What should I be thinking about when I look for a house/cabin in the country??
June 7, 2012 8:28 AM   Subscribe

What should I be thinking about as I search for the perfect house/cabin? City Mouse considers becoming Country Mouse.

I live in a small town in a scenic area of the US. It's cold and snowy in the winter, warm (but rarely hot) and heavenly in the short summers. I have a good job in town and plan to stay with it for at least the next 5-7 years. I currently live in a little apartment and have been casually thinking about purchasing a home.

Home sales in town are sloooooooooooooooow. There are houses that have been on the market for over a year - I've been in these houses, they're reasonably priced and in good condition. The market is just slow, the town is not growing, and I am skittish about buying a house in town that would be a total pain in the ass to sell in the future.

However, the real estate market is much more interesting once I get out of town and into the surrounding area. Cabin real estate is hopping: people are selling/abandoning their "second homes" all over the place. After thinking long and hard about it, I think that I would enjoy living full-time in a house/cabin just outside of town. If I leave the area after 5-7 years, then I will have a cabin in the woods that I can rent out to friends/visit myself instead of trying to sell a house in town. I am meeting with my realtor today to talk about it.

I say house/cabin because a cabin with an outhouse, outdoor shower and no-frills kitchen may be fine for a week or two, but I want something that has more in the way of creature comforts than that. No shacks for me, thanks. One way in which I am willing to be flexible is in size: I am more than okay living in a small space. In fact, I prefer it. I have had Tumbleweed Tiny Houses' Bodega bookmarked on my computer for years...I daydream about having a house about that big. I have considered building my own tiny house/cabin, but that brings up mortgage murkiness that I'd rather not deal with unless there are no other options.

I have never lived in a cabin before. I have lived in small towns, but always in town. I grew up in a large city and although I am into outdoorsy stuff (hiking, camping, etc), I still prefer to have things like plumbing and heat in my home. I'm not sure what sorts of things to be on the lookout for as I look at house/cabins - particularly as I look at cabins as a primary, four-season residence for myself. I do not plan on living more than 15 miles out of town, but that would put me squarely in THE COUNTRY in this part of the world. (bears, moose, hunters, etc). I think that I am up for it, but I wouldn't mind some advice.

Do any of you live in the country? What did you look for when you inspected houses for purchase? What do you wish you'd asked or looked for? Are you a former city dweller that moved to the woods? What did you love? What did you hate? Any advice for this City Mouse on becoming a Country Mouse would be most appreciated.
posted by Elly Vortex to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Living in the country is fantastic good fun.

How much land are you looking at acquiring? If it's wooded land, you can largely ignore it. Mowed, developed, acreage land is work. Country living in general is a lot more work than you realize. Be prepared for it. Mowing might be a pain in the ass, but if you let a lawn go to seed you get noxious weeds moving in, and that's even more work. Planting trees or native grasses to keep out the weeds is probably even more work. Work, work, work.

Can you get onto a municipal water system, or are you doing wells or cisterns? Wells have a pile of their own things to deal with. Water quality and volume are important -- is the water clean, delicious, and safe? Is there enough of it to live in the style you'd like, or will you be paying someone to fill the well when it runs dry? What if you get a couple reaallly dry years? Okay, so you don't have a well, you've got a cistern -- how much will it cost to haul water in for the cistern? How far do they haul it? How much does the cistern hold?

Septic. Tank? Field? There's another world of costs and challenges.

Isolation can be dangerous or inconvenient if something goes wrong. Find out who your nearest neighbors will be. Think about getting to know them. Be prepared for nights without power or gas if something goes wrong.

Since moving into the middle of nowhere I've learned to do a ton of things, from home repairs to vehicle repairs, I've bought piles of tools, done yard work, built things, and it's consumed my life. It's fun, fulfilling work, but it's work, and it's not always cheap.

