bought a live trap.

photo1A few days later we came home late again and discovered the trap we had put on our counter was in the “closed” position. My husband picked it up and shook it, saying he didn’t think anything was in there. Before I could tell him to take it outside to check, he opened up the trap door to peek inside… and out popped a fat brown mouse! He screamed like a girl, which made me scream and laugh at the same time… which made our sleeping son cry while the mouse scurried all over the floor. He got away. We spray-foamed any holes to the garage that we could find, but would still come home to turds every once in a while. We’ve left the trap out ever since but I think the mouse has evolved.

There were some animal tracks in the snow leading into the shed under our trailer. My husband identified them as “skunk” online. We haven’t seen the little guy yet, or smelled him (luckily), but have named him “Krampus” in the meantime.

IN SUM

Sometimes it’s annoying to live in a trailer, I’ll admit. You can’t just push buttons and have things happen – you have to work for your water, power, and heat… and you have to be patient. You have to increase your level of preparedness, such as having extra water, fuel, and food on hand in case of getting snowed in.

11223501_10104036244505690_2180949417203637132_nBut when I look out at the breathtaking mountain views, and enjoy how close (and hardworking) my little family is becoming, I remember why I’m here. The reward is priceless. And when we build our home, it’ll be even better.

 

Settling In

We moved out of our little rock house in late September 2015.

We applied for a permit with the County and built a driveway.

Summer faded into fall, and we spent our time preparing our trailer for the cold (you can read more about that in this post) as well as exploring the area.

We had a “Prairie Party” in late October with friends and neighbors.

We got settled in nicely.

Just in time for winter.

The Process of Escaping (Part 1)

Many of my memories of this past year are wrapped up in the pictures within this post. I regret that I was not able to write my thoughts down right away! A new year is almost here – how timely, as thinking and writing are much-needed resolutions.

We made it a habit to visit our land nearly every weekend. Sometimes, if the weather wasn’t conducive to going outdoors, we’d stay in the car looking at the mountain, drawing floor plans, and talking about our future home.

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In October we planted seeds from the giant sunflower that had grown in our garden at the little rock house. Later that month we drove down Highway 180 a bit past Kendrick Park and hiked at Red Mountain.

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In November 2014 we hosted a local gathering of “Forest Church” at our property.

In December we enjoyed our own private sledding hill while Highway 180 filled with Phoenicians who wanted to play in the snow.

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All through the winter, we enjoyed the fresh snow on our prairie.

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We drove up Saddle Mountain, northeast of our property, and soaked in the beautiful surroundings.

In the summer, my husband’s family came to visit and we enjoyed star-gazing and glow-stick fun under the dark skies.

West of Highway 180, toward Kendrick Mountain, sits an old Babbitt cabin, inhabited only by birds.

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We also camped in the forest east of Kendrick Park. We were fond of a particular spot with a spectacular view….

And then, in July, we found our trailer.

I wasn’t sure when it would happen. I crunched numbers and poured over spreadsheets to determine our different options for paying off the land and getting into a home as quickly as possible. In the end, if we were brave enough, it made the most sense to purchase a trailer, live in it while saving all the money we would have put toward rent, and instead put that money toward the down payment on a construction loan and/or paying off the land. The trailer could be lived in while building the house, and later sold to help further pay down debt. I knew that the sooner this could happen, the better – financially speaking.

In June I began spending roughly 4 hours per day looking at used trailers on Craigslist. Our price range was $3,000 – $10,000. We quickly determined that the options became much more livable as the price went up (naturally). We toured a few different trailers/motor homes in town, leaving each somewhat discouraged, usually because of the age of the units. We didn’t want to take any chances with our little boy’s health and safety, so we were perhaps pickier than other buyers would have been.

A trailer parked at Mormon Lake intrigued me. There was a simple description on Craigslist, with only exterior photos. It included two solar panels, which scored lots of points with me. I arranged for a tour, which was given to us by the owner’s neighbor parked next door. Immediately upon entry, we knew it was “home.” I called the owner and offered $9,500, which he accepted. We were over-the-moon excited!

We paid the owners to haul it to our land, about 60 miles from Mormon Lake. We were thankful for their help in making it level and showing us how the various systems worked, as well as being willing to part with it for less than blue book value. Very kind people.

Now it was time to prepare for our move.

This Land

We’ve been very busy since I last posted.

The big news is that we discovered, fell in love with, and purchased land last September. The property is essentially a meadow – with pristine views of the San Francisco Peaks and Kendrick Mountain, nestled up against Saddle Mountain, surrounded by national forest land. The parcel is approximately 4.67 acres and located in Kendrick Park, about a 20 minute drive along Highway 180, northwest of the Flagstaff town site and about an hour away from the Grand Canyon.

