MY DIY HOUSE-BUILDING ADVENTURE: We've Got Land!

Lucky for us, Alaska is full of folks that will show up and take away junk for free, no questions asked. What are they going to do with a rusted-out 1966 Chevy Van? It’s just better not to ask.

Apr 17, 2014 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

I’m no stranger to arriving at plot of land, for the first time. 
 
Usually, it’s just a bunch of trees. 
 
I once bought a piece of land in Hawai’i, sight-unseen. Arriving in a bright white rental car, to this place, a piece of jungle somewhere on an island in the Pacific, was beyond strange. Seeing the land for the first time--a tangle of guava, ohia and orchids--was one of the biggest reliefs of my life. Thank god it wasn’t a lava plain. 
 
I got lucky; we live in a time where we can virtually fly around the world via Google Earth, seeing both aerial and ‘street views’ of places all over the globe. It’s exciting and amazing--never been to the Pyramids of Giza? You can fly around it like the Ghost of Christmas past, looking up streets you might never set foot on, catching little snippets of people’s lives from wherever the Google-mobile went by. I’d bought the land in Hawai’i sight-unseen, but not really; I’d made sure it wasn’t an active lava flow before I ever thought about purchasing it, even checked out the road conditions and neighbours, because I’m creepy like that.
 
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Looks nice, right?

Real estate agents are always harping on location, and there’s a good reason. Initially, we just wanted something cheap. ‘Cheap’ meant far from town, swampy, cold, dark--and a host of other undesirable characteristics. Did we really want to live in a place like that for the next few decades?
 
Ideally, we would find a place that fit the type of lifestyle we want -- enough sun to survive the Alaska winter, good drainage so that our house didn’t sink into the ground and fall apart, not so close to highways that cats and kids were in danger, and close enough to work and town that we weren’t spending a third of our lives driving.
 
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Swamps are great for birds, not for people.

All of a sudden, we had a lot of criteria, and sorting through pages and pages of listings wasn’t fun anymore. I’d think I found the perfect piece of land, only to see on Google Earth that it bordered a sled dog yard on one side, and a junkyard on the other. I saved so much time weeding out real estate online, so that we only drove and looked at a handful of properties.
 
We got lucky again. Feeling discouraged about finding an affordable spot that wasn’t 20 miles from town, kind of on a lark, we went to check out a fancy property with a view. The very idea was over the top for me--I‘d be happy just not to have to build on top of swamp or permafrost, but the idea of looking out over the city of Fairbanks was pretty seductive.
 
We drove up the Ridge, to an acre parcel of land that had a brilliant view of the river below. $55K for an acre. It was just too much. The driveway was scary and steep, making building and living on it a pain,  and only an acre, it just wasn’t right for us. When we went to turn around, we spotted an old ‘For Sale’ sign nailed to a tree, just down the road.
 
Four acres, with kind of a view of the city and river, and it was in our price range. I snatched the sign and we called right away. 
 
 We’d been saving for over a year for a down payment, which at the time was so hard and lame. Already being super-thrifty, it was a non-stop bummer to deny ourselves of the few and far-between times where we splash out.  This meant no eating at restaurants, no random trips to the thrift store, no movies, no drinks out, only a few trips--it’s easy to feel like life isn’t fair and you never get anything fun when you’re squirreling cash away.  But saving ahead--big surprise here--turned out to be oh-so worth it. 
 
If you’re going to make a major purchase like a home, having that down payment in the bank ready to go is honestly more important than being pre-approved for a mortgage, which often just consists of an assets/liability report, and credit check. Having that tidy pile of cash BEFORE you start looking for a home means that you can put earnest money down as soon as you find a something you like, saving your the bullshit and heartache of someone else jumping on a house you already fell in love with. That down payment means you can start the purchasing process ASAP--before someone else does. Most people start looking for homes the moment they decide they want to stop renting, and it can be frustrating and sad when someone moves faster than you to purchase YOUR dream home. Life can be so unfair.
 
After a few back-and-forths with a nice German couple, we were sitting on their porch signing papers and shaking hands. They offered us an owner-finance option that was a few percent cheaper than the bank, and we jumped at it. We are now land barons!
 
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We’re going to kill some trees to enhance our killer view.

The only issue? It was winter when we bought the property, and while we trekked around the waist-deep snow to get a good feel for it, we were in for a treat when the snow melted and revealed some classic Alaskan lawn ornaments, AKA random junk. 
 
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A curated collection of crap.

There had been a small cabin built sometime in the ‘70s on the property, and once the snow started melting, the requisite cabin-trash started appearing: an old wood stove, a junker van from Mexico, newspaper press-plates from the 1950s, and other weird things. My heart sank a little, but lucky for us, Alaska is full of folks that will show up and take away your junk for free, no questions asked. What are they going to do with a rusted-out 1966 Chevy Van? It’s just better not to ask.
 
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Now to convince a bank we can build a house…

Now that we have the land, the next step is to both secure funding for building, and design a home that utilizes the natural space, and which is right for us--both of which requires us to save more money. It’s definitely gotten easier to save money--looking at summer photos of our big aspens shimmering in the breeze, and picturing the home we’ll build there is motivation enough to buy less.
 
Having a tangible reminder that this IS happening, makes scrimping more than just a goal in the far-off future, but something within reach.