Going off grid

We’ve not neatly fitted into boxes for quite some time when filling in forms but today as I try and tidy up loose ends with regard to utilities I am reminded of just how out of the ordinary we are. There is literally no box to tick on any website or number to press given on those automated phone systems for ‘remaining a home owner but having no address, living in a campervan with no utilities attached’.

So today I have cancelled our BT landline and broadband, our TV licence and Sky TV subscription, checked the procedure for final meter readings for gas and electric supply, informed the local council and water suppliers of our moving out date, swapped household insurance for landlord insurance and looked at postal options from PO boxes to redirection.

I have a mini-rant about how bloody difficult it is to stop getting service from places, from the fact they refuse to accept cancellation any way other than by phone, that their dedicated ‘so you think you can just leave like that do you?’ phonelines all have queuing times of ridiculously long, designed to get you to give up trying degrees and quite why they want to admit to ‘we are recieving high call volumes’ to a phone number that is only for people cancelling is beyond me! I’ve swallowed several cancellation / cessation charges and stopped operators about to go into sales pitch mode their breath by explaining why we won’t be needing that service from anybody at all, not just their company.

Yesterday at the tip, or Household Waste Recycling Centre as it is calling itself these days we had some very interesting conversations with Dragon and Star about waste and about what Off Grid means. We were all feeling pretty rubbish (if you pardon the pun) about the stuff we were contributing to landfill. Yes, we compost, we recycle, we freecycle & ebay, we try really hard to reduce waste but when it’s come to actually clearing out our home all of those things we stashed in our garage and loft and we realise that they are simply no good to anyone for anything so need to be landfilled it’s pretty sobering. We chucked out two tables and four chairs due to extensive water damage, wish we’d just freecycled them years ago while they were still useable 🙁 It’s great for Dragon & Star to know already that there is no such place as ‘away’. When you throw something away you are really just moving it somewhere else for someone else to deal with.

We also talked about Off Grid and what that means. We looked at the telephone poles taking cables to each and every home, we looked at a pylon and a power station bringing power across the UK, we looked at sewers and waste water just last week so knew we were driving over a massive network of underground pipes moving water around beneath us. We talked about how we don’t give it a second thought at home that flicking a switch turns on a light, that turning on a tap brings water flowing, that lifting the phone brings the dial tone buzzing in our ear but that these are recent-ish innovations and for all their convenience they are very costly (we explained that about 2 out of the 5 days a week Ady works are just to cover the costs of these things in our home), not necessarily sustainable and very probably not essential. We talked about how on camping holidays we ration energy, water etc and manage just fine, being more creative and putting more effort into ensuring our needs are provided for in terms of light, heat, water often by more effcient, environmentally friendly and less wasteful ways. We also touched on other types of ‘grid’ such as cheap food from supermarkets rather than local, organic or free-range food which may cost more in the short term or not be quite so convenient to get but what the fors and againsts of each are long term. I love talking about these sorts of things with Dragon and Star, they very much have their own ideas, bring a childish form of reason and challenge things that I have long since just accepted. It made me think of this quote:

Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents,
it was loaned to you by your children.
 So today I have been extricating us a little from ‘the grid’, untangling it’s wires from our wrists and ankles, loosening the cable from our throats, reducing our dependancy, rationalising our need. I kind of think that whatever happens to us next, wherever our journey leads us after our planned year we may never fully plug ourselves back in again.

7 weeks to go

We have a tenant viewing this afternoon, so fingers firmly crossed that all falls nicely into place. Will come and update with any news as soon as I have some.

We have spent time this weekend tidying up the garden to create a good first impression of the house and clearing the cupboard under the stairs. Despite it already being cleared at least once we still found a full bin liner to throw out and another large bag ready to go to the charity shop. We also have a couple of boxes worth of stuff for ebaying. We had a brainwave that all our camping stuff could be stored in my car while we’re away for the year as that is going into a locked garage. Anything that minimises the amount of stuff we have to ask my parents to store for us is a good thing, so we are cramming stuff into our tiny loft spaces and will also fill my car.

We also weeded out some stuff from the camping gear to come with us in the van. We have some solar powered lights, various tape & tools, stuff like cushions, fleece blankets and sleeping bags, a mini cooker which runs on tiny gas bottles and has one ring. It’s tough trying to decide what does and doesn’t justify space in the van. I think we will have a box or two clearly labelled stashed at Mum & Dad’s of stuff that nearly qualifies so that if we realise along the way we should have brought it they can send it / bring it when they come to visit.

