Finding a Home in the Urban Forest

As I indicated at the end of my last journal entry, I left Serenity Valley for the winter (rest assured, dear readers, my hut in the woods adventures will resume in a few months). The reason for leaving was almost entirely financial — I’d simply run out of cash… and credit. Without cash, I couldn’t prepare my hut for yet colder and wetter climates. Without cash, I’d have to choose between paying this month’s payment on the (small) loan I took out to buy the land, or health insurance. Not to mention, you know, car payments, food, gas, cell phone, and all those other recurring expenditures.

Yes, the reality is, even though I “lived” in the woods in a $600 hut, I was still not completely free. I still had shackles in the form of bills1

So, I came out of the woods, and headed back to Silicon Valley to start a short-term consulting gig I had waiting for me. The gig is part time, and I can work from pretty much anywhere, so in theory, I don’t have to “live” in Silicon Valley. But I want to. I lived here for 4 years before I moved away, and the roots I established during those years still remain here. I have friends here. My shooting club is here, as are shooting ranges. And, besides, if I’m working in tech again, it makes sense to be here. Oh, and it’s nice and warm here too 🙂

But there’s one problem. Having built a $600 hut in the woods, I’m having a hard time justifying paying for an apartment or room. For those of you not familiar with the area, a 1 bedroom apartment starts at around $1000 here. If I share a place, I might pay $600 instead. Per month. That’s a new hut I could be building every month.

I recently did some calculations, and realized that I’d paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 in rent during the 4 years I lived here. Some people will argue that that’s why it makes sense to buy a house. Sure, if you considered money to be the most important resource, then buying would likely save you a ton of money. But to me, money isn’t the most important resource; time is. And buying even a cheap condo in the area means taking out a huge mortgage, that would take 15, 20, 30 years to pay off. That’s 15, 20, 30 years of financial obligations. That, to me, sounds like a 15, 20, 30 year prison sentence. I’m not going to prison, just to put a roof over my head2.

So, I’m trying to find the equivalence of my $600 hut in this (sub)urban forest. I even considered buying land out here and, yes, building an actual hut. But that’s simply not feasible. Land around here is scarce and insanely expensive, and, not to mention, I’m pretty sure I’d have city inspectors swarming me the instant I erected a single two-by-four without a permit.

Rather, the same way my hut was an exercise in minimalism, I’m trying to apply the same idea here. That process starts by asking the question, “What do I need?” For starters, I need a place to sleep. I have that covered right now, since my “employer” has graciously offered to look the other way if he were to find me sleeping at the office. Then, what else do I need? I need to bathe, occasionally. Here’s a dirty (literally) little secret: I can go for days without showering before anyone notices. Last night I borrowed a friend’s shower. Perhaps I can keep rotating between various friends’ showers… Or maybe I’ll get a gym membership, to use the showers. What else do I need? I could use a kitchen, so that I don’t waste money eating out. Well, except, maybe I could live off of sandwiches, and eat out occasionally if I wanted a warm meal. Sandwiches don’t require a kitchen to make, and are cheap.

So I have all of the above covered, without paying rent. But there’s one thing missing: it’s that sense of home you get from having your own place. Partially, it’s about privacy. Partially, it’s about freedom. And partially, it’s purely psychological. Whatever it is, it’s somewhat unsettling to not have that. On the other hand, I’ve been practically homeless for the last 3 months, except for when I was living in my hut, and I’ve become accustomed to that feeling. At least, accustomed enough that I wonder if it’s worth paying hundreds of dollars a month to make it go away.

