Going to green Carolina to build a green home for our would-be green family
May 28, 2007 2:03 PM   Subscribe

For three years, I've been encouraging my family to think about relocating from our home in Miami to a community that is less dependent upon automobiles and other oil-enabled ways of life. I sold them on Asheville, North Carolina, and on the idea of building a green (or close to it) home. We're going up there in three weeks to look around and get a better feel, and I want this plan to be well-considered! Help me think through the important elements of a successful home-relocation scouting trip, to Asheville specifically or just in general, as well as the larger questions involved.

Asheville might be the only place in the country I could have sold my family on - for their considerations, there's lots of Jews there, appealing climate, and it has a great reputation for retirement. For my considerations (peak-oil-aware, climate change-aware), it's far from the seaboard, appears to have community-sustained agriculture and some elements of a culture of sustainability.

The first part of this question is: how can I help plan this trip to give us the best sense of the place? Aside from finding a real estate broker, what makes a new-home-scouting-outing effective? We're aware that Asheville is no longer a snug town and that property values have gone way up as others have had our very same idea - so we're not just going to look at the city itself, but to get a sense of the surrounding environs.

Some more info about us: My parents are in their 50s/early 60s, father's a lawyer and mom is a school teacher, and my siblings (2) and I are in our late teens to mid twenties. We are well-off, though shy of wealthy. We'd like to make the move with our aunt and uncle (late 40s, with two kids, 9 and 17) who are all sold on the idea, though less well-off. They'd like to be near a good school for their young son. Both sets of parents would want a good synagogue nearby. As I write all this down, the shape of our checklist comes into focus... I guess I know what the obvious needs are, but since I've never planned this sort of major move before, I'm surely missing some crucial but less obvious variables that should be considered. Help me identify them!

As for what we're looking for: we'd like to find 5 to 10 acres that we can build several housing units on, so that we're living together but not on top of each other. We're looking for more land, less house, so that we can build from scratch. I expect that the building of the home we'd like would take five years or more, and we might look for more temporary housing in the meantime. I'm also increasingly aware that this might just be re-dressing our former suburban lifestyle in an illusory cloak of sustainability, so I'm also encouraging the family to keep an eye out for sustainable urban infrastructure as an alternative to the "country living" dream.

My parents appear to be willing to buy property if they find the right deal, although there probably wouldn't be any actual moving happening within the next four years. Still I'm psyched that they're taking this seriously and willing to plan so far in advance - but I'm also nervous because I'm taking such a large role in shaping their retirement and the whole family's future.

So this question has two parts: one, what should we be thinking about in general as we go to look for a new home in this preliminary stage, and two, do you know anything about Asheville and the surrounding environment that might be helpful for us to keep in mind?
Okay, a third part to the question: any advice for me, as I take such an active hand in shaping my family's future (and feel rather nervous at that prospect)?
posted by greggish to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's your life, so use whatever rationale you want to make the move, but if you're doing this for the environment, apartment-dwellers in NYC have a heck of a lot less of a carbon footprint than someone on ten acres in Asheville. More Jews, too.
posted by commander_cool at 2:21 PM on May 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

What commander_cool said. But if you really want to build, it's "greener" not to build on virgin land, but to rebuild existing homes (and reuse as much as possible from existing structures). You also want to look for land with a southern exposure in order to take advantage of passive solar energy (and active, if you choose to go that route). I understand the desire/need to not live too close together, but separate structures require more resources to build, more energy to heat and cool, and take up a much larger footprint. If you can see your way to building structures very close together (as zoning dictates) you'll at least be paving a lot less earth in terms of driveways and walkways. I know this isn't answering your specific questions, but it's stuff you need to make decisions about before talking to a real estate agent. BTW: building green is a great resource with sections on land use, siting, and materials. Well worth checking out. (I mention all this because I think your ideas about being less fuel dependent and environmentally conscious are great, I hope you can really make it happen.)
posted by oneirodynia at 2:44 PM on May 28, 2007

For retirement, consider likely physical changes as your parents age.

For example, if you're in a smallish town where you can walk to shops etc, you can retain your mobility and social contacts even if you can't drive. If you're out in the country, or in a suburban environment built to rely on cars, you are more likely to be physically and socially isolated, or to try to keep driving even once it's not safe. A house with a lot of land also means more maintenance work (eg mowing, raking, shoveling). As others pointed out, it can also be more eco-friendly to live in a walkable town with closely-spaced housing than 5 miles outside of town in a visually greener area.

When thinking about the house itself, think about modifications for wheelchair access. It's easier to build a wheelchair-accessible house than to find one ready-made in the housing stock, but existing houses can also be modified if you buy with an eye to it. (Eg a house with one bedroom on the first floor is a good bet for a retirement house) Your parents may be too young to think about this now, but it's something to think about if they really are looking to buy a place to last them 25+ years.

