“…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
– Benjamin Franklin
“The bank – the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
As I outlined my initial vision for an intentional community a few days ago, I know that there are a number of people who read this who balked at the idea of leasing property instead of owning it… I’ve already received emails from a few. I will be very honest and say that when I first heard of this idea, my instinct was to walk away from it.
The idea of owning one’s own land has been drilled into us for such a long time that few of us question it. For well over a decade, I have been dreaming of owning a few (or many) acres where I could homestead and raise my family. I have gone to bed many nights thinking of what it would look like and how I would design it and what I would grow. Until very recently, the idea of not owning my own land was, frankly, not an option. I must own my own land! I don’t think I ever seriously stopped to ask the basic questions… why do I need to own the land and do I really own it?
Why do I need to own the land? Let’s answer this question first. I think there are a number of reasons, but the main ones can be lumped into two categories: Freedom and Investment
Freedom. We want freedom to do what we want, to build what we want, to grow what we want, to live how we want. We want to be in charge of ourselves and not have someone else tell us what we can or cannot do. When we examine this a bit further, we realize that we don’t actually get these freedoms just because we own the property. We really don’t have the freedom to do whatever we want to all the time. If I lived in the suburbs and decided to start shooting a rifle in my backyard, I would quickly have some heart to heart discussions with the local law enforcement agency. If I lived in the country and started to build a quarry, I would have some explaining to do with the county officials. If I started growing marijuana on my land in the U.S., if the right (or wrong) people noticed it, I would be dealing with some consequences. This perceived freedom is not really freedom. It depends on what I want to do and where I chose to live. In addition, we always need to ask ourselves IF we should be doing something just because we CAN do something. Killing all the plant life on your land is possible if you own your property, but is it the right thing to do? There is obviously some truth to it, but the more I examine this argument for owning your own land, the more I realize that the freedom argument is not as all-encompassing as I once thought.
Investment. We want to buy a piece of property and let its value grow over time. Sounds great. But are you wealthy enough to buy the land for cash? Most of us need a mortgage to purchase property. Well, a mortgage, which comes from the Latin meaning death (mort) guarantee/grip (gage), is going to cost you a whole lot more than the poperty value when you bought it. So we will be in debt, and not own the property, for 20 to 30 years, and pay a lot more than the selling price by the time we are done. If land prices increase, and we chose not to sell, then we have a chance at making a profit. In the process, we will have worked full time to pay off the mortgage, and about time we pay off the debt, we have lost the best years of our life. We finally have some free time to enjoy our family, but the kids have moved out and started their own independant lives by now. So now we have a debt free home and some property and hopefully the kids will bring the grandchildren by to visit a few times before we die. That is not my kind of investment.
“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
– Jon Stewart
“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”
– Red Cloud
So let’s answer the second question. Do I really own the land?
Let’s face it. We have an average life expectancy of 79 years if we are an American. Some of us make it a bit longer, and some us don’t quite make it that far. The average age of a first-time homeowner is 34 according to the most recent American Housing Survey data from 2009. If we get the typical 30 year mortgage, during which time the bank actually owns the property, then we will be “free and clear” by age 64. Therefore, we “own” the property for 15 years. Now at anytime while you are paying the mortgage, try missing some payments and see what happens. At anytime during or after the mortgage is paid off, try not paying property taxes. How’s that going to work out? Let’s not get into eminent domain! No, we don’t truly own any land. We have a piece of paper that shows we have paid a lot of money to live in a location that the government can take away from us pretty darn easily if they so choose or we make a few mistakes. Granted, it is the best we have as far as legal ownership goes, but it is not anywhere close to the idea that we truly own the land.
I don’t want to get too esoteric, but when we stomp our foot down and boldly say we own a piece of property for 15 year, or let’s double and say 30 years, when that land, the Earth, has been around exponentially longer… it’s a little silly. It’s kind of like a little clown fish claiming a tiny head of coral growing on the Great Barrier Reef.
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
– Aldo Leopold
Well, now. Where does that leave us? To me, it is not without hope. Not even slightly. It is rather freeing. We can stop looking at land as a thing to own, as a thing to conquer… a thing to stress and fret about. A thing to strive for as if it were the most important thing and not our faith and our families. We are suddenly able to step out of the here and now. We can see ourselves as a small piece in the big puzzle of time. We get to lay the groundwork, if we do it right, for generation after generation after us. We get to be the foundation. Maybe, a few hundred years from now, our great-great-great grandchildren will consider us their founding fathers and mothers.
This is the reason I am striving to build this community. The leasing plan is not just a scheme for investors to make money. If I could afford to do this without investors, I would do it in a moment. I would build this to slowly be given away. I need nothing when it is my time to leave this Earth. However, that is not the way the world works right now. We need to work within the system at times to achieve the goals we desire. The lease system opens the door to so many people who have big dreams of working with nature, with the soil, for their health and for their children’s. It allows us to work past this huge monster called the mortgage. It gives us a running chance. All we need to do is let go of the myth of land ownership.
It appears from comments here and on facebook and through emails that people have misunderstood what I am saying or that I did not explain myself well enough. So let me clarify a few of my thoughts on this subject…
I am not against ownership by any means. I have no issues with people buying land or getting a mortgage to facilitate this. However, we need to understand that what we are being sold is different than what is delivered. It’s not quite a bait and switch, but it is close. We are sold that purchasing a home is the key to the American dream, that we will have freedom and independence, and we have just made an investment that will grow into an inheritance for our children’s children.
The reality is often quite different. The key here is my use of the word often. Of course, there are people who purchase land and are not chained to their mortgage for a full 30 years and pay over three times the buying price in interest. There are people who pay off the mortgage early and live well below their means. But the reality is that most people do not do this. They buy into the dream and eventually realize, often way too late in life, that it is not what they thought it was.
Finally, even if we do everything “right”, the government has the ability to change the rules and take what we have worked so hard to gain. We need to understand this. We need to understand that we walk the Earth for only a short time. We need to make good choices (which are different for each person) on how best to spend our time and energy.
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