As I mentioned a few days ago, I have an addiction to the idea that moving house solves all problems. I have fought this most noticeably since we bought our first home almost 2 years ago. We LOVE it here. There really is no reason I should be doing anything but basking in that feeling. And I do. But yet.
Then we did our taxes a couple of weeks ago. We’re always a little shocked at what our combined incomes amount to. We spent so many years with me as a full-time student, working part-time, and even though I now work full-time, my job is not secure, and I still spend part of the year (usually a month or so during the summer) on EI. So we don’t exactly feel like we have 2 substantial incomes. But it adds up, nonetheless, and at the end of the last 2 years, we’ve been quite startled to see by how much.
Which always begs the question, where the heck is all the money going?! It certainly isn’t piling up in the savings account! We spent a number of years concentrated on paying off debt and tracking our expenses quite carefully, but we’ve eased off in recent years. I still keep mental notes, though, and, truly, I do know where the money goes. The mortgage, insurance of all kinds, commuting car, maintenance, and fuel costs, higher (than a condo or apartment) utilities, and right now, into the garden. Building supplies, fencing supplies, irrigation, topsoil, mulch….infrastructure that feels well worth it.
So I had a moment in the midst of all this money reflection where I thought, maybe it’s time to move to Nova Scotia.
We are a bi-coastal family. Most of my family is on the west coast, most of the Skipper’s is on the east coast. The Maritime provinces are stunningly beautiful, and they are SUBSTANTIALLY cheaper–at least in property prices–than here in the west. We used to spend our trips there driving around the province, real estate booklets in hand, oohing and aahing over heritage homes on large, picturesque acreages, priced at less than $100K.
We never did the big move for a whole variety of reasons, but it remains in our minds as a phantom possibility. And every once in a while, the possibility starts to look appealing again. How different would our lives be, how much less income would we need to earn if our mortgage was less than a third of what it is now? It’s a staggering thought in weak moments. We conveniently forget the costs of renovating one of those century-old homes, the costs of heating oil through the winter. Hard to say how that might impact the overall picture.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that last night I was reading Sharon Astyk’s chapter in Depletion and Abundance on “Home Economics and Home-Land Security.” In it, she takes a realistic look at what our homes are going to need to do for us in a low-carbon, less stable future. And she asks readers to consider the option of moving if necessary. Perhaps you live in a home you can’t afford, or in a location that isn’t working for you. Perhaps you are far away from family or other support systems. Perhaps the climate change projections for your area are dire: underwater, say, or desert (Palm Springs?).
On the other hand, she also asks us to consider the option of staying put. If you are currently in a home that you can afford, that allows you to grow some food or has other flexible assets (rooms you might rent out or bring family into, a garage that could be a business space, a good community location, etc), then keep it. Don’t go chasing the dream of the perfect, sustainable house. Don’t build a new house. Improve the one you’re in and hold on to your family asset.
Reading all of this was a helpful reminder of all the reasons why we bought this house to begin with, which includes many aspects that could serve us well should the future look dramatically different.
1. Location, location, location. There is often a trade-off with more rural living, and that trade-off is the car. Rural life is often completely car-dependent, and that doesn’t look particularly stable in a low-energy future. However, our house is within walking distance of a lovely village with some basic shops and services. It’s within walking distance of the marina where our sailboat (potentially a useful transportation and food gathering tool) is moored. We are within an easy 2.5K bike ride to the large suburban shopping plaza that has a grocery store, pharmacy, restaurants, etc. We are within about 10K–also an easy biking distance, though not so much fun along the highway at the moment–to a small city with many central services for the wider community, including a large and thriving farmer’s market.
We are also located on a reasonably trafficked road, which in some ways is a downside, but if/when we wanted to start any home business, becomes a big plus. In fact, we’re the only home for a few hundred meters that has a pull-out space from the road, which makes drive-by business entirely feasible.
In the wider community, the picture is also bright. The culture here is very focused on sustainability and food security. There is an active Transition Town movement, among many other groups. There is growing political will to revive the old rail line that used to be the essential commercial and personal link up and and down the Island, and this would mean that larger centres–including the two that Skipper and I work in at the moment–could be accessible after a short bike to the local train station. In fact, there’s even a local livestock feed producer who still uses that rail line to gather feed supplies from the island and blend it here. When I really think about it, there are not many other places where there is so much potential so close by, and with minimal transition required.
