Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A House for the Future

It seems we're all at it now. Those of us dot-connectors who are concerned enough about the future to take action and relocate are scurrying across the face of the planet looking for somewhere we consider the odds might stack up in our favour a bit better than where we were before. Over at Resource Insights, Kurt Kobb can be seen relocating across the vastness of America to a new home in Oregon, the Doomstead Diner's RE went one step further and is now hiding out somewhere in Alaska and Ray Jason explains why he has taken to the high seas.

As for myself, I chose to take flight from the ostensible safe haven of Denmark and fling myself and my family to the furthest western reach of Britain - namely Penzance in Cornwall. I described my rationale behind the move here, and all I can say at present is that after four months here it feels like the right choice. I did, of course, buy a piece of woodland nearby, which is where I'm crafting my post-industrial career as a woodsman, with the first half acre of chestnut and oak to be coppiced this winter. At some point in the future, perhaps when planning regulations have drowned under their own weight, I'll build a nice little hobbit hole there. It'll be somewhere I can put me feet up and roast chestnuts as I eke out my non-retirement in as comfortable a manner as possible.

But that's future talk. Right now it makes more sense to be within a town, close to the children's school and also the shops. Which is why we've just completed the purchase of a house right in the centre of town.

Now, I would say that it's been quite a long and fraught process getting hold of this particular house. Not only did I have to take a major loss on otherwise stranded assets from our life in Spain, but I also had to negotiate several fraught months of having that money within the UK's increasingly fragile banking system, with a major risk of me being asked to bail out one of the TBTF banks with my savings. Nevertheless, the camel passed through the eye of the needle and I was able to spend pretty much every penny on a place that we can now call home and which we own 100% without even a penny of debt.

None of it would have been possible had my father not passed away last year, but I think he would approve of the fact that we have bought what he would term a 'fixer upper'. That is, the house is solid and the fundamentals are all in a good state, even if it needs something of an overhaul in various areas which I will list below. I'm only setting this out so that others may also start to think about what is important in a house fit for the future, and it's in no way an attempt to show off my abode as if I'm this week's  Through the Keyhole mystery person.

It's perfectly possible, if you have ownership of your own property, to live very simply and cheaply. These people here manage to do so - perhaps they are role models whom we should seek to emulate (as is Joan Pick). With that in mind my criteria for buying a house were relatively straightforward:

- It has to be built to last. Most houses built in Britain after the last world war were not built to last. The one we chose was put up at the end of the nineteenth century, is constructed from heavy granite, is standing on bedrock and shows no sign of it not being able to stand for another thousand years or so. The walls are thick and the foundations are solid.

- It had to be big enough to allow for different economic activities to be undertaken in it, but not so big that it would be unaffordable to heat or maintain. Ours has a basement which can be dug out some more and used as a workshop by my wife for her upholstery business, and  - joy of joys - an office space for me on the top floor. Furthermore, my assumption is that my kids will not be able to afford their own homes in the future, and that they'll be hanging around in our house far longer than is currently considered normal. With four floors, there should be space for us all.

Under the house

My new office. That old writing desk was rescued from a skip by my father in the late 70s
- It had to be close to amenities so that we can walk everywhere. Our house is a two-minute walk from the shops in the centre of Penzance. The town has pretty much everything you might want, from food stores and cafes, to a hardware store and a library. The hospital is a ten minute walk, the kids' school a five minute walk and the nearest pub is 98 seconds away (I timed it).

- It had to be easy to retrofit. One of the first things I will be doing is studying the central heating system and figuring out how I can get it running on wood fuel. I have two very heavy and antique wood-burning stoves from Scandinavia, which I salvaged, and which will be useful in our house as soon as I have disconnected the gas. At present all water heating is done by a dangerous-looking boiler in the basement which has a very large gas-guzzling pilot flame.

The boiler. To be replaced by a wood-burning stove with a water tank attached

I'll be looking to get water heating panels on the roof as soon as I can, and probably solar PV ones as well. At present the government is offering 'free' solar panels, although there are plenty of strings attached. I don't want to get into any debt, but nevertheless may take them up on this offer given that we have no more funds to finance things like that. The house is aligned north to south, meaning the morning sun heats up the back and the afternoon sun hits the front.

There is a carport at the back, big enough for two cars. My plan is to rip up a lot of the concrete and plant a small garden here. There's also a tiny garden at the front, which will probably just remain ornamental, perhaps with these coffee bushes (the house next door has bananas - everything seems to grow here).

