Finding and Building a Dream Eco House on a Budget

Debby Parkinson
Tuesday, 10th July 2012

Debby Parkinson starts a blog about her family's story about relocating on a budget from Yorkshire to Kent in 2011, how they struggled to find land to build an eco-house and the solutions they came up with to overcome the lack of cash.

We are Andy and Debby Parkinson from Dover. We have four children, all studying at various places around the country. We decided to relocate from Bradford in Yorkshire, to Dover in Kent in 2011, to live a different, more sustainable life. 

We wanted to share our story, as we feel we have researched many of the elements required to move towards a more sustainable way of life. We didn't have a huge amount to spend, and felt that we typified 'ordinary' people with a modest budget and rational requirements.

We have successfully relocated, found an eco-architect and a like-minded builder, have compromised with our local planning department, but are happy so far. We have only begun to make changes to the back garden, have ideas for combining parking and productiveness in the front garden, and first-hand experience of living in a 2 berth touring caravan for what was only supposed to be a few weeks whilst our house was being altered. Our budget including mortgage and savings is £200,000, and our list of requirements has evolved as we have become more aware of just how little this would buy us! We hope you find our story interesting and empowering and this is an ongoing process. 

We decided a few years ago that we would like a different, more ethical lifestyle – ideally a smallholding with 5 acres or so that would be my 'job' and somewhere, anywhere, that was warmer than Yorkshire, as we are both sun-lovers.

There were many reasons to stay – secure jobs, a network of friends, established allotments, and a lovely home – and yet there was still a draw to do something different. I was born in Bradford and had never lived anywhere else. Andy had come to Bradford to study at the university and, as so often is the case, had married, settled and never left. Life was based in Yorkshire. And yet, as Andy's eldest daughter began to look at universities all over the UK, we realised that within a very short length of time, they would all be leaving to begin the next phase of each of their lives, and we would be left, waiting for visits during the holidays.

It had taken a couple of devastating bereavements in quick succession and an article in PM57 by Corrina Gordon ('The world needs your passion') to change our whole outlook. You never know how long you have, and should grasp or bring about your own opportunities. We soon realised the kids could come and visit us wherever we happened to live, in fact, if that was somewhere warm and different, they would be more likely to want to come! The next, post-children, phase of our lives could begin too. The only problem was that Andy's youngest was only 16. She had the opportunity to come with us, or stay with Mum in Yorkshire. She decided to stay where her friends all were, and we couldn't say we blamed her. And so the search began. Anywhere really did mean anywhere. Initially Andy started looking for jobs in English speaking international schools abroad, and I began the distance learning training to become a freelance indexer, a job I could do from anywhere with an internet connection.

Where to look

For Andy, schools that were requiring maths teachers seemed to be in larger cities where there was a healthy ex-pat or business community. Land prices and the length of commute from anything remotely affordable meant that, in terms of quality of life, we were no better off than in Bradford. We then changed to look at what we could afford in the UK. Warmer weather naturally meant going south – the South-West or Wales was where we decided to focus our attention. We looked and looked. Properties with land seem to come on the market so rarely, and never within our maximum preferred budget of £200,000. Tying anything in, too, with jobs in close proximity seemed like an impossibly task. How did anyone ever successfully relocate anywhere? We were just starting to despair about ever being able to move, when Andy saw a teaching job in the South-East. We dismissed it initially, as the South-East is water stressed, and the house and land prices were even more expensive. The job called, however, and he couldn't stop thinking about it.

We took a trip down one weekend in November 2010, to see whether, if he was offered the job, we could afford to live within a reasonably local area to the school concerned. We couldn't. The school was lovely, though, and he still wanted to apply. With some trepidation he applied and was asked for interview. The interview date was set for early December, and it then proceeded to snow heavily. Everything had to be delayed. We still kept looking for smallholdings but were finding nothing suitable. We decided we had to change our requirements. If he did get the job, we would have to sell up in Bradford and find somewhere to live in Kent (bearing in mind there wouldbe a 550 mile round trip every time we were going to be interested in viewing a property). Websites aimed at selling land were fragmented and seemed to only have larger acreage sites. We decided, then, to search for houses with large gardens, rather than farms, smallholdings or land. 

How would we manage large amounts of land?

Neither of us had ever had any previous experience of land or animal care. In the meantime, I had been investigating what would be our 'fair share' of land. This was never going to be anything like 5 acres. The idea we had had to justify our 5 acres in the first place was to share it and rent out parts of the space as allotments, keep a few different animals, and have enough to grow our own produce on site, selling any surplus. Much as we loved our allotments, it was a faff to pack up lunch, tools, seedlings, wellies etc. every time we needed to go. If we just searched for a home with a large garden, couldn't we be self-reliant without the anxiety of it being too much for us to manage? But was that watering down our ideas too much? What would we have to compromise on to enable us to move, live a better life and still remain within our tight budget?

Once we had readjusted our ideas, searching instantly became much easier, as residential internet property sales are much more accessible, and numerous. We still couldn't afford anything within easy reach of the school, however, so widened our search area. Ideally being able to use public transport to get there was a high priority, but I too, would need to work, and living really close to one person's work can leave the other with an unfairly long commute. At that point I had not yet completed the indexing course, so needed to find paid work too. And then, one day, searching on the internet, Andy found something we could possibly afford, a 2 bedroomed cottage with a long strip of a garden for sale, but above our maximum budget at £250,000. It gave us hope that we should be able to find something somewhere.

Eventually, interviews were held later in December, and I lined up this property and three others to look at whilst he was being interviewed. The first (which was also the favourite) turned out to be next to a proposed building site and the garden wasfull of goose poo and rabbit holes. Not the right one. The second was too expensive for what it was. The third one was tiny, and I knew as soon as I saw the garden it was 'the one'. It was on the edge of a village, with a large garden. The house was tiny, but was sat on 1/10th of an acre of land. And it was well within our budget at £152,000. Wow! I still had one more property to view, but my heart wasn't in it. I just wanted Andy to see the little house. It even had a name rather than a house number, which was a new one for me. Farthings. Lovely.

Andy was offered the job, starting the following Easter. Later that evening, I dragged him back in the dark to look at the house. He could only look around the garden in the dark, but my enthusiasm was infectious. We put our house in Bradford up for sale. The adventure had begun.

We have learned from this process that you may never find what you think you want and that what you think you want may not be what you actually need. Also, learning to compromise is an important life skill, and everything you do in life is preparation for your next challenge! 

Our journey has only begun and there is so much more we have to do but we are excited for our new house and eco-friendly life.

More to follow...

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Sun, 15/07/2012 - 03:41
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