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How do you know what you can do in the US asks Brit

 
pioneer
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Location: New Jersey, USA
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I recently moved to the US which is a lot more different than I thought it would be. I don’t have the basic knowledge that most people would just take for granted. We plan to stay for at least ten years, so next year I plan to buy somewhere to turn into a permaculture haven. Fortunately the area I’m looking at, a couple of hours north of New York, has a lot of lawn! Finding a couple of acres shouldn’t be too hard. Every now and then I read or hear something that raises a few concerns. I’ve picked up enough to know that I won’t ever consider anywhere that has an Homeowner Association (HOA). Apart from Big Ag they sound like the second major evil in North America - I maybe over exaggerating . . . But not a lot.

So I’m starting a post with all my dumb Brit questions mostly relating to buying a property. I have researched all these questions but I’m not getting satisfactory answers. Ultimately, you can’t beat human experience, so please excuse me for asking questions that you’d think would come up on a web search - I’ve tried and failed.

Thank you.

1) How do I know what the site boundaries are - precisely? I’ve been getting a rough feel for what’s available using Zillow and it shows boundaries but they look a little random and often cut across main structures. I know the map is not the territory and I will be walking any potential site including the forest if it has one.

2) I heard that the first ten feet of a property next to a road belongs to the state and they can take it from you if they want to widen the road - is this true and do I need to plan for it?

3) How do I get a 1:1250 scale map with contours or some other detailed map? This was easy in the UK but it’s a UK only service.

4) How do I find out what the local rules are on structures - what can I build without ‘planing permission’ and what is the US equivalent word for ‘planning permission’ - I see the word permit banded about but don’t know what it means exactly.

5) Is there a permaculture Zillow?

6) How do I know if I can have chickens . . . Ducks . . . Goats . . . Etc. I only intend to start with poultry but I don’t want to be limited if five years from now I’d like to have some pigs clear the acorns or a goat for milk. I will be respectful of my neighbours.

7) Do you own the water that falls on your property - bizarrely, when I left the UK, technically the water belong to the private water company in your area . . .

8) Are utilities compulsory - if I don’t want gas but gas is already installed, do I still have to pay? Same for water, electricity etc.

9) If I wanted to convert my kitchen to 240v is that allowed? Is this what the permit thing is about?

10) Is this the best place to network and find local permies? Are there any other tools? I’m trying to avoid Facebook and Nextdoor.

11) Is the Eastern USA section the right place to ask these questions?
 
pollinator
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First, welcome!  Most of your questions will depend entirely upon state, county and municipal codes and regs.  You will have to call the zoning board in each country in which you are interested to know for sure.  You are wise to stay away from POAs.  In most rural areas of America, you can pretty much do as you please in terms of catching rainwater, having livestock etc (water is more scarce out west, so that isn't always true).  Most states allow off-grid living... but, most have building codes, fire codes and septic/sanitation laws.  Zillow is pretty good on property lines.  Each county usually has a GIS system online which will allow you to pull up the property records on an individual property and view the plat on file.  That will show the legal boundaries of the deed.  It may not be entirely accurate though, if a recent survey has not been done... but it is the legal record.  Any water rights or easements will be recorded there, as well.  Yes, you have no right to the ten feet or so bordering a road  they can take it if they please.... and if the government wants to put a road through the middle of your farm, they can... they have to compensate your for it though, under Eminent Domaine laws.  If you have kids or pets, they can come on your property to inspect for "welfare" issues.  You should be able to have the gas turned off and not pay for it, but check for local regs.  If you have natural water on your property, there may be some environmental restrictions - check state and federal code.  All of the codes of law are usually available online... and sometimes they are contradictory and arbitrary.   But, as I recall a line from an old British sitcom, ironically, "It is still a free-ish country."
 
steward
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Welcome to the country Edward!  I'll take a swing at some of your questions...

1.  The only way to know for sure is to have it surveyed.  Often you can find the corner markers that the surveyors are looking for.  Brilliant property owners flag those markers so they can find them when they're selling.  Often we don't care exactly where they are unless a driveway or structure might be close to the line.  And then it's a good idea to survey it.  Sometimes the seller will pay for that but it's unlikely, especially in today's real estate market.

