Saturday, November 9, 2013

Post-Peak Survival: Moving to the Country

If you're a typical member of modern industrial civilization, you've spent your whole life living on food that was bought from a local supermarket. However, there is no guarantee that such food will always be available. The present world population is over 7 billion. Food and fresh water are already in short supply, so how will people survive? The world uses about 30 billion barrels of petroleum every year, but the supply is running out, and all proposals for alternative sources of energy on such a scale are just science fiction; without oil and natural gas, there will be no fuel, no plastics, no chemical fertilizer. For the last few decades, thanks to globalization and automation, the problem of unemployment has been horrendous, and thanks to uncontrolled speculation the global stock market and the money market are starting to collapse. War is everywhere, and it's no longer a simple case of nation against nation, but of one linguistic or religious group against another, in a vast anarchic tangle. No civilization lasts forever, and our own is no exception.

You might decide to look for a better way of life, to find a saner connection to the natural world. Perhaps it's time to leave the busy city for that strange, long-forgotten place called the countryside. You would then need to find some other way to feed yourself and your family. To do so, you would want to reduce your dependence on modern equipment and chemicals, and to minimize the connection with the elaborate webs that constitute modern economics and politics.

You'll probably find that it's cheaper to buy land with a house on it, than to buy land and put a house on it later. The exception could be the "fixer-upper"; beyond a certain stage of decay, a house is not really a fixer-upper but a tearer-downer. A house that cannot be repaired can easily ruin a marriage. Of course, if you're 20 years old or just short of cash, you could build yourself a primitive log cabin instead, but frosty nights in a tiny hut can lose their appeal after the first few weeks.

Try to live in an area where population density is low, but where the soil and climate are still reasonable. Many parts of North America might be suitable if you avoided the Boston-New-York-Washington megalopolis. Many other countries also have good locations that would reveal themselves after serious perusal of a few maps. It's the hidden pockets of habitability that you should look for, the places that are easily overlooked. Sometimes there are places within an hour's drive from a city that are far more suitable than places that are two hours away, simply because of what might be called accidents of geography -- perhaps in the past there was nothing there to interest the average farmer or miner, so the land was unexploited.

There are also many pro-and-con questions related to "proximity to neighbors" you should look into. Having close neighbors makes you less of a target for human predators, but then you have to hope that the neighbors aren't worse than the predators. If at all possible, try to move close to people you know and trust. Obvious choices, if you have such an option, would be people related to you by blood or marriage. Even "close friends" can be less "friendly" as time goes by, whereas family members are fairly predictable.

The most basic principle of post-oil living is that we have to start thinking in terms of a smaller radius of activity. The globalized economy has to be replaced by the localized economy. In the post-oil world, most food will be produced at a local level. It is even likely that each family will have to produce its own food. The catch in growing food, however, is that most of the world's surface is permanently unsuitable for growing food. In many cases, the climate is too severe: too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. In other cases, the land is too barren to support anything but a sparse growth of wild plants, which in any case are simply growing and then dying and replacing their own material. At the same time, the land that is suitable for agriculture has been used for centuries, and the result is that the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (N, P, K) and other elements, as well as the humus, have long been depleted, and food production has been maintained only by massive inputs of synthetic fertilizer. In addition, that farmland is crowded and expensive.

But latter-day pioneers can take advantage of the process of urbanization that has been characteristic of so many countries since the Industrial Revolution; as people moved from the countryside to the city, the result for those rural areas was sometimes not just a relative decline in population, but an absolute one. The same process is still underway. Even in highly developed countries, although the cities may be crowded there are large rural areas (often marginal uplands, admittedly) that are steadily losing population. Such depopulation presents opportunities for those who are willing to face the challenge.

People who live in the country will be better prepared than those who live in the city. A city is a place that consumes a great deal and produces little, at least in terms of essentials. A city without incoming food or water collapses rapidly, whereas a small community closely tied to the natural environment can more easily adjust to technological and economic troubles. Even out in the country, however, the present housing patterns often resemble the gasoline- induced sprawl of the suburbs. More useful would be something resembling a traditional village, with the houses at the focus and the fields radiating from that point.

One catch to buying rural property is the laws: the building codes, zoning restrictions, health codes, and so on. Once you decide to live in anything more civilized than a beaver swamp, you are automatically hit by the most amazing variety of laws. In plain English: it's illegal to live in a log cabin. In most of Canada and the US, it's against the law to live in a house that does not meet the requirements of the standard building codes.

