I bought land!

September 21, 2004

I've been meaning to buy land for years, but it's really hard! You have to have a car, and lots of money and time to drive all over looking at places, asking around, dealing with crooked real estate agents. Then if you find something you like, you have to call around to a lot of offices checking on stuff, maybe hire a lawyer, and draw up a special multi-page contract so you don't get screwed. The book on land-buying is Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country by Les Scher, as in, "The more I read this, the Les Scher I am that I want to buy land!"

So I figured I'd try to do it with luck, and patience, two things I sometimes have a lot of.

My mom has close friends here in Spokane who deal in land. They buy land with trees, cut down the most valuable ones, sell them, then sell the land. This was perfect, because I'd already decided I wanted land that had just been logged. I can't afford land covered with trees, nor do I want land so arid that it doesn't grow trees. I want to get injured land and help it come back!

So I told Judy to keep an eye out for me, and a couple months ago she emailed me asking exactly what I was looking for. Wait -- I found the actual email I sent in reply:

i want land that's (1) at the top of a watershed, or close enough to the top that nobody above me is going to pollute the water. also it needs (2) surface water that runs at least PART of the year. there are techniques i can do to make it run longer. and i would need (3) at least dirt road access with easement. also, (4) no one else should have a reservation of timber rights. and (5) at least some of it should be south-facing.

beyond that, what i want is a REALLY low price, so i'm willing to take land that's just been clearcut, that's steep, that's remote, that has terrible soil. the farther it is from utilities, the better, because i don't need utilities and don't want the development that they would bring. for the same reason, bad soil is good.

my price range would be $8,000 - $15,000, and for that i'd expect to get 10 acres. 20 would be great! and i'm in no hurry. i'm not ready to go live on the land yet anyway, so i'm willing to wait a couple years for a good deal.

Judy replied that the water would be hard to find and that my patience would be helpful. I wasn't sure I wanted to buy land anyway. I started to do the math and realized that it would increase my living expenses, because to spend time or do anything there, I would have to buy, borrow, or rent a car. I once had a fantasy of just using my bike, but my bike trip disaster shot that down.

Also, I'm now leaning toward a slow crash theory: that the system will take decades to break down, that food will keep coming into the cities, and that living off the land is not necessary for survival. But I'm not sure! And having a piece of wild land to care for would be exciting. So I thought, I'm not going to close this door. But I didn't expect anything this year, or maybe not even next year.

On September 3rd, Judy emailed me with something surprisingly good. Ten acres with a spring, two or three miles into the woods, for $14,500 on installments or $12,500 cash. Even in eastern Washington, even on a plot without buildings or utilities, that's dirt cheap for ten acres with a spring. One of the principles of permaculture is that energy is a lot easier to conserve than it is to generate, and I'm very good at conserving money. So I had enough to pay cash, which I consider essential.

On September 9, I went to look at it. Ten acres is one 64th of a square mile, or roughly four hectares. In the American land-dividing system, ten acres is almost always a square, 660 feet on a side (200 meters, 450 cubits, one furlong). I walked the perimeter, following the faded pink/white ribbons (which the survey team had tied to the tiniest and deadest branches, so they would break off sooner and they could come back and survey it again). I saw places where chipmunks (or brown squirrels?) had taken apart douglas fir cones, and thousands of deer tracks. A raven watched from above. There was more than one kind of big tree, and half the slopes were south facing.

You want me to say I fell in love with it, but I can't afford to play that game. I saw that the property was exactly what I was looking for -- or actually even better. The land, of course, had just been logged, but they had cut down fewer trees than I expected, leaving plenty of medium and small ones. Huge "slash piles" of scrap wood would heat a cabin for years and provide posts for cabin building. It really was at the top of the watershed! And given that, the elevation was relatively low.

Then the catch. I couldn't find the spring! [note: later i found it] I'd been told there was a pool of water bigger than a bathtub. Was it up on a hill, deep in that thicket of trees? Down in that grassy area? Having counted on drinking from it (my low-budget water test), I had not brought much water and it was almost gone. I followed the green and finally guessed that the "spring" was the well-up-from-the-dirt kind, not the seep-out-of-a-rock-face kind, and that it had dried down to an area of wet soil, even though last year, I was told, it had kept running through a very dry summer.

I thought about calling to ask the precise location and description of the spring, but when I thought it through, hey, even if it was dried up, I'd still buy the land. I was just down to what I had originally asked for: water that ran part of the year and could be restored to all-year. And springs should be expected to dry up when land is logged: trees slow down the rain to give it a chance to soak in, and they block the sun so the snow and the dampness last longer into the year. Without them, the water all runs off in the spring (making floods) and it goes dry in the summer. In a few years, as the vegetation builds up, the water will come back.

So I bought it! I plan to spend the winter in Seattle gathering supplies, build an underground house or a cob house next spring and summer, convince friends to move there, plant fruit trees, raise ducks, and never bring in utilities. It's going to take a few years to get it all together, and I'll still spend time in the city, as long as we have cities, and maybe even get satellite internet to maintain this site, if we still have satellies and internet. No one knows!

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Also check out my landblog, and my land buying tips.