Last year I was living with my children in a worn 1969 split-level ranch-style house on an acre, ten rural miles from the nearest town hub (technically a city, with a population of 12,000.) This year we moved to a 1920s two-story Victorian on a tenth of an acre, right in the heart of that city. I’d like to share how we made that decision and increased our resilience in the process.
To start with, nine years ago we moved out to the country from a major city suburb, seeking the quiet and privacy of a rural setting, more space to run around in, closer proximity to “nature,” a lower cost of living, and an affordable larger home for our growing family. We were tired of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality prevalent in the major city suburb we had been calling home, and we felt out of place with our ‘alternative’ ideas about things like parenting, schooling, and nutrition. We were hoping to find ourselves among likeminded people, instead of always being the odd ones out with our thoughtful and slightly countercultural lifestyle. We found a house that stretched our budget and needed work but promised all of these things and more. It seemed like a very good plan.
We moved to our new town of 2000 residents and into a very small neighborhood surrounded on all sides by about 1500 acres of undeveloped land – a combination of state forest, town forest, conservation land, and private property. It was stunningly beautiful; we had a tri-state mountain view and could see the sun rise 365 days a year, barring clouds. I tilled an area for a large garden, planted berry bushes, nurtured wild fruit, and harvested apples and plums when they saw fit to grow in the mini-orchard. The south-facing patio was good for container gardening, and the large row of very tall pine trees to the north sheltered our property from harsh winds. We saw the neighbors a few times a year, got some kittens to take care of the mice, and enjoyed the birdsong and the deer tracks.
But over time I found there were drawbacks. The steep hill we lived on was unmaintained by the town and treacherous in winter. We were within walking distance of exactly nothing, save hiking trails and neighbors. There was no public transportation to anywhere near where we lived. A round-trip drive to town was at minimum 20 miles…and in the large, three-bench, four-wheel-drive, family-sized SUV that we needed to navigate the roads safely in the winter and fit all four carseats, that mileage added up fast.
Also, I realized “too late” that the house was not going to be easily adapted for sustainability – a sprawling split-level ranch is not efficient in our frigid Vermont winters. The building materials were not holding up well. The septic system was poorly built and showing its age. The hot water and heating systems, both fueled by oil, were also aging. There were dark areas of the house where electric light was a necessity, including the hall and bathroom. There did not seem to be any reasonable way to guide the house firmly toward a post-Peak-Oil era, short of investing a lot of money into new systems, which was not an affordable option.
I felt like there wasn't much I could do with that awareness on a perpetually tight budget. I learned a lot from living in that house, mostly how to dream about what I would do differently if I ever had the opportunity to move elsewhere. But that did not seem possible. I also learned about letting go of the things that I can't change, and focusing on making the most of what I had. I came to feel reasonably prepared and empowered, but there were limits to that situation and I wondered if I would ever get the chance to move beyond them.
Opportunity in Disguise
My marriage, a relationship of 22 years, came to a sudden and unexpected end about a year and a half ago. I stayed in that ranch house with our four kids for over a year after my husband left. At that time it was unclear whether the kids and I would end up staying in the house for the long term or leaving it in the short term. As divorcing co-owners we were required by law to liquidate our joint property, and it eventually became clear that I had no choice but to move. I was not in a position to buy property on my own. My parents heroically stepped up and offered to help facilitate the purchase of a new home for my children and me.
There were two reasonable options available. The first, Plan A, was to find a modest, practical house in good repair in the rural area within six miles of town and near several of my sustainability-minded friends. Ideally this house would be sufficient to allow my adventuresome and supportive parents to share the property with us, either by splitting the house into a (well-soundproofed) duplex, transforming an outbuilding into a second dwelling, or building a second home on the land for them to move to later. We were all very excited about this possibility.
The second option, Plan B, was to move into the heart of town to a much smaller property, preferably in a neighborhood already populated with friends and/or likeminded people. This option was less appealing, because I’ve been dreaming for years of a little country homestead of my own. I like the peace and quiet that rural life brings, and I loved the intergenerational possibilities that a larger lot would allow. I feared that a small lot would lower my capacity for self-sufficiency and that the denser town population would bring higher risk of crime. I also worried that the traffic noise would be relentless and unbearable. Plan B was quickly shoved to the back burner as my fall-back option.
As a newly single parent, I knew I needed to be in a place where I could get support when needed it. So I honed my search to two particular neighborhoods — one for each plan — where I already had more than one set of trusted, reliable friends. I wanted to be near people with whom I already had an easy relationship, shared interests, and a history of reciprocal support. I had the advantage of having lived in the general area for nearly a decade, so these relationships were already firmly in place, and I had a very clear idea of where I did and did not want to live.
I would need better access to public transportation and easier/faster transport to and from town than we had at our old house. We were fast becoming regulars at the public library, my children were involved in activities in town, and their social lives were becoming more of a priority as they approached and entered the teen years. Juggling homeschooling, work, and parenting, my own time was at a high premium. It would help to be situated where my kids could flex their growing independence and get themselves to and from activities and social engagements whenever possible.
