Here's another topic glossed over by the glossy shelter magazines, that like to focus on slate floors and redwood walls and granite countertops:
And everything else that can be classified as a bodily product of humans.
It's another thing that is easy to overlook when you are being romanced by photos of lovely country cabins, or straw-bale farmhouses, or rammed-earth showplaces: if you are outside of a town with a public sewer system, you are on the hook for dealing with your own effluents.
This is like trash removal: not a luxury, but an essential component of civilization. The first public works ever were roads, water-delivery and waste-removal. Even now, when we think of "first world" versus "everywhere else," the line is drawn under waste removal.
Everybody has a smart phone? Irrelevant. No poop in the streets? Civilization!
All residential building permits, in any county anywhere there is no public sewer, will require that the prospective home-builder install a sewage collection system, usually called a septic system. What is that, exactly? It's a pipe and pump combination that moves effluent from your indoor toilets, sinks, showers, etc into a sealed, and usually buried, collection tank. Where it sits and ferments until, at some point in time, determined by the size of the tank and the number of pooping people in the house, you call a septic service to come and pump it out and dump it ... somewhere else, probably best not thought of, where chemicals and filtration and added water and time will reduce it to something that can be used to irrigate highway landscaping.
Some enlightened counties will let you install composting toilets, which, in combination with a greywater-disposal system, can greatly reduce your water consumption as well as eliminate (HA!) the need for a septic system. Calaveras County has a rule that if a lot zoned for a residence does not already have a septic tank installed, the home builder can install composting toilets. If it *does* already have a septic tank, you're supposed to use that.
Now, this makes very little sense to me, and when we commence the structural-engineer and building-permit part of our process, if the regulation has not been changed, I intend to apply for a variance. There is no acceptable justification for using potable water to flush toilets when a simple, well-proven alternative is available.
Currently, the cost of two high-quality composting toilets is roughly equivalent to the pipe & pump combination we would need in order to employ the septic tank on our property. The maintenance required by composting toilets is laughably simple and requires no plumbers, no electricians, and no pump-out services. This is one of the reasons I want to go that way: it is a lower-operating-cost solution.
Old people on fixed incomes really do not want too many systems they cannot maintain themselves, for which the cost of hiring services is uncontrollable.
And obviously, if your septic tank floods or your pump fails, you are officially in deep shit and have to get help on an emergency basis, which means you will pay the maximum.
Now, there is another non-obvious component of forgoing a septic system, and that is: you can't use a garbage disposal in your kitchen. Food waste is a non-acceptable additive to a greywater system. So the kitchen is also a source of compost, or, if you have certain types of livestock, critter food.
And what exactly is a greywater system?
It's another simple, low-maintenance, low-cost solution to a problem that in cities is solved by public sewers. (Some cities will let you install a limited greywater system, in which drainage from your shower and washing machine can be run straight out of the house into your landscape, with minimal filtration components.)
In our country-house scheme, a greywater system is planned to handle all waste water from the house. It will be routed through a surge barrel and a series of gravel-and-plant-filled tanks, where it will be naturally filtered before being discharged into the landscape. I've already checked; this is perfectly legal, it adds ecological value to the yard (instant wetland!), and will cost about the same as a manual well pump - around a thousand dollars.
There are not many caveats to a greywater system; you have to use a specific class of detergents and soaps, but most ecologically-minded people already do. Since the landscape we propose to move into is a dry one, this is, oddly enough, our best bet to have a year-round water feature. If we do it right, we may even get us some Calaveras jumping frogs.
We are just back from a quick trip up to the Sierra, which means all my I Wanna Go Now neurons are firing. I spent most of the 12+ driving hours thinking about what's involved with living there.
Here's one topic that I haven't seen addressed before in articles about country living:
Ever driven down a country road? Ever noticed how so many houses seem to have, as a yard-art theme, broken-down cars, etc? Ever wondered why that is?
I'm guessing not. I never thought about it myself - even though we lived out in the country when I was a kid - until quite recently, when something was brought home to me:
If you do not live in an incorporated city, there is a very good chance that the only sanitation service available is ... you and your own truck.
