One Way Out of Dodge by Mrs. W. in the Missouri Ozarks

Friday, Feb 15, 2013

Our story begins enslaved to a job in a middle-class suburb and ends mortgage-free in the Missouri Ozarks with us making ambitious strides toward off-grid living and growing all we eat. Unlike Jed Clampett’s kinfolk who urged luxurious city life, ours would have warned us to stay put, keep our jobs and fit in – if only they had known what we were up to.

If you dream of “someday” leaving your weekly paycheck for a more rewarding, self-reliant country life, but think you must wait (because of your “secure” job, societal expectations or whatever else is holding you), consider how we did it. With one $12 an hour job and no savings, we bought a sturdy old house on 30 acres in the woods, now work from home and have no mortgage. Today, begin your dream, even if you only sketch a rough draft. Truly decide and visualize what you want. By continuously meditating on them, dreams become reality. Ours did. Yours can, too.

After attending a free local preparedness class in 2009 and reading James Howard Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency,” my husband and I decided our rural subdivision was dangerously close to 200,000 potentially starving, looting inhabitants. We discussed moving further into the country, but weren’t sure how to do it. At the end of any week, we didn’t have two extra nickels to rub together. Or, as my mother would say, “What are you going to buy it with? Buttons?”  Well, that’s precisely what we did.

Reasons to leave

Despite our humble financial situation, we decided to seek more secluded property. First, in a worst-case scenario, at 25 miles from Missouri’s third-largest city, we were within realistic walking distance of thousands of people who had not prepared for disaster of any sort. Although generous, especially my husband, who is happiest helping others attain self-sufficiency, we feared our 5-gallon buckets of dried beans, rice and oatmeal would vanish overnight in a catastrophe.
Equally important, we dreamed of a meaningful life away from traffic, toxins, cell towers, TV, Wi-Fi and electronic everything. Because we enjoy planting, tending, harvesting and eating organic food, we wanted more space to do so. We wanted clean air and water, plenty of firewood to cut and chemical-free wild edibles. Nearing our 50s, we wanted simply to enjoy life, strengthening our relationship as we worked side by side to sustain ourselves.
Once content on our fenced, three-acre paradise with wind- and solar-energy systems, greenhouse, raised-bed gardens galore, fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and a disaster-resistant home, our serenity faded as the economy plummeted. Our fence did well to prohibit rabbits and deer from ravaging our gardens, but could not keep out the most lethal invaders – cold, desperate and hungry humans.
Deciding to leave was easy. Without any savings or potential income in a remote area, however, crafting a plan took ingenuity. In the face of criticism, skepticism and rejection, we proved it is possible. We hope to inspire others to find their way, too, out of Dodge – or Detroit, Dallas and Denver.

Where does the money go?

Although always living modestly, shopping in thrift stores, buying used vehicles instead of new, and making or restoring most of our needs, we were like many Americans working to work. We had no debt, just typical utility bills, insurance, gasoline, taxes and grocery costs. Since we grew much of our own food, had no mortgage and generated a portion of our electricity, our expenses were considerably less than most. Yet, we had absolutely no savings.
It seems, no matter what a family’s income is, living expenses equal that amount with nothing left over. Throughout my own lifetime, if I made $10 and hour, I spent $10 an hour. If I earned $20 an hour, I spent $20 an hour, and so on. Working away from home often demands so much energy and absence that it seems grueling to ponder an alternative. Eventually, I recognized how my desk job exhausted me, yet, I came alive clearing brush or planting potatoes. We had to find a way out of the trap.
We wanted 20-50 wooded acres with a small fixer-upper house, but how could we afford that? Online real estate searches revealed the remote property we sought required at least $100,000. Thus began a tumultuous roller coaster ride. Following the trodden path, we went to the local bank to inquire about a short-term mortgage. Our home and property surely had as much value as what we sought, right?

Unfortunately, we could not sell our property first. We still needed a place to sleep, store things and grow food. In our view, the super-efficient home my husband built seven years earlier would sell for the same as what we hoped to find. Banks, however, prefer a sure thing. There was no guarantee our property would sell as quickly as we thought. (It ended up taking two years to sell our home.) We also learned banks lend only a portion of a property’s value, not the entire amount.
Despite facing many obstacles, producing reams of evidential documents (some a decade old) and being turned down by several lenders, we persisted. Not everyone denied us, as abundant crooks agreed to finance our mortgage with inflated rates and nonsensical fees. Finally, we found a reasonable financier three counties away willing to work with us.