If you enjoy being outside, the country can be great. Check the area you'll be moving into and see if there are convenient things to do -- fishing nearby, places to walk, etc. Some rural places can be worse than urban places for access to those things, so just be sure. Usually though, and if you're careful, you'll find the perfect spot and it'll be heaven.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:40 AM on June 7, 2012

One thing you need to take into account is the cabin's orientation to sun. Some relatives of mine have a lovely cabin in the mountains but it's only pleasant in the summer: it's on the north side of a mountain and gets almost no sun in the cold winter.

Views, in my estimation, are important. I love long vistas, I'm farsighted.

Distance from neighbors: it's nice to know you can walk there but not nice to hear them.

Well water, is it drinkable? Is it drinkable but full of sulphur? Insulation in both walls and roof/attic. Old cabins may only have it in roof.

Distance from work. I spent 20 years living in the country just five miles from town. That was perfect! More than a 15 minute drive is no fun, especially when road conditions can get iffy. Once you get home you don't want to go back to town for dinner, a movie, whatever, if the drive is long.

Take a basic home repair class.
posted by mareli at 8:47 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I grew up in the country, and have lived there intermittently in my adult life.

I'll second everything Stagger Lee said about it being work, although there are also aspects of it that can be a lot more relaxed. You need to do stuff to keep a place up, but there's a sense in which you can also kind of do whatever you feel like. No one is going to fine you for not shoveling your walk, or get all up in your face about the color of your fence, or whatever.

Other things to consider:

- Depending on where you're at, maybe keep an eye out for a place with a woodburning stove (or a suitable structure for installing one). It's another thing that's work, but so very worth it. It also puts you one step closer to short-term self-sufficiency if the power / gas / etc. are out. Keep in mind that pretty much every fireplace (as opposed to stove) you will ever encounter is decorative at best, and shouldn't really be thought of as a useful heat source.

- How's the insulation? How new are the windows?

- What's the trash situation? Are you on a city / county / whatever route? Back home, my parents still throw their trash in a hole in the ground and burn it. Other people I know do the same in a steel barrel. Around here, with a statewide burn ban and a lot of refined sensibilities, there's rural trash pickup.

- How do you feel about critters? Wherever you are, there are probably a lot more of them in the country. Mice. Rabbits. Raccoons. Deer. Snakes. Spiders at least twice as big as the ones in town. etc.
posted by brennen at 8:59 AM on June 7, 2012

This is probably really obvious, but do make sure that any cabin you look at is inhabitable all four seasons. If it's a second home/rental kind of place, it may have only the barest of weatherproofing/insulation, or none.

How important is fast/easy internet access? A house or cabin that's out of town may also be out of easy internetting, and you'll have to resort to satellite access or driving into town when you want to check your email or download something hefty.
posted by rtha at 9:00 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Check the snow plough routes and priority listing. Factor in the cost of privates ploughing. Also the cost of maintaining a private road/long driveway.
posted by saucysault at 9:02 AM on June 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much! This is great - keep 'em coming!

Yes, I live in a place that gets a heap of snow. I will definitely stress the need to be on a route that is plowed early and often. I will probably have to get a snowblower, but would prefer not having to get a plow attached to the front of my Kia Soul.

Internet access... *eyes glaze over in horror*...yes, that's extraordinarily important. Seriously, that's one of those Important Things that I hadn't even thought of. Yeesh.

I really appreciate all of your thoughts. I am compiling a list to bring to the realtor today so that we're on the same page. thanks!
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:23 AM on June 7, 2012

Re: Internet access, the last time I lived in the (relative) boonies in Colorado, I was line-of-site from a broadband (relatively speaking) wireless provider and so was able to get service much better than dial-up. If your cabin is in the mountains / deep hills, this is less likely to be an option, but the possibility is worth considering. You might also be able to get one of those portable wifi hotspot things from your cellphone provider, if you're in range of a tower.

