If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, 
and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, 
he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Henry David Thoreau 

I was reared in rural Wisconsin, first at the edge of Beloit in the 1940s, later on a farm in Marquette County. In 1963, a GI loan bought my first home, in Concord, California–a two-bedroom bungalow on a large lot for $11,200, payments $72 per month. I still remember feeling the natural high. I walked around my kingdom touching trees and admiring how well the grass grew. My next-door neighbor appeared in his front yard. “Good morning, neighbor,” I beamed. No answer. Thinking that he had not heard me, I raised my beam several decibels and repeated. He turned, looked at me–turned his back–and walked away. I was dumbfounded.

In the two decades following that bittersweet Saturday morning I found that city living is “some different” from country life. In 25 years of California city living I went to college, raised a family, grew a business, bought several houses–and I never, ever, felt at home.

As a teenaged farm boy, inspired by Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm, I developed a naive dream of one day owning 1,000 acres and having my friends all live nearby, each of us contributing an essential skill. With great romantic idealism that dream stayed with me.

In 1975 I took a TV course entitled Ready or Not, designed to help individuals prepare for retirement (I was 39 at the time but rather full of myself. I later realized that almost anyone could do well in the 1970s’ California real estate market). The final assignment was a written retirement plan, including an answer to the big question: where to live? I wrote a five-year plan.

To find my ideal home, I devised a method. First I made a list of the features of my ideal home place. Taking this list to the local library, I initially identified seven states as possibles. After much research I chose one area, part of what I now know to be a bioregion, 2,000 miles away. I made contact with a large number of real estate agents and asked them to send information on any listings that fit my criteria. In August 1976 I took a two-week vacation/exploration trip to look at properties in my chosen area, a band approximately 60 miles wide and over 100 miles long.

The third day of viewing revealed a property in a small valley with a year-round stream babbling along 200 feet in front of a humble old farmhouse. It looked wonderful, but I still had over a week of appointments with agents who had properties for me to examine. A week and a half later I looked at the valley place a second time. Back in California, I wrote and mailed an offer. It was accepted.

For tax reasons, the sellers deferred the closing until 1977. On January third, I owned my permanent place, my ideal country home. In 1983 I moved to that place in southern Missouri, many hundreds of miles south of my growing-up place. I immediately felt at home.

Are your motivations to move to the country pragmatic or romantic? Mine were both. I’m a pragmatic romantic, very serious about romance. Living in the country provides more freedom to express myself, helps me be more creative, allows me communion with nature, which I find essential for my well-being. City life seems abnormal, a denial of natural laws and factors of geography. My parents always gardened and each of the three places where we lived while I was growing up was progressively larger in acreage. My home place is 130 acres of real Midwest country. My wife and I raise a good proportion of our food and have the option of heating and cooking with wood from our forest.

Many would find our place too remote. As one city visitor who slept here reacted, “It’s awfully quiet at night.” Too bad he wasn’t here on one of the nights when the coyotes partied. The yipping, yapping, squealing, yowling and howling competes with the very highest attainment of punk rockers. But he wasn’t and it was normal–very quiet. Not everyone likes that degree of quiet. To me, the city is outrageously noisy, an ever-present din. The coyote parties only happen a few times a year. Truth be told, I enjoy them.

How much sound do you like? How close do you need to be to a shopping mall, building supply center, sports arena, opera house? As we explore these questions, you may find that what would please you most will be a place on a large lot at the edge of a small town. Or you may find that you want to be in a remote place, where malls are nonexistent, where the nearest fast-food palace is a two-hour drive.

This book was written for a wide range of people. It will be useful to retirees who have attained the secure status of knowing that a monthly check will follow them wherever they live and who have decided that they will plant their mailbox in front of a country home; to parents who want their children to know where food really comes from and to learn the power of community; to people of all ages who are simply disenchanted with city life and seek simpler but sounder lives in places where values are held in greater esteem than economic achievement.

Moving to the country may not create instant joy. After all, when we move, we take ourselves with us. Country living can be wonderful and it can be awful. Many people make life-altering moves based on emotional passion without due regard for commonsense considerations and practical knowledge. Such moves are seldom satisfactory, often very expensive. This book will assist you in making a sound, lasting decision. Your joy of country living will be ever so much greater for having made the effort to acquire the knowledge and having done the planning.

The premise behind this book can be listed in four lines:

  • If you carefully identify how and where you most want to live, and
  • If you accordingly locate a property using those criteria, and
  • If you acquire and live on that property, then
  • Your life will be greatly enriched.