Searching for property

With approval for $120,000, we eagerly began hunting for our dream property. Like greenhorns, we started by viewing multi-listings on the Internet. Online searches now are easy, as buyers can sort properties according to price, size, location, acreage and more. However, as we learned later, web listings don’t include the best deals, such as foreclosures or “absolute” auctions, where sellers will accept any bid, no matter how outrageous.

Often, banks or realtors will hold huge auctions, selling possibly 100 parcels in a single day. At a recent local auction, a lakeside lot sold for a few hundred dollars and a former auto repair shop with some tools and equipment netted $5,000. Buyers may visit the properties a few days before the auction. Still, such purchases are riskier and may even sell at higher prices than traditional sales. For more information on finding foreclosures, visit http://homebuying.about.com, which has links to many sites to get you started.

Attending a county sale on the courthouse steps for a property being auctioned for unpaid taxes is another way to nab inexpensive land, but not a good choice if you immediately want to occupy it. Many times, the owner has a year or two to make good on the tax debt to regain the property, in which case the buyer is out all sweat equity invested. Check with the county clerk before bidding.

Since I worked full-time, my husband assumed the tedium of searching online and calling about properties. We visited the first four properties together on a sunny Saturday in September 2009. The sites were vastly different and spread over a 100-mile radius. We met up with one agent to tour a two-story, rundown home with moldy walls and saggy floors that was filled from basement to roof with garbage. Funny, it looked charming in the photos.

Next, we met another agent in a coffee shop who must have been late for an appointment, as he led us on a harrowing ride to see three other homes. We hit a buzzard, breaking a fog-light bracket, as we tried to keep up with the speedy agent on winding county roads. Something didn’t suit us with each of the properties – too open, dilapidated, populated, expensive, big, or whatever.

The land that I love

The next day, yet another agent showed us MY dream property. (Pay attention, ladies. This section is important.) Actually, my husband liked the property, too, and we made the 350-mile round trip to see it three times. Even though the 30-acre, $130,000 property had some issues (a water well shared with a neighboring cattle farm, freshly timbered woods, too close to the road, truckloads of junk to haul, and the house needed a new roof), we made an offer of $115,000 that was begrudgingly accepted by all parties.

The comfy two-bedroom 1960s ranch house had a full, finished basement and reminded me so much of the house I grew up in. There were several outbuildings including a large barn, mature fruit trees, vegetable gardens, a cistern and root cellar. Oh, the fun I’d have storing our produce. The picturesque property was on a dead-end gravel road, surrounded by neighboring woods, and had a creek running through one corner.

I absolutely adored the house and took pictures and measurements of every room, closet and hallway. I used graph paper to sketch our furniture placement in the house I was sure was ours. I printed photos of the house and land from every angle and taped them up everywhere so I could see them as I cooked supper, brushed my teeth and dressed for work. I even penciled us in arm-in-arm on the photos and sketches. I visualized us already there. I thought about it constantly and was positive the house was ours. More than once, I headed the wrong way down our hallway toward the bathroom at night, thinking I was in that house, the only house I would ever want, the only house I could ever love.

Gathering down-payment money

While we waited for the roof inspection, water test, termite inspection, employment verification, loan approval, land appraisal, insurance estimates and a host of other boring paperwork necessities before closing, we set out to raise our down-payment money. Since we couldn’t increase our wages, we tried selling unneeded items. I easily sold an ugly peach-colored 1986 pickup for $600 and an old car for another $500. We also cashed in our IRA for a whopping $350. It seemed galaxies from our $115,000 goal, but we opened a savings account and faithfully put every extra cent there. We rolled up our pennies and deposited them, too.

We sold my husband’s fancy Trek bike on Craig’s List for $300 and a small motorized cement mixer for$ 100. We even sold our kitchen clock on Craig’s List for $10. I actually did miss that after selling it, but only because I still needed to know the time.
Next, I suggested eBay as another selling source. My only experience there was buying a used camera five years earlier. Since I already had an eBay account, away we went. It took time to comprehend the listing rules, methods and fees, and how to calculate shipping, choose auction styles, upload photos and so on. We started with a pair of trendy walking shoes that were a gift to my husband. We acknowledged the shoes had been worn twice and didn’t expect to get much for them. Imagine our excitement as we watched the seconds tick away on the auction, netting us a dumbfounding $260 for used shoes! And, the buyer was pleased.

