Illustration by Mike Reddy
I recently bought some land in the Adirondacks. Who didn’t? Or at least who didn’t think of doing such a thing during these last few years of pandemic and catastrophe? North of someday-underwater-Manhattan, east of the incinerating-West, south of foreigners-can’t-buy-land-there-anymore-Canada, the Adirondacks sit in a sweet spot for American escape. The harsh, minus 30-degree temperatures of olden days will all but disappear in the coming winters and the year-round weather in the region will, by century’s end, resemble the mild conditions of North Carolina’s Great Smokey Mountains. I’ll be dead by then, but maybe on a balmy December afternoon in the mid-2090s my heirs will lie back on my land, mix up a pitcher of North Carolina’s state cocktail, the Cherry Bounce, and drink toasts to my foresight.
My land is a humdrum wooded acre in a mostly undeveloped development known locally as “The Acres.” Its official name, “Ausable Acres,” was cooked up by a logger who thought that subdividing a huge swath of second-growth forest into single-acre lots might attract those looking for a cheap way into vacation home ownership. That I bought my acre for a sum in the mid four figures astounds most Realtors today when I mention it to them. And indeed, I can’t stop bragging to anyone who will listen that I own an acre free-and-clear in a place that might eventually be one of the more habitable spots left on Planet Earth.
Once the excitement of a good deal wore off, though, I started to wonder how I might actually come to inhabit this acre. I am a man in middle age with all the usual stressors—poor liquidity, a college-aged child, inadequate retirement savings, and a body disintegrating joint-by-joint. What would my options be if I wanted to make good use of this land in the two or three decades remaining to me?
One can of course Google this problem till one’s fingertips callous over. But as anyone who has ever posed open-ended questions about real estate to the Internet knows, those answers are frustratingly imprecise. So this year, I decided to finally sit down with real people who’d actually done something with a piece of raw land and see what my options were. Would a net zero cabin be possible? Could I build such a home with my own hands? If not, how about a single-acre farm? Or a microhome? Or an AirBnB fliperoo? All of this was on the table when I packed up my ’03 Honda Civic and headed north from my home in Manhattan to my blank slate of an acre in the Acres.
The first target of my what-to-do-with-an-acre search was builder/contractor Brian Crowl, who kindly agreed to meet me one morning next to the “No Trespassing” sign that marked the sole improvement I’d made to my land in my two years of ownership. I’d been told he was particularly good at custom-building durable, environmentally-friendly homes. He and his wife had built their first home themselves and he was the kind of straight-talking, approachable person that I felt would make for a solid collaborator. I started by asking the obvious: how much would it cost for me to build a modest, eco-friendly home on my land?
“People always remember the first number you tell them,” Crowl said. “You can come back later with a full-on, site-specific detailed estimate but they’ll always remember that very first number. So I always start by jokingly saying it will cost a million dollars. Then when it turns out to be $500K, they’re happy instead of the other way around.” After that opening bit of contractor levity, we got into the heavier stuff of what makes a project more or less than a cool mil.
“When you’re building a house, you have to remember that there are always three different cost components,” Crowl said. “Number one is the raw land. Number two is the infrastructure you have to put in to make a house possible. And third you have the actual house.” Infrastructure is a very significant part of the whole endeavor, often exceeding 20 percent of the project’s total cost. Foundation work, basically a walled-off hole in the ground, usually runs in excess of $15 per square foot.
How much the infrastructure will set you back, though, is very much related to the kind of land you have. “It’s very site specific,” he continued. “The more remote you get, the more expensive it becomes.” Road and electrical cable costs add up yard by yard and usually there’s no bulk discount. Another red flag is steep and otherwise difficult terrain. But the most hard-to-anticipate cost-creator is what invisibly lies beneath your feet. “Mostly it’s just the physicality of the land,” Crowl continued, “This region is pretty diverse geologically so you never know what you’re gonna get as far as bedrock under the soil is concerned.”
The standard-issue perc test most landowners do when they acquire property won’t give you the answers you need. Crowl recommends a deep shovel test. “Ideally what you hope to find for an on-site septic system is 24 to 48 inches of depth that can be obtained before you find bedrock ledge or water table. And then you still need to consider the foundation depth and design.”
OK, the infrastructure is expensive. No getting around that. But once the site was prepared, could I keep costs down by actually getting involved?
Hearing this Crowl’s face darkened. “I’ve had people who wanted to be hands-on in the process. It sets you up for headaches. There’s a lot of moving parts. If someone came to me and said ‘I want to handle this portion,’ I would weigh that very carefully. If owners get involved in the building there has to be a very clear offramp for when they get out of the way.”
