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Climbing the off-grid property ladder with Brooke and Dave Whipple

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The idea of living off grid has huge appeal amid the pandemic, not least due to its association with more space, the lower cost of living, and living more sustainably.

But while many of us may have only just acknowledged its appeal during this past year, one couple has been investing in living off grid for more than two decades.

Dave and Brooke Whipple have achieved the mortgage-free dream by climbing the off-grid ladder through flipping homes that they have built with their own hands.

The American couple have not done it the easy way, having travelled to one of the most remote parts of the world to do it – Alaska

Dave and Brooke Whipple have achieved their mortgage-free dream by living off grid

Dave and Brooke Whipple have achieved their mortgage-free dream by living off grid

That makes their path a difficult one to follow for any Britons dreaming of climbing the off-grid property ladder, but their story is inspiring nonetheless.

The first piece of land they bought was five acres in Alaska’s Fairbanks, which cost them $14,000 in the year 2000, the equivalent of £10,200.

They built a tiny log cabin, which measured 12 ft by 12ft – not much bigger than some garden sheds.

Planning constraints mean it would be difficult to follow a similar route in Britain. It would also be a challenge to find a plot of land for a similar price today on this side of the Atlantic.

Brooke explains that they have always bought cheap land. She said they built up their property portfolio by finding ‘someone else’s broken dreams’, meaning that they bought land that appeared unattractive and worked hard on bringing it back to life.

For example, the land may have needed clearing or it may have been difficult to initially access.

The couple lived at their first off-grid property in Fairbanks for two and a half years, the last six months of which they shared with their baby daughter.

On the same piece of land, they built a second larger cabin, which they moved into on Christmas Eve in 2003. They sold the property with both cabins for $125,000, the equivalent of £91,000.

They continued to flip several more properties by buying land, building a log cabin on it themselves and then selling it for a profit. 

Brooke works on the property projects with her husband Dave, building cabins from scratch

Brooke works on the property projects with her husband Dave, building cabins from scratch

Girl in the Woods: Brooke has become known for her love of being outside and enjoying the wilderness

Girl in the Woods: Brooke has become known for her love of being outside and enjoying the wilderness

Working hard: The couple say that you need plenty of 'sweat equity' to make your off-grid property dreams come alive

Working hard: The couple say that you need plenty of ‘sweat equity’ to make your off-grid property dreams come alive

During this time, they have also become known for their love of the wilderness having appeared on the History Channel TV show ALONE, which takes 10 survivalists and drops them in remote areas of the world to see how long they can survive and live off the land.

At the heart of their property development has always been the concept of, what Brooke describes as, ‘sweat equity’.

She said: ‘It was all sweat equity. We put all the work into it ourselves, we paid cash for everything and lived in a tent while we built the first cabin.

‘With sweat equity we’ve been able to buy cheap land that needs work, then turn it into a nice piece of property, then flip it when we were ready to move on.

‘This put money in our pocket to buy and build the next thing with cash. Always cash. No mortgage. In order to do this you have to be reasonable with what you can afford, but it works for us.’

Living off-grid: Brooke and her husband lived in tents while they built some of their wood cabins

Living off-grid: Brooke and her husband lived in tents while they built some of their wood cabins

The couple’s fourth project saw them buy five acres in Delta Junction in Alaska, where they lived initially in a campervan while they first built a garage that they then moved into – before building a new log cabin.

By now, they had two toddlers and lived without running water. They eventually moved into the log cabin, which did have running water.

They had bought that piece of land for $11,500 – around £8,500 – in 2006 and sold it with the cabin for $215,000 – the equivalent of £157,500 – four years later.

Brooke explained: ‘A lot of people are not willing to make that sacrifice and do it the hard way. People see the Instagram picture of the cabin in the woods and say they want it now. But without the sweet equity, it is not rewarding.’

Wider family matters mean Brooke and her husband are currently based in Michigan, in the US, but are continuing with projects so that they still get spells living off-grid and somewhere to head back to when they commit once again to living off-grid full-time.

Brooke explains that what is allowed to be built in America depends on the land, but generally speaking there are few restrictions compared to Britain.  

‘There’s so much more freedom here. If you are in a city, things are more restrictive and will need more permitting and zoning considerations, but that’s not where most people want to build a cabin. There is a lot of rural land that is available for building a small cabin with little to no restrictions,’ she said. 

Climbing the off-grid ladder 

Dave and Brooke Whipple have achieved the mortgage-free dream by selling on off-grid homes that they have built with their own hands.

