Where To Find the Cheapest Land Out West for Off Grid Living

Keeping an eye out for cheap land around the country–preferably the cheapest land–is a lifetime hobby of mine. It has to be off grid; living anywhere else, tied into the national power grid, is not an option.

Not that Pam and I are dissatisfied with our current property. We’re not. In fact, our twenty off grid acres near the Mexican border in southern Cochise County, Arizona, suit us very well indeed. The Border Fort, which I built in 2010 and have been improving ever since, is solid, comfortable, and defensible. The smaller of our two land parcels is paid off, and we’ve made progress toward clearing our debt on the larger piece. We’ve made friends with local critters ranging from Mearns coyotes to desert cottontail rabbits, not to mention a wide variety of songbirds.

For now, at least, we’re not going anywhere.

But I can’t help myself. They say the man who no longer notices when a pretty girl walks by is already dead, which seems about right–and I’m just as hooked when it comes to noticing pretty land deals.

Late at night when my article writing is done for another session, I take time to wind down a bit. Some of that relaxation period is pretty innocuous and also meaningless, a few games of Hearts played on the computer or something similarly mindless. Every so often, though, that’s not enough. The Call of the Land Bargain sounds within, and I must answer the call.

It helps that the lust for land, even if it’s only expressed through window shopping these days, has a real history in our historical quest for survival. My wife and I first homesteaded off grid on a mountain valley 20 acre parcel in Lewis & Clark County, Montana, circa 1999. Cost per month to get things going: $500. Ten years later, after numerous adventures both on and off grid, we landed here in Arizona. Cost per month to get things going: $500.

Fortunately, our finances have improved, which allows me to daydream a little bigger. There’s a strong streak of practicality in me that requires imaginary land purchases to be at least believable. Thus it is that my “requirements” and “preferable options” when cruising cheap land sites are quite specific. They may not match what you’re looking for, but they are workable, to wit:

    ABSOLUTE REQUIREMENTS

    1. Land parcel size: Minimum 20 acres (for a bit of elbow room), maximum 640 acres (as anything larger is not only going to be expensive tax-wise but is tough to defend if it comes to that).

    2. Cost: Nothing over $150,000 in today’s dollars.


    STRONGLY PREFERRED

    1. No neighbors visible, period.

    2. End of road, so no pass-through or pass-by traffic.

    3. Year around springs or (much less preferred) readily accessible aquifer.

    4. Enough timber on the property to provide ample deadfall firewood over the years.

    5. Cost: Nothing over $60,000.

    6. No covenants.

Over time, the luxury of the Internet helped me zero in on Landwatch.com for my browsing sessions. This site has land listings in every state, or at least in every state I’d consider living in. You can’t get me east of the Mississippi, so none of the following findings are in, for example, Maine or North Carolina. Every time I’ve attempted to “study” listings for properties other than the eleven western states, the revulsion factor has stopped me cold. Not that I have anything against the people in other states; I’ve met fine folks most everywhere, including New York and New Jersey. But the states considered here are limited to the following: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington.

Landwatch.com is my preferred browsing site for cheap land out west, listing more attractive parcels at better prices than anywhere else I've found to date.

Landwatch.com is my preferred browsing site for cheap land out west, listing more attractive parcels at better prices than anywhere else I’ve found to date.


Of those eleven states, I’ve lived in eight of them…and don’t care for the predominantly liberal politics in any of the three coastal states (California, Oregon, Washington), so I don’t look for land there.

New Mexico has some cheap land, but it’s ugly looking stuff. North Dakota has a drilling boom going on which is driving land prices up–not to mention the fact that North Dakota winters can be exceptionally nasty. Idaho…maybe, but nothing has tripped my trigger there yet. South Dakota is a little worrisome; I love the state, love its tax laws, but don’t like seeing most of the cheaper land come up in counties I know personally are mostly open, windy prairie. Utah…another maybe, but not all that cheap.

Which leaves just three states topping my browsing list: Colorado, Arizona, and Montana.

Note: The Internet was not involved in finding any of the places we’ve owned. All of them were located by perusing the classified ads in area newspapers. That’s still a great way to pin down cheap land deals if you already know roughly where you want to end up–which, in both Arizona and Montana, we did.