Along with my list of what happens when – stuff that gets triggered by us confirming a tenant, I also have a list of things we still need to buy: a years supply of contact lenses, a stash of toiletries, work out what our basic food rations for a week are and whether they fit in the van, waterproofs, work boots, some sort of solar charger, an internet access on the move solution. I’ve started to contact retailers / manufacturers of some of these things to see if they would be willing to loan us stuff for the year to really test and review for them. I feel a bit strange about this as it feels like I’m begging but friends assure me it is very common practise and I guess we will be giving their products a real ‘road test’. Of course all of my tentative enquiries may well return nothing anyway.

Along with more clearing of stuff from the garage and garden we also need to start using up the contents of our kitchen cupboards, fridge and freezer. Thanks to a big bill for work done to my car at the end of last month we are a bit strapped for cash this month anyway so eclectic meals R us, probably good practise for the coming year!

8 weeks to go

give or take as many weeks as it takes to find a tenant.

In order for everything to go perfectly as planned we need to have a firm tenant sorted by 20th January. Eek, that’s less than 3 weeks away. That allows both of us to hand our notice in at work and leave on the dates we planned, our Bye Then party to take place, a week in the van somewhere along the way between here and our first booked host from 7th March to fully leave one life behind before embarking on the next and everything to fall nicely into place finances wise.

Meanwhile I’m tying up lose ends on the little things, reducing mobile phone tariffs to bare minimums until contracts run out, checking notice periods on things like Sky TV, BT phoneline, internet provider and so on. My car will be put into storage while we’re gone so the insurance and tax needs to end on that. We need specialist landlord insurance for the house, permission from our mortgage company to let it out and we need to finely tune our finances for the year so that we balance between paying stuff in full in advance and keeping enough of a contingency fund to ensure we can cope if things go wrong along the way.

So we’re poised with phone numbers and addresses and websites all ready prepared for giving  notice as soon as a tenant is found, I’ve changed my car insurance to a rolling monthly arrangement and we’ve pretty much made final decisions on what is coming with us, what is going into storage and what still needs to go. I’ve done another load of ebaying and we still have some runs to the tip and some further ebaying to go. An unfortunate side effect of creating spaces in the house has been that they tend to get filled back up again so we are thinking about starting to box stuff up and allocating one room in our house to a box room from now, if only to give us that feeling of being about to move on.

My car had a very costly bill for getting through it’s MOT and having work done to it which has set us back a month in terms of getting stuff done that costs money but will hopefully be worth the sacrifce now when we come back and have a roadworthy vehicle to use or sell depending on what we do at the end of our year. This means that stockpiling contact lenses, buying waterproof boots and clothes and a solar panel for the van are all on hold for now.

It is suddenly odd that we are no longer saying ‘next year….’ when talking about our adventure, it is now ‘in 8 weeks…’ which brings it all so much closer. We are having wobbles – at the enormity of what we’re doing, at the fresh realisation of saying goodbye to things, comforts, friends, a certain calendar whilst at the same time trembling with excitement that it really is happening, that we will have such an amazingly different year in 2011 to that we had in 2010 – all the adventures, learning and new stories ahead of us poised to happen.

12 weeks to go…

All falling into place in 12 weeks we will already be installed in our first host’s tent!

Yesterday I engaged a letting agent, choosing the one I had most clicked with when I had a couple round last week to talk to them about prices, what services they offer and so on. After much discussion we’ve decided to initially go with an agent and the charges seem reasonable.

The house is already up on their website and assuming a tenant is found by the end of January everything will fall nicely into place. If we don’t find a tenant in time we will simply put back our plans until we do, if we find one who wants to move in early the plan is to move into our campervan or go and stay with my parents / friends, hand in our notice as planned and head off. There are benefits to the original plan timing falling into place but either of the other options also have potential upsides – if we let the house early we will have more cash in our contingency fund pot as we won’t have bills to pay but will still be earning, if we let the house late there is the chance of Ady getting a work bonus which we agonised over leaving too early for when we first started talking about this plan. I’d rather it just went as planned and we head off in March but what will be, will be.

The other task to look at now is giving notice in various places – phone companies, getting gas and electric meters read and paying up, Sky tv and so on. I’m also looking at Zone 3 ready to have a list of places to contact just before we head off to book for September, October and November. Zone two has been very quick to fill with five yes replies already and no one saying no yet. We are already booked right into July so another 3 or 4 yes replied would have that zone fully booked.

We need to get Willow MOTd but we have got that provisionally booked in for late Feb and will confirm that once we have a tenant lined up and a definite leaving date.

