Building a small house in Canada
September 18, 2017 11:22 PM   Subscribe

Hi folks! I've been exploring the possibility of buying a piece of vacant land in BC or Ontario to put up a small house in 8-10 years when I'm sick of work. Is it a good idea to find and buy a nice plot of land when it comes up, and just hang on to it till I'm ready to build? I also have a list of questions about living in more rural areas.

First, I'm a city kid through and through, and have no idea what it's like to live away from a city. The plots of land I'm looking at have electrical/telephone hookup, and not too far from a town for supplies/food.

How does one deal with these issues in less populated areas though?
- Water: I'm not certain if wells can be dug, or if there is even water running below the land. Filtration?
- Electricity: I'm looking at plots with electrical/telephone hookup, but I think having a generator + solar panels would be a good backup?
- Human waste: Most plots I see have no sewage - and I'm probably not googling the right words as well. Are septic tanks used?

With regards to land in Canada, several sites I see indicate that all I need to do after purchasing the land is pay tax on it every year. Surely it can't be _that_ simple?

Finally I have seen some municipalities have a minimum size for houses? That appears to be a topic of contention by tiny house owners. I'm looking to build a size around 5 to 600 sq. feet. I'm thinking that it's best to clarify that and maybe even get a building permit before purchasing the land?

posted by TrinsicWS to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Yes on septic systems -- these are quite expensive, and need maintenance, and periodic replacement. (Same with well systems and water treatment ditto.)

Property tax: a friend just sold off a not particularly valuable bit of land in rural Qu├ębec, and was relieved to be out from under that burden. He had a trailer parked there, and, despite this being out in the sticks, the neighbours were not too pleased about that. It looked like a good investment property, but was very difficult to sell; Canada has a lot of land so people can be choosy as buyers.

Rules for houses abound and are different everywhere.

Expect to need the sort of vehicle that can handle poorly plowed roads (in Ontario). Expect to need a tractor for mowing and for shovelling your driveway.

Having enough solar power to see you through a black/brown-out usefully means investing quite heavily there. Most people I know (I live in a village of 2k) might have a small gas generator, but that's it. We have a collection of oil lamps, candles, flashlights, and while having the power out is more frequent and takes longer to be fixed than in the city, in ten years we've never even bothered with the little gas generator. Worst case scenarios involve me just buying blocks of ice for the fridge and the freezers.

A few people I know have to shell out for satellite internet. I have "high speed" internet but it is still laggy, and right now you are probably used to doing things like ordering food on-line; in the country it is a relief if you can just find the restaurants on-line at all, and they often don't bother with foolish things like putting up menus. It can get a bit trying. There is a lot to decipher. A house near you will have a sign by the road saying EGGS. No other info will be offered; you will not know the price or what hours are considered reasonable to call.

Re. freezers: highly recommended. It is no fun being snowed in and reliant on your pantry, even relatively briefly. A thing of milk and other staples in a chest freezer (just rotate them into your normal consumption and replace) is a great help. Also, the "nearby" stores quickly become a pain to drive to, and you can usually expect high prices, poor selection, absolutely nothing "exotic," and winter produce. I buy most of my stuff in bulk in the city, cook in bulk, and load up the freezer so we are not dependent on the awful supermarkets in the area.

You will also want to be a person who enjoys mail-ordering most of their things, from clothing to shampoo to bed linens to groceries. Thanks in part to Walmart there is often simply nowhere nearby that sells decent versions of things.

Take careful note of the neighbours. Small communities come in many different flavours, and not all thrill to newcomers. If it is an older and more well-established area, you can expect to be The New Person just about forever -- everyone else went to school together, have relatives in common, and in a crowd where everyone has been acquainted with each other since kindergarten, and you are an outsider, and someone who might pull up stakes and buzz off at any moment (and not return home for holidays), you will not be high on the list of people to be trusted. People will probably be quite nice to you, but you will never quite be one of them. Some small communities are lovely little enclaves of artsy types; some are terrifying holes with an alarming amount of substance abuse and very petty but very frequent crime. Most are somewhere in between, but it takes a good knowledge of the area and some careful research to make sure you don't end up stuck in the latter.

Be prepared for a lot of scut work. A storm in the city is pleasant to watch. A storm in the country means a symphony of chainsaws buzzing afterwards to deal with all the fallen trees. (Note that there is often a lot of communal work: if you have and can use a chain saw, you go out and use it, even if it isn't your tree that came down. You will need help with something else before long, and it will generally be available. $ changing hands is rare; when people have really gone above and beyond they are paid in the local currency, beer.) Maple trees are weeds and you need to go around yanking them out before they get too big to pull up easily. Raccoons will eat anything, your house included. Mice will get in, somehow. The bugs -- dear lord, the damned bugs. (Screened gazebos are a common sight.)

