Property Search Update

Tue Mar 02 2021

We've fallen in love with Vermont this winter and have been making a lot of progress on our search to find land and build a house!

Property Search Update
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Introduction

At the end of last year, we shared our plans to find some land and build a home base.

Building a Home Base

We've been full-time RVers, traveling around the US for over 2 years, but now we're ready for our next adventure - we're going to build a home base.

Building a Home Base

In the months since, we've been reviewing lots of properties online, triaging them to find ones that seem to fit our requirements before going to visit them.

We've been in Vermont this winter and due to the state's travel restrictions, we've been focusing our search on properties here in Vermont. A month ago, when we were forced to abandon our RV, we moved into a hotel and ramped up our property search even more.

Abandoning our RV

In the blink of an eye, everything changed as we've been forced to abandon our RV in the middle of winter.

Abandoning our RV

What we're looking for

We wrote in detail about what we're looking for in our Building a Home Base blog post, and for the most part, not too much has changed.

In short, we're looking for a rural plot of land, about 30 minutes from the nearest grocery store (i.e. not too close to town, but not too remote either) and within a few hours of an international airport.

As for the land itself, we're looking for something around 10-50 acres. We're planning to self-build a house on the land, so it needs to be a buildable lot with usable space for not just a house, but also a garage, workshop, gardens, etc. And since we're novices at this, we don't want anything too steep, too narrow or that would need a really long driveway to access.

While you don't need 10+ acres to achieve that, we've learned from RVing how much we enjoy spending time in the outdoors. We often joke that we don't live in our RV, we live out of it! Having some of our own land gives us space to do things like create trails.

Utilities

We intend to spend most of our time living in the house, interspersed with trips out in our RV and other travel. And although we're looking for somewhere rural, we want to be comfortable and have all the modern conveniences.

Electricity

Several people have asked if we're planning to build an off-grid property. The simple answer is: probably not - at least not just yet.

While we love the idea of running everything off solar & batteries, the reality is that this can add a lot of expense - especially to run some of the higher power appliances we're interested in. That's not to say that we won't have solar - although it's unlikely to be the first thing we do, it's definitely something we'd like to have in future.

Fortunately, almost every property we've come across has had power available at the road. The only thing to consider is how much it costs to get connected, and there are two big elements we've been thinking about:

  1. A long driveway into the trees sounds beautiful, but comes at a cost - the electrical service has to follow the driveway and long cable runs are expensive!
  2. If a neighboring lot has had to pay to have electrical service poles extended to their property in the last 12 years and we would rely on those same poles, we may have to pay a share of what it cost them.

Not major issues, but worth thinking about.

Gas

This one's pretty easy. Natural gas is unlikely to be available in a rural property so we'd be using a propane tank. Since we don't intend to have any gas appliances in our house, and the only things we'd need gas for are a backup generator and outside grill, we can get by with a modest propane tank.

Water & Sewer

It's highly likely that whatever property we find, we'll need a well. Fortunately, Vermont doesn't suffer from a lack of water (unlike some places out west) so the chances of hitting water are very high. But the cost of a well depends on how deep it is, and you won't know that until you've finished digging.

We tried comparing well depths on neighboring lots as we were looking at properties but they vary wildly - sometimes one well is under 200ft and the neighbor's well is over 600ft! We're budgeting towards the top end and if it ends up being less then great!

Being rural, we'll also be needing a septic system to dispose of waste water. Unfortunately, Vermont is renowned for having terrible soil in terms of percolation for septic systems. We've been checking out the soil types online for all the properties we've looked at, and in almost every case it's likely we'd need a mound septic system - the most expensive type, likely to cost over $20,000.

Internet

While almost omnipresent in cities, fast and reliable internet connectivity in rural locations can be more difficult to find. Our search had been frustrating - ISP websites are horrifically unreliable at assessing coverage, let alone estimating speeds.

There's also some confusion over the phrase "high speed internet". Many property listings claim high speed internet, but when you dig deeper it turns out to be DSL with a maximum download speed of ~7Mbps.

I'm sorry, but in 2021 when gigabit (1,000Mbps) speeds are becoming increasingly popular, I refuse to accept that something 100x slower can be described as "high speed".

Initially we had narrowed our search to places with cable, until recently we stumbled upon EC Fiber. Started as a non-profit in East-Central (hence the name) Vermont in 2008, this is a community broadband organization offering fiber to the property to dozens of towns in the area. Love it!

