The Greenhorn’s Guide to Homesteading: Planning Your Homestead

I have observed the modern homesteading movement from primarily the perspective of a planning consultant and builder. Much of my work has been assisting owner-builders who do not have the tools, equipment, time, or knowledge to construct one or more phases of their homestead. Helping people with their homesteading projects has been not only my bread-winning occupation but has also become a study of the movement itself. This study has been more than purely academic, for our family has implemented some homesteading practices on our own small place, and we are actively preparing to move to a more rural area to build a homestead from scratch. Most of what you will read below comes from direct contact with someone else’s homestead experience, which is not quite the same as blood, sweat, tears and money for my own place. But helping other people define, implement, and refine their homesteading projects has given me a broad base of experience from which to construct a framework of ideas on homesteading. In this article I intend to provide a planning template for the prospective homesteader.

The modern homesteading movement, as I see it, is not easily categorized demographically. It crosses religious, cultural, political, economic, and other commonly perceived “boundaries.” Common motivations among homesteading families include: encouraging family unity, often among three or more generations; debt reduction combined with lifestyle simplification; finding a greater level of self-sufficiency; escaping urban congestion; establishing moral or religious traditions and guidelines for family members; practicing animal husbandry and environmental stewardship. Naturally, the list of reasons to homestead is as varied as the families who homestead. Furthermore, the extent to which families want to implement practical homesteading is also manifold. Some are content with a larger pantry in their urban home, others want a half acre and a chicken house, while others strive for (and on) the largest piece of raw land they can handle. It is this last situation to which most of my remarks will be relevant.

In the spirit of late 19th century and early 20th century American homesteading, many modern homesteaders yearn for land. Often the first step in the homesteading process is procuring that perfect acreage. A few homesteaders will consider the purchase of land as merely one step in the overall homestead establishment. But for many, acquiring the home place is the most significant part of the experience. It serves as a morale booster, and also as the defining parameter for all later work.
This group retraces the steps of 1880s homesteaders with horses and wagons.
This group retraces the steps of 1880s homesteaders with horses and wagons. One lesson learned on these trips is to have patience—let your homestead take the time it takes to find land, gather livestock, etc. You can’t hurry the process.
 One lesson learned on these trips is to have patience - let your homestead take the time it takes to find land, gather livestock, etc. You can't hurry the process.

A friend and I were talking recently about the sustainability of small farms in the current economic climate. Most of the conversation centered around the use of horses as a means to reduce expenses, since both of us prefer horse power to horsepower. The discussion turned to the price of land, and the deterrent that $10,000 per acre (and up!) for land is to homesteading. Families who want to return to the land, whose vision for homesteading starts with bare ground, must first face the prospects of finding a place that is affordable. The conclusion my friend and I arrived at was that affordable land is more readily found where fewer people want to live.

Generally, the search for lower priced land is regulated by how many conveniences you are willing to give up. These conveniences may include the availability of urban amenities and public utilities, or access to work off of the home place. Most homesteaders are already willing to give up something in order to live where their dreams can take root. But if spending less money on more—or more usable—land is a priority, you would do well to cast a wide net when searching for land.

In our family’s experience, the affordable land turned up half a state away. Our priorities were 35 or more acres, irrigation water, agricultural setting, and priced less than $2,000 per acre. Several other less important criteria also influenced our selection. For example, we preferred not to be close to a major traffic route; to be adjacent to undeveloped private land or better yet public land; to be in an area where urban development is, by any reasonable estimate, several decades away. Within our county and neighboring counties, not one parcel met all the requirements. After years of searching, we finally found a parcel that more than met our needs, although some compromises were still necessary. We found it in the second least populated, but by area largest, county in our home state of Colorado.

I have come across some hard won lessons when buying land. In a nutshell, every problem I have encountered after purchasing a piece could have been solved by a few well-placed questions before buying. This article is not intended to offer legal advice on real estate transactions, but I would suggest that prospective homesteaders ask at a minimum the following questions before committing to purchase land:

1. Has a professional (licensed) survey been done of the parcel? Has it been legally recorded?

2. What is the legal access to the parcel?

3. Who, besides the owner of record, has any legal claim to any use of or access through the parcel?

If your plan for using the property will require public utilities, ask:

1. What public utilities are available, and where are they relative to property lines?

2. What cost is associated with bringing any specific utility to the property line? Who will be responsible for paying for extending any services? This should be asked directly to the utility company and if possible a representative of the company should physically visit the site as part of giving you the answer.

If no public utilities are available, or none desired, investigating the costs of other infrastructures prior to purchasing is worth the effort. This includes costs to build and maintain: water wells; sewage disposal systems; any perimeter fences; any access roads or driveways; any irrigation water and its conveyances. The list could be longer, depending on your specific situation. Be thorough. In most places in America, it is unfortunately no longer true that “you can do what you want with your own land.” Many practices that you perhaps assume to be a necessary part of homesteading might be restricted or prohibited by private covenants or government zoning and permits. A few proper questions early on could save time and money that later on you would like to put towards the homestead rather than costly surprises.

