LINCOLN — Californian Therese Ebert dreamed of being a modern-day homesteader, pulling up stakes from her rented room in Poway, Calif., to build a home of her own in Beatrice, Neb.
Chasing the promise of free land, she packed her two dogs and her belongings into the back of an SUV and set off for Nebraska. She had signed up last January for a free lot in Beatrice on condition that she build a home on the property within five years.
"Everything I owned was with me," Ebert said. "The car was packed, I wasn't looking back."
But, alas, homesteading is no easier in the 21st century than it was in the 19th, when Daniel Freeman became the first person to claim land under the Homestead Act of 1862. The Freeman plot near Beatrice now is the site of the Homestead National Monument.
This week, Ebert returned her land deed to the City of Beatrice after concluding that she couldn't afford to build a house on her homestead.
Beatrice is one of several communities in Nebraska and Iowa with new homestead programs offering free lots to people willing to move there and build a home. Examples include Marne, Iowa, Central City, Neb., and Curtis, Neb., which give lots to people in return for building homes. Louisville, Neb., offers a cash incentive to buy a vacant lot and build within city limits.
The value of the lots ranges from several thousand dollars in Marne to $18,000 or more in Central City. Although the value represents a fraction of the cost of building a home, banks regard it as an additional down payment that could make it easier to qualify for a mortgage.
The programs have generated inquiries from across the nation but haven't resulted in a land rush in most of the towns.
Central City, population 2,900, has had the most success, with at least eight new homes built under its free lot program. It has only two free lots left, said Economic Development Director Miles McGinnis.
Most of the lots have gone to local people or those who grew up in Central City and want to move back. Most of the homes were built in a new subdivision on the east side of Central City, although the city also is using the programs to "in-fill" vacant lots in older neighborhoods.
Other towns reported slower results.
The problem? Even with free lots or incentive payments, it's still cost-prohibitive for many people to build a new home. It doesn't help that most small communities have few job opportunities and that home lending remains tight.
"It sounds free, but it's not free," said Bill Mollring of Imperial, Neb., who plans to build a home this year on a homestead lot in Beatrice.
An Imperial native, Mollring lived 35 years in California and Hawaii before returning to Imperial a few years ago. He said the Beatrice program appealed to him because his own grandparents homesteaded in Gosper County in the 1860s.
Curtis City Administrator Doug Schultz said he sends out a packet almost every day to someone interested in his town's free lots — at least 500 have gone out. But so far only three new homes have been built in the town of 940.
"It's not as wildly successful as we'd hoped," he said, "but I'd still call it a success. It's gotten people into town, looking around. It's generated more interest in Curtis."
"Housing has suffered everywhere — and when gas prices go up, people say you can't afford to live all the way out there," said Louisville City Manager Dan Henry.
Louisville is about 27 miles from downtown Omaha. Henry remains convinced that the lots in his town would be snapped up if he could just get people to take a look.
Beatrice, population 12,500, hasn't yet had anyone build on the three lots it offered for free. Two of the lots have been claimed, however, and City Attorney Tobias Tempelmeyer says another potential homesteader has inquired about the lot Ebert returned.
Two new homes have been built in Marne, according to former Mayor Barb Fischer. The young couple who built one of the homes has had a baby, resulting in a veritable population explosion for the town of about 140 people that is about 55 miles east of Council Bluffs.
Louisville, with only one home built under its program offering a $4,000 incentive payment, recently changed its incentive program, increasing its value. It now offers $5 per square foot of livable floor space, plus reimbursement for water and sewer hookups — the equivalent of more than $9,000 for a 1,600-square-foot house in the town of 1,100.
Schultz said he has been staggered by the number of inquiries he's gotten since stories about Curtis' program hit the Internet.
"We were being inundated with phone calls," he said. "You could hear the despair of people wanting out of where they were at in Louisiana, Florida, California, Mississippi, New York. . But the reality sinks in they'd have to build a new house and it would take a lot of money."
Ebert, 60, had been forced to retire early from her nursing career because of debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome. She was prepared to take on a $100,000 construction loan to put up a modular home on her lot. After she arrived in Beatrice, however, an engineer told her that she would need several feet of fill dirt to comply with federal regulations for building on the lot, which is in a "flood fringe" area.
Though she found Beatrice appealing, Ebert decided she could not afford the additional expense, which could have run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
"I have to live on my retirement," she said. "I thought about renting a place and staying in Beatrice while I did the fill, but it would have been economic suicide."
Tempelmeyer acknowledged that the property is in the 100-year flood plain and that some fill dirt or an alternative construction method would be required so that a new home's lowest living level would be one foot above flood stage. He said that even though the requirement does add to the cost, it shouldn't put a home out of financial reach.
Ebert said she has no hard feelings. Tempelmeyer provided her a great deal of assistance, she said.
"With five feet of fill dirt, I would have made Beatrice my home," she said. "Sometimes I can't even believe I drove there and came back. I will always have a soft spot for Beatrice."
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