Homesteading in Pennsylvania

Homesteading in Pennsylvania: Here’s What You Need to Know

Nadia Tamara Homesteading, Laws


Homesteading in Pennsylvania: Here’s What You Need to Know

Pennsylvania is a state rich in history- most importantly it's the state where the United States was declared a nation.

The Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia in 1776. From that moment up until 1800, Pennsylvania held the seat of the US Federal government.

Pennsylvania is known to be a state of many firsts. Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell, saw the first presidential mansion, the first version of the US flag, the first daily newspaper, the first zoo, and the first computer. Pittsburgh saw the first baseball stadium, the first automobile station, and the first commercial radio broadcast.

Pennsylvania is also known for its incredible farming industry. The golden age of farming in PA was from 1790 through 1840, however, the agricultural sector has continued to increase since then. Many products are produced in the Keystone State, such as mushrooms, corn, wheat, dairy products, beef, and hogs.

If you're interested in homesteading in Pennsylvania, you've come to the right place. I believe that the resources provided in this post will help guide you on your decision of whether or not to build your homestead in this beautiful state.


What is Pennsylvania's homesteading law?


Pennsylvania homesteading law grants a small amount of home equity protection for those who file for bankruptcy. For property owned jointly by a married couple, the law only grants a $300 exemption.

In this case, it might be better to opt for the Federal bankruptcy exemption which grants homeowners a larger sum of money.


Does Pennsylvania have a homesteading exemption?


Pennsylvania’s Homestead Property Exclusion Program Act can be found in the Pennsylvania Statutes Title 53 Pa.C.S.A. Municipalities Generally § 8583.

The homestead exclusion is a method to reduce real estate taxes for homeowners. It applies to the primary dwelling place of the property owner. For those who plan to do farming on their property, there’s a farmstead exclusion.

Penn State did a great job of explaining what each of these exclusions is and how they can benefit homeowners. Learn about the homestead and farmstead exclusions here.

Before your property can be considered a homestead or farmstead, you must file an application and have it approved by the chief assessor of the county assessment office.


PROS and CONS of Homesteading in Pennsylvania


Benefits


  • Water rights benefit landowners.

  • There are no laws restricting the collection of stormwater, in fact, it’s encouraged.

  • Pennsylvania experiences all four distinct seasons.

  • The growing season is long in several parts of the state.

  • Great farmland throughout the state, especially in the southeastern portion.

  • There are some fun (and educational) holidays that are celebrated in PA. For instance, there are Civil War re-enactment events that happen throughout the year.

Disadvantages


  • The homesteading law grants a very small financial protection for homesteaders.

  • The land is expensive when compared to some of the other farming states, however, land tends to be cheaper in the Northern region.

  • Expect high property taxes in many parts of the state.

  • Northern Pennsylvania receives colder temperatures and more snowfall. Expect shorter growing seasons.

  • Pennsylvania experiences plenty of natural disasters.

Homesteading in Pennsylvania

Is Pennsylvania the right state for you?


Even though there are other states whose laws are more beneficial to homesteaders, a large part of the PA population is involved in the agricultural sector. You can say that there are many like-minded homesteaders in this state, which might be one of the reasons why the population has grown so much over the last century.


Make it or Break it requirements


1. Weather


In the state of Pennsylvania, you can expect to experience all four seasons. Summers are hot (and somewhat humid) and winters are very cold. The northern part of the state receives colder temperatures due to its proximity to Lake Eerie, especially during the winter season.

Because of the diverse terrain throughout Pennsylvania, each city varies greatly in terms of its climate. The US Climate Data website offers city-specific information on the climate of each place, including the average monthly high and low temperatures.

Sunshine is a very important key factor for homesteaders. Most plants need sunshine to grow, therefore you better be sure there’s enough sunlight available year-round wherever it is that you decide to establish your roots (don’t mind the pun).

July is the month with the most sunshine, at an average of 8 to 9 hours per day. In the winter you can expect about 2.4 hours in the west and 4.4 hours in the east. This means that during the winter season, the crops that will thrive are the ones that require shade or partial sun/ shade. Here you can see a graph of the average daylight and sunshine hours in Pittsburgh and compare it to the graph of Philadelphia.

