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Earthbag Building & Other Natural Building Methods

Advice on Low Cost Land in Texas?

“First off I want to thank you not just for your website but all the information you have made easily available on alternative building. I am currently in the Army. I’ve been in Iraq and am now stationed in Afghanistan for a few more months. In both of these countries I’ve watched people with no education and nothing more then a mud puddle and some straw build houses that can withstand explosions and multiple high powered bullets without falling apart — something houses in America can’t do.

I was always amazed at how easy it was to break a house and for as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to build my own house that will last. I’ve spent the last year or so looking into alternative building methods. A few months ago I found out about earthbag building and was very interested. As I’m sure you know the military more or less builds using sandbags in combat zones so this form of building is something that is very familiar to me and something I know a bit about.

My question is I’m now at the point in my life where I plan to get out of the Army and move back home to north Texas with my wife. I have the opportunity to use some of the money I’ve made over here to buy 10 acres of land outside of city limits. I’m wondering if there happens to be any thing I should worry about as far buying land to build an earthbag home goes. I know if I buy building plans from you which I plan to do I can get them approved for the building permits I need but I didn’t know if there was any thing else I should be looking for when it comes time to buy the land. Thanks, and keep up the great work on your blog. Websites like yours give me hope for the future.”
Joshua

Thanks, Joshua. I suggest buying land where there are few if any building codes. I hear there’s lots of land like that in Texas. The building codes can jack up the price of an 800 sq. ft. house from $4,000 to $80,000. No kidding. I’m working on a design now that will cost somewhere around $5/ft. using pallets, dirt and juniper poles.

So it’s way more than just the engineering fee (which isn’t that bad, really) — it’s the crazy codes that require extremely costly building methods like lots of extra steel and concrete that will really cost you.

Also, look for land with water, trees and good soil for gardening. An old run down farm house could be a hidden gem if it has good soil and a good well. Trees on the land will enable you to heat with firewood for almost free. I suspect fuel costs are going sky high, especially if war breaks out with Iran, and so the cost of food and everything could skyrocket. The key is being self sufficient and eliminating buying stuff from town.

Check out our blog post on juniper and cedar poles. These are the sort of resources that can save you a ton of money.

Earthbag is almost identical to the houses you’re describing in Afghanistan and Iraq. My friend was over there so I know how they’re built. It’s essentially cob with stone added. Earthbag is even stronger because the soil is tamped, there’s barbed wire, gravel throughout the mix, etc. Check our blog for bullet resistance of earthbags and blackpowder cannon tests.

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23 Responses to “Advice on Low Cost Land in Texas?”

  1. Reed says:

    Quemao,
    Your first reply was super informative and helpful. Thank you for that.

    We are a young couple looking to buy around 10 acres no further than sixty miles from Austin.
    what counties would you recommend? What acreage price should I expect?
    after all the recent droughts, how do you feel about water security? It seems that even well dug Wells will not be sustainable in the long run as central Texas is growing and expanding and every one taps into the same water tables
    This is probably my single biggest fear about making long term plans in Texas.

    I realize this is an old post but still hope you’ll read it.
    thanks
    reed

  2. I just want to echo what Owen said great advice thank you very much.

    Also I would like to add my two cents about the importance of deed restrictions. Apparently it’s very common to do this in Texas and the deed restrictions carry over to the current owner of the land some times for over 30 years. I had found a nice looking chunk of land and then ran into this little snag my self.

    I didn’t know about tax sales that’s a great bit of information, I know people that have had thier land taken because of failure to pay taxes but I didn’t know what they did with the land after it was taken.

  3. mysoulawakening says:

    Hi Joshua, Owen, and All,

    I hope my little bit of info here helps you. I’m in the process of buying land here in Texas, and I’d like to share what I’ve learned during the process.

    1.) Texas Building Codes: In Texas the cities govern the building codes, so if you live “Outside of City Limits”, you do not have to worry about building codes.