Cleaning out the closets

After that, our daily routine included exhuming stuff from closets, drawers and the shed to take pleasing photos of, vividly describe and then post, package and ship all over the country. We sent a few items to Canada and one to Australia, but learned international shipping is expensive. Another nuisance was writing feedback, but it’s intended to keep buyers and sellers honest. In all of our transactions, we received only one negative comment, which was for a Mexican peso made into a necklace. I had the necklace since 1974 and sold it for 99 cents, yet the buyer complained that it looked darker (or was it lighter?) in the photo.
Living simply, we had no electronics, video games or gadgets, so we weren’t sure how much we could assemble for eBay. It astounded us. After one particularly busy weekend, I counted $2,000 worth of goods piled on the couch, ready to ship. Many sales shocked us — $100 for a glass coffee percolator, $17.50 for a fishing lure, $450 for an antique jug that I’d been dusting for 20 years. Some sales made us laugh — $36 for a postcard I found tucked inside a used book, $5 for an antique no-name motel key and an average of $20 each for a dozen used industrial laser lenses. Another we still chuckle about is a broken pocketknife that looked something like a woman’s leg in a cowboy boot. We zoomed in on the cracked knife handle, described its imperfections and watched in amazement as bids reached $30.

This next admission may seem horrid, but here goes: I broke apart the coin collection I started as a child in 1970 and sold each coin (hundreds of them), while my husband cut the stones from his late mother’s jewelry and sold the gold. We sold my grandfather’s World War I army medals, wooden shorebirds my late father carved 30 years ago and family antiques. My husband removed the 1940’s studio portrait of his mother and aunts, and then sold the fancy, convex oval frame for $86 to an eBay shopper who collects frames. She even sent an extra $25 for us to have the frame professionally packaged. Grandpa’s medals sold for $200 and went to his hometown where they are now proudly displayed. Strangers reprimanded us by posting harsh comments on eBay, but we kept focused on our goal.

When our stash depleted, we stopped at an estate auction one cold, rainy day just to see if that would be profitable. We spent $8 and earned $250, but learned auctions consume too much time for our tastes, especially during gardening season. We paid $1 for a quart jar of old buttons that I sorted to sell. All over the living room, I set categorized bowls of sorted glass buttons, shell buttons, wooden buttons, military buttons, pearl buttons and colorful plastic buttons. I’d lay them out individually for the photo shoot (front, back and sideways), and then write tantalizing descriptions. “This lavender shell button would look especially lovely on a silk blouse” and “this sparkly faux silver button would be adorable on a jean jacket,” etc. Like most of the artifacts we sold, we didn’t know a thing about their value – and didn’t care. Our philosophy was: If we could not eat it, wear it or use is as a tool, we sold it.

Mistakes happen

We made blunders along the way as we learned the art of online selling. We hoped to save shipping costs on a heavy antique wall-mount telephone, so we sent it via U.S. Postal Service ground transport. It arrived broken. Insurance covered the buyer’s loss, but we were out shipping expenses. It was a shame the beautiful telephone lasted 100 years until we got hold of it.
Once, I forgot to check the correct shipping amount on a leather coat. It sold for 99 cents (minus eBay fees), but cost us $10 to mail. I also sent a carved wooden cow to the wrong customer and didn’t notice until the buyer inquired about the cow’s delayed arrival. I refunded the buyer and learned who mistakenly received the cow, but left it at that. In our experience, most buyers were courteous and honest. But, whew, was I ever happy when all our sales finally ended.

A year later, I hoped to meet like minded preparedness folks online and thought I’d start a thread (a first-time forum viewer or poster anywhere). I figured others would relate to how we parted with mawkish family trinkets to buy our homestead. Instead, I was scolded for admitting what we sold. The so-called survivalists called me “sick” and “immoral.” I made one reader “utterly sad.” I assumed I’d be among friends, but instead was called a freak living an 1800’s minimalist lifestyle of toil and discomfort. In my opinion, those “survivalists” placed too much value on sentimental possessions. Still, they made me feel awful for weeks. My advice here is to avoid those who do not agree with your dream.

I recently came across a photo file of our eBay items, and you know what? I did not wish for a single item back. We made our first eBay sale in late October 2009. By April 2010, pooled with our other gleanings, we amassed $10,000 in our savings account, a feat which later required explaining to our lender.

If I had known sooner, I’d have kept better records, but among the mountain of documents our lender required, I also had to clarify how our savings grew from $0 to $10,200 in five months. We sold more than 400 eBay items, some for merely 59 cents, so the itemization was quite lengthy. The bank needed assurance we were not depositing borrowed money (a few dollars at a time). It took days, but I finished the list in time to close on my dream property in mid-May. I withdrew $450 to appraise the property as the lender required. We also spent $600 on a homemade trailer to begin moving. I was ecstatic.

