Over the years, I’ve heard from many of my readers who yearn to live in the hinterboonies. But they often say that they feel “stuck”, living where they are. One of the biggest impediments seems to be the cost of land, in their desired locale. Let’s face it: If you buy land in an area with a fairly mild climate, plentiful water, and fertile top soil, then odds are that it will have a fairly high “per acre” price. There is plenty of affordable desert scrub land on the market, for as little at $1,000 per acre. But good land now ranges from $5,000 to $25,000 per acre. (And even more, for particularly desirable “view” parcels, or for small lots, with utilities.)
This might seem daunting, but fear not. In my 20+ years of consulting, I’ve learned some key strategies for finding quality rural land at a reasonable price. But note that most of these take plenty of research, patience, and persistence. Here they are:
1.) Search for tax delinquencies. Back in the old days, this necessitated making a trip to the Assessor’s Office, at your county courthouse. But many of those public records are now available online. The ideal property to look for is a property with an out-of-state owner but that has not been listed for sale for more than three years. Getting a call from a would-be-buyer just a few days after receiving a tax delinquency notice is perfect timing.
2.) Watch for foreclosures. I noticed that in April, 2020, the folks at Lifewire published a fairly comprehensive list of foreclosure search/watch web sites: The Best Free Foreclosure Search Sites. This well-researched set of links is broke down into categories, such as: A.) Bank REOs, Government-Owned, and General Foreclosure, B.) REO, and Distressed Property Listings, and C.) Real Estate Agents, Brokers, and Property Services.
3.) Make a friend of a banker. Perhaps the best small investment you’ll ever make is buying a lunch or two, for a local banker. Do some phoning around and find out which bank in your area carries the most rural mortgages, and then ask who handles the foreclosures. This is the guy (or gal) that you want to take out to lunch and a chat. (If that individual is of the opposite sex, then make sure that your spouse joins you, for the luncheon appointment.) There is a huge advantage in getting to know each other, and letting that banker know that you are both earnest and qualified, and the type of property that you are looking for.
4. ) Watch for auctions. You will of course need to do your due diligence, but sometimes properties sell at auction far below the prevailing market price. Needless to say, never buy a piece of land sight unseen.
5.) Consider buying “tear-downs”. A lot of rural properties get overlooked by other buyers because they have standing houses on them that are substandard or totally dilapidated. But you need to just step back, squint, and ask: “Now what would this look like, without that collapsed single-wide there?” Often, such properties sell for less than nearby ‘bare land’ parcels, of similar size. Yet, consider that in many cases these properties already have an established power line, a phone line, an established spring or well, water lines, fencing (or at least surveyed property lines), some usable outbuildings, roads, cleared fields, fruit and nut trees, developed garden topsoil, and a septic system — and most or all of those can be re-used. (Hence saving you many thousands of dollars in property development costs.) Just be sure to factor in your eventual costs of demolishing and hauling away the material any unsalvageable dilapidated structures.
6.) Consider buying larger properties with standing timber. If you can “swing” a loan for a large property that has timber, then in most western states you can selectively log it almost immediately after you take possession. (But beware of purchase contract and loans stipulations! Many lenders require that timber sale proceeds go to the lender first.)
7.) Consider splitting a property with a friend or relative. If you find a property in an area where it is permissible to subdivide, then you might be able to immediately split it.
8.) Use your VA loan benefits. If you are a U.S. military veteran, check the current Veteran’s Administration (VA) benefits. You may be pleasantly surprised. Just keep in mind that the VA has some restrictions about lending on rural parcels, but they are usually not insurmountable hurdles.
9.) Look for off-grid properties. Generally, properties that are off grid sell for far less money. If you are willing to put in a photovoltaic (PV) power system, then the difference in what you will pay for the land is often more than enough to pay for the PV system.
10.) Watch for obituaries and divorce filing notices. Face it, folks: These are the times when properties most often change hands. Getting “early” intel might allow you to make an offer on a property before it formally hits the market.
11.) Borrow money from within your own family. Don’t be shy about asking an older relative to make a secured loan. If their CDs and T-Bills are paying the 2 or 3 percent and you offer them a 4 percent annual return, then they might say yes. But you’ll never know unless you get up the nerve to ask them.
12.) Turn every stone. Make your searches for both your land and finances very thorough.
