Many city dwellers and suburbanites fantasize about packing up their belongings and moving to the countryside, where they can find a small farm or a cabin in the woods to call their own and enjoy the peace and quiet.
That is even more true today, after the COVID-19 experience, emphasizing isolation and many jobs shifting from crowded offices to private spaces as a result of telecommuting.
As a result, real estate agents across the country are reporting a surge in sales of rural properties, ranging from “raw land” to finished properties. Demographers predict a resurgence of small-scale farming, as well as infrastructure improvements, to speed up internet access in rural areas.
Rural properties that have been vacant for a long time are being snapped up as people flee crowded cities in greater numbers. The market hasn’t yet reached a panic level, but rural properties rarely go unsold for long. So it is across the country, with buyers frequently making purchases sight unseen or based on a few photographs.
Asking the right questions
Finding the rural property of your dreams necessitates, at the very least good answers to a series of questions, if not a thorough hands-on inspection. You have to do your homework, and I can’t stress that enough.
Due diligence entails knowing the right questions to ask because sellers are unlikely to volunteer information if they are unsure of what you want to know.
The first question is about the real estate agent’s mantra of location, location, location:
Where do you want to buy the property?
I don’t mean physically on a map but rather in terms of roads, utilities, services, and supplies, among other things.
If you can’t visit the location, and many sellers are reluctant to have strangers in their homes, then hunker down with Google Maps and focus way, way down. Turn on the “terrain” feature and carefully examine the property before beginning to ask questions:
What’s the status of the drainage?
How does water travel across land?
What kind of soil does it have—sandy, silty, or clay-rich?
What direction is north?
Is it necessary to drill for water, and if so, how far?
Where are the utility lines, septic leads, and sewer connections?
What is the most common plant cover?
What is the sunniest part of the land, and does it vary with the seasons?
Can you grow enough food to feed your family as a supplement, if not a primary source of nutrition?
Should you pick raw or developed land?
Many people prefer raw land to finished properties, especially if they have the means to do so. For starters, they can have the house of their dreams built exactly to their specifications.
However, one factor to consider in those specifications is how long you intend to stay in your new home. Will you sell and return to the city? Will you want to retire to the warm Sunbelt if your home is in cold Vermont or North Dakota?
If you intend to live in your home for the rest of your life, consider future needs as well as present desires. Today, you might want a six-burner, top-of-the-line stove, and a loft study, but in 20 years, you might want hallways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair and all of your main rooms on one floor.
Many sellers encourage new builders to plan ahead and meet ADA requirements, such as installing grab bars in the bathtub, a stair lift, and ramps into main entrances, among other things. It’s much cheaper to build it now than to tear it down and rebuild it later.
Buying raw land and building to specifications has its advantages, to be sure. However, there are numerous hidden costs that can drive the purchase price through the roof.
You’ll need to drill a well, which can easily cost $15,000 in temperate areas of the country, but three or four times that in the desert and mountains.
You’ll also need to install a septic tank, which will be subject to county regulations. Some places now require a sand filter or peat-moss system, which can cost up to $25,000 for a three-bedroom installation (tank sizes are correlated to bedroom numbers).
A standard tank costs between $10,000 and $15,000.
You may have to pay to bring electricity to the property, and if you need to cut a road or clear the land for construction, you’re adding thousands upon thousands of dollars to what appeared to be a bargain price at first.
Finally, it’s often a better idea to find an existing property with a house on it, one with a septic tank already installed and a well dug. Even if the house isn’t quite to your liking, you can scrape it off and rebuild or modify it, saving you the infrastructure costs.
Check the water rights
There are three things that people fight about in the West: fences, cattle, and water.
Water law does not always align with what you might think common sense would dictate in many parts of the country, particularly the dry West, and many a neighborly conflict has resulted as a result.
Before committing to the purchase of a piece of property, consult with a local lawyer about water rights.
Is the well on your property yours, or is it shared by some prior agreement, and if so, is that agreement binding?
Examine the existing fences and property lines. They may not always line up with where a property survey today indicates they should be, especially on older properties.
Do you have a less than ten-year-old survey map of the property?
If not, you should hire a surveyor—new is generally preferable to old in this case, thanks to advances in satellite technology and other aspects of cartography.
My wife and I own property that borders a large nursery that had been steadily expanding onto our land due to a misplaced fence decades before.
We didn’t mind granting an easement, but we made sure that our neighbors recognized that the true boundaries didn’t line up with that old fence.
We would not have known if we hadn’t hired a surveyor because previous generations simply assumed that the fences were correct and acted accordingly.
How about animals?
What kinds of animals are permitted on your property?
County and municipal regulations can be perplexing. Cows, for example, are permitted in some areas but not pigs. Ducks are permitted in some areas, but chickens are not. You can keep a German shepherd but not a Staffordshire terrier or mastiff in some counties across the country.
If you keep roosters, you may face noise complaints, especially if your property is close to a development or a neighbor’s home.
Check the laws, and don’t be afraid to contact the county authorities. You’d be surprised how these rules differ from place to place, often reflecting the unfortunate fact that people will argue and sue over almost anything under the sun.
Do you need a permit to make improvements to your property, such as adding a bedroom or rebuilding a chicken coop?
Building codes are generally consistent across the country, but the details of the rules differ. On a concrete slab, for example, I have a 198-square-foot workshop and tool room.
Why is it 198 square feet?
Because anything larger than 200 square feet requires a permit in the county where I live.
Unless you’re a master builder, always hire licensed, bonded, and insured contractors. It will cost more, but in comparison, it will cost much less than a lawsuit, which you may be unable to pursue successfully if your builder has not covered the legal bases.
The quest goes on
Here are some additional considerations:
Is there a clear title to the property?
Has the owner kept records of the septic tank and well maintenance?
Are there any easement agreements in place that provide benefits, such as allowing a neighbor to use your lane to access his or her property?
What kind of tax burden does the property bear, and does it vary with different types of agricultural activity?
Can you sell your produce if you grow vegetables or raise meat or egg-laying chickens?
Do you have to take your household garbage to the dump, and do you need a permit?
Is there internet access?
How long does the growing season last?
What is the best use of the land: farming, forestry, or recreation?
Make a list of everything you’ll need to know before making a deposit. Don’t be put off by the amount of homework you’ll have to do. Consider it an investment that will pay off in a home away from the crowds and close to heaven.
This article was submitted by Ian Tate for Prepper’s Will.
Recommended resources for preppers and off-gridders:
Tips to save energy use on the homestead
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Butcher basics for the new homesteader