Speaking of that: Lots of places in the country have pretty craptacular cell reception, though coverage has been getting a lot better in recent years. Factor in whether you're going to want a landline with long distance.

Also, do you watch TV? Do you want to keep watching TV? You might need to look into satellite options if so.
posted by brennen at 9:32 AM on June 7, 2012

yeah, find out whether there's cable access (might be likely if a busy cabin rental area, or not if it's mostly older locals), and if not, ask the cable company where your area fits into their longer-term plans. who knows what will happen with service options, but it could be nice to know you could get TV and Internet in 2 years via an upcoming dig...
posted by acm at 9:47 AM on June 7, 2012

I'm sure you'll get lots of great practical advice, but here is some fun advice mostly based on my experiences at cabins in northern MN and northern WI. I've done each of the following.

Get a well with a ground pump for all your plant watering and hot day showering needs.
Deck space is a must to take in the views and stay elevated from the bugs and animals.
An outbuilding of some size is a great place to store your toys like an ATV, an old 4x4 and your other outside living needs
On a lake? Get a pontoon boat. Install a potato gun on the front.
Install an antenae on the roof for basic TV access, and get a weather radio or CB for emergencies.
Make friends with all local bartenders, mechanics, plumbers, the guy who delivers firewood and other townies with needed skills sets.
Publically cheer for their football team, not yours. Do not take this advice lightly.
Get a soapstone stove. It will keep the entire house warm for 12-16 hours at a time.
Be aware going out side at night, because BEARS.
If you have a septic, have designated outside pee area.
Fire pit, fire pit, fire pit.
posted by lstanley at 10:01 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Does the place you buy have ambulance service? What about fire department? Some insurance will not cover a cabin if the fire department won't go that far out.

Are there dangerous trees on the property that could fall on your house or a neighbors? It could be expensive to have them removed. And a realtor will not point them out.

What kind of septic or outhouse situation do any close neighbors have? Would it affect your well if they don't take care of their septic?

Do the neighbors burn their trash? I live in a place with pristine air and several times a year my neighbor burns all their garbage including all their plastic. Assholes.

Also, we have satellite Internet which completely sucks.

I could not live out here without 1) a carport that keeps the ice off my windshield and protects my car engine from wind. And 2) an enclosed porch so that when I get up in the morning there is a barrier to any animals in my yard so I have time to get back in the house if I spook a moose. (I did have some close calls and came nose to nose with a moose one morning before the enclosed porch.)
posted by cda at 10:03 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Elly Vortex: "Kia Soul"

I wonder if you might have to include the cost of upgrading to a 4-wheel drive, and/or a larger SUV or truck? If you end up somewhere without paved roads, you might need the traction in the winter. And you might welcome a larger vehicle so you can make fewer trips for supplies.

I would imagine that living in Nowhere would be hard on any vehicle, so include more maintenance costs (and, of course, gas costs), into your planning budget.

Good luck! I loved the house you linked to. Another "small space living" blog you might follow is To Simplify.... Although he lives in an RV and travels the country, he's done a lot of retrofitting of his RV, and his projects in his small space can give you a lot of inspiration.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:09 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was you some 7 years ago. My wife and I dreamed of rural living after leaving our back-country tourism jobs to work in town.

There were a lot of things we really loved, the privacy, peace and quiet, wildlife, etc. BUT as has been mentioned above it's an obscene amount of work, and when you're done that work there's more work. Trying to thaw water lines when it's 40 below takes ALL the romance out of country living. Internet connections are sketchy at best... dial up at worst. Well water is something you're constantly fighting with and trying to correct "farmer fix-it's" where the previous owner attempted a DIY plumbing solution or electrical panel in the barn. We would often get snowed in despite having a 4wd and with no tractor we were stuck waiting for the neighbours to notice and plow us out. Electrical service would cut out at the slightest hint of a thunderstorm and could be out for hours or days. 35 minute drives for a jug of milk got really expensive as well. Another unpleasant surprise for us was local oil and gas development, one of our neighbours granted an oil company permission to drill 100 metres from our house, nothing at all we could do about it since it wasn't on our property.