Kendrick Park has always enchanted me. I remember driving back and forth from the Canyon while vacationing in Flagstaff years ago, looking at this quiet neighborhood “out in the country” and envying the residents who got to enjoy such a view everyday. I never thought I would be able to join them, for reasons ranging from financial feasibility to getting my husband (then boyfriend) on board with “pioneering.” It became one of my “happy places,” often visited in my head during daydreams….

On a weekend in early September, my husband, son, and I decided to take a drive up north of town. Our intention was to visit Red Mountain, a popular hiking spot at a lower elevation, not too far from Kendrick Park. We stopped at Whitehorse Park along the way, a heavily-forested residential neighborhood. There was one property there that we were excited about, about 1 acre with an alternative septic system already installed and a small studio cabin onsite. Across the street was a stand of aspens, with the tip-top of the Peaks showing just above the tree tops, pines and spruces scattered along rolling hillsides…. A beautiful place, truly. $89k for the land; not too far out of reach for us – with a loan. But no snow plowing (unless we hired a private company). And not the kind of mountain views we were hoping for.

We meandered a bit further down the road, stopping at a unique cinder block home hidden deeper in the woods at the end of a meandering driveway. Another beautiful place. But not great solar exposure. Asking price, while reasonable, would have put us at the top of our budget – without the financial ability to remodel the home to our liking. So we moved on.

We exited Whitehorse Park and continued north along 180, passing the Chapel of the Holy Dove, a small building with unique architecture and breathtaking views. (After we first visited Flagstaff many years ago, I tried to design houses using the same kind of floor space and roof line as the chapel.)

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A few hundred feet later, we found ourselves drawn to the entrance of Kendrick Park along Forest Road 514 (despite the abandoned, burned-down White Buffalo building). When we found a for-sale sign at Lot 31, we parked and I couldn’t stop myself from running across the field. In the middle I paused, my eyes tearing up. It felt right. It felt so right… and I was terrified that my husband wouldn’t feel it too.

He walked over to join me and without a moment’s hesitation said “This is it.” Words cannot fully express the joy I felt that day.

Our 4 year-old son captured the moment on camera.

Needless to say, we did not make it to Red Mountain. We rushed home and started researching the property on the local MLS. $75k, seller willing to carry (huzzah). No utilities (a challenge, but not a deal-breaker, of course; no trees, so no problem going solar with wind as a possibility, too). Parcels cannot be broken up into smaller lots – maintaining the “wide open spaces” intent of the neighborhood (good). The County provides snow plowing (a must). Not in a flood plain (a must). Guest house allowed, half the size of the main house or up to 800 square feet (nice option for the future).

The next day we visited agent Howard Mansker with ReMax Peak Properties and offered the seller $60k with $20k down, 5 years to carry loan at 6.5%, amortized like a 15 year loan until ballooning at the end of the 5th year. The seller countered, and we countered again, ending with a deal that felt like it was right in the middle of what the seller wanted and what we wanted, so I feel good about that: $68k with $25k down, 6 year loan with same terms.

In the months since, we’ve been throwing every penny we can at the property. My goal is to have it paid off by the end of 2016, although it is nice to know that we could take the full 6 years to pay it off if we find ourselves in tough financial circumstances in the near future.

Things I recognize: my family has the fortunate circumstances of savings, that we’ve worked hard to maintain and have been adding to whenever possible. We’ve had years where we had to tap into it because our annual income was below poverty level (after the crash of 2008 and we were both laid off… and then, surprise! – pregnant). All along the journey, I have tried to buy only what we needed, with a little fun here and there on the side….

To put it into perspective: I get mad at my husband for spending $5 without running it by me first. We kind-of laugh at it now, but… I’ve been accused of penny-pinching to a fault. But I’ll tell you why I do it – because I knew this was coming. I knew that one day we would find the place where we could live life on our terms, and I would have never been able to forgive myself if we had spent our money on things that are fleeting and unnecessary.

So here we are, land owners. I think we’re on our fourth house plan. More on that in another post.

There are two things on my mind when I think about property ownership: 1) good stewardship and 2) communal.

Stewardship is an important word in my life. I work for a local community church, so “stewardship” is a word oft used when referring to “time, talents, and treasure.” We have a stewardship season, usually in October as we’re putting together next year’s budget. We have a pledge drive, and committees recruit volunteers. The key question surrounding it all, after acknowledging that we have so much, is “What can we give?” My answer – everything I can, in my own unique way. So when I think about our new property, I am met with a sense of duty.

Is there anything I can build there that will improve upon it – the land itself? No, there isn’t. I recognize that. I bought this property to protect it as much as I bought it to enjoy it.

