10 Things We Learned While Planning a Budget-Friendly, Off-Grid Home in the Woods
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10 Things We Learned While Planning a Budget-Friendly, Off-Grid Home in the Woods

We were looking for a place to retreat and recreate in comfort that would cost less than $75,000 to build, including land. Here are some things we learned in the process of building our off-grid cabin home.

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.
  • 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. 
 
3. State and local laws may preclude off-grid cabins, so be thorough in your research.
 
We fell in love with a beautiful 25-acre property in our home state of Massachusetts and were disappointed when we learned the Commonwealth’s heating and plumbing codes precluded building new off-grid cabins. Fortunately, we found that Vermont and New Hampshire did not have the same restrictions. These regions and others like them depend on outdoor lovers for their economy so they have created exemptions for recreational, non-primary homes — although they may limit the amount of time you can spend at such a property. Always talk to local and state officials about which laws will apply and read all building, zoning, environmental and public health codes. You don’t want to buy land you can’t build on.
 
 
4. If laws aren’t favorable, consider using an RV, converted school bus, or other “tiny home” on wheels. 
 
These vehicles are excluded from housing laws but may not be permitted to stay on the property for extended periods of time. Many municipal laws exclude permanent “mobile” homes.
 
 
5. Check the laws on composting toilets.
 
This information is often available through the state’s Department of Environment Protection (DEP) or local public health laws. A septic system can cost between $5,000 and $20,000 or far more if an alternative system needs to be used. By contrast, a commercial composting toilet runs about $1,000 - $3,000; a homemade version using scoops of peat moss and lime costs only $50-$100.
 
 
6. Verify that you’re buying the land you think you’re buying and that it’s lien-free.
 
Get a copy of the plot plan. Find all the property stakes and match it to the description in the deed. If you can’t, consider hiring a surveyor to re-install new stakes. One man we met during our search built a cabin property on property he did not own and had to remove it. Check that there are no taxes owed or pending legal actions against the property.
 
 
7. Some areas will not let you disconnect from electric utilities.
 
Many localities prohibit “grid defection” and may require you to be physically tied to the regional electric network even if that entails selling them back your solar output. This restriction may not apply to seasonal cabins or if the land is located too far from a utility source.
 
 
8. Wells can be expensive.
 
Drilling a well costs between $15 and $30 per foot. If the terrain is difficult, it can exceed $50. If your property is high in altitude, you may have to drill down over 300 feet and the cost can be prohibitive. Consider exploring other options like cisterns and rainwater collection systems, which is what we did.
 
 
9. Weigh the pros and cons of living off an unmaintained road. 
 
Living off an unmaintained road is far more private, typically cheaper, and makes it less likely you’ll be surrounded by a sub-division in a few years, but you’ll have to consider:
  • 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.
 
10. Be prepared to expand your building skills.
 
We found a local contractor to help us do all the things we couldn’t: he dug a foundation, poured the concrete footings, framed the house, did the solar wiring, installed the salvage windows and doors, and put on the roof. Kevin — who is moderately handy but had virtually no building experience — was able to complete the rest through YouTube videos, a few contractor friends, and a little help from me. This included installing insulation, siding, trim, flooring, etc. It saved a lot of money and none of it was that hard. 
 

Take the plunge.

Having a forest cabin has been one of our biggest joys. The silence after a big snow. The sweet smell of pine that hits you when you first step in the door. A toasty evening with the dog curled up at the fire while the wind howls outside. If you love cabins, explore the process. It’s worth it.
 
 

Sarena Neyman is a freelance grant writer who lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband Kevin, a registered nurse. 


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