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Off-grid cabin/land purchase

Hi all!  My husband and I are in the research phase before purchasing some land/acreage for an off-grid cabin.  Can anyone recommend good resources on how to evaluate the land prior to purchase, or what to know before building a cabin? We’re focusing generally on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, planning on well/septic with solar (and have varying degrees of familiarity with those systems), and do not plan on living in the cabin full-time. We know just enough to suspect there’s a lot we DON’T know, thus the extensive research before a potentially expensive mistake.  Those of you who have done this – any words of wisdom?  Thanks!  

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  • Comments (25)

    • 5

      IMO, you evaluate the land based upon your wants & needs… not some else’s.  For example, how remote do you want to be?  Do you have health concerns that require you to be somewhat close to medical care?  How far away from stores do you want to be?  Might you ever have horses, cows or other farm animals?  If so you will need pasture lands.  Is the water table at a depth that you can put in a well?  What are the local rules regarding what type of septic tank you can put in?  Do you need a pond or lake access?  Etc. etc.

      • 1

        Thanks Redneck! I don’t comment much, but am always learning something from your posts!

      • 5

        I always suggest folks visit a community prior to purchase of land… and not just once or twice.  I think visiting local churches is the best way to meet locals.  They are more than glad you stopped by.  They will want to talk to you so just let them know you are looking to move to the area and are interested in finding just the right piece of property.  What you might find is that someone will sell you some property that is not listed but would do so for the “right” people.  They also might help in your search or at least get you in touch with the right people.

        Besides churches, the next best folks to chat with are the folks at the local farm supply or coop.  They know all the land owners & are very connected.  In my case, the owner of our local farm supply invited me to his church & we later joined.  Very quickly we met all sorts of people.  We ended up being neighbors & good friends before he passed.

        You note I don’t list realtors.  They have a vested interest in selling you whatever they have, no matter if it really fits your needs.  In our search, we only used the realtor company once we had chosen our land.

        Thank you for the exceedingly kind words!

      • 2

        Yours are words of wisdom, Redneck. Some of the best advice I’ve heard for finding community, as well as property, in a new place.

      • 0

        We also chose the land and then involved realtors. That was a good call. Even better is avoiding realtors at all, if you can swing it with attorneys instead. Some folks I know have done this and saved a lot of $.

        ETA: Also, when we bought a house, the seller paid both the fees of both their agent and ours; we understood this to be the way these things generally go. When we bought land, we were informed that we would be paying our agent’s fees, and learned by asking around that this was typical. Can’t recall if it was a geographic difference, a rural/urban difference, or a land versus land+house difference, but, TL;DR — if you have assumptions about where fees will land based on priors with a more conventional transaction, don’t assume they will hold. (My husband is still grouchy about the agent fees.)

    • 5

      While I haven’t pulled the trigger on an off-grid cabin, last year my wife and I tried to buy one but ran into the same dilemma that you are going through and quickly were overwhelmed during the research phase. What makes a good plot of land for an off-grid habitation? How much snow does it get? What is the internet capabilities of that location? What are the rules of septic? etc… I wish that I could buy some land from someone who knows what they are doing, who has done all the boring and hard stuff like land surveying and installing utilities, and just let me move on knowing that I made a good decision. All that prep work and hassle is worth it.

      What we did was sit down and make a list of things that were important to us. How far away from the closest store and gas station did we want to be (commute time), we looked at cell phone provider maps and drove out to locations watching the reception we had on our phones, how much snow do they get every winter, is the land flat and have good soil that could be used for gardening, is there adequate sunlight for solar, and 190% we wanted to avoid an HOA. It was helpful to look up the local laws of X city and figure out if things like chickens or whatever were allowed and what regulations and permits were needed for various things. We called around to two or three contractors and asked pricing on things like septic and asked them what laws were in place for such things. They know best because they do that all day. Plan out roughly what everything would cost, septic, solar, the cabin itself, a well, and more and then add an additional 10% and make sure you can cover those prices. 

      If I started over again I would look into things like future climate change and avoid areas that will get too hot. You should be safe against that in Michigan for the next hundred years or so though.

      Best of luck to you both! Keep us updated with how things go and what you learn. You are asking for the advice today but can give it tomorrow.

      • 2

        All good advice, thanks!  Totally agree on avoiding an HOA – deal with one of those in my daily life, don’t want to have to deal with it in my getaway-from-people house too!  Chatting with local contractors is an excellent idea, I will have to do that. 