There are "transfer stations" in Calaveras County (and, I'm guessing, most other counties). This is where you take your trash if you live outside of city limits. And I do mean you take your trash. There is no collection service that makes the rounds of all the hundreds of country-road miles. Unincorporated towns generally have business and/or homeowners associations that make contracts with sanitation services. Those of us outside have to haul it ourselves.
This, I believe, is the explanation for the dead washing machine, or the cracked fiberglass shower stall, that may appear in the yard a few houses down ... and stay there for years.
What's required for hauling?
For big stuff, you need at least two strong people and a vehicle larger than the junk you need to get rid of. The prospect of dealing with big garbage - stuff like old mattresses, crappy fiberboard furniture, broken lamps: everything you have ever surreptitiously left in an alley or dropped off at Goodwill, guiltily, knowing nobody on earth wants this old junk - will make you think twice about "trading up" or otherwise replacing things that still function. When you actually have to work to get rid of it, you do look at things differently.
If your junk is metal, and there's enough of it, you can probably get a salvage company to come and get it. You might not even have to pay for the removal. Everything else, though ... .
Basically, if you don't want your yard to be a junkyard, you absolutely do have to build trash removal into your budget. If you don't want to own a pickup truck yourself (and they are not very useful vehicles for most people, so why would you), plan on renting one from U-Haul a couple of times a year.
If you are not robust, or don't have extra hands in your household, build hired helpers into that same budget. Rent the truck, but rent a couple of teenage football players along with it.
This - disposing properly of trash - is not a luxury: this is a basic component of civilized living. In the city, your property taxes and utility fees cover it. In a gated rural community, your HOA covers it. If you are an independent householder, you cover it.
For the small stuff - which generally has to be separated just like recycling in town - plan on a visit to the transfer station at least once a month. I'd plan for twice a month: unless you wash all of your trash before you bag it, it's going to attract the local variation of a rat, opossum, raccoon, possibly even coyote or bear.
Transfer stations charge fees based on the weight of what you are bringing, and you have to be a county property owner to use them. Most accept garden waste as well - stuff that in many areas is considered "burnable." (And many people do burn it, because you can, and it doesn't cost anything, as long as you don't set the county on fire.)
Burning your yard waste (this does NOT include paper) is acceptable even in the dry foothills as long as you check with the county extension office first. Obviously - or what SHOULD be obviously - there are some days when you absolutely should not even strike a match outdoors, much less set your deadfall on fire.
When we were up in Calaveras last April, we cleared a large nest of old barbed wire that was right up by the road. Mr. P cut it in short lengths, we packed it into a bucket, and took it to the transfer station. Fortunately, we had our property-tax statement with us because we paid the tax while we were up there.
Note on barbed wire: that stuff is heavy.
Another budget line-item associated with not living in a junkyard:
Metal trash containers with lids that can be secured. See above re: trash-pickin' varmints.
My Sierra house plan does not come with a garage, because - like Habitat for Humanity - I am working on a small budget here that covers shelter only for humans, not for vehicles. We will probably have an open-ended, prefabricated metal shelter for our vehicle. Our trash containers will be out there with the car, not down by the house with us.
If a bear should wander along and get curious, she is welcome to throw the garbage cans around up by the road. We do NOT want that particular nocturnal sport occurring right outside our windows.
This will be the last of these for a while, as I have to go and dig into the next round of research. However, I would welcome any questions from others considering buying-to-build in California, because I love doing research and, believe it or not, I don't want to just talk about myself all the time.
The Burn Zone
Our lot was threatened by the recent Butte Fire. All along our road, there are burned-out houses, scorched trees, and in some places - where the fire lingered - piles of ash. There are a lot of service professionals at work up there now, since over 400 homes were lost in Calaveras and Amador counties. We didn't have a house to lose, but we were still lucky.
How does this affect our planning?
We go back to the drawing board - literally. The fire was still burning when I pulled out my house plan to do a redesign.
Our visit in April prompted the biggest part of the redesign, as Mr. P's idea for orienting the house was better than mine. We have chosen the building site. My original footprint stays, it's just turned 90 degrees counterclockwise.
