Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Our permanency tenure

Gully Grove - 2007

Who are those people, nearly ten years ago? All of 32 and 33, years of age. Bright-eyed. Ambitious. Completely naive, to what was ahead. This is a selfie we took, before the term "selfie", went viral. We were standing in the lower gully, for the first time, as owner-occupiers. That meant we were now living on our 5 acres, not just coming to visit.

This was an important moment, because we were finally altering the course of how we wanted to live. What we were not prepared for, was how to make that change. Especially, with the new burdens, managing acreage would suddenly place upon us. So naturally, we got a few things wrong.

Those first choices in the beginning, is how to set yourself up for permanency. So perhaps you'd like to learn some things from our experience?

Earthworks before building - 2006

When starting with raw land, you're effectively putting everything on the map. So it helps to outline your priorities. What you want to avoid, when deciding upon your priorities, however, is the luxuries trap. If you've been dreaming about owning land for a while, you'll naturally want to put those luxuries first. Remember my first post about ponies, motorbikes and chickens? Necessary infrastructure, however, should be your main focus. Not a dime should be spent on anything less.

What do I mean by necessary infrastructure though? It all starts with the earthworks. Speak to your neighbours. See who they employed as earth movers. Word gets around, about who knows their stuff and who is just an expensive poser. We only learned of our neighbour's recommendations, after we hired our house building company to take care of the earthworks for us. They got the lowest bidder, to do the work.

The earthworks were okay, but they had flaws which would appear over time. So we had to fix things, later on. Things we thought we had already paid for. So let this be a lesson with earthworks - the very foundation, to launch your project from. Get someone who knows what they're doing. A house building company will tell you, they can take care of it. But remember they make a profit, by getting the lowest bidding professional to do the job.

Driveway half completed - 2007

With earthworks, you also need a decent, all-weather, access road. This ultimately determines, what vehicles can enter your property. So again, its important to consult with someone who knows about building access roads. We had our construction company determine this too, and they gave us the shortest driveway possible.

We paid for concrete up the top, to get our vehicles out, but it took another seven years, before we actually finished the rest of the driveway with concrete, grid pavers. Because money is harder to come by, and more in demand, once that main flush of money is gone.

Driveway nearly complete - 2014

Don't delay, building that all weather, access road in the beginning, otherwise you'll risk being isolated in bad weather, and most certainly damaging the underside of your vehicles. Before we installed the pavers, we had our exhaust pipe repaired, several times. We didn't make the connection with our driveway at first. It was several years after, our mechanic finally asked (after the third repair) what kind of driveway we had. Dips and bumps, take their toll on vehicles, and the road will only get worse.

This is all money, which could have been saved, if we got our priorities right. It starts with understanding your land - what it lends itself to, and what it doesn't, will determine the priorities you need to make.

Because our land was sloped, retaining walls suddenly became a priority for us too. Slopes require a vertical solution, to make flat land. Take this into consideration when purchasing land in the first place. If it's on a slope, factor in the costs of retaining walls. We didn't fully appreciate how many retaining walls, we'd need.

January - 2008

Here I am, on our second day of hand excavation, for our first retaining wall ever. This first wall, would be one of many in our tenure ship. Considering we finished building one, just last year, retaining walls have spanned seven years already.

It does take that long, to find the money for such worthwhile projects. Plus, the more responsibilities you put on your plate, the less time you will have to complete projects. Naturally, the more you can get done, early in the piece, the more time you can dedicate to running the rest of your life.

This is not permission to rush ahead to get things finished. Rather, its incentive to plan well, in advance.

White, post fence, in the background
built by our neighbour, with the intention of keeping horses

Fencing is another necessary infrastructure, which often gets overlooked. If you have any children, it will keep them safe (especially around dams) and if you're going to bring a dog with you, secure fencing is essential for them too. This fencing rule, goes for any animal you wish to contain on your property. Contain, being the key word here. If you bring it in, its your responsibility to keep it in.

We don't have much fencing, because its more difficult to fence on slopes. We addressed containing our chickens, with a fully enclosed, spacious chicken coop instead. You could also build chicken tractors, for more portable options, and they're generally cheaper to construct - as they use less materials.

It's a sensible idea to limit the livestock and pets, until you have the fencing sorted. Just because you have land, doesn't mean you can open Noah's Ark on it, as soon as possible. You're planning for permanence, and staying on the land, for as long as possible, is the compass to make decisions by. Which is why I don't have goats yet *wink*.

