Know it All? A Practical Homestead Primer

One thing we didn't do when we started our homestead adventure was to seek out a mentor family to help us with questions and advice. If we had to do it again, I suppose that would be high up on the list. For us, our journey started with a single 4x4 square foot garden in heavy shade where we tried to grow tomatoes of all things. It was the shade that did us in.

Our gardening evolved into learning about our property and what plants would be best to grow with out conditions. Then, we moved onto a small flock of six egg-laying chickens and our ideas began to come together. Our lessons were small and one at a time, and that works for us. Today, we're going to attempt a general primer on homesteading, complete with some of the lessons we learned along the way.



A Practical Homestead Primer


The single most important piece of advice we can give, in our opinion, is not to be in a rush. That applies to everything from finding a homestead property to introducing new plants and animals into your spread. Each element of a homestead is a puzzle piece, fitting in exactly into the environment being shaped. Our search for property took us three years, and it was a chance encounter with our mailman that made it a reality. The deal was a handshake and a visit to a title company for the legalities, but in the end he offered a reasonable price and we accepted.

At the end of Spring, we will have been on our spread for a full year. To date, we have laid out the garden, built up the chicken coop, introduced meat birds to the flock, built our bee hives and cleared out the weeds along the lakeshore. We were able to do some grading on our driveway and spent a good deal of time really getting to know our neighbors who quickly accepted us into the community. In the house, we made performed some home improvement, mostly for storage, in the form of a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, some open shelving in the kitchen for plates and built a corner curio cabinet for decorative kitchen odds-and-ends.

Winter found us hunkered down to an extent, and that was spent planning for the growing season. We sourced plants and fruit trees from our local independent nursery, cross referencing with the Whole Seed Catalogue, made lists of additional home improvement projects and worked on fine-tuning the wood shop and home office. Even with snow on the ground, work around the homestead never comes to a stop.


What is a Homestead?


So, what is a homestead? From a legal aspect, homesteading your home, therefore making it a homesteads, means taking advantage of a homestead exemption. The exemption allows a homeowner to protect the value of the property and residence from unsecured creditors and property taxes. This also allows for a surviving spouse protection when their other half dies. This definitions dry and overly complicated, so when the term arises, most are referring to the attributes of their home and that connection to the original Homestead Act of 1862.

The original Homestead Act was a visionary program offered buy the US government to entice settlers in expanding to the West. Claimants were given 160 acres with a few caveats, and allowed to make their own way in the world, free of debt and reliance on commercial society. Homesteaders chose land that would support their families with good soil and pasture land for livestock, essentially creating thousands of independent communities. Today's homesteads have different connotations, based on the landowners themselves, but the basic principle is living a life free of society's consumer trappings. Or, at least as much as possible in a relative sense.

For our family, homesteading means living a debt-free life, with no mortgage, no credit card payments and producing as much food as we can to sustain ourselves. For others, it means living completely isolated lives away from society. Others take it down a notch and homestead in cities and towns with relative levels of reduced consumerism and food production, such as on balcony gardens and the like. The goal is to remove yourself from the debt/credit cycle, where what you earn and produce is yours, not produced for the profit of someone else. That is the goal, at least.


Homestead Act


As noted above, the Homestead Act of 1862 was drafted to encourage westward expansion of settlers. All claimants were afforded 160 acres with he understanding they would cultivate it, build homes and infrastructure and generally tame the land. As with many government programs, however, there were flaws in this seemingly poetic law. Often times, the regions that were parceled off were not ideal farming plots and the 160 acres would not be enough to grow enough food for a family. The law also had not checks or balances either, allowing anyone to apply. many dreamers headed west with high hopes only to fail because they had no idea of how to survive or even farm in such an environment.

Later homesteading bills were introduced on state-level ballots to promote expansion. These included additional protections against creditors and homesteading rights, subsidies and various benefits to entice potential applicants.


Homestead Real Estate


In these times, it would be important to fully-explain to your agent exactly what you mean when you tell them you are looking for homestead real estate. In many western states their are companies that specialize in matching buyers and sellers in a homesteading fashion, but it is unlikely that your local Century 21 office has an expert on hand to assist you. If you decide to use a specialty agency, just be aware that plenty of real estate firms use the term Homestead in their name not because it;'s what they Dom, but because it sounds homey from a marketing perspective. Try looking at agencies that specialize in farming and rural areas. When speaking about what you are looking for, use basic descriptions to let them know what you're preferences are. At a minimum you should be looking at 1 acre, which was what we did, though 2 would have been nice.

If being off the grid is your thing, do your research on any town ordinances that might be a complication concerning solar panels, geothermal collection or wind power. You might love the idea of generating your own energy, but your new neighbors might have other ideas. Make sure your water is good and not too far below the surface. Our well is 650 feet deep, not because the aquifer is so far away, but to place it below the frost line. Make sure your plans for livestock match the town's laws for raising animals, not only for breeds but also for quantity. Do all of this before making an offer on the property. You might just save yourself the heartache of discovering you have limited rights on what you can do on your own homestead real estate parcel.

Homestead Insurance


Honesty, there's nothing complicated about homestead insurance. For us, our policies have been with the same company for years, and swapping out our urban farm coverage for the new homestead was as simple as picking up the phone. The key to adequate coverage is to let your agent know what you have that needs coverage. For us, it was not only the house, but also the wood shop, the detached steel garage, the tractor and the solar system.

Just about any insurance company can cover your needs, but if you are starting from scratch, try searching for homestead insurance specialists at traditional agriculture insurance agencies. For us, we always find that asking a trusted neighbor for recommendations provides good results. These days, we are big on the coverage bundle, and sticking with the same company all these years has significantly reduced our rates. Granted, we haven't made any claims so they still like us, but on the day we have to call in the distant future I am confident that all of our issues will be dealt with properly. It's just a feeling I have.


Homestead Taxes


The great thing about our homestead taxes now is that by living in a small town we see the immediate effect of our tax bill. We fund the schools, maintain the roads and hire the town hall administrators. Not directly, of course, but the fruits of our labors are easily recognized. Our rates went down significantly as well, relatively, from our little quarter acre spread in the city. The bill comes twice a year, and if we don't want to waste a stamp, we can drive it down to town hall and slip it under the door. Simple as can be. 

I'll be honest, we used to be curmudgeons when it came to the tax bill because it didn't seem to do any good. Maybe it patched some holes here and there, but the schools were lousy, the roads were always torn up from frost heaves, pot holes and neglected curbs. If we wanted to talk withs someone it was an ordeal to make an appointment and have them hear us out. This move to the country was the best thing we've ever done and we can't imagine looking back. Now, we have a few options available to us to reduce our homestead taxes even further. On the municipal side, we can file for a rate reduction based on my military service. We can also file our property as a homestead properly to see a further reduction on the federal side. It's paperwork, and a lot of it, but we're looking into our options.

As always, we love to share our experiences from our off grid homestead, and really enjoy hearing from you. Whether you have questions or wish to comment on your own homestead real estate tips, please join the conversation below by using the comments section. And remember, spring is just around the corner!

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