13.) Clean house! Many folks mistakenly believe that they don’t have the money for a down payment on a large rural parcel when they really do. They simply have too much money tied up in boats, jet-skis, RVs, cars, trucks, big screen HDTVs, “spare” guns in their collection that they never shoot, jewelry, watches, artwork, collectibles, and so forth. If it is a small pile, then list items on eBay and GunBroker.com and then later schedule a couple of yard sales. If it is a large pile, then contract through an auction company.
14.) Don’ be afraid to make “Low-Ball” offers. This can work particularly well for properties that have been on the market for more than a year. Keep in mind that MLS numbers are filed sequentially, so the MLS-listed properties with the lowest MLS numbers are the ones that have been on the market for ages.
15.) Bookmark MLS search sites, and check them often. Even if you are currently stuck in a typical 9-to-5 office job, you can pack a sack lunch and spend your lunch hours land hunting, online.
16.) Research using government online map tools. If you zoom in on parcels with some of these tools (such as BLM Maps and Cadastrals–available in many states including Idaho and Montana), they can show the current deeded owner’s name and address, the zoning, any tax exemptions, recorded surveys, water rights filings, and even appraisal histories. Some of these web sites allow you to search an entire state, but others require searching county by county. But… No trip to the court house is required!
17.) Talk with property management companies, and watch “for rent” ads. Find out if any of the land owners that are currently renting out properties who would consider selling them — or even better yet, setting up a “rent to own” lease option arrangement. (Where you’d lease the house and land, but part or all of the rent that you pay would be applied to the principal figure.)
18.) Look for the places with “big backyards”. Land that adjoins state forest land, BLM land, National Forest land, and timber company land will often provide you with access for hunting, fishing, hiking, quadding, snowmobiling, and possibly low-cost grazing or firewood cutting. This is like have a very big back yard. (Ours is almost a million acres.) The beauty of this is that it gives you nearly the same privacy of owning a large property yet you don’t have to pay taxes on that adjoining land.
19.) Talk with timber companies. In my part of the Redoubt, companies like Stimson Timberland and Tungsten Holdings sell properties that have previously been logged. These parcels often sell for far less than the prevailing market prices. In most states, watershed protection laws now dictate that no timber be cut close to creeks and rivers, so even heavily logged parcels can still have very pretty creek bottoms.
20.) Bookmark SurvivalRealty.com. I may be biased, but the site that I established more than 10 years ago, (and then soon handed off to my #1 Son) is an amazing resource. They have both agency listings and For Sale By Owner (FSBO or “fizz-bo”) listings. In recent months they’ve expanded into property brokerage services, a wider network of listing agents, and cooperative agreements with retreat developers, consultants, off grid power experts, bunker builders, architects, and more. So bookmark SurvivalRealty.com now, and check back there frequently.
21.) Make direct contact with sellers. Hunt around for properties that have been pulled from active listing, but that didn’t sell. A discouraged seller is often a motivated seller. Don’t be shy about chatting up some about selling. Even if they don’t want to sell their un-listed land, they might have a friend or neighbor who is interested in selling another un-listed parcel.
22.) Buy small, and add on. This advice goes for both houses and for land: Not only can you buy a very modest house and later add to it, but you can often find a small acreage with adjoining acreage that that you can buy outright at a later date — possibly under a lease-purchase agreement.
23.) Ask to work from home. Moving to hinterboonies usually means taking a cut in pay. But I recommend that you be bold and ask your current employer if you can work from home, via telecommuting. The recent pandemic illustrated that many people can work from home and be just as productive as before.
24.) Network, network, network! You really need to network with friends, relatives, co-workers, fellow church congregants, real estate agents, and even your friendly local UPS driver. The more people that you talk to, the more places you’ll find are for sale. And many of these are not listed with an agent, or even advertised!
25.) Both first, and last: pray. I’m very serious about this, even for folks who don’t already have a regular prayer life: Pray fervently, and pray often. Ask God for both his guidance and his providence in your land search.
Rudyard Kipling said it best: “God gives all men all earth to love, but since man’s heart is small, ordains for each one spot shall prove beloved over all.”