“Well,” I said, “what if I wanted to be, like, just a part of your crew? What would be the job I could do to help build my own house?”
“Hmm, I dunno,” he said, looking me up and down. “Gopher?”
“As you mature in any profession you start to weed out the things that make your life unpleasant,” Crowl concluded. But he also said that I had a good piece of land on my hands. From an aesthetic point of view it was flat, boring and viewless. But from a builder’s perspective it was easy, flexible and amenable to a range of possibilities. It was next to a road, it had passed its perc test with flying colors, suggesting decent leach field potential, and it already had town water and electricity running up to the property line. Taking all of that into consideration he recommended I put aside $400,000 to $500,000 in cash or credit.
Then we could get serious.
I do not have $400,000 or $500,000 in cash or credit to pour into a hole in the ground. (Would I be writing this article if I did?) So my next thought was pre-built structures. Crowl cautioned that kit homes, while cheap-seeming on the virtual rack of their websites, usually incur similar infrastructure costs as non-kit homes when you go through the process of putting them on real-life land. The same issues apply to “tiny homes.” Those Lilliputian huts that by definition measure out at less than 500 square feet still need a foundation, electricity, a septic field, etcetera, etcetera, et-frustrating-cetera.
But what if you didn’t do any infrastructure work at all? What if you could get something that sat on the land rather than in it? Does something like that exist? In fact, it does. The number one selling version of such a thing is made by a company called Tumbleweed Tiny Homes.
“It’s really pretty incredible,” Tumbleweed’s sales manager Jessica Steiner told me by phone, from the company’s headquarters in Colorado Springs. “Where I’m from, buying a house for $120,000 is pretty much impossible. But that’s about what our standard model 399 square-footer costs. And that’s with installation.”
The Tumbleweed, true to its name, is mobile, and rolls onto your land on wheels. No foundation is required, although the ground must be level (a cement plinth is recommended). Owners can choose a toilet that’s composting, incinerating or with a pipe that can hook up to a septic field.
What about the fact that Ausable Acres requires that homes be built “in the Adirondack style?” I asked. “Well, we don’t like to go super custom, but it can be done,” Steiner said. “There’s an RV park in Leavenworth, Washington, that’s all, like, Bavarian and we were able to trim everything out to fit that aesthetic.”
What about the fact that Ausable Acres technically doesn’t allow mobile homes?
“At the end of the day we’re an RV company,” Steiner said. “Anywhere you can legally stay in an RV you can put in one of our homes. I mean we look like a house. That works to your advantage. And you can skirt it. You really can. You can skirt it and hide those wheels.”
Let’s say I skirt, twig and branch the Tumbleweed and somehow get it past the Ausable Acres Homeowners Association. What about the land itself? Would there be some way to get this land to throw in a bone or two? Could I start some kind of tiny farm to go along with my tiny house? For this question I turned to Carly Summers, agriculture issue leader for the Cornell University Cooperative Extension.
“Essex County, where your land is,” Summers told me, “has really gone through a big change in recent years. A lot of farmers have gotten out of more traditional things like dairy.”
What are they getting into, I wondered out loud, marijuana?
To this, Summers made an important clarification. “As members of the Cornell Cooperative we’re not allowed to advise on marijuana cultivation,” but, she told me, there had been something of a limping stampede toward the marijuana offshoot CBD. That stampede, however, quickly petered out. “In my experience,” Summers said, “very few farmers actually got to the point where they were able to establish a successful contract with a CBD plant. The gold rush was so fast that people who really knew how to do it got in quick and people who were like, ‘Oh, that might be fun,’ didn’t see things pan out.”
What is panning out is vegetables and value-added products, like artisan cheese, yogurt and bread. “We’re now seeing in Essex County something like 35 percent of the farm income coming from direct-to-consumer sales. That’s only one percent in Clinton County.” All that being said, the average farm income in the region is less than $20,000 a year. And Summers further pointed out that the successful farmer doesn’t exploit niches that are already realized but seeks those hiding in plain sight.
And those niches are?
“U-pick berries. A lot of people are coming to the region for tourism and they want to experience local food firsthand. But there are hardly any U-pick berry places around. Oh. And also mushrooms. They’re very high value.”
Suddenly a vision rose up before me. A twig-and-branch Tumbleweed home, skirted out in boxes of oyster mushrooms. Then surrounding me in concentric circles, berry fields, striated in rings and timed according to the season—June strawberries, July blueberries, August blackberries—enough varieties so that I’d never be alone as out-of-towners picked their hearts out.