Some coffee bushes and olive seedlings I picked up

The carport - just the right size to make a small enclosed garden

There are, of course, a whole lot of other factors that I need to take into account - especially insulation. But it is a terraced house, meaning that heat is not lost on either side, and the huge thermal mass of the walls at the front and back should be handy for keeping it warm in winter and cool in summer.

- It had to be above sea level. At 40m, up a steep hill from the sea (which is about half a mile away) I'm not too worried about sea level rise and storm surges just yet.

- It had to be affordable. This is one reason to choose the far west of Cornwall. Although house prices are still inflated by the bubble, this is one of the more affordable areas of the UK. Our budget was £200,000, which is about £40,000 less than the average house price. This is still an outrageously high amount by historical standards, and I'm fully aware (and grateful) that by some good fortune we had the money for it.

This alcove should be good for stacking wood in

- It had to be located in a good economic community. Penzance is a smallish market town with excellent trade links. The nearby railway station offers services to London, and everywhere in between, which is why the town thrived in Victorian times as fresh fish and flowers were sent daily to the capital, and tourists flowed in the other direction. Penzance is also a port, and it is easy to get to nearby France and Ireland. The house we have bought was most likely built by a merchant from those times. Given that I presume we will be rewinding the clock and going back to an economic model that will look a lot more like Victorian England than the current fantasy-based economic model, this can only be a good thing.

As you can see from some of the pictures I have included, I have a wealth of junk that needs sorting through. My several years' dumpster diving in Denmark mean I have a lot of nice old furniture, plus several thousand books and enough old but functional tools to set up a second hand hardware store. It will seem incredible in years to come that I was able to come by all of this stuff for nothing - or almost nothing. In total, I have five large trailer-loads full of 'stuff' - two of which are still in far-flung corners of Europe (another Spanish adventure awaits next month), which is the culmination of at least four lifetimes. And even then we are still lacking such basics as a sofa and mattresses - although I'm certain I can get hold of these from Freecycle in the coming weeks.

And below is the view from my new office window which looks out over Mount's Bay to St Michael's Mount. It beats sitting in the kitchen staring at a white wall, which I have been doing the past few years writing this blog, but it remains to be seen whether I'll be able to stop looking at it and actually get some work done.

So that sums up our new abode. It's been a long and winding journey to get here and it's emptied the coffers but - as Dmitry Orlov notes - we're going to lose our money anyway, it's up to us to choose the manner in which we do so. And that's just what I've done. I have no debt, no pension fund to look forward to, no stocks or shares, no precious metals hidden away and very little cash and no permanent job - but what I do have is a house that is suitable for living in and earning money from into the far future and that, in my opinion, represents a store of real wealth.


  1. Congratulations! It looks like a fine home. Stunning view.

  2. Very sound purchase with a superb and hopefully inspirational view. Pleased to hear you are at 40m. For a grand day out have you tried a day trip to Isles of Scilly on the Scillonian. The day return is quite reasonable and you get 6 hours ashore which is long enough to have a good walk round st Marys. Also great views of the cornish coast as you head out. Make sure you pick the right weather though or you will find out why it is also known as the Sickonian!

    1. I haven't been over to the Scillies yet, but am looking forward to doing so. They are certainly a great option for holidays in the future - you can bring your bikes on the boat, along with a trailer that you can fill with camping gear. At the other end, a local farmer pulls your trailer to wherever you are camping, and then you are all set up for your stay.

  3. Awesome Jason!! A home built for multigenerational living in the middle of a walkable community. JHK would be proud I'm sure. Plus you have woods on top of that. Seems your in as good a position as one of modest means can be in.

    I don't think your situation is available in the FSoA.

    1. Cheers! I can't imagine living in a place where you can't just get about by walking. Now I have a house I can also apply to the local council for an allotment to grow produce on. There is a several year waiting list but they are bound by law to provide a plot of land for anyone who wants one for growing food.

    2. Wow...bound by law!!! WTF? That's awesome.

      Here they are bound by law to provide high petroleum corn sugared, fried, industrial butt hole effluent packaged in petroleum at the local "convenience store" gas station along with the gas to get your fat ass from the couch to said convenience store. They also provide us with euphemisms to conceal the nature of the CAFO effluent that composes our fat asses like "farm fresh" and "natural". Farm fresh pork rinds with natural flavoring and what not.

      This is America!