For the most part, Pennsylvania has farm-friendly weather but you can also expect the winters to be harsh.

The Weather Atlas gives you a good idea of what weather you can expect during each month.


2. Annual Average Precipitation



3. Natural Disasters


Just like sunshine, water is vital for a homestead to thrive.

Pennsylvania receives plenty of water each year. These examples are averages of select cities in PA.

  • The northwestern region receives approximately 45 inches of rainfall and 54 inches of snowfall per year.

  • The southwestern region receives about 43 inches or rainfall and 25 inches of snowfall per year.

  • The northeastern region receives around 45 inches of rainfall and 83 inches of snowfall per year.

  • The southeastern region receives about 43 inches of rainfall and 18 inches of snowfall per year.

Although these are general estimates, you can see that the northern region gets hit pretty severely with snow storms during the winter.

If you’re interested in the precipitation of a particular city, check out the US Climate Data website. They break down the rain and snowfall averages for every city on a monthly and yearly basis.

The Northern part of Pennsylvania (specifically the Northwest) is located in what is popularly known as the "snow belt”. This means that harsh winters are expected in this part of the state.

Several of Pennsylvania’s major natural disasters are water-related.

  • Tropical depressions, storms, and hurricanes: Pennsylvania has experienced the residual storms of hurricanes. These rainstorms vary in category from tropical depressions to almost hurricane-level. These storms have caused many deaths and billions of dollars worth of damage. Hurricanes typically affect the eastern part of the state and can be expected from early June up until the beginning of November.

  • Snowstorms and blizzards: Snowstorms are common throughout the Northern part of Pennsylvania, specifically the Northwestern part that borders Lake Eerie. Lake-effect snow is when a lot of snow falls (usually during a short period of time) because of the cold air that is blowing past a warmer lake. This is typical during the fall because once the lake freezes over, the lake-effect snow comes to an end. February is one of the coldest months in PA with common occurrences of blizzards.

  • Flooding: Flooding can come as a result of heavy rains, tropical storms, snow and ice melt, and dam failure. Flooding is somewhat common in Pennsylvania so that’s something to consider when planning a homestead garden.

  • Earthquakes: Earthquakes are unpredictable yet somewhat common in Pennsylvania. It shouldn’t worry you too much, however, since they’re mostly of low magnitude. The strongest earthquake recorded in Pennsylvania had a magnitude of 5.2. You can track Pennsylvania’s latest earthquake statistics here.

  • Tornadoes: Pennsylvania has a history of violent tornadoes. The state averages 17 tornadoes per year, however, some years are worse than others. Halfway through 2019, Pennsylvania has already experienced 33 tornadoes.

The Weather Atlas provides month-specific information on the types of natural disasters and climate that you can expect throughout the year.

The National Weather Service provides a warning map with hazards, watches, and weather alerts in real-time.

You can also find a severe weather climatology map and statistics of Pennsylvania’s most common natural disasters here.


4. Terrain


Pennsylvania has a lot of mountains, hills, valleys, and forests. The topography is not flat by any means, however, there are lowlands in the southeastern region. A lot of the land throughout Pennsylvania is well-suited for farming.

This topographic map gives you a clear idea of the elevations in each part of the state. 


5. Soil Quality


Pennsylvania is known to have rich and fertile soil, which is why there are large farming communities throughout many parts of the state. The Great Appalachian valley is said to have excellent farmland.

Although I’m not an expert on what defines top quality soil, I found this resource by the US Department of Agriculture which provides some information on the soil health of Pennsylvania. Find out more about Pennsylvania’s soil health here. For an introduction to the soils found in PA, you can look here. 

This worksheet from Penn State University allows homesteaders and farmers to assess the quality of their soil.


6. Growing Season


Pennsylvania has an average growing season of 130 days in the uplands and 180 to 210 days in the lowlands.

You can get the most out of your garden if you plant your fruits and vegetables during the appropriate months, of course. The National Gardening Association has a gardening guide with plant strategies and schedules with the best panting dates based on each city. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has one too.

