The U.S. government granted 1.6 million homesteads encompassing 270 million acres of land in the Lower 48 United States between 1862 and 1934.
That’s more than four times the size of Wyoming given away for free to people willing to develop and live on their own homestead. Any adult, including immigrants and women, could apply as long as they had never taken up arms against the U.S.
Decades later, there’s a new land rush around Wyoming and the West driven by that same basic urge for independence and self-sufficiency and more people want to live more simply off the electricity grid. And like those homesteaders some 150 years ago, making that happen starts with a piece of land.
Today, that means paging through real estate listings and buying your land. Then, homesteaders were eligible for 160 acres of free land, mostly in the Western states. Amendments to the Homestead Act later increased the size of a free land to an entire section, or 640 acres.
The homesteaders who found a way to make it work knew they needed land with water, good soil and timber, and game and fish nearby.
In other words, the best places for homesteads in the Lower 48 were mostly gone by the early 1930s.
The days of free government land giveaways are long over but that doesn’t mean the spirit of the homesteader is dead. Would-be homesteaders continue to shop for land and Wyoming is one of the states with an abundance of affordable off-grid land for sale.
What Defines Off-Grid Property?
Former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan famously described the Cowboy State as a small town with unusually long streets. For many who are looking for them, available off-grid properties in Wyoming are at the ends of those long streets.
Using equity from the sale of a previous home to get into another is the typical path for most people. Bankers and real estate agents understand and accommodate this type of buyer because it’s familiar to them.
But someone trying to buy remote property and build on it would be far better off using whatever money they have to buy land outright and then pay as you go while building a new off-grid homestead.
For most want-to-be homesteaders, this means developing a long-term plan.
As the hunt for property begins, it’s a good rule to not get too starry-eyed while reading real estate listings.
For instance, a 40-acre parcel listed for $15,900 ($397.50 per acre) near Wamsutter in Sweetwater County is described as “quaint and rocky ... perfect for your dream home.” The acreage “offers a calming vibe like no other with 300 days of sunshine,” the listing states, and only 256 miles west of this location is Cisco Beach, (Bear Lake State Park, Utah) a place for “quality relaxation.”
The property is listed by a Virginia company that misspells Wamsutter in the listing and touts the “big city feels” of Fort Collins, Colorado, as a good reason to move to Sweetwater County.
While this parcel near Wamsutter may well be the Shargri-La of southcentral Wyoming, there are numerous other reasonably priced properties listed by agents who actually live here.
There’s a 5-acre property in Natrona County listed for $24,499, a 38-acre piece in Carbon County for $20,999, and a 35-acre parcel in Albany County listed for $26,000.
Once a perspective buyer narrows down the search, it’s important to walk the property and look it over thoroughly for things like seismic wire, barrels, any evidence of hazardous waste or anything else that seems out of place.
It’s also a good idea to check county plat maps or use an app like OnX Hunt to find out who owns the neighboring properties. Knowing that might provide clues on future development.
Supply And Demand
Plenty of people are shopping for off-grid property in Wyoming and Montana.
Trampus Corder, owner of Corder and Associates, a land brokerage firm based on Fort Benton, Montana, said a lot of the calls he gets are from folks he calls “dreamers.”
A dreamer in this case essentially means someone looking for a pebble in a 100-pound sack of pinto beans.
“They want running water, deer, elk, moose and other wildlife, but you just don’t find that on 10 acres,” he said. “Any property with developed water on it will sell for substantially more than most off-grid buyers are willing to pay.”
Corder said demand for off-grid property is steady, and in Wyoming and Montana the market has not been subject to the big swings he’s seen in Arizona and Colorado. He brokers land in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and North Dakota.
Canadians are buying land in Montana along the border and Chinese are buying undeveloped land in North Dakota, he said. People from Colorado are shopping and buying land in Wyoming and Montana, while Californians are shopping in Colorado.
“International buyers are picking up land in the Western states, but prices in Wyoming and Montana are steady,” Corder said. “We are seeing small ripples in the market in Wyoming and Montana compared to big upswings in prices in Colorado, California and Arizona.”
Water: The Limiting Factor
Technology for developing off-grid power has made life easier for many homesteaders, but developing water remains the biggest challenge.
Corder said county records are available that will reveal the depths of nearby water wells. Using this information, along with talking to water well drilling companies, will provide a good idea what it will cost to sink a well on your property.
The Wyoming State Engineer’s Office is another source of information on water wells and permitting. In some areas, it may be possible for landowners to tap a perched aquifer and put in a do-it-yourself hand-pump well by driving a well-point.
Rainwater and surface water harvesting are other options.
During the initial stages of establishing a homestead, hauling water in 5-gallon or larger containers is typical. Developing water on an off-grid property is a deep topic in itself for a future installment of this series on homesteading in Wyoming.
Henry David Thoreau may have captured the unrivaled optimism of the American homesteader when he said, “I made myself rich by making my wants few.”
People who live in remote areas of Wyoming must often find creative alternatives for reaching their property during winter. Getting snowed-in is a distinct possibility and being able to withstand a few days without access to the outside world is critical.
In Sublette County, and elsewhere, there are people who leave their cars at parking areas near a plowed county road or state highway and use snowmobiles to travel to their homes during winter.
Corder said it’s wise to visit any property under consideration for purchase during the winter. Neighbors also can be a helpful resource in solving access problems.