Monthly Archives: March 2019

Trappings of Rural Life

My FIRE strategy is predicated on rural living, which means cheap housing on a parcel of productive land. Moving out of the city was an easy decision for me. Crowds, traffic, and expensive housing are not things that hold a lot of appeal. Similarly, going back to the suburbs of my childhood wasn’t really a consideration either, since the additional expenses of a house and yard coupled with a long commute hardly seems worth having a little bit of outdoor space of my own. A truly rural community, on the other hand, offers everything I want. I am very grateful for the quiet and privacy of my lovely little plot of land that I enjoy for a very reasonable price tag. I have learned, however, that there is a lot of work and expense that goes into maintaining a rural property. So I have to ask – is living rural really that different from being a home-owner in the suburbs? Is a rural property just a money pit, or can it be maintained on an early retirement extreme budget?

During my years as a student, I managed to maintain a pretty minimalist lifestyle in various cities around Canada. I had the romantic notion that my low-impact apartment life would transfer over very naturally into a similarly non-materialistic life on a cozy little homestead. Turns out living in a house in the country actually does require more stuff than living in an apartment in the city. It started innocently enough when I first rented a house in my new tiny town. A snow shovel here, a longer extension cord there. No biggie.

Then I finally bought a place of my own and suddenly found myself with nearly two acres of land, a rather long driveway, far too much lawn, and logs that definitely were not going to fit in my wood stove as is. I realized very quickly that I was missing most of the toys and tools that the majority of my neighbours had. Snow blowers. Riding mowers. Power tools. Tractors. Trucks. And here I thought I had managed to avoid the suburbs with its ostentatious cycle of buying large lawn accessories and paying them off. Had I made a mistake? Not really. I had to spend some money, but I managed to avoid going overboard. Here’s how I’ve handled some of the main regular tasks on my property so far:

Keeping the House Warm

I am sold on the whole heating with wood thing. The wood stove takes a significant chunk out of my winter electric bill, creates a warm and pleasant living space, and makes my lifestyle a little more self-sufficient. Additionally, with little more than a good annual cleaning, the wood stove will likely last a lifetime without requiring replacement or major repair.

I started last winter with a full woodshed courtesy of the previous homeowners, but this year I had to source my own supply. There are three big ticket items that would have made this a much easier proposition: a truck, a chainsaw, and a log-splitter. My other option was to buy firewood for $250 CAD / cord, split and delivered. (I need about a cord and a half to get through winter.)

I opted for none of the above. I still had some wood left over from last year as a start and went to work procuring the rest. It took a good part of my summer and fall, but I managed to fill my woodshed for next to nothing. Here’s how that looked:

  • Firewood from own property. This included some that was already split and stacked, as well as fresh deadfall and blowdown that I chopped up by hand. ~25% of this year’s total.
  • Scored a large amount from a friend’s yard clean-up. This was a one-off event which I was very grateful for. I even got some birch and balsam fir. ~50% of this year’s total.
  • Coupling plant-foraging hikes with wood-gathering excursions. There is a lot of deadfull and cut-down along non-motorized recreation trails. I’m not sure if grabbing this is legal so I tried to stay a bit surreptitious. Everything I took was at least a year old and it didn’t look like anyone was coming back for it anyway. ~25% of this year’s total, and by far the most labour-intensive. I think I’d have a pretty hard time getting my whole supply this way.

All firewood brought back to my property was transported in my little car. Fuel costs were quite minimal since I was able to combine my wood gathering activities with outings I’d be doing anyway. No truck needed.

There were definitely times when I could have used a log-splitter. Double that on the chainsaw (though I admit I find the thought of actually using one intimidating). Fortunately I didn’t have too many big logs that required sawing this year. Sawing by hand the few that I did have was time consuming but doable.

I spent even more time splitting wood. The good news is that if this skinny little city girl can split logs, odds are you can too. A splitting awl is the most popular method but a sledge hammer and metal wedge requires less skill. I managed to score the latter tools second-hand and I’m very happy with the combination.

Next year I may have to buy a cord, but expect I’ll be able to get at least half a cord from my own property and foraging elsewhere again. I don’t intend to buy a truck, log-splitter, or chainsaw anytime in the foreseeable future.

Snow Clearing

Gone are the easy days of apartment-living where snow removal was someone else’s problem. Now I have a driveway and a big one at that. I think you know where I’m going with this one – that shovel I bought back in the rental house is getting a bit more use now. It’s good exercise. And if enough people around you have tractors and plows, someone may be willing to help you out. I’m very lucky to have a neighbour down the road who’s plowed me out after a couple of major storms both this year and last. Homemade baking is always good way to say thank you.