    2) “Outside of City Limits”: To buy outside city limits, you are “confined” to rural areas. Most all of the cities have a website, on their site you can typically view a PDF showing a map of their city limits. In Texas, cities are also allowed to extend their reach to an “ETJ”, ie “Extra Territorial Jurisdiction”. Living within an ETJ means you must still abide by their building codes, not all cities have an ETJ. HOWEVER, an adjacent cities ETJ may extend out into what you might perceive as a separate city, so make sure you check their City Limits/ETJ maps as well! (If you can’t find a website for the city, google often has a map showing their city limits, although you should call the city directly to determine accuracy.)

    3) FINANCING: If you plan on financing through a bank, be ready to be very patient…very very patient. Otherwise, I HIGHLY recommend buying only what you can afford OR owner financing! Be prepared to put 25-50% down when Owner Financing. Also, owners generally wish to get loan paid off in shorter term, mine requested 1-2 years, settled on 18 months.

    4) CRAIGSLIST!! After a lot of hunting else where, I found my property there. *Remember that Craigslist’s search engine isn’t as “smart” as Google’s, so change wording to get best results, ie: search “owner financing”, then “owner financed”, etc.

    5) DRIVE AROUND: This is VERY helpful. Drive around the areas you love that you know are out of city limits, you would be surprised how many properties are “For Sale By Owner”, but owners don’t advertise other than a homemade sign on the lawn.

    6) RESTRICTIONS! It’s not just building codes you have to worry about. Don’t forget that properties may carry restrictions, even if these restrictions are 30 years old from the original owner, it’s still something you must be weary of. I came across several properties that I loved, only to find out they had tough restrictions. Read the wording carefully, and make sure your home wouldn’t violate restrictions. Best yet, get one with no restrictions

    7) Flood Plain: This bit also applies to anyone anywhere, but do check FEMA website to make sure you aren’t in any flood plain.

    8) Deed Records and Appraisal Districts (taxes): Once you see a property you like, find your counties “Appraisal District”. Each county has one, most counties have websites where you can do this all online. If the county is small, call them up, Texas has the sweetest people just waiting for something to do in these little counties! ;) My county and most neighboring counties had a website, there I could find their appraised value, yearly taxes, exact property line info, etc. ALSO, once here you can find a number that corresponds to the records at the County Clerk’s office. Again, in larger counties, all this info was available online. Off of the County Clerk’s website you could go to “Public Records” and look up Deed information. Here you can find a complete description of the property, any restrictions on the property, important easement information, AND how much the current owner paid for the property. That last bit of info is invaluable when it comes to the negotiating table!

    7) TAX SALES! Did you know that when a property owner doesn’t pay their taxes, the county will sell their property at auction for only the cost of the unpaid taxes and fees?! I didn’t know that. This was something I wish I would have known sooner, and will definitely keep my eye on from now on for future real estate investments. Each county has their own way of doing it. Most commission a lawyer and the lawyer posts the available listings on their website. In any case, they are required by law to put a notice in a local newspaper publication (they will be found in the “legal” section of the paper. Search for “_____ County Tax sale”. Do your research! Make sure there aren’t any liens on the property. The owner of the property I am purchasing bought the land at auction, it is appraised at $21,000, I am buying it for $13,000, he paid ONLY $1,500 for it at auction!!! Buying someone elses property at auction because they couldn’t afford it seems cold, I know, but in honest, most of the properties I’ve come across are being sold because the owner departed from this earth.

    I hope this helps you and/or anyone else out there who are looking for a piece of the LoneStar state!

    • Owen Geiger says:

      Super advice! Thank you very much. Texas is sounding better all the time. Imagine buying land for only a couple thousand dollars at a tax sale.

      I’m going to repost this at Counties with Few or No Building Codes.

      • mysoulawakening says:

        That particular sale was in Williamson County, TX and my bit of experience refers to it and surrounding counties.

        Happy to be of service!

  4. PaulB says:

    You might want to check with the county or state geologist before beginning constrution, or even before closing a deal on the land. Here in NM, in the neighborhood where the house I live in stands, the ground has expanding caliche clay. When it rains good, the ground swells, and the floor of part of my house is cracked, as are some of the walls. When there is a long dry spell, the ground shrinks and the floor goes back down. This throws a couple of doors out of alignment, causing them to stick or not close.

