Taking the leap: Moving Off the Grid

At Mas del Encanto, we live “off the grid”: we have electricity from solar panels (with no connection to any other power grid), water from our own well and we catch radio waves for internet. We have a garden (work in progress) for fruit and vegetables, and many other plans: a solar dehydrator, wood-fired heating (we’ve got plenty of wood after pruning), a stone oven for pizza and bread, solar heating for shower water,…

This means we hardly have any bills, and our living expenses can be kept quite low as well. For us, living this way is so much more rewarding than working to pay off things we don't really need... And we really don't feel like we're missing out on anything. 

Here are a few things we learned in the past few years, that might come in handy. Some are things we got told by others (thank you for that!), most things we found out for ourselves…

1. Don't believe everything the internet tells you

The internet is full of hearth-warming stories – “This amazing house was built for only $200,-“, “This kind of dwelling is the most eco-friendly known to man”, one website (of a Spanish real estate company) even states that there are “plenty of jobs available in Spain” and “you don’t need to learn Spanish as there are doctors and notaries around who speak English”. Use your brains, read the small print, talk to real people.

2. When in doubt, just go for it

In the past few years the only regret we had, was that we didn’t do certain things sooner. We could have moved to Spain sooner, we could have started living in our little maset sooner. It would certainly have saved us money! However, sometimes fear just gets the best of us. So from now on, we try to live by the motto “When in doubt, just go for it” – but make sure you’ve got a backup plan…

Nothing beats waking up with this view (or a variation to it) every single day. 

Nothing beats waking up with this view (or a variation to it) every single day. 

 

3. Planning is silver, communication is gold

I think the people who succeed the quickest, are the ones with a plan. The ones who arrive here with a clear idea of their goal, and have a plan that matches local reality. To get that clear plan, it’s important to communicate with your fellow adventurer(s) and set common goals – and to keep communicating, especially when things aren’t going according to said plan. A friend advised us to sit down and have business meetings between just the two of us; we’ve just started to do that… Although our project stays the same, we have made several adjustments to the planning already – and keep making those, every time life gets in the way.

4. Budget = more than some land and a house

When you’re looking for some land or even a house to buy, real estate agents will ask you for your budget. In the “normal world”, that’s simple; it’s the amount of money you are willing to spend on that piece of land and / or house. Here, it’s different; living off the grid involves quite a few investments you probably didn’t think of right away. We bought ourselves a car that was more suitable for this environment (instead of our Passat which was great to cruise with, but would just not have survived the tracks here in winter); several kinds of tools, machinery and materials; a generator and a solar system for electricity; a borehole and pump for water; trees and seeds; materials for making fences and sheds;… Some of our friends bought even more – like a tractor or digger, more and bigger tools, better materials,…
We’re not the only ones who decided to get ourselves a temporary home (in our case, our little maset; in the case of some of our friends, a yurt or tent camp). That goes out of the the budget as well!

5. Plan for delays

If you’re planning on making a living after your move, make sure you’ve got an income (or some money stuffed away somewhere) to survive  until you’ve got your business up and running. Paperwork can take a lot of time; we’ve met too many people who counted on their house being built quickly... years later, some will hang on tight - others go back to the homeland to make more money before they can start over. 

6. Party with moderation. But don’t forget to party! 

I think many people think I’m on permanent vacation in Spain. My Instagram and Facebook profiles might reflect just that – there’s barbecues and parties, nice views and almond blossom, trips to the beach and to Barcelona,… Underneath all that, there’s a lot of hard work. I work as a personal assistant, I care for my chickens and veggies and trees, I cook and clean; Axel spends most of his time building stuff. Our social life is much busier now we live in the "campo" (the Spanish countryside) than back in Amsterdam; but it’s still not a vacation…

I have found the social aspect of living here is very important though. When we get together with neighbours and friends, we talk about collaborations, exchange phone numbers and useful tips, meet other neighbours, often also exchange seeds, plants or produce off the land. So although we don't always feel like we should go out and see people (there's so much work at home!), it's good to remind ourselves that those breaks can be productive as well. 