I am not sure I would be able to deal with a tiny house in the country, at least not without a decent outbuilding. You need tools you don't need in the city -- tree pruners on extension poles, gizmos like that -- a place for your water treatment whatnot -- somewhere to stash the XC skis and the canoe because you will need things to do -- way more spices because it is school yourself on some ethnic cuisines or never eat those foods again unless you want a long drive to and from the nearest city. I have a biggish house, and I like this because I can have city friends out for the weekend. Only a few friends dig country rambles in their car, so I generally see people for a couple of days at a time, either on their sofa, or in a guest room/on the sofa/in the sunroom here. Do consider your loved ones and how they will manage to visit you -- I can easily pack a second family in here, but there isn't much room for dinner parties, drinking, a dozen-person sleepover (admittedly some were kids and simply took over the living room floor and my kid's bedroom floor) with endless pancakes the next morning, lots of walks around the area to explore, and Trivial Pursuit the next night, and so on. I think, if I was set on a tiny house, I would want not only an outbuilding for storage, but an old but serviceable trailer behind the house to put guests in overnight. (Note that you can not have people over for drinks and see them off in a cab out in the boonies -- it's either soft drinks or you cough up a spare sleeping surface.)

This sounds a bit dismal; sorry -- obviously I live where I do because I like it (most of the time!)... But it is a huge adjustment.

One book recommendation: Charles Long's "Life After the City." It brings up a number of points that helped me make the decision to make the move. For example: I lived a few blocks from the National Arts Centre. Nice! But, I go there about four times a year. Is it really worth the extra housing costs to spare yourself a 4x/year drive? Hmm! Things like that.
posted by kmennie at 1:56 AM on September 19, 2017 [30 favorites]

I'd try renting a cottage for a full month in mid-winter and a full month in black fly season, just to see if country living is a good fit for you?
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:07 AM on September 19, 2017 [12 favorites]

My grandmother lived outside of Yosemite. We had a freak late spring snowstorm once while housesitting and were snowed in for several days. Very grateful for:
A covered place to have parked the car (we didn't have to dig it out, car protected)
That the driveway wasn't any steeper!
Wood heat (and lots of wood)
Gas stove
Well stocked fridge/pantry

Wish we'd had:
Generator or something for better light after nightfall
Composting toilet

They had a well with an electric pump; we did end up melting snow. Losing power in summer for any reason would have been an issue and they kept jugs of water around just in case (figuring if they needed more in summer they could get to town).

Keep your pantry along internal walls - their neighbors were seasonal residents and their pantry was along an external wall and bears tore in through the wall one winter to eat... lefterover pancake mix, PB, maple syrup. All unopened. This was a fully insulated full size house.

They also had a gun. I am very anti-gun but they've had bears on the deck and aside from the pantry incident another neighbor had bears climb in an open window. They also had a resident mountain lion. In hindsight, I'm glad we had it (and that I'd shot one before) if nothing else to make a very loud threatening noise.

All that aside, I loved going up to my grandmother's! It was like glamping.
posted by jrobin276 at 4:24 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

First, I'm a city kid through and through, and have no idea what it's like to live away from a city.

If you're going to spend the time and money to build a house in the middle of nowhere, it seems prudent to take a month and rent something similar to what you're imagining and see what life is like. Through the Okanagan (particularly around Nelson which will give you the rustic but close to a small town vibe) there are a ton of little houses and cabins like this and renting one should be very doable and reasonably cheap.

My instinct - if you think you can get a building permit on land you don't even own yet and don't actually know the terminology for how waste is dealt with outside of a sewer system, you need to spend a lot more time thinking about this. Most people I know who are living partially off the grid spend a LOT of time and energy making it work and there are dozens of rudimentary skills you will need to enjoy living this way.
posted by notorious medium at 6:20 AM on September 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

If you aren't very familiar with the area I would do a lot of research (like over a couple of years) about local politics, future land use, natural disaster risks, and trends in real estate. Have a look at things like population trends (if residents are leaving the area, find out why and judge if it will impact your property taxes in a few years). Look at road conditions, can the municipality even afford to maintain their roads? Are there local cranks that make life difficult? Neighbours who may who may oppose you building *anything* on your own land? Some people are weirdly possessive of land they don't legally own - especially if it impacts their view/quiet/hunting/"property values" etc. You will need to tie into the local community, is there a way for you to do that or is everyone's interests diametrically opposed to yours? If you need to get a building permit you should swing by the Town Hall/Civic Centre to see what the process is like (and keep in mind things can change and buildings built NOW can be grandfathered in but a new building ten years down the line may have some restrictions you aren't anticipating).

You may not need to go out as far as you think (and land prices aren't really proportionally cheaper the further out you go, oddly enough). I was originally looking at moving three or four hours away from Toronto. I ended up only an hour and a half away, which is really the perfect distance for me. I specifically bought land surrounded by thousands of acres of Crown Land, and protected by various legislation (part of my property is wetland, it is in the green belt, and the local municipality has a master plan limiting new residents to 100 people over the next 50 years). I can see the Milky Way and it is quiet, but at the same time I can get to a big box shop in an hour. If you are considering just outside the GTA, look at the future GO plans and buy where it ISN'T going. The land will be cheaper and you won't have development breathing down your neck.

There are a few airbnbs with tiny houses - you may want to try before committing. I lived with five people in less than 1000 square feet and it was fine, but it did limit things like guests or large hobbies. It can certainly be romanticised as a lifestyle.