I also knew that I would need to be especially careful about budgeting and that we’d have less financial ease than ever before. Suddenly, gas for a drive to town and back seemed like something that had to be carefully justified. During the school year, we had been going back and forth from town almost daily, sometimes two or three times a day. There were opportunities for free fun and enrichment in town – but such events are not truly free if you have to drive 10 miles and back.
Perhaps most importantly, I needed to be sure we would have high-speed Internet so I could continue working from home. Many people in this area still only have dial-up Internet access, and that would be insufficient for my fast-paced work as copy-editor and customer service manager here at Peak Prosperity. So I would need to be located in an area with that all-important amenity.
The only challenge was waiting for the right property to come on the market at the right price in the right timeframe. Sometimes that is easier wished-for than accomplished.
The Right Property
Unfortunately, the right property was slow in coming. We started looking at properties nearly a year before we actually moved. Many of the available Plan A houses were too expensive for our budget, needed extensive repairs, or were too small for my family (never mind my parents). This would be my forever house, and I needed to choose it carefully.
I needed at least three bedrooms given our family size (me + two boys + two girls). I also hoped for an additional room to use as an office or guest room, and storage space sufficient for our preps and pantry food. On a tight monthly budget, I could not buy a house needing repairs and take the chance that I would not be able to afford to see those projects through to completion. So the house needed to be solid, well cared-for, and relatively low-maintenance. If it needed repairs, the cost would have to be rolled into the price of the house and weighed accordingly.
I wanted enough land to grow food for my family and have small livestock. Farmer friends said three acres would be an ideal minimum. I also wanted to make sure the property had solar exposure on the outside and good natural light on the inside. I wanted to be able to live fairly comfortably without grid power if a time came when the grid failed or I could not afford my utility bills, which seems conceivable in my lifetime.
The house needed to be reasonably energy-efficient – cool in summer, warm in winter. I would install my precious Vermont Castings Resolute III woodstove (if necessary) in whatever house I moved to, but the house had to do its part by retaining the heat. The water pipes needed to have been thoughtfully placed within the house to reduce the risk of freezing in winter. (In our last house this was a big problem, as the ranch design left corners not easily reached by central heating, and we had major issues with frozen pipes while we lived there.) And although all of the cellars and basements in our area hold some degree of moisture, it needed to be manageable, unlike at our old house, where a perpetual lake covered half of the concrete floor for years until we took significant measures to control the leakage.
If that wasn’t enough of a wish list, aesthetics were important to me. I would likely have only one chance at my forever house, and this was it. I’d be stuck there, happily or unhappily, so I’d best choose well and pick a house that I liked – one that would meet my family’s needs now, that I would be comfortable growing old in, and that would be able to accommodate my parents’ needs when eldercare becomes necessary in later years.
A Change in Plans
I clung to Plan A all winter and spring. I simply did not see myself on a small, in-town lot. I’m an introvert, and the idea of being surrounded so closely by people and traffic made me uncomfortable. And town lots were small – where would I put my garden? But as time went on, it was obvious that I could not afford the payment on a three-bedroom house in the country. Town properties are cheaper. So I reluctantly agreed to look at some houses in town, just for comparison.
I was crabby at the prospect of shifting to Plan B. How would I fulfill my dream of a sweet, productive, resilient homestead in town? Moving to town felt like a depressingly second-rate compromise.
We were very lucky to have found a gifted realtor. (Another advantage of living in an area before buying a house is that you get plenty of time to research whom you want to work with. This is a good reason to consider renting for awhile before buying a house in a new area, if you possibly can.) Like all of the very best realtors, he figured out my needs and knew what I would want to buy even before I did.
He had been working with a couple to ready their in-town house for listing, and he was convinced that it would be perfect for my family. They agreed to show it to us the moment it hit the market. Prior to that showing, we looked at two other similar houses in town, and I started making peace with the fact that Plan B was the likely outcome. I came to imagine my kids and I living in one of them, although it would be small for us and needed a lot of work. It was right smack in the middle of the one neighborhood that I felt most comfortable in, right around the corner from our good friends, and it was within our budget. It didn’t seem like we would find anything better than that, and I spent a few days adjusting to the idea of making an offer on that house.
Our realtor couldn’t give me any details before showing us the third house later that week, and I couldn't believe he'd be able to show us anything in town that would be ideal for us. But I agreed to look at the third house, which turned out to be in the very same neighborhood as the previous house (which had since come under agreement), and…well, I’ll skip to the end: We bought the third house, we are living there now, and I am very excited about its potential. I have fallen in love and couldn’t be happier with it.
As I thought about the second in-town house we looked at, it occurred to me how much time I could save by living in town. Some weeks I might gain up to 10 hours by not having to drive as much. My kids could walk to nearly all of their activities and each of them would have at least two friends within walking distance. They would have vastly increased independence – and so would I.
The support network of living within a community of friends and good neighbors is priceless to me. We are within a mile of the local co-op grocery, a supermarket, the public library, town offices, a hospital, the music school, the circus school, the local brew pub, and myriad small businesses. Our immediate neighbors are already interdependent and sharing resources – for example, the entire block pooled their money to buy a high-quality community-owned snowblower some years back, and it is housed in an accessible place where they all share its use and upkeep. The neighborhood has regular potlucks, and I was warmly invited to one even before we closed on the house.
