It surprised everyone when we did it. Maybe most of all, us. We weren’t looking to move out of state. We weren’t looking for SO MUCH land. Sure, we joked about it, but I don’t think either of us believed those discussions were serious. We never thought we would buy a farm.
In August of 2018, I was antsy about our home. I loved out home but there were things about it that weren’t working for us anymore and there were things we wanted that we know we would never get in our suburban Illinois home.
I wanted a laundry room separate from the mud room, a larger pantry, to redo the master bathroom (which was in dire need) and more space to garden. I wanted to have a place where clean laundry wasn’t next to dirty shoes. I wanted more room for food storage and to be able to organize it so I could see what we had. I wanted a larger shower than our 3 x 2 stall shower, which felt like a coffin and left me nowhere to put my leg if I wanted to shave. I wanted to be able to rotate plants each year in the garden to cut down on issues with bugs and ideally, grow most of our produce in the summer months.
My husband wanted taller ceilings on the main level, a great room and to look out the window without looking into the window of the neighbor’s behind us. He wanted to be able to have the main room feel airier than the standard ceilings allowed. He wanted a place for people to gather that felt like it had room to move. Most of all, he wanted privacy. We had moved into our home on Vineyard Lane from a house that backed up to no one and when we purchased the house we didn’t realize how irritating it would be to see the neighbor’s from our bedroom window or to be able to watch their TV from our living room.
Our reno dreams
We considered a renovation. We were going to push out the current laundry room/mud room combo to make room for separate rooms and a walk-in pantry. We were going to add hardwood flooring on the second story, redo the master bath – including pushing a wall out into the bedroom to make our shower larger. We were going to blow out the back wall of our home and add on a great room with a vaulted ceiling and wood burning fireplace.
We loved our home. We loved our neighborhood and we loved the school district. We thought with a little (Okay, a lot) of work, we could make it exactly what we wanted…inside.
Outside was still an issue. No matter what we did we weren’t going to be able to have an unobstructed view in the backyard or have more space to garden. In fact, with the addition of the great room and by pushing out the current laundry/mud room, we were really taking away space in the yard – making less room for me to garden (especially since the new mud room and laundry room would have been where my current garden was located) and bringing us even closer to the neighbors with the great room addition.
The outdoor space was the clincher. We knew it was time to find a new home.
The first one
We looked for months.
At first, I had delusions about staying in our same school district and we wanted about ½ and acre.
When we found an older home built in the 1970s we thought we could make it work. It was quirky, charming, pretty light inside, a wood burning fireplace and had the space we were looking for.
But, one of the neighbors was a lot closer than the current neighbor and most of the space was in the side, front yard. We also would have need to do a significant remodel to the property itself. There was no true master bedroom, bath or closet. There was still no great room for my husband and the kitchen needed an overhaul.
I agreed to expand our looking area.
The Geneva Stone Cottage
The next house we found was in the next town over and it’s a town that we love. It has a quaint downtown area that we would visit every chance we got. The school district there is great, and the best part was that it was on almost 1 acre of land and even though it was surrounded by 5 houses, we couldn’t see a single neighbor.
The house itself looked like a beautiful stone cottage, almost like something you might see in a fairytale with a hand-cut stone exterior and a shake shale shingle roof. It was surrounded by mature trees and was really only minutes from the downtown area that we loved.
My husband wanted it. I took some convincing. While everything on the outside was gorgeous, the inside needed some serious work. The kitchen needed to be renovated and so did the great room that was next to the garage. There was no mud room – the garage just connected to the great room – and the laundry was in the basement that had visible mold. There were also a lot of cobwebs all over the house. If the outside looked like a fairytale, the inside looked like the old attic in movies you see – worn down and in disrepair.
Still, it had its charming features. There was a brick stone entry way that was original, there was an office space for me, a full bathroom on the first floor, a true master with the closet and the bathroom attached (although no tub), hardwood floors throughout (although different hardwood) and the sunken formal living room with the stone fireplace had dreamy light.