  4. Congratulations Jason, You've positioned yourself wisely :-) I made a similar purchase just this year on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio (where I grew up here in America). Big brick building with some rental units. I plan to live on the upper floors at some point. For now I'm keeping my job in Washington, DC and sending money home for solar panels, insulation, etc. It feels good to be positioning myself, as you have, for the future we're sure to get.

    1. Yes, positioning oneself for when the music stops is the name of the game. Many people don't have the resources to do so, and I myself was 'stranded' for a few years. What might seem a bit unusual right now will seem like a sensible move in a few years' time when the middle classes find they have lost their mobility.

  5. Congratulations from me as well! Being debt-free and having all that great free useful stuff you've kept from going to the dump, and a house big enough for your children to stay home ... wow!

    We did something similar 11 years ago when we bought our current house, as I've discussed in my blog. We paid cash for an older (1928) solid small house that needed work in an unfashionable area of an unfashionable Midwest city. We got an acre of good soil along with the house so I could become a subsistence gardener. Along the way we've replaced appliances, added insulation, done moisture control, and glassed-in the front porch for extra growing space. Still to come are adding a wood burning stove for winter heating and adding an awning to the north end for outdoor living and cooking space in the summer.

    I think you've done well to pick a house that is large enough for your children to live with you. We have no children but I think we will have younger folks living with us at some point. I'm not sure how we will modify our house for that. But on the other hand we understand a family of seven lived here once, in the 1940s and 1950s. It could happen again if we pared down our stuff enough to make space for a young couple, and I suspect it will happen when decline has progressed far enough that young people are making these kind of arrangements with old folks as we will be by then.

    1. Thanks Claire. It sounds like we are both on the same wavelength. It's true that the true test of a house, once it's done its job of sheltering you, is to be adaptable for different modes of living. There are houses in London like the one I bought, with up to 50 people living in them. Usually they are young Australians, over here for the experience and doing a bit of work before heading off again - but it goes to show what is possible with a bit of space.

      Mind you, I wouldn't want to be caught in the queue for the bathroom!

  6. Jason, a sound purchase, congratulations to you and your family. Those thick stone walls provide excellent thermal mass to ease you through those inclement heat waves you've reported recently. And the vista from your office!

    1. Thanks! Although heat waves are rare (at present) - it's more a case of keeping us warm from the chilly southwesterlies.

  7. Hi Jason, glad to hear you are thinking about an allotment. I've had one three years now and if I may I'd like to pass on a few tips about getting one. Sadly the only legal requirement is that local authorities must assess the need for allotments in their area and make sufficient provision. Having established the need there is no time limit on making provision. Our town of around 18,000 people has about 150 allotments, we have been trying to get more but no joy so far.

    The local authority usually let any allotment land to an allotment association and eash site will usually have a secretary. It is worth getting to know who that person is and cultivate them (no pun intended). Sites want people who will commit to their allotment, keep it tidy and grow alot of food on it. Let them know how serious you are, perhaps by offering to assist an elderly allotment older who might otherwise have to give up. The benefits will be sharing their knowledge and produce and a good way into a different section of ther local community.

    Because allotments are now seen by some as a bit trendy, they sometimes attract dilletante types who don't last long. A good waiting list is a way of making sure it is easy to boot these folks off in the hope that a newcomer will put in more effort. In my experience its not always the one at the top of the list who gets the plot. For instance the site may want people who live as local as possible and don't turn up by car. It all depends, so worth getting to know the site secretary. By the way I only live 100 yards from my allotment and the site secretary is my wife!

    1. Okay Phil. Thanks for the dose of reality. I guess that councils are free to assess the need for allotments as they see fit. Here in Penzance, population 23,000, there are 175 plots, which is not even 1 for every 100 people. There are plans to turn some fields over to more, so I'll keep my eye on that one.

      I wonder how that one will change in years to come. Obviously, at present, the perceived need for allotments is low (and them being trendy is surely bad news). But look at a field of, say, corn and then compare that to an area of the same size given over to allotments - the amount of produce coming out of the latter must surely be far higher. Of course, it's a lot more work than going over it with a combine, but that's the illusion we get from fossil fuels.

      I'm still signing up for one though as my woodland lies some 12 miles away and I could do with somewhere to grow fruit and veg just a little bit closer.

  8. Is there a Marina for Sea Gypsies to moor at? Monthly Rates for Live-Aboards? GPS coordinates for said Marina?

    I'll post this one to the Diner this week.


