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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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Britain’s biggest homes for sale: Devon country house vs London mansion

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The biggest properties for sale on the open market in Britain – both in and outside of London – have been exclusively revealed by Zoopla.

The largest home on the property website is in Devon, in the town of Ottery Saint Mary, and at 22,211 sq ft it’s almost double the size of the 12,451 sq ft mansion in the capital.

Yet the price tag of the country house in Devon – said to be where Oliver Cromwell declared civil war –  is significantly less at £5.95million, costing just over a third of the £15.95million one in North London’s Highgate.

For £5.95m, you could get more than 22,000 square feet of country house with 21 acres of grounds in Devon's Ottery Saint Mary

For £5.95m, you could get more than 22,000 square feet of country house with 21 acres of grounds in Devon’s Ottery Saint Mary

By contrast, £16.95million buys a 12,500 square feet seven-bedroom mansion on London's affluent Courtenay Avenue

By contrast, £16.95million buys a 12,500 square feet seven-bedroom mansion on London’s affluent Courtenay Avenue

The seven-bedroom London pile is on Courtenay Avenue, which was recently named the second most expensive street in Britain and is close to Hampstead Heath. It comes with half an acre gardens – a sizeable chunk of land for a home in the capital.

But the Devon property boasts 21 acres, 10 bedrooms, parkland and woodland, and comes with what the estate agent describes as ‘the fascinating Cromwell Fairfax Room where it is believed Civil War was declared in the 17th Century’.

The average price of a home in Ottery, where it is situated, is £433,981, which is up £28,052 on a year ago, according to Zoopla.

By contrast, the average price of a home in Courtenay Avenue is £20,510,200, but that is down £108,741 compared to a year earlier, as buyers’ pandemic desire for the countryside tops demand for the capital.

We take a look inside both properties… 

1. Seven-bed house, Courtenay Avenue, London, £16.95million

The property is on a private gated road and boasts a luxurious interior with a large dining room for entertaining

The property is on a private gated road and boasts a luxurious interior with a large dining room for entertaining

The house for sale in London with the biggest square footage is in the north of the capital, on Courtenay Avenue.

Running parallel with the more famous Billionaire’s Row of The Bishops Avenue, Courtenay Avenue is an even more exclusive no-through road on the borders of Highgate and Hampstead, which was recently named as the second most expensive street in Britain by Zoopla. The £20million average house price there was only topped by Kensington Palace Gardens at £30million.

The Courtenay Avenue house extends across 12,451 sq ft, the equivalent of 1,156.7 square metres, and sits in just over half an acre of land. 

It has seven bedrooms, including a main bedroom suite that overlooks the landscaped gardens.

Inside, there is a swimming pool, gym, steam room and sauna, as well as staff accommodation.

The property has a price tag of £16.95million and is on the market via estate agents Bargets. 

The Courtenay Avenue home boasts a swimming pool, gym, steam room and sauna, as well as staff accommodation

The Courtenay Avenue home boasts a swimming pool, gym, steam room and sauna, as well as staff accommodation

Deep pockets required: The property has a price tag of £16.95million and is on the market via estate agents Bargets

Deep pockets required: The property has a price tag of £16.95million and is on the market via estate agents Bargets

The house extends across 12,451 sq ft, the equivalent of 1,156.7 square metres, and sits in just over half an acre of land

The house extends across 12,451 sq ft, the equivalent of 1,156.7 square metres, and sits in just over half an acre of land

The house has plenty of space with seven bedrooms, including a main bedroom suite that overlooks the landscaped gardens

The house has plenty of space with seven bedrooms, including a main bedroom suite that overlooks the landscaped gardens

Daniel Copley, of Zoopla, said: ‘Located on Courtenay Avenue, which was recently crowned the UK’s second most expensive street, this palatial property has an enviable location a stone’s throw away from Kenwood House and Hampstead Heath, as well as 24hr security.

‘The property itself is brimming with luxurious touches including a spacious walk in wardrobe, while the fitness suites offer the perfect place to unwind.’

2. Ten-bed house, Devon, £5.95m

This £16.95million house in Devon's Ottery St Mary has the biggest square footage of any home currently for sale on Zoopla

This £16.95million house in Devon’s Ottery St Mary has the biggest square footage of any home currently for sale on Zoopla

The property has an impressive dining room where Oliver Cromwell reportedly declared the start of the Civil War

The property has an impressive dining room where Oliver Cromwell reportedly declared the start of the Civil War

The largest house for sale in the country on Zoopla is in Exeter’s Ottery St Mary. It is called The Chanters House and extends across 22,211 sq ft, the equivalent of 2,063.4 square metres.