In Montana in 1999, the goal was to find a homestead within reasonable driving distance of my Mom’s place. She was 86 at the time, and it seemed like a good idea to be able to visit her once in a while during her final years on the planet. Our off grid homesite ended up being no more than a three hour drive from her location south of Drummond, and we did drop in from time to time until she passed on in 2002.

In Colorado in 2006, a classified ad jumped out from a newspaper I grabbed at a truck stop while traveling through an area hundreds of miles from the land involved.

In Arizona in 2009, the idea was to “take my wife home” to Cochise County where she could be close to her son, Zach…and it worked out really well, as we’re a mere 15 minutes of driving time apart these days.

However, if you don’t know exactly where you want to build, today’s world wide web is a great place to explore.

ARIZONA

There seem to be two areas in Arizona where cheap (or at least reasonable) land can still be found. One is right here in Cochise County–but our property was not cheap when we bought it. It was just easy to get started, as we began with a $500 monthly payment on four acres and added the other sixteen acres later after our finances improved. However, there are a number of acreages listed in the local newspapers (either the Sierra Vista Herald or the throwaway free shopper paper) which look to have real potential. Several of them posted this past week are now going for under $1,000 per acre, a couple of them much under.

In the LandWatch listings for Cochise County, there is one parcel that caught my eye even though it breaks a number of my usual rules as listed above. For one thing, it’s in a gated community, so there’s undoubtedly a Home Owners Association (HOA) to deal with, along with covenants. Ew-w-w! Why bother? Well…the thing is, it’s smack in the middle of the Dragoon Mountains, with great ridges of huge boulders that I find extremely cool. It’s also 42.89 acres for $56,500, which isn’t bad in this day and age. It’s not what you’d call truly remote, but it is private, and not far to the town of Benson, where our favorite Denny’s Restaurant resides.

However, the best bargains in the state look to be northeastern Arizona’s Apache County, in which the ranching town of St. Johns is the county seat. There are several large ranches in the county which have been broken up into parcels for resale at really decent prices.

A portion of one of the parcels in the Woodland Valley Ranch development, 36 (minimum) acres starting at $17,900.

A portion of one of the parcels in the Woodland Valley Ranch development, 36 (minimum) acres starting at $17,900.

Covenants? I don’t know–and since I’m only window shopping, it wouldn’t be right to call the broker to find out. There is bound to be an HOA. But the description of the area is definitely attractive.

Woodland Valley Ranch is a select offering of 36 acre parcels secluded within one of Arizona’s most beautiful private ranches. The Ranch offers spacious 36 acre parcels of lush grassy meadows, heavily wooded ridgetops and stunning rock formations and is just minutes from top fishing, hunting & boating. The weather is a distinct 4-seasons, yet all mild. Land of this quality represents a truly fine value. Prices in the 36-acre range start at $17,900 with monthly payments of $172 p.i. and a down payment of $1,790. Seller Financing available.

The water at Woodland Valley Ranch is just the way it comes from Mother Nature. You will be a property owner with access to the largest groundwater supply in northeastern Arizona (the Coconino Aquifer). A complimentary convenience well is also available to Ranch owners for either temporary or permanent water hauling.

Now is the time to secure your own spectacular retreat property at Woodland Valley Ranch at low foreclosure resale prices.

Bottom line? This sounds really, really good! Privacy. Freakishly awesome pricing for today’s market. Low down. Seller financing. And how about that complimentary convenience well? You don’t find one of those every day! It would have been absolutely wonderful to have had something like that available during our first months on the mountain in Montana during the summer of 1999 before I got our first hand dug well completed–and also the following summer, after that first well ran dry and I had to dig another.

Not all the photos of that parcel look so rocky; I just liked that one.

COLORADO

We couldn’t leave out Heurfano County in Colorado after (a) buying a 35 acre parcel there in 2006 and then (b) having to give it back to the seller in 2009 after paying on it for three years. We’d planned to build there, loved the area, and I can’t keep myself from browsing land offerings in that county from time to time.