For the US, there are about three major building codes, for different parts of the country. For Canada, there's only one code, with some regional variations. But all of these codes are basically the same. They all largely restrict housing to the familiar type of wood-frame construction. They all have strict requirements for electricity and plumbing. Don't think about living in a yurt, a teepee, a geodesic dome, or an octagonal cabin, not unless you're miles from any road or trail. A "log home" (versus a primitive log cabin) may be permitted, but by the time you've conformed to all the laws the house is not worth the bother; it's the same as a frame house but takes a lot more wood. Even mobile homes are illegal in many areas, although even in those areas you may get away with living in a "legal non-conforming" mobile home, meaning a mobile home that was put on the property before the building code was established in that area.

Rural properties nearly always need wells and septic systems, and the construction of these will add another few thousand dollars in expenses, although some areas still allow the old-fashioned pit-type outhouses.

Exactly what is allowed is a difficult thing to say, because the laws vary somewhat from one area to another. In the US, these laws are determined by the county, while in Canada the decisions are made by the township. There is no easy route: you need to check with the clerks or inspectors of any and all areas that you are interested in. But there really are not many places where there are no building codes to deal with.

Such laws put back-to-the-landers in an ambivalent situation. People who intend to live in the country are certainly "nature lovers," or they wouldn't be there in the first place. At the same time, because of the horrors of global overpopulation, resource-consumption, and environmental destruction, legislators everywhere are introducing laws that severely restrict access to the wilderness.

It's hard to say whether the present building codes and zoning restrictions do more harm than good for people who want to live in the country. Such rules certainly make life complicated -- and expensive -- for the buyer. On the other hand, since your neighbors have to follow the same laws, they ensure that you will not be shocked by the sound, sight, or smell of whatever is going on down the road. And if you buy a house, you can be fairly sure that it will not blow down the next day.

To a large extent, the laws about rural property are simply ignored. You need a building permit to do major renovations to your house, but not small ones. The difference between the two often gets intentionally blurred, and I know of one contractor who does his work first and deals with any building inspector later. Often an owner and an inspector get into a war of nerves; someone else I know kept up an argument about whether his mobile home was permanent (hence illegal) or temporary, until the inspector decided to try his luck elsewhere. To a large extent, if none of your neighbors complain, it's quite likely no one will ask you to stop what you're doing.

You might put together a shopping list that is roughly as follows: a house or mobile home in fair condition that could be used for year-round occupancy in accordance with the building code and other local laws, a few acres of arable land, a year-round road, a well, and a septic system. Electricity and a telephone would be desirable but perhaps not essential. You might be looking for a house that would cost about a quarter or an eighth of the price of a house in the city -- even though the new house would have far more land.

When you start looking at properties, one of the trickiest questions is water, and the topic often gets omitted from the advertising. Unless a cottage or cabin is stated to have a well, then it probably does not. If a rural house has no well, there is no guarantee that you can drill for water later and actually find it. A hydrologist could come and take a look and then make an educated guess. By looking at surface water and neighboring properties, you could probably make a good guess yourself. The presence of willows, alders, cattails, reeds, rushes, and so on, would also indicate water -- perhaps too much. A test drill would give a definite answer, if you were willing to pay for it. Other than that, there's always the chance that there's no water below the surface.

Of course, one way of ensuring a water supply is to buy land that adjoins a river or lake. Lake-shore property, however, is rarely worth buying. It costs about 10 times as much as other land, and you will be crammed in with other cottages and their attendant motorboats and portable radios, unless the lake is only accessible by canoe -- in which case, you'll find it nearly impossible to build or renovate a house. Property on a river or creek is somewhat less expensive, and if the water is too shallow to be navigated by motorboat then the land is less likely to be crowded.

The land has to be suitable for growing food. That means that you should not buy bare rock; in fact, you should have at least a meter of soil, so that the roots can grow long and deep in search of water and minerals. It's possible to grow crops on about three meters of land, but only if you irrigate (add water). Land that is too wet is also unsuitable, because the crops will just rot; wet lands include swamps (roughly speaking, wet land with sphagnum moss) and marshes (roughly speaking, wet lands with cattails, rushes, or reeds). Land covered by shrub willows and alders is likely to be underwater in the spring. Flat land is fine, but make sure that it isn't in danger of flooding. A gentle slope is really the ideal topography, since the slope will ensure good drainage. Too much of a slope is not a good thing, since you'll find all your soil washing away as soon as you remove the grass; you could devise some sort of terracing, Tibetan-style, by collecting stones from the fields, but to produce a large enough garden by that method would entail an impossible amount of labor. Land completely covered with trees would provide firewood but make gardening difficult; the trees could be chopped down, but removing the stumps would be a major task. On the other hand, don't be discouraged by land that has three-meter-high weeds, since they indicate fertile soil; it's land that has little or no vegetation that should worry you. Whether the soil is clay or sand is not terribly important, although somewhere between the two would be preferable. Even land that has been "farmed out" -- impoverished by misuse -- should not necessarily be avoided, since there are sometimes ways to improve the fertility of land.

