How To Be Your Own Landscaper. The Story Of Our Downsized Life.

When hubby and I built our new home back in 2001-2002, we had to buy the land first. Being the city slickers that we were, we had no idea how to tell if a rural property was going to make a good setting for a home. It was a heartbreaking circumstance for us, unfortunately, that a couple had planned to buy these 3.5 acres, had all the blueprints drawn up on where to place the house, where to place the driveway, septic, well and electricity lines, when they both perished in the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers in New York City.

There isn’t a day that DH and I don’t think about this couple. They both worked for Cantor Fitzgerald at The World Trade Center and perished along with 658 fellow employees (click here). Needless to say, the owner of the land had invested a lot of money into the preparation of the land for the couple and had never gotten paid for his work. By the time we came along to look at the property, the desperate owner had lowered the purchase price to an amazing $51,000 for the 3.5 acre parcel.

Life has a strange way of working out. DH and I were relocating ourselves to upstate New York strictly because of 9/11. We lived on the eastern end of Long Island and when the towers were hit, we had to evacuate our then home. We realized there was only one road in and one road out from where we lived. At that time, back in 2001, no one knew what the future was going to hold. We just knew we had to get out of Long Island should another attack happen.

Fortunately, we owned a townhouse up in the Catskill Mountains, and that’s where we drove ourselves and my two children to wait out the attack. After three weeks, my kids wanted to get back to their lives, get back to work, get back to school. So, we drove down the mountain and boarded our kids onto the Amtrak train lines to take them back to New York City. Thinking back, these were really scary times. No one had any idea what the future held. We just knew that we had to move to safer ground.

The Amtrak train station was located in a beautiful town along the historic Hudson River. Without even thinking, all four of us came to the same conclusion: this beautiful area would make an ideal location to start our lives all over again. And safer. So, the hunt for a new home began.

And that’s how we came to move to upstate New York and take on the project of converting 3.5 rough-as-hell acres into a homestead. We sold our Long Island home and The Catskill Townhouse and had enough equity to restart our lives debt free. That was eighteen years ago and we’re still not even close to finishing. With tight funds, we followed what the previous couple dreamed their home to be and moved into our new home June 8, 2002.

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Here we are in March 2002, standing in front of the ‘hole’ that was to become the foundation of our new modular home on 3.5 untouched, raw acres.
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Don’t ask me how we did it, but here she sits: a miracle!

Over the years, DH and I have been our own landscapers. Why? Because we just can’t afford to hire any one to take on a property of this magnitude. So, how did we do it? First off, not ALL the 3.5 acres have been cleared. We left at least 2 acres in their original pristine condition. That means the property is heavily treed. Second off, we set up a system that we would only do outside landscaping work one hour at a time, per day. Anyone can handle doing hard work for one hour, IMHO. Next, I looked over the land and decided I was going to follow it’s natural beauty and only enhance the land in such a way it would honor Mother Nature.

The first thing I do every spring is take out my trusty wheel barrel (that we got for free from one of the neighbors) and go around the property picking up all the dead branches that had dropped onto the lawns over the winter. After doing this for 18 years, I’ve collected quite a pile!

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We do have a chipper but it can’t handle branches this thick. We have to either hire someone to shred this @$1200 or rent a more robust shredder @$300 a day (we need 2 to 3 days to handle this). So far, we’ve done nothing BUT our day of reckoning is drawing close!

property.jpg - 7To give you an idea of how many trees are on this property, here’s a street view of our property line (follow the black arrow) It’s longer than a NYC city block! Thankfully (or unthankfully, however you want to look at it) each winter takes down a bunch of trees, naturally. We just have to clear them out vs cutting them down. Also, this year, the trees, especially maple, have been invaded by a un-native insect and trees have been steadily dying.

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Entrance gates, and there’s my trusty little wheel barrel as I go about picking up fallen branches & twigs.

Here’s the entrance to our property. I got those two entrance, wooden fences, for free (of course!) from another neighbor. They were just sitting on the side of his storage shed. I rang his doorbell, asked to buy the fence gates and he gave them to me for free. He was happy to get rid of them. One man’s garbage is another woman’s treasure. I love the way they look!

property.jpg - 2As mentioned, every spring, DH and I have to clear the property of all the fallen branches, plus prune out overgrown trees. To hire someone is not cost effective. We have to do it ourselves. So, we do it the ‘one-hour-at-a-time’ method. It takes us around a week, but it gets done nonetheless and looks great once we’ve finished.

