Brittni and I recently went out on a limb and decided to take a look at a property listing in our neighborhood. The property is a fifteen-acre farmette with a 2-story farmhouse, an old tie-stall dairy barn, a pole shed, a large detached garage, and a beautiful ten-acre field currently seeded to alfalfa and grass. It had only been on the market for a few weeks and seemed like it might be priced appropriately. I set up a showing with our realtor and we chose a time that I knew we could fit between our daughter’s morning feedings. We were going to look at our first farm prospect.
The showing was at 10 on Saturday morning and we arrived right on (parent) time at 10:15. Our realtor came out of the house and we began to chat about the property. As she was not the listing realtor, she had only just seen the house before we arrived and we reviewed some of the details outlined in a stack of printed papers she handed me. This was an early 20th-century farmhouse with some mid-century updates done to the main floor. “Had the rest of the updates been done at the end of the century?” I silently hoped.
We entered the back door into what seemed like a large back porch/mudroom hybrid. There was a small bathroom with a stand-up shower in one corner and the washer and dryer hookups were in another. In the center of the room sat a large wooden picnic table. The room had a smooth concrete floor and in the corner opposing the laundry, three steps led up to the kitchen through an opening that looked to be a doorway at one point in time. Our realtor told us that she thought the room was originally an attached one-car garage. Its luminous size and the unfinished concrete floor had me agreeing. Although it was a strange room, I could imagine one wall covered in closet cubbies, a bench where one could sit to remove their shoes, and a counter around the laundry where clothes could be treated or folded. One room into our tour, I could see the potential.
A short walk up the three steps into the kitchen introduced us to the two largest rooms in the house. The kitchen and living room were attached and only separated by a thin silver threshold dividing pale green-yellow linoleum from matted brown shag carpet. The room must have been at least fifteen by twenty feet. I am sure the small and cluttered feel of our current kitchen made the room seem even larger. The center of the room was wide open. There was a door to the front porch on one side, and plain laminated cabinets with faux marble countertops skirting the end opposite the living room. Brittni and I looked at one another and an image of the room with new cabinets and countertops, a large white farmhouse sink, and a kitchen island with a range and overhead hood above flashed through my mind.
A peek into the door to the front porch revealed the original hardwood floor that we soon found was hidden beneath the vintage laminate and carpeting throughout the first level. It was worn from over one hundred years of boots coming and going to the barn and fields. A cool draft drew quick attention to the aged single-pane windows. Duct tape had been applied along the corners of the panes on every window to deter the wind, to no avail. With less inspection of this unheated room, we returned to our tour.
Upon meandering into the living room, it was easy to notice the large single-pane window that covered the exterior wall facing the road. The walls were covered in wood paneling and the old dark carpet had paths where it had been traveled since it was installed in what I can only assume was the year 1970. A glance upward recognized randomly patterned ceiling tiles installed within the same time frame. These features of the home reminded me of the large farmhouse at my parent’s farm where I grew up and I imagine they were remodeled in a similar era. One side of the living room had a door that led to a small narrow room that was recognized as an office by the realtor. It had a small built-in closet at one end and the floor was covered by the same seamlessly transitioned carpet from the previous room. The other end of the living room transitioned into a short hallway that led to the rest of the first floor as well as the stairwell to the 2nd story.
Both the master and the 2nd bedroom on the first floor were similar in size and design. The treaded green carpet had been worn thin from years of trampling and the same duct-tape window repair had been performed in both rooms. Again, it failed to keep out the chill. The master bedroom had an exterior door that led to a covered concrete patio on the front side of the house. Between the two rooms, through paneling covered walls, was the homes lone bathroom. The bath was the only room that had been updated to anything close to a current style. Light tan tile covered the walls of a walk-in shower. The handrail and shower seat were both still installed as the former owner was an elderly man who had recently passed.
The stairwell leading to the 2nd story was wide. Much wider than what would be expected in such an old house. As is common with older farmhouses, the steps were high with short runs. Remnants of oriented strand board and two-by-fours remained nailed to the trim of the stairwell. The framing had been built and insulation had been installed to form a pseudo-wall that sealed off the stairwell and upper level from the rest of the home. Sealing off this portion of the home would’ve been a poor idea in most situations as the upper floor would become too cold and the water pipes would freeze. It was acceptable here as the upper floor contained no plumbing. As we stepped onto the dusty hardwood at the top of the steps, it was easy to see how long it had been since anyone had resided there. A nail barrel sat at the top of the steps along with an antique feed scale and a stack of old paintings. The old plaster had crumbled and cracked from the walls and ceiling, falling from the lattice and steel netting that once held the compound. The handrail around the top of the stairwell opening was only about three feet tall. There were 5 rooms on the floor and they were all very similar. The rooms were empty less a small collection of relics they each contained. Antiquated paintings leaned against the walls. Each room had an old wooden trunk with dark and corroded brass hinges and clasps. Each had a small narrow bed frame with a spring-bottom folded and propped in the corner. The only structural update done to the floor was the removal of two old brick chimneys that once rose from the basement through the roof. The channels they had come through remained unfilled between the bare, uncovered studs. There were no electrical outlets throughout the rooms or the long narrow hallway. The only modern amenity available was one pull-string bulb fixture mounted in the center of each room. Although unneeded at this time, the level needed to be gutted and started from scratch. The idea of starting over seems overwhelming but leaves so many possibilities open for us to apply our design ideas and creative touches.