The house itself was sturdily built in the 1920s, a time when houses needed to be heat-efficient in winter and self-cooled in summer. The previous owners meticulously insulated the two attics and lined the chimney. There is a large porch on the east/southeast side of the house, creating wonderful shade in summer and protection from rain and snow, as well as a perfect location for a sheltered clothesline. The previous owners replaced all of the windows, upgraded all of the systems and appliances, modernized the bathrooms, and faithfully kept up with routine maintenance. They clearly loved the house, but a job change prompted a move further north, and their loss was my gain.
The house was “priced to sell,” and the good condition of the house did not appear to significantly impact the price compared to other similar but more worn houses in the area. Many houses in this area need TLC. I admire people who revitalize old houses, but it’s not reasonable for me to bear that kind of commitment. It was helpful that I accepted that limitation from the start and narrowed my list of properties based on the types of improvements I was not willing or able to take on.
As for my goal of growing food, the lot is very small by my standards – 0.09 acres. I was extremely disappointed in this factor, and it was the only thing that gave me pause about the house – but I soon got over it. The “yard” consists of a large rectangle of grass and flowers on the south side of the house, with a six-foot margin of dirt or grass on the other three sides. Before closing the deal, I consulted with a few farmer friends who said they felt my lot could certainly grow enough fruit and veggies for my family, plus chickens if we can get a variance to allow it (and others have hens in town, so I am hopeful). After a decade on a grassy acre, I am thrilled at the prospect of replacing all of the grass with edibles and never having to mow again.
Peering Into My Future
I can see my children growing up and myself growing old in this house. If we can’t afford oil or utilities, I’m optimistic that we will be able to manage with relative comfort. The house is made of solid, lasting materials – wood, stone, slate – and will outlive my lifetime for sure. There are solid wood doors on all of the rooms, so there is good potential to close any room or series of rooms, including closing off the upstairs entirely if needed; the downstairs has kitchen, living/dining rooms, bedroom, and a half bath. Sometimes I think about how the house could accommodate them as adults with growing families if that became necessary. It would not be ideal by today’s standards, but it would certainly be possible. I find this reassuring in my perpetual motherly drive to ensure that my children’s needs are met as the years go by.
I am looking forward to the prospect of urban homesteading. I can imagine roughly a half-dozen fruit trees and some berry bushes in my yard, as well as raised beds for vegetables, vertical supports for certain plants, containers on the sunny railing of my porch, and eventually a platform for containers on my porch roof. I can also imagine a chicken coop behind the house with a permanent chicken run along the north margin of the house. And there is room for composting if I use the space efficiently. I am already planning to save our fall leaves in bags behind the garage for next year’s mulch.
Unfortunately, the property does not have its own water source. But we are less than a mile from a large river and a number of runoff streams, and I also intend to make good use of rain barrels and a Berkey filter (as needed). There is some promising space in the cellar for root-cellaring, and also room for water filtration and storage. The house has a wonderful unheated “mudroom” that I have my eye on for storing food. Unsurprisingly for a house of this era, the cabinets in the mudroom have shelves that are exactly the right size for pint and quart canning jars.
There are limits to what I can do here. I can’t afford solar power, so I tried to choose a house with decent natural light in every room (even the cellar). I won’t be able to keep small livestock, except for perhaps chickens and rabbits, but local farmer friends assure me that we can work something out if the time comes that I need to grow a significant amount of my family’s meat. We recently installed my beloved woodstove and a new exterior chimney, mounted a self-powered solar hot air heating panel that I received via our state weatherization program, are putting in a radon abatement system, and plan to replace the old garage roof, but other than that, little else is needed.
Hang Onto Your Ideals
I’m convinced that my time was well spent learning about prudent preparedness and imagining how that would best translate for my family, although sometimes it felt like all I was doing was dreaming up impossible scenarios. And those scenarios kept shifting as I learned more about my options and myself. When the time came to make key decisions, it helped that I was familiar with my priorities, as I had to sift through them ruthlessly when timing and budget constraints narrowed my focus. Knowing what you want so you can recognize it when it comes – even if you don’t know how, when, or if you’re going to get from here to there – can make the difference between seizing and losing an opportunity.
Two things have been key in my thinking, from the time I first felt the need to increase my resiliency and preparedness through the devastation of the end of my marriage and on through today: 1) It is important to shape, envision, and hang onto your ideals, even if you have no idea how or whether they are possible, and 2) If you are unable to change your situation in some key way, you will ultimately find a way to make the best of where you are. Thinking positively and optimistically about my ability to make good decisions and handle whatever came my way was the most important tool in my kit.
There were many factors involved in my ability to transform my situation to increase my family’s resiliency, including a traumatic event that forced me to downsize and relocate, support from relatives that enabled the purchase of a permanent home, and a strong understanding of what resilient choices look and feel like. Every family will have a different take on what “resilience” means to them. But if you are inclined to dismiss the possibility that you will be able to increase your resilience in any significant way, I invite you to think again.