The properties include: 

1. They built their first cabin in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2000. It measured 12ft by 12ft. They lived there for 2.5 years. They bought the land – which extended across five acres, for $14,000, the equivalent of £10,200.

2. The couple built and moved into a second cabin on the same piece of land on Christmas Eve, in 2003. They sold the property with both cabins for $125,000, the equivalent of £91,000.

3. They then bought a piece of property nearby and built a stick-frame house to flip. They paid $6,000, the equivalent of £4,400, for the two acres. They never lived there and sold it in 2007 for $85,000 or around £62,300.

4. The couple bought five acres of land in Delta Junction, Alaska, for $11,500 – around £8,500 – in 2006. They moved onto the land and restored an old 12 ft campervan, which they lived in for six months – with two toddlers –  while they built a garage to live in. They lived in the garage for just over two years until their new log cabin was finished. They moved into the log cabin in 2008. They sold the garage and house in 2010 for $215,000, the equivalent of £157,500.  

5. In 2010, the couple bought an old farm house with 30 acres in Michigan for $113,000 in cash. They did a full remodel to live there, and still own the property.

6. In 2015, they bought five acres of land north of Fairbanks, Alaska, for $11,000, the equivalent of £8,000. They built two cabins on the property, and lived in tents during the build. They still own those buildings and the land.

7. In 2019, they bought 10 acres of remote land in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for $11,500. They currently use it with a wall tent, but they will build a cabin on the land later this year.

6. In 2020, they built a tiny cabin at the other end of their Michigan property for about $3,000, around £2,200. 

Brooke suggests that the key to living off-grid successfully is a person’s attitude and willingness not to give up.

‘You have to be determined and this has to be something you want to do,’ she said.

‘You learn so much in the process but have to be brave enough. People are too comfortable in modern life. It is like people want to do this, but they don’t want to put in the work.’

You don’t need to build the most expensive thing, you just have to put the time and effort in yourself. It is very gratifying 

She explained that the thing that most people seem to want – and worry most about – is having a shower while living off-grid. 

‘There is a lot of times when you will just have a kettle to have a wash with,’ she said. ‘It is not about plugging in your hairdryer. You have to go into a low gear. Modern life has ruined people. Living off-grid means you are choosing to live a tougher life, it is hard.

‘Everyone wants out of where they are now and wants more land amid the pandemic. You don’t need to build the most expensive thing, you just have to put the time and effort in yourself. It is very gratifying.

‘I like this lifestyle as I crave quiet. I just love the wilderness and nature. The fire is brighter and your food tastes better if you’ve worked hard for it. There is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.’

While living off gird is hard, Brooke and her family seem to prove that it can also be emotionally and financially rewarding.

Brooke Whipple’s YouTube channel can be found at @Girl in the Woods and Dave Whipple’s channel is @Bushradical

Learn about green building

Based in Wales, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) runs courses about renewable energy, green building, and sustainable growing.

Founded in 1973 on a disused slate quarry, CAT has evolved from a community, to a visitor centre, to an educational charity specialising in sharing practical solutions for sustainability. 

It began life as an off-grid community that acted as a test-bed for experimenting with alternative types of technology in response to the 1970s oil crisis and a growing concern about the environmental impact of fossil fuels.

Early experiments with wind and solar contributed to the development of the commercial systems that are now pivotal in the fight against climate change.

Since 2007, CAT’s main research focus has been its Zero Carbon Britain project, which provides a model for how the UK could reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions using technology available today. 

As well as a graduate school, the centre runs short courses and webinars. The focus is currently on online learning due to the pandemic.  Short courses cover sustainable building materials, solar panels, composting toilets  and making pallet furniture.

Peter Tyldesley, of the Centre for Alternative Technology, said: ‘The pandemic has caused many of us to reflect on what we want out of life and what is really important to us. 

‘For some people, living off-grid can help fulfil the desire for independence and a greater connection to the seasonal rhythms of nature. For those who choose it, this can be a deeply rewarding way to live. 

‘However, we can tap into renewables without going off-grid, and for most of us this is a more practical solution. Increased availability of green tariffs for electricity, for which there need no longer be a cost penalty, enable all of us to switch to renewable energy at the click of a mouse. 

‘Where circumstances allow, we can also generate our own electricity at home with the backup of a grid connection, exporting any surplus power to the grid, truly becoming part of the bigger solution. Achieving net zero in the UK will involve all 67 million of us, and, while the off-grid lifestyle is a dream for some, most of us will play our part while retaining the security and comfort of remaining firmly on the grid.’

 

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How do you feel about the new carbon budgets?