Another cool resource is Dave’s Garden. This website tool gives you an estimate of when you should expect the first and last freeze in each city. That tool is helpful if you’re looking into different regions that have varying climates and want to make a comparison of growing seasons.


7. Access To Water


Pennsylvania’s Constitution states that “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people.” This can be found in Article 1, Section 27: Natural Resources and the Public Estate.

Pennsylvania uses two legal systems to govern the use of water throughout the land. In the western part of the state, prior appropriation doctrine is used. Under this doctrine, people own rights to water in pre-established quantities. They can divert water into their properties for different uses (irrigation and such). These rights can be bought or exchanged. In the eastern portion of the state, riparian law is what governs the water rights. Under riparian law, landowners who have surface water flowing through their property, be it a stream, river or melting snow, have the right to use (not own) said water for domestic purposes, but in reasonable amounts. There is no set amount to how much can be used, but the water is divided evenly amongst all the property owners in the east.

Landowners may also use as much groundwater as they please, so long that it’s pumped within the boundaries of their property. You can visit Pennsylvania State University’s page for detailed information on the state’s surface and groundwater rights for homeowners.

A lot of people use the groundwater as their main water supply, so a private well would be of great benefit. Drilling a well or having one on the property is an option homesteaders should take advantage of, but it’s definitely something that needs to be planned and budgeted for.

There are no laws restricting the harvesting of rainwater in PA. Many municipalities encourage it as a way to help the city manage stormwater issues and reduce runoff and pollution. Just in case there are any city restrictions, consult the specific municipality, but rest assured that it is legal on a state level. Lancaster County, for example, encourages their residents to use rain barrels as a means to help with stormwater management.


8. Possible Restrictions / Legal Considerations


  • Laws on the ownership of livestock and other animals:
    Pennsylvania’s law on domestic animals can be found here. All dogs must be licensed if older than 3 months of age. The regulations on the ownership of livestock and other animals may be a local zoning issue, rather than a state law. Contact the county’s agricultural extension in the region you’re considering to homestead in. They should be able to provide you with accurate information for that area.

  • Zoning laws:
    Zoning ordinances are common in Pennsylvania and are usually implemented at the municipal level. According to the PA Department of Community and Economic Development, 68% of all municipalities in PA had zoning regulations as of 2015. Larger municipalities are more likely to have zoning laws (roughly 98%), whereas smaller municipalities are less likely (about 69%).

    This Land Use Planning Guide can help you better understand zoning laws in PA, and which regions are less likely to have ordinances.

  • HOAs and CC&Rs:
    Homeowners Associations establish Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions in their neighborhoods. Make sure that the property you purchase is not under HOA regulations (unless you don’t mind the extra fees). Failure to pay HOA fees can result in your home going into foreclosure.

  • Reservation of Rights:
    Before buying property, be aware of any Reservation of Rights in a deed.

  • Living in an RV / tent:
    Look into the local zoning laws before you decide to move into your RV while you’re building your dream home. Regulations may vary from county to county. Call your county office and they will tell you whether or not it’s legal to temporarily live in an RV or tent.

9. Building Codes


Pennsylvania has semi-strict building codes. Depending on the vision you have for your dream homestead, these codes may interfere with your plans, or not. You can find Pennsylvania’s Residential Code right here.

For all other PA building codes, look here.


10. Tax Considerations


Pennsylvania is ranked as the 13th highest state in terms of the median property tax rate. One of the major complaints that I came across throughout my research is the outrageous rate of property taxes in many parts of the state. This website gives you an estimate of property taxes as they vary by county.

The state sales tax is 6% in PA but the average after local surtaxes is 6.34%. Find more information about Pennsylvania’s Sales Taxes here.

This page has an income tax calculator to give you an idea of how much you would be paying in taxes based on your income, marital status, and the number of dependents you have.

Property tax is imposed by the local government of each county. To see if you qualify for any property tax exemptions (other than the Homestead Exclusion), you’ll want to contact your local assessor’s office.

If you don’t feel like the value of your home was assessed properly, you can challenge the tax assessment.