7. Rent or vacation before you buy / build

This is advice I read on a forum – and it turns out it’s golden… if you’ve got the time and the money, rent something in the region you want to move to, or find yourself a nice place (maybe a rental house or a local bed & breakfast) you can go to whenever you like. Be sure to visit throughout the year, so you can get a feel of the seasons and so you’re sure you like the area.
If you already bought some land, it pays off to get to know it before building stuff on it; see how sun and irrigation work, where you’ve got the nicest view and the least cold wind (in winter) but a nice cool breeze in summer.

Our “maset” – the converted stable we lived in before the big house was finished. Such fond memories…

Our “maset” – the converted stable we lived in before the big house was finished. Such fond memories…

8. Rent smart - or maybe don't rent

Most fellow off-grid adventurers around here came here before (or while) they started building a house to live in. Most of them started by renting a house in the village, planning to rent until their house was finished; many, ended up staying in that rental months or years longer than they were planning to. Counting rent, water and electricity, this is a big dent in the budget… It could save a lot of money to put a caravan or yurt on your land, or restore an existing building like we did (we converted an old stable and lived in it while waiting for the house to be finished). 
Distance to your property is important; if it takes you too much time driving to and fro every day, not only will you start resenting the long drive - it also costs a lot of time and money. 

9. Cheap, good and quick

A carpenter once told me that if I wanted to have things done cheap, good and quick, I should pick 2 or just compromise; it’s not possible to have all 3 to perfection. I think he was right.
When an internet article shows you how a guy built a house “for free”, they forget to mention how he spent years and years collecting the building materials. When a construction company promises you to build your house in no time, the finishing might not be to your standards. When things seem too good to be true, they probably are.

10. Making money while living off the grid

I’m lucky enough to have an online job – I work as a personal assistant, do some translation work from time to time and hope to be able to do more writing in the years that come. Not everybody is that lucky, and we often meet people who wonder what they’re going to do here.
If you have some kind of income (a pension?) or some money stacked away, you might not need to find a way to make money. Living off the grid can be very cheap – you can grow your own food, barter more food for stuff you make or services you provide, and think of how much money you save by not paying for electricity, water, parties and events.
If you do need to make an income, don’t think opening up a hotel / B&B is the only way you could do that; it seems like every newcomer around here wants to open a “casa rural”, while there are many other services much more sought after that don’t require such an investment.

11. Choose your location… and your neighbours.

When giving you information about where to buy, most people or articles will talk about the properties of the land (size, use, soil, distance to road and villages,..), the climate, the laws of the region you’re buying in,… Not many will stress the importance of good neighbours.
When living in a regular setting – in a city, village or suburb in the Western world -, you will probably get into contact with lots of people. There’s friends and family, colleagues at work, maybe other parents at school if you’ve got children,… You more or less get to choose with whom you spend most of your free time. When living off the grid, you’re much more dependent on your neighbours; some weeks, they will be the only ones you see. When you need some help moving a rock or need to borrow some tools, it’s good to be in a place where people are friendly and welcoming! Our neighbour Enrique taught me how to grow vegetables the traditional way, Dan helped Axel build the bathroom and the cellar – and last year when I was looking for a tool to pick my figs with, Caspe offered me his ladder. Not quite what I had in mind, but still very sweet of him! We really feel like we’re not alone in this here.

 

Wherever you are, whoever your neighbours are, whatever you are doing there, the quickest way to feel at home is probably to get yourself (a little) integrated into the community. When in Rome and such; learn the language (if you moved abroad), go to events, say hello to everyone you meet (it might just be a neighbour you haven’t met yet). It helps to have young children in school or to volunteer in a local organisation. You’ll probably always be the stranger around here, but others will appreciate you making the effort.

This article was first published on the Mas del Encanto blog in October 2016.