  9. 98 seconds to the nearest pub? Coffee bushes? A house made of stone in an old city that retains a sense of itself? Sounds like an extraordinary place to raise a family. I think your judgement is excellent. A life of richness and abundance, as opposed to the current ideal, just rich. You set a fine standard. Blessings,


    1. Actually, 62 seconds if I run :-)

      The best way to be rich is to reduce your requirements for feeling rich, someone clever once said.

  10. Hi Jason,

    Wow, the house looks great and certainly ticks all the boxes for future scenarios :) I'm glad that the hobbit hole in the woods wasn't your only option.

    If you are heating your house with wood from your own land, then energy costs will be low and insulation much less of a worry. You probably wouldn't get planning permission for external insulation on a lovely stone house like that, so roof and floors are the main areas to look at. You can always get the missus to make Canadian window quilts if the windows are draughty. If you can grow bananas then the cold is the least of your worries ;) The stone basement will make a good cool storage area for when you can no longer run a fridge. Have you thought about rainwater capture at all? You just wouldn't want to be lugging water up a steep hill.

    I have planned it all out and can spend hours scouring sites for an affordable property that ticks even some of the boxes, but I'm caught in a financial abyss and even remote parts of Wales aren't cheap enough. It must be nice to be able to breath again, after the panic that time is slipping away has lifted. It is good to hear that so many of your readers are already prepared, though it doesn't feel like many in the UK are. I'm glad you found a way out and you really deserve to be pretty pleased with what you have achieved. Thanks for giving me inspiration :)

    1. Yes, Judy, house prices here are wildly inflated. It's the only way the government (past and present) knows how make the economy look like it is doing okay. It's no fun to be caught in a financial abyss, so I hope conditions change for you soon.

      As for the heat, I will see how it goes this winter - there is no point over-insulating is it is not needed. If, as I suspect, more is needed, then loft insulation will be first, followed by interior cladding. My wife is already working on the heavy close-fitting curtains.

  11. Hey Jason,
    Sounds like we're running almost parallel lives, but at opposite ends of the country! We acquired our woodland, on the north coast of the Moray Firth, around four years ago. It's a conifer plantation, grown for its ornamental foliage, but we're in the process of diversifying both the planting and the products.

    Like you, we decided to move into town. We live in the middle of Tain, a town of about 4000 people. All the services are within a two minute walk and my vehicle mileage has halved since we moved. You won't regret the decision; quality of life is excellent when everything is so easily reachable. If we need "serious shopping" (B&Q, major chain stores, etc) we need to go to Inverness (35 miles), but can do this by train if we want.

    We put in a wood burning Rayburn for hot water, CH and cooking, to supplement our oil boiler. It's saved around 4 fill-ups per year and, of course, the wood is free.

    Congratulations on your purchase, and good luck!


    1. Thanks Mark - yes, you can have the best of both worlds if you have a bit of woodland and live nearby!

  12. Hi Jason,
    It has been a while since I commented, but I had not forgotten you, read all your blogs. It is that sometimes, life takes over, and reading then becomes the only internet activity I occasionally perform.
    Your new house looks great. I am jealous of the big, stone walls. Coming from Europe myself, and having lived for years on the American continent, where houses are usually made of wood, I sure miss the thick, natural stone walls, that offer fine insulation in winter and keep the house cool in summer. No need for energy-gobbling ACs then!
    It is funny: we have followed similar paths, you and your family on the east side of the Atlantic, me and my family on the west side. After a lot of searching, we have also landed on a fringe of the continent (Nova Scotia). We also bought a house with inheritance money. And we also compromise for the time being with a (rental) house in the Canadian mainland due to work and school obligations.
    In one of your previous blogs, you mentioned writing a book. Please do, you have a compelling way of writing. I will buy it, if available in Canada. And I admire your frankness on the internet. It sure gives people like us some courage, and the feeling that we are not the only ones living the way we do. Thank you so much. And good luck for the family!

    1. Hi Jeannette - yes, indeed, life does sometimes take over! I've spent the last few weeks driving all over Europe moving furniture and other items into our new home. It was long and arduous, but it needed doing and now I can concentrate on getting settled.

      Nova Scotia sounds very interesting - it's a place I'd love to see one day. As for a book - yes, I was planning to start doing that right now. I have a 'gap' between now and winter, when I'll be working full time at my woodland, coppicing about an acre of land and learning the trade, so to speak.




I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.