As our readers may already know, we had about 5-months of lead time when George’s job in sales and marketing in the education software field was eliminated due to a change at the COO level of the company he was with in Florida.  With that much lead time, we were able to make a very measured approach to looming unemployment.

One option was to do what millions of other Americans are doing, namely hitting the newspaper and hoping that just by some chance, the dream job of a lifetime will be in the local paper.  We’d learned from past experience that is not likely to happen, and that the best jobs are those which come from personal contacts.  We thought about things for a while and decided that in our mid-50’s it was probably time to settle down on a real piece of property, as quickly as possible, because we need somewhere to hang our hats when retirement arrives.

Having done a lot of research into “processes” we began by making a list of all of our search criteria.  We figured that if we laid out what we were looking for in a very precise manner, we would not be disappointed by the outcome.  Curiously, and most people find this amazing, we didn’t even walk the property until two months after the sale closed and we moved.  We had decided early on that what did matter was not the “curb appeal” of property, but whether it would be a good investment for us to make and would it meet our requirements.

Here’s a list of the search criteria:

  • Weather:  We’re not “cold weather people.”  For Elaine, an Arizona native, this was an easy decision: warmth is number 1.  While George does a little bit of skiing on the wimpy hills, he’s no downhill artist and the idea of driving several hours to stand in line at the slopes has lost its appeal.  Moreover, having suffered through a few heart-stopping power outages on lift chairs, George wasn’t keen about cold weather either.
  • Water:  Besides our preference for the warmer parts of the country, we also wanted somewhere that had enough rainfall, on average, to provide for basic farming without a lot of water.  We figured a minimum of 25 inches of rainfall per year would be needed to keep us happy.
  • Size of Property:  We figured at least 10 acres would be the minimum.  This is because George wanted to have ham radio antennas.
  • Foliage:  Not only did the ham radio antenna farm seem important, but Elaine loves wildlife.  Except for snakes and spiders, not normally on anyone’s list of favorites, most wildlife is a lot of fun to look at.  We figured that about one half of the property ought to be treed and if it was a bit more than half, that’d be fine, also.
  • Distance to Big Cities:  We have taken our writings on www.urbansurvival.com very much to heart.  We don’t want to be anywhere near a big city in the event of a terrorist attack, racial riots, or just plan martial law.  We reckoned that a good minimum distance from a bit city would be 50 miles, while much more than two hours would be hard to find.  But somewhere far enough away from a big city that it would be hard to walk to our part of the countryside.
  • Taxes: Although people make a big deal about paying property taxes, we figured that with the right piece of property, the taxes on the property would be a minor expense compared to what our federal tax bite was.  As it turned out, we paid more than $20,000 of income tax for 2003.  But what we didn’t pay this time around was state income taxes.  Whatever we wanted, it was above all a state with no income tax.
  • Home Size:  We wanted a three bedroom, two bathroom, home.  For one thing, Elaine’s brother, Panama Bates would be living on the property so we could pursue a higher income “big city” job.  But we also planned to spend a fair amount of time each year working the land on weekends.
  • Energy Independence:  Although we knew that finding a home with a renewable energy system was just a dream, we wanted to get a home that at least had some energy aspect that would make it a “stand out” from other properties.
  • Outbuildings:  You never know what will develop out in the rural areas.  Thousands of small businesses have had their start in places like barns, garages, and the like.  Having an entrepreneurial bent, out buildings made good sense.
  • Septic System:  We preferred to have a septic system.  That choice was made after investigating a number of properties and research what the term “lagoon” meant.  Essentially, a lagoon is a lake of sewage that generally open.  Some states have outlawed lagoons, but in some southern states, especially older properties, have lagoons.  Thanks, but we’ll keep ours covered.
  • Neighbors: We didn’t want to be able to see our nearest neighbors.  OK, maybe that’s unreasonable, but we only want to be able to see one neighbor.  Not neighbors on all four sides of us.
  • Price: This was a toughie for us.  Although we would qualify for anything up to $300,000 because of our financial condition, the idea was to find something for under $100,000 and if possible, less than $75,000.  We didn’t want a payment of more than $500/month because we didn’t know how long George’s period of unemployment would last.  (We’re two months into it as of this writing.)

