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What is a Homestead?

Kayla McVey
Latest posts by Kayla McVey (see all)

What is a homestead? There are many answers to this question and at the end of the day it’s all about what you make it. The simplest answer is a lifestyle that maximizes the ability to live as self-sufficient as possible, typically on an acreage, and pursuing the goal of independence, land and livestock stewardship, and living a healthier, natural lifestyle.  

Legally, it’s a permanent, free-standing dwelling that can qualify you for various tax-exemptions based upon your home’s equity. They vary by state from percentages to flat-dollar amounts. Look into your state’s homesteading exemption laws. Most homeowners are eligible for the exemption on their primary residence; there are special exemptions for seniors and protected demographics as well. Some states require you to file an exemption yearly whereas other states only require it once. You’re then protected from forced sales of your home, it protects your spouse and children’s rights to the home, and can also significantly reduce the amount of property taxes that are paid yearly. 


Photo by Ksenia Chernaya:

The Homestead Act vs Modern Homesteading

The Homestead Act began in 1862 during the Civil War – any U.S. citizen could claim 160 acres of land. These families were required to cultivate and improve the land. The cultivators were entitled to the property after five years with only a small registration fee due. Homesteaders could also buy the land for only $1.25 per acre after six months. Out of 500 million acres dispersed from the years 1862-1904, only around 80 million went to actual homesteaders- the rest of the land went to ranchers, miners, railroads, and other various businesses. 

The largest issue that posed with the Homestead Act was the start-up cost to maintain the land. Equipment was (and is) very expensive, along with labor, potential lack of resources, and other things needed to simply sustain yourself. The Homestead Act was also intentionally discriminatory towards people immigrating from China (they weren’t allowed to become citizens) and Native Americans. Many tribes were intentionally displaced to make room for homesteaders. The Dawes Act later granted Natives land in hopes of assimilating into homesteader culture. Women, immigrants, and Black people were also granted the right to homestead, and soldiers were eligible to apply, despite their age, after only 14 days of service. Soldiers could apply their length of service to the 5-year cultivating period to own their land. This act was repealed in 1976 in every state but Alaska. Alaska followed suit roughly a decade later. 

Modern homesteading is different in that homesteaders can apply for exemptions, but they can’t assume the land after a specified amount of time. The land has to be either bought or inherited. The great thing about homesteader exemptions that we talked about earlier is that the exemption provides a considerable amount of protection in regard to possession of the land. There are considerable differences between the two, but that’s the main one. Homesteading now is more of a way of life as opposed to the acquisition of land. 

Below is a copy of the Homesteader’s Act that was sourced from the National Archives.


Reasons to Homestead

This could be an article all of its own. Primarily, people who homestead do so to live a healthier lifestyle. Some people want to live as naturally as they can, while others live a lifestyle of preparedness. The latter is becoming increasingly popular over the last few years. People are justifiably afraid of food shortages, mass shutdowns, distrusting of the government, and want to avoid low-quality food or covered in waxes that don’t come off (if you know, you know). 

Most homesteaders I have spoken with simply want their families to have access to healthy food, process their own meats, and know where everything they consume or use comes from. Something is rewarding about putting meat and vegetables you’ve raised on your own kitchen table. Or gifting a basket of jams and bread to a neighbor that you think highly of. A lot of parents also find these things to be very valuable life lessons for their children. It’s a great way to connect with your children on a personal level and teach them things they can carry through their own lives or even pass down. 

One of the biggest reasons that families decide to homestead is due to the price effectiveness of it. The initial costs of accumulating equipment can be hefty at first, but most tools can be bought on places like Craigslist, facebook, yardsales, or even just slowly saving for new ones. Cooking from scratch is also a fantastic way to save money, disregarding the health benefits. Raising livestock is another way to cut down costs. It gives you the ability to not only know where your food is coming from but also takes the middleman (grocery stores) out and lowers the cost. The opportunity also arises to sell extra meat you don’t want or need.

      • Healthy Foods

      • Knowledge of Sustainability 

      • A hands-on lifestyle with and for their children

      • Hope for a better tomorrow

      • Affordability 

    Best Places to Homestead

    This solely depends on your goals and how much of a community you’re looking for.

