Go Stake Your Claim

Let's get real estate: the nitty-gritty of buying smart

Jan 20, 2000
Outside Magazine

Dreaming about your off-the-grid oasis is one thing. Buying it—and building on it—is another. Add a road, a well, utilities, surveys, and permits and your purchase price could double. Then there's the rancher with grazing rights to your land. And the noxious garbage dump right where you wanted the porch. Suddenly that steal ain't so real. So we asked a handful of rural real estate experts for tips on how to avoid such pitfalls.

Begin your browsing on the Net. United Country Real Estate (www.unitedcountry.com) and the monthly Rural Property Bulletin (www.rural property.net) offer nationwide listings of potential buys.
Visit your parcel for two or more days. "First-time buyers often purchase land that's too isolated and end up going nuts," says B. K. Reno, a real estate specialist in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
If your acreage is in a planned development, check the zoning laws. They usually prohibit a neighbor from turning his land into a feedlot, but beware of square-foot minimums for any shelter you might build.
If you decide on a parcel with zero development, factor in the cost of a road—$10,000 to $25,000, depending on grade, terrain, and length.
Check with the local water board for your rights to any water running through, on (as in a pond or lake), or under the land you're eyeing. In some states, water rights are sold separately from the property, and in arid regions of the West the water rights could be more valuable than the land itself. If you need to drill a well, budget accordingly: It could cost as much as $20,000.
For waterfront or wetlands homesites, you may need a permit from a state environmental agency before you can start clearing out the land.

Tom Filchner, a land agent in Gunnison County, Colorado, recommends financing through a local bank. "They're familiar with area zoning laws, building codes, and the overall lay of the land." Translation: a better interest rate.
A land loan usually requires a down payment of 20 percent of the purchase price. But if you only plan to put up a yurt, expect to hand over as much as a 50 percent down payment and to pay a higher interest rate.
Banks generally want utilities running into the property—or up to the property line—to improve its resale value, says Ashley Burt, president of The Crested Butte Bank in Colorado. Without utilities in place, you may pay a higher interest rate or qualify only for a smaller loan.

Ask the seller for a 60-day closing period to conduct due diligence on the title and the actual property, particularly if you live out of town. "Negotiate for a long enough period of time that you won't be rushed," say Reno.
"Inspect the property when you can see the ground," says Sam Elder, a real estate broker in Marquette, Michigan. Lush foliage in the summer and snow cover in the winter can hide a multitude of sins, such as public-access jeep tracks or a granite boulder right where you want your home.
Through the county, check the deeded access or grazing rights for you and third parties. The county-held survey documents aren't always accurate, so pay to have a property boundary survey done by a private surveyor ($500 and up, depending on lot size).
If your property abuts public land—which can increase value but doesn't necessarily spare it from development or resource extraction—check with the local National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or state-parks office to see if there are any plans to sell or use it.
Pay a private contractor for an environmental study of the property ($1,500 to $5,000) to determine whether the land covers an illegal dump or a leaking septic tank. You may be stuck with the bill to clean it up if you don't find it before the land is yours.
Talk to prospective neighbors to suss out any potential conflicts you could have with them, like their Sunday morning target practice.

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