Cheap rustic getaways, U.S. Forest Service’s 100-year old version of a timeshare

by Placerville Newswire / Feb 04, 2016 / comments

[Jay Tripathi's U.S. Forest Service cabin in Lake Tahoe, Calif.]

Have you ever dreamed of living in a little cabin in the woods? About 100 years ago, Uncle Sam knew you would.

The U.S. Forest Service, as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, runs something called the Recreational Residence Program, which last year celebrated its centennial. It’s a supply of mostly-small rural cabins mainly out west that were built at the beginning of the 20th century. Congress passed an act in 1915 that encouraged the agency to use its vast tracts of forest to promote outdoor living and inexpensive vacationing .

After the act by Congress, the Forest Service surveyed the lands it owned and then offered plots, often near mountain streams and lakes, that were advertised in local newspapers for between $10 and $25 each, ($235 to $585 in 2016 dollars), for cabin building, according to the National Forest Homeowners (NFH) association, a Sisters, Ore.-based organization of about 4,000 cabin owners who participate in the program.

Most cabins built under the U.S. Forest Service program weren’t anything fancy, and some didn’t even have indoor plumbing, but if you can actually locate one — and they’re hard to find on most realtor’s listing services as only about 400 go on the market every year — you’ll have an authentic part of American trailblazing history.

“We talk about all the things government gets wrong, well, this is one thing that the government got right,” said Jay Tripathi, a 62-year-old landscaper from Healdsburg, Calif., who’s owned a 900 square foot two-bedroom cabin on Forest Service land in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. since 2001 and is the president of the cabin owners association. “(The program) really goes back to our pioneering, frontier spirits,” he said.

About half (approximately 6,000) of the Forest Service’s Recreational Residence cabins exist in California, and others are located mostly in Oregon and Washington, Tripathi said, spread out over about 100 national forest sites. Still, many cabins are located across the country, including Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin. Minnesota, even Puerto Rico and Alaska, Tripathi said.

If you’ve never heard about this, well, that’s by design. In 1969, the Forest Service, as part of conservation efforts, stopped promoting the program and has been keeping a lid on the rebuilding of cabins destroyed by fires or avalanches, so the number on federal land has dwindled to about 14,300. Most are isolated and hard to reach, even in summertime.

“This is not for the foolhardy,” said Tripathi. “This is on the fringes of civilization.”

By 1960, at the peak of the program, about 20,000 cabins had been built nationwide. The first cabins built at the turn of the century were presumed to come with 99-year leases, but in 1969, in order to encourage turnover, the Forest Service, which is under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began issuing 20-year use permits, with many being reissued between 2005 and 2009, Tripathi said.

Tripathi reapplied for his permit in 2009 and it was renewed so he won’t have to reapply again until 2028. He says that getting a renewal is fairly easy, unless the Forest Service needs to use the land for something else, which is rare, and then it typically offers a plot of land where the cabin can be rebuilt.

Tripathi didn’t know about the program until he and a friend stumbled upon a tract of cabins in Lake Tahoe and one had a “for-sale” sign on a bulletin board. They bought it on the spot from the owner with cash for $190,000 . “Most realtors don’t really even know about the program,” he said. “If you really want one, you have to do a bit of sleuthing. Sometimes you find one just by word of mouth.”

Tripathi also recommends asking the local U.S. Forest Service office in the area if they know of cabins for sale.

Because some cabins don’t even have running water or electricity, it’s hard to even get a mortgage, (see here if you do plan on mortgaging a rustic vacation home) so many of the deals are all cash. And even if you buy the cabin, Uncle Sam still owns the land, and the government charges you an annual fee on top of whatever you paid for the cabin, Tripathi said.

The costs of a Forest Service cabin are typically 5% of the appraised value of the lot, with some fees as little as $650 a year, to as much as $5,650 a year, and can rise each year, but no more than the cost of inflation. (Spiking valuations in the 1990s however forced Congress to pass a measure limiting the rise in assessments.)

In California, even though the Forest Service owns the land, owners like Tripathi also pay property taxes. ”We don’t own the land but we’re treated as if we do,” he said.

There’s also a transfer fee of $1,200 if the ownership of the cabin changes hands or gets handed down to heirs , the NFH said. All told, the government collects about $33 million a year from cabin owners, according to the NFH .

Once you do get the keys, Tripathi said, your rights are even more limited than a renter, let alone an owner of property. You can’t live in the cabin year-round, according to Forest Service rules. Most are uninhabitable in the winter, Tripathi says, unless you ski, snowmobile or snowshoe in, and you can’t rent it out, except for a two-week period which must be approved by the Forest Service.

And because many cabins are on the National Register of Historic Places there are also limitations on what you can and can’t do with the property, including exterior paint schemes, and replacing broken or worn elements exactly the same as it was originally built.

As you’re in a federal park, your property rights extend only as far the interior walls of the cabin, so don’t be surprised to see hikers picnicking on your front lawn, or even pitching a tent in your backyard. Also, you can’t park your RV or boat near the cabin, according to the Forest Service.

Still, owners of the cabins — like Tripathi, who have brought their children and grandchildren back to the mountains year after year to hike and paddle boat and just enjoy the high Sierras — say they’re part of a unique community that’s created lifelong friendships and family traditions, as well as a connection to the land and to the agency that maintains the land. “We have a rare public/private partnership here on a family level,” he said. “This is a historical cultural program that America should have more of.”