There’s something almost indescribably pure about an untouched acre. It is a canvas for daydreaming; something that comforts those who find in real life only concrete dead ends. And because of this dreamy open-endedness, the owner feels compelled to somehow be excused from the land’s eventual violation. As the contractor Brian Crowl put it, “Once you start building, the land will never be the same ever again.” This is exactly the kind of wisdom-nugget ear-worm that keeps the would-be homesteader in complete and total paralysis. A paralysis that made me start exploring the possibilities of just simply flipping the sucker and moving on.
Toward the end of my research for this story I found myself circling back to the person who got me into this dilemma—a Realtor with B. A. Straight named Adam Coolidge who’d sold me the land. I wondered if the Great Adi-
rondack COVID Land Bonanza was over and whether I still had a chance to get out of all this with a profit.
“Pre-COVID there were approximately 50 to 60 available lots in The Acres,” Coolidge said. “At the height of the buying boom there was a period where there were less than 10 lots available. Out of those 10, very seldom were they good lots. As of right now there are 17 lots available.” For those remaining 17 lots, the average asking price is more than five times what I’d paid for mine. Was this still a bubble, I wondered?
“Not necessarily,” Coolidge told me. And the reason came down to one simple URL: AirBnB.com. “Whereas before, tourists wanted to be in rentals in Lake Placid, now they realize the village doesn’t have the outdoor activities nearby that they want. People want to be closer to Whiteface and hiking. And then you put on top of that the fact that Lake Placid and other villages have put in short-term rental bans; that means people are looking elsewhere. Like in The Acres.”
So should I just flip my acre or build something and then flip that? With costs per square foot of building starting to come down from their pandemic highs, Coolidge saw advantages in the latter. But I shouldn’t just build any house. Ideally, I’d want something that the AirBnB renter wanted.
“For pure value you would want a two or three bedroom with a cathedral ceiling and a loft space in the 1,200- to 1,500-square-foot range,” Coolidge explained. “That will be the best return on the cost to build. But you have to make sure you have three things: an outside fire pit, some kind of recreational room, and possibly a hot tub or a sauna. I believe if you have the ability to build a quality, cost-effective home that meets that criteria you could stand to gain $100 to $200 thousand in resale in today’s market.”
In other words, if I were to take this pure, pristine piece of boreal forest and transform it into something one might find in, say, suburban New Jersey, I might persuade someone, probably from New Jersey, to buy it and leave me with something significant to tuck into my retirement account.
I was beginning to understand why America looks the way it looks.
What if I wanted the land just to stay the way it is, forever? What if I wanted to escape not from climate change but from the annual tax bill that now came due every autumn? What if I wanted to feel that I’d done a good turn for the planet by putting myself between the rabid maw of homogenizing capitalism and this humble acre of oaks and pines and squirrels and warblers? Would a nonprofit conservation organization want to take it off my hands?
“To be honest,” said Connie Prickett, of the Adirondack Land Trust, when I called her to pose this question, “an acre of land in Ausable Acres is probably not a good fit for us.” Founded in 1984 with the mission to “forever conserve the forests, farmlands, waters and wild places” of the Adirondacks, the trust has protected some 27,000 acres to date. In order for my land to fall under its defensive umbrella, Prickett told me, it had to be assessed according to three criteria: First, does the land offer a “strategic connection,” i.e. does it bring together parcels of protected land interrupted by a private corridor? My land? No. Second, does it offer some kind of access to public lands that the community would find useful? Nope. And third, is there an imperiled or important natural system that would make protection important? Not as far as I know. But I’ll check.
There was, however, one last thing I could do, Prickett said. I could give my land to the trust, get a charitable donation credit on my taxes for its fair market value, and then the trust could resell the acre and use the proceeds to buy, protect and steward better land than mine.
As for the fate of my particular acre in this scenario? Given the market pressures, most likely it would end up being sold to someone who would put up the aforementioned two- or three-bedroom with cathedral ceiling, fire pit and hot tub. Likely, too, would be outdoor lighting that blotted out the brilliance of the Adirondack night sky.
All things being equal, that twig-and-branch Tumbleweed mushroom berry farm is looking better and better every day.
Paul Greenberg (www.paulgreenberg.org) is the author of The Climate Diet: 50 Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint and five other books, including The New York Times bestseller Four Fish. Greenberg is currently the writer-in-residence at the Safina Institute and a visiting scholar at the University of Washington’s Ocean Nexus Center.