Buying Land in the American Redoubt, by G. in Virginia

I have been involved with the buying of land and homes since I was able to carry a hammer or a two by four. While I have worked many different jobs, I have always returned to my love of real estate over the years. Currently, I own several houses, and my proudest achievement, is the acquisition of 40 prime acres in Montana! This is after almost a year and a half of searching in The American Redoubt for the piece I wanted at the price I wanted with the restrictions I wanted. Now that I have my slice I would hate to let all my research go to waste, so I would like to pass this info onto you.

Family Roots in the Northwest
My father is originally from Kalispell, Montana, and moved to the east coast in the late 1960s to finish school. Not one to sit idly by, he went into the real estate market in Virginia in a big way, something he still does to this day. Part of successfully working in real estate is being able to do the work yourself, and as his son I was expected to work with him from a young age. Doing the work yourself involves more than swinging a hammer; you have to know the ins and outs of the law, the courts, and how people work. In doing so I have picked up a lot of information, real information on buying and selling property that I want to impart onto people looking to relocate to their own 40 acres in the Redoubt.

Buying property in the Redoubt can trip people up from other areas in the United States. I know there are many factors to be considered in Montana land that does not come up when buying Virginia land, especially when buying houses.  To help the novice along, I have created this guide of the issues and pitfalls you will need to be aware of while you shop for your little piece of safety.

I should make clear; I do not have a dog in this fight. I have no urge, or desire, to sell you anything. I do not work as a realtor. The only property improvement I do, I do for myself and I am not for hire. The tips I pass on to you are based solely on the experiences of an experienced amateur. For specific issues on a certain piece of property I strongly recommend you contact a practicing land attorney or agent working in the area local to the land you have a question about. Let me stress local, because you want someone who knows the nearby courts and the regional pitfalls working for you.

First things first, how to find the land!

The rest of my tips will do you no good if you do not know how to find what you want. As I have said, I am not a realtor, but I can show you how to get around without one until you really need one. Realtors are great, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t want to waste your time or theirs. It really helps to narrow things down before you contact one. That way they can build a clearer picture of what you want and helps you to better express your expectations for the property. For example you would look silly insisting the house you want have a basement when the local water table is only three feet down.

For demonstration purposes I am going to be using the Flathead Valley in northwest Montana a lot for my examples. This is the area I was researching the hardest because I still have family that lives there.  I knew I wanted to be in that valley when I relocated. You, of course, have the entire Redoubt to choose from so take advantage of that.

The first huge tool for finding where you want to go is itself. Look at the maps that have been linked at the Retreat Locales studies page. Things like population density maps, distance to a McDonalds, and city light satellite views can all help you determine just where you want to put your new family home.

Secondly I recommend a site called Zillow. This site works as a real estate aggregator. It grabs information from multiple sites and puts it all in one place. What I love about this site is the filters. You can set it so that it only shows you plots over 20 acres under a certain price point, or has 3 bedrooms, or 2 baths, and so forth. it allows a lot of factors to help you search out those deals that are a match for what you want. Like all my other suggestions, this site is totally free to use.

Zillow’s other huge advantage is it does a ton of research for you. It will tell you how long the property has been on the market and who the listing agents were. This is useful for judging desperation to sell and might be a good way to find an agent.  It will tell you the taxes assessed on the property for the last 5 years and what the tax value is, useful for deciding on an offer price. It will also tell you the last time the property sold and for how much, which is good to know for gauging how underwater the seller may be. Finally it gives you an estimated value which you can compare against the asking price.

Next, I extensively use Craigslist. Out west there is very much a self help mentality and this is reflected in the large amount of real estate posting on Craigslist. What I typically do is take the listing and run them back through Zillow or Google Earth to get a look at the property. There is a lot of for sale by owner stuff that goes on Craigslist that does not show up on Zillow so this is not a duplication of effort.