      • 3

        “You are asking for the advice today but can give it tomorrow.”  So true!  

      • 2

        In addition to things like snowfall, Robert, I’d also suggest taking into account wildfire danger.  Having watched the destruction done by wildfires the last few summers, I’m personally a bit reluctant to pursue an off-grid cabin.  Insurance prices are exorbitant and, if a fire did hit, it seems that the consequences would be far worse than most scenarios I could reasonably expect to encounter in the city.  Possibly, there are some workarounds to mitigate fire danger, but it seems like an awful lot of folks have lost mountain cabins in wildfires and are struggling to pull together the money needed to rebuild.

    • 5

      The UP is a superb choice! I’m jealous 🙂 

      There’s just too many things that could be an expensive mistake to list. Even starting with the budget you spend on land, home, improvements, etc to begin with and if that’s a prudent financial decision. 

      But focus on the biggies, like water availability and tested quality, habitat health, will you need to spend more on solar than typical because of cloud cover (yes, in the UP, it’s a good idea to ‘overbuild’ the panel surface area), will you be able to find and build your people/tribe in the area (eg. if LGBT, you’d want to be near Marquette), and so on.

      Don’t overpay for views. 

      Not all ponds/lakes are created equal. Where does the water come from? Is an imbalance in the chemistry causing algae problems? Muddy bottom? 

      Make sure you have insurable road access when thinking about buying a home. 

      It’s worth paying to have an arborist/forester, water tester, and similar professionals as needed come out to evaluate before buying. When it comes to the kind of context we’re all talking about when having a home like this, you want to know it’s healthy before you commit your life to it. 

      Ditto what Redneck said.

      • 3

        I wish there was a professional who was basically a home inspector, but for vacant land – because that’s exactly what I need!  I’m sure I’ll make a few mistakes, just hoping to avoid the situation of buying what I *think* is the most perfect land and then finding out down the road I have to truck my water in, or something similar. 

        Definitely noted on oversizing the solar setup.  I boondock with my camper on a regular basis so I have a good frame of reference for what our power needs would be, but I feel like with solar more is always better!  

        Had NOT considered surface water quality, adding that to my ever-growing list of things to learn about.  

        All of this is excellent advice, thank you so much!

      • 3

        “I wish there was a professional who was basically a home inspector, but for vacant land”

        You heard it here first: We’ve been considering doing this at TP as a way to generate revenue to support the website/community. We’ve got a lot of expertise on this topic as individuals, so perhaps it’s time to formalize it as an offering…

      • 1

        That would seriously be amazing, there is definitely a hole there that could be filled.   TBH this group was my first thought when I was starting to realize just how out of my depth I was regarding the entire project, happy to know I wasn’t wrong!

    • 3

      I’m a little unclear on whether you’re thinking about a vacation property only, or something that would double as a permanent home in the event of a long-term bugout, but if the latter, you may want to rethink the Michigan part. 

      With climate change destabilizing the polar vortex and spilling arctic air on us at random times, both winter weather and our already short growing season are becoming increasingly unpredictable, and this is only expected to get worse over the coming decade.  A few years back we lost many of our perennials and fruit bushes to record cold winter temperatures – I don’t just mean the next year’s crop, but the actual plants – and the same cold snap burst the waterlines from our well to house and barn, which had never before frozen.  They have since been reburied at six feet, but we’ll see how many more years that buys us. . .  Springs are getting noticeably less predictable too, delaying planting, and a friend a few hours north of me has seen July frosts twice in the last decade (he’s in his seventies and had never dealt with this before.)  Things are changing scary fast! 

      I’m on third generation family land I’m very attached too, so I’m pretty much going to stay here until I freeze or starve in place, but if I were free to look around the country and choose a place to survive in, rural Michigan would very much not make the list.  Living self sufficiently here is just going to keep getting harder.

      On the other hand, if it’s just vacation land you’re looking for, the UP is gorgeous!  One thing you will want to make sure of though, is that you either own the mineral rights or are not in a mining area.  Also (speaking of copper mining) the water quality is very poor in some parts of the UP, so before paying to have a well drilled, you should at least talk to neighbors and make sure their wells produce drinkable water, increasing the odds that yours will too.

      And if you plan to spend winters there, an all wheel drive vehicle with your own snowplow is almost a must.  It can take a long time for county plows to get out to the more remote areas, and even longer for a private plowing company to get to all their clients driveways, after a big snow event.