2. Neighbours. Our neighbours are great. A family as dedicated to growing their own food moved in next door to us, and we have provided mutual support already. On the other side are also friendly folks who have a small, sunny acreage that they keep as simple pasture/meadow that they mow (but no chemical lawn). There are numerous and diverse farms close by and all of the above groups are there for us to become involved with. There is an elementary school a few blocks away which is a vital community centre (including our polling booth for today’s federal election!).
3. Size. We loved this house and property because it was a great size and layout for two adults without children. There is lots of space for guests or boarders, and we could easily build in a suite if we needed to. But right now this also means that there is lots of storage space and prep space for food and other livelihood production. The property isn’t big enough to farm commercially (I don’t think, but that’s another post), but it is certainly big enough to provide most of our food and some surplus veggies, etc. With the other community and neighbourhood resources, there’s also no reason for us to need to provide all of our staples on our own property.
With no children to change our needs over time, it’s also likely that this house could work for us for the rest of our days. We could easily live entirely on the main floor if mobility became an issue, and other spaces could be used by caregivers and/or garden helpers (or both in one!). We live right on a fairly main road, which makes accessibility easy.
4. Reasonable energy independence. Few homes not specifically built to be energy independent are going to be perfect in this regard, clearly. But ours has some definite advantages. It was custom built, rather than a generic spec house. This means that some basic function were really intelligently considered. There is a good south-facing wall for lots of light and passive solar heat gain. Cleverly, the house layout also means that these warmer, brighter rooms are also the main living spaces. The open layout also means that once we get the woodstove in, it will easily heat the main living areas, and with some minor (according to the Skipper!) tweaking, we can use the existing duct-work to blow some of the heat downstairs.
The house and windows are well-insulated, the rooms reasonably sized, the layout efficient. Our climate is not extreme–even with no heat, inside would rarely drop below freezing. Wood (waste wood in particular) is easily available on this forested island. We also have the space and plans for an outdoor wood oven or rocket stove, and lastly, we have good south-facing roof space for solar panels, if we ever wanted to go that way.
5. Water. Water is a mixed bag here. Presently, it’s a bit of a weak point that we would need to address.
We’re on a well to an aquifer, and luckily it’s a good one, not too far down (unlike many in these parts!). The water quality is very good, though we do use a softener to deal with iron (but I think that’s more cosmetic–if we couldn’t run the softener, I think we’d just be like many people in the world that deal with water that tastes a little odd and causes scale build-up. Inconvenient, but how most used to live and many still do). The down side is that the pump for the well draws a LOT of power. Not constantly, but when it fills up the tank, it draws around 4000W! This winter, we bought a generator, and it was a big decision whether to get one with enough power to work the well. For a few days without power, we could buy drinking water, there would be some stored in the tank, and we would just cope with not bathing much or flushing toilets. But in the end, we went with one big enough to be able to re-fill the tank if necessary.
Down the road, this is something we should continue to work on. A more efficient pump, a manual or solar option would be worth putting in. We do no rainwater collection right now, and that could add a lot to our irrigation ability. Our aquifer is great, but aquifers are mysterious. We don’t know if the farm across the street, or the new subdivision down the road are drawing on the same one, or how big or deep or secure it is. We have installed low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads and micro-irrigation. We could install a greywater system from the kitchen to the garden fairly easily. But in this climate, we have summer drought, and climate change may be expanding that drought period, even as it makes our springs cooler and our growing season shorter.
6. Sewage. Here too, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Most rural properties have septic systems, and though these take up a lot of space, they are usually simple, last a long time (with an occasional pumping), and use gravity to power them. We’re a little different. The good news is we have an actual sewage treatment “plant” on our property. With some bacteria and enzymes, our sewage is broken down in a series of small tanks and when it’s done, pure water comes out. Cool! The down side is that it’s location limits our growing area, and the process does draw some power. Not a lot, though, I don’t think; we should look into solar options for that. And, truly, there is lots of space on the property for an outhouse or composting toilet if it came to that.
To conclude this epically long post (!) then, let me say that I think I may have kicked my real estate habit. At least for now!. If I can make the psychological shift, I think we are in an extremely fortunate position. The shift is two-fold: consider the mortgage something to be paid off and continue to invest in good neighborhood relationships. So traditionally taken for granted, and so radical today! But both of these are doable if we focus on them and stop the mental background noise that tells us that a home is something to flip and “move up the ladder” with, and neighbors are there for pleasantries, but there’s no point in really getting to know them when we’ll be moving in a couple of years.
Whew! Well, there’s my exercise in apocalyptic preparedness! How does your home resource stack up, do you think?