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We want to hear your views on the proposed new carbon budgets which, the Government says, will change how people live and work. The proposed budgets, published by the Climate Change Advisory Council, will apply to every sector of the economy and will outline a limit for total emissions that can be released.

The first carbon budget, which will run from 2021 to 2025, will see emissions reduce by 4.8 per cent on average each year for five years. The second budget, which will run from 2026 to 2030, will see emissions reduce by 8.3 per cent on average each year for five years. The council says the budgets will require “transformational changes for society” but that failing to act would have “grave consequences”. Environmental campaigners say the budgets will provide a cleaner, healthier and safer future but some rural groups such as the Irish Farmers’ Association say they will have “serious repercussions”.

How do you feel about the new carbon budgets?

Now we’d like to hear your views: Do you support the budgets or are you against them; do they go too far or not far enough?

We will publish a selection of your responses online (If you are reading this on the Irish Times app, click here to access the form for submissions).

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House sales shoot up a THIRD in September amid fears of mortgage rate hike

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The number of homes bought and sold in Britain rose by two thirds in September compared to August, with experts believing buyers are seeking to get ahead of a potential rise in mortgage rates. 

There were nearly 161,000 property transactions in September on a seasonally-adjusted basis, a 67.5 per cent increase on the previous month, according to latest figures from HMRC. 

They also increased by 68 per cent compared to September 2020, and 63 per cent compared to the ‘normal’ market average in September 2017 to 2019.

The cost of a mortgage could be set to increase, if the Bank of England base rate rises

The cost of a mortgage could be set to increase, if the Bank of England base rate rises

Experts say the sharp rise was only partly a result of the Government’s stamp duty holiday, which has fuelled price growth of around £25,000 in the last year but finally ended on 30 September. 

It initially allowed buyers to save up to £15,000 in taxes as they did not need to pay stamp duty on the portion of their property purchase under £500,000. 

But in September, the tax break would have had a more subdued effect.

In England and Northern Ireland, it was tapered down between July and September so that buyers could only save £2,500.

And the holiday had already expired in Scotland and Wales, on 31 March and 30 June respectively. 

Given that the impact of the stamp duty holiday was lessening, some suggest that other factors have become more important in maintaining high levels of activity in the housing market. 

There are a number of things at play, according to Lawrence Bowles, senior research analyst at Savills.

‘There’s more to this activity than a stamp duty holiday: record-low mortgage rates, desire for more space, and a core of unmet pent up demand all continue to push up transaction volumes,’ he says. 

Although it is one of several reasons why the housing market remains hot, the desire for a cheap mortgage has become more of a pressing issue for buyers in recent days and weeks. 

This is because speculation about a rise in the Bank of England’s base rate has threatened an increase in the current super-low rates.

At the moment, rates are available as low as 0.89 per cent – but they are already rising. At its lowest, the cheapest fixed rate on the market was 0.84 per cent.

Major lenders including NatWest, HSBC and Barclays have all moved to increase rates on some mortgages, after months of sustained falls. 

With a base rate rise being predicted by some for December, experts are suggesting that the threat of mortgage rates going up is the ‘new stamp duty holiday’ and that the rush to complete sales before rates rise is now keeping the housing market buoyant.

Simon Bath, chief executive of technology company iPlace Global which created the property advice app Moveable, says: ‘We have reached another crossroads in which following the stamp duty holiday, there is another potential deadline for Brits to prepare for.

‘It seems likely that house prices will continue to rise before demand slows down, as Brits race to obtain lower mortgage rates.’

Rising costs: Those buying homes have seen the typical sale price increase by £5,000 in the last month alone, according to data from the property platform Rightmove

Rising costs: Those buying homes have seen the typical sale price increase by £5,000 in the last month alone, according to data from the property platform Rightmove 

Early statistics back his price rise theory up. According to Rightmove’s latest house price index, which covers the first half of October, the average house price jumped £5,000 compared to the previous month. 

In addition, every UK region broke asking price records for the first time since March 2007.

The property portal noted in its report: ‘The continued fast turnover of property for sale and a window of opportunity to buy before a potential interest rate rise seem to have overcome the final expiry of all stamp duty incentives and are keeping activity robust.’

This trend is keeping the market buoyant for now, but could it really lead to another buying frenzy? Iain McKenzie, chief executive of The Guild of Property Professionals, says so. 

‘With demand for properties still high, and a potential mortgage rate rise on the horizon, this could be the perfect storm to see another frenzy to buy, so long as the shortage of stock doesn’t continue,’ he says. 