Talking it over

As the closing date neared, my husband began seriously reconsidering the purchase. While I was blind to the flaws with the house, barn, land, mortgage, water, creek, road, insurance and location, my husband was practical. I begged and whined; he pointed out the property’s drawbacks.
But, I love that basement, I said.
The well is across the road, watering a neighbor’s cattle, he said.
The area is beautiful, I said.
It’s too expensive, he said.
I’ll work two jobs to pay for it, I said.
I mailed off $450 for the appraisal. Days later, my husband called to cancel the deal.

That was it. We lost our appraisal fee and some earnest money, but I didn’t care about that. I was heartbroken. I took down the pictures I had taped everywhere. I told my husband to sell the trailer (he didn’t). I pouted and wouldn’t look at other properties or even talk about them. I accepted we would never leave the subdivision. So, listening to the neighbors argue, I planted the garden and moped. My husband resumed looking for our dream house. While I brooded at work, he searched, researched, made calls and visited properties. He placed a newspaper ad, seeking to trade our property for one in the woods. (The effort failed, but was worth a try.) Next, he called banks and realtors for foreclosures. He intended to spend half of what we were approved to borrow.
They’re all junk, I said.
He looked away.
I said: "We’re never going to find a decent place for less than $50,000."
He ignored me.

Just three weeks after canceling the contract on my dream home, my husband happened to reach a realtor getting ready to list a foreclosure for $44,000. My husband went to see the neglected little house (four years’ abandoned) and then learned another buyer also was interested. The bank asked each to submit a bid. After my husband described the property to me (I was speaking to him by then), I recommended he bid $54,000. He didn’t listen to me (again!) and bid something lower.
I still had not seen the property when my husband called me at work and said, “Well, we could have gotten that place for $54,000 … (my heart sank) … but … we … got it for $48,000!” Now, that’s just not funny.

The house is solid, custom built in 1966 with hardwood floors and a good basement, large shop, shed and woods. The first time I saw it, there were rats on the porch (which sent the realtor screaming), molted snake skins near the house and billions of ticks in the yard. I thanked them all for keeping the place safe for us.

A month later, it was ours. I still thank my stubborn husband for finding our dream house. Leaving the bank with our contract for deed, I drove through the area of my former dream property and discovered it was not the remote wilderness I envisioned, but a popular recreation area. For 40 miles, I was wedged in a river of boats and campers as I drove past canoe rental sites, campgrounds and liquor stores. Among other sad realities, the neighboring trees that I had loved were being logged.

We would need to work three jobs to pay for what I declared was the only place in the world I wanted. I believed we’d pay off that dream-home mortgage in a few months when we sold our house. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Selling the subdivision house took 18 months longer than we estimated and netted half of what we anticipated. After paying closing costs, we’d have made only a dent in the $115,000 mortgage I reasoned we could easily afford. Instead, we have a perfectly cozy house with no mortgage.
After almost three years, we fix things as we go and both love our little piece of the Ozarks. I left my arduous desk job and now help my husband at our home-based business. Our income is less, but we have more money. I don’t fret all night worried about my job, nor do I spend three hours a day in the car.

Perhaps, we were just lucky. I don’t know. But, I believe dreams do come true if one is willing to work for them. Looking back, it all seems so easy. Below is my elementary guide for finding your dream property.

So, you want to Get out of Dodge?

  1. Begin today, right this minute, by deciding what you truly want. Then, never stop thinking about it. Mull it over on the way to work; talk about it with your spouse; reflect on it in the shower. Visualize yourself already there.
  2. Do whatever it takes to pay off your debt. Begin by eliminating all unnecessary expenses no matter how trivial. Put every extra penny toward paying ahead on those loans.
  3. Look around your home and ask, “Do I need it? Do I love it? Does it make me money?” If you can’t honestly answer that an item does at least one of those three things, get rid of it. If you can, sell it. If you tried and can’t get a dime for it, then donate or recycle it. Just let it go. Clutter holds you back and is difficult to move. Clutter costs money.
  4. Once the debt is gone, start saving. Again, every penny counts. Each small sacrifice will put you closer to your goal more quickly. Believe me, you will never look back with regret and wish you’d spent more on cappuccino or cable.
  5. As your bank account grows, start looking for your dream property. Call banks and real estate offices to learn about properties in foreclosure. Check Craig’s List and other online sites for properties for sale by owner. Scour the classifieds and legal ads for auctions.
  6. Meanwhile, begin learning self-reliant skills. Visit the library for do-it-yourself books. Attend gardening and preparedness classes. Begin mastering at least one skill that would be useful as a barter item. Turn off the television and read books.
  7. As you shop for land, be realistic, not emotional. Visit the property many times, in more than one season if possible. Consider where you will work and shop. Ensure you have more than one source of water.
  8. Avoid the naysayers and form friendships with like-minded people.

 


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