This is also the area chosen as the setting for the Flywheel Ranch in my western fiction series (see Western Fiction Index) titled Tam the Tall Tale Teller. The sample property shown below would be pretty close to the (fictional) easternmost portion of that ranch, although it’s “only” 35 acres at $49,000 with no mention of seller financing or anything like that. No “free water”, either, but plenty of timber and even some petrified wood lying around here and there.

Thirty-five acres in Huerfano County, Colorado, for $49,000.

Thirty-five acres in Huerfano County, Colorado, for $49,000.

Note: We paid that much ($49,000) for our first 4 acres here in Arizona. Getting 35 acres for that amount would have been…nice.

MONTANA

Weirdly enough, the cheapest land in the entire sizeable state of Montana is sitting right in the north end of Granite County–precisely where I grew up roaming the hills in search of stray cattle and, during hunting season, deer and elk. Or maybe not so weirdly; could it be that my father’s family had landed in that area nearly a century ago because it had always been the cheapest?

No clue!

Where the fictional protagonist, Treemin Jackson, rides in pursuit of a troubled young robber, there rode I in the olden days–and there exist some surprising off grid land bargains. Oh, you have to have a bit of mountain man blood running in your veins to seriously consider living up there in the high country full time. There’s no doubt of that.

Mulkey Gulch, Walker Gulch, Dry Mulkey Gulch, Sheep Gulch, all up for sale. I’d always believed these drainages to be BLM land, owned by the feds, Bureau of Land Management…but they’re being offered for sale by Stimson Lumber Company, and I’m now betting Stimson owned them all along.

And then, not long before daylight one fine dark morning, I came across the shocker of them all: The Nelson Springs property. Our cattle ranged that country for 27 straight summers, from the time Dad began ranching at the foot of Rattler Hill in 1946 until he sold out in 1973. At Nelson Springs, I watched my kid sister plop her butt down on a friendly cow’s butt one lunchtime, munching her sandwich while the cow chewed her cud, the two enjoying each other’s company, never mind the swarm of flies buzzing around them. I “hunted” that country one wintry November day, holing up in the shed near the springs, reading a book, not in the least caring if a suicidal deer wandered by or not.

And now it’s up for sale, 160 acres for $96,000.

One view from the Nelson Springs property, 160 acres offered for sale at $96,000.

One view from the Nelson Springs property, 160 acres offered for sale at $96,000.

No seller financing? Big deal; I’d find a way, and I’d go build me a place up there, were it just me.

The Nelson Springs property is high in the Garnet mountains near the divide between the Mulkey and Rattler drainages. Located behind a gated road, the property provides seclusion and privacy you are looking for in a recreation property. Several level areas will make a nice setting for a seasonal retreat. Recreation opportunities abound. The open road system in the area provides motorized recreation year-around for tens of miles between Highway 200 and Interstate 90. This property will make a nice base camp to allow you to explore the thousands of acres the surround public lands have to offer. …

Oh, a resident at Nelson Springs could expect to get snowed in during the winter, lacking a decent snowplow on the front of a four wheel drive vehicle–but that’s no big. Piece of cake. Behind a gated road, they say? A different road system from the days of my youth, no doubt; back then, the Rattler Gulch road “sort of” ran most of the way up there.

Of course, none of that matters. We’re settled here in Arizona for the nonce, Pam needs to be near her son, and besides, (a) her arthritis can’t handle Montana’s winters, and (b) her COPD can’t handle the elevation at Nelson Springs, which has to be around 6500 feet or so.

But I can dream, can’t I?

In the meantime, dear reader, you now know where to find some of the cheapest land out west for off grid living. The only one listed in this article that definitely has no covenants is the Nelson Springs property. In fact, that acreage meets every requirement I’d ever even think to put on paper. It’s remote, but not that remote. It’s definitely at the end of the road (unless they’ve cut new roads up there in the past, um, 50 years). It’s got spring water (which is why it’s called Nelson Springs, duh). Plenty of timber.

What the heck. If I’ve outlived the rest of my family by the time I’m, say, 110 or so, maybe it’ll still (or again) be for sale, and I’ll get a chance to build myself a cabin there. You can bet nobody would see that coming.