Finally I look at  This site is where the government sells their properties repossessed by HUD and the Veteran’s Administration (VA). There are some really good deals to be had on this site, but you have to be careful as the paperwork can be really daunting. The reward is special financing such as VA vendee that can be as low as no money down for owner occupiers (a term that means you actually live at the property you just bought) and 5% for investment property (useful if you are going to have to build and plan to make the move later on). Fannie May and Freddie Mac offer homepath financing for owner occupiers that is also very attractive and allows for very little down.  In addition these organizations will often take an offer of at 60% of the tax assessment value of a piece of property. Please be aware though that any significant savings is going to seem almost not worth it after the months of dealing with government agents who don’t actually care if they sell a house and the Bank of America loan process.

Finding an agent

Now that you have located an area, and scoped out a few choice properties, you are going to need to get an agent to represent you. Agents typically get paid by a percentage of the sale.  They can be paid either by the buyer or the seller depending on how the closing is structured. You want to find an agent who charges around a 4% commission. 6% is the maximum so look around a bit to find a reasonably priced agent. You will also benefit from an agent that is prepper friendly. Luckily has a list of those who work in various regions; you will find them listed under survival realty on the right.  Follow that link and talk to those agents. I am sure they will be happy to represent you. A prepper friendly realtor is going to be a better agent for you because they won’t waste your time on unsustainable land and they know you are going to become a neighbor and will want to at least not directly rip you off.

The Californication of the West

When you start looking at land in the Redoubt you might notice something a bit odd. You are going to find properties priced at a million dollars just miles away from equivalent properties priced at a hundred thousand. This is due to an unusual economic factor that happened for several decades but has now ended. I refer to this as the Californication factor. The best examples I have seen of this are in the Bitterroot Valley and Flathead Valley in western Montana.

The story goes a little like this. Many years ago a smart entrepreneur bought a lot of cheap land in the Bitterroot Valley. With all this land he needed a project, and his project became selling it to movie stars. He returned to California and told all of them about a mystical land were people were down to earth, the air was clear, and the paparazzi got buried in unmarked graves for asking too many questions.  This land was the Bitterroot Valley. Over the years many moved out there. To give you an idea how many, here is a list I found of a few of the movie stars that have come to the Redoubt. Actress Glenn Close owns a coffee shop in downtown Bozeman. Ted Turner has a sprawling 120,000-acre ranch outside of town. Just 20 miles away, in Livingston, Jeff Bridges and his wife have a home and own a coffee shop and Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid are neighbors. Near Big Timber, a tiny ranching town 30 miles east of Livingston, Tom Brokaw, Michael Keaton and Whoopi Goldberg have all dropped anchor. Mel Gibson has a spread a little farther east, near Columbus. Kiefer Sutherland, Emilio Estevez, Joe Montana, Christopher Lloyd, Huey Lewis and Andie McDowall all have homes in western Montana.

As the stars arrived other Californians came and they wanted to buy up these spectacular views and they ran the Bitterroot Valley into the ozone layer in prices, and spread from there, one area being Flathead Valley. For a decade Californians came in with wads of cash and very little sense, much to the anger of the local population, and bought everything in site with no rhyme or reason. This drove the prices through the roof in some areas and as a knock on effect raised prices all over.

To give you an example of how out of whack some of this has become I want to use a couple of examples. Let’s take 20 acres of forested range/mountain land. In the mountains of Virginia they are asking $1,000 to $800 an acre for undeveloped land. In northern Idaho they want about $1,500. I have seen as high as $40,000 an acre in some parts of the Flathead Valley of Montana, especially on the east side.

Unfortunately for these people, the $40,000 per acre asking price is just “hopes and dreams” at this point. The market has crashed and the Californians have left. The problem is a lot of people have locked into those ridiculously high rates based on nothing more than wishful thinking and stubbornness.  The real tale of the tape comes when you tell Zillow to show you all the recently sold properties in these areas and it comes back with zero. I don’t think this is a reporting error. I think nothing is actually selling.  Part of the appraisal process is to base the price on what nearby pieces of property are selling for. If nothing is selling then there is no real basis and you end up with these wild fluctuations.