There is also the simple fact that people who were trying to meet the September stamp duty deadline, but failed, are unlikely to abandon their purchases, and will continue to add to the totals over the coming months. 

But others are less sure about talk of another buying boom. With the base rate rise only tipped to be from 0.1 per cent to 0.25 per cent, the difference in people’s mortgage payments may only be a few pounds per month. 

For example, for someone with a £120,000, two-year fixed rate mortgage on a £200,000 home, the difference between a 0.89 per cent rate and a 1.04 per cent rate would be just over £8 a month, or just under £200 across the fixed period. 

Office for National Statistics data showing house price increases over the past 15 years

Office for National Statistics data showing house price increases over the past 15 years

Mark Harris, chief executive of mortgage broker SPF Private Clients, says: ‘People will still move without stamp duty holidays and will continue to refinance their homes, whether mortgage rates are below 1 per cent or around 2 per cent.

‘Borrowers are keen to secure these historically-low mortgage rates but if the right property comes along, they are still likely to buy even if they have to pay say 15 basis points more and won’t qualify for a stamp duty holiday.’

But as the stamp duty holiday proved, the psychological impact of thinking you are saving money can be powerful, even when the actual cash saving is negligible. 

While buyers did indeed ‘save’ up to £15,000 in tax, house price rises during the stamp duty holiday were upwards of £20,000, eclipsing the actual saving.   

The true impact that the mooted rise in mortgage rates will have depends on myraid factors, including whether there is further clarity on if and when the base rate change might actually happen, and how mortgage lenders continue to respond to the situation. 

All eyes will be on the October transaction statistics and house price indices to see whether the market is remaining buoyant. 

Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.

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Covid grips Europe’s unvaccinated east

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Hospitals are struggling to cope as Covid-19 sweeps through large unvaccinated populations in central and eastern Europe, where low levels of trust impeded acceptance of inoculation programmes.

Austria, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands and others have teamed up to send oxygen supplies, medicines and ventilators to Romania after it appealed for help from the European Union to cope with a crushing fourth wave of the pandemic.

Just 36 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated in the country, according to EU figures, the second-lowest level in the union after Bulgaria, where the rate is just one in four adults, far below the pan-EU rate of 75 per cent.

Both countries are suffering a brutal surge of infections, hospitalisations and deaths. Romania has seen an average of more than 400 deaths a day for the past week, in a population of 19 million, the highest rate in the EU according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. In Bulgaria, in a population of seven million, more than 100 people have died on average each day for the past week.

Romania on Monday imposed a night-time curfew, shut schools and introduced mandatory Covid-19 passes for most public venues in a bid to curb the soaring infections as its intensive-care wards ran out of beds.

Reimpose restrictions

Infections are also soaring in the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia, which became the first European country to reimpose sweeping restrictions last week by shutting schools and all non-essential shops, and imposing a curfew from 8pm to 5am for a month. Restrictions were also tightened in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia.

In neighbouring Russia, daily Covid-19 infections reached a record high of 37,930 in 24 hours on Monday, and some regions shut workplaces in response.

World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that with 50,000 Covid-19 deaths a week the pandemic was “far from over”, but he said it would end “when the world chooses to end it”.

“It is in our hands. We have all the tools we need,” he said. “Unlike so many other health challenges, we can prevent this. Complacency is now as dangerous as the virus.”

 In Austria, where 73 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated, chancellor Alexander Schallenberg warned that restrictions could be placed on the unvaccinated if Covid-19 patients began to take up the country’s ICU capacity.

“The pandemic is not yet in the rear view mirror,” Mr Schallenberg said. “We are about to stumble into a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

He warned that if Covid-19 patients took up a quarter of national ICU beds, then only the vaccinated or people who had recovered from the virus would be allowed entry into restaurants and hotels. If the percentage reached a third, the unvaccinated would be allowed to leave home only for specific reasons.

Vaccination rates have reached above 90 per cent for those eligible in several countries in western Europe including Ireland, though coverage is lower in some cities and particular populations.

Hospitalisations

This is helping to keep hospitalisations under control, but infections are still rising and many countries have opted to continue with some precautions including mask-wearing, working from home recommendations, and mandatory Covid-19 passes in public settings. Last week, Italy made the passes mandatory for workplaces.

The WHO warned last week that Europe region was the only region in which Covid-19 cases were rising, led by surges in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

Emergencies chief Dr Mike Ryan appealed for the unvaccinated to come forward for jabs, and said the rise in infections came as restrictions were dropped in many countries, coinciding with “the winter period, in which people are moving inside as the cold snaps appear”.

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