My last post was about the lackluster older suburbs that are neither vibrant and cosmopolitan enough for some buyers, nor leafy and upscale enough for others. Property values are low, as are prospects for radical reinvention in the conventional sense. These locations aren’t ever going to be transformed into urban centers with Main Street downtowns. Transit isn’t coming. Ever. At best a dead shopping mall might eventually be turned in to a branch of a community college or a budget medical plaza. That’s about it.
But there’s another way of looking at these neighborhoods. They’re ready made for suburban homesteading on a tight budget. This house was on the market for $46,500 – radically less than anything in more prestigious nearby suburbs or the urban core. Instead of viewing a house as a consumer product or investment vehicle a home can be embraced as a place to live and engage in productive activities on the cheap. (Radical concept, eh?)
Let’s define some terms here. Homesteading is the practice of organizing life around family and community and having the home become a productive enterprise. Homesteads are most often associated with remote rural locations, but the contemporary interpretation is gravitating towards the suburbs for some very good reasons. What a suburban homestead is NOT is a hippy commune or a bunker full of canned goods and firearms.
Instead of spending money on the usual granite countertops and spa bath remodels a house like this could be retrofitted to use radically less energy. Insulation, new windows and doors, and a wood stove are the low hanging fruit. If there’s still money left in the budget at some point a solar water heater would be the next most cost effective item in many parts of the country. After that a few solar electric panels could be installed. These steps would go a long way to reducing or eliminating conventional utility bills. A home business and/or rental accommodations on the property would generate revenue that isn’t dependent on outside employment.
Next, the landscape can shift from an ornamental lawn with geometric shrubbery to a productive food garden. Fruit trees, berry bushes, and veggie beds work well in a suburban context so long as middle class sensibilities aren’t upset. Hens, rabbits, and honey bees are compatible with many backyard situations if done correctly. Rainwater harvesting from the roof also works well in a suburban context and costs very little.
Not all communities are comfortable with tomatoes growing in the front yard, or hens in the back. Some municipal authorities and HOAs see this kind of activity as a direct threat to already shaky standards and/or a source of easy cash in the form of fees and fines. You need to do your homework first. But many places are flexible and will quietly let you do whatever your immediate neighbors are willing to tolerate. (Hint: Keep it all clean and tidy and be nice to your neighbors.)
The above photos show Tenth Acre Farm in Ohio where the homeowners are very gradually replacing the front lawn with an edible, but still “suburban” landscape. Incrementalism and respectability are preferable to an instant radical transformation. The really important part of Tenth Acre Farm is the stuff you can’t see from the street: frugality, low debt, a solid loving marriage, and a willingness to put time and resilience ahead of material acquisitions and debt.
While these properties may seem too small for homesteading they strike a comfortable balance between participating in modern life and maintaining a higher than average level of autonomy from “the system.” The suburbs allow people to continue to work and earn money in the larger metroplex, to have access to culture and services in the nearby city, to drive less than they would in a remote location, and to enjoy far more opportunities than would be available out in the sticks. It’s a comfortable compromise that appeals to many people.