Partly buried 5000 gallon, rainwater tank - 2008

Secure roofing and guttering will prolong the life of your house too. But it will also collect rainwater. Which you will need to buy and have installed, rainwater tanks. That's plural. Storage capacity, should be a minimum of 10,000 gallons worth, if its your only water supply. I wish we came across this fact, when our builders recommended a single 5,000 gallon tank. It does the job, so long as we receive regular rainfall.

When the rain stops for months, however, we have to resort to buying water in. Luckily, only twice, in our nearly decade of living here.

Dams and bore water, may become necessary additions to your rainwater supply, at a later date too. But rainwater (given you have the roofing) should be your priority,. As its cheaper to install than drilling a bore. Plus, it will cause less corrosion to any metal pipes, in the house. So calculate what you will need for your household use, and any animals you wish to keep. Then buy the appropriate sized tanks.

Septic treatment tank, 2009 - running 24/7

While I'm mentioning water though, how are you going to treat it, after its been used? What kind of septic system will you install? This will have to meet Council regulations, and your budget. Do your research well, because maintaining the septic, will also be an annual expense. Not to mention paying for the electricity, to run it all the time. There are different septic designs and pumps, which claim to reduce operating costs.

Inspections to meet Council regulations for maintenance though, can be anywhere from once, to four times a year. That's every year. These are not optional visits, and it all depends on what septic system you have installed. I cannot go past mentioning the compost toilet system, though, because it uses a valuable resource and saves water too.

Your Council may not give you this option when building, but you can always implement a compost toilet later. After your priorities are sorted. Especially for emergencies, like we experienced during the 2011 Queensland floods. We needed a way to deal with our waste, in a non-toxic manner. Because we didn't have running water, or electricity to our septic. The simple compost loo, and sawdust, worked however.

Property power pole - installed 2006

Which brings us to organising the electricity supply (on or off grid). If you choose on-grid, where will they locate your power poles on the property? Hopefully not where you want to develop infrastructure later on. So decide beforehand, or those installing them, may influence your decision, based on what's easiest for them.

If you're planning to go off-grid with your power though, you can start with a small system and build it up later. However, you can always go bigger in the beginning, by forgoing the luxuries you imagine are necessary too. Think pony, versus, more PVC's?

The point of this post, is not to make the task of setting up, seem so discouraging. Its about remembering the impact of our choices, are always long term. So what will become your plan for permanency tenure, when you set up?

  A single 3x3m metal, kit shed - 2009
and still our only outside storage area

A rather under-represented subject now, when it comes to setting up raw land, is outside storage. It will become THE most important investment over the life of your property. Because you'll have to start storing fencing supplies and new tools, which are often bulky. Along with trailers that will multiply, and perhaps the kinds of vehicles you'll drive to access the property, will increase too.

What will definitely multiply like rabbits though, are vegetation management tools. We have three mowers, two brush cutters and one whipper snipper  - not all working, as some are used for spare parts. A wood chipper, a chain saw, axes and all manner of hand and electric tools, make the rest. If you don't house this equipment permanently, undercover, you will halve their life expectancy. Which doesn't make for good economics, when you rely on those tools and materials to manage the property.

We should have started with something, more like this
* but we still need to come up with the funds

A basic minimum outside storage option, on raw land, should be a double bay, fully enclosed garage. Arrange to store the cars under a separate carport, instead; because you will use every inch of that garage, to house your tools and supplies.  It wouldn't be a stretch to add a lean-to, on the side of the garage either. To store extra hay, stack firewood or at least store the trailer. It sounds like a lot, but it won't be enough. It's only the basic start up.

Notice how I haven't paid much attention to the actual house design, or animal shelters which may be required? In the scheme of things, the house design should be the last on your priorities list. Even in suburbia, Council first builds the roads, then installs the sewage and power, to connect to the municipal supply. Then, and only then, can property owners, consider having their houses built. While housing is important, its the land which needs to be set up first.

Newly constructed house, 2007

If I can pass on anything, about the balance between setting up the house and setting up the land - it is to take the time required, to set up the land, first. We were enticed by our building company, who were only interested in our money. In our ignorance, they made it very easy to hand over. They had the intention, to build a sound house, but they relied heavily on cheap subcontractors, to do all the groundwork. Which meant, our landscape was treated like a commodity in a system of mass production.

