newbie notes: looking for rural property

Four questions to ask yourself before making an offer

In my last Newbie Notes, I shared perspectives from my decision to overhaul my life and do something radically different with it — namely live off-grid in the mountains of North Carolina. In this edition of Newbie Notes, I’ll share four things to consider when looking for your land in the country.

What do you plan to do with the land?

This is big because it provides you with scope of work — in other words an idea of what you’ll need to do to the land to prepare it for how you want to live there. For instance, the land I bought is raw (unimproved) land. The effort curve for me — or expense, if someone else does the work — is pretty steep, even if the land itself isn’t. Whether the land you buy is raw or it comes with a few improvements, you’ll need to ask yourself:

Photo of a fenced-in field surrounded by trees
What will you need to do to the land to prepare it for the life you want?

Housing. Do you plan to live on the land, and if so: Does the land slope, or is it level? Will you need to excavate to clear or level a home site? Will you have to pay to run utilities, or are you able to connect into existing ones? Are there significant low spots — in other words, will the land flood in heavy rains? Are there natural fire barriers, such as berms or ridges or bodies of water?

Growing food plants. Many food plants need a lot of sunlight. Is the land already cleared to provide adequate sunlight, or will you have to cut down or “limb-up” trees to open up the space? Is the space for growing plants easily accessible? (We’ll talk about soil quality in a future post.)

Keeping animals. If you’re considering ruminants, are there adequate pasture lands, or will you need to do some clearing? Is there a level enough place to build a shelter for them? Is there existing fencing, or will you have to pay to fence the area?

Is what you plan to do with the land allowed?

Even if the land looks perfect for what you want to do, there could be barriers to living your dream if you don’t choose your location carefully. In my experience, these appeared right in the real estate listing. If not, ask your agent to do a little digging for you.

Zoning and use. Does all of the land you’re looking to buy have the same zoning classification, or is it divided? Not kidding. Part might be zoned for agricultural use while another part is zoned as managed forest. You need to know before you buy because it will have implications for what you can and can’t do with the land.

It also has implications for how others use the land, as in “open” land, which means hunters and hikers are allowed on the property without asking your permission first. Moreover, if you plan to host guests (think: Airbnb), you want to make sure there are no obvious zoning restrictions against it.

Convenants and restrictions. One of the reasons I ended up with as much land as I did was that most of the smaller parcels were governed by HOAs (Home Owner Associations) or by covenants or restrictions created by property owners to prevent…well, people like me from moving in and, say, putting a yurt up. One land owner suggested I drive up the ridge and view the other homes so I could “see what we’re trying to accomplish here.” Sweet neighborhood, but it wasn’t for me.

Just how rural is “rural?”

In The Quest for Home, Part 2: Usable Mountain Land, I tell the story of driving around looking for a listing my realtor had given me to preview — and turning back because it was a tad too remote for my comfort. You need to be honest with yourself about how often you might need to go into town — and what “town” looks like to you — from wherever you plan to live.

Access and other worries. How close is the nearest hospital or veterinary hospital? What stands between you and the grocery store — or, if you’re at the store, between you and getting home again? Are there railroad crossings? Bridges that might be washed out? In what condition are the roads? What kinds of fire and flood risks does the area pose? Are there nearby emergency evacuation routes?

On the property itself: Will you be sharing a driveway or right-of-way with a neighbor? How will that go for you if you and that neighbor have a falling-out?

How long will you spend on the road for everyday needs?

Shopping and convenience. How far will you have to drive for groceries, tools, parts for farm machinery or your off-grid system? You might laugh, but I almost bought a parcel because while I was standing on the edge of it I saw UPS FedEx trucks drive by. Where are your convenience thresholds?

Social life and entertainment. What’s available in the area? Are there restaurants and pubs? Coffee houses? Live music? Movie theaters? Museums? Community centers? Gyms or athletic facilities? Or, maybe, hiking trails? Camping? Sweat lodges? If you’re a church-goer: Is there a church in your denomination nearby?

Work commute. If you plan to continue working — which you’ll have to do until you get your homestead up and running, if that’s your thing — how long will the commute be? Drive it. Seriously. At different times of day, if possible.

Are you a telecommuter? Take a quick look at your phone. How many bars do you have? Text a friend or try uploading a file. Did it go through? Later, when you start meeting your neighbors, you’ll want to ask them how they handle vital connectivity, such as phone and internet.

How do you plan to finance?

Seems like I’m jumping ahead here, but you want to think this through before you head out with your realtor. (I didn’t. It complicated things.) There’s a dizzying number of books, blog posts, videos, and other resources available on this topic. Do your research. Better yet: Talk to experts. I’m not one of those, so I’ll touch only lightly on this topic:

Bank loan. If you’re working with a traditional lending institution, your rural property might be harder to finance. For instance, the bank could have additional requirements, particularly if you’re buying unimproved land. It’s harder to sell raw land than it is a home, so it can be more complicated to buy it. Loans tend to be shorter-term than when you’re buying a house. Interest rates tend to be higher, too.

Owner-financing. Also called a “land contract,” owner financing is arranged directly with the current owner of the property. One of the benefits of a land contract is that you can often negotiate a lower interest rate than you can with a bank, and the monthly payments can be reasonably low. But owner financing also comes with risks.

For one thing, it’s generally short-term (some as short as only a few years) because, while loan interest is appealing, folks tend to want their cash in less than 30 years, and they don’t want to have to administer a loan for the long haul. Another risk is that most of them end in a “balloon payment,” or a lump sum that pays off the loan. Depending on the amount, you might be able to finance the final payment through a bank — or you might not.

Moreover, the land owner can restrict how you use the land, in case you default on the loan. For instance, you might only be allowed to clear a certain percentage of the land. Or you might have to turn over any profits you make on timber sales, rents (think: Airbnb), crops grown and sold, etc. until you’ve made the final payment and you own the land, free and clear.

Structuring land contracts is tricky and risky. You want to know as much as you can before you owner-finance.

More questions for once you’ve found your land

The good news is that you’ll have an opportunity, once you find and put in an offer on some land, to explore the “fit” of it for your needs with a due diligence period. Like due diligence when buying a home, this version is a deeper dive into the questions that could make or break the deal for you.

Some of the most important ones for me were:

  • Was there potable (drinkable) water on the property?
  • Was the soil suitable for growing things? For building?
  • Was the land healthy, or would I be fighting plant diseases?

There were a few important ones I didn’t consider, too, and they stymied some of my plans. But you’ll read about that in the next series of (re)posts.

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