    If I were building a new house, I would find out if it is possible or even necessary to dig down below the caliche layer to prevent this from happening.

    • Owen Geiger says:

      I used to live where expansive soil was a big problem. Hundreds or probably thousands of houses were screwed up. Good business for mud jackers… bad for homeowners. Also check on presence of radon before buying land.

    • Nick says:

      Maybe Owen could chime in on this since his knowledge base is wider than mine, but would it be practical to dig out the foundation to a depth of say 4 feet, fill in the hole with gravel and build on that bed of gravel? Would that allow the house to ride out the cycle of expansion and shrinking? Or would it make no difference at all…

      • Owen Geiger says:

        Yes, that’s one common method that often works. But some soil is so bad that more extensive measures are required. At some point it’s not affordable.

      • mysoulawakening says:

        I was actually talking to you Owen about this the other day. I did a shake test and my soil actually looks great. A big part of central Texas is Blackland Prairie with expansive montmorillonite clay (smectite). Some parts are worse than others Near here in city called Hutto, they are having huge problems with their foundations because the original builders apparently didn’t take the clay into account. I spoke with some pro builders and there are ways to work with it, like you guys said digging down til you pass through the clay layer. In Hutto apparently it is 4-8 feet deep! Although in the next town over it’s only about a foot.

  5. CJ says:

    I like the book “Finding and Buying your Place in the Country” by Les Scher & Carol Scher.
    Inexpensive on amazon. Lots of good info

  6. Kay Sarver says:

    You opened my eyes about Building Codes… didn’t know that the cost of building could increase so much. We plan to buy land in an area about one hour north of Houston, Texas. It is not cheap land, but I am told that building codes are next to none is this area. We will definitely check this out before purchasing. Thanks so much for posting this, and for all you do regarding affordable building!

  7. Nick says:

    Stay out of any “communities” with restrictive covenants, home owner’s associations which can make your life miserable.

    Be aware of any easements existing and make sure you can live with them, visit the area and meet people before buying – some places are pleasant and welcoming, others tend to distrust outsiders for years which is unpleasant.

    Make sure you own the mineral rights to your property – otherwise, a company can tear up your land for months or years looking for coal, gold, whatever, though the odds of that happening are generally low.

    I don’t believe you have to worry about water rights in the north of Texas, if you mean north of Dallas, but if you mean north of Amarillo in West Texas, you might want to look into it, just to make sure, since it’s a drier area. It would suck to have water crossing your land, and not be legally allowed to enjoy it, or use it to water your livestock, if any.

    Don’t buy in Tarrant or Dallas counties, since they’re the home of the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area and building codes will be more restrictive than outside those counties.

    Build as small as practical for your needs – Texas’ property taxes are high, for example I think 3 times as high as neighboring New Mexico, and 2 or 3 times as high as Oklahoma.

    I’ll disagree here with Quemao Viejo who says not to worry about electricity. Texas is very hot and humid north of Dallas and it’s miserable – some people can tolerate that, some can’t. I could not without AC, so I moved to New Mexico a couple of years ago, and I can’t tell you how much more pleasant the drier climate is. If you live north of Amarillo, the air will be drier, though still humid in the summer, and the winters will be much colder, though you could get around the cold with insulation. Make sure you can tolerate the climate – if you can’t, and electric is not at the property border, you can easily be charged tens of thousands of dollars just to get a line run to your house.

    Good luck with your project.

    • Owen Geiger says:

      I heard the Obama administration is closing down coal fired power plants, including some in Texas, and it’s driving up the cost of electricity. So that’s another thing to check on. You might have power now, but it may go way up in cost.

  8. Thanks again to Owen for all his help on the topic. Right now I’m trying to become as much of an expert on the Texas building codes as I can but it is a great deal of information to go through.

    Quemao, thank you for the advice I down loaded a copy of one-straw revolution it looks to be an interesting read. My plan in the long term is to have my house which if all goes as planed will be built right out side of city limits to not be dependant on the grid what so ever. In the short term I don’t think that will be posible but right now I’m making my plans over a year out so that when the time does come every thing will fall into place.