(Also, here's a possibly useful previous thread about Asheville.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:12 PM on May 28, 2007

You can't really get greener than being a car-less apartment dweller, especially because all the money you would have spent on owning a car could go to other things, like supporting local farms or funding organizations who do important environmental work.

You also might want to check out earthships.
posted by mdonley at 3:21 PM on May 28, 2007

Well, it would make a change from Floridians moving into gated communities carved out of hillsides. Or summering in Blowing Rock.

The issue you'll face is that the further you get out of Asheville in search of land (certainly outside the 15-mile I-40 / US-70 corridor to Black Mountain) the further you get from 'Asheville' and all that entails. Put bluntly, it goes from hipsters and hippies to redneck very quickly.

If you're planning a mass move, you might be better off looking for relatively closely grouped houses in north Asheville -- within walking distance or a bus hop of the three synagogues, as well as downtown -- with an eye on fixing them up. Lots of solid early 20th-c stock, and it's not all priced ridiculously. But otherwise, I don't know if the sustainability circle can be squared.
posted by holgate at 3:24 PM on May 28, 2007

Best answer: Well you have a couple of factors that will make it very hard to find exactly what you are looking for in Asheville. I would suggest Fairview, which is a community south east of downtown Asheville where large lots are available and there is a decent high school (Reynolds). But as far as I know there is no synagogue there and you would have to drive into Asheville proper to attend services and that, if traffic is good (which it rarely is) would still take a 20 minute drive. Any closer to town and you will have a hard time finding even an acre lot for less than $500,000. Any other outer-lying areas will not give you good schools (except for maybe the Enka-Chandler area, but those schools have very little diversity). You say you are well-off, but your parents are going to have to pay out the ass to get that much land AND build green AND have good schools AND be close to town AND find diversity.

When checking out Asheville, it's great to explore downtown and all the artsy-fartsy lite stuff that is attracting all the retirees, but keep in mind that they are not going to be able to live anywhere near the fun unless they have millions upon millions. They will spend half their day driving an hour round trip, and that's if they aren't stuck in traffic for an hour on top of it.

I admire your enthusiasm, but you should really talk to a real-estate agent first thing when you get there because you might fall in love with Asheville and then realize that it is an unaffordable dream. Beverly-Hanks is usually the upper-level realty that the monied folks tend to talk to, if I remember correctly.

Good luck. Your parents sound nice. If they make it to Asheville, I'll hook your parents up with my parents. My mom used to live in Miami, and was a high school teacher in Asheville and now runs the Asheville Symphony Guild and flits around town in a very social retiree circle.
posted by greta simone at 3:43 PM on May 28, 2007

To echo what others have said, if you want to live green and lighten your footprint on the planet, you really should live somewhere where you can walk to get your essential needs met, e.g. food, recreation, friends, etc. Your plan to find ten acres and build on it sounds like it would lead to a car trip whenever you want to do anything beyond the family compound.

As far as increasing the chances of a successful scout of Asheville (or any other locale): maybe you should go there first by yourself to check things out. I considered moving to Asheville around 1996, get myself all psyched for it from a distance, and then went and visited and discovered that there really wasn't any reason for me to relocate to there from my current residence. I'm glad I learned that lesson by myself rather than with a half dozen other people who I'd talked into it.
posted by alms at 6:00 PM on May 28, 2007

Best answer: My husband and I renovated an old house within three blocks of downtown Asheville, on Montford Avenue. Both of us walked to work, and we shared a Honda Insight hybrid for car trips. We used very little fuel because we walked everywhere.

If you are serious about being "green," I suggest you purchase a home within walking distance of downtown. But bring your trust fund. We bought our house in 2000 for $225,000 and we sold it in 2005 for $500,000. I've heard it's on the market again now for $800,000.

Building a new house on ten acres outside of the city limits is most certainly not "green." (You won't be able to build inside of the city limits because there are very few buildable lots left and none of them are affordable.) Buncombe County has an out-of-control sprawl problem caused by people developing the very type of housing you are considering.

A couple other thoughts for you: first, Asheville and surrounds have very little in the way of agriculture. Most of the produce at the WNC Farmer's Market, for example, is trucked in from South Carolina. Second, the schools outside of the city limits are dismal. Asheville High School, located inside the city, is, in contrast, an excellent school with loads of engaging programs for interested minds.