I often think about Teddy Roosevelt’s comment about the Grand Canyon: “You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” I have actively taken on a huge responsibility – to live lightly upon the land, while holding great respect for it. Whatever structure we build, it must be built with honor.

I have mixed feelings about private land ownership, to be honest. While I understand the necessity of it for today’s society to function as it does, (and I do not have aspirations of creating social change to the point of anarchy, socialism, or any other extreme), I am a questioner by nature and am compelled to ask “Is there a better way to do it? Does it have to be done this way?” In the end, I prefer to undermine  social norms that I don’t agree with through non-violent, sometimes playful, acts of rebellion. One such act would be refusing to install walls or fences on our property, thus allowing not only the free passage of animals, but also neighbors, hikers, and, yes, hooligans. I’ve also been inspired by a house we used to walk by when we lived over in the University Heights neighborhood, with a pretty yard and a sign nailed to a tree that said “Sit a spell,” with a bench below it. And we did, indeed, sit a spell. The only thing missing was our neighbors, whom we had never met, coming out to greet us… but truth be told this was almost just as welcoming. It gave me pause.

I think Woody Guthrie was on to something when he wrote “This Land.” Yes, it is a deeply political, subversive song with an interesting history. Some of the lesser known lyrics are: As I went walking I saw a sign there; And on the sign it said “No Trespassing”; But on the other side it didn’t say nothing; That side was made for you and me.

What does “community” really mean? I’m following that question down the rabbit hole. You and Woody are always welcome.

Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

As I look for properties upon which to place my future dwelling, I have to keep this in mind: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are many feasible places to live in a tiny home on wheels, from RV parks to my friends’ backyards. But I want my own land. That is something I am not willing to sacrifice, because living off the land as much as possible is a key part of sustainability.

Why do I want to own property? To live as sustainably as possible. It’s hard to find landlords who would let you build or do what you like on their property, and on a permanent basis – hence I must find my own land. I want to compost. I want to grow things. I want to place solar panels in just the right spot. And I want to grow old there.

Finding land is proving to be quite the challenge so far – not financially, but in terms of CC&Rs (land-use restrictions). The most appealing lots are in established residential neighborhoods that have minimum square footage requirements, and certainly don’t allow “temporary” dwellings. Any land within the City limits would likely not allow for a composting toilet, which is the ideal situation for truly “giving back to the earth.” I do want City water; well-digging can be risky and water-hauling is inconvenient – but they are not deal-breakers. Like I said, I can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I’m choosing to make my life in the high desert, so water (usage, and how to obtain it) is something I need to be somewhat flexible on.

Most established neighborhoods in town were built many decades ago; they are largely energy-inefficient, have land-use restrictions, and would force me to maintain (and heat, and cool) more floorspace than I would ever know what to do with.

Here’s a look at my current living situation: I live in downtown Flagstaff in a nearly 100 year-old rock dwelling that has been converted from a carriage house, to a garage, to a preschool, and now to a 2-bedroom, 1-bath home.  It’s roughly 800 square feet, has a fenced in front patio, and a storage shed that is shared with our next-door neighbor.

TRANSPORTATION

My husband and I have shared one vehicle for the last seven years and have never found a need to purchase another. Currently, because my husband has taken a job during the week in another town on a temporary basis, I do not have access to a car – but I haven’t had to modify my life much because I’m used to walking everywhere. I walk to my office, I walk my son to his preschool, I walk to the park, I walk to events downtown, I walk to the grocery store, and I walk just for the sheer joy of it because I live in a beautiful place. Frankly, I’m happier without a car, and am more intentional about how I spend my time on errands and at home because of its absence. The transition to simple, intentional living has already begun!

However – if I did not live right downtown, close to every place that I need to be, what would I do? This is where I struggle, and of course recognize the need for other means of transportation besides my two feet. A bicycle is a great option if I were living 1-2 miles away from work or food. We own a bike trailer with seating for children, and already use paniers for grocery shopping. I also recognize that I am young and healthy, and have the energy and ability to use a bike for now. But what if I develop health problems? What happens when I get older?

What if I end up living further from town? Public transportation becomes vital at that point. If I can find a property close to a bus stop, life without a car is still very feasible; it will simply require more intentional scheduling of trips to and from the house. But if I’m way out in “the country”… what then? (Click here to see how I’m answering this question for now; no, it’s not perfect. And here is something (in my town!) that I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford, but it’s still a step in the right direction.) The further I live from the places I need to be, the less sustainable the transportation options are.

So my next thought is – where do I really need to be? And is that different from where I want to be? I’m living where I want to live, and my favorite thing to do here is walk in the woods. I’m not picky. It’s a spiritual experience for me, and I have yet to find any other experiences in life that compare. (The author of this post gets it.) So that’s where I want to be, more than anywhere else.

