There are plenty of benefits of living in a bustling city — employment opportunities, restaurants and entertainment, shopping, meeting people and high-quality amenities are only a few worth mentioning. Yet, many city dwellers dream of trading it all in for simpler living somewhere off the beaten path. That’s why more people opt out of their lease renewals and pack their belongings for the homestead life instead.
Beginner homesteaders will be eager to start their new lifestyles. After stumbling upon a beautiful property, they’ll want to quickly seek out contractors to help them build the future they’ve envisioned for so long. Yet, homesteading requires highly specialized expertise, making it essential to choose trustworthy professionals. This article will provide you with the most crucial steps for hiring a reputable contractor for your homestead.
On May 20, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, allotting 160 acres of public land per citizen interested in improving and residing on it. Today, about 93,000,000 homesteaders occupy 270,000,000 acres of land, taking on rigorous agricultural work to build a new lifestyle.
Homesteading is hard work and not everyone is cut out for it. Nevertheless, those who choose to be more self-sufficient — foraging, gardening organically, making their own clothes and living sustainably — usually benefit from doing it.
A growing trend in homesteaders indicates people born between 1981 and 1996 are most interested in generating deeper connections with the environment. The generation that grew up during a digital evolution now recognizes the importance of being more of a producer than a consumer.
However, while you can homestead anywhere, not every state is ideal. For instance, Hawaii’s cost of living is almost double the national average. In New Jersey, a robust industry has left nearly half of the state’s drinking wells heavily contaminated with “forever chemicals.”
Montana currently boasts the most homesteads, with 151,600 properties occupying 34% of the state’s total acreage. Meanwhile, 45% of Nebraska is made up of homesteads. Some other popular states include Iowa, Tennessee, Idaho, Missouri and Arkansas, based on the primary factors conducive to homesteading, such as:
- Cost of living
- Arable land for farming
- Water and air quality
- Homeschooling laws
- Friendly state laws
Iowa in particular is one of the most homestead-friendly states. The state offers unlimited homestead exemptions if you own a half-acre within city limits or 40 acres in a more rural area. Also, Iowans pay lower property taxes, have a solar energy tax credit of up to $5,000 and relaxed homeschool restrictions.
Breaking ground is an exciting time for homesteaders, but a lot needs to happen before construction begins. If you’ve never built a house from the ground up, bringing your plans to fruition might seem like a daunting task. Even experienced general contractors should still look for someone else to oversee the construction of their homestead, as any knowledge gaps could hinder progress in completing the project.
To ensure your home is to your liking, you’ll need to make yourself available as often as possible. After all, home construction is a team effort, requiring excellent communication and trust between homesteaders and their contractors.
However, the first step demands picking the right contractor for the job. How do you accomplish this? You might be surprised to learn the same rules apply whether you build off-grid or in a city. Here are 10 tips for choosing a contractor for your homestead project.
The best way to start your search for reputable contractors is by asking for recommendations. Contact family, friends and neighbors and find out who they’ve worked with on projects. In addition to those you know, employees at home improvement stores, lumberyards and other building suppliers might be able to offer a few names of general contractors and their contact information.
You should also ask if they’d hire them again for future home improvements and what they didn’t like about working with them. For instance, maybe the contractor had a poor communication style or didn’t offer fair pricing.
It’s not enough to simply go by other people’s experiences — your homestead project is unique, after all. Conduct interviews with each contractor you’re considering hiring. The following list of questions will help you get to know them and their work better:
- How long have you been in business?
- Do you have experience with homesteading projects?
- Do you have a portfolio of previous projects you’ve completed?
- Do you have references I may speak with?
- Will you obtain the proper permitting and schedule the necessary inspections?
- Do you have the required licensure and certifications?
- How do you wrap up at the end of the work day?
- How will you protect my property?
- Is there a warranty on your services and materials?
- What’s your preferred method of communication and how often do you provide project updates?
- How do we mitigate mistakes, disagreements and change orders?
- What is the anticipated project timeline?
Don’t be shy about how many things come to mind during an interview. A good contractor will expect you to ask them dozens of questions, as they know you’re trying to make an informed decision. Create a list of what you must know about the process upfront and take plenty of notes as they answer each question.
After you’ve developed a floor plan of your homestead with an architect, you can submit it for multiple bids. According to Angi.com, requesting at least three estimates gives you an idea of how much you should expect to spend on building your home. It’ll also offer a better impression of a contractor’s communication and customer service skills.
Selecting the lowest bid is not always your best choice. Instead, you might want to go with the estimate that averages between the three proposals to avoid poor craftsmanship or overpaying for the necessary work.
Keep in mind — inflation has driven construction material prices and labor costs sky-high. Steel was 220% more expensive in August 2021 than in January 2020, while new construction costs are expected to increase 10.3% overall throughout 2022. This is mainly because of substantial supply chain shortages holding up production and transportation of construction materials.
Your homestead project estimates might be more expensive than initially predicted, depending on where you live and how significant inflation is. Unfortunately, these circumstances are usually out of the contractor’s control, but they may suggest ways to save money.