Other features of the property that DH and I had done are a pond and enhancing an already existing stream that runs through our land:

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We had this pond dug up and erected to catch the run off from the natural stream. Right now it’s clouded with pollen but that will soon clear up and be crystal clear.
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I bought an Amish-built bridge and placed it over the natural stream. Every spring and after every rainfall that stream is gurgling and running full board. I love to sit next to it and just listen to the running water.
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DH has to do a two-step process to mow the ‘lawn’. First he uses a John Deere tractor (that we got free from one of our neighbors!) and then a hand-driven mower to get into the tight spots. It’s a tedious process. Takes DH around 3 to 4 hours to complete all the lawn areas.

I’m not much of a gardener and NO! I don’t really want a garden (especially a vegetable garden!) But I did manage to plant hostas (deer safe) and andromedas under the two windows along the front of the house AND a white flowering hyacinth under our bedroom window (which emits a lovely scent into our bedroom when our windows are open).

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We don’t ever use our front entrance. We mainly use our side entrance. I placed red square blocks as an entrance to our front door (with a red brick border). Our side entrance, is a work in process. DH and I have this argument every season: he wants to install a cement entrance complete with stairs (ka-ching!) I prefer a more natural look. I accumulate natural flagstone pieces (for free), gently place them haphazardly up into the side entrance (gravity and rain pushes them down into a more secure position). I personally love the look. Each time I enter my home, it’s an adventure!

Here’s my inspiration piece:

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Here’s what I have so far: (note I just planted white baby breadth seeds and will be buying the smallish pebbles later this season)

Here are some of the finished, competed lawn areas. Note: the white statues and white wrought iron benches all came out of my dad’s garden. I inherited them when he died. I did have another one of his statues at the front entrance but someone actually drove on to my property and stole it. NOT a good way to start our new home experience! The state police never did find the culprit. Oh well.

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The silver barrier around the tree saves the birds from snakes. It’s a jungle out there!
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Here’s our deck that DH and my youngest daughter built together. It’s here where you will find me most of the time!
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I call this ‘The Great Lawn’. It’s right over the septic tank. Naturally!

The land cost us $51,000. Our modular home was $65,000 with only the first floor finished. The whole project: to get the land cleared, put in the driveway, lay down the foundation, dig and install the well, lay in the septic, plumbing, electricity, put in appliances, a back deck, a water treatment system, boiler, water heater, heating and air conditioning system, yada, yada, yada cost us $170,000. Cash. That was back in 2001-2002. I don’t think anyone could replicate those low numbers ever again.

To be truthful, once we were done with construction, the house sat on a mud patch. We technically ran out of money to fully finish our new, downsized home (1120 sq ft on first floor. 800 sq ft on 2nd floor). To throw misery onto difficulties, we had all our furniture in storage. When we called to have our stuff finally delivered to our new address, we were given the sad news that ALL our furniture (dishes, cookware, TV’s, clothes etc. etc) were destroyed in a flood. The storage company filed bankruptcy and never paid us a penny on our approximately $12,000 loss. We furnished our new home and bought new clothing all from Goodwill. It wasn’t a happy time for us, for sure.

As I said, our home is a miracle home. Strange, wonderful, good things have happened to DH and I since we moved up here. I knew I was giving up a once rich lifestyle (we moved from The Hamptons, NY) but Jesus always said, if you wanted a true, happy, joyous life, we were to give up ALL our worldly possessions and come follow HIM. DH and I were starting our new, downsized life with NOTHING from our past. Not even our cars. Also, I think the original couple (I never found out their names) were also looking down on DH and I and keeping us safe. People who we didn’t know somehow magically appeared to lend us a hand. It was just DH and I building this home. DH did all the general contracting, all the heating, plumbing, electrical wiring all by himself. One day even the UPS delivery man lent DH a hand!

Anyway, I got this phone call from my sister. My father wanted to come and see me. He and I hadn’t spoken for three years. My father was very ill and dying but begged my sister to bring him to me. He wanted to see my new home (which sat on a mud pile by this time!) My father and sister came. My dad could barely walk. But after he looked around, he told me he was going to leave me enough money to finish my new home. And he did. My dad died three months later and left me enough cash to finish my home AND take my children, husband and I for a 15 day, all-exclusive trip to Italy to visit the hometown of my father and meet his family.