BUT – I need to work outside of my home, for now. I need food and other supplies to maintain health and comfort, and have to travel to obtain them. I need time with other people, and to share life together. So, sustainable and reliable transportation is vital. I’ll explore this more in another post.

ENERGY

I volunteered nearly 500 hours of my time over two years to help my church get 132 solar panels on its roof. The PV system covers over 90% of the electricity used in the church building; between church functions and community groups, the facilities are used over 12 hours per day, everyday! I discovered that taking out a loan would cost roughly the same amount as the electric bill, so the church already had it in the budget after getting the congregation to fund the down payment. The project has been recognized nationally, and the hope was to inspire other individuals and faith communities to go solar, too. You can read more about the project here.

So, of course, I will be utilizing a PV system to power my home. This means that, as much as I love trees, I need a space on my lot that does not get much shade during the day. I do not want to be grid-tied, at least not in Arizona, because the utility company pays the customer back at a much lower rate than what they are charged for drawing from the grid at night. Therefore, I will utilize batteries, and of course minimize my electric usage to begin with so I won’t need a large system. More on this in another post.

Today I requested more information about a property on Wintergreen Road, out on the east side of town. It’s within walking distance of forest land and a bus stop, and biking distance of food and supplies. There is a mobile home in poor condition sitting on it currently, but I could salvage a ton of materials from it and then dismantle it and have the leftovers hauled away. It has City water. And some big, pretty pine trees. I like it.

We’ll see if the real estate agent will let me take a look at it; so far she’s discouraging me, but I understand – because most people want a move-in ready home, or land that is all ready to be developed. I believe that sometimes good things take time, and a bit of elbow grease.

Here’s a sneak peak:

wintergreen2

And here’s the bus stop and bus route that could take me to work:

wintergreen1

We’ll see what pans out. I think I need to sit down and talk with my agent about what, specifically, I am looking for in a property, and the unusual home I want to build. Can’t wait to see her reaction. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Where I Live, and What I Live For

iwenttothewoods

How to start a blog about sustainability and living intentionally? Henry David Thoreau is often my muse.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” he writes in his book Walden: (or Life in the Woods), in a chapter named Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.

I’ve come to realize that where we live dictates so much of how we live, and subsequently what we live for. Culture – our narrative, our values and meaning,  exist in place. That is why I was very intentional about choosing Flagstaff, Arizona as the place to make my home and my life. Something about it just felt… right.

My husband has asked me numerous times why I’m so dead-set on living my entire life in Flagstaff when there are plenty of other beautiful and wild places to explore, quaint town centres to wander through, nurturing communities to set down roots within. I tell him that it’s just like falling in love – there are plenty of other attractive and wonderful people out there, but for reasons we’ll never quite understand we get stuck on one.

Back in 2009, my husband and I discovered Tumbleweed Tiny Homes. Jay Shafer’s designs not only changed the way I think about the purpose of a home, but, more importantly, the life one can live when they have minimal expenses/debt, minimal items to maintain, and minimal impact on the planet. What comes with this life is a freedom that equates to time – and the choice of how to spend it.

I refuse to participate in the rat race. I want more time to devote to caring for my loved ones and bettering my community. One of the ways I’d like to do this is by developing what I am calling an “eco-village,” somewhere in the Flagstaff area, consisting of (likely portable) alternative housing and shared common space that is maintained by the residents in a sustainable manner. And I’d like to call it Bristlecone Community.

This blog will document the process of planning and building my family’s dwelling, creating human-powered and off-grid solutions for comfort and health, finding a suitable location that could support sustainable means of transportation, communicating with City personnel, offering educational opportunities to the greater Flagstaff community, and recruiting others to share in the experience of intentional living.

What is intentional living? I think this blog post lays it out quite well. It’s being able to know who we are and what we value, and to form a lifestyle consistent with that. We are often too busy, or too afraid, to contemplate and confront the items “at odds with each other” in our lives, the items that don’t mesh with the values we claim to have. We compartmentalize, isolate, and separate.

Intentional living seeks to pull skeletons out of closets and give them a proper burial. It is bringing every aspect of “the self” into the light, holding it up against our hopes and plans for the world, and weaving the pieces together to make something beautiful… where nothing is threatening to tear the whole thing apart. It is the embodiment of community within an individual.

Intentional living does not look the same for everyone. I believe that the world’s many and varied spiritual and philosophical paths (and subsequent formation of intentional communities) have value in that they can connect us to each other, and to something bigger and deeper that many of our societal norms can often distract us from.

The idea of Bristlecone Community is a manifestation of the deepest desires of my heart – enjoying life with loved ones, (re)connecting with the earth, inspiring and encouraging others along the way, and having time.

And so begins a journey. Columnist Chris Geiger reminds us that “All journeys eventually end in the same place – home.”