Are you interested in living off the grid? It can be challenging to provide for your own needs for energy, water and other resources, but for John Wells, it’s preferable to the challenge of working a traditional job so he can buy those resources from someone else.
John has received plenty of press, from Lloyd Kahn’s “Tiny Homes, Simple Shelter” to a 2011 New York Times Profile, for moving from upstate New York to the Texas desert to build an off-grid, 128-square foot home, and then blogging about it daily for years. I visited him personally to understand more about how he made that transition, and what makes an off-grid life work.
John felt the land he bought in Southwest Texas was so cheap that his off-grid experiment didn’t agree with him, he could quit without losing much. Living in a little house works for him partially because most of his life takes place outside. When his bills and mortgage were more than he could handle in New York, he rented his house to summer vacationers and moved into a travel trailer in his backyard. That experience helped him see home as a small place to relax after a day of activity.
Images © Billy Ulmer
John: I figured if I could rent my [New York] house in the summer, that would help pay some of the bills. That was sort of my last ditch effort to stay. After living in an Avion travel trailer two summers in a row, I discovered it was really nice to live that way. I was living in about the same-sized space that I have here. At the end of the summer when the renters would leave, and it was time for me to go back to the big house, it was like, “I kinda want to just stay out here.”
I started digging online a little bit more about this area, and all of a sudden I just decided, “I gotta sell my house. I can’t afford this house anymore.” It was 2,800 square feet, 35 acres in upstate New York. My property taxes alone were $1,000 dollars a month, and the mortgage on top of that, heating oil, and all the bills…My nut was like $4,500 a month up there.
My monthly expenses here are like $200, and everything’s paid for – no mortgage. Now I don’t have to think about my bills when I get up in the morning, which is a really nice feeling.
The trailer was basically just dinner time, watch a little TV, and go to bed. I was doing a lot of carpentry over the summer, so I wasn’t home that much. I was going out to work. Since I’ve moved out here, it’s the same thing. I use my house for basically eating and sleeping. I don’t do a lot of entertaining, so I don’t need a dining room.
Images © Billy Ulmer
Now, John’s work and play can be hard to tell apart. When I met him, his upcoming “projects” included taking powered paragliding lessons, trying to grow coconuts, and building a solar-powered water pasteurizer to filter the water he catches on the roof of his greenhouse and make it safe to drink. He’s frank about the challenges of the area, like frighteningly intense storms and the lack of good paying work. But this life works for John because his days now are filled with what he really likes to do: independently pursue a broad range of interests that provide tangible results.
Learn more about my visit with John Wells and about his unique story in my Life in a Tiny House Ebook.
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