No jack? Here's how to work your way into rereat living

By Ol’ Tennessee Ridgerunner

Your instincts have been telling you tough times are ahead.  Really tough times - like when the banks fold up and the grocery stores get emptied out over night. You’ve been preparing as best you can, setting aside supplies in case of a disaster of unknown proportion.  You’ve been thinking about buying a safe rural location for your family to escape to when it’s time to get out of town.  But you are way short of cash

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You have a dilemma.  You understand the need for a sustainable rural retreat – far away from the city - where you and your family can be secure and ride out an extensive grid-down nightmare.  But knowing what you need and being able to obtain it in a timely manner are two different things. You’re already strapped.  You don’t have the financial wherewithal to swing a decent down payment or a mortgage for a retreat property despite favorable interest rates.  What do you do now?

Consider creative options

What – exactly - are you willing to do to have access to sustainable retreat location for your family?   What have you got to offer?  What can you trade?  What can you present to a property owner that can provide access to what you and your family need?

What you have, assuming you are of healthy mind and body, is your skill set, your youth and your energy which can be deployed – under just the right circumstances - as a labor force to assist an existing survival property owner.  Your family represents a work force – to some degree – that can positioned to help aging property owners, who have no supportive family or like-minded individuals in their community, to sustain an already established off-grid retreat. 

Again, assuming that you and your family represent a useful resource – a pool of constructive skills and practical life experiences – that can make a worthwhile contribution to the betterment or maintenance of a survival retreat, you have equity.  It’s called sweat equity and it can be leveraged to get you and your family integrated into an existing homestead family to meet your mutually agreed-upon needs.

The opportunity

For homestead owners with no supportive blood family, there are viable options to abandoning their retreat to the whims of clueless real estate hucksters.  You should recognize that advancing age presents a genuine challenge for most Baby-Boomers, including many long-time retreat owners.   If you’re astute, you also recognize a hand-in-glove opportunity whereby you might represent a practical and mutually-beneficial solution to this challenge.

Older homesteaders are likely to want a full cash buy-out and unlikely to offer owner financing, particularly if they have looming medical needs.  This is where you hit the wall.  But one alternative for aging owners is bringing in “outsiders,” including multiple generations whether they are kin or not, who can appreciate and are willing to maintain the off-grid homesteads that their hard work has established. 

Not family? No problem.

Historically, this has been a solution to the problem of perpetuation.  Long before there were nursing homes and social security checks, people had large families in which the children would provide for older folks who in turn provided child care. It was this old solution that provided continuity for passing on wisdom and learning the old ways that are so common in off grid homesteading.  This can be your opportunity to make a place for yourself, and to learn the necessary off-grid living skills you may need, if your personalities and your interests match those of the aging property owners.

Mature retreat owners may choose to consider “hiring” someone to come on board their retreat to handle chores.  It’s not really a “hire, ” rather the property owner approaches the potential arrangement as if you were being hiring as an employee, like a carpenter for example, to build an addition to their retreat.  You should approach this situation like a real job interview, for your entire family, and be prepared to substantiate and document any claims you make about your capabilities and relevant work experience.

Cautiously optimistic

lt's important to point out at the outset, that privacy and confidentiality are paramount for most rural retreat owners.  They recognize the risks involved by bringing unknown individuals or families into their inner retreat circle.  Aging retreat owners can be exceptionally discriminating when considering this approach.  They know how common it is for low-life rascals to take advantage of the elderly, even in rural areas where most everyone knows everyone else.   They are unlikely to get emotionally involved in familiarizing themselves with you or your family.   At a minimum, retreat owners will thoroughly check backgrounds, credit histories, education, arrest records, employment history, etc.  They will have a specific list of all your requirements – like a job description - and have them documented in contract form.   Wise property owners will employ a reputable third party as a buffer for personal interviewing.  This would be an experienced professional who serves as a mediator between the vigilant retreat owner and potential “candidates”.  The owners may involve legal counsel and/or a private investigator.

Again, the connections between candidates and owners take time to mature. Maintaining confidentiality (OPSEC) is a prime concern when property owners conduct any phone or personal interviews.  A professional third party may be employed to conduct the initial review process and keep the owners anonymous.  Once you are identified as a top quality candidate, a phone or personal interview can be arranged and subsequently an onsite property visit scheduled.  Don’t expect owners to make quick decisions.

Strength in numbers

Certainly retreat owners recognize that there is strength in numbers and having  stable, skilled individuals to assist them with their retreat chores can be advantageous.  Smart younger families should be willing to work for what they cannot now afford.  Young would-be homesteaders may also seek mentorship in the hard lessons that mature off-grid veterans have learned off grid.  As a candidate, your goal should be to arrange a mutually beneficial agreement.

Retreat owners know that having a younger family to join them onsite, assuming they have adequate (separate) housing to offer, may be a very desirable and feasible option to selling their retreat outright to strangers.  Effective retreat operation and defense necessitates having the equivalent of two families to provide 24/7 security.   

If selected, a younger family might be offered free housing, and/or possible owner financing, in exchange for their labor.  Owners may offer to pay a nominal wage for doing the many chores (like gardening, animal husbandry, laundry, harvesting, wood-cutting) and retreat maintenance while the “new hires”  separately work part-time or shift work nearby with the promise of some acreage ownership for building your own off grid cabin after so many years’ service.  There are lots of creative compensation arrangements to be considered.

Finding your match

I’ll share some second-hand advice on matching compatible younger buyers with older retreat sellers.  A Northeastern octogenarian offers this: “Perhaps the thing to do is have a listing that helps match older folks with younger like-minded folks so you can have the generational help that you don’t always find within your own family. Many young folks in their 30s and 40s don’t have the funding to purchase the property but would love to live that (rural off-grid) lifestyle.”   As this wise lady suggests, a matching resource does in fact exist for the Cumberland Plateau region of the Southern Appalachian Redoubt.

Don’t give up on finding a retreat that you can literally work your way into.  It’s a worthy effort and under the right conditions can be a win-win solution for all involved.