The reason for bringing this up is you will need to be flexible in your search. On the west side of Flathead Valley, ten miles across, land is going down to $5,000 an acre or even less. If you look in areas like the Yaak River Valley and go closer to Canada it gets down to $3,000 an acre. The best part is these areas are less built up, not more. They are going to be better pieces of property from a prepper’s perspective.  In this economy, with those locations, you should not really be paying more than $2,000 an acre for an ideal piece of property.

What is the ideal piece of property?

My ideal piece of property located in the Redoubt is over 20 acres, borders forest service land on at least one side, has a small stream or spring but no river, a pond or lake, water rights , rights of way, has no covenants, leans, contracts, easements, and is accessible from a public road. It may or may not contain any structures and if it does they are not in consideration of the price I will pay.  There are some very specific laws and ways of doing business in the Redoubt that effect land choices and I have listed them in my criteria above to serve as a warning when looking at land. Let me explain them in turn because these are also an area of the big differences people will find in buying open land in the Redoubt that is unusual from the cities.

Contiguous Forest Service Land

This is a highly desirable trait for the piece of property you are looking at to purchase. A lot of properties will say they are bordered on at least one side, and up to three sides, by Forest Service land. You will see this so much, after a while it will begin to sound like a scam. There can’t be this much Forest Service land in the area can there? The truth is yes, there is. All mountain tops are forest service land. When the Homestead Act went away the federal government inherited all the land that was not claimed. This was eventually turned over to the park system and Forest Service and became Forest Service land. The Redoubt, in many parts, is absolutely riddled with Forest Service land.

This is great news for preppers looking for property. You want a forest service land border. This means that no one is going to come in and build a subdivision or some other waste of space in that area. In addition, you are allowed to use this property to cut wood, hunt, and fish on. It’s like having a rich land owning neighbor who does not care and who never comes around. Especially desirable are streams coming from forest service land because that will mean you are the first source user of that stream helping to ensure clean water.

Water Rights and Water Sources

Out west water is a huge issue. They understand better than anyone that water does not come from a tap, but from aquifers and other natural sources and is a finite resource. Many of them depend on the flow of water for their livestock, their crops, and their own lively hoods. Entire range wars have been fought over water and the ability to get to it. So when looking at a piece of property you should make sure you know what the water situation is.

In the east riparian water rights are the norm. This means if I own the banks of the river I own that piece of the river and have rights to the unrestricted flow of that river. In the west they have use-based rights. This is typically expressed in the oldest user gets the most say over whom else gets to use the water,  A sort of senior/junior member system where any senior member can restrict the rights of any junior member.

In Montana, for example, this gets even more complex. All water in the state of Montana is the property of the state of Montana and is controlled by the state. When buying property you need to look up the status of the water rights on your piece of property. For example, you can search Montana’s water rights database. A title search will also reveal the status of the water rights on your land. These rights may surprise you. Even with no surface or flowing water you might find a neighbor has an irrigation ditch across a certain piece of land and holds those rights indefinitely. This means you will not be able to build near that piece of your property and they have free access to your land to maintain this ditch.

So when buying property make sure you know where the water is and how you are going to get it to your property. It would be devastating if you plan to pipe water to your new home like the previous owner did and find out you can’t because some other senior water member said no.  In some areas it is even illegal to drill a well and you could be totally blocked from all water sources.

A final factor on water is that in many of the Redoubt states water navigation is an inherent right of all people of the state established in 1985 by the Montana legislature in the stream access law. All citizens can use any piece of water they wish at any time. They cannot cross private land to reach a lake, but are allowed to follow a stream or river through a piece of property if they wish.  This is why I recommend finding a property with nothing larger than a non-navigable creek. Since a small creek is not really navigable someone could not use it to legally scout across your property. I once had my eye on a beautiful piece of property on the Yaak River. It was 40 acres split between the banks. Then I found out that with this law anyone would be able to canoe right through my property at any time. I would also be unable to build a road or foot bridge to the other half of my property as I could not restrict passage with a bridge. This in effect meant the other 20 acres were useless to me.

Rights of Way

This issue can be even larger than water access through your land. The issue of rights of way and easements is a major one that must be researched when buying any land.

