Buying land in PA and building a cabin -- Where to start?
February 28, 2016 4:47 PM   Subscribe

A few friends of mine and I have a dream of buying a small plot of land in Eastern or Central PA and building a rustic cabin on it. I'm looking for some advice on where to even start looking for available plots and sources of information from others who have done something similar. Any ideas?
posted by TimBridge to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite could be a start, to get a feel for what sort of parcels are out there and what kind of price range you'd be looking at.
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 4:54 PM on February 28, 2016

What's your education level when it comes to the general ins-and-outs of buying and building on rural property--do you know all about perks and covenants and so on? That's obviously the place to start, if you haven't, before you invest time looking at properties.
As far as how to find the dream homesite: personally, I would treat it somewhat like buying any old home: narrow down the location to a few likely areas that have land with the geography you want in the price range you're looking for, get as specific as possible about your budget, acreage, and other property features (slope, tree cover, that kind of thing), and work with local farm-and-land realtors in your target area(s) to identify potential properties.
posted by drlith at 5:41 PM on February 28, 2016

Another thing to check up on is the building code. Depending on where you are, you may be required to have electricity, running water, and a connection to the local sewer system. And they all have to be approved by building inspectors.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:32 PM on February 28, 2016

I'm currently reading the Cabin Porn book and it has great back stories and processes for making such moves.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:35 PM on February 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Before getting excited about finding the perfect plot, make an appointment with an experienced real estate/contract lawyer. You should look into how other people handle joint ownership of cabins. In my area you can't get mortgages on vacant lots, so each of you have to put up an equitable amount of money which will then be tied up (because I assume you will have a contract forbidding the personal shares to be sold to just anyone). If you build a cabin are you looking at a cabin you can all fit in at once or more of a timeshare? Because you have to have a lot of communication ahead if you when you are negotiating an ever-evolving agreement (because what works for bachelors right now will look very different in fifteen years when there are relationships, divorces, and children involved).
posted by saucysault at 7:38 PM on February 28, 2016

Homesteading forums. Lots of crazy but plenty of experience too.
posted by fshgrl at 8:51 PM on February 28, 2016

There was a time when I wants to do this, and I loved reading the book Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country. (Fair warning though that the book was part of what talked me out of it.)
posted by instamatic at 4:50 AM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I do a lot of dream searching for country properties, and most of it is accomplished by just googling "real estate" "name of place" and taking it from there. You'll figure out which brokers have the type of stuff you like in your price range. If you find a place that seems to be a spectacular fit, it makes a nice weekend drive to go suss it out. My experience is 90% of stuff that seems perfect in pictures is not because of some thing just off camera.
Also, check out craigslist, they have for sale by owner stuff, sometimes with owners willing to finance. I think where your looking you can find some pretty affordable pieces of land, you just need to be careful about whats around it.

Are you sure that you want to build from scratch? I bought a nice piece of waterfront several years back, and I am gradually fixing it up. Right now I still have a big one bedroom camper on it, despite deed restirictions to the contrary (many other people in this little part of the mountain do the same thing).
I have been doing the improvements gradually. The first thing I did was build a driveway and put in a house pad, about $4k of tree clearing and dirt work, I also cleared out a space higher up for an orchard I never got around to planting. The dirtwork was done at the same time I put in my well (wells are funny things, my neighbors only goes down 20 feet to hit a solid source of water, mine went to 300, of course you pay by the foot for drilling). The well was another maybe $2-4k.
The septic was nightmare, at first we couldn't find anywhere on my property that would perk. I'm on the side of a mountain with a small lake in front of me. Ended up having to plow down this beautiful little patch of evergreens, which was one of the more charming aspects of the property because it was the only place the land would perk, and run the line under the dirt road to get there. This was another $7500.

I"m now ready to build a bunkhouse on an old bunkhouse pad left behind by the boy scouts that used to use this area as a campground, got a quote $38,000 for a small 16x24 studio with a bathroom. That's just for the bunkhouse, not the main house. Of course, I designed a kind of fancy pants little mid century modern meets rustic thing with lots of windows, so the price is kind of high, but in googling it seems like $200 a square foot is average going rate in this area.
IF you guys are building yourself, that's obviously a huge money saver, and if the footprint is small enough or you build something on wheels, no permits necessary. Make sure someone in your group knows what they are doing though..

Other things to potentially know about.
-You can get paid a couple thousand every few years when the tree guys come to harvest the mature trees from your land (when I first started this process I was the biggest tree hugger imaginable. I still am, but now I take a more practical view of trees, seeing as how they seem to rival man for taking over every inch of land the can if you let them.)

-Check out what local tax rates will be. Right now, because of lack of structures, my taxes for the property fall at around $2k. My neighbors around the lake are paying $6-8k a year because they have houses on the property. It's one of the reasons I'm not so eager to build. PA should be better in that regard.

-Proximity matters somewhat. I love to drive, but my property is about at the edge of driving I'd like to do at under 2.5 hours each way from my place in downtown manhattan. It's close enough that I frequently just go up for the day.

-Check out what is or what will happen with the surrounding areas. If your around farms do you mind smelling cow poop? If there's open land around, can they sell it to a developer, so all of a sudden you are surrounded by smaller 5 acre lots with suburban style housing on them?

-Is there a reservoir nearby so your land is restricted?

-In NYS they hold government land auctions every few years, county by county, where you can pick up some really good bargains, like in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands. The unbuilt upon land goes that cheaply, but you have to do all your research yourself on all the things I mentioned above. PA might have the same type of auction.

-In my experience it's likely to be cheaper to buy something already built than start from scratch, unless you like the project aspect of it.

-If you want to go off grid you can find some super cheap hunters cabins. A good sized generator might be all you need if it's an occasional retreat type of place.

-Think about if you want year round or just a 2 or 3 season type of place.

I've got so many other bits of info, but trying to type this out in a hurry before I go to work.

IMO the thing I would be sure to have good clarification on is the split between the people involved in labor, financing, time spent at the place, what to do if someone wants to sell, etc. That seems like an important first step to deal with.
I'll repost if other things come to mind, or you can mefi mail me if you have any specific questions. Good luck!
posted by newpotato at 5:42 AM on February 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

Also, there are a lot of ways that you can live on undeveloped land until you get the basic services installed...generator or a battery bank (that you bring home to recharge as needed) for electricity depending on what you're gonna draw, boat toilets for a battery operated flushing toilet for under $150 that needs emptying occasionally, used water tanks from craigslist that you pay to have someone fill. Solar powered water pump get the water to where you want it. So many things like this depending on the amount of convenience you need.Most are pretty affordable as well.
posted by newpotato at 6:02 AM on February 29, 2016

A lot of that area has been fracked. Stay away from it. If it's hilly the soil is generally poor. If it's hilly buy land on the southern side of hill to get maximum exposure to sun- whether you plan to incorporate solar power or not. Make sure you don't have to drill too deeply to get water. Make sure it's near a power line so that you don't have to pay for them to put in power poles.

Are they planning to live in the cabin year-round or just planning to use it for summer vacations? Often building a small uninsulated summer place doesn't require the same kind of permitting as real year-round homes.
posted by mareli at 7:29 AM on February 29, 2016

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