Living off the grid likely conjures pictures of remote Alaskan wilderness. Or Vermont hippies in tiny houses. Or anti-government compounds out in Texas. In other words: every TV show you’ve ever watched on the Discovery Channel.
But around my neck of the woods (rural Maine), off-grid life is a relatively common reality for a wide range of people. And someday I’m hoping it will be my reality as well. So, I’m going to take a look at the cost of living off the grid, for both your benefit and mine. Is it cheaper than a traditional, on-grid home? How feasible is it for those with lower incomes?
What is living off the grid?
Living off the grid means different things to different people, and there are various extremes. But, in general, it involves living in the wilderness with a reduced reliance on modern technology. That could mean an absence of electrical grids (hence the term “off-grid”), electric and propane heaters, and other utility lines (like sewer and water). Essentially, you’re entirely or primarily reliant on the systems you create independently.
Below are some of the key considerations, and financial implications, of this major lifestyle adjustment.
Before I start talking about the actual costs of purchasing, it’s important to point out that these are approximate costs. The precise cost will vary based on many factors, such as:
- If you have a view
- If you purchase farmland or woods (farmland is typically more expensive)
- Access to water
- Proximity to a major city, etc.
So, if you buy acreage right on the ocean and relatively close to a major city, you’re going to be paying a premium. Since I’ve been looking at land over the past few years, I’ve found that to get land for next to nothing in Maine, I’d have to go about three to four hours away from a major urban area.
Here are some average land prices for a few states in different regions of the U.S.:
- Maine — $2,860/acre
- New York — $3,450/acre
- Florida — $6,600/acre
- Texas — $2,650/acre
- Kansas — $2,630/acre
- Michigan — $5,850/acre
- Arizona — $4,200/acre
- California — $12,000/acre
- Montana — $1,030/acre
As you can see, the Mountain and Plains states have some of the cheapest land per acre, while prices in California might be prohibitively expensive. This is an important point to keep in mind when you’re searching for a place to build your off-grid home.
Living off the grid doesn’t necessarily mean you have to build a log cabin deep in the woods. When it comes to housing, you can go a couple of different ways:
Buying a home already off-grid
If you want to do things the easy way, there are many houses that are already set up off the grid. Some of the best real estate websites (e.g., Zillow or Realtor.com) have “keyword” options that allow you to search off-grid homes. Below is a quick snapshot of some of the available homes near me:
I want to take a moment to point out one major theme in off-grid homes — they’re not million-dollar houses. Most off-grid homes don’t come with a ton of bells and whistles, which is exactly why most folks look for them. As you can see, off-grid homes are often much more affordable than traditional houses, but they require a larger time commitment.
Building your own home
Depending on where you live, you can buy land for as little as $1,000 or so. In that case, building your own house can be cheaper than purchasing one. If you stick to a smaller home, and do most of the work yourself with local materials, you can save thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This is especially true for homes that are off the grid. They don’t come with complex electrical systems, they have simpler sewage systems, and their heating systems (when needed) are also simpler.
I’m a huge advocate for tiny houses. They’re portable and they include most of the creature comforts we’re used to. They’re also incredibly cheap to build. You can go super simple or decked out, and you’ll still spend less than you would on a grand home.
Plenty of people make their tiny homes stationary, and since most people who live off the grid value outdoors recreation anyway, a tiny home is the perfect place to relax at the end of the night.
If you’re a frequent traveler and want to be off-grid while maintaining a mobile lifestyle, living in your van might meet both of those needs. Most people who do travel in their van are already living off the grid without even realizing it.
One thing to note here, however, is that you’re entirely dependent on the resources around you. You’ll need to find somewhere to shower, places to stop and eat/make food, and a place to park your van every night.
How do I get the money to build an off-grid home?
Now you’re probably to the point where you’re wondering how you even go about financing a whole off-grid project. That depends entirely on how much you’re going to spend. If you have to finance the land and the building of your home, you’ll need a construction home loan, which is a lot like a traditional mortgage, except it’s for building your home and comes with some more stringent rules. You can use a loan aggregator like Fiona to compare different lenders and their terms.
Not everyone who wants to live off the grid is a Henry David Thoreau-style loner. Some people still want to be around other like-minded folks; they just don’t want to rely on government resources.