      • 2

        Hi Forager – thanks for the response!  This would be for a vacation home only, so no need to plan for a garden or livestock.  I have a medical condition that necessitates being close to a major hospital permanently (although not for emergency care, fortunately.)

        I thought our growing season in Chicago had been crazy but it sounds like yours takes the cake!  So sorry about your lost plants, and noted about the depth for the water lines.  My spring crops here never had a chance as we went from too cold to too hot – went straight from sprouting to bolting, never did get any lettuce or spinach.  The summer plants are pretty far behind for me as well – usually I’ve had at least a week or two of ripe tomatoes by now, but nada this year.  Makes me very aware of just how hard it would be to grow food for survival, and grateful for the community that means I don’t have to right now. 

        I totally agree, the UP IS gorgeous.  Do you know if ownership info for mineral rights is something that is publicly available, like through the county? Adding that to my list of things to check, thank you.  Knowing just how much snow the UP gets and how many roads are seasonal, we probably weren’t going to try visiting in the winter. I figured out the snowplow thing while recreationally cruising Realtor.com and noticing almost every cabin has a shed “for your tractor or snowplow!” Most likely we would winterize the house and shut it down for the season.  Living in Chicagoland my whole life, I know that just because I CAN drive in snow doesn’t always mean I SHOULD.  I’ll leave winterland UP to the professionals like you! 🙂 

        Random UP question: what’s with the saunas?

      • 3

        I know researching mineral rights can be tricky, and I’m not really qualified to give advice on it.  Maybe an attorney who handles land transactions or disputes in a given region would be able to help?  If it were me and I were doing it on my own I would probably start with the abstract (from county records) and pour over every sale in the property’s history making sure that at least there was no mention of mineral rights being retained by a previous owner, but I’m not sure whether a separate sale of just mineral rights would be reflected in the abstract or not. I was once told that that’s pretty much “the best you can do” on your own, because for whatever reason title insurance companies in Michigan don’t cover (and therefore don’t research) mineral rights.

        Oh and just to clarify, my place is actually in the Lower Peninsula, and even so the winters are crazy!  I just have a lot of family and friends in the UP, but I’m very careful to check the weather forecast before venturing up there in winter.  I’m pretty sure the saunas are for hibernating in, Sept. through May, lol. And don’t forget to practice your “eh?” so you can blend in with the locals 😉  It’s very important to end sentences with that whether they’re a question or not, eh?

      • 2

        Adding to notes: practice my “eh.” 😉

      • 2

        It’s a cultural inheritance.  Michigan to North Dakota is where a large majority of immigrants from the Scandinavian countries moved to.  Also, “eh” is more Canadian, try “uff da”.
        Traveled the UP a lot, my husbands family is from the lower mitt and we were stationed in ND and WI.  Definitely check water quality.

    • 3

      We took the lazy route: Our friends bought land and built a house on it; we visited a lot, made great memories there, talked to them about their experience, and then bought the adjacent parcel. This connection allowed us to do an off-market transaction, which worked to our advantage, as well. We have no plans to build in the near future, but our friends are building community, and will keep an eye on things on our lot. In return, they get to hike and camp on our land, and they know that the future neighbors are cool.

      I was mostly not involved in the transaction, because my job was destroying my soul, but one thing that was surprising to me (based on my experience working in planning in a more urban area) was that my husband was able to go to the local planning department and talk hypotheticals with the planner at the desk— before we had even made an offer. Maybe it’s rural hospitality, but they were much more willing to share information and talk about what was and was not likely to happen with future permit applications than anyone would ever have been in my former jurisdiction (where, presumably, people are quicker to lawyer up and sue over things). Might be worth a shot in your case, too!

      I would also say, when you zero in on a county or two that is appealing, browse the planning code and read the relevant sections. It might seem like gibberish at first, but it actually is in English and you get used to it. 

      • 1

        That would be my dream scenario – unfortunately among our family and friends, we’re blazing the trail over here – ha!  Good idea about the local planning department, thanks!

        I hope your job is less soul-destroying now!  Been there!

      • 2

        Liz’s post below reminded me that a big reason I signed off on the purchase (and basically, I just told my husband, “I don’t have the bandwidth to go out there and really grok the details of this with you right now, but if you want to pursue it, you have my blessing”) was when we realized that we didn’t actually have to build on the land immediately. That meant we didn’t have to worry about making sure the house was secure or that we could find long- or short-term renters (and, also, that we aren’t limited to building what we can afford in the near term… we can wait, save up, and build something better in 20 years).