In the end, we've moved back into town and having fast, efficient internet, reliable power and water is priceless. In the summer, we miss our acreage and being right there with our horses. In the winter however, when it's 40 below and the wind is blowing... I have another cup of coffee and think "Thank god I live in town!". Ironically, the dog loves being back in town too. We really thought he would miss the acreage but out there we'd kick him out the front door in the morning and he could entertain himself while we worked on the property. Now he gets daily walks with us spending all of our attention on him and he couldn't be happier!

Anyways, not trying necessarily to talk you out of it, just trying to provide a dose of reality. Maybe if my wife and I were retired, or had kids and one of us stayed at home with the kids and could do things around the place it would've been different. As it was, we both work full time and would get home from our jobs and spend the rest of our time working on the acreage. we also found that things like going out for dinner, or to the movies became impractical and the sheer amount of work was such an enormous shock so go into it with your eyes wide open.

So, if I haven't scared you here are some things to consider when buying:
- Water: have the well and septic evaluated by a professional... not a home inspector who has a minimum working knowledge of these things but a professional. A new well can cost $15,000+ depending on where you are. Ditto for septic
- Look for "Farmer Fixits" where someone has done a half-assed job. If you find them in one part of the property, it's a pretty safe guess that you will find them all over... including things like electrical/plumbing/etc.
- Resource development. I learned the hard way about this, do your diligence first and discover if your area is slated for forestry, mining, oil and gas, etc. What kind of traffic will be on the road right in front of your house
- Power grid, how reliable is it where you're looking
- Groceries - as I mentioned... 35 minutes for milk sucks
- internet, phone, and television - all are WAY more expensive in the country
- proximity to things like gravel pits and quad/snowmobile trails. In the country kids like to ride dirtbikes/quads/snowmobiles all over, often without a lot of consideration for who's land they are on. This can expose you to liability as well as being a general nuisance at times so it pays to know where they do this and decide if you want to live right beside it.
- Proximity to crop farmers. Farmers spray chemicals and manure in the spring and fall that (depending on the land) can seep into your well at worst or stink up the air something awful at best. We had grain farmers just east of us and couldn't open our windows for weeks in the spring due to the smell.
- Who are the neighbours? This is so important in a rural area, in town there are by-laws and general standards that sort of force people to be on their best behaviour. There is no such enforcement in the country, people are pretty much free to do whatever they please and if that means skeet shooting at 6am on a Sunday morning there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
- Roads what kind are they? Paved ones mean heavy truck traffic and gravel/dirt means tons of dust every time somebody drives by.
posted by Beacon Inbound at 10:13 AM on June 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

-As Beacon Inbound says, crop farmers, especially if there is crop dusting going on.
-What looks like a nice flat area of the property may be unusably boggy for months in the spring. Pay attention to weed growth--is it especially lush there? Also look for runoff patterns on the ground.
-Wacko neighbors. It's not just skeet shooting and ATV riding, it's also religious nutjobs. We came *this* close to buying a property that was adjacent to one in the beginning stages of development as a religious retreat--the kind founded after a vision from God about the end days. In our previous rural home, every single one of our neighbors was operating on some kind of fringe theory, whether it was waiting for the UFOs, religious extremism, Trilateral Commission-type conspiracy theories, etc. And eventually a religious camp was built directly behind our home there as well.
-Logging trucks or other resource industry equivalent--huge trucks rumbling past in the early morning and evening, kicking up huge clouds of dust. Or gravel pits nearby which create a lot of noise. Et cetera.
-Mud. We used to live way out in the country and could deal with all the other crap but in the spring, our very long driveway would turn into a mud pit in which our truck would sink up to the axles, and we'd have to hike in and out every day.
-Do you have a dog? Because when the snow comes, it's awfully nice to have a town full of cleared sidewalks to walk him on. Once the snow reaches a certain depth, there's nowhere to go in the country other than along the side of an icy road where you risk getting run over. Even in summer, you're in a choking cloud of dust when cars pass. It's simply not enjoyable. And I think most dogs really like to go for a walk or hike, not just hang around on the property all day.
-And the biggie, as others have mentioned: Internet service.
posted by HotToddy at 10:41 AM on June 7, 2012