That's my two cents. Live within walking distance of downtown. Anything else contributes to the sprawl that is destroying the place. Although my husband had lived in Asheville for forty years, we moved in large part to escape the sprawl. We made it out just in time, too. The Department of Transportation was about ready to build their eight-lane highway through town when we left.
posted by kellygreen at 6:25 PM on May 28, 2007

You might consider Cumberland, Maryland. I don't know that much about it, but an acquaintance insists that it's having a renaissance. Like Asheville, it's an older town in the mountains, but I think it's less well-developed. It does have a temple (I realize that's not the same as "a good synagogue", but I don't know that much about the Jewish scene -- there could be more that my Googling didn't uncover).
posted by amtho at 6:29 PM on May 28, 2007

Good luck finding a great place there. I initially wrote a huge response to your post, and will share it with you in private, as it's a tad blunt. (Email in profile if you are feeling brave.)

I lived there a long time, and to be gentle, I think it needs a lot of things, but one of them is not a new pile of Floridians.

Hendersonville and/or Madison County (north of Asheville) are more appropriate for enclaves and retirees. Real estate is cheaper, too, in both. Asheville is great for retirees, too, but it's getting distorted and overwhelmed with them. Travel is a constant issue.

If you do go, please do the area a kindness. Live lightly. Be nice to locals. Don't behave like you are from Florida or something! Use your goddamned turn signals and sell the Escalade. Convince your friends to stay wherever they are. Buy local, plant local, leave the trees on your lot, walk. Vote progressive. Tip well. Be nice to the waiters because most of them are probably more educated than you!

Good luck. Asheville is really the only place to live in NC, and it is ruining fast. Even ruined, it's better than anything east of the escarpment (i.e., Black Mountain).

(And incidentally, you might want to consider Chattanooga, TN. A lot of people overlook it, but it has a lot in common with Asheville 15 years ago or so, IMO.)
posted by FauxScot at 6:47 PM on May 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

If this is a retirement home for your parents, assess how well they can get around when they reach the point that they can't drive anymore. A grocery store in easy walking distance plus access to the bus line is real advantage as well as fitting with your green values. Also, check quality and distance to medical care. (If one parent is hosptialized, how easy will be for the other to visit?)
posted by metahawk at 7:20 PM on May 28, 2007

I grew up in Asheville. Love it, love it, love it. However, I don't see how you can live there green unless you can find a place downtown where you can walk or bike everywhere. Otherwise.... you are going to need a car. It's a gorgeous but sprawling area.

FauxScot--amen to the plug for Chatty. Another great town, and quite possibly has more economical options than Asheville does for green living.
posted by torticat at 9:34 PM on May 28, 2007

I agree with commander_cool.
I'm an Asheville native and a 6-year NYC resident; living green (and Jewish) is definitely easier in NYC.
Besides beautiful nature, 20-somethings in dreadlocks, a few organic grocery stores, and vegan restaurants full of "credit-card hippies," there's not much green left to good ol' A-town.
I can think of worse places to end up, but you will need plenty of gas to get from the recycling drop-off to the farmer's market.
posted by whoiam at 10:28 PM on May 28, 2007

Response by poster: Many of these are great responses, helping me to clarify my thinking. Like I said, I'm aware that our current notion of what we want is really a matter of trading one suburban lifestyle for another one that just has more shades of green ... but lifestyle change of any sort is not easy to push upon people, and I'm hoping to just plant some good seeds at the moment.

The thing is, commander_cool's assumption is not quite right: I'm interested in reducing *our* carbon footprint, but primarily I'm interested preparing to live in a world where things are about to change because of humanity's carbon footprint/energy consumption. One follows the other, but in different order you see.

Now, the question of whether Asheville is a victim of the same exact sprawl problem as Miami, on a different scale, is one I hadn't really considered. Thanks to everyone for giving me a start on it.
posted by greggish at 3:13 AM on May 29, 2007

I live here in Asheville and I'm going to second what everyone else is saying, particularly FauxScot. Asheville's going down fast. Property values and rents have skyrocketed; salaries are stagnant. Asheville now boasts the highest cost of living and the lowest wages in the state of NC, so if you're planning to live here too, you might want to take that into consideration. I don't know where all the people who are moving here (something like 300 - 400 a month) are coming from or how they support themselves, but the town is growing way too fast and it's almost purely a service economy.

Meanwhile, the mountainsides are being denuded by early retiree baby boomer Floridians building massive "green" homes - hint: if it's on top of a mountain, on stilts and 2000 square feet, I don't give a flying whatever that the wood you're using is low impact or your hot water heater is solar. You're fucking up the environment in very serious ways. So please don't plan to come here and build more. It's not helping.

From your most recent comment, you seem to be thinking about where to live after the world ends. Asheville or any mountain town is maybe not your best bets for that - it's very difficult to grow all your own food here. There's a reason the Appalachians are historically dirt poor; mountain soil does not lend itself to serious agriculture. This area would still be hardscrabble if it wasn't for tourism and if the world ends, the tourists might stop showing up along with the trucks that bring in the produce from South Carolina.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:25 AM on May 29, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'm interested preparing to live in a world where things are about to change because of humanity's carbon footprint/energy consumption.