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Here’s my dad sitting in my new home kitchen, reading a card his sister from Italy had sent me.

DH and I managed to get the remainder of the cleared property landscaped, we lay down more good dirt (did you know dirt is very, very expensive?!) sowed grass seeds, cleared out a few more trees. I had enough money to buy  a bedroom set and mattress, a couch and some other much needed living room furniture (I inherited my father’s kitchen table and chairs) cookware, glassware, cutlery and whatever else we required to get our lives back together. Over the years, DH and I finished the 2nd floor: put in another bathroom and two bedrooms upstairs for when my kids come to visit.

The best part however, was we were able to erect this pre-fab barn (complete with foundation, additional driveway, electricity, heated concrete flooring and eventually a bathroom complete with shower (the parts are in we just need to buy the appliances and connect the dots) thanks to my dad’s generous inheritance. Total cost, so far: $50,000 cash. When you enter the barn, clear as day, you are greeted with the inscription: ‘Dedicated to our father, Walter’

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Here’s another miracle: I can’t believe, at my age of 68, that I still have the strength and the brawn to continue to do heavy manual labor. I praise God every single day for my continued good health, my ability, my agility and determination to wake up each and every day and just ‘get ‘er done’! And I’m also super thankful that in my new home, DH built me a super-sized jacuzzi jetted tub! That dang thing sure comes in handy at the end of the day. Praise God!

 

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13 comments

  1. I love my home but I wonder how much longer we can continue to keep our 4 acres. At 71, I am lacking both the interest and the energy to do yard work. Also, I live on the Texas Gulf Coast where the heat and humidity are brutal. I am sincerely considering moving to a 55+ community that is not so far out in the country.

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    • I hear you, Florence. I have the same concerns. Thankfully our property is such now that we can hire someone to come in an mow. We got prices at $75 to $80 a mowing. It can be done twice a month. Not too, too bad. The trees however, are still a problem. It’s very expensive to have someone come in and cut them down, chip the stumps and cart it away. My goal, is eventually to sell and move into an assisted living or retirement community type of environment. Nick and I are looking but nothing tweaks our interest. Another idea was to have our youngest buy the home, renovate the barn for apartment living and move in there while my daughter and her family take over the main house and all the related expenses (taxes, upkeep etc).
      We have choices. So, that’s the good part. Other than that, we’ll just keep plugging along. Thanks for your comment. Good luck always!

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  2. Well, I had a budget-buster expense this month related to yard/tree work. My house sits on little more than an acre, an acre of land that was so over-planted and under cared-for by the prior owners. I was aware of this when I purchased the house but I had no idea of the cost to bring everything back to some sense of life. Many of the trees were diseased and had to be removed, the stumps ground out, new soil to fill in the holes and seed and straw to cover all of it. A number of the trees that were salvageable had to be severely pruned. There were bushes too many in number that had to go. My attempts to tame them last year by trimming them failed. The lawn had to be aerated, seeded and fertilized, the beds had to be weeded and mulched. I had no way to even estimate what the final cost would be.

    All things totaled, it came to $6500!!! The original estimate was $4600 but I kept adding work to the list because I just wanted to get it done and over with. The good news is that everything looks healthy and vibrant and I should be able to maintain things on my own going forward. But WOW! Still catching my breath on this one! YIKES.

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    • Hi Lisa. Yup. That’s right. Landscaping, especially cutting down trees is super expensive. People don’t realize it.
      Well at least your work is done and you can enjoy it for many many years to come. Enjoy your great outdoors. It’s precious.
      Thanks for sharing your story. And thank you for your comment.

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      • Well, just as I was thinking the majority of the yard work was done and future expenses to maintain it would be low, another storm came roaring through yesterday and multiple large limbs broke like toothpicks from my trees. So now, another expense to have the fallen limbs cut and cleared and to have what remains of the broken limbs on the trees trimmed. Not an expense I had planned for but life is dotted with unexpected events.

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      • Lisa do s your homeowners insurance cover any of the damages? Give them a call. You never know.
        Sorry to hear about your trees. Yes it is very expensive to remove but maybe you’ll catch a bargain. Perhaps someone will give you a break.
        Take care. Stay safe.

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