There are a few pros and cons to living in different areas of North America. The general rule is that west of the 100th meridian the US is rather dry, so the availability of water becomes a primary consideration. Anywhere in the Boston-New-York-Washington megalopolis is too crowded. Generally speaking, I wouldn't look for land that was within two hours' drive of a large city, because it would be too expensive. Yet prices can be surprising: land within an hour's drive of a big city is sometimes cheaper than similar property hundreds of miles further north. Don't buy land right on a seacoast, because it will be too rocky, and the salt in the air won't be good for your crops.

You may want to ask a real-estate agent about any local problems with crime. In rural areas, especially away from paved roads, it may take a couple of hours for police to arrive, so stay away from such an area if a family of crazies is already living there. (Conversely, criminals like isolated areas precisely because they know it will take time for the police to arrive.) In general, areas of poverty are areas of high crime rates, even if it's politically incorrect to say such a thing. And by crime, I don't mean the Mafia variety, but more like what is called borderline criminality -- trespassing, noise, petty fraud, and so on, things that wouldn't get much response from the police but which can still be unpleasant for the victims.

The house should be in good condition, but it doesn't need to be large. Urban houses today are nearly three times as large as those of the 1950s and hold fewer people; don't get caught in the tide of consumerism. The biggest question is: Are you going to buy a ready-built house, or build a new one? Probably you're going to buy a ready-made one, and there are two reasons for that.

The first is financial. It's generally cheaper to buy a house with land, rather than to buy land and build a house later. That's particularly true if you're buying a fair amount of land. If a farmer is trying to get rid of a piece of vacant land, he can wait until someone is willing to pay his price. If he's trying to get rid of a piece of land that has a house on it, he's in a bit of a bind, because he's going to be paying high taxes on it (well, higher than on vacant land) every year until someone buys it. That problem of taxes can work in your favor; the seller will keep his price low enough that he can get rid of the property fairly quickly. That rule isn't always true, by any means. Obviously the condition of the house is a major variable, for one thing. But you'll probably find that a house and land separately are more expensive than a house and land together.

Having said all that, though, I should point out some exceptions. For one thing, you might not have the money to buy both land and a house, in which case you might want to buy one at a time. Buying the two separately might also give you more to choose from. Here in Canada, for example, there are endless opportunities to buy vacant land ranging in size from 10 acres to 50, with a good road adjoining the land, and the list price will be about $10,000 in every case -- those are Canadian dollars in the early twenty-first century, but they've stayed fairly float for decades. You could camp on the land until you had built a permanent home with some further cash. If you find an area that is tolerant of mobile homes, you might find that the most economical approach is to buy the land and later put in such a home.

The other reason why you would probably buy a ready-made house is that it is difficult for one or two people to build a house that meets the restrictions of today's building codes. I've met men and women who've built their own homes, but such people are not common. If you've spent a few years doing construction jobs, then you might consider building a house with your own hands, but otherwise you're facing quite a challenge. Building codes are complicated. Even if you could follow the regulations, it would take a great many hours of labor to finish the job.

Buying a house, rural or urban, involves a certain ritual, and to deviate from that ritual can be fatal. If you see a listing that tempts you, call the real-estate agent whose phone number is shown, and make an appointment to look at the property. If possible, book two or three trips in the same area on that same day. When the agent shows you the property, have a good hard look at the house. Start by having a look at the outside: if the walls are leaning or badly cracked, the house cannot be repaired and should not be bought. Look at the roof: if the shingles are so old and wrinkled that they look like potato chips, then there's a fair chance that the plywood underneath is rotten, which means thousands of dollars in repairs. Go inside: any water stains on the ceiling or walls? If so, are the stains still damp, or have the leaks been repaired? Check the floors: if they sag like a trampoline, they're rotten. Check the plumbing (turn on the taps, flush the toilet). Check the windows (are they single pane or double, and what's the condition of the frames?). What kind of electrical system is in place? Don't worry about dirt -- you're bound to find enough of that, especially if nobody is living in the house -- but pay attention to serious defects that will need to be fixed and that will therefore add to your labor or expenses. There's a mysterious border between "fixable" and "unfixable," and if you buy a house that's in the latter category, you'll just end up reselling the place for less than you paid. (None of that will bother your spouse, because he or she will have left you by that point!) Then look at the land: is there really enough arable land, enough water, enough sunlight?

Don't go on your gut feelings; it's far too easy to fall in love with a property -- it's almost instinctive, that cave-dweller's craving for a place of your own. The more practical approach would be to start taking notes on the back of the listing page; by the time you get home you'll have forgotten half of what you've seen.