2. Kind of.  You pay taxes on it and have to maintain it.  But I believe they kind of own the "right of way".  In my area it's usually 33' from the centerline of small roads and 100' for bigger roads.  The GIS maps that Judson mentions should show that right-of-way line.

4 and 6.  Call the city/town and ask them.  If they're too small to answer the phone, call the county zoning department.  One or the other will know what the limits for buildings and livestock are.  They'll also know what hoops you have to jump through if you're doing a project.  Some places require you to get a permit to paint your house, others you can build a full house without a permit.  Many require building inspections for habitable buildings.

7.  Depends on your state (or maybe city/county).  Generally east of the Mississippi I think you can collect any rainwater you want and no one will give a hoot.  Damming up a creek or creating a pond that keeps water from traveling downhill is a different matter though.

8.  I don't think they are.  If you stop paying the bill, they'll cut off service so I suspect you can do it preemptively and nicely.

9.  Most kitchens have 240V for a range but the rest of the outlets will be 120V.  Converting to run small appliances on 240V would require rewiring, potentially permits/inspections and certainly a bunch of confusion for anybody who ever comes to work on the system.  I'd avoid doing anything like that.

10.  Yes   Plus local gardening and homesteading clubs are another good resource.
 
pollinator
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I have an app on my phone called OnX. It will tell me who owns the property that I am standing on. I've found this invaluable for knowing exactly where my property lines are.

My property has a private road, so the government owning the road thing doesn't apply to me.

I use google earth to look at my property, to judge the density of various forests, etc. I got a topographical map from a company called MyTopo, but some counties have the information as well.

As others have said, local rules vary, and enforcement varies even more so.

I don't know if there is a permaculture Zillow, but I had good luck with finding a realtor that is familiar with rural properties.

What animals you can have will also vary, but living in an unincorporated area of the county definitely helps. By that I mean, not living within city limits.

In most areas, rainwater collection from a non-permeable surface is allowed for personal use, but you can't sell it.

If you want to convert your kitchen to 240, that would definitely require a permit from the local building inspector. I have no idea why you would want such a thing, but that doesn't really matter.

I have found the local extension office to be a great place to meet other permaculture people. That's a county service that often runs workshops and other services for the agricultural/gardening community.
 
master steward
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I have not read the other replies, yet.

What I would like to say is that you need a real estate professional who will represent you.

In our last real estate venture, I found the property I wanted on either Zillow or Realtor.  I called the agent to set up a meeting to look at the property and a few others.

We are very happy with our purchase which was in 2013.

The problem and why I suggest getting a real estate professional to represent you is:

When we sat down to do the contract the relator said "Do you have someone to represent you or are you going to represent your selves?"

Never been asked that before and was not expecting it. What were we to do?  We wanted the property and so we said yes, we will represent ourselves.

I hope this will be of some value to you.
 
Posts: 155
Location: East Tennessee
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1. Ask the person you are buying the land from for a plat, or find the "Tax Map" for your county. Most counties and states have Tax Maps that show your boundary and who owns what.

2. Where I live most 2 lane roads the right of way is 18 feet from the center of the road both ways.

3. USGS Topo maps, https://www.usgs.gov/products/maps/topo-maps

4. In most rural counties here in Tennessee you do not need any planning, or permit. You have to get the septic and electrical inspected on a new build but no building permits. But if you are in a gestapo state or county (and almost all cities) you will need to show a drawing or blueprint for what you want to build. And they will charge you a permit fee and possibly other fees, government wants their cut.

5. Not that I know of.

6. Having livestock is dictated by city ordinance and deed restrictions, but if you buy land out in the county (not in town) and it has no deed restrictions or HOA you are free to have what you will.

7. In Tennessee you own the water you can catch, I wouldn't care what anybody said I'd still have rain catchment anyway.

8. Nope, you can disconnect your utilities at will.

9. Yes and if you are not in the city no permit is usually required, plus who would no anyway. It a simple matter of running both hot legs into the outlets. For years people have added 220-240 outlets for air conditioners just by running a new line.