House to let, two careful owners

We’ve just had a week away with friends – a now annual tradition for early December when we hire a whole youth hostel, fill it with friends and share an early Christmas together including carolling, secret santa gift exchanges, a nativty play at a nearby farm and full Christmas dinner with all the trimming for 60 people. There are not many things we will be able to fit into our lives next year as we roam but Christmas Camp 2011 will be organised at a location we can still attend.

The week before we went we spent the evenings stripping wallpaper around the house and moving things about ready to leave it for my Dad to redecorate everything. Dad is a decorator by trade and was here twice daily for chicken sitting duties and did a fantastic job of making all the walls magnolia and the paintwork and radiators bright white. It all looks very crisp and clean – and not like our house at all! We don’t have anything left to get rid of but we do still seem to have quite a bit of stuff. There are a last few things to freecycle just before we leave, otherwise everything else is going into storage while we’re away.

Christmas decorations have gone up and the whole house could now do with a spruce up tidy before I call in the letting agents. We’re still in post-holiday recovery here with both Dragon and Star suffering a nasty cold and me ploughing through washing, writing Christmas cards and getting on with things such as getting my car MOTd so I’ve put off contacting agents until the end of the week and am planning to arrange visits on Monday or Tuesday next week with a view to giving one or more agent the go ahead to find tennants by the end of the week. A friend has also recommended a DIY website for house letting which I will look at in more detail alongside what the agents have to say / offer about their service and see how they all compare against each other in terms of security, likelihood of letting, potential price per month and so on.

We have taxed Willow the van, which we were not planning to do but decided was a good idea as it means we can use her if we want (and we still have a plan to try at least one night away in her before we head off for our year) and she is ready to go to the garage for an MOT before we go and a final checkover / a few small things we want done or fixed.

We need to make our short short list of Zone two hosts – North Wales. That is my main priority this side of Christmas, I’d like to have that more or less sorted by the end of the year so we have a clear six months of arrangements made.

So a tidy up, getting finding a tennant in progress and more lining up hosts to do – busy, busy, busy!

Operation House Rent

Way back when we first started talking about the WW plan for next year we had several stumbling blocks to get past to make it all happen: firstly we needed people to actually want us to come and WWOOF for them, secondly we needed a campervan to transport us around the UK and to live out of when hosts can’t accomdate all four of us or when we simply take some time out (it’s our intention to have the odd week off here and there), thirdly we need to rent our house out in order to pay the mortgage and give us enough of a little income each month to cover petrol costs and any other things that crop up (food, clothing, emergency supplies of wine or chocolate, that sort of thing!).

We got the first three months worth of hosts booked fairly quickly. I am in the process of drawing up the short list for Zone two and composing an email to start booking the next three months but early signs were promising so if the good people of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall are happy to have us, hopefully the lovely folk of North Wales will feel the same.

The campervan also fell into place pretty easily, sooner than expected and aside from needing a bit more work done to her and an MOT before we go Willow is ready to roll.

The house is the final hurdle. If we don’t rent it out we can’t pay the mortgage and if we can’t pay the mortgage then we can’t give up work. If we can’t give up work we can’t go. So it is pretty crucial. We have rented this house out before, five years ago for a 2.5 year period. It rented easily, had three sets of tenants in it and was a fairly straightforward operation. Timing is pretty tricky this time, no point in having it arranged too far in advance as that leave too much time for it to fall through, people are not necessarily looking for somewhere to live in 3 months time, they are looking for now and in order to make it attractive we need to remove our stamp on it and make it look more like it could be a potential tenants home. This means making everything clean, clutter-free and blank canvas-like. In short, magnolia!

So the house is all but clutter-cleared, the last few things will go this weekend. Then things which are staying will be boxed up and moved into the middle of each room and my Dad will come in with a paintbrush and a vat of emulsion and make it look fresh and ready for a new chapter in the biography of the house. I’m hoping to get two or three letting agents in to give me their idea of monthly rental prices and sell their services to me in terms of marketing, securing tenants, preparing contracts and making it a smooth and hassle free arrangement. Then one of them can start trying to get a tenant.

Ady needs to hand his notice in by the end of January to leave by the end of February to be off at our first hosts at the beginning of March. So we will have until the end of Jan to have a tenant signed up to take the house on before he hands his notice in. If we don’t have one, he won’t hand his notice in and we’ll have to put plans on hold until we do have a tenant. We do have the option of moving out of here earlier than March as we can live in the van and have several options for parking it on people’s land so we can still work in our jobs til the end of February before going off.

Every step of the way we have been so lucky so far, our own planning has paid off and things have fallen into place. I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed that the same good fortune follows us for this next big part of the master plan.