Fiber has a big advantage over cable - it is usually synchronous, meaning that upload speeds are the same as download speeds (unlike cable which might offer 1,000Mbps download, but just 50Mbps upload).

If a property is served by EC Fiber, then we can get up to 800Mbps (upload and download). At this point, we've said that fiber is pretty much a "must have" for us, so we've really been focusing our search on properties with fiber now.

I should also add that there are other fiber providers in Vermont, and some of the fiber network is even state-owned - it really seems like Vermont has a focus on connectivity!

A few people have asked us about StarLink, so let me touch on that. I think StarLink is amazing. As RVers, it's the holy grail - fast internet connectivity while camping in remote, beautiful locations. But it's not generally available yet - it's still in beta, and generally has uptime of ~95-99% depending on location.

Of course, this will no doubt improve, but I feel very nervous about choosing a location and "betting" on StarLink being available. It also doesn't presently offer the speeds we'd like, and it remains to be seen what data caps might be imposed once it is generally released.

Search process

We've been working closely with our realtor recently, and we've refined our process to rule properties in or out as quickly as possible:

  1. Properties matching our general requirements (location, budget, size, etc) are automatically added to our portal on the realtor's website;
  2. We review each one and using all information on the listing, plus what we can deduce from our own research (e.g. satellite photos, Google StreetView, Vermont Natural Resources Atlas, parcel viewer, etc);
  3. If it's still a contender, we email our realtor to ask for more information from the MLS (e.g. survey maps, deed, etc) and / or questions for the seller;
  4. If there are no red flags and it's still meeting our requirements, we'll visit the property on our own to check it out in person - useful to appreciate the topography, neighborhood, access roads, etc;
  5. If after seeing it we still like it, we'll schedule a viewing with the realtor as well.

If you haven't seen it already, check out this video where Diana walks through our online search process:

YouTube Video Player
Buying land to build a house: our research process (zoning laws, parcel search, wetlands etc.)

Our goal is to rule out unsuitable properties as quickly as possible so we can focus our efforts purely on those that really fit the bill.

This process has been working really well for us so far - from a list of almost 100 properties, we've been able to find just a handful that are possible contenders and we're working with the realtor on these ones.

A few days ago we went out for our first property viewing with our realtor. It was such a valuable experience! We were able to locate all the boundaries, and he was able to help us understand nuances of the land (e.g. types of woodland) that we would otherwise have missed, as well as helping us visualize what the land might look like when not under a couple of feet of snow!

Talking of the snow, visiting in winter is very useful in knowing what access is like - is the road paved, plowed, etc? In our case, the snow in the entrance to the land was very deep - as our realtor discovered when his 4WD truck got stuck! The road was slick ice (all of us fell over at least once!) and it took us an hour to tow him out.

Lesson learned: our traction mats did nothing in the snow and ice! We tried towing his truck but couldn't get traction on our tires, even in 4L with the diff-locker engaged. In the end we had to put snow chains on our truck and we finally managed to get him out!

It was a good reminder for us to keep all our recovery equipment on hand in the truck at all times - you never know when you might need it!

Building

With the land search itself well underway, we're beginning to start thinking about what we actually want to build!

And yes, I say "we want to build" because we want to be as hands-on as possible! While there are obviously some parts of the house build that are best left to professionals (e.g. well drilling), we want to do as much as we can ourselves.

I had the opportunity to help out on a Habitat for Humanity build in Colorado back in 2019, and I loved it!

First Time Building a House with Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit organization that builds homes for people in need. I joined them for 2 weeks to help out.

First Time Building a House with Habitat for Humanity

As much fun as it was though, there's a lot we don't know about house-building!

So we were very excited when, on the way back from skiing at Sugarbush one day, we saw the sign for Yestermorrow, a design & build school that teaches hands-on courses in design, construction, woodworking, and architectural craft! They have an amazing list of courses, and we're looking forward to exploring some of them.

Living in the RV has made us realize we don't need a lot of space to be comfortable, and that it's easy to optimize the space you have to make it multi-functional.

While nothing is set in stone, the general thinking is to build a small 3-bedroom house, somewhere around 1,000 sq ft. Initially the 3 bedrooms would give each of us our own office, but can become bedrooms for children in future.

We're also very interested in incorporating modern building practices like Passive House, net zero and sustainable building. Many of these require deep knowledge of building science, so we're soon going to be looking for a local architect who can help us.

There's still a long way to go, but I feel like we've been making real progress lately. Stay tuned, and fingers crossed we'll find somewhere soon!

Photo by Kevin Wiegand on Unsplash

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