When conservatives won the 2016 election many people breathed a sign of relief and decided America was safe for a few years. They decided to keep their city jobs, they slowed down their emergency preparations, and pushed back that decision to move to the country. As the unrest increases in cities, I know many families who have brought the country move back to the front burner and are actively putting together their wish lists for a homestead property. I’ve been through this, so I thought I’d share some of the things that are important in purchasing a rural property.
Analyze Your Budget
Figure out your priorities and stick with them! How much money do you have to spend? What’s more important to you, a big house or lots of land? Every family will be different, but you need to decide up front so you are not blown around making changes to your plan. I am told that buying a house is an emotional decision; don’t let that happen. Yes, you need to keep your spouse and children happy, but factor those must-haves into your plan and stick with it. This decision will make or break your homesteading experience.
Rural Living is Different from City/Suburb Living
What you are used to in the city/suburb is not going to be the same in the countryside. You will gradually change your habits, so be patient. Unless you are very wealthy, it takes several years to develop a homestead. Do you have the patience to face constant pop-up problems and the willingness to solve them?
Will you have to work outside the homestead? how long will the commute take? Are you healthy and physically strong enough to do the work a homestead requires? Are you now or can you learn to be a do-it-your-selfer?
How far are the closest gas station, grocery store and doctor? You need to find a doctor/clinic; things happen…sickness, broken bones, snake bites. None of us are completely self-sufficient; there are things we have to buy. In the city/suburbs you can run to the store in 10 minutes; not so in the countryside.
What are the roads like? Many country roads are gravel and oil or just gravel or dirt with blind curves and hills. The countryside is dark…there are no street lights, no painted lines or curbs. If you live miles off a county road, then you must maintain your access road. In some areas, you have to maintain the county road around you, like clearing downed trees. If you don’t do it, then it doesn’t get done in a timely manner. Maintaining your section of the road sometimes requires equipment to push snow, level dirt, or drain water. Check with the county or neighbors to find out who does what.
Questions to Ask
If you are using a realtor (he/she) will either know or can find out answers to very important questions. Is the property within city limits or is it just part of the county? It is possible to have a city mailing address but not be in city limits. So what; why do you care? If you are within city limits you may have city water, gas trash, etc., plus be subject to city taxes plus all the little annoying rules; like you can’t have chickens, you can’t burn your trash, you can’t fence your property, you can’t build an out-building or anything without a permit, etc. HOAs may have one redeeming quality in the city in a condo, but way out here; nada.
Most country properties are zoned as farm or ranch; but some are not; it makes a difference in your taxes. Also ask about special exemptions, such as agricultural or greenbelt exemptions, etc.
What are the current taxes? Find out where the city ends and where the unincorporated county begins, where is the cut-off line. You could be paying both city taxes and county taxes. You should have a list of questions the seller or the realtor needs to answer so you can make an informed decision.
Another very important thing; depending on what state you are considering a property, the state may have strict water regulations. The property (and you) may not have owner-rights to use or modify any water on your property or even drill a water well and if you need to irrigate, you may have no priority to do so. If the realtor doesn’t know, have her/him consult a water rights lawyer in that state and county and get it in writing.
If you are negotiating with a For Sale By Owner (FSBO), make sure you are familiar with the standard real estate contract for your state. If you are purchasing a FSBO in a new state, you should consider having a real estate attorney work your contract for your protection. Also make sure there is a title search done on the property. Country folks are not as dumb as television makes them out to be.
Inspect the Property
Looking at pictures on the internet is not accurate enough to base a purchasing decision on. You must have an in-person visit to see if 8 of the 10 acres advertised are only suitable for monkeys. When you see a photo of beautiful land, there is a country road which you will have to drive up and down on in all types of weather. If your desired location gets a lot of snow, you will need a way to clear the road so you can get out, especially in an emergency. There are very few snow plows far out in the country.
When you go to look at the homestead, realize you may need an ATV or 4-wheel drive truck to see the property. If you don’t have access to those types of vehicles you won’t know what you are buying. Try walking 50 acres of raw forest or pasture and you will understand what I am saying. Have the seller point out all the water sources. Is there a pond or lake? Does it flood over in the spring rains or go dry in the summer heat? Is there a stream moving through the property; if so what is upstream and does it flood during the spring runoff? Are there natural springs on the property or waterfalls off the hill or mountain? Is there wildlife roaming the property or is it strictly cattle pasture?