Soil and Siting
A SurvivalBlog reader who post under the pen name David ‘n Goliath recently made some important important points about soils and elevation in our Comments section:
“People must ask this question: If I buy this piece of land can I grow food on it? Back when I grew up the three necessities were food, shelter and clothing and I believe that far too many people ignore the first one or think of it after they have sunk large amounts of money into a property. If a piece of land is “perfectly located”, but only has an inch of topsoil or is at such a high elevation that frosts occur at intervals that preclude the growing of anything outside then I would not buy that property. The only exception to that would be that if it had a suitable growing season and topsoil could be hauled into the property, but that would be rather expensive too so I would probably not opt for that either. There is a resource from the USDA called the Web Soil Survey. It can be used to determine what the soil physical properties are before a land purchase. It tells the thickness (or depth) of the physical layers of the soil. It is naturally not as accurate as being at a particular piece of land and sampling the soil with a probe yourself, but it is way better than just guessing or having no information at all.
Before anyone uses this online tool they should think: OPSEC as always. I use it, but generally do NOT put in any address information, just a town or county and then use the zoom functions to navigate to where I need to go. There is context sensitive help for this program, just hit the round “?” icon on where you need help. This program does not work on mobile devices due to the complexity of the program.
Just a real fast intro on how to use it would be:
On the left side of the screen click on “Address” right under the “Quick Navigation” option. Enter a general search area then click “view”. Next use the zoom and pan functions on the map at the right side to get where you need to be. Click one of the AOI icons on the top of this map. AOI means “area of interest”. Highlight on the map by clicking and dragging the pointer over the section of land you want to view. It should now be highlighted in light blue crosshatch and show the acres on the left side of the screen. Now click the yellow “Soil Map” tab at the top left side of the screen which will display the different soil types. Click the soil type name on the left side of the screen to see information about that particular soil type. Click the “X” icon on this popup to return the the other menu. Click the yellow “Soil Data Explorer” tab on the top of the screen and then the yellow “Soil Properties and Qualities” tab under the previous tabbed menu. Click “Soil Chemical Properties” on the left side of the screen. Click on “Cation-Exchange Capacity (CEC-7)” then scroll down to where it says “Top Depth” (under “advanced options”) and enter 0 (a zero, not an O as in Oscar) and then enter 17 in the “Bottom Depth” and hit the Enter key on the keyboard. (This is just the metric equivalent for 6 inches in a plow layer, which is faster than always switching to “Inches” instead of “Centimeter” each time it is used) You can use the last few steps to view the pH of the soil as well. (Not all areas are mapped with all information so you may find some “blanks” for some areas and functions.) If you want to save the report in a PDF file click the yellow “Shopping Cart (Free)” tab at the top right of the screen. Select the options you want on the left side of the screen and then hit “Check Out” in the upper right side and then click “OK”. There are other functions, but this is just a quick “breeze” through this program.
CEC or Cation Exchange Capacity is probably a new term for most people, but in plain English it relates to a soils nutrient holding capacity with higher numbers meaning more holding capacity. Sandy soils may be 5-10 and heavier soils like silts, clays, etc can be 20-50. I would probably not want a soil with a number lower than 5 and 15-20 would be my personal pick for a fairly easy to amend soil that has long term production potential. Think TEOTWAWKI.”
A Few Caveats
I’ll close with a few caveats:
- Be realistic. Consider the full development and moving costs, when budgeting your purchase.
- Calculate the drive times before you buy: How far will it be… To drive to work? To church? To school? To the nearest airport with scheduled flights? To the post office? To the nearest hardware store? To the nearest department store? To the nearest hospital?
- What elevation (and snowfall) can you handle? Remember: Both elevation and cardinal point solar exposure can make a huge difference. Namely: Living in snow three months of the year versus six months of the year.
- A piece of land that has an old mine tunnel might sound great, but also consider that land in mining districts might have groundwater contamination. Have the water tested, before you buy.
- Likewise, a piece of land that has geothermal home and greenhouse heating might sound great, but the drinking water from your well might have an elevated temperature, and have a sulfur or alkaline taste. Again, have the water tested, before you buy.
- Learn from the successes and failures of other folks who have already made the move. My current favorite video blog (“vlog”) is Good Simple Living. Subscribe there, and you will learn a lot.
- Never plunge into buying a piece of land. Do plenty of research, and talk with the neighbors, before you buy!
- If our readers can think of any other strategies that I’ve overlooked, please tell us in the comments below.
I wish you the best in finding your perfect place. I hope and pray that many of you do, right here in The American Redoubt! – JWR