It’s a scientific fact that simply being in nature makes us happier and healthier. Often, a quick escape to the woods is all you need to erase the working week. Waking up to fresh air, the sun on your face. Hiking along lush forest trails in the shadow of towering mountains. Lighting a fire at the end of the day to warm up a chilly night. It’s the ultimate form of medicine.
But what if a quick escape didn’t have to end? What if you could return time and again to your own quiet place just over a hundred miles up the Hudson, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains?
Buying land and building a cabin with your own two hands isn’t such a crazy idea, even if you’ve only ever worked indoors and used your hands to tap away at your keyboard. Companies like Walden are making it easier and more accessible for anyone to build their own modern cabin or tiny home using inspired building plans, kits and prefabs. All you need is to get started.
Like anything, building a cabin starts with research. So let’s take a look at what you need to know about buying land and building your own quiet place in the Catskills and Hudson Valley.
If you’ve ever flicked through a copy of Dwell, or even Cabin Porn, you’ve no doubt paused for a few moments, eyes wide, after spying your dream cabin. We all have one. What’s yours?
Is it tucked away in the woods? Perched beside a lake? Overlooking rolling hills in rural farmland? When you step outside and pick up your fishing rod, are you just feet away from a river full of fish?
If you’re a hiker, your dream cabin is no doubt only a stone’s throw from undulating forest trails, cascading waterfalls that plunge from above and swimming holes that only the locals know about.
Before you set out to find the perfect piece of land to build on, it’s important to determine the type of land you want, its features, and how/if this matches to your budget.
For example, do you want a private cabin in a secluded wooded setting? Or a cabin atop an open field in rolling farmland? For the latter, you might need 20 acres or more to achieve a comfortable level of privacy, whereas on a wooded lot, you might only need a lot as small as 4 acres.
When it comes to price, it’s important to be realistic. A piece of land with interesting features like trees, a pond and mountain views starts around $45,000, while land you might see on the cover of Dwell would be $150,000 or more. Water frontage, whether it’s a lake, river or pond, will also raise the price significantly.
But if all you want is a small lot tucked away in beautiful woods without all the bells and whistles, it’s achievable price-wise.
Owning your own land is an investment in a home away from home, somewhere you can go without a hint of planning. A place for spontaneous weekend trips or vacations, or even weeks away with your laptop if you need to work remotely without distraction. It’s completely up to you.
When you set out to buy land, it’s important to think about how much you are willing to spend and adjust your expectations accordingly. It will take time to find your ideal setting, especially if want stunning views amongst the miles of farmland and forest in the Catskills and Hudson Valley.
There are four great resources searching for land in this region worth bookmarking:
Landwatch is an online leader in rural properties and land for sales. It provides a simple search tool for finding rural acreage and homesites for vacation, recreation, and investment. For example, when you search for “4 acres in the Catskills,” this beautiful piece of land is one of the top search results:
CheapUSland is another great resource for people buying and selling discount properties. It features up-to-date property listings, complete with videos that are loaded with charm, and it’s the “Wholesale Properties” section you want to keep an eye on.
While the NYSAuctions website is a little hard to navigate, it’s worth taking the time to sift through it. The Absolute Auctions & Realty and Haroff Auctions & Realty who run the site specialize in conducting “in rem tax auction properties” for municipalities across New York State. This means properties sold by to raise money to pay off delinquent taxes.
There isn’t a lot of information displayed in listings, only addresses. But when you sign up as a member you’ll receive news on upcoming auctions any important information you need to know.
You’re probably already familiar with Zillow, a real estate marketplace where you can search for properties for sale across the country. What’s great about Zillow is that you can run specific searches for land in the locations you desire, see listings appear on a map, scroll through land for sale, and save the listings you like. What’s more, you can save your searches and get email alerts when new properties are listed.
Craigslist seems to power every community and when all else fails be sure to check the real estate for sale category for land you might not be able to find anywhere else. With a useful mapping feature and a platform powered by FSBOs, there's a lot to like. Here's a listing we just found in Cairo, NY.
When you’ve found your perfect piece of land and you’re ready to build, it’s time to decide what you want to build and what type of building best suits your capabilities. There are three options to explore: plan, kit, or prefab.
With a plan in hand, including a list of all the materials and tools you need, choosing the plan route is the ultimate adventure, empowering you to build your own architecturally-inspired cabin with your own two hands. Walden plans are designed so that even the most novice builder can achieve superior results.
If piecing together your cabin sounds more appealing, you might want to choose a kit. The components and materials for your cabin are constructed off-site and delivered to you in pieces for you to assemble.
Then there are prefabs, or prefabricated homes. Again, the components and materials for your cabin are manufactured off-site, but a prefab comes in pre-built parts. Choosing to go the prefab route with the modern styling pioneered by Dwell magazine will be more expensive, but will also save you a few months in construction time.
Aside from your Walden plan, kit or prefab, you’ll also need to consider infrastructure posts, such as roads, communication, sewage, water, and electricity. The cost of building in the country can be a tad pricier than building in a village or new development where you can more easily connect to water and sewer systems.
If you want your cabin to be off-grid, you can rule your infrastructure costs. Walden designs can be built anywhere on any style foundation. With simple shed roofs, you can easily collect water for showers and washing dishes, while solar panels and an off-grid toilet can free you from traditional infrastructure limitations.
Some land is easy to build on – think flat, quality soil, etc. – while other land might throw up a few curve balls. Often, you can tell whether land is buildable just by looking at it.
Here’s what you need to consider:
That secluded lot that’s so private no one will ever stumble upon your cabin might be exactly what you’re looking for, but if you can’t build a road to get there, you’ll run into problems when it comes time to transport your cabin building materials and tools.
If a parcel of land is cheap, has amazing views and seems too good to be true, it probably is – a winding, dirt track might be all you need, but you need to think about how you’ll clear it in winter.
When inspecting land, walk around and pay close attention to how wet the ground is where you imagine building your cabin. If it has recently rained, you can expect the ground will be wet from rainwater or run-off. If there’s heavy run-off, you can channel it away from the building site. But if it hasn’t rained recently and the ground is soggy, there could be a spring close to the surface, or even wetlands.
Springs can be blessing or a curse. They can make for a beautiful pond, but only if they’re some distance from where you want to build. Likewise, wetlands are areas specifically designated by the New York State DEC or U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that require special treatment. There are published maps that show where designated wetlands areas are, so before purchasing land, get in touch with the local area’s Code Enforcement Officer – aka building inspector – to find out more.
The deeper you get into researching buying and building, you more strange words you’re going to come across. When talking to realtors, they might mention land “percs” or whether a perc test has been completed for a property.
Basically, a perc test determines whether the soil is sufficiently porous for a septic system leach field to function properly. If the soil is too sandy, the water will drain out too quickly. But if it’s too dense with too much clay, the water will drain too slowly or not at all. Ideally, you want to buy land that has had a successful perc test in recent years.
For lakefront or riverfront properties, you’ll need to account for setbacks required for septic systems. So, if you’re considering a lakefront or riverfront parcel, make sure that you can fit your well, septic and cabin on the land with the necessary setbacks and separations.
Ultimately, the cabin you build should suit the land you buy and vice versa. You want your cabin to blend in with its surroundings and create harmony with nature. So consider the value of your land in line with the value of the cabin you want to build.
Whether you want a simple and stylish weekend getaway in the woods or a quiet place for a tech timeout where you can well and truly focus, buying land and building is achievable. Not only will it take you outside your comfort zone, but it will afford you a new skill through physical labor that will not only be hugely satisfying but give you a change of scenery that is yours to own. You just need to get started.