There are also smaller inconveniences. For instance, I went to the range yesterday, and then didn’t have anywhere I could go afterwards to clean my rifle. I probably could’ve done that at the office, especially since there’s nobody there, but there’s a bit of a resistance to bringing an AR-15 to a place of work. Along similar lines, I’ll eventually need a place to setup my reloading equipment. One of the last things I did before moving out of my apartment back in April was to load as much ammo as I could. Nikki and I loaded something like 700 rounds, in between packing up the apartment and hauling things to the storage unit, but now that I’m shooting again, I’ll probably go through that in a month or two. But I don’t need an apartment to clean a rifle or reload. Maybe I could rent a storage unit and setup my reloading bench in there — if I ignore that clause about no hazardous materials…

In any case, I’m still at that stage where I’m looking at various options, and weighing the pros and cons. I’ll keep y’all posted on how things pan out…

Footnotes:

  1. I should note that my total combined (non-cash) financial assets are still greater than my obligations. In other words, if I liquidated my non-cash assets, I could pay off all my debt, and thus “buy” my freedom.
  2. Comparing a mortgage to prison might be a little harsh, since you can get out of mortgages, either by selling your house, or by simply foreclosing. But I imagine there’s a huge mental barrier for that, and I’d rather not build a prison in my head either.

25 thoughts on “Finding a Home in the Urban Forest

  1. Try a Van (vandwellers.org), an RV, turn an enclosed utility trailer into an RV/Shop/home, become a house sitter, etc, etc, etc.

    Maybe the best would be to set up a utility trailer as your shop, with reloading etc. Keep your generator on it, and everything else you need to “work”. Then live in your car/van/ apartment/ couch, whatever.

    Maybe try http://www.couchsurfing.com although that is a bit more for travelers, it might be worth a look.

    Bob L

  2. Have you considered buying a travel trailer and parking near a friend? You could have your mobile hut for around $1000 and a hook up for water and electricity for about $50 a month. Also I have read of some people who sort of rotate their mobile living space around to different locations. It seems a little disconcerting to live at the office unless you have a cot. Perhaps your office building has a workout room with shower? Often you can ask around for these.

    I agree with your second footnote that a mortgage can create a kind of mental prison because people often get emotionally involved with the property they only partially own. I have first hand experience with this point.

    Looking forward to hearing updates on the winter housing solution.

  3. Good post – have you considered an old cargo van? It would be about the same size as your hut and provide good storage and privacy for gun cleaning, etc. This in conjunction with a gym membership is a perfect solution to urban simplicity issues. There are some necessary expenses which come with owning a vehicle, but they are far less prison-like than a mortgage or a lease. Good luck. Keep us posted.

  4. One possibility: I lived in an RV for almost a year in the frozen northeast in the early ’90s. I wouldn’t store anything very valuable (rifle, laptop) in an RV, but it would give you a fairly private space along with a kitchen, a small stove, etc. Finding a place to park your digs can be challenging but usually not impossible (I had the fortune to find an abandoned strip mall — no one, including the police, cared when I stayed there for months). If you decide to go this route, don’t cheap out on the RV — I spent $500 on the RV but ended up with a decidedly suboptimal residence, including a leaky roof, and refused the spend the scratch the deal with the issues. Dumb.

    When the leaky roof (and other things, like the heater not really working in the New England winter) got too much I managed to find a crappy one-room place for cheap — not an apartment, more like a motel room with monthly rent. No kitchen, but it did have indoor plumbing. I don’t know if the valley has anything like that but it’s not impossible, and might be another option.

    The advantages of an RV are several, including the fact that you can move by driving somewhere else — it might take ten minutes to stow enough stuff to make it safe to get on the road, but not more. Since you have a property where you could store the thing during the summer months you’d be able to reuse the RV when needed without incurring storage expense when not. There are disadvantages, of course, from the extra load of One More Possession to the relative conspicuousness of an RV. Whether (and how much) each pro and con matters to you is, of course, your business.

    Hope that helps.

  5. Pingback: Shooting Journal: Nov. 21/22, 2009 « Tech, Guns, and Food Blog

  6. Heck, you can get a decent conversion van camper for $3 grand or so, and camp right in your employer’s parking lot during your consulting gig.

  7. How about a ultra-simple tiny house on a trailer parked someplace cheap… like someone’s backyard?

    For example get a used or free small utility trailer off craigslist and using your carpentry skills knock together a small tiny house, like 5×8.

    I’ve drawn up several free tiny house plans at Tiny House Design and I think the 5×8 tiny market house would work well with some slight modifications, pretty paint job, and insulation.
    http://www.tinyhousedesign.com/free-plans/

    When tiny house guru Jay Shafer first moved to California from Iowa he posted on craigslist explaining he needed a free place to park and found someone the same day. I bet there are plenty of folks and homes in the hills that would work perfectly.

