newbie notes: due diligence before buying rural land

I’m a bit behind and my next few posts are out out of order, from a storytelling perspective. But paths generally aren’t as tidy as trails, so perhaps you won’t much mind.

So, you’ve found a property you’d like to make your own. Congratulations! But this isn’t the time to take your foot off the gas and coast into a sale.

Think of this post as a second chapter on the “Buying Rural Land” edition of Newbie Notes, having to do with what realtors call the “due diligence period” before signing on the dotted line. In addition to the usual questions you need to ask regarding taxes, deeds, and so on, here are a few additional things I feel the need to call out because they can lurk in the shadows and bite you in the behind if you’re not thinking about them. If you have an awesome realtor, as I did, he or she can help you find answers — and maybe even come up with additional questions to ask.

This one’s long, so I tried to make it skim-able for you.

who owns the land?

Make sure you have the following for your land before you sign the final contract:

Titles and title insurance. This is standard practice, but it’s worth mentioning here. The title to your land needs to be free and clear before you can purchase. The insurance protects the lender’s interest by insuring against defects in the title. Banks often won’t make a loan without them. If you pay cash for the land, title insurance won’t be required.

Surveys. Have your realtor find up-to-date surveys so you know precisely where all the boundaries are. Surveys can be pricey if you have to pay for them yourself, but it’s better than dealing with a boundary dispute after you’ve put up fences — or, worse, installed septic or built your home.

Easements and rights-of-way. Occasionally, other people are granted easements or a right-of-way on a property, which means they are allowed to use some portion of the property in some specified way. An example of an easement is the bit of land the utilities are allowed to use for running wires or water lines.

Rights-of-way are about access. Sometimes, when property is divided, the division cuts off access between one of the parcels and the road. My land has a right-of-way my neighbors use to access the pasture behind my parcel. You want to understand what your rights and responsibilities regarding easements and rights-of-way are. For example: Who is responsible for maintaining them and to what degree? How often are they used for access and by whom? If you are using the right-of-way as a driveway to get to your home, will there be times when it will be blocked? Is the right-of-way wide enough that a developer can turn it into an access road and build a 400-home housing development right behind your little slice of paradise? (Not kidding here.)

Improvements (fences, buildings, etc.). If there’s farm equipment or other tools on the land, ask if they’re included in the sale, and make sure you have provisions for having them removed if you don’t want them. The same goes for debris. If there’s anything you want removed, make sure you get it in writing as part of the sales contract, with due dates and penalties.

who owns the resource rights?

Owning the physical parcel does not necessarily guarantee you own the resources on or under its surface. While the chances of finding an undiscovered vein of gold is probably pretty slim, there are plenty of other resources to be exploited. If your land is wooded, do you have to share profits of timber cut on the land? Can utilities companies drill on your land for minerals or oil? If you’re relying on a spring for your water, will you be competing with individuals or developers upstream?

What’s important to note here is that not only might you have to share profits, but you might also have to either surrender some part of your land or endure someone drilling or mining on it.

if there are existing buildings, are they viable?

The land I bought was “raw” — in other words, it had no improvements whatsoever. But many rural properties come with buildings of various sizes and potential uses.

Living quarters: pests and mold. Obvious disrepair is the least of your worries. Inspect buildings you plan to live in or rent to others for signs of termites and other pests. In some areas, sellers are required to disclose previous pest issues, but not always. Depending on the climate, it might also be prudent to inspect buildings for mold. Mold mitigation is costly, and it’s not always effective. The woman who bought the farm across the road from me had to demolish the old farm house and a cabin on the land and start over because of mold.

Other structures: pests and poisons. Outbuildings and fences should also be inspected for pests and pest damage. Rats are not just a city problem, and termites are plentiful where wood is old and damp. You want to know what’s living in (or munching on) your barns and sheds and factor the cost of eradication into the cost of purchase. Even if you don’t plan to use an infested building, remember that unchecked problems can spread to the ones you do plan to use.

Make sure you also get a clear sense of what’s being stored — or has, in the past, been stored — in sheds and barns and any drums or containers left on the property. Chemical leaks from pesticides or other dangerous substances can affect livestock, gardens, and, ultimately, your own health.

does the land provide what you need to live?

Water, heat, and electricity. Is there a source of potable water? Will you be able to pump water to the home site easily and inexpensively if you need a well? (Seriously, consider consulting a water witch. It could save you money and heartburn.) If you plan to rely on wood for heat, will you have enough to harvest on your land, or will you have to buy it? Will you have to pay to run lines for phone and electricity if they don’t already exist? And does your mobile provider cover the area? How many bars are there on your phone?

Sewage and waste disposal. Can you dig a septic system, or are there geological barriers, such as bedrock or proximity to springs, wells, neighbors’ septics or property lines? Does the soil “perk” (drain for septic)? The type of soil on your property might also determine whether or not you can build on it. Soil surveys for the area are key.

Food and forage. Is there adequate pasture land for any livestock you might want to raise, or will you have to clear it? Do potentially poisonous (to grazers) plants grow on the land? Do edible plants grow there — greens, fruits, mushrooms, nuts — that might be used to supplement your diet or for medicinal purposes? Your area’s Extension Services can help identifying them.

