Written by Sarena Neyman
For years, my husband Kevin and I spent nearly every vacation checking out tiny cabins in rural towns throughout New England and New York. Every stay confirmed our desire to build a similar getaway of our own. We loved seeing all the choices their owners had made and took notes so we could cull from the best of their ideas and avoid their mistakes.
We weren’t looking to build a smaller version of our main home, but we also wanted more than a barebones hunting cabin. We were looking for a place to retreat and recreate in comfort that would cost less than $75,000 to build, including land. We didn't know if this fantasy was even feasible.
It took several months, but in 2014, we ultimately found a property that met our criteria. We nearly made some bad decisions but picked up a lot of knowledge along the way. It’s now been over seven years that we’ve been able to cross-country ski, mountain bike, and hike for miles right out the door. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the cabin served as a real haven.
Here’s some of what we learned in the process:
1. Plan to finance your land purchase through alternative sources.
Banks are reluctant to extend mortgages for building lots since there’s no house to secure as collateral. If you already own a home, you may also be able to get a home equity loan or line of credit. Sellers may also be motivated to finance the sale.
2. Look beyond traditional MLS listings.
- Drive around. Be on the lookout for “for sale by owner” signs. Check out community bulletin boards at food coops and general stores.
- Ask realtors or others about landowners in the area who may be willing to sell off several acres with an access easement. This will entail hiring an attorney and surveyor (related: geophysical survey companies).
- Check out Craigslist. That’s how we found our acreage. Proceed with an abundance of caution, however. Craigslist is rife with scammers.
- Visit websites that specialize in land sales like land.com and others.
- Snow, ice and mud. If your land is off an unmaintained road, it won’t be plowed or sanded unless you do it. In some areas, mud season can also make a road impassable. Our land is less than 0.25 miles from a maintained road. When in doubt, we rarely risk driving in and instead use sleds or big backpacks. Know that AAA may not tow your vehicle if it is stuck on a road that is not maintained.
- Nervous lenders, contractors, and others. Fuel and delivery trucks are also often reluctant or prohibited from driving on unmaintained roads. Some towns will also make you sign a form waiving ambulance or firefighting services. This may make it impossible to insure the property and will likely affect getting a traditional mortgage.
- Washouts can cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair. Be wary of unmaintained roads that are steep or near streams.
- Fallen trees and branches. After a big windstorm, we always travel with a chainsaw or keep one in the cabin. A huge fallen tree, however, may require contacting the town for removal (if they are willing) or commercial help.