FWIW: What I wish I had known before becoming a farmwife. There's lots of good and relevant advice in that thread.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:56 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I own a house (not a cabin, a regular house) in the mountains south of Silicon Valley. It takes about 15 minutes to get anywhere from here, by car. Well, it takes 5 minutes to get to the little country market nearby, 7 minutes to get to a feed store and a nursery, and 15 minutes to get anywhere else, including the grocery store. It doesn't really snow here, so I can't tell you about that.

Things to consider:
A car is really your only transportation option. There's no public transit, and a bicycle is pretty impractical (but the roads are great for recreational riding).

You won't want to go out for things, both because the absolute minimum round trip time to anywhere ends up being 45 minutes, and because your house is pretty and peaceful and why not just sit on the deck and listent to the birds while you BBQ?

Land is work to maintain. I don't have very much (less than an acre), and it's still a lot more work than a tiny urban/suburban backyard. If you want half an acre or more to look nice, be prepared to spend a lot of time gardening.

Internet here is fine, I have 16mbps cable and it works great, but obviously, your milage may vary.

There is essentially no cell service. My cell phone only works at home because I have one of those microcell things.

Well water: we are on a well, which is nice in some ways (free water), and not nice in others -- when a storm knocks over a tree onto the pipes that come down from your water tank, the city isn't going to fix it. If you want water, you're climbing up there with new pipes and splicing it back together in the storm.

Propane: propane is fine as long as you don't let the tank run empty. Be aware that any gas appliances you want will have to be converted, but this isn't a big deal.

The power is more likely to go out, and takes longer to get fixed. This is exacerbated by the fact that I live in a redwood forest and big trees like to fall on things when it's windy. Lots of people have generators out here. I don't, and it's only really been an issue once when the power was out for two days.

Access: depending on the roads and things, you may have plenty of space to, say, park an RV, but no way to get one there because of your steep twisty gravel driveway. Also, make sure UPS and FedEx will deliver to wherever you are if you buy things online (though this has never been a problem for me). Pizza/take-out delivery is probably not a thing you can get, though.

Animals: every damned animal you've every heard of lives out here, and certain things are a battle with them - deer eat your garden, birds nest in your eaves, mice get in your truck glovebox and build a nest in there (WTF?). Bobcats wander through the backyard and turkeys somehow get on your roof. Once a deer died under my deck and I had to pay someone $200 to haul it away.

Neighbors: obviously this isn't universal, but I've found that everyone out here is friendly and helpful (Need to borrow a chainsaw? Need help moving something up the driveway? Need someone to watch your chickens while you're away?), and also acknowledge that people live in the country partly because they want to be able to do their own thing, so along with the occasional shotgun blasts you hear in the distance, you realize that the neighbors are implicitly conceding to you being able to "do your own thing" as well, like build a chicken coop in your backyard or whatever. It's very "live and let live". Also, I don't lock my cars or my doors. I don't even bring a house key with me to work.

Overall, I love it and I have no desire to leave.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:57 AM on June 7, 2012

Response by poster: Update: I decided to stay in town for the time being. It was a financial decision as well as a scared-of-big-scary-changes decision. Maybe someday I'll have that place in the country. I appreciated all of your suggestions, and will come back to this post if I reach a place of financial stability and get over my nervousness of living in the woods.
posted by Elly Vortex at 8:37 AM on December 31, 2012

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