    Add a composting toilet (commercial unless your host is cool with a sawdust toilet), a water hose hookup, power (or PV) and you’ll be set.

    What do you think?

    • The idea of a tiny house on a trailer is intriguing… Do you know anything about the legality of such structures? Are they regulated by zoning laws, or since they’re on wheels, does the DMV get involved?

      • I’ve not heard of anyone having trouble with DMV or CHP while pulling a tiny house. Tiny houses are not often on the road and still low in numbers so this is still a grey area for them. As far as they seem to care… it’s just a handmade trailer. As long as the trailer is built within the allowable trailer size no special permit is needed to tow it down the highway. In California this size is 8.5′ wide, 13.5″ high. I’m pretty sure the length is 30′ or 40′. Also… most trailers already have license plates. The trailer will need plates so best to get that done before building the house.

        As far as building codes it’s always wise to build as close to code as possible for safety… but there are no permits needed for a house on wheels because it’s not a permanent structure. If you were to build one and then put it on a foundation like a mobile home or choose to plug it into the grid you’ll run into the planning department. But if you camp in it on your own land… and your property is in a community that allows this you should have little trouble.

        Lastly… since alternative housing is a grey area by definition I think it’s always good advice to keep a fairly low profile and research local ordinances for camping.

  8. I agree with Michael’s recommendation.

    Until you have enough cash to live completely off-grid, the next best thing is a Tiny House on a Trailer.

    You could also run a search for an intentional community in your area if you can’t find the space for the Tiny House or perhaps you can organize your own.

  9. Just a couple quick thoughts motorized homes versus trailered homes.

    Trailered homes can be pulled by rented, borrowed, or owned trucks giving you more flexibility for mobility. If you own a small car you’ll need help (two drivers) to move the house. Sounds like you could use a jeep or 4×4 truck on your land so might be time to up-size the vehicle anyway. Tiny houses are heavier than motorized homes (typically) so a larger truck might be needed. For example a Honda Ridgeline can pull 5000 pounds, which should be enough for a small tiny house (8×12).

    Commercially produced RVs have all the systems finished and can be picked up cheap. Custom jobs are cool but often not really complete with toilet/shower/kitchen. When your RV/van/bus/stepvan/cubevan breaks down your house must be tilted and towed, you’re often stuck while it’s in the shop. They can be much more stealthy than a tiny house though… for example imagine building out the interior of a van or cube van. You could likely be able to park on the street in a new spot each night and go undetected.

    As you delve into this you’ll find these two camps/schools of thought.

    I personally think the trailer makes more sense and presents lower costs, more flexibility, and lower risk. Tiny houses look better too 🙂

    Good luck!

  10. All I know is some of those vintage airstreams are pretty awesome and some have been retrofitted as really nice places to live. My wife and I actually thought about doing this full time, however rental space in RV parks isn’t really worth the downgrade where we live.

    Keep up the great work!

  11. If you could work remotely from your current location of the hut, perhaps you could lease part of your land to Tiny House dwellers to generate a consistent revenue stream?

    There’s been an on-going discussion over the last 3 years on Tiny House sites about the possibility of forming intentional communities based around Tiny Homes.

    It could be anything you want it to be, as long as its legal.

    Michael and others could even advertise it for you.

    • That’s an interesting idea… I’ve thought about letting people use my land when I’m not there, since they can help keep an eye on things and ward off unwanted intruders (mostly illegal hunters). As for a more permanent community, well, part of the reason I bought the land was because it was isolated and far from other humans 😉

  12. Epperson… interesting idea and your absolutely right there is a very high demand for finding a place that welcomes folks that want to live small and simple. So far it seems that the more remote you get the less trouble you find… and… places like Vermont and Texas are very cool with folks building their own solutions.

    Ryo… From what I can tell it’s legal in Lassen County to camp on your own land. I did a search on Lassen County’s website and couldn’t find a general ordinance for camping on one’s own land, although I found a few notes on no camping in certain areas (marinas, recreation area parking lots, etc).