Generally speaking, you can expect the taxes to be higher near any of the larger cities in PA.


11. Distance To Town


Although Pennsylvania is known for its larger cities, like Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Pittsburgh, there are some towns that might be remote enough for those who want to establish their homesteads on the countryside but not too far away from society.

Being relatively close to town is beneficial for building a sense of community and having shops and hospitals nearby. I recommend that you look at prospective cities through Google Earth and Google Maps. This will give you an idea of what’s available near each town before making a trip to visit. Although the maps may be slightly inaccurate, it’ll be a great resource to start with.

If you’re far from the heart of town, you’ll have to think of transportation options (a backup to your car) especially during the winter when the roads might be impassable. You will need a 4WD vehicle in the winter, especially in the North.


12. Internet Access


Internet access is very important for those who work remotely, have their kids enrolled in an online school, and simply to stay connected with friends and family.

Pennsylvania is the 12th most connected US state. At least 95% of the population have access to wired broadband. You can find detailed information on internet coverage per city right here.


13. Population Density


Pennsylvania has a population of over 12 million people. In 2019, it was ranked as the 5th most populous US state and the 9th most densely populated state with a growth rate of 0.05%.

To see a complete review and statistics on the population of Pennsylvania, click here.


14. Job Opportunities


There are many job opportunities available throughout Pennsylvania. The data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show a steady decrease in the unemployment rate since March 2010. In June 2019, the unemployment rate was 3.8%.

If your plan is to work in order to maintain your homestead, it’s recommended that you secure employment prior to moving to a new place.


15. Community


Starting a homestead is a challenge on its own. Doing so alongside a community of like-minded homesteading individuals is important, especially when moving to a new town.

Pennsylvania is known to be a farming state, so finding people who are similarly interested in homesteading and permaculture won't be too much of a challenge.

Prior to establishing your homestead in an unknown town, however, you should travel there to meet the locals. Be open-minded and ask lots of questions. The locals will give you a better feel for the town than you would get by reading some blogs online.

Building rapport with the locals is vital. Not fitting in with your community or neighbors makes a big difference when establishing your homesteading roots in a new place. 


16. Raising A Family


Pennsylvania is a family-friendly state. This site features the top 25 places for raising a family in PA based on a rating of the school system, crime, safety, and housing.


17. Vaccination Regulations


Without getting into the politics of vaccinations, I believe some homesteaders want the freedom to choose whether or not to vaccinate their children. Pennsylvania is lenient when it comes to vaccines. A child can be exempt due to medical, religious, and philosophical reasons.

You can read more about Pennsylvania’s vaccine requirements, laws, and exemptions on the National Vaccine Information Center’s website.


18. Homeschooling Regulations


Pennsylvania has strict homeschooling laws. To learn about your homeschooling rights and how to start, the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSDLA)’s website has great information.

Unschooling is legal in Pennsylvania, but just like homeschooling, the laws are pretty strict. Still, many families successfully do it, but you have to know how.

If you’re considering homeschooling or unschooling your children, this guide is a great resource!

An alternative to homeschooling is Connections Academy which allows children in grades K-12 to enroll in public school online for free.


19. Foraging Opportunities


The regulations of foraging within State Parks is the following: "Gathering edible fruits, nuts, berries, and fungi, in reasonable amounts, for one's own personal or family consumption. This permission does not apply to wild plants listed in Chapter 45 (relating to conservation of Pennsylvania native wild plants) as threatened, endangered, rare or vulnerable."

Falling Fruit is a cool website that shows you other places within Pennsylvania where others have found and foraged wild plants.

If you’re trying to identify a plant, I recommend checking out a plant identifier app like iNaturalist or Picture This. Never touch or eat a plant that you haven’t positively identified as being edible, especially mushrooms.

Foraging is an amazing educational experience for the entire family and it cuts down on the cost of buying groceries. Everyone should learn the basics of plant identification, harvesting, and preserving for future use. Homesteaders should consider growing wild edible plants at home that are native to the area.


20. Hunting / Fishing Laws


Did you know? Pennsylvania is the state with the highest number of licensed hunters.

