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Alternative Culture Articles

July 23, 2000

Alternative Housing
by Royce Carlson

The standard way to set up housekeeping in the West amounts to this: The American dream is to own a house. If you canít afford a house you can start with a condominium. Until you can afford either one of those it is expected that you rent either an apartment or a house. Once you can afford the down payment for a house, you are supposed to find a real estate agent to help you find one and then you get a bank to finance it. With a standard 30-year mortgage if you borrow $100,000 you will end up paying around $300,000 by the time your loan is paid off. A lot of people make money from you if you do it the standard way and it ties you down to a mortgage (and a job) for a long, long time.

There are other ways, however, that cut out the middleman and make housing much more affordable. For example, you could find someone with a large parcel of land who would be willing to let you use part of it in exchange for some work or even for free just to have someone there to protect the property. I just recently met some people who have been living on a three-acre chunk of a large private parcel of land, without owning it or paying for it, for over 20 years.

I lived on a beautiful 30-plus acre piece of remote property for two years for very little money just so the owner could know that the property was watched. Not owning the property can make a person feel somewhat insecure about how long they will be allowed to live there so this option isnít for everyone.

Years ago I met some people who lived even more dangerously and built houses deep in the National Forests of the Northwest U.S. without the governmentís knowledge. Now, this was totally illegal, but it was still possible for them to do it for many years due to the incredible amount of densely forested land and the inadequate budget for the Forest Service to patrol and police the area.

For those who want the illusion of security, ownership is the next option. An ownership option is to buy some remote vacant land and then just start building. Itís possible in many parts of the U.S. to pay cash for some pretty nice property instead of using the same amount of money as a down payment on a suburban home. Then you could live in a teepee, motor home, or tent until you build your house. This is a rather labor- intensive way and is certainly not a fast way but it is a possible means to own your own home without involving real estate agents, etc. It, very likely, would involve living far from a city and probably without utilities, paved roads and close neighbors but who wants to pay all those electric, gas and water bills, anyway?

Sharing property is another way to make home ownership affordable by unconventional means. Thatís how many intentional communities started. People pooled their money and bought some acreage and they all helped each other build their homes. With this kind of arrangement you can share other expenses as well, creating an inexpensive way to live as well as an interesting social environment.

Even in urban and suburban areas itís possible to own a home for much less money than you might think. I have heard of people buying a vacant lot and then buying a house that is about to be torn down in another area and having it hauled to the lot and set up. You can often get the house for a little as one dollar plus the cost of having it moved. A friend of mine did this and probably spent no more than $40,000 total on the deal, including the land, and ended up with a home worth over $100,000. Some people have done this several times and have accumulated quite a bank account for their trouble.

If you buy a lot that is approved for mobile or manufactured homes, you can buy a used mobile for much less than a new one and, once again, end up with a house for considerably less than you would have to pay if you bought it already set up.

But why own or rent land at all? I lived in an old school bus converted into a rolling home for a while and I know people who have been enjoying that nomadic lifestyle for many years. With this lifestyle you are trading space for mobility. The cost is far less than owning real estate and you can live wherever you want whenever you want because you bring your home with you when you move. You just canít accumulate near as much stuff as you can (and will) in a house.

Quartzsite is a town in southwestern Arizona where hundreds of full-time nomads gather together each winter and set up a temporary city where they have potluck dinners, buy and sell items and generally enjoy each otherís company. There are many other places like this all over America although probably none as large. There are regular annual migrations of these modern nomads from the cool north in the summer to the warm southwestern deserts in the winter.

Iím sure there are other creative and alternative ways of arranging a place to live that I havenít touched on in this article. Suffice it to say that the conventional wisdom about homes and houses and how to get them leaves a lot to be desired. You can do better, especially if you can think outside the box.

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Royce Carlson