If you’re looking to buy land for a homestead in the U.S., you’ll need to consider these seven factors:
- Geographic region
- Arable land
When choosing a homestead site, the first consideration is geographic region.
If you have a limited geographic region for homesteading (e.g., you only want to live in Alaska or only in Maine or only in New Mexico), that decision is already made. However, based on your sustenance needs, you might choose to live in a specific part of the state.
Check your USDA growing zones to learn what your growing season is in your desired location(s) and what crops will grow there. Moving to a part of the state that gives you an extra 30 days of growing season can be a huge help, especially if you have a short growing season.
If you are willing to look at different parts of the country for your homestead, write a list of what you’ll be doing on the land for sustenance. That primarily means growing a garden, raising animals, keeping bees or doing some farming to grow crops you can sell.
If you want to grow cabbage forget Arizona. If you want to grow okra, forget Alaska. Yes, you can grow anything anywhere if you have a hothouse, but if you need to feed yourself with your farm or garden, plant what grows best in that area.
Will you be raising chickens or goats or alpacas? Consider the climate.
If you’ll be relying on wood for cooking and heating your home, consider the seasons. You’ll need more trees if you live in a cold climate, which will affect the acreage you’ll need.
Another way to choose your location is to write a list of the ways you’ll be using your land. That might include food growing, hunting, fishing, beekeeping, raising livestock and small-scale commercial farming.
Once you write your list, you’ll follow most of the steps outlined above for choosing your location, including looking at USDA growing zones and crops.
Make sure about the zoning of any property you buy. It should be zoned agricultural if you want to grow food and raise livestock. Some rural properties are in unincorporated areas with no zoning, but you’ll want to make sure you get it in writing from at least a county authority that you can have specific animals on your property.
I was told I could have “a small garden” on a piece of property I was looking at, but the county wouldn’t say how big “small” was. Just because you’re zone for livestock doesn’t mean you can have chickens, goats, pigs and horses. I found one property that was zone for horses, but not chickens or goats. If you want pigs, make sure that’s OK, too.
If you’re going to sell your food, you don’t need to zone commercial. If you live inside a municipality, you’ll probably need to get a business license (about $50 – $100 per year). If you plan on having customer come to your property (such as CSA customers or people coming to your farm stand), that might require a commercial permit.
If you’ll need to grow food on your land, make sure the soil will support the amount and type of crop growing you’ll want to do.
If you move to Georgia, for example, beware of the state’s red clay. If possible, visit any site you’re considering buying, take soil samples and have them analyzed. Yes, you can buy topsoil for raised garden beds and use compost, but you’ll make your life easier if you buy a homestead that has good growing soil.
Plan on about 1/16 of an acre per person for a year’s worth of food. Plan on more if you’re a newbie gardener who most likely won’t get maximum yields from your acreage the first couple of years.
Remember, you’ll only be able to eat directly from your garden for a few months. You’ll need to put up many jars of tomato sauce, pickles, tomato soup, refried beans, tomato juice, jams, fire roasted peppers, jellies, diced tomatoes, summer salad, succotash, sauerkraut and the many other fruits and vegetables you grow.
If you can freeze fruits and vegetables, that’s even better.
Do you plan on eating a primarily plant-based diet, or eating lots of fish, game, fowl and eggs? That will affect how much food you need to grow.
Get your soil tested (it’s pretty inexpensive – often $50 or so) and find out what you need to do to get your land (and your food) certified organic.
Make sure you’ll have at least two independent water sources if you want to be truly independent. This can include public water, community water (shared well among a group of local residents), a well, rain water harvesting system or nearby stream, river or lake. Make sure you know how to purify water if you plan on drinking from a stream, lake, river or other similar source.
Know what’s upstream from you if you plan on using stream or river water or pond. Find out if your pond is spring-fed or filled by rain to see how much you can take out without harming it and its inhabitants.