Residents and non-residents of Pennsylvania are allowed to hunt if they possess a valid license. Landowners are allowed to hunt within the boundaries of their property without a permit.

This is important: It’s prohibited to hunt wildlife on Sundays, except coyotes, crows, and foxes.

The Game Commission App has interactive maps to make your hunting experience easier and enjoyable. This is another interactive map by the Pennsylvania Game Commission as well as a map showing you all the State game lands which give you the option to personalize your own map.

This Hunting Calendar provides you with an easy reference to the hunting and trapping seasons in PA.

For more information on purchasing a hunting license or permit here.

Everyone is required to obtain a fishing license as well. You can find information on the license fees and where to purchase them right here.

If you have questions about the laws on off-road vehicles and ATV regulations, you can get answers here.


21. Gun Laws


Pennsylvania’s gun laws can be found in the PA Consolidated Statutes, Title 18, Chapter 61.

A valid license is required to carry a firearm in a vehicle or in a concealed manner. Any law-abiding citizen over the age of 21 can obtain a concealed carry permit. The law doesn’t regulate the open carry of a firearm. No permit is required when carrying a firearm in your home.

For the types of licenses available in PA, look here.

For information on obtaining a license, visit the Pennsylvania Firearms Owners Association website.

A license to carry a firearm is not the same as the license to buy one. When purchasing a firearm, a background check must be conducted.

This website provides all the details with regard to Pennsylvania’s gun laws.


22. Crime Rate


According to City Rating, the property and violent crime rates in Pennsylvania have declined in the last few years.

The following links are some resources you can look into when determining which are the safest places to live in PA.

This website analyzes different cities in terms of crime trends, determining which are Pennsylvania’s top 25 safest cities.

The Neighborhood Scout’s website is a resource that goes even more in-depth. It breaks down the entire state by cities, crime rates, and demographics.


Which area of Pennsylvania is best for homesteading?


On most discussion boards, there seems to be a general agreement that the Southeastern part of Pennsylvania is the best for homesteading, specifically because of the climate and soil quality.

Being the most popular region, however, you can expect the taxes and real estate to be a bit more expensive than the rest of Pennsylvania.


Homesteading in Pennsylvania

Western Pennsylvania


PROS:

  • The land tends to be cheaper than the rest of the state, particularly in the Northwestern region.

  • The people are said to be friendly and welcoming.

  • You can find land in the countryside that isn’t too far from the city. It’s basically the best of both worlds.

  • The hunting and fishing are great, especially near Lake Erie.

  • There are a lot of good schools and universities in the west.

  • There’s a family that homesteads in Western PA and up until 2017 they posted about their daily activities around the home and farm. Reading through some of their posts gives you a very good idea of what you can expect when starting your own homestead.

CONS:

  • The weather is much colder than the rest of Pennsylvania. The Northwest corner gets a lot of lake effect snow because of its proximity to Lake Erie.

  • The West tends to be more cloudy than the Eastern part of the state.

  • Jobs may be more scarce than in the Eastern region.

POPULAR AREAS:

  • Pittsburgh: There are large parcels of land in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, yet close enough to the city to where you can find a job there. The countryside should be a bit cheaper in terms of land, as well as the cost of living and taxes. Hunting is also very popular and important for the locals of that area.

  • Mercer and Crawford County: If you’re looking for cheap land, try looking there.

  • Somerset County: There are good hospitals nearby. The taxes are cheaper. There are few or no zoning rules, and it’s in the mountains so snow is expected during the winter. Summers are mild. Toiling the land might be a challenge because it’s a bit more rugged.

  • Centre County: You can find more job opportunities near the State College area. They have a good medical system. It’s a beautiful area with fertile farmland, making it a great place to live. The taxes, land, and cost of living are said to be cheaper but prices increase the closer you get to Penn State.

Eastern Pennsylvania


PROS:

  • The Northeastern part of PA has lower taxes than the Southeast and also boasts a great climate for farming. There’s plenty of rain, sunshine, and it doesn't get too hot during the summer.

  • The Southeastern region is said to be the best in terms of soil quality and weather, but you can expect to pay higher taxes.