One very common easement is a right of way across your property granted by deed or court action allowing another property owner access to their property. With the lack of roads in the western areas it is very often possible that a piece of property can become land locked by other properties. To fix this, when selling or dividing land, owners often place a right of way onto a piece of property to allow access to another piece. This means that you can potentially buy a piece of property that someone else is allowed to cross parts of at any time they want. Worse yet, it is entirely possible they will develop multiple homes on this other piece and the next thing you know you have a steady stream of cars driving by your retreat all night long. This will, of course, play havoc with your OPSEC.

In the reverse, make sure the piece of property you are looking at also has access. Having to negotiate a right of way through the courts can be an expensive process. Make sure that if your property does not border a road, that you have access to one by a deeded right of way. That way, if your neighbor ever sells their property, you will not have to worry about losing access to the new owners.  This is known as an “easement appurtenant” which transfers with the land.

Another type of easement, or right of way, to be aware of is for public utilities. You need to check and see if there any existing utility easements that have not been exercised on the property. There is nothing worse than buying a piece of land and then having high voltage lines or a pipeline driven right through the middle of it. Existing easements are not often mentioned in ads either. No one wants to advertise 20 beautiful acres with tall high-tension power towers in the middle of it. This gives an outside entity a right to be on your land without asking your permission, is unsightly, and can possibly create a refugee line of drift straight onto your property. 

I strongly suggest you read the easement entry at Wikipedia. It can explain the different types of easements and how they are handled.  It is extremely informative and covers a lot of the nuances of easements if you should find yourself dealing with one.

Timber Leases
Timber can be, and often is, sold separately from the land in the west. Sometimes this is done as a timber lease that is assigned for a period of years. At sometime before the close of the lease, the lease holder has the right to come in and remove the trees from the property as designated in the lease. The deforestation can vary, but assume the affected area will look like a battlefield when they are done.  These leases can be as long as 25 years. Of course people selling property don’t want things to look like that, so often they will ask the lease holder to wait until after the property is sold to exercise these rights. So when looking at property make sure you find out about any pending timber leases.

However, if you don’t mind some deforestation, selling the timber on a piece of property may be the best way for you to finance the piece you want. Keep in mind timber grows slow at those elevations and it may take decades for things to start looking normal again, but it does make a convenient way to get some fast cash to help to pay off the land. Even better is if you were planning to open up ten or twenty acres for a homestead site, or to plant crops, this can be a win-win for you.

This process is started by contacting the local lumber mill buyer. You indicate to him what you want to sell and where. They will take a quick survey and give you a price for the timber. After that you can try and log it yourself, or hire a company to come in and do it. If you hire someone typically you will split the profits with them over paying a flat fee. While you make less in profit, your expenses are a lot less, because the logging company assumes all the equipment costs.

Mineral Rights

A lot of the property in the west has had their mineral rights severed from the land. This has often happened a long time in the past when a slick talker came through and convinced the land owner to sell these rights for a quick buck. These are usually indicated on the deed by a special conveyance. This matters a lot from a prepper perspective because this gives a third party the right to enter your property at any time they wish and to build and construct items on the property. Furthermore if you wanted to establish something like a natural gas well on your property to give you more independence you might be stealing. The gas and other valuable items below the surface belong to the person who has the mineral rights. You will want to do a specific search on this when looking at a piece of property. Any conveyances such as mineral rights will be recorded with the deed where ever that is located.


The types of covenants we are going to concern ourselves with are covenant appurtenant ( “Covenant running with the land)”. These allow a prepper a real chance to grab just the right land at the right price.

Typical covenants on western land establish that a piece or property cannot be divided anymore than it has been or that no more than a certain amount of development can be done on the land. This was often done by land owners selling property that they were still going to be adjacent too. They placed covenants to make sure that some undesirable outcome would not happen to the land after they sold it. Often this is to make sure they still have access to a pond or lake, a subdivision does not spring up on the land, or some noxious industry is not started next door.

