It was in Ray's office that our romanticized, starry-eyed plan began it's transformation to concrete, complicated reality. In spite of all our reading and research, the list of things we didn't know about how to purchase a piece of land was still much longer than the list of things we did. Thankfully, Ray was more than happy to help us escape some of our naivety.
First up, he introduced to us the existence, purpose and importance of a "perc test", a method of measuring the absorption rate of soil. These tests are key in the process of septic permitting, helping to determine the style of septic design allowed on a given piece of property. This is of vital importance—if the soil doesn't absorb fast enough, or if the seasonal high water table rises above a certain point, the only (easily legally accepted) recourse is a complicated-and-expensive mound system.
We had vague notions of including composting toilets and alternative grey-water management systems in our homestead plans, but it seems that trying to use these common-sense ideas will almost undoubtedly result in battling a lot of regulatory policy (which we may attempt).
The final semi-letdown was learning about the impact of zoning. During our research, we'd become enamored by an advertisement for a beautifully wooded property abutting a national forest. It was fifty acres and they only wanted $50,000! Unfortunately, it was zoned for "recreational use", which we learned made it illegal to live year-round on the property.
That explained why many of the listings we'd seen (and briefly fallen in love with) were so cheap. The responsibility of zoning a piece of land usually belongs to just a handful of folks in the county, though... maybe we could convince them to change it? Doubtful.
On a more positive note, we were floored to learn that Vermont has an extremely relaxed building code! "Hell, you could just set up a yurt and live in that if you want," Ray told us jovially when we asked about it. We were astounded that a realtor knew what a yurt was, and even more heartened when he didn't bat an eye as we told him of our cob/strawbale/stone building dreams.
Leaving Ray's office, we drove into the countryside towards two parcels he'd encouraged us to visit, feeling a little more knowledgeable about this whole land-procuring business. Armed with more information about the bureaucracy and hoop jumping that awaited, the project felt a little less romantic, but we knew that realization was an inevitable part of this process.
Soon, we arrived at the first plot: thirteen-and-a-half wooded acres, up a very steep hill, abutting a mountain. Though we had read and fantasized about the land, with its old wooden sugar shack and ideal location close to both town and the mountains, we were surprised by how we felt about it when we got there. We disliked it immediately. It just felt wrong. It was too steep, too wooded, too visible from the road, and the sugar shack was creepy and uninviting rather than quaint.
Thus we learned another invaluable lesson about this land-hunting process. Looking at photos online, reading descriptions of various properties, it was easy to form imaginary stories about them. We could talk all day about "Quintessential Vermont 20 acre building lots with - apple & maple trees, meandering stone walls, rural yet easy access to all conveniences," but seeing the land in person was an entirely different—and necessary—experience.
Though neither of the two properties we saw that day were right for us, we drove away feeling empowered. As we rode through the night, across the Green Mountains of Vermont towards our house-sitting duties in Maine, we were excited. For in some small way, we were starting, getting the ball rolling, slowly but surely turning our dreams into reality.