It would probably be a good idea to hire a professional home inspector, if you can find somebody in that area. Unfortunately, the qualifications for that job are often rather vague, so try to get a name from someone you trust. Make sure the inspector isn't also a renovator, or you may get conned into repairs you don't need. If you find someone reliable, make it a condition of the sale that the inspector be allowed to look at the house and submit a written report.

You'll need a good wood-burning stove. You might not need what is called a "wood-burning cook-stove," a 300-kg monster with an oven, a hot-water reservoir, and so on. A small, simple, 150-kg wood-burning heater can be used for boiling or frying, costs far less than a cook-stove, and will heat an average-sized house, even up in the northern parts of the continent.

If you're new to a certain area, it's considered ethical to shop around from one agent to another for a while. Once an agent has taken you on a number of trips, however, it's generally considered your responsibility to stick with that agent. It's hard to say when such a partnership begins, but if you're willing to place your inquiries with one agent you'll find that the benefits are mutual -- loyal customers tend to get better service. On the other hand, if you feel that you're being taken on too many wild-goose chases, it may be better to find another someone else.

Be careful with real-estate agents. Most are honest and efficient, but some are better than others. Beware of agents who try to con you with certain expressions. "This'll sell quickly. You'd better put in an offer fast." "Don't worry about that clause. I don't know about you city folks, but around here we generally settle things with a handshake." "What do you mean, the roof is caving in? What do you expect for that kind of money?" "Gee, you want to see inside the place? What's the matter, you don't trust me?"

In some places, real-estate agents must state whether they are acting as vendors' agents or as buyers' agents -- i.e., whether they are working for you or for the other party. The distinction is not entirely necessary, since most areas have laws stating that agents must fully disclose all relevant information; they aren't allowed to tell lies or to omit critical facts.

If you find a property that seems to meet all your requirements, go home. Take a deep breath. A day or two later, if you're still convinced that the property is worth buying, call the agent and put in an offer. How much to offer is always a difficult question. Very roughly speaking, a property can be bought for about 80 percent of its list price. But that's very rough. It may well be the case that the owner is desperate to get rid of it, in which case you might even get a 30 percent discount. Or the opposite can happen: maybe the owner is quite happy to wait for ages until someone is willing to cough up the asking price. That question of price involves some real talent at haggling. It gets to be a war of nerves: you don't want to pay the entire asking price, but you may still be afraid of letting a nice piece of property slip through your hands. When you've told the agent what you'd like to pay, you'll be sent a purchase-offer document, with standard clauses inserted, and of course with your name and your offering price.

Be certain to give this paper to a lawyer before you sign anything. Yes, you'll have to pay the lawyer a few hundred dollars to do all the legal work, but it still works out to be cheap insurance. You'll save yourself a lot of suffering if a lawyer can spot errors right away; six months later is not a good time to find out that you don't own what you thought you owned.

During the negotiations, don't be shy about calling that lawyer. You're paying him or her to do a job, so you have a right to ask questions. Don't sit by the phone, waiting for the lawyer to call you instead; your phone may never ring. Some lawyers do an excellent job, whereas others seem to think they're being paid hundreds of dollars just to sign a piece of paper. For various reasons, lawyers sometimes take on too many clients, which again means your case might not get much attention if you say nothing. In any case, informed questions get better responses than dumb ones, so read the purchase agreement carefully; if you don't understand the terminology, go to a library or bookstore and get a few books on the subject of real estate.

Be especially careful with all clauses involving wells and septic systems. Is it a dug well or a drilled well? What kind of pump does it have? Get a potability test. What kind of septic system is installed? How old are the well and septic system? Ask your lawyer to get copies of all relevant documents regarding construction and maintenance.

If both you and the lawyer are satisfied with the purchase offer, sign it and fax it back to the agent. The offer will mention three dates: the irrevocable date (the last date on which the vendor can agree to your offer), the title-search date (the latest date on which your lawyer can check the title), and the most important one, the closing date (when you officially take possession, which can be anywhere from one month to three months after you sign the offer). The agent will show the offer to the vendor. If the vendor is satisfied, he or she also signs the offer, and it is sent back to you. There may be some last-minute haggling, but at some point both parties have to decide when to stop quibbling and just sign the paper. Practically speaking, the property is now yours. You must then send a deposit to the agent (whatever deposit amount you stated in the offer). If you need a mortgage, you must be sure that your bank is ready to lend you the money, although the general agreement with the bank should have been worked out even before you started looking for property.

Now that the property is yours, you can start thinking about the future. Ideally, you should have plenty of time to clean the new house thoroughly before you move in. When the cleaning is finished, paint anything that needs to be painted. Keep the paint simple, and don't get involved with wallpaper, because it takes longer and costs more. When the painting is finished, you can move in the furniture. And unless there's snow on the ground, you can start preparing a garden.


Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)