Any land left out there for RV homesteading?
August 7, 2009 6:29 PM   Subscribe

Anyone know of a place where it's still possible still buy land for cheap -and- park a nice old Airstream or something on it, set up a well/septic tank/solar panels, and enjoy life outside the rat race -without- violating zoning restrictions?

Looking at real estate listings here in the Northwest US, it seems possible to buy a good piece of land for $10,000 or less. And certainly, one could live a good, simple life in a sweet old vintage trailer, with a garden, and so on. Like many who dream of exiting the rat race, it doesn't escape me that this kind of thing could be done with a total investment of under $25,000.

Alas, though, when you look at the fine print, it seems like most city and county jurisdictions out there are dead set against anyone being able to do this. It's against almost all zoning laws to live in an "RV" on your own land ... and where there are exceptions, it's usually only for limited periods of time.

So, my question is -- does anyone know of any places that are exceptions to this? Are there any areas people know about in the US where actual "rv homesteading" on one's own land could be done legally? Thanks for any input!
posted by dacoit to Law & Government (26 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
If you read this guys blog he has a section of land in I think Washington or Idaho that he's planting trees and fruit and building on to live on. The third date down he talks about some land that's for sale in the same area. He also talks about what its like to live on the land and some of the challenges of it, getting clean water, getting construction items up a dirt road, ect. Its a pretty intresting read if you read it from the beginning. He also talks about using this book Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country by Les Scher to get started.
posted by lilkeith07 at 6:39 PM on August 7, 2009

Given the amount of mortgages that are underwater and real estate being foreclosed on, maybe you could just hunt around (bank auctions etc.) for an inexpensive regular house in a rural/isolated area? Then customize with solar panels and gardens to taste.
posted by Spacelegoman at 6:39 PM on August 7, 2009

Do you like hunting and fishing? This can still occur in Baldwin, MI and the hunting and fishing are very good here. You can head west toward the lake and then you have the beach, but it might cost a bit more. If you do enter Baldwin, do not omit a stop to Jones Ice Cream. All other shops are unremarkable, but the river is quite remarkable.
posted by caddis at 6:43 PM on August 7, 2009

You need to browse United Country. In Missouri, for example, you can get a vacant lot in a lake subdivision for around $1200.

Another one is, though many of their parcels are very rough and "off grid."
posted by Ostara at 7:12 PM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was thinking the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Lots of places to get lost. I don't believe anyone would care. Lots of hunting and fishing. And snow. Lots of snow.
posted by 6:1 at 7:43 PM on August 7, 2009

Go north... Plenty of places like that in B.C. or Alberta, sure - if you are in a municipality there will be restrictions, but outside of the city/town/village limits, you owns yer land...
posted by jkaczor at 8:01 PM on August 7, 2009

Where I live you can only live in an rv for 120 days a year, but no, I mean no one would turn you in if you had a cool old airstream and you kept your yard clean. Especially if you placed it where you can't see it from the road. we don't even call on people around here that have newish ugly campers with their mother-in- law living in it as long as they don't have junk cars or vicious dogs or you do meth etc.

And you have to be narced on by more than one neighbor and then they will give you months and months to fix the situation. And they (the planning department) will try to help you.

Where I live the Amish will build you a "trapper cabin" - a one room log house for $4,500. I don't know but I am guessing a foundation for that would be 1 or 2 thousand. And maybe $500 for the permit.

And, you can live in an rv if you get a permit and you put it on a foundation. I don't know what they consider a foundation but I bet you could do that for cheap.

The local planning people will bend over backwards to help honest drug-free people (by drug I mean meth).

Here, You don't have to have a septic system unless you have running water. If you have running water and you can't afford a septic system you can squeeze by with building some kind of pit with gravel and sand in it for your grey water (but they won't call it a "grey water system" because that is against code here). the health department will go out of their way to work with honest people of modest means.

You can't build an out house here without a permit and you probably wouldn't be approved because we are close to water. But you can have a porta potty or compost toilet and you can even crap on top of your lawn if you like (apparently that's legal). Just don't dig an out house pit. That's too close to the water table here.

I suggest you find somewhere you like and talk to your potential neighbors. Knock on doors and ask about the neighborhood, that's what I did.
posted by cda at 8:39 PM on August 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

Arizona. Lots of junk land out here for nothing. I know one guy who spend $7K for ten acres south of Phoenix, built his own straw-bale house, and put in a little 500W solar system. I think he may have had city water and sewer. I guarantee he spent less than $25k, and had a house and not a trailer.

Two years ago I was driving line in the bare desert 25 miles east of Kingman, broke down, and had my bacon saved by what I assume is an old Nazi war criminal who was living the *exact* think you describe... trailer, cheap land, solar (and a wind turbine!). Looked like his total investment for everything but the alt utilities was about five bucks.

But if you are planning anything except a very simple existence, then your numbers are low. I just built an off-grid house and the solar alone cost $24k (plus $5k for cistern and pump, $20k plus for the alternative septic). Of course, I spent $140k on the house and $150k on the land, so this is far from simple living so our alt utilities are much bigger than what you'd want.