Somebody, joking I think, called me “the man who would empty the cities.” Not true. Polls show that 19 percent of Americans want to live in cities and 25 percent prefer suburbs. I sincerely hope they stay there. Think crowding. Think safety. Think Woody Allen with a chainsaw.

I believe that part of my life purpose is to help others get what they want by sharing what I have learned. This book is one attempt to fulfill that purpose. Here I have endeavored to bring together the knowledge of these various subjects that I have gained from personal experience and from ongoing research. The torrent of fresh information and changing conditions makes this a challenging but enriching experience. For the first edition I subjected myself to the countryman’s pain of city life by living and writing near the great libraries of Los Angeles County. Computer and modem technology plus on-line services and the Internet have allowed this edition to be made here at Heartwood in the very rural Missouri Ozarks. A miracle.

Most of what I feel sure about has been learned by making many mistakes and enjoying some successes. Much of the information in this book comes from my experience as a real estate broker and teacher, from the successful personal quest for my ideal place and from living in the country for over three decades. Much comes from talking to countless others who have made successful citybreaks.

I am indebted to my former real estate clients and students who collectively helped me learn much of what I know about real estate, and to the friends, neighbors and authors who have enhanced my knowledge and joy of country life.

Craig J. Crawford is much more than my computer bailout guy, but that aspect is critical. Whenever I become befuddled by hardware or software challenges, Craig comes to the rescue. His expertise as a geographer and planner makes him most valuable as a consultant. In between bailouts and consultations he keeps Chris and me up-to-date on how our daughter-in-law, Lise, and grandsons Colin, James and Ethan are doing way up in Canada. This is crucial to the author’s contentment.

Sandra Bellinger continues to be my local proofreader/editor and she and her husband Ron have become close friends. Sandra is an ideal lay editor for this book as she knows the subject from a personal perspective. She also knows the author, so she can help Chris keep him focused.

Christina GeRue is the research assistant, head proofreader and most importantly, the author’s primary muse. She should in her spare time write a guide for wives on how to keep imperfect husbands perfectly happy.

The two self-published editions were successful experiments; thousands bought the book, necessitating four printings. Warner Books published the third edition. I am most grateful for input from readers who have written and those who have attended book signings across the country.

I continue to be indebted to readers-in-my-mind who will become readers-in-reality. As I write I try to visualize you, who are now reading these words. Your fears and dreams give me motivation and energy to make this book a useful tool that will help you find a lower-cost but higher-quality life. Thanks for being out there and in here.

Acknowledgment for this on-line version of the book:
Don Bowen and I first met on the Homestead list in 1994. We have subsequently become good friends. He has spent a few summers at Heartwood and will soon be buying land nearby. Among many other skills he is a computer guru. It is his expertise and energy that has put this book onto the Internet. I am most grateful.

Notes on using this book

This is not a book for posterity—it is a tool to be used now. I strongly urge you to read with pen in hand. Circle or underline points you wish to be able to easily return to. Write key words and make notes in the margins. If you have borrowed this book or you simply cannot bring yourself to mark in it, use a pad of paper for both a bookmark and note journal. Perhaps like you, I used to keep book pages unmarked, unfolded, unused. It’s a symptom of the same dis-ease that keeps some from walking on grass.

Throughout this book “you” should be understood to include you, your spouse/significant other/partner/companion/friend and children or others you consider your family. Maximum involvement of all family members will generally result in the most agreeable choices. Parents know of the exceptions.

The gender-neutral challenge can often be handled by using “we,” “our,” “they” and other substitutes. Occasionally these do not work well. I respect women and men equally. I’ve done the best I can. If my use of “he” or “she” offends someone, I am truly sorry.

Before beginning to read, make a list of all the features and conditions of your ideal home place. This will get your brain operating in the right realm. Try hard to be open-minded. There will not be a test but there will be challenges.From the feeling that there must be many like me, 
who wanted a vantage point from which 
they could survey the whole battlefield 
before deciding where they would 
stand the best chance of survival, 
I came to believe that there must be 
many veterans who would see what 
an outsider has to make of them. 
That is an author’s job: to weigh the options, 
clarify the objectives, balance the physical facts 
against the convention and tradition. 
Above all it is to identify the principles: 
to reach the nub of the matter. 
It is not easy to remain an outsider 
from such an enthralling subject for long. 

Hugh Johnson 
The Principles of Gardening

On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty 
to speak one’s mind; it becomes a pleasure. 

Oscar Wilde