So no snow-blower purchased this year, and I have no intention of getting one. During major storms, my road is often not plowed for a couple of days, so I’m not getting out even when my driveway is clear. That’s enough time to shovel it myself if I have to.

Keeping the Grass from Taking Over

I may have a rural property, but there is still almost an acre of good old lawn. The more rural you are, the further you are from the societal pressures of having a perfectly manicured sea of green around your house. Phew! The ridiculousness of North America’s obsession with lawns is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say the last thing I want to put time and money into an environmentally-deleterious status symbol.

That being said, letting the whole yard go back to nature isn’t ideal for a couple of reasons. First, I want to eventually turn a good chunk of the present lawn into a vegetable garden. The only thing harder than digging up clay soil with short grass is trying to dig up clay soil with waist-high grass. Building raised beds on top of tall grass doesn’t work so well either. Secondly, wildfire is a very real risk in summer, and having a ring of short, watered grass around the house is a wise firebreak.

The only thing harder than digging up clay soil with short grass is trying to dig up clay soil with waist-high grass. Building raised beds on top of tall grass doesn’t work so well either. Secondly, wildfire is a very real risk in summer, and having a ring of short, watered grass around the house is a wise firebreak.

So I knew I’d have to have some lawn, but first off I needed to decrease the size of it. I’m letting a fair amount of previously-manicured lawn grow wild and that seemed to work fine last summer. I’m also focusing my efforts on turning as much lawn as I can into garden. What could be more important than producing my own food? So last summer when I wasn’t splitting firewood, I was digging up lawn to make room for potatoes and pumpkins. I don’t feel like I’ve made much of a dent in the area that requires mowing so far, but it’s a start. Every year I will have a little more land dedicated to growing vegetables.

And the remaining ~0.75 acres that I still have to mow? I thought about livestock or taking a chance on a second-hand mower. I’d love to be able to say that I got a flock of sheep, or managed to barter my way into free lawn care, but I admit I went the conventional route on this one. I spent $500 on new self-propelled push mower, and I don’t regret it. The self-propulsion is a luxury that I am very thankful for in the heat of summer. (Also l’d much rather save my energy for expanding and tending the garden!)

Conclusions

So there you have it. This is what I learned:

  1. Do stuff by hand. Exercise keeps you healthy, and you can also save money on a gym membership, as well as on labour-saving tools. If physical work outdoors is not something you enjoy, this style of early retirement extreme is probably not for you.
  2. Get creative – scavenging and using social capital are always options, as are any other ideas you might come up with to avoid buying something.
  3. When you do have to make a purchase, buy as low down on the food chain as you can (e.g. car over truck, push mower over riding mower).

When I look around, I sometimes feel that there is a very fine line between suburban and rural lifestyles. Having a larger property can become a gateway for lifestyle inflation and an excuse to buy bigger versions of all the home and lawn toys found in the ‘burbs. If both FIRE and living rural is what you want, you have to find your own path to having a functional and economical homesteading set-up, and not just another suburban house and yard that ends up costing reams of money.

Rural or suburban, homeownership is expensive. There is a great argument for renting. Your house costs you money each month in the form of insurance, property taxes, routine maintenance, and larger repairs and upgrades. Then again, where I live, all of the above plus a monthly mortgage payment (assuming you put 20% down) is less than renting an equivalent property (and both options are cheap). If you can carve out a livelihood in a place like this – and want to stay once you achieve financial independence – buying can be justified.

What about all the time spent actually doing the maintenance? By the conventional argument of specialization (i.e. get a lot of education and make a lot of money doing the one thing you’ve been trained to do), it would make a lot more sense for me to work more hours and use that money to pay someone else a lower hourly rate to do the other stuff for me. But oddly enough, I actually like looking after my property. And I definitely find it more rewarding than the hours I spend at my job. Actually, most days I’d rather clean my bathroom than go to work. You will have to put your own dollar value on time not spent at your day job vs time not spent working on house and property to determine if it’s better to consider trading more time for more money. (And if your answer is “Not being at work is always better!” then you are probably on the right track with early retirement extreme.)

I believe that FIRE is about finding the balance between using brains, muscle, and social capital to avoid unnecessary spending, while buying what you need to maintain a reasonable quality of life. My first year and a half on my home sweet home has been good and I have no regrets so far.

What do you need to keep your property running? Are there any expensive tools you absolutely have to have? What are you able to get by without? Or are you taking a pass on homeownership in order to avoid these sort of questions?