    Being from Tennessee, I recognize that I come from one of the best and easiest places to homestead in the country. I’m seeing a large influx of people moving to my side of the state. I’d dare say most places in the southeast are wonderful places to homestead, especially if you’re looking for a large community. We have a lot of untapped resources that I hope to be properly maintained and cared for. Our property taxes aren’t terrible, and I’m so happy that we’re having people come here who genuinely care for the land. I will say that it is causing problems for us locals, though. It’s very hard to find affordable real estate now and many of us are being pushed out. Our places are “cheap” to outsiders for a reason. We’re not a very rich state.

    If your goals are based upon living somewhere with mountainous scenery, isolation, and a low crime rate, then I’d go to either Alaska, Idaho, or Montana. Beware of super crazy and long winters. Land here is also going to be more expensive, along with trips to town, commute times, and likely materials- assuming you don’t already have stuff on hand. This is something that Sarah expands upon often on her personal blog. It’s @cedarhillshomestead on Instagram and TikTok. You can find her on Facebook at Sarah, Cedar Hills Homestead. She has absolutely wonderful content, and I have learned so much from her.

    The Pacific Northwest has an extremely large demographic of urban homesteaders and your typical everyday homesteader, Oregon specifically. Of course, everything there is outrageously high. But you can’t beat the scenery, ease of growing, and phenomenal farmers’ markets. It’s a great place for small-scale entrepreneurship, community, and a crazy good homesteader’s exemption. 

    The last place I’ll mention is Maine. Low property taxes, all four seasons (even if winter overstays her welcome), and isolation. Isn’t that the dream? It’s a wonderful place to homestead if you enjoy a cold, hardy lifestyle. 

    This isn’t to say that you can’t make the most out of your present situation. No one has to have 100 acres of land, 30 head of cattle, a whole flock of ducks, and grow every ounce of food they eat to be a successful homesteader. Work with what you have, and the rest will fall in line. 

    How to Get Started

    We just recently released an article called 10 Baby Steps to Take as a Wannabe Homesteader, give it a read here!

    My favorite way and most hands-on way to get started homesteading is to find a handful of things you want to plant. Think about what vegetables you eat the most or even what flowers are your favorite. Go ahead and start planning now. You can look on your ag extension’s website for a unique planting calendar to your area. This will give you the opportunity to start an herbal garden or even just replace some of the stuff you’d typically buy at the grocery store.

    Another way is just slowly to start accumulating animals. (Ladies, if you slowly bring them home… he may not even notice.) Do ample research on each animal you decide to bring onto your homestead. Buying 50 chickens before a coop is built and predator-proofed isn’t going to end well for anyone, and you’re going to be in over your head in eggs, broody hens, and a lot of visits from raccoons and foxes. 

    As I always say, take it slow. Make goals for yourself and thoroughly work towards them. There are a million ways to get started. Even just buying land and prepping it before jumping into dogs, goats, horses, and who knows what else will make things so much easier than just dragging stuff home because you think they’re cute or think you have enough time. Be honest with yourself, and even if your initial stepping stone into this lifestyle is just making healthy kitchen swaps, that’s okay. 

    Best Places to Buy Seeds

    We aren’t collecting any commission off of these recommendations! We just want to help you get started!

    Our favorite places to buy seeds online are:

    Dollar Seed Co. – I’ve heard great things from close friends about ordering from here! This is where I’ll be ordering a lot this planting season.

    Botanical Interests – not a wide variety of seeds but a trustworthy source– owned by Kevin with Epic Gardening

    Snake River Seed Cooperative – hardy seeds, great for shorter growing seasons. This is who Sarah is ordering from this planting season due to living in Montana.

    MI Gardener – I’ve also read nothing but wonderful reviews about this site and plan to maybe order from here as well. 

    Another great place to start would be at your local nursery. We always recommend buying locally to support small businesses and buying seeds that are perfect for your planting zone!

    Now that we’ve answered “What is a Homestead?” you may have more questions. We have a wide variety of articles available to you, along with a public Facebook group that we would love for you to join! We regularly post recipes, how-to guides, parenting advice, and more.

    Our plans for The Homesteader’s Chronicle Facebook page is to be a valuable resource that can be easily shared and accessed. That’s where you come in! Posting questions or sharing your own homesteading journey gives the group the opportunity to grow and attract more members. We love it when our followers join in on the conversation, and it makes our days so much brighter when we see you guys get excited about things we share. Thank you for supporting us this far, and we are so excited to see what 2024 has in store for us! 

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