Our next task was to find suitable homes.  Easily enough done with the Internet.  We started a detailed search of everything we could find in the under $100,.000 price range on http://www.unitedcountry.com/.  It worked like a charm.

Our first possible selection was 73 acres in Oklahoma.  But while this was a huge piece of land, it didn’t have some of the things we needed – like a house, for instance.  We thought that would be easily overcome, but as it turned out, there were some other issues involved, so that  one didn’t fly.  That land was (and still may be) a wonderful piece, though.  It was offered at less than $65,000, but the problem with it was that was land only.  What we discovered was that banks don’t lend on piece of land to anyone but established farmers in the local area.

If you want to try a hard sell sometime, try getting a loan from an Oklahoma bank as an out-of-state software exec.  Wowzers.  No go.

Panama and Elaine went through about three weeks of looking and going through the details on literally dozens of possible candidates.  It looked like East Texas or Northern Florida would win.  George’s favorite was a 15-acres site in Arkansas with it’s own natural cave, which he thought would make a dandy shelter/office/food storage area would have been perfect.  But he was over-ruled on the lagoon issue.  And as you might expect, that one was only on the market (under $100,000) for a matter of a few weeks.  Caves sell, and they’re hard to retrofit.

Let me run down the match with our criteria.

  • Weather:  Although we had 3″ of snow this winter, that’s very rare.  Most years there is no snow here and even in January, temps in the lower 70’s can happen.
  • Water:  The local water utility runs its own wells and has backup power.  If worst comes to worst, it’s a short walk (about a block) to a weak brook where we could pull out water (and boil it, of course) if we needed to.  The land it runs through might come up for sale in the future at about $1,500 per acre for a 16-acre parcel with the creek running through it.  That would be a nice piece.
  • Size of Property:  Our selected property has 13 acres on it.
  • Distance to Big Cities:  What we finally ended up with is in East Texas, about 10 miles from Palestine and 45 miles from Tyler.  That places us about 120 miles from Dallas and 160 miles from Houston, close enough to weekend at the ranch, and far enough such that people are not likely to wander by unexpected.
  • Taxes: Property taxes on our property runs about $1,500 per year.
  • Home Size:  The main home is three bedrooms (which we have turned into two large bedrooms as part of our post-fire rebuilding – another story).  The outbuilding is the third bedroom and we’ll put in one of those composting toilet systems for it.
  • Energy Independence:  There’s a certain beauty to a 500 gallon propane tank that’s over 1/2 full.  We figure we can heat the house with it for at least two years.  If necessary, we could retrofit a wood stove and burn wood from here on the property for heat, and have seven years of cooking fuel for a two burner camp stove.
  • Outbuildings:  The main out building is 40′ by 40′ and under that big metal roof (great for certain kinds of ham radio antennas) is an office/shop building that measures 12 by 25.  That will become the Urban Survival / Independence Journal office and a spare bedroom.  It wasn’t finished when we bought it, but it’ll be easy enough to finish off.
  • Septic System:  The property has a very nice over-sized septic system for the sanitary sewer, and a separate gray water system for things like showers, sinks, and laundry.  That’s a plus because Elaine likes to use bleach on clothes and with a septic-only system, that’s a problem.  (If you don’t live on a septic system, you might not realize that bleach kills the good bacteria that make a septic system work.)
  • Neighbors: The one neighbor we have lives across the street from us and raises rabbits.  That’s wonderful from a gardening standpoint because rabbit poo is not too “hot” and it’s a short drive for us.
  • Price: Our price was $74,000.  We paid a little higher on the mortgage rate (6.5, 30-year fixed) but as it turned out after the fire, that doesn’t matter.

Would we do it again?  Almost no doubt about it.  However, there are some additional due diligence questions we might ask in the future.  One of them, for example is “Is this a dry county?”  Not that we’re big boozers mind you, but having a glass of wine with Italian food seems like a good thing to us.  (George calls ’em Italian vitamins and is partial to Pisano or Chianti with picata.

But can you buy property trusting only the web and digital camera pictures from the realtor?  Yes.  But then again, maybe we’re just lucky.


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