But I built my place in the mountains. Those two lunatics I mention above spent half the year living with no AC in places that got to 115F+. Might want to factor that in :)
posted by TheManChild2000 at 8:50 PM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

think->thing. See what happens when Twitter is down?
posted by TheManChild2000 at 8:50 PM on August 7, 2009

Much of Appalachia - Kentucky (Red River Gorge), Tennessee, West Virginia.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 8:59 PM on August 7, 2009

I have seen exactly what you are describing in NE PA. Little old trailer sitting on a sweet staple of land, with a cute picnic table out front. I don't know if it's still allowable or if these homes have been grandfathered in, but worth a shot!

I was taking a hike in Mehoopany, PA this past summer. That place is beautiful and rural. Right near a stream/river sat a nice RV. Outside the RV was a chimenia (I can't spell) type outdoor stove/oven. The whole setup seemed very permanent to me.

I think these people, even with their rundown small little RVs/trailers have to be the richest people in the world to be living with such awesomely beautiful surroundings. What I wouldn't do to be able to live like that - to walk out my front door and be greeting with rolling hills and babbling brooks.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:35 PM on August 7, 2009

There is cheap land all over the place if you don't need infrastructure. Ocean View, Haiwaii, the Okanogan highlands in Northeast WA state. Oodles of land in the Arizona and Canada(brrr).

Just pick your climate and you should be able to find something within it.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:47 PM on August 7, 2009

Sun Valley, AZ. Just a bit east of Holbrook. Recently saw 3 acres there for $10,000. Far away from the rat race, lots of sun, but still close enough to places that you can get what you need. Also typically plenty of wind out there. It's also within a couple of hours of a lot of interesting destinations.
posted by azpenguin at 11:25 PM on August 7, 2009

Anything near Shoshone, Ca., just below Death Valley. Awesomely beautiful country. Springs and hot springs are easy to tap. Land is cheap. Enough people around to make it interesting, but not so many that you see them a lot. One hour or so away from Pahrump, NE. So you aren't totally isolated from civilization, even if it feels that way.

Very spiritual country, btw, if you are into that kinda thing. Otherwise, just very affordable and pretty.
posted by jbenben at 11:55 PM on August 7, 2009

You really have to give some props to the efforts of local zoning boards and planning commissions in the last 20 years, that have restricted or banned small trailers and RVs as permanent shelters, for trying to protect the unwary from themselves. In rural Florida, it used to be common place to see old trailers and RVs being used as minimal long term shelters, as it once was in rural Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. In states like Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, there once was a long tradition of homesteading on land and occupying very minimal shelters, like even soddies.

But time, hard experience, and the amassed wisdom of the Weather Bureau have demonstrated that light housing isn't appropriate in much of the U.S. In Tornado Alley, zoning boards have a dim view of AirStreams as occupied human habitation, for good reason. In Florida, AirStreams and other light trailers, including those supplied by FEMA as emergency replacement shelters, are commonly referred to as "hurricane ammunition." I say this as a person who has a double wide, permanent foundation trailer, as a second home, well inland of the coasts, in northern Florida, and is getting subtle heat from the town council and insurance companies to get rid of it, in favor of a conventionally built house. While I understand their general concerns, it's just a fish camp and bugout shelter for me, in case of hurricane threat to my main home, a few miles from the Atlantic coast. And, I do have a 120 mph rated, steel framed and sided shelter building on that property, too, just in case Mother Nature turns out to be the vengeful bitch I've seen her become occasionally.

If your plan is to go cheap, you must rule out, on meterological grounds, much of the otherwise habitable USA. Or, spend a lot of time with a shovel, digging your readily accessible storm shelter.
posted by paulsc at 1:35 AM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

out here:
niland, california
not in the city specifically maybe, but around there I saw lots of living situations, exactly as you describe. (Airstream trailer, pickup truck, not much else for miles (and miles)
posted by defcom1 at 5:39 AM on August 8, 2009

Wonder Valley, which is part of 29 Palms, California. I used to live there and a lot of people live in trailers. There is no municipal water, if you don't have a well you order water from a water truck and they put it in a tank. Land is very cheap and you are about 3-4 hours from San Diego and LA, 45 minutes or so to Palm Springs.
posted by Melsky at 5:40 AM on August 8, 2009

Adding onto what paulsc said, Airstreams/trailers/RVs are also notorious for being poorly insulated. Heating and/or cooling such a dwelling would be a major energy sink. Also, pumping water from a well requires significant energy. There are pumps made for this application (the Grundfos SQ flex comes to mind, and I think Lorentz too). They are twice as expensive as a standard AC pump. You may want to check out Backwoods Solar for lots of cool reality-check information.

All zoning and building code enforcement is local and specific. There are no generalities to be made. It is imperative you check out local regulations. And the more rural and remote you go, the less likely they have a nice website. Instead you will be calling Merle, who installs siding but is also the town chairman (when he answers his phone.)

With regards to wells and septic, be aware that environmental regulations only increase. Codes never go away. What was possible five years ago, off the radar, may well be forbidden next year. And although I read wistfully about what was possible back in the 70s, groundwater contamination really isn't something to take lightly, and the majority of counties these days don't.