If you’re looking to be part of a community while living off the grid, know that you’ll likely end up living in small towns. Below are a couple of places you may want to look into:
Three Rivers Recreation Area
In the wilderness of Oregon, you’ll find the Three Rivers Recreation Area. It’s home to a little over 600 off-grid homes. Since such a large community has formed here, you will find some creature comforts, like satellite TV, high-speed internet, and a large solar farm that generates electricity. You can find everything from basic homes to million-dollar homes.
Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage
If you want to live in a very small community of 60 people or so, Missouri’s Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage has a lot to offer. They’re an entirely sustainable, off-grid community dedicated to using totally reusable materials in all that they do, including building their homes.
Tinkers Bubble, England
If you’re willing to move across the pond, consider Tinkers Bubble, a charming, sustainable village nestled in English woods. If it’s sustainability that you’re looking for, this 28-acre community has built everything from its homes to its farms with sustainable materials.
And if farming is your game, all the income generated from this community comes from its farms and orchards.
If you want to truly live off the grid, you’ll need to find a way to get electricity. Luckily, renewable energy is taking off, making it easier for the average person to access it. Know that there will be a hefty cost up front for many of these power sources, but they pay off tenfold in just a few months or years.
It costs about $12,000 on average to install solar panels in a home (after federal tax incentives). Now, before you give up on the idea altogether because of the terrifying costs, know that solar panels also start paying for themselves in a little over five years. After that, you can expect to save thousands every year.
And an added benefit is the fact that there are tons of tax breaks you get when you have solar panels, and if you have electricity that you simply don’t use (solar panels generate a LOT), electricity companies may be willing to buy it from you. There’s a side hustle I bet you never thought you’d have!
Most people opt to have a professional install their wind turbine, as they’re typically tall, heavy, and somewhat dangerous to install on your own. And, unfortunately, that installation can cost you a pretty penny (upwards of $15,000 to $50,000 depending on the size you need).
That being said, there are a surprising number of DIY wind turbine kits that can cost as little as a few hundred dollars. These won’t generate as much electricity, but if you offset them with a small solar panel setup, you can likely find a low-cost combo that satisfies all your electricity needs.
There are tons of ways you can get water to your home when you live off the grid. Here are just a couple of the more cost-effective options:
Digging a well is the most common water access method for off-gridders. In fact, many land sites near me already have wells dug, since that’s what most people throughout the state use. Again, this method will require some work and or money upfront. You’ll need to dig the well, which almost always requires drilling into the ground (and no, not with a hand-held drill). You can do this yourself, but you’ll need to rent equipment you likely don’t know how to use.
My suggestion, since water is one absolute necessity you’ll need, is to hire someone for this. This will be in the thousands to the $10,000+ range. But again, after the work is done, you’ll have a viable water source for years to come.
If you’re really a do-it-yourself kind of person, I recommend this read to get you started.
Natural water sources
This is obviously one of the easiest methods to get water. If you live near a river or lake (that you know is safe to drink from — check with the town if you don’t), you can get water directly from the source.
Of course, always make sure to check with the town you reside in about water access, just in case there are any restrictions.
You’ll also want to consider a pump system that can help you get water up to your home. Unless, of course, you build your home very close to the water source (which can be tricky if things flood often, so do your due diligence and learn about the land you’re buying).
Hot water is a whole different beast
Getting water to your home is just the first step of a multi-step process to get actual hot water. The simplest way — and the way that’s the biggest pain — is to heat up your water on a stove and use that to take baths and do your dishes. This is commonly invoked by people looking to save money.
The other way is by using a water heater. You can get heaters that run off electricity or propane. Now, for this to work, you do have to have a well system or a water tank system. The cost to install a water heater is relatively modest. It’ll be around $1,000 to $3,000 depending on the size of the heater.
A wood stove or fireplace is one of the most common methods of heating off-grid homes. The amount you’ll have to pay monthly for wood depends on the size of the home you’re heating, while the cost to get it installed hovers around $1,000 to $4,000.
Propane heaters are typically used in addition to wood stoves to heat places the wood stove may not reach. The important thing to remember about propane heaters is that they can be dangerous if left unattended for too long.
Propane also is one of the more expensive ways to heat your home (trust me, that’s how I heated my last apartment). I paid about $175 per month to heat my one-bedroom apartment each winter, and the heat didn’t even reach the back bedroom. A large house could be two to three times that much.
There are two major bathroom setups when you live off the grid: composting toilets and water tank systems.
This method is usually the one that trips people up, because it’s quite different than the way most of us think of modern-day toilets. Composting toilets are similar to toilets you’d see in RVs. They do require more maintenance than your average toilet, but they’re also an incredibly eco-friendly alternative. Composting toilets usually range in price from around $1,400 to $3,000, depending on how simple you’re willing to go.