  9. CJ says:

    Hey Joshua,
    I think rural north TX is very agreeable towards earthbags.
    It seems that land without homes, or land with an old barn or dilapidated farm house or just a pasture with a well and electricity here are listed under many different realtors or sold ‘by owner’. The best deals aren’t listed at all and go quick. Really, just driving backroads turns up a great deal of choices and allows to scout prospective areas.
    Rural counties outside city limits here all seem to like post and beam, either earthbag as infill or the posts inside/outside bag walls. Plenty of hardwoods to choose from. Plan for termites.
    Vertical walled rectangular floorplans will hold value the most in these parts. Add metal roofing and you will be built to last while blending in the neighborhood and not stick out so much.
    You can always dispute your tax assessment to get it to reflect this cheaper archeticture.
    If you are looking for 10 acres, consider a bit more. 10 acres is the min to get your property an agriculture tax exemption on your property taxes. You can graze woodland or graze/hay the grass/farm a pasture–or lease it to a neighbor. Make some money and reduce your property taxes.
    If you find an area that you like, maybe post on a bulletin board at the local general store…maybe someone will break off 11 acres for a quick paycheck.
    Plenty of earthbag feed sacks around. Everyone in the sticks has a front end loader and easy to find a back/track hoe.
    Plenty of farm/estate auctions for building materials and tools. Cheap labor. And everyone is a welder if you need that.

    • Owen Geiger says:

      Great advice. It sounds like Texas is a top choice for natural building. And I have the impression that Texans have some good old fashioned values like self sufficiency, preparedness, hard work and helping neighbors — the pioneer mentality. This is likely more true in rural areas than big cities.

  10. Ron says:

    I remember reading about a women who built a straw bale home in tuscon and the county required a double stem wall out of concrete.im amazed at the cost of peoples homes they built.I would also consider a half basement,open that way you can take advantage of the heating and cooling of the earth,also would cut down on how many bags to fill and stack.A pit house.

  11. Elissa says:

    Thanks for posting this, Owen. So, just to be clear, before we purchase property (SE Michigan for us, for now), we should call the county and/or the township building department? What should we be asking them? How much permits are? What building code they go by? How do you get a copy of the code that they go by? We are new to buying land and building a home. We are on a tight budget so we need to avoid “jack[ing] up the price of an 800 sq. ft. house from $4,000 to $80,000″ because of building codes.

    Also, should we decide on a home design before we buy land so that we could get building dept. approval before buying land? SE Michigan is flat.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Owen Geiger says:

      You could check the county website first or call and ask general questions like “do we need our plans stamped by an architect or engineer.” This is what’s required in most areas, especially populated areas. You have to seek out rural areas to find places with few or no codes. You could ask an architect in your area if they know of any counties with minimal codes. Or you could search out ecovillages online and ask them questions. You could buy Terry Herb’s book No Building Codes to speed the search. And when you finally find a county that looks promising, you can drop by the building department and ask for a packet of information.

      That’s the short version. This topic is covered in length on a previous blog post Counties with Few or No Building Codes: http://earthbagbuilding.wordpress.com/2010/01/24/counties-with-few-or-no-building-codes/

      Note: Building at $5/sq. ft. is almost impossible unless you use all salvaged materials. Don’t get unrealistic expectations.

  12. Quemao Viejo says:

    For the soon to be former soldier:

    Yous story is quite touching. I hope you go ahead and quit the army and try to live a different life.
    Some ideas:
    -Try to get land as cheap as possible and build cheaper.
    -Don’t worry about electricity, if you learn to live frugal, solar panels can do.
    -If you get land with a bit slope/mountains, you’ll be able to catch/collect rain water ( check rain per year in the area)
    -I know it is nice to think about a house that would last for centuries, but there is not really need for it. If you manage to live in something ” temporary” you could avoid building codes–see ephemeral arquitecture.
    -Do not buy to far from a town/city–tranportation is expensive and solitude hard
    -Read “one-straw revolution”–the Food problem with solve by itself.

    Best of lucks!!

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