The costs are probably higher than you expect for digging a well, installing a septic bed etc, and bringing the hydro from the property line is expensive. However you are correct in that the only yearly carrying costs of vacant property is (usually low) annual property tax and what you spend on insurance/maintenance/building.
posted by saucysault at 6:26 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind that solar in BC will be challenging as we just dont get a lot of sunlight in the winter months. In the winter in the Vancouver area the sun's only up for 8 hours a day, and will get closer to 0 hours the further north you go. Plus, depending on where in BC, there's a lot of cloudy/rainy days. Ontario is probably the same.

Sewer and wells are a thing in BC. My parents live in a suburban area (45 min from Vancouver) and still have a septic tank due to some weirdness in their community's infrastructure. They also had a well up until 20-25 years ago.
posted by cgg at 7:29 AM on September 19, 2017

When you consider buying land, find out if it has been surveyed for septic; it will usually be in the description if that's been done. I live in an area that has city water, but we have to have a septic tank and leach field. The septic system requires electricity to run a pump.

If I wanted to buy land in areas that are less awful for global climate change, I wouldn't dawdle. As people recognize what's going on, they're buying land and making plans. Use craigslist (that's where I found my house), and local realtors in addition to the big websites.

Solar costs are coming down and the technology is advancing. I would not buy solar until it's needed, as every year, you get more solar for the same amount. I have a small lot, small house. I do fine in power outages with the wood stove for heat, gas stove for cooking, oil lamps for reading, battery operated radio, solar charger for the phone, solar panel and battery that usually lives in the camper for more electricity. I can run lights, charge laptop, run septic pump daily, but not run refrigerator, A/C or anything that has a medium - high draw. It's a few years old and I could buy twice as much capacity for the same cost now. I don't have solar panels mounted on the house, but I keep considering it. Unfortunately, the house was not placed on the lot in a way that would make panels easy.

The worst thing about power outages for me is that all my neighbors have generators, so there's a beautiful deep snow, stillness, and then the power goes and the gennies fire up.
posted by theora55 at 7:45 AM on September 19, 2017

Plus, depending on where in BC, there's a lot of cloudy/rainy days. Ontario is probably the same.

Depends on where in Ontario. Northern Ontario might be more feasible as they get more sunlight. I find we don't get enough here in my part of Southern Ontario. There's more land up North of course as well. Or Manitoba - they get loads of sun and land is still cheapish.

I'll say this though you should really try living in a small remote town for a bit before you jump in. The BC interior like Nelson or Penticton or Northern Ontario either near Thunder Bay or Sudbury or maybe Bruce county in Southern Ontario which is still reasonably priced. Personally, I'd try to establish yourself within a community, developing ties there before you build something. It helps if you like to do group activities - maybe play in a curling or broomball league. Stuff like that makes it much easier to live in a small town. This is coming from someone who has lived in small remote communities and has had middle aged cousins move back to the small towns they grew up from places like Toronto and Montreal. I've found city people can romanticise small town life a bit too much. Things you take for granted in the city can be bumpier in the Bush - like consistent Internet or the cost of food (can be much higher in remote communities) or limited variety of available foods or dealing with wildlife (insects, bears, moose, etc.) or poor medical services or social intolerance. Unless you have deep pockets the remoteness can also make it difficult to get building supplies and quality builders.

My wife worked with a couple from Toronto who bought a pretty plot of land "north of Sudbury" on a lake to build a bunker to protect themselves from "nuclear war/climate change/zombie apocalypse" (they actually said this to her). They were well off tech people from Toronto and could work from home. The biggest problem they experienced was loneliness. They were surprised that none of their friends wanted to travel 8 hours into the remote Bush to "hang out" and being out in the Bush made it hard to connect with anyone in the small towns close to them. Being weirdo city folk likely didn't help either.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:20 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

As mentioned above, the cost of solar is slowly dropping every year. But the cost of energy storage (batteries) is dropping as well, faster, and is right on the cusp of becoming a Really Big Deal (like electric cars have over the past seven years). That is going to solve 99% of your electricity problem; the other 1% you either suffer through (several days in a row of no sun) or you get a generator for that 1% scenario. This part is easy and you're far from the first to do it. Subscribe to Home Power magazine.
posted by intermod at 12:09 PM on September 19, 2017

The recommendation I've always heard is to not buy a retirement property until you are within five years of retirement. You could change your mind, or have a change in your health.

Speaking of which, be sure to investigate your health insurance options if you are not a Canadian citizen.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:10 PM on September 19, 2017

Response by poster: Hey all!
Thank you very much for your insight. I never thought of spending time renting a place out there. It's a brilliant idea and I will have to arrange for some time off to experience that.

I googled blackfly season and it feels quite icky! Still, this is something I will continue to look at though - while I can afford a mortgage, the opportunity cost and amount of debt is a bit too much for me stomach. The social aspects are very interesting as well and bears further looking at.

Thanks - I have lots more to research now :) Cheers!
posted by TrinsicWS at 3:31 PM on September 19, 2017

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