We put in an offer on it and it was accepted. However, before we even got to the inspection, I chickened out. I just felt like it was too much. I wasn’t sure we were ready for it. Shockingly, this is very out of character for me. Usually I’m the one that loves dreaming and tacking the projects that most people would shy away from. If we had found this house a decade earlier, when we didn’t have kids, it would have been a dream come true. But now, that dream was giving me serious anxiety.
The next week I went to Vermont on a trip to visit Stonyfield’s organic dairy farms and fell in love. Everything about the small towns we passed through and the tiny homes that dotted the hills was perfection. We stayed at a small inn that barely had cell service and you could literally feel nature and sunlight all around you. The inn had brick floors like the house we let go. It also had other features that reminded me of that Geneva home and I started thinking I made the wrong decision.
It was magical and my experience with the inn, the farms and the towns led to us putting in a second offer – really the same offer – on the Geneva house. I couldn’t let that old gem pass me by – even if it did need considerable polishing.
We visited the house with our contractor again to get a rough cost on all the work we wanted to do, which again consisted of blowing out the back wall of the home to make rooms larger and give me a kitchen I could really use.
Then we had the inspection…
There were bugs on every wall in addition to those old cobwebs, there was moisture in all parts of the garage, evidence of infestation throughout the whole house by mice and bugs, the roof needed to be replaced, the great room literally had holes in the corners and by the rafters, some of the knobs to the showers and sinks in the upstairs bathrooms didn’t work, the whole basement needed to be taken apart to put in proper drainage, there were no gutters on the house causing serious issues with resting water, the radon test came back at 27.4 (it’s supposed to be below .4) and the final straw for me was the dead mouse in the basement.
I was done. We would have had to do probably $70,000 worth of work to get the house to a point where we felt it was livable for our children and that did not include any of the renovation we wanted to do.
We started searching again and Kevin’s mom suggested that we build since we were having such a hard time finding exactly what we wanted.
The association home
We started looking at a developing subdivision near us that was in the same school district (although not the same elementary school) and were looking at purchasing two adjacent lots so we could have the space we wanted, which would have been just under a half acre.
But this property was in an association and the association had a lot of rules. Before we even began negotiating, we submitted their board an outline for a fence for the property. Their fences had to be rod iron and the had specific rules about where the fences could be placed.
They came back to us with a different version of the plan and told us we would need to professionally landscape along the outside of the fence that was near the road, so it looked appropriate for the community.
Full disclosure, the fence along would have cost us over $10,000 and landscaping one side of it along the road would have probably cost us another $10,000.
In the association we could also not have chickens, which became something I really wanted to do somewhere in this whole adventure.
We sat on it, not really sure what to do.
In the middle of it all we found a farmhouse in that little town we loved that was on 6 acres. We joked about opening a pumpkin farm, a farm stand and Kevin having a small brewery. We joked about his idea to become “Crop Daddy” and grow hops and wheat for beer. We took it a step further and asked out agent (who was ready to kill us) if we could see the property. He didn’t understand the appeal of a 1,500 square-foot house that would likely need significant renovation, but it didn’t end up mattering anyways. That house was under contract.
A little dismayed we went back to the association properties, we could make the final decision when I came back from my trip with the Georgia Peanut Commission.
Why did we have to make some decision? Because I was antsy. For better or for worse, when I get like that there is no stopping me from making some sort of change. But I guess we were both antsy to even be considering these changes in the first place.
If we were going to renovate our house (which was still very much on the table) I wanted to get started ASAP. If we were going to move, I wanted to get the house on the market before holiday season started. We also knew the time to move was now before our daughter got any further along in school and before our son started school in the district.
Being on a farm makes you want a farm
I was sitting on a bus in the middle of a peanut farm when my husband sent me a house. This had become a normal activity for us. We had been sending each other homes and pieces of property back and forth so I knew we weren’t sold on the double lot property in the association.
As I looked at the house with a cloud of dust swirling around me from the tractor harvesting the peanuts, something hit me and this house felt like home. It was a fully renovated 1900 farmhouse with seven acres of land, a pole barn and chickens.
“Call the realtor and put in an offer on it,” I texted Kevin back. “I’m serious.”
“We can’t buy it without seeing it,” he said. “Will Laura go look for us?”