A view of the Miles' homestead before improvements.
A view of the Miles’ homestead before improvements.

The best advice I have ever heard on planning ahead efficiently came from a chess champion—”Checkmate is X moves away. Don’t move until you see it.” In this context, “checkmate” is the fully functioning homestead. That is different from the fully finished homestead, which never happens.

In 11 years of helping people with homesteading and building projects of many kinds, I have come across a few people who started and continued the process correctly. That is, they planned well and thoroughly, followed the plan, and adjusted conservatively when necessary. Many people, unfortunately, plan poorly and execute (no pun intended) the plan correspondingly. This of course is not intentional. No one, in my experience, has not had a plan, and no one has intentionally randomized the implementation of their plan.

The simple fact is that few people gather enough information before building their homestead. The most common shortfall is an inaccurate or incomplete financial budget. Other deficiencies in planning are usually related to the inefficient timing of different phases of the project. Either too many things are happening at once, or things are happening in the wrong sequence. If there is one common characteristic of do-it-yourself homesteaders it is that their tendency to be self-sufficient denies them the opportunity to ask enough questions about the parts of the process with which they have little or no experience. I know these people only too well, because my wife is married to one of them. King Solomon said that in a multitude of counselors there is wisdom. Make good use of other people’s useful and often free advice.

It is hard for many of us to think along the lines of starting smaller. But that is often the key to making your homestead a reality. Preparing an accurate budget really goes hand-in-hand with preparing a prioritized list for the different phases of establishing a homestead. We will go over each process separately, but realize that budgeting and prioritizing will often refine each other, and you may need to make adjustments as the homestead progresses.

Assuming you have already acquired suitable ground, the first step is to lay out a site plan. A hand-drawn sketch with correct proportions and linear footages is usually adequate. If you have a survey plat, use an extra copy of it to sketch on, since it should have all existing features and boundaries in correct proportions. Then you can easily add in all structures and improvements you want to see on the homestead. Include everything you can think of as being necessary, even if some of it may be years (decades?) from being built. This is a “master plan” for your homestead, so plan well.

The prioritized plan for developing and building your homestead should be laid out chronologically starting with the features or structures that will be the most useful for succeeding stages. Prepare a description of each improvement. This will include linear footages for surface features, square footages for structures, construction methods, materials needed, and a budget for each.

Planning the phases

Over the years I have found the following chronological plan to be useful in most homesteading endeavors.

1. Roads and driveways: At a minimum start with clearing vegetation and laying down a level road base that will withstand the weather and erosion extremes for the area. The finished surface can wait until damage from heavy equipment will not occur.

2. Electrical power: Even homesteads “off the grid” will have some sort of electrical devices eventually. Put in the power now that will be necessary to handle the needs for construction and temporary habitation, whether this be grid power, a remote generator, solar panels, wind or water wheels, or goat treadmills.

An exploratory walk on the land.
An exploratory walk on the land.

3. Water: This is the indispensable substance. It is conceivable that this should go in before or concurrent with power. Apart from its necessity for on site habitation, water is very useful for many construction phases. Live water in the form of springs, creeks, rivers, etc., may be able to supply all your needs. Fortunate indeed is the homesteader with a natural water source.

4. Sewage disposal: If you are able to live on-site, even part-time, you will greatly benefit from a system for proper sewage waste management. Even if the permanent setup is only an outhouse, installing it early is best.

5. Structures for storage, livestock, or workshops: The number and type of these structures will depend on your particular needs. These buildings generally are simple in design and easy to put in working order. Not every one shown on the site plan need necessarily be built at this stage. At a minimum you should have a building like a garage or barn in which weather sensitive materials or supplies can be stored during construction. And if your family is like mine, animal containment facilities will be needed from the start.

6. The family home: Often I see this step planned well in advance of everything else. There is nothing wrong with this, because a good plan is eventually necessary for the proper construction of your home. For the practical homesteader however, permanent living quarters should not be the first task at hand. I know this is somewhat contrary to the “American dream,” but then so are a lot of aspects of modern homesteading. Also, if you intend to do as much of the work yourself as is possible, saving the most complicated, and likely most expensive structure for last is certain to improve its quality.

While this list cannot be considered complete for all situations, following it will get the homestead functioning in as quick and efficient a manner as possible. Two things that need addressing that are not listed above are housing for aged or infirm family members and living quarters for you the homesteader through steps 1-5.

Permanent housing for family members who have special needs can certainly take precedence over other structures. Since one of the primary reasons for modern homesteading is making it easy to care for family members with unique needs, it may be necessary to quickly construct permanent housing for them. If your plans require that these quarters be part of your main home, then go ahead and build it at step 5. You will still need steps 1-4 to be functioning parts of the homestead first. In fact those first four steps will likely be even more critical in order to care for those family members who need comfortable housing as soon as possible.