  • Public schools and hospitals are said to be good.

CONS:

  • Property taxes are generally higher than other parts of PA.

  • There seems to be a surge in development, population, traffic, and taxes all over PA, but particularly in the East.

POPULAR AREAS:

  • Lehigh and Berks Counties: The terrain is hilly but the farmland is great, like in the township of Oley. The East Penn Valley Merchandiser features promotions and classified ads for the Berks and Lehigh Counties.

  • Indiana County: This is a lovely area with lots of rural villages. The real estate prices are said to be reasonable and there may be a decent amount of job opportunities available. It’s also close to good hospitals.

  • Chester County: The western part of Chester has good farmland and the area is nice. Since it's rural, there are not too many professional job opportunities available but there is a regional hospital. Schools are said to be good. Downingtown is an ideal place because the area is geared toward rural living and farming. Problem is that it's one of the counties with the highest property taxes in the US.

  • Lancaster County: Lancaster is known for having good soil, flat terrain, good climate, and sunny days all year long. It’s close to the city with a hospital, university, cultural events, and employment opportunities. In recent years, there has been a huge influx of people moving from other parts of PA, so if you’re trying to escape the city scene entirely, this might not be the best place for you. Some locals have expressed their disappointment that Lancaster is slowly losing the farmland community. There used to be a strong community of homesteaders but that has vanished over the years as people from large cities began migrating there. Property taxes are outrageous and farmland is expensive so that’s another thing to consider if you’re on a limited budget. The pricing for the land is higher than most other places.

  • York County: There seems to be a greater sense of community in York County. This area has great farmland in the countryside while also having easy access to hospitals, etc.

  • Lebanon County: There is great farmland in Lebanon County. The locals are said to be friendly and there are many like-minded homesteaders. There is easy access to hospitals etc.

  • Westchester County: This is a nice area. Even though it’s a bit hilly there is plenty of good farmland! While it feels remote and peaceful, it’s still an easy commute to Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

Tips before taking the plunge!


  • Take a few trips to Pennsylvania before committing to move. I would encourage you to travel to a couple of cities that you believe you would like to establish your homestead. Travel to those places at least once in the summer and once in the winter to get a feel for the seasonal changes, especially if you’re not accustomed to extreme temperatures.

  • When you visit Pennsylvania, meet the locals and ask them questions! Get insight from the people who might one day become your neighbors.

  • If you’re concerned about the cost of living in PA, check out this website. There you can compare cities based on their cost of living, the pros and cons of living there, and other important facts.

  • If you’re interested in buying land but don’t know where to start, Land Watch is a great place to look. On their website, you can get an idea of price ranges and what types of properties are currently available. I find it’s best to lease a property for about 6 months before committing to buying. This way, you can best determine whether the place you chose is indeed the place you want to settle down in for the long-term.

  • When you travel to Pennsylvania, talk to the Amish community. They don’t advertise land for sale but they might have some. You can also connect with the local churches and ask them for advice or recommendations.

  • Have a solid 6 months of savings to make the transition less stressful.

  • Think about how you’re going to plant and harvest your crops if you’re planning to have a large-scale garden. Will you need machinery or expensive equipment? If so, is there a co-op where you can share the equipment with your neighbors for a cheaper cost, rather than having to buy it yourself.

  • Learn canning and food preservation skills.

  • Look into the options of installing wind and solar power.

  • If you’re thinking about getting into farming, rather than low-scale homesteading, I recommend you take a look at this Guide to Farming by Penn State University.

  • Lancaster Farming is a local news-source where homesteaders throughout Pennsylvania can really benefit from. There are community and classified sections are incredible resources to look into!  The paper is not limited to the Lancaster County area.

  • Do you have local-specific or city-related questions? City-Data is an online forum where you can ask anything you want to the residents of any state. The majority of the people who respond on that site are helpful and resourceful.

Even though Pennsylvania didn’t make it to my top 12 US states for homesteading, it is a state many people consider starting a homestead in, which is why I decided to write this info guide. Find out which of the 12 states made the list!!

Was this post helpful to you? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments!


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