        A second reason I green-lighted it is that the location has relatively good access to medical services for a rural area. It’s within 10 miles of a hospital with emergency service and an EMS air base, with a regional hospital (Level 2) within an hour’s drive and a Level 1 within helicopter range of the nearby air base. If I were starting from a blank slate like you (i.e., no friends making a specific location more attractive), I’d look up the trauma center levels for each hospital in the state where I was looking to purchase land (info usually available on state health department websites) and the air base locations for EMS air service and try to optimize for proximity to higher levels of care given my other constraints. If you want to live in a rural place, you’re just not going to be near a Level 1 trauma center, and but that doesn’t mean you can’t be more or less close to an ER, or an airbase for a regional air EMS service, or in a place where you can, say, drive to a specialist and back in a day without having to stay the night away from home. 

    • 6

      I have purchased land, and a reliable and trustworthy real estate agent familiar with LAND purchases (vs. homes) is worth their weight in gold.  Get referrals and definitely research them (there are some stinkers).  A survey is essential. Title insurance is essential.  Get an estimate for the cost of drilling a well and installing septic before you sign a contract. Same for how much it will cost to build a road to the building site if one doesn’t already exist, and ENSURE you have deeded road access.  Know, for a fact, who is responsible for maintaining all of the access roads and who has to pay for it – it might be you. Consider establishing a trust prior to the land purchase and titling the land in the name of the trust (protects privacy). And ditto what everyone else says below!

      Go to the county/town planning office, bring a plate of cookies to the resident official responsible for building permits etc., and ask their advice. They know SO MUCH MORE than you do, and no one ever brings them cookies.  They can tell you if there are obscure building codes that you might run into. They can tell you if a nearby landowner is known for noise or trash complaints. They can tell you – especially for extra cookies – if the land was ever used as a dump site for toxic chemicals, etc. etc.  They can tell you what requirements are needed to build a home.  For example, in our area certain plats did not ALLOW off-grid homes. Who knew?   Your real estate agent, if really great, should know and/or research all this stuff, but I’d go to the town planning office anyway.  

      Get very familiar with using the land research databases available to you free and online courtesy of your tax dollars. Review the plats not only of the parcel you are considering, but also of those next to you. Review their sales histories. Research their owners and see if there is anything – odd (like “Bob’s Summer Camps Incorporated as an owner next door to you, when right now it looks like beautiful virgin forest – is Bob going to build a summer camp with screaming kids?) Look at the aerial photos. Ask when the last time was that anyone sold their trees for timber near you – that’ll ruin your privacy, quick.  Ask if someone can open a pig farm, or landfill, or shooting range, on the properties next to you.  Because the great thing about being in the country is that you can do whatever you want. A challenging thing about being in the country is that the neighbors can do whatever they want. 

      And be sure this is what you really want to sink your time and money into.  If what you want is the occasional off-grid experience, renting is a FAR CHEAPER and less stressful way to get that than buying and building.  I had excellent resources available to me but after too many false starts and lots of stress, I ended up selling the land on which I had planned to build an off-grid home.  I don’t regret it, but if I had it to do over I wish I had really thought through realistically how much time I might spend there, how hard it would be to build, and whether I would want it in my old age far away from healthcare and other essentials.  

      If you choose not to get a real estate agent (could be a very expensive mistake), at the very least get the services of a competent real estate attorney before you find the perfect piece of land, so he/she knows what is important to you prior to you tendering an offer.  I’ve paid hundreds of dollars to real estate attorneys over the years, and they have saved me from thousands of dollars of mistakes.  And if they give you bad advice, they have malpractice insurance! 🙂

      • 3

        This is exactly the kind of checklist & advice I was looking for, thank you!

    • 2

      Information on the soil/ground – you can get this from a soils report, asking neighbors, and/or firsthand knowledge gained with a shovel on site.  Also distance to groundwater and any quality information, especially from anyone with wells in the area.  Same goes for septic systems re: sewage disposal.  Proximity to any hazardous materials/waste sites and/or spills is also good to check out.  EPA’s websites have major HazWaste sites identified online, I believe, and you can also find out where major users/storers of hazmat are in the area there as well.  Finally, check the local government websites to gauge how their ordinances are re your planned activities.

    • 1

      That sure is exciting! Invest in good locks and other security measures if you won’t be living there full time. Keep up on maintenance, especially against rain and pests, you don’t want to come back after a few months and realize that water or mice got in and have had a long time to do damage.