My building specs already took into account the "wildland-urban interface" - there is actually a whole supplemental code. We have to do more specific measurements in order to be certain that our site fits the parameters. (At most, this will affect the excavation for the foundation; it won't preclude our build.)
And we have to be more specific about materials, and even more specific about the landscape. The defensible-space guideline is: brush cleared to 100 feet from the house, or to property line. Plantings within 30 feet of the house need to be well-maintained, and ideally discontinuous. This means no pitchy juniper foundation shrubbery, y'all, and no pampas grass.
Turns out there are certain native plants that are recommended for installation near houses in fire zones. And there are native nurseries where you can buy these helpful things. I am not likely to find them at Home Depot or Lowe's.
In case you're wondering, all of California is a fire zone except maaayyyybe Humboldt County. In fact, if you haven't been paying attention, heads up: all of the rural western United States is a fire zone, with the possible exception of coastal Alaska, Washington, and Oregon.
My early pie-in-the-sky gardening schemes went a certain direction. But I have done a lot of reading over the summer and my schemes are redirected. I now know of several California-native plants that are classified as fire-retardant.
That doesn't mean they will stop fires, or that they won't burn; it just means they will help slow the fire down so you can defend your house. This is a GOOD THING.
And because they are natives, during all the vast majority of the time when there is no fire, these plants will attract native bugs, which will attract native birds and small animals, which will attract native predators, and I will watch a whole lot less TV.
The House Itself
The basics of a fire-resistant house are, well, pretty basic. You can now get all of the following for a very small premium over conventional building materials:
By the time we are ready to build, there will be more and better options.
Why would anyone building in a fire zone put wood decking, vinyl siding, and asphalt shingles on their house?
I submit that it is because most people don't think these things through before the moment when they have to make a decision.
Think about it before you need it. Find out what your options are. And ... put it in your budget!
Our decking is going to be ceramic tile, not cedar as originally imagined. Our siding and roofing, and the railing for our deck, were always going to be metal. Our windows are going to be aluminum-framed, and we are going to make fire shutters for all of them. (This means somewhat fewer windows. I will trade slightly less natural light indoors for easier prep-the-house-for-evacuation.)
And boy, those fire shutters - ouch. You will pay roughly $1000 per window to buy commercial fire shutters; and if you are on short notice and desperate and this is the only price you see, it's little wonder if you just take your chances.
But you can make fire shutters yourself* for a few bucks each. Now, they won't be automatic; you will actually have to hang them up; but consider this: a wildfire is most likely to get into your house by a) sparking through a soffit vent; b) sparking through a gable or ridge vent; or c) breaking a window. Yes, fire will break your windows.
We saw plenty of lots in the fire coverage where trees were only somewhat scorched, but the house was burned to the ground. Fire is very domestic - it loves houses. You have to keep that bitch out.
*DIY fire shutter: cut a sheet of 1/4 inch plywood, large enough to overlap window by min. 6" on all sides; affix metal siding (cheap corrugated steel, same as our siding and roofing, is what I'm planning to use) to one side using short metal bolts. The plywood is to give the panel rigidity and to slow heat transfer, but one could do this with just a sheet of the metal. Either way, handle with leather gloves.
Mount heavy-duty screw hooks on the exterior wall above the window, and screw eyes below. Attach screw eyes to the "top" of your Keep Fire Out panel, and cabinet hooks to the bottom. To put them up, lift the panel (metal side out) and loop the top eyes over the top hooks; swing the bottom hooks into the bottom eyes.
Is this a rednecky kind of kludge? Will it be perfect? Yes and no. But it is a helluva lot better than nothing.
And if you have clear space around your house and gravel out to the dripline of your roof, the fire will not be swirling against your walls chewing through your delicious, flammable foundation plantings until it breaks your windows. It will, with a little luck, bang on the wall and say "damn it all" and move on.
If you have read through the Sierra posts you have probably deduced that I am a fairly deliberate person. I think about things a lot before I take action. But, perhaps as a consequence, when I am ready to make a decision, I tend to make it quickly.
It is actually still surprising, even to me, that our land purchase happened so fast. It was less than three months between switching our search to the Sierra and putting in an offer. This was, I contend, only possible because what we wanted had been so thoroughly thought-through beforehand.