If you have a water tank connected to pipes or a pressurized system, this can double as your sewage system. You’ll need a separate tank for grey water (waste), and you’ll need to have access to a place to empty the tank (contact your town to ask). This is, however, a somewhat cheap option, as the tanks themselves are usually only a few hundred dollars.
Whether or not you have the internet while living off the grid is entirely up to you. Many diehards will say that having the internet defeats the whole purpose of living off the grid, but so many professions are based online these days that being offline at home may not be a reality for everyone.
If you do opt for internet access, you’ll need to get a little creative. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started:
Use an unlimited data plan (if you have cell phone coverage)
If you have cell phone coverage in your area, you can get an unlimited data plan and use your phone or tablet as your sole internet source. Most people do everything they need to on their phones anyway, so why not take advantage of it?
Some rural communities have satellite internet options. While there aren’t many satellite internet options on the market right now, if you’re in the range of either Viasat or HughesNet, you could potentially get internet much cheaper than those who use traditional providers. Both companies have plans ranging from around $50 to $350 per month, depending on what part of the country you’re in.
Find others who have it
In Maine, there are Dunkin Donuts even in the most remote areas of the state. And they almost always offer free Wi-Fi. Coffee shops, libraries, and even plenty of parks offer free Wi-Fi as well. You can always head over to one of these places if you absolutely need to use the internet.
Plenty of people opt to keep their regular nine-to-five jobs and then go back to their off-grid homestead. But if you’re not within commuting distance of an urban hub where there are a lot of job opportunities, you’ll need to figure out some other form of employment.
If you opt to have the internet at your home (if you can get it), online freelance work is always an option. You can blog, edit, do design work, submit your photography to photo sites, and the list goes on and on.
Read more: 17 ways to make money online
If you want to make off-grid living your full-time job, you can. Just know that not anyone can up and decide to move to the country and be a farmer. It takes some serious know-how. In the meantime, you can work on local farms, which typically need help during harvest seasons.
If you live in a rural area, more often than not there will be a number of nearby farms for you to choose from. You can pick up skills from local farmers in your area, and learn a thing or two.
Side note: Another benefit of rural life is that being adjacent to farming communities can seriously reduce your food bill.
Even if you live off the grid, chances are there are people around you who don’t. If you’re already a skilled trade worker (electrician, plumber, carpenter, etc.), you can benefit from the fact that those around you still very much need help with their on-grid systems.
There’s no doubt about it, living off the grid is tough. Most of your day-to-day time is spent learning how to survive on your own without the convenience of modern technology. That can wear your body down a lot faster than if you live in a home with on-demand heat and AC, electricity managed by your town, and a grocery store down the street.
Given that wear and tear, you may need to visit a doctor more than the average on-grid person.
I’m self-employed, so I know that finding health care isn’t the most enjoyable aspect of adulting. But, since a disproportionate number of people who live off the grid don’t have regular W-2 jobs, having to find health care all on your own is a common practice.
Who should (and shouldn’t) live off the grid?
Those willing to trade their time for a simpler lifestyle
Living off the grid is best for those who thoroughly know and understand what they’re getting into. Most of your time is spent simply surviving.
It’s perfect if you’re looking for a way to maintain a simpler life and you embrace the fact that it takes a lot of work.
Those looking to save money long term
All-in-all, once you get everything set up, living off the grid is a cheaper way to live. Renewable energy is cost effective, living off the land makes for lower food bills (but takes more maintenance), and living in a less extravagant home can save you a lot of money, too.
Those interested in creature comforts and convenience
That said, no matter how appealing rural life and/or the prospect of saving money might seem, you won’t like living off the grid if you can’t sacrifice modern-day amenities. Many people take for granted how easy it is just to flip a switch in your home and have light. Or to turn on the faucet and get clean water. If you don’t want to maintain solar panels, manage a well system, or grow your own food, the considerable savings from living off the grid might not be worth the effort for you.
Living off the grid isn’t for everyone. But for the brave few, there are savings to be had! Since you do without most modern amenities, there goes the cost of subscription services, pricey heaters, and air conditioning, among many other reduced expenses.
You’re forced to live a simpler lifestyle when you’re off the grid, which is what some people crave. At the same time, living off the grid does come with a high upfront investment. So make sure you weigh both sides before making a decision.