A second type of common covenant on the land in the west is a conservation covenant. (Often called a conservation easement.) These were often granted as part of a land deal in order to offset taxes on a piece of land. They often specify that a piece of land cannot be developed past a certain point as all development rights have been granted away for a tax break. While this land cannot be developed totally often a single home or similar structural setup is allowed and grazing and other agricultural uses of the land are allowed. The terms of the conservation easement are once again recorded with the title to the land at the land office and a copy can be obtained.

The advantage to a prepper on most covenants is that the vast majority of covenants restrict development of a piece of land, the last thing a prepper wants to do. So while this land is the same value to a prepper as it was pre-covenant to everyone else it is far less desirable. This reduced pool of potential purchasers means that land with conservation and other covenants is often far cheaper than the surrounding land, allowing a prepper to get a lot more bang for their land buying dollar.


Now that you have found your land how are you going to pay for it? Most of us do not have hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting around. This means that we are going to need to finance this purchase. It is outside the scope of this article to cover credit score and how to qualify for a loan. I do, however, want to point out a couple of issues that will affect your purchase.

First off, if this land is being bought for a residence, you will have to decide if you are also going to use the land for agricultural or ranching use. It might be beneficial to claim you are even if ultimately you are not. The reason for this is that land that provides no income can be a strong drain when qualifying for a loan. If you can show potential income this, sometimes, can be factored in when determining how large a loan you can take out.

The size of the loan is another factor. If you go over $417,000 you are now in what is called a jumbo loan. Jumbo loans have different rules from conventional loans. They are considered riskier than regular loans and, as such, have higher interest rates. They also have other restrictions such as requiring two appraisals before purchase, raising the cost further.

On the reverse, the minimum on most loans is $30,000. With having to put down an average 20% of any loan amount this means that the minimum you can expect to pay, and finance, for a piece of property is $38,000. Pre-qualification for a loan, offered free by most lenders, will give you a position of strength when looking for property. So make every effort to secure one before you start.

One good note is that taxes and insurance are significantly reduced when finding out what your average monthly payment will be. When buying property, taxes and insurance often increase a monthly payment by over $200 a month. When looking at western land taxes tend to be either very low or non-existent, you also will not be required to buy insurance if the land does not contain any structures.  This means that your payment amounts will be for the amount of the loan and no more. This can make it much easier to hold a piece of property until you are ready to build or relocate.

Another form of financing often offered in the west is owner financing. This is a way for the owner to take a gamble and select a buyer and offer them preferable rates. This is done by deed restriction and essentially the seller becomes the bank. You will see these types of offers typically requiring a certain amount down and then a monthly payment. These can be a good deal for both sides if done correctly. The buyer gets more for his piece of property because he keeps any interest if charged. The buyer gets to buy a piece of property without the hassle of dealing with the current loan process.  The seller is further protected because if the buyer defaults typically the land will revert to the seller and they can resell it. My father has property in the central part of Virginia that has been sold no less than six times and he still owns it.

As of the writing of this article the loan restrictions and process in the United States are pretty severe, which is probably a good thing. You will be expected to put down 20% of the price of the house at closing in addition to any other fees, commissions, or taxes. This means that for a $200,000 loan you have to come up with roughly $40,000 at closing. The good news is that because the buyer is getting hit with this large up-front cost, and sellers are really motivated, you will not need much more than that. Typically the only other thing the buyer is expected to pay is loan origination fees, which can sometimes be rolled into the loan.  The seller can pay the closing costs to cover the rest of the transaction.

A final note on financing, we all know the economy is in a terrible shape. Fiat currency is running rampant and money is printing is out of control. Inflation is being used as a tool to get us out of our current financial crunches. This, from the point of view of land purchases, can be exploited. A rising tide lifts all boats as they say. Paying $200,000 for a piece of land seems like a lot right now, but that same piece of land sold for $10,000 some 30 years ago, that is “cheap” by today’s prices. If we hit a hyperinflationary period it is very possible that you will be earning the cost of your loan per day, making it easy to pay off. So take the largest amount of loan you can afford right now safely. It may seem like a burden but you are already making your bet by being a prepper, might as well double down that you will get the land cheap once the SHTF. Like gold and silver, land is a great investment, as long as you can defend it. When SHTF a rental property ten states away is lost, but the land you are sitting on becomes yours more than it ever was before.

