Somewhere along the spectrum from, “everything will be perfect forever” to The Zombie Apocalypse there are many possible futures. I’ve organized my life in a way that covers most of the in-between scenarios. I’m clear about the things I have no control over and I’ve let go of those concerns. Instead I focus on the things I can navigate as an individual with help from the people immediately around me without getting too crazy.
Six years ago I bought the smallest, ugliest, most affordable property I could find within a fifty mile radius of San Francisco. I love living in the city, but there are good reasons to have a Plan B property at a medium distance. I’ve been retrofitting the house on a tight budget and I’m currently four years away from reaching my ten year goal of transforming the place into a viable suburban homestead. Step One was buying at the bottom of the last economic cycle after the 2008 crash when normally unaffordable locations like the Sonoma wine country were temporarily on sale at a deep discount.
Step Two involved scrubbing the old house clean, super insulating the attic, under the floors, and inside the wall cavities (under the wallpaper was flimsy wood paneling that popped right off.) High quality windows and doors replaced the leaky old ones. Everything was given fresh paint, and the wood floors were refinished. The house is still modest, but it’s much more comfortable and respectable now. And I didn’t need to take on debt for any of the work.
Instead of going with the currently fashionable granite and stainless steal kitchen I kept it simple. $27 worth of plain white Formica works just fine. I paid $50 for second hand General Electric steel 1954 cabinets from an old motel that was being demolished and gave them a few coats of white Rust-Oleum. They match the vintage stove perfectly. The kitchen floor is natural cork.
At this point the house was ready to be rented. The first tenants were excellent and formed good relations with the neighbors. After three years funds were pulled together to completely pay off the small mortgage. Having rental income helped accelerate that process.
When the house became vacant again I moved on to Step Three which included replacing the giant old inefficient wood stove with a far smaller and cleaner burning unit that also doubles as a cooktop. With our mild California winters and all the extra insulation and new windows this stove actually overheats the entire house with a tiny bit of wood. At some point I’ll also be installing a water heating component to the back of the wood stove. On most medium cool nights a small electric radiator style heater keeps the bedroom warm.
Step Four came when the old asphalt shingled roof was replaced with a standing seam metal roof. A metal roof will last for a century, is fire resistant, keeps the house noticeably cooler in summer, and is the perfect clean surface for collecting rain water. It’s also a great base to attach a solar water heater and perhaps a few photovoltaic panels for back-up power in the future.
Once the wood stove and roof were done new tenants moved in. They’re amazing people who are much loved by the other families on the block. They’re currently paying substantially less than the market rate rent relative to comparable properties because I’d like them to stay for a long time. But their rent is still on the high side due to the expensive location in coastal California. That income provides funds for the next round of improvements to the property including an upcoming seismic retrofit of the foundation.
Step Five came this year when I installing a 5,000 gallon rain water catchment tank. This was an upgrade to the previously installed 2,500 gallon tank. My primary goal for this stored water is to provide a back-up supply for power failures and earthquakes when the well will be out of commission. If properly filtered and/or boiled this water will be safe to drink and will last a very long time. It could also be used for supplemental irrigation. I plan on installing more of these tanks in the future for additional capacity.
When the house was first purchased it had an existing back deck that was in very poor condition. In Step Six I replaced each of the boards and strengthened the entire structure. When the new tenants moved in they furnished and decorated it for three season outdoor living.
The covered deck was recently complimented with a freestanding arbor parallel to the back of the house which faces west. The late afternoon sun used to bake the house and make it uncomfortably hot in summer. Now shade sails over the back patio keep the house seriously cooler. An attic exhaust fan turns itself on and off with a temperature sensitive trigger. There is no air conditioning. In winter the shade sails are removed to let in the late afternoon sun. These passive techniques mean a more comfortable house with minimal energy use and radically lower utility bills. The house is getting close to the point where it’s boarderline off grid in terms of heating and cooling. By next year the arbor will be covered in fruiting vines.
Over the last six years I’ve planted an orchard of mixed fruit and nut trees in the back half acre. Apples, pears, plums, almonds, figs, peaches… I’m on a steep learning curve when it comes to pruning, pinching back the young fruit, irrigation, and so on. But in spite of my negligence and four years of crippling drought most of the trees have survived. Over time I’ll be adding more productive capacity to the orchard along the lines of a permaculture style food forest.
Wherever possible I plant dwarf fruit trees, berry bushes, and fruiting vines in places where ornamentals might usually go. Each plant comes in to production at a different time so there’s fresh fruit ten months a year. The idea is to gradually replace store bought food with better quality items from the garden.
Since I don’t live at the property myself I don’t attempt to grow annuals, but my tenants are avid gardeners. I provide material support for their efforts in the form of raised garden beds with gopher proof wire mesh and mountains of organic compost. This furthers my long term goals for the property while the tenants do the daily tending of the veggies for themselves in the short term.
I specifically set aside a sunny patch of the back half acre for a future greenhouse. According to county regulations a sizable hoop house can be installed without a permit or inspections so long as it conforms to some basic parameters. This is the next step toward ramping up the resiliency and productive capacity of the property. A green house will enable more intensive year round food production and a wider variety of more delicate crops.
Overall, I’ve disengaged with the banking system and the ups and downs of the economic cycle. I don’t have to care what the place is worth because I can ride out any financial storm since there’s no debt. In the worst case scenario the house may be destroyed (most likely in an earthquake,) but the bulk of the value is in the half acre of land and the redevelopment rights, not the modest structure. I’ve insulated myself – and my tenants – from future energy price spikes and/or supply disruptions without compromising quality of life. The property generates cash revenue each month which is a nice fall back position in case of unemployment or other difficulties. The garden is becoming increasingly fertile creating a cushion agains rising food costs. And finally, I’ve been busy cultivating friendships and casual connections with folks in the neighborhood, all of whom are amazingly kind and helpful people.
Put that in your 401K and smoke it.