That said, I believe there are areas in Texas and Montana without zoning or building codes. Of course, if you can do anything you want on your land, that means your neighbors can too.

Good luck!
posted by werkzeuger at 6:59 AM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

jkaczor writes "Plenty of places like that in B.C. or Alberta, sure - if you are in a municipality there will be restrictions, but outside of the city/town/village limits, you owns yer land..."

Lots of places around here in BC you can buy ~10 acres for $1000 or even much less an acre if you don't mind being an hour by highway plus an hour by unimproved logging road from the nearest town. One caveat: putting a septic field in any of those places will cost you a minimum of $10K plus mileage for the equipment. And you can't dig it yourself by hand anymore; you can only get a septic permit if you are certified. Composting toilet for one person plus careful management of grey water would be a lot cheaper.

However once you are setup you can live in your trailer for as long as you want. Really though, for permanent habitation in this climate you'll be much better off building a cabin because you have to cut a swack load of trees to heat a trailer.

One thing I've thought of doing is building a custom fit garage for a trailer where all the doors and windows would align with the windows and doors on the trailer. Make one end a big door and you just back the trailer in giving you instant accommodation with kitchen and bath and good insulation. You could plan on moving your trailer twice a year. Into the shed for winter and out in the summer for the aesthetic of living in a trailer. The same could be done in hurricane or tornado country. Especially in hurricane areas you'd only have to turtle up when a hurricane is actually bearing down and all the other times you can use you're permanent shelter as a conventional garage.
posted by Mitheral at 8:29 AM on August 8, 2009

In Vermont this is no problem. Living on larger parcels of land with a farm building usually means you're exempt from most zoning laws [and many localities don't have them anyhow to speak of] However, you will freeze to death in a trailer in the winter unless you are fairly resourceful. It's not easy living but it is (or can be) fairly cheap.
posted by jessamyn at 8:43 AM on August 8, 2009

"... Make one end a big door and you just back the trailer in giving you instant accommodation with kitchen and bath and good insulation. ..."

That's kind of the description of my steel building on my inland property. But even just a 20 X 40 shed building on a concrete slab, without plumbing, insulation, power or other amenities costs more than $10,000. Tough to still have money to buy land the land to put it on, and a trailer that is minimally movable, and put in septic system, water and power connections (x2, one set, each, in both the outdoor and "indoor" trailer locations), all on a budget of $25,000, as the OP originally specified.
posted by paulsc at 9:01 AM on August 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a reason zoning laws exist with regard to clean water and sewage. You can get a composting toilet, which is not trouble-free, but can be a great solution. But hauling water gets old really fast, and in freezing weather, a well is problematic. There's been a lot written about going back to the land as affordably and responsibly as possible. Your library will be a big help.
posted by theora55 at 10:35 AM on August 8, 2009

I wouldn't pour a slab, the trailer already has a floor. A grade beam on columns to support either straw bale or wood frame construction instead of a conventional deep foundation. A simple shed roof will be cheap as the span is less than 10'. Use plywood sheathing rated for exposure when painted on the outside, OSB on the inside. Electrical supply can be as simple as a length of cap tire from your power/battery house. No way to avoid two runs of sewer and water lines but it's not like you need to have your summer pad hundreds of feet from your winter shed. With careful site selection, and maybe a few trees, a hundred feet should be more than sufficient and good luck could get that down to less than 50 feet. Doors and windows will be your big cost but some scratching around for used units can significantly reduce their cost. Find a place with a year round creek and you can power a shallow well with a mechanical pump directly. The trailer is already designed to run fridge, stove and hot water off of propane so the only electrical loads are lights and other incidentals like computers.

The big, unavoidable, can't be eased into expense is the septic field which here can't be done yourself. If you can find a jurisdiction that allows you to dig it yourself and ground that doesn't require a massive amount of remediation than you can avoid much of that cost too.
posted by Mitheral at 10:51 AM on August 8, 2009

Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, has no zoning ordinance, so outside city limits you could live in a travel trailer. Under the Alabama constitution, city and municipal governments have very little power to govern (it takes a statewide constitutional amendment for a city or county to hire a dog catcher!). I'm sure there are other counties in Alabama that lack zoning ordinances as well, and plenty of places you can get land relatively cheaply near navigable waterways if you want boating access.

If mountains are more your thing, northeast Alabama is the southernmost extent of the Appalachians, and you may be able to live in an RV and still be near Chattanooga TN, a reasonably sized city.

For that matter, my Dad lived in a travel trailer in Dade County, Ga., for awhile, and didn't have any hassle with local law enforcement, so that area (northwest Georgia) may also be worth looking into.
posted by fogovonslack at 12:10 PM on August 8, 2009

It won't work if your heart is set on an RV (because it's too remote and too cold anyway), but Alaska still has something much like homesteading.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:04 PM on August 8, 2009

The MetaFilter hivemind never ceases to amaze me. Seriously, what a treasure trove of valuable suggestions and advice. It's taken my research to some very fruitful places. Thank you!
posted by dacoit at 11:48 AM on August 9, 2009

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