Try to calculate how much water you’ll need per day for cooking, personal hygiene, home cleaning and clothes cleaning. Try to determine the maximum number of gallons you’ll need on peak days so you’ll know how much water you’ll need to store or carry on those days, especially in cold or rainy weather.
Don’t forget your water needs for your garden or farm and your animals.
What if your well fails? You should have a rain barrel backup system with filtration and pump. What if it doesn’t rain for a month? You should be able to store water pulled from your well in a large water tank.
Will you need wood to build your home, as well as future outbuildings, such as a shed, outhouse, garden beds, animal housings, fence posts or guest cabin?
Once you know you’ll have enough building wood, calculate the amount of wood (in cords) you’ll need for heating and cooking for one year. This will depend on the square footage of your cabin, how well sealed it is, your seasons, your type of heating (wood stove or fireplace), and the amount of cooking you’ll do.
You can find methods for estimating your wood needs with a quick Google search. If you plan on being on your land for many years, estimate how many trees you can plant each year and when you’ll be able to harvest them for fire (not building) wood.
All trees aren’t created equal. Know which type(s) of trees you’ll have on your land, what types you can grow the quickest and how quickly they will burn.
This might be the most important, yet least-considered factor in choosing homestead land.
Just because you can drive your vehicle on and off your property today, will you be able to do so in the years to come?
One couple invested their life savings into a homestead, relying on the word of their neighbor that they could use his road to come and go. After a disagreement with the neighbor, they found he had put a gate on his road and they were trapped.
The government would not allow them to come and go via government land. They couldn’t afford to come and go via helicopter and so lost their homestead and life savings.
You need to determine if the land you buy will come with access to come and go in perpetuity.
That means don’t rely on a handshake or a low-cost easement from a neighbor if the easement has an out clause or end date. And what if that neighbor dies or sells his land and the new landowner removes the road?
What if that government road you relied on is part of land that gets leased to a logging or mining company or cattle rancher?
What if a Democratic presidents changes the status of the federal land near you and makes it more protected, or a Republican president opens it up for commercial lease?
You can’t guarantee none of these scenarios will happen, but you reeeeeeeeally need to do as much research as you can into making sure that you are likely to have free or affordable access to your property for as long as you plan on living there.
And remember, if you lose access, no homesteader will buy your land from you.
The last thing you need to do after you’ve found homestead sites that give you exactly what you’re looking for is to look at how the surrounding area (think 50-mile radius) might be developed in the future.
The Raney family, well-known homesteaders and homesteading consultants (with their own TV show) lived on a beautiful homestead in Alaska.
Lo and behold, developers bought the land adjacent to them and put in a residential housing development. The Raneys could literally throw a baseball into the new development.
They ended up giving up their homestead and relocating.
Check out the area where you’re considering moving and look at the ways the land could be used: mining, ranching, farming, logging, housing, airport, government facility, suburban sprawl, commercial business activity, other homesteaders.
What if a development goes in many miles away from you, but it’s next to the river that supplies you with your water? Can you trust that the new neighbors (especially a corporation) will never put pollutants in your river?
You can’t predict the future, but you can look at how an area is developing, including areas within 50 miles of growing cities.
You might also want to contact nearby neighbors to see how they feel about you growing crops, raising animals, putting up a greenhouse and selling food. The last thing you want to find out after you move into your dream homestead is that you have nightmare neighbors.
Use Google Maps, Acres.co and Google Earth to check your land to see what’s nearby. I found wonderful properties, then pulled back using Google Maps to find out they were literally at the end of an airport runway, across the street from a rail freight line or next door to a high school football stadium. Google Earth also helped me find out that some properties I was interested (particularly in VA, WV and KY) were on top of hills, with no flat land for gardening.
If you plan on starting a micro- or mini-farm and need to make a full-time income, make sure you’re within 60 minutes of one or more cities with large enough populations that you can find customers such as restaurants, schools, retailers, wholesalers or enough CSA customers. Don’t plan on making a good living just by selling at your local farmers market and/or with a roadside stand.