The house was in Grand Rapids, Michigan – not only another town but another state.
I was familiar with Grand Rapids because I went to school at Grand Valley State University for my undergraduate degree in a sleepy little town called Allendale, which was right outside the city. I had a network for friends there and in fact, my daughter had a friend there too and one of my cousins was there.
In the past we had talked about other places we would be willing to move to, and I told Kevin that while I love the East Coast, I would probably never move somewhere where I didn’t know anyone. I’m not at the point in my life where I feel the need to completely start over. Having a support system is invaluable to me, especially if my family wasn’t going to be nearby.
Grand Rapids fit the bill.
The farmhouse that dreams are made of
My friend graciously went to visit the house for us and confirmed that it was beautiful. As soon as I arrived home from Georgia we made the road trip from Aurora, Illinois to Grand Rapids to see it for ourselves.
This was out of character for us, especially for my husband who isn’t a person that loves change. But as soon as we were in the house, it felt right to us. It felt like our’s.
The light on the main floor was beautiful with large windows that looked back to the property. The kitchen we humongous and it was combined with a large family room with a wood burning fireplace and handmade dining table.
There was a mud room, a space for my office on the first floor, a living room with Southern exposure, and full basement (unfinished) with more large windows and plenty of light.
Upstairs there were five bedrooms and although no true master bed/bath/closet combo the bathroom up there that would function as the master had a vintage soaker tub and a large shower. The kid’s bedrooms each had a lofted area that made them feel special and their own bathroom with a double sink.
The property was also amazing. Although larger than we wanted, we couldn’t look out back and see the neighbor’s house. We could however, see the neighbor’s horses and the kids went crazy for them. They seemed to like us too since they followed us while we walked the property.
There was plenty of room for me to garden, for Kevin to grow whatever he wanted. He could brew beer in the barn, I could have chickens – and maybe one day a horse too (after we learn to care for it properly).
We went to see a few other properties while we were there, but really we came for the farmhouse.
We had a big decision to make. We both wanted to take the leap but what would our families say? We hadn’t told them we were going to Michigan to look at a house, and my husband’s job is in Chicago.
We weighed the pros and cons
- We could build a similar house on land (We had actually found comparable-sized land in another town back at home)
- Doing so would cost us at least $200,000 more than buying the Grand Rapids house.
- Illinois property taxes are out of control. On a 7-acre property with a house similar to this our property taxes would be probably close to $20,000 per year.
- All of our family lives here.
- The house is already done and costs less than it would cost us in Illinois.
- Property taxes were A LOT lower than in in Illinois. On the farmhouse they were 1/3 of what they cost us on our Vineyard Lane home.
- No association on this house so we are only bound by city rules.
- Chickens could be a reality.
- The area is prettier. Grand Rapids is hilly with lots of trees and it’s only 30 minutes from the lake beach.
- A support system of friends already existed.
- My husband’s company represents another company right around the corner from the house. He could possibly transfer?
- It’s only a 3-hour drive from Illinois.
We were weighing all these things in our heads, but in reality, we put in an offer without really thinking it through too much. They accepted on our 9-year anniversary and from there, life turned upside-down.
At the end of the day, you could look at our list and think there are plenty of reasons why we made the move. But truly, it was more about feeling versus fact – something that I generally think is a foreign concept to my husband.
There was some sort of jolt inside both of us that allowed us to say goodbye to our comfortable suburban life and make a change that most people balk at. When we started our search, we never imagined we would end up here – on a farm, in another state with a house more than 100 years old and on a piece of property we honestly have no idea how to manage.
We never considered leaving the Chicago suburbs. We were suburbanites through and through. Now we’re suburbanites that own a farm and we have a lot of learning to do.
I’m not sure what the next year will bring. I know there will be plenty of challenges. There are some things on the house we would like to change (and no true master bedroom/closet/bath combo being one of them) and there is a lot of work to do outside.
No matter what happens though – good or bad – it will be a learning experience and the unplanned, unexpected adventure of our lifetimes.
Hopefully you’ll follow along and see how we do. We can use all the advice you can give. 🙂
Find out more about our farmhouse projects here. See what we’re planning for the outside here!