I still had things to learn, though. For example: it is nearly impossible to get bank financing for a land purchase. Ours, like many, was seller-financed. The person selling the lot was willing to take a 20% down payment and then finance the rest. Because the lot was so affordable in the first place, and because I had more than 20% of that price saved, there was no agonizing over "can we afford it?"
There was also no second-guessing when we were doing the loan paperwork. I knew our household budget backwards, and I knew we could handle the loan payment. In fact, as noted in my February 2014 post, the loan payment was less than Mr. P spent on average for gasoline in a month.
It was far less than I had been accustomed to laying out every month to pay off debt, before starting to save in earnest.
So for those looking for unbuilt land in California, this is a very important point: know that unless you can get the seller to finance, you are going to have to deliver the entire purchase price.
Fortunately, a lot of people will do seller-financing if you have a good credit report and that 20% down payment. Seriously, you should not even consider buying property of any kind in California without having 20% in cash to put down. You have so few good options without a solid down-payment.
And you need to be real with yourself about a) your timeline; and b) the financial consequences of retirement.
For us, buying the land this far ahead of retirement was important because it allows us to actively plan on the basis of a known quantity. Going into retirement with a mortgage was, to me, a non-starter.
I have a good idea what our retirement income is going to be. It would cover a reasonable rent and living expenses in a less-pricey town, quite comfortably.
Or it will cover property tax, insurance, association fees, utilities, and other living expenses. It would not cover all those things and also cover a mortgage payment.
These are not unique considerations. Everyone needs someplace to live, and everyone needs to be able to afford it.
As noted not too long ago, the need for regular care (of any kind) would probably torpedo the whole plan, as it will still be less expensive for us to rent in retirement and pay for care services, than to build in the woods and pay for care services. A rented apartment in town near services will provide more options; where you have more options, you have lower costs. It's just an economic fact.
BUT! Back to the purchase.
How did we decide on this particular lot? First of all, location.
For aesthetics, it is quite lovely and packed with trees and has a seasonal creek. It is about a half hour from access to either the Mokelumne River or the Stanislaus River.
For practicalities, it is within reasonable distance of emergency services, regular medical services, grocery and hardware stores. Thanks to the Butte Fire, it is now getting fiber-optic telephone cable; but even last year when we bought it, it had telephone and power cable at the road, ready to drop to a new structure.
It also already has a well and a septic system. We may not need to use the septic system, but the well is like a gold mine.
One of the few things I am sort-of-planning to install before any building begins is a manual well pump. It will be very convenient to have water available on our visits, and during construction; and there is no scenario for living in the country where being without water is a great idea. If the power goes down or our electric pump fails, we can pump it ourselves.
Our lot also has neighbors. This is important when you are old. You don't have to be best friends who are in and out of each other's houses all the time, but it's good to be around people who know you; it's good to know each other's routines, so that you can look out for each other.
When we visited our lot last April, we parked at the side of the road. Every time someone drove by, they slowed down to ask if we were okay or needed any help. We would say thanks, no, we're buying this lot and we just wanted to visit; and they would say "welcome to the neighborhood."
This is not unique either. There are countless areas around the country (and yes even in California) where people are neighborly. This common notion that people are more rude, more thoughtless, less caring, whatever - it is a fiction perpetuated by the small percentage of people who spend their entire lives indoors staring at the little turds dropped by comment trolls on the Internet.
Long story short: Go outside and meet your neighbors.
Next up: building in a fire zone.
When we started looking for potential building sites, I didn't have a clue how to go about it. We know quite a few people in the real-estate business, but they are all here in the city - and the city is exactly where I don't want to retire.
For a lot of reasons.
So how to find a place, to build a house, that was not a 1/8 acre lot in town somewhere?
I started with the usual real-estate search sites, but they were not all that helpful. The unbuilt land inventory was almost always ... a 1/8 acre lot in town somewhere.
Now, not all of these were non-contenders: a corner lot in, say, Avila Beach or San Luis Obispo or Atascadero is not an altogether unpleasant prospect.
But 1/8 acre is really not much space ... and most importantly, still in town. Still, in California, freeway-adjacent (because towns grow up around roads, which then turn into highways).