The living areas include The Great Library, which is more than 70 ft in length and is where poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s family created one of the West Country’s most impressive libraries,

Meanwhile, the dining room is said to be where Oliver Cromwell hosted a meeting of local people and declared the start of the Civil War in the 17th century.

A story to tell: The Great Library is more than 70 ft in length and was created by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his family

A story to tell: The Great Library is more than 70 ft in length and was created by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his family

The property is called The Chanters House and extends across 22,211 sq ft and boasts a large indoor swimming pool

The property is called The Chanters House and extends across 22,211 sq ft and boasts a large indoor swimming pool

The Grade II listed property has a massive 10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and a striking conservatory with a large seating area

The Grade II listed property has a massive 10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and a striking conservatory with a large seating area

There is also a billiards room, a conservatory, a swimming pool and a striking greenhouse.

The Grade II listed property has 10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and sits in more than 21 acres, including parkland and woodland that runs down to the River Otter. It has a price tag of £5.95million and is being sold via estate agents Knight Frank.

Zoopla’s Mr Copley said: ‘Chanters House is a true piece of British history, with links to famous figures including Oliver Cromwell and the renowned poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

‘The spacious interior has plenty of beautiful details including carved wooden ceilings and panelling, as well as a beautiful library with over 22,000 books. There’s also expansive grounds with a BBQ area and pool house.’

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Prosecution of former British soldier over Troubles killing defended

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Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service has defended the decision to prosecute British army veteran Dennis Hutchings over a Troubles shooting.

Mr Hutchings (80) died in hospital in Belfast on Monday after contracting Covid-19, leading unionist politicians to raise concerns that the case against him had been allowed to proceed.

The former member of the Life Guards, had pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974. He also denied a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

Mr Cunningham, a 27-year-old with learning difficulties, was shot dead as he ran away from an army patrol near Benburb. People who knew him said he had the mental age of a child and was known to have a deep fear of soldiers.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson had challenged the prosecution service over what new and compelling evidence led to the trial.

Deputy director of public prosecutions Michael Agnew said: “The PPS [Public Prosecution Service] decision to prosecute Mr Hutchings for attempted murder was taken after an impartial and independent application of the test for prosecution.

“The test for prosecution requires a consideration of whether the available evidence provides a reasonable prospect of conviction and, if it does, whether prosecution is in the public interest,” Mr Agnew said.

“Whilst a review of a previous no prosecution decision does not require the existence of new evidence, the police investigation in this case resulted in a file being submitted to the PPS which included certain evidence not previously available.

“In the course of the proceedings there were rulings by High Court judges that the evidence was sufficient to put Mr Hutchings on trial and also that the proceedings were not an abuse of process.”

Mr Agnew said the PPS recognised the “concerns in some quarters” in relation to the decision to bring the prosecution.

He added: “We would like to offer our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Mr Hutchings, and acknowledge their painful loss.

“However, where a charge is as serious as attempted murder, it will generally be in the public interest to prosecute.”

“Our thoughts are also with the family of John Pat Cunningham who have waited for many decades in the hope of seeing due process take its course.”

Mr Hutchings had been suffering from kidney disease, and the court had been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings.

He was charged with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974.

Mr Hutchings died at the Mater Hospital on Monday while in Belfast for the trial. Hours earlier, the trial had been adjourned for three weeks in light of his health.

Mr Donaldson said he had been shocked when the decision was taken to bring the case to trial. “He has been literally dragged before the courts,” he told the BBC.

“Dennis is an honourable man, he wanted to clear his name, he was prepared to go despite the risk to his health but I do think this morning there are serious questions that need to be asked of those who took the decision that it was in the public interest to prosecute this man.”

Mr Donaldson said Mr Hutchings’s actions had been investigated at the time.

“So it is not a question of this being something new, and therefore the question I have for the PPS is what was the new and compelling evidence that meant it was in the public interest to bring an 80-year-old in ill health on dialysis at severe risk to his health before the courts, and I think that is an entirely valid question that I am entitled to ask this morning,” he said.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie has called for a “full and thorough” review into the decision-making of the Public Prosecution Service. – PA

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How to value your home

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Since Revenue disclosed details of its property tax revaluation campaign back in mid-September, households around the State have started to fret about how much their home is worth.

Where just a few short weeks ago, people were talking jubilantly about how much the house across the road had sold for, now there is a fear that exuberant house prices will cause a sharp rise in property tax bills.

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