    Oh… also… just an idea for a webapp I’ve wanted to build for a while. Imagine a simple tiny house friendly land finder that is Google map based and shows places where tiny houses (or alternative homes) are easy to get permitted or where permits are not required. Not sure where to get the data, maybe user submitted? I’ve just had no time to build it and truthfully I’m more of a UI/usability guy than a developer.

    • The best part of this idea is that Ryo can design the community according to his preference.

      1. If he prefers nomadic seclusion, he could still manage to keep other dwellers at a respectable distance

      2. If he wants more a “community”, he could easily set up a plan where labor/work is divided to share in resources such as wood, water, gardening, protecting land from hunters, etc.. More importantly, he gets to select who he wants in this little village.

      3. Learn about the craft of building Tiny Homes and create a business out of it such as Yurts, Geodesic Domes, Straw Bale, Earth Ships, etc.

  13. I spent the majority of January thru April in the bay area, living in my Airstream in an RV park out in the woods behind Saratoga. It was a quick jaunt to the 101, but was about as woodsy as you were going to get and still have a short commute.

    The park I stayed in was Saratoga Springs (www.saratoga-springs.com) — RV rate is $695/mo, camping is 550. Showers and all that stuff are included.

    You can definitely get used RVs/conversion vans/etc pretty cheaply, and depending on where you want to stay in the bay area, there are quite a few places. (there are, surprisingly, even a few RV parks off of El Camino. Most have a waiting list, but you never know)

  14. Ryo et all,

    You may have noticed but Jay Shafer or Tumbleweed homes has plans for his XS (extra small) little house for 99 bucks.

    I’m thinking about taking one of his workshops this summer, it’d be interesting to hear how he goes about constructing a home.

    Rich

  15. Dear Ryo- I am SO glad you came down from the snow. As I wrote in the Tiny House Blog, it is no joke out there by this time of year. My daughter is looking into one of the marine stoves for heating our cabin-The Sardine I believe it is-a previous link in Tiny House. I agree with the rest of the folks…get a travel travel, in Sunnyvale where my kids live even a Coleman pop up would do and you can use it is an adjunct building to your cabin later. I know EXACTLY how expensive even a starter home is in techie land and I don’t recommend it. But a trailer would be a great investment for your lifestyle and serve several puposes. You just have to find a generous friend who will let you park in their driveway, but there are a lot of neat folks down there, so I know you will be able to. Maybe offer to chip with a little bit of the utilities to sweeten the pot and be fair. Best of luck and keep on blogging.

  16. Ryo, you are an inspiration. My hubby and I have been fixing up a 1968 17′ airstream and are thinking about breakin’ loose within the next year to do some traveling. We have lived in the SF Bay Area for most of our lives and we are seriously contemplating buying some land and living out of the Airstream for a while. Keep us posted on your journey…I am interested how other folks are living creatively outside the box…michelle

  17. Really urge you to get a small travel trailer EVEN if your current vehicle can not tow it (tow truck can ) when you need to move it. customize it, interior to suit one person, then no matter where you are you are home.

  18. Comparing debt to a 20-year prison sentence is not at all harsh. I got stuck in a bad situation at the wrong time two years ago and I use the term slavery to describe it. Foreclosure and bankruptcy are possible ways out, but there are consequences to that none of which are all that appealing.

    With regard to your living arrangements, I realize this post is over a year old, but I just found this blog so for any new people just arriving, I lived for four years out of a camper van conversion with a raised loft and got a gym membership for the shower and the ability to meet people. Dating required some creativity. For example, asking a girl back to “my place” could be a little awkward(unless the lady was very open-minded) as it was right out in the parking lot. However, it had a 12V fridge so I could store food and beverages. The only issue was that I had to be careful not to sleep in the same place too many nights in a row and be sure to get up early to avoid being seen. As long as I did that, I could rotate around to various all-night grocery stores, restaurants, even hospitals upon occasion(though I had to be careful there) or other places where it was expected to see vehicles parked overnight.

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