Timber. Can you use or sell the timber from any land you clear for your home site or pastures? Consider milling and curing some of your trees for building sheds or even framing your home or making furniture. If you can’t use it, can you sell it?

taxes and services

Much of this can be found online, and you should look.

Property taxes. The county in which the land you’re considering is located will have tax records going back for quite a while. Note places where those taxes jumped and ask questions about why that was. You’ll also want to ask yourself: How will taxes change based on the improvements you make, such as growing fruit trees, putting up fencing, as well as any buildings you put on the land?

Trash removal. In many places in the country, trash removal requires a little more from you than simply dragging the can to the curb. Assuming there are curbs. You’ll want to know whether or not you can burn trash, where to take trash you can’t burn, and where the nearest recycling center is (as well as what kind of recyclables they take). It’s also helpful to know how you’ll be charged for all of it.

Fire and other emergency services. Most likely, there are some. But where are they coming from — and about how long will it take them to get to you? How are they funded and staffed? Where would an ambulance take you or a loved one in an emergency?

health, building, and other regulations

This is the one that bit me in the butt because I didn’t ask enough of the right kind of questions.

Building codes and inspections. You want a tiny home? Great! An Aircrete dome? Awesome! A yurt? Sweet! An earthship? Ummmm. We don’t have building codes for those… Your land might be “unrestricted” from the perspective of using it for any number of broad activities like housing or farming or vacation property, but the devil is in the details. What kind of house? What sort of waste disposal, energy, water sources, building materials are you planning for?

Also pay attention to which inspections you’ll need, the timing of each, what things need to be done in what order, and how long each approved inspection is good for. In my county, perk test results for septic are good for five years; the first building inspection is good for nine months.

Local vs. state regulations. Just because the state allows it doesn’t mean the county or township or city will. My state allows composting toilets. The next county allows composting toilets. But mine? Nope. You’ll want to investigate local waste disposal and building codes, among others. Even if something is allowed (say…a yurt), you might have to adhere to special restrictions or meet unexpected requirements (like extra insulation in the yurt ceiling) in order to meet code.

Natural resource restrictions. You’ll want to be aware of watersheds, buffers, managed forests, and so on. Is any part of the land classified by the DNR as protected (e.g. wetlands)? Are you allowed to cut trees for timber or firewood? Is that field you intend to plow and plant in a buffer zone?

what are your neighbors like?

Yep. This is real. Even if you’re waaaayyy out there, you’re still signing up for membership in a community of some sort. And you have to remember, especially in more remote areas, you’ll be sharing your neighborhood (and very likely your property) with beasties of all manner.

Human. I. Love. My. Neighbors. At least the ones I’ve met so far. Because my property has a right-of-way on it — a tractor road used to access the pastureland behind my property — I made it a point to meet and talk with my neighbors on the west about its use. Because my home site could potentially disrupt the view for my neighbors to the east, I also met with them, walked the property line, and looked out onto my land from their perspective so I can plan for our mutual privacy and enjoyment of the view.

Not everyone is as blessed as I am. Knowing who lives around you and how they feel about what you plan to do with your land can save you some frustration and heartache in the end. It’ll be your land, and you can do with it what you like, but good neighbors are a Good Thing when you need help.

Pro tip: Call in advance and take baked goods to them. Just sayin’.

Critters, domestic and wild. Living in the country means sharing your space with wild things — and, sometimes, not-so-wild things. Deer will eat crops. Raccoons and squirrels can cause damage to buildings and off-grid systems. Bears are a fact of life in my little corner of the world, so I’ll need to take appropriate precautions, especially with cooking arrangements, food storage, and trash.

Does the area livestock look healthy? Neighbors’ animals sometimes get loose and can trample gardens. If they’re diseased and die out in the pasture, their funk can penetrate soil or contaminate water sources.

You might also want to be aware of disease vectors in your area. Research several years’ worth of reports of rabies, leptospirosis, Lyme Disease, and other diseases that could affect your health or the health of your animals.

vital resources

These are just a few ideas of where you might get help with your due diligence and answers to questions about the local area.

  • County Cooperative Extension Services
  • County, Municipal, or City Department of Health
  • Local chapter of The American Society of Dowsers
  • Local herbalists and herbalism schools
  • Local permaculture and homesteading communities
  • State conservatories and arboretums

I hope these notes were helpful to you. I’d love it if you made suggestions of your own in the comments about things I might have missed. Or tell us about an experience you had — good or bad — about your own due diligence discoveries so we can learn from you!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Lowell Rinker says:

    Yay!…even though I thoroughly enjoyed “eating leftovers” on this new blog, it was awesome getting to read something new. This one however, seemed a bit like work. Part of my responsibilities for many years at WMU included property acquisition and sale. Worked with an awesome property attorney over the years that has helped me navigate through most of the issues you brought up. Just goes to show, it really helps to have a pro on your side because there are many land mines along the journey.


    1. Denise says:

      Yeah, I was fortunate to have people to consult along the way. We still missed a few turns, but I think I’ll be ok. I’m surrounded by good people.


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