After meandering the 1st and 2nd floor, Brittni and I could see the potential this home offered. The renovation ideas were rolling through my mind, along with rough number estimates for what the work could cost. The more I considered the renovation costs, the less the price of the property seemed like a bargain. Most, if not all of the windows needed to be updated or the heating costs alone may break the bank. The majority of the renovations beyond windows were livable for the time being. The basement was the last space we needed to inspect in the house.
The doorway leading to the basement was heavy. The solid wood door swung out into the mudroom at the bottom of the steps from the kitchen. We quickly found a light switch and made our way down the thick wooden stairs to a concrete landing. The house had a partial basement while the rest was accessible via crawl space. From the landing, two areas were accessible. The area to the left was beneath what must have been the original house. The joists above were not modern dimensional lumber but instead were hewn timbers. Two furnaces were housed in this area. One fuel oil furnace and the other an old, decrepit wood stove. There was a window well on the far end of the room with a piece of plywood covering the hole where a window had been. It looked as though moisture had been making its way down through the well as the timber that sat atop the old stone wall had begun to deteriorate and crumble. The stone corners around the window well were also beginning to crumble and dissolved mortar and pieces of fieldstone had naturally fallen to a pile beneath the sill. We found similar symptoms of age and neglect in the other portion of the basement. This area was more unusual than the last as there were steps down from the landing into the room and the more modern joists holding the floor above were nearly 10 feet from the floor. The walls on both sides were in disrepair and random stones were strewn about as the foundation withered. This room was a hub for the home’s utilities as the electrical and water were both sourced into the house from this area. The work done here was questionable, to say the least. As far as electrical goes, there was a spider web of wires and extension cords that stretched from wall to wall and led to all corners of the home. At the center of this web, there were two junction boxes. Half of the wires seemed to run to a modern breaker panel. The other half led to a dated fuse panel. As far as water goes, the electric water heater stood in the corner. Next to it sat two pressure tanks. One was connected to an incoming pipe at the wall while the other showed clear signs of malfunction with holes rusted through the bright blue paint on the bottom. As we made our way back up those rough-cut stairs, I reconsidered the amount of money that would need to be spent updating this home. The withering conditions found in the basement had all but killed this dream in my mind.
Our tour was near the end and the baby would need to be home and fed before long. As Brittni warmed up the car and strapped the baby back into the car seat, our realtor and I decided to tour the outbuildings on the farm. We looked at a mid-sized pole shed behind the garage where there would be ample space to keep farm implements and equipment. The current owner’s small collection of Case tractors lined the center of the structure while piles of firewood and an old utility tractor were placed along the walls. We made our way down to the old dairy barn where Brittni and I imagined keeping our barnyard livestock. I am thankful that we looked at the house before the barn as I think I would have turned my head to some of the issues with the house with that barn on my mind. The old milk house was still equipped with a small bulk tank with a flat top. The milker buckets and vacuum pump were still stacked on a rack in the corner and the milker claws still hung in a stainless sink along the front wall. We have no intention to milk cows and this equipment is nearly antiquated at this time but the buckets may have made great flower planters while a friend of mine could use the bulk tank for storing maple syrup in early spring. We walked into the barn from the milk house and stepped down the alley, being sure not to trip on the paddled barn cleaner chain that lay on the alley. As with other old stone foundation barns, the earth laden side of the barn had begun to deteriorate. This seems to be due to moisture soaking through the barn hill that gradually rises to the haymow and permeating the outer side of the wall. At the end of the barn, we came to a large sliding door. I slid it open and took the steps of countless cows before me. The cow yard was impressively engineered and as well-executed as any. It was surrounded by metal poles cemented into the ground that supported steel gates all the way around. The entirety of the surface was concrete and the gates could be swung to divide this large, open area into many smaller corrals. The yard must have been thirty by eighty feet in dimension and ran nearly the full length of the barn. This would be a great yard to keep cattle or stock on during the spring and winter months when the conditions became too snowy or muddy to allow them out into the small pasture area behind the cement pad. This could be the barn of my dreams. As we made our way back to the car, I thanked our realtor and discussed what Brittni and I’s vision for a farm would be. I hadn’t tried to make the fact we were skeptical of the property that apparent but I am sure anyone experienced in the business of property sales can see it in your face.
Brittni and I haven’t written this property off entirely, but the desire has dwindled in the time that has passed since we first saw the listing. The term “money-pit” keeps coming to mind and as I research what foundation and electrical work can cost, the price I would be willing to pay for the property keeps dwindling. Brittni and I have no shortage of vision for this type of property but this one just isn’t meant to be. Although the barn, yard, shed, and fields are all I could imagine them to be, the most important thing for us to consider is that this will be our home long before it will ever be a functioning farm. A farm to raise a family on is very important to us, but that doesn’t mean anything if we can’t afford to heat the house we are raising it in. At this point, our realtor will keep looking and Brittni and I will keep saving for what will be our future farm.
High Altitude Homesteading
Ideas for places to visit in the Midwest
Life on the family farm
Inspiration for inner strength beyond the farmer