How to make it all work for you

You have identified your area. You have selected several attractive properties and have contacted an agent about them. You have a pre-qualified letter from a lender. Now it is time to head out to your selected area and take a look at the property. Let me stress this, go look at the land.  In the 20 Century, there were a series of huge land scams, selling Florida swamp land in magazines, sight unseen. They would go during the dry season and take a picture of this flat, lush expanse of land, what they never mentioned is that for the rest of the year that section of land was under a foot of water. A lot of people lost a lot of money because they did not inspect the property first before putting their money down.

So make a vacation of it. Travel to your intended destination and take a look at several properties to make a decision. The good news is as slow as things are selling you will have the time. Inspect the roads leading to the property; are they passable year round by a normal car? If not how hard are they going to be to improve? Does the property border a public road for access and does the phone and power grid reach that far? What is the status of putting a septic system in? How many acres are vertical and unusable? Take water and soil samples and have them tested so there are no surprises there. Walk the land and watch for dumps or other hazardous materials lying around, especially make sure none of the area has been used as a meth lab because the cast off is very toxic and will poison the soil and water table.  

Inspect out buildings to see how structurally sound they are. Major residences should be inspected by you and a building inspector.  What shape are the fences in? Does any running or open water source freeze solid during the winter? Is there a flat bench section on the property to allow for building? How is the drainage if it rains? Check for diseases affecting the trees and the land. There is a nasty pine beetle infestation for example that can kill all the trees on your property, check for signs of this issue. The local farm bureau or university extension can tell you what might be in your area and what the warning signs are so it is a good idea to contact them.

Once you are done with your inspection try to visit the neighbors if possible. Ask your agent for introductions if possible. Be very friendly and make clear your intentions with the land, this will go a long way in getting people to talk to you. Look and see what they have done to their property to judge what you might want to do to yours. Also look for signs of trouble such as locks on doors and equipment indicating a theft problem in the area. Also watch to see if they might be environmentalists or some other disruptive type. As part of the problem of Californication many of them moved into great views and bought 5 acres. For some unknown reason they believe this five acres gives them the right to control every piece of land they can see from their property. You don’t want to spend your time mired in law suits if you can help it.

If at all possible make sure you stay over on a Sunday and attend church. Most congregations are open door and would give you an excellent chance to mingle with potential neighbors. You can find out a lot from observing and talking to people and you will find out if this is a congregation you want to be a part of. In many communities the Sunday get together is the main social gathering of the week. So take advantage of this to get to know the locals you might soon be part of.

I know this seems like a lot to do but it boils down to due diligence and if you have to go to court they are going to ask if you at least took these steps. It’s one thing if a seller hides something from you intentionally; it’s another if you never bothered to check. A lot of these steps are simple to do. A title search has to be done as part of the purchase, but before that point you are more than welcome to contact the court house and do one yourself. This will turn up a vast majority of your problems and only takes a couple hours. Usually there are very helpful people around who do this for a living who are more than willing to give you some advice on what you need to do. You could even ask if you could buy an hour of their time or take them to lunch for some help in this search, which most likely will only take them a few minutes but might take you hours.

Walking the land is something you should want to do anyway. If you don’t want to be on the land why are you buying it in the first place? If at all possible see if you could spend the night on or near the property. See if it suits you and your family. In the course of this stay you will find most of any issues with the area and the property.
Neighbors can be great resources before and after the purchase so make a strong effort to be friendly. They can reveal a lot about the area and what you might need to know about the history of a piece of property. They can also tell you the best place to get supplies and who to trust when it comes to construction.

This is going to be your last major purchase in your life. This is where you are doubling down in the game of survival and where you are going to make your stand. Rushing this decision can have fatal consequences later. The vast majority of land purchases have no issues, but you want to be prepared for the couple that might have an issue. So take your time, do your due diligence, and I hope you live happily ever after in your new 40 acre kingdom.