What About an Existing Residence?
The easiest way to start a homestead is to have an existing house on the property that can be used right away and updated as you go. It probably won’t be pretty or updated like the TV shows, but it will protect you until you can update it or build another house. Here are some other things you need to know.
In 2021 rural property has skyrocketed and farms are selling very at above actual value prices and depending on the location, very quickly. Don’t let that deter you from finding out details about the property. When negotiating, find out the condition of the residence’s structure, roof, electrical wiring, plumbing, water well and septic system. If you are not knowledgeable, you will need to get specific people to do these inspections as the average city home inspector, who charges $400-$700, and does NOT do structural, wiring, pipes, wells or septic. The people you need to do each inspection (structural, roof, electrical, plumbing, water well, septic) will add up to about the same cost, but it would cost you more if you use a standard housing inspector plus the extra experts. These inspections can save your sanity and thousands of dollars.
Do not purchase anything without knowing the particulars of these categories. If you are purchasing a vacant property and using a realtor, insist that the realtor find out information from the seller or from public records. The realtor is paid on commission so make her do some work. If she cannot find the information on these critical systems, insist on the seller buying a Home Warranty Insurance Package covering all of these areas. A country package covering well and septic etc., is more expensive than the usual appliance package because they are extra riders to the basic policy. This protects you for a year.
Maybe the property is selling “as is”; maybe the property is bank-owned; if so, budget extra money because there will be surprises. Maybe you want the property in spite of the failures or unknowns. I still recommend an inspection, even if the seller won’t fix anything, because at least you will know what you’re facing down the road.
Get a Structural Inspection
If the residence is more than 15 years old, first on your priority list should be a structural inspection. Earth settles and the structure moves with it. Sometimes older residences were built without spec and codes so determine whether the house sits on a cement slab, footers, rocks, or other type of foundation. If you set a ball on the floor and it rolls across the floor that is a problem. You can’t lay a new wood or tile floor over uneven sub-floors. The structural engineer will tell you what the problems are, which could be anything from foundation cracks to failed supports, sinkholes, crooked walls, warped beams, even fire damage. Sometimes the seller is not aware of the structural problems but YOU need to be before you sign on the dotted line.
Inspect the Roof
Make sure you get a reliable company to inspect your roof. Most housing inspectors are not roofing experts. I had an inspector tell me the roof was ok, but I didn’t think it was. I got a roofer come out and found rotted plywood under two layers of shingles. Depending on the location and age of the house it could be a lot worse than it looks. There is no substitute for an expert walking the roof for inspection.
Beware of Do-It-Yourself Seller Projects
A lot of country properties have home-owner DIY projects done to them; so you need to have experts look at the different things.
If you are looking at a house that is older, anticipate the wiring may need updating. Get an electrician to inspect the wiring and look at what needs to be replaced, does it need new outlets or to update a fuse to a circuit breaker box to safely carry the additional load of newer appliances. Have the electrician check the wiring to barn or other outbuildings. Old wiring systems may need to be rewired to meet county code. If the work is required to meet county code, the seller usually has to pay for the update; but it is negotiable.
Inspect the Plumbing and Pipes
If your prospective home has a crawl space look at the pipes and vapor barriers to see if they need fixing. If your location gets cold snowy winters, you really need to have the pipes wrapped before you move in and maybe a new vapor barrier. The vapor barrier is important because the wetness from under the house will seep up into the under floor and even the sub-floor and rot it out.
Water is a Necessity
Most country homesteads use well water, not city water, but it depends on where that city/county line is. You should find out how old the well pump is and how deep the well was drilled. Some counties require paperwork when a well is drilled and installed; some don’t. Checking the records in the county courthouse may give the date the well was drilled or motor last replaced, which is a big help to you. Unfortunately, the well expert cannot tell from the surface if something is wrong. The well is either pumping or it isn’t.
Changing out the well pump is time-consuming and if the service man is going to pull hundreds of feet of pipes to get to the motor, then you might as well have the entire system replaced. If the property does not have electric power to test the well, just assume it is not working. If there are neighbors nearby then ask them about their water quality. In some states, groundwater is contaminated with arsenic and you have to drill hundreds of feet below the groundwater to bypass the contamination.
Drilling a new well can cost between $3,000 to $15,000 or higher depending on your location and geology of the ground. It’s important to be informed before you buy. Never buy a property that has no access to water; your life depends on that water.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)