10. Yes.

11. Anywhere works.

Welcome to Permies!
 
Edward Norton
pioneer
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Thank you all for answering my questions - some very valuable information. I’m going to condense and post combined answers for anyone else who stumbles across this thread and I’ll be back asking more questions as time goes by.
 
Edward Norton
pioneer
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Most questions depend on depend entirely upon state, county and municipal codes and regs. More information at Zoning Board in each County.

Good idea to get a real estate professional who will represent you.

1) How do I know what the site boundaries are - precisely? I’ve been getting a rough feel for what’s available using Zillow and it shows boundaries but they look a little random and often cut across main structures. I know the map is not the territory and I will be walking any potential site including the forest if it has one.



Zillow for starters. GIS system online for more detail. Ask about property owner flags - ask owner for plot map. Survey if unclear. Seller may pay. Check OnX app for on the ground checking. “Tax Map” for your county.

2) I heard that the first ten feet of a property next to a road belongs to the state and they can take it from you if they want to widen the road - is this true and do I need to plan for it?



Depends on State. Will need to check. Might be on GIS - appears to be the case using OnX app. I won’t be building walls / moat / towers / defences or planting trees next to the road . . . maybe a small fruit forest for passers by as a reward for hardy souls who travel by foot or bike.

3) How do I get a 1:1250 scale map with contours or some other detailed map? This was easy in the UK but it’s a UK only service.



USGS Topo maps - awesome resource - hours of fun for a map nerd like me. Also Google Earth and MyTopo.

4) How do I find out what the local rules are on structures - what can I build without ‘planing permission’ and what is the US equivalent word for ‘planning permission’ - I see the word permit banded about but don’t know what it means exactly.



Call the city/town and ask them / call the county zoning department. More rural - less rules. Some states are more relaxed than others. Could involve blueprints / fees etc.

5) Is there a permaculture Zillow?


Find a Realtor that is familiar with rural properties.

6) How do I know if I can have chickens . . . Ducks . . . Goats . . . Etc. I only intend to start with poultry but I don’t want to be limited if five years from now I’d like to have some pigs clear the acorns or a goat for milk. I will be respectful of my neighbours.



Same as 4) Call the city/town and ask them / call the county zoning department. More rural - less rules. Some states are more relaxed than others.  Make sure you look after your livestock and kids - They can inspect for “welfare” issues.

7) Do you own the water that falls on your property - bizarrely, when I left the UK, technically the water belong to the private water company in your area . . .



Should be ok in NE - lots of rain! Don’t dam rivers . . . build massive lakes. Keep water retention small. Pond should be ok. Might be restrictions with natural water.

8) Are utilities compulsory - if I don’t want gas but gas is already installed, do I still have to pay? Same for water, electricity etc.



Tell them politely, ‘No thank you’.

9) If I wanted to convert my kitchen to 240v is that allowed? Is this what the permit thing is about?



Kitchens do have 240v for ranges. Might require permits / inspections. Probably not a good idea.  I have a dozen or so kitchen devices from the UK that all run on 240v which is why I’d want 240v. I have a portable inverter but that’s not a good solution. I have two identical blenders from a US company - the 240v one has way more oomph and the 110v regularly trips the circuit board.

10) Is this the best place to network and find local permies? Are there any other tools? I’m trying to avoid Facebook and Nextdoor.



Yes! Plus local gardening and homesteading clubs. Also try local extension office - didn’t know that was a thing . . .

PS - love this Facebook link


 
gardener
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Edward Norton wrote: local extension office


I'm assuming you are looking at New York state (since you're saying a few hours north of NYC). Here are the contacts for cooperative extension in NY. https://cals.cornell.edu/cornell-cooperative-extension/local-offices

If for some reason you will be staying in NJ (bless your heart) the local county contacts in NJ are here. https://njaes.rutgers.edu/county/

I also recommend them heartily!
 
Edward Norton
pioneer
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Thank you Tereza, very useful links.

I have found some lovely places in NJ and love hiking in the hills. However, my wife’s office is next to Grand Central so I’m looking along the two train lines running up through New York State, a long way north of Westchester.
 
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