Once you’ve met potential contractors, do some sleuthing online to read their reviews and ratings. Only reading one or two reviews could give you a poor perspective. Conversely, reading too many reviews might leave you even more confused. Try to stick to about five or six reviews per contractor for details about their previous projects, complaints and how satisfied other customers were with them.
Sometimes, contractors might respond to negative comments online. If so, their responses are an excellent example of their customer service. Apologies and solutions-oriented replies show that they put their customers first. However, combative responses indicate the possibility of trouble for your contractor-client relationship later on.
Also, look them up on the Better Business Bureau (BBB) website before making a final decision. If there were any BBB complaints or lawsuits, you’d want to know about them.
Ensuring contractors comply with state and federal laws by obtaining the proper licensure is the most critical part of the hiring process. Contractor licensing rules vary from state to state, so you might want to read up on the licensing and certification standards for where you live.
Licensure demonstrates your contractors have the skills and expertise to do the work correctly. Some things to keep in mind when it comes to licensing include:
- Specialty contractors — such as plumbing or electrical — will need separate licensure for their niche trades.
- Those building a fully sustainable house should ensure their contractors have green building certification.
- Contractors can obtain and sign building permits for the project.
- Licensed contractors should also have worker’s compensation and liability insurance for anyone they employ.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 20% of the total worker deaths were in construction in 2019. The top three violations that put construction workers at the highest risk are falls, inhalation of harmful toxins and ladder hazards. Licensing requires contractors to follow several provisions to protect their customers, employees, subcontractors and vendors.
As you begin your search for contractors for your homestead, consider what you hope to include in the plans. Do you need a specific number of bedrooms? Does the home require specific accessibility features? Do you plan to build an energy-efficient home?
Sustainable construction has boomed in the U.S. as more people are eager to save money and reduce their carbon footprint. In 2021, North America made up 34% of the green building materials market, making it the largest region in the global market.
For several homesteaders, living more sustainably is the main reason they choose their new lifestyle. Energy efficiency is also essential for homesteading since households typically pay 40% more for utilities in rural areas than in cities. Of course, there are plenty of benefits to building an eco-friendly homestead.
For starters, green building materials are just as durable and usually require less water than standard products. They’re also much easier to maintain. With the increasing demand for sustainability, many contractors undergo training to learn how to select and assemble the latest materials for green residential construction.
General contractors and contracting companies often hire subcontractors to assist with the building process. Subcontractors might be additional construction workers or those specialized in a specific trade.
According to the National Association of Home Builders, new construction usually has 24 different subcontractors working on completing the project at any given time. Additionally, 95% of builders subcontract HVAC, electrical, plumbing, flooring and security system jobs.
It’s important to ask who contractors subcontract and whether the same team of people will work on your homestead — this will help ensure the work is consistent and done correctly. Ask about subcontractors’ reputations for excellence, pricing and why they’re a preferred choice. You must also ask whether all subcontractors maintain the necessary licensing and training.
For example, HVAC subcontractors should be experts in installing newer models over 10-year-old units with outdated manufacturing and installation requirements. As such, they should receive ongoing training and licensure renewals regularly.
Every contractor will have their own payment plan for the project, which each party must agree to in advance to avoid conflicts. If you’re financing your homestead construction, the payment schedule will depend on when the bank distributes the funds.
Be mindful of contractors that ask you to pay for the project upfront. A reputable contractor will ask you to make payments throughout the project with each completed step.
Also, ask contractors what happens when projects go awry — perhaps building material costs increase or another unexpected problem emerges. Discuss your budget with whichever contractors you meet and clarify they shouldn’t exceed a specific amount. The contract should also clearly state the budget agreements.
The residential and commercial construction industry has had difficulty bouncing back after COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. Amid widespread labor shortages, the market is unable to meet building demands. Due to a lagging workforce and supply chain, it now takes eight months or longer to build new construction compared to four to six months before the pandemic.
Currently, there are 25% more vacancies than hires in the construction industry, with labor conditions expected to intensify even more by the end of 2022. Part of the problem is older workers retiring with not enough younger people to fill their roles. Historically low wages have also hindered the labor market as the construction industry finds a way to increase salaries across the board.
With so little help, you’ll want to know when your contractors can begin your homestead project. Additionally, they should be able to provide a timeline for completion.
Each aspect of the project should be laid out beforehand with prospective deadlines and estimated times. If a contractor is significantly backlogged and can’t guarantee availability, it might be worth looking into someone else.
Communication is critical throughout your homestead project. Ask contractors their preferred communication methods, such as email, text or phone call.
You should also know your primary point of contact, including how often you’ll hear from them. If you want to know about the progress of your project after every workday or several times a week, inform them.
Just remember your contractors are busy professionals who may be unable to speak with you daily. If they don’t have a project manager or office manager to talk to you on their behalf, it might be hard for them to answer every call or message on the spot.
Also, inquire about how they like to handle mishaps and disagreements. While you hope it won’t be a cause for concern, contractors should be able to tell you their method of resolving conflicts.
Selecting the best contractors for your homestead is a process you shouldn’t rush. Taking the time to vet contractors in depth is the best way to ensure you end up with a beautiful home that exceeds your expectations.
Jane is the editor-in-chief of Environment.co. She is passionate about sustainability, gardening and homesteading.