The world's not going to change that much, and to the extent you think it is, better to invest in equities well prepared to profit from the way you think the world is going to change, and use those profits to move later, than to spend the money now trying to guess which suburban area will have resisted sprawl thirty years from now. Judging by the other posters' comments, esp. kellygreen, it sounds like you're already ten years too late to pick Asheville.

(That said, it makes sense for property-owners to get out of Florida sooner, rather than later, since real-estate values are artificially inflated by underfunded government subsidies on hurricane insurance, and that's a tax disaster waiting to happen.)
posted by commander_cool at 7:48 AM on May 29, 2007

primarily I'm interested preparing to live in a world where things are about to change because of humanity's carbon footprint/energy consumption.

You're looking for a Kunstler-friendly town, as it were? Asheville ain't it, and it never has been. It's too dependent upon external inputs, and the local economy is heavily skewed towards serving those needs.
posted by holgate at 10:22 AM on May 29, 2007

Response by poster: I probably fall in the middle of the large gap between Kunstler and commander_cool: the world's going to change dramatically, but I'm not actually anticipating that it will end. mygothlaundry, there's a big difference! Convincing my family of that was the first step toward getting them to think semi-seriously about the future. I mean, Kunstler might be right to an extent, but I can't prepare my family or even myself for worst case scenarios. I'm just trying to find a place that's better primed to adapt.

In the meantime, I'm glad to read the responses in this thread, but I have heard very different things about Asheville from other green NC denizens. I'm not sure it's a yes or no proposition. Clearly I need to do a lot more work on answering this question, or rather figuring out the right ones I have to ask.
posted by greggish at 11:50 AM on May 29, 2007

That lengthy response is a bit rose-tinted, I think. What it doesn't mention is the number of people who are stuck with long commutes either to or from work, or the people who are overqualified for their jobs, or the fact that the job market is so heavily tilted towards the service sector, particularly medical services for the retiree population.

Consider the things that turned Asheville into a boom town: the railroad, piles of Vanderbilt cash, spa and inn retreats. That capacity to suck in wealth still keeps the place going.

So I'd lean towards 'ten years too late': people who were around for the revival of downtown are now bemoaning gentrification and sprawl. Long-term fixtures in the downtown area have disappeared in the past couple of years. The people driving 1980s Mercs that run on biodiesel are generally long-established residents with housing equity, and it's not easy for new arrivals to get a foot on the ladder.

This isn't to knock the people in Earthaven or the tailgate markets or the co-ops, but I've never got the sense that those enclaves of sustainability are actually self-sustaining. They all rely at least to some extent on the wealth of people outside those communities.

Anyway, you'll be visiting soon enough. As long as you resist the temptations offered to tourists in high season, you'll get a sense of the place.
posted by holgate at 1:25 PM on May 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not to derail, but holgate, what long-term fixtures downtown have recently disappeared?

I last lived in Avl 13 years ago (my parents are still there though)--so I'm curious.
posted by torticat at 7:11 PM on May 29, 2007

Off the top of my head: Vincent's Ear (late 2004, the canary in the coalmine for Lexington's gentrification); Beanstreets; M'Press; Blue Moon Bakery... T.S. Morrison's shut up shop; Bonnie's had to move; Old Europe moved, upscaled and lost its charm. And so on.
posted by holgate at 8:13 PM on May 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm sorry to sound so bitter. I've been here for seven years and just got gentrified right out of my rental house in West Asheville, so I'm probably not the right person to ask about upscale moves to the Asheville area. Rents here have tripled in the last seven years but I'm not making any more money than I was then. So.

Holgate is right about long commutes and service sector jobs. Yes, Asheville is very green-friendly; yes, there are people working hard on sustainability issues here; yes, you can't shake an alternative healer without hitting a banjo player and yes, the weather is great, the scenery is amazing, the people are nice. Unfortunately, while it's a nice place to live, it can be a very difficult place to actually earn a living. Some amazing amount like 75% of the wealth in Buncombe County is actually coming from other places - retirement income, trustafarians, etc. And you can add Sky People, the Salvation Army on Rankin Street and, in West Asheville, Eddy the mechanic on Haywood Road (soon to be a garage theme bar!) and any number of small galleries to holgate's list of closings. Not to mention that they turned the Interstate Motel into tiny condos for wealthy people who don't mind living by the interstate.

However, you might want to consider EarthHaven - here's a recent lengthy article about them and it mentions the self-sustaining issues but it does sound like the kind of community you're looking for, with the added benefit of already existing, so you're not building up on the slopes.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:13 AM on May 30, 2007

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