We have spent a great deal of time, and funds, attempting to redress that inappropriate solution. We should have taken our time, setting up the land, by hiring our own experts. Then we could approach a building company, last of all.

Earthworks, by hand

The caution of this tale being to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, to begin with. If you have to manage your landscape for decades, with a less than functional system, it will wear you down.

We've experienced our own moments of doubt - questioning if we've actually got what it takes. We like to think we've got a certain kind of grit, but we're not superhuman either. Challenges in the landscape, ultimately challenge us, and it raises natural questions about permanency.

Wrestling a tree

It becomes everyone's reality, moving to the country however - that nothing ever happens, without your personal initiative and resources. I would suggest, this is a reality for anyone living in suburbia too. Just make sure you get the priorities right, if you're in it for the long haul. Take the time to determine what must come first, and what must come last (if at all).

After our initial mistakes, we still hope to be here for a long time. We were fortunate enough to recognise our mistakes early, and halt all unnecessary projects, until we redressed the errors. We're still doing that.

So don't think, because your priorities were initially wrong, they cannot be fixed. Just stop what you're doing, figure our the priorities, then focus on achieving them, from the top, down. Be mature enough to recognise, what has to stop, in order to achieve permanency.

We got some things right!

Now, I can't speak for more precise planning strategies (we missed that boat, originally) but I wanted to point to some blog authors who have written exactly about that.

Farmer Liz from Eight Acres, wrote about Planning a property using permaculture. Which is how to consider designing your property, from a permaculture perspective.

Then Leigh from Five Acres And A Dream, wrote about A Master Plan, and I link to her latest update (for now) in 2016.

Keep everything in perspective

One last thing to mention before I close, is the less debt you can get into, the more time you will have, to be on the property. I know avoiding debt entirely, isn't going to be an option for most people. However, its worth considering how you can minimise it, by sticking to a budget. Which is another reason to say goodbye to any unnecessary luxuries.

Consider the real luxuries to be had in the country, often don't cost anything at all. They're the surreal moments, experienced so close to nature, it becomes personal. It's also being able to go outside in your pyjamas, and have no-one raise eyebrows at your incredibly ridiculous, and highly impractical, fluffy slippers. It's not questioning your sanity either, when a great deal of your day, is spent talking to animals and feeding the worms.

So always think twice before spending money on a luxury, to move to the country. You will probably discover, it won't be what you need in the long run.

Anyone want to recommend more traps, to avoid, in order to achieve permanency in the country? Or anywhere you live?


  1. Some good advice there, Chris.I have never been tempted to go down the road you have gone down and I take my hat off to you. Obviously planning is the key and doing lots of research beforehand is advisable. As they say...just ask a local ;-)

  2. Those locals, definitely know their stuff. ;)

    Thanks for stopping in.

  3. Chris, your information all rang true with my experiences. It is amazing how much equipment is needed to set up and maintain an acreage property. Adequate storage is a must as you have written. I think Farmer Liz once wrote a post about testing a property's dam water before buying as the quality of dams on different properties can vary greatly.

    1. I remember that post from Liz's blog. There are several visual tests you can perform as well. Like, if nothing is growing on the downside of the dam wall, the water could be lifting salt to the surface. Which isn't good for the water, or the soil.

      Ditto on the storage. That's one of our weaker points here.

  4. Great post Chris! You always have such a practical approach. We should have spent more time on earthworks, but we had so much trouble finding a contractor in TIME for our house to be moved. And our power pole was put in the wrong place (thanks Ergon!), but I didn't have the energy to get it moved after I saw what they did, instead we moved the house pad! Its all about compromise and remembering your priorities... this is really sound advice for anyone staring with bare acerage.

    1. That compromise muscle, certainly gets a good workout! Especially, if the house is being developed at the same time as the raw land. When you buy a pre-existing development, someone else has done the bare bones work. So you either like it or hate it, from the safety of casual viewer.

      It changes everything though, when you're starting from scratch. You're putting your own money on the line, and every mistake can compound the running costs over time. A hard lesson to learn, when you enter blindly. ;)

      Sorry to hear your power poles got positioned poorly. I hope what you had to compromise on though, had a financial upside? Like perhaps the new house position, saved on driveway length?


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