If there is no immediate need for special housing, you still should address how you will stay out of the weather while your homestead is being established. You should decide early on whether living off-site or on-site in temporary quarters is the more suitable. In my experience, the least stressful and most efficient situation, even for a homesteader who hires out much of the work, is living on-site. Your choices for accommodations are limited only by your imagination and your constitution. The most common type of temporary housing I have seen is an RV. This is often a reasonable choice for the sake of timing, but not always a wise choice financially if you do not already own one, because you do not get something permanent on the place. A small apartment attached to or inside of a barn or garage is also a very economical choice, and perhaps the best use of your money because you are improving the homestead in the long run also. What about before the barn/garage is built? If I remember right, the Ingalls stayed in the wagon. Another possibility is the neighbor’s room above their barn, which is what worked for us.

Financial budgeting

The best way to tackle preparing a budget is to separate each phase into three categories: permits and fees; materials; contracted labor. Some of this information you may have already on hand from previous research, and now it just needs to be collated, but most likely legwork and phone time are going to be your best friends in gathering numbers.

Permits and fees are always the line items that have the least flexibility. Generally they must be paid at the beginning of any work they “authorize.” The due diligence performed as part of purchasing the real estate should have informed you about what work will need permits. Some fees are dependent on the type and scale of work planned, while other work is covered by a flat rate. For example, most residential structure fees are based on the square footage of the building, with other considerations such as the number of plumbing fixtures requiring additional fees. Essentially, the bigger the house is, the higher the fee. In many rural counties, agricultural buildings are permitted with a simple fee per structure, regardless of size. Ponds, wells, fences, and other necessary homestead features may also fall under a bureaucratic umbrella and require applications to be filled out and fees to be paid before construction. Often these fees are minor compared with the cost of the project, but they must be budgeted for and paid prior to any work being done.

It is very difficult to compile a comprehensive materials list and cost for any project bigger than a bread box. One of the best ways to know what is required to build something is to do it a dozen (or a thousand) times. Since most of us do not have that kind of experience, get the list from someone who does. If you are so inclined, use the Internet to find plans and lists for each improvement you intend to build. Spend time talking to local materials suppliers about what you are building. It may be that conditions exist that are peculiar to your area that require special materials, or maybe something can be deleted (!) from a standardized list.

The logs for the Miles' modern house came from the 'back 40.'
The logs for the Miles’ modern house came from the “back 40.”

While “package deals” from lumberyards are rarely complete in my experience, they can be a good starting place. If you plan on buying one, first ask to see a complete materials list and a detailed plan showing how all the pieces are being used. Always bear in mind that your expectations for the finished project will rarely, if ever, be shared by the materials supplier. Make room in your budget for the inevitable “Oh, I didn’t realize…” My experience has shown that a minimum of 10% of the total cost needs to be added for design changes and unavoidable material waste.

Regarding waste, or overrun as it is more politely known, it is not a bad idea to design your project to minimize waste. Trying to make maximum use of materials is fine, but should not be the goal of the project. For one thing, scrap piles are invaluable sources for new projects, so everybody needs one. Generally speaking, the bigger the project, the bigger the scrap pile. People have told me, when designing their homes particularly, that they want to dimension the house so that no cutting of lumber/siding/roofing/etc. needs to be done, in the name of efficiency. It is not unreasonable to choose some major material component’s dimensions as the guiding factor for the dimensions of your project, but that will just guarantee that something won’t work out for some other material. My advice is to design to fit your needs (or budget), use quality materials carefully, and then cherish the leftovers as the genesis of a new project.

Contracted labor means paying someone else with specialized tools or knowledge to come and work on your homestead. Remember that even Charles Ingalls got help when he needed it. (The very few people who can do absolutely everything themselves aren’t reading this anyway.) And be aware that I’m not suggesting that “contracted” always implies a monetary trade. In fact I would encourage bartering or some other means of exchange besides Federal Reserve Notes, which may not be worth the paper they are printed on anyway. Perhaps the best exchange is labor for labor, or just good old-fashioned neighborliness.

But in the event that you need to pay money to someone to work for you, rely as much as you can on the local network. Keep in mind the Biblical admonition to be as wise (or wary) as serpents, and as gentle as doves. Everyone wants a hired contractor to do three things: get the job done fast; do it for the lowest price; perform quality work. But you can generally only choose two. If the work is fast and cheap, it will look like it. If the work is fast and beautiful, it won’t be for the lowest price. A low price with quality work is rare these days, thanks to the breakneck pace of our culture, but that is what I prefer when hiring.

That leads me to the final point, and perhaps the most important one about homesteading: let it take the time it takes. This blends well with downsizing, by the way. Building your homestead might very well take the rest of your life, so try not to skip to the end. And if you don’t get every last field cleared, every last structure built, every last type of cheese made—so what. Enjoy what you do accomplish, and leave something for your kids to do. Homesteading is, at the heart, a generational experience. Pass on a vision for homesteading, and a homestead to go with it.