Then I stumbled upon Landwatch. (Click here to explore: landwatch)
Cue heavenly choir.
After registering, and setting up some search parameters, I quickly discovered that there was a huge inventory of unbuilt land. A lot of it was way out, too remote for me to consider (we are going to be OLD. This is not when you want to be two hours from a medical center, or four hours from the nearest museum). And a lot of it was too big: we were not looking for a 20 or 60 or 200-acre ranch.
The Search Parameters
We were looking for:
So we had a lot to look at.
When this search first started in 2008 it was just after the tech and real-estate crash. Properties were being foreclosed by the hundreds (if not thousands). And while we didn't especially want to buy a foreclosure, because dealing with banks is a pain in the ass at the best of times (and more on that later), from our point of view this was a much-appreciated market correction.
Unfortunately (from our point of view) it didn't last. By 2011 property prices in desirable areas were already edging up over the "possible" level.
Our most-desired area, California's Central Coast, was getting unaffordable. There was angst. There was agita.
And then, as previously described, I had some sort of Hey Wait A Minute moment and after a discussion, we did a pivot and started to look at the Sierra.
Why the Sierra? Well, we had vacationed there multiple times. We knew we loved the landscape. There were lots of areas where water is accessible year-round: natural rivers, reservoirs, and seasonal creeks. There are TREES. There is WINE. There are cute small towns with lots of historical context, outdoor and cultural activities, and a friendly attitude toward visitors and newcomers. And there are sizable cities within ninety minutes.
And - best of all - there is plenty of affordable land.
Next up: buying the lot.
For a contemporary account, check out this post!
So I got this thought-provoking comment recently:
"I clicked over here because I'm a regular reader of Grumpy Rumblings and wanted to explore what you may have to share about buying property. I'm thinking that may be a good way for me to eke my way into the California real estate craziness. I'll be looking over your posts for more info, but [if] you haven't put something together about this topic before I'd ask you to consider it. As a former homeowner I'm familiar with the costs associated with owning a house you live in, and the tax implications, too. But I know nothing about how any of that works when one simply buys undeveloped land."
And she is right: I haven't really addressed this. But since the blog is clearly evolving again, and my focus on the future is getting more ... well, focused, perhaps this is the way I should go. Heaven knows I obsess about all this stuff enough, I might as well put it out here where somebody else might benefit!
First new post on this subject, then: why build instead of buying?
Mr. P and I have spent countless hours watching home-improvement television, and have also witnessed a variety of home-improvement challenges in my immediate family, since my parents and my sisters have remodeled houses multiple times.
There is a lot of appeal to buying an old house and doing a renovation. But we had to, as they say, Get Real: our skills are limited, and our time to do this type of work is nonexistent until after we are already retired, by which time it's kind of too late.
The Time Factor
We are going to be working at wage-earning jobs full-time right up to the day when I decide we have saved enough money to build (or buy) a house to live in, in retirement. That is, unless the universe drops a lot of money on our heads.
The Money Factor
In retirement, our income is going to be limited. Not scarily low - but limited. Our options for increasing our income will be limited, and our inclination to continue working is also likely to be limited. I am, probably, going to be working full-time in the city up to age 67, which means Mr. P will be 73. By that time I think we are going to be Done, don't you? So the construction needs to be Done, too.
The Skill Factor
Mr. P knows how to install light fixtures and faucets. Between us we can install flooring. We can do doorknobs and cabinet hardware. I can paint.
That's not enough to take on a full-scale renovation, especially one that could not begin until we are both 65+.
The Inventory Factor
And finally there's the question of where this remodeling target home would be. We have definite ideas about where and how we want to live. Key questions:
The answers to those three questions, once we started seriously looking, were actually Yes, No, and Yes.
And the most important question was about landscape. We didn't want an acre of open land with no trees on it. Trees take time to grow, and trees are essential if you want a house in California that does not cost a bloody fortune to keep cool (also they are beautiful, and after decades in the concrete jungle, I need some beauty). Existing trees: non-negotiable.
Given that there was no housing stock, in the kind of landscape we wanted, that was within our price range, that was not essentially worthless ... building a house became the logical choice.
Next up: looking for land.