THE STARTING POINT: What follows are six elemental landscapesforest, desert, inland waterfront, prairie, mountain, and coastfeaturing 18 blissfully unsullied locales, from Alaska to Florida, Arizona to Maine.
THE COST: Our survey largely showcases undeveloped private land, which remains plentiful and cheap, in a few areas, however, prices creep up to $200,000 an acre or higher. But in a nation where the median home price now tops $150,000 (or even $300,000 in California), consider what you get for your money.
THE PAYOFF: A place that may feel more like home than home. Happy hunting.
WHEN EUROPEANS FIRST ARRIVED on this continent, historians claim, an enterprising squirrel in a pine tree on the New England coast could, theoretically, have leaped from branch to branch and made it all the way to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground. To attempt the same stunt now, the rodent would need a 12-foot wingspan and a tailwind. Sizable islands of sylvan serenity still exist, of course. But so does the timber industry. Consider yourself a shrewd buyer? Then examine the impact that logging in a nearby forest might have on a property that interests you. Lumber must come from somewhere, and that fact will be cold comfort if the chainsaws and downshifting trucks are going at it within earshot of your retreat. Or worse, if they thunder across your land because a timber company obtained a road easement.
GRAHAM COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA
FIRST THE BAD NEWS: Although this last frontier, perched just across Fontana Lake from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, had nary a stoplight a few years ago, it now hasthe horrorthree. But fear not. To residents, a traffic jam means getting stuck behind a stopped school bus. For those looking to vanish from the radar, this is as rough-and-tumble as it gets east of the Big Muddydensely wooded black-bear and wild-boar turf. Sensational hiking awaits in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and in the Snowbird Wilderness.
RECENT LISTING: A gentle ridge for your cabin and a year-round spring on 38 acres down a cratered dirt road (four-wheel-drive only), $51,300. High Country Property, 888-525-5263, graham.main.nc.us/~bclaybon/.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Napping in a shaded May thicket of blooming rhododendrons, not another human in sight.
FORGET IT IF: Any of the following are important: a broad selection of restaurants, nightlife, golf, or a nearby hospital.
FOREST COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
THE GENERAL VICINITY OF northwestern Pennsylvania's half-million-acre Allegheny National Forest harbors some of the sweetest terrain in the state. Here, morning mist curls off deep-valleyed rivers like the Allegheny and the Clarion, thick moss and ferns underlie old-growth patches of white pine and hemlock, and autumn hardwoods contrast brilliantly with the evergreens. People have been tubing and canoeing on these rivers and hiking and camping in these woods for generations. Those who don't require riverfrontwhich is getting scarcer and costliercan usually find a wooded lot perfect for a family "camp" (Pennsylvanian for "cabin") for $700 to $1,000 an acre.
RECENT LISTING: 1.5 acres bordering national forest, with an 1860s three-bedroom frame house, plus a fireplace and year-round stream, for $47,900. Timberwood Realty, 800-480-4373, www.timberwoodrealty.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Grilling native trout on a glowing bed of campfire coals while learning to whittle (badly).
FORGET IT IF: You get nauseated plucking ticks off your dogs.
BUSES FULL OF TREE-GAWKERS rumble through the Ozarks like clockwork: in springtime for the blooming dogwoods and redbuds, in autumn for the turning maples. A few retirees and assorted other downshifters have stuck around, thanks to the combination of low crime, low property taxes, and relatively low asking prices, all wrapped in a mild four-season climate.
RECENT LISTING: 180 scenic hardwood acres near the Buffalo River with pond and views of the Ozarks, $89,500. United Country/Roth Realty, 870-741-7557, www.unitedcountry.com/harrisonar.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Perfecting your cannonball on the Buffalo, on a languid afternoon when the air smells like pine.
FORGET IT IF: You're frightened of people who visit Branson, Missouri, on purpose.
The pitchfork horizon of Arizona
UNLESS YOU SIMPLY covet a plot of earth to call your own and have zero thoughts of ever spending more than a night or two at a time there, your prime concern in casing out desert property should besteady yourselfwater. Specifically, how much there is, if any, and whether the county health department has declared it potable. You can survey for botanical clues to its presence: Cottonwoods, mesquite, and other phreatophytic species won't grow without subsurface moisture. But assuming you're too remote to tap a municipal pipeline, there's no substitute for quizzing local well drillers to find out how deep they usually probe and what it will likely cost. If the seller won't document the water supply, some buyers pay to have the well drilled before closing, with the option to decline if the drillers strike out. And to meet part or all of their energy needs, many aspiring desert rats, logically and admirably, try to harness the abundant free sunshine.
COCHISE COUNTY, ARIZONA
"THE BEST YEAR-ROUND CLIMATE IN ARIZONA" is the local brag (midnineties in summer, midthirties in winter). Altitude does the trick. Bisbee, a mining-turned-tourist burg 90 miles southeast of Tucson, and Sierra Vista, a hillier, oakier shopping hub, are both about a mile skyward, and peaks in the nearby Huachuca and Chiricahua Mountains exceed 9,000 feet. Hiking on BLM and Forest Service land and world-class birding along the San Pedro River corridor round out the boasts.
RECENT LISTING: A level 73-acre spread of undisturbed desert, with a mountain in your backyard and ocotillo, mesquite, and prickly pear in every direction, $88,614. Bisbee Realty Inc., 520-432-5439, www.bisbeerealty.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Jogging along the San Pedro, looking for javelinas, hummingbirds, and yellow-billed cuckoos.
FORGET IT IF: You thrive on long walks in the rain: Half the year's precip falls during the July-August monsoon.
SAN JUAN COUNTY, UTAH
IT'S TRICKY COMING up with an outdoor sport you can't pursue in southeastern Utah. Let's seeÉthe surfing is lousy, and the dogsledding's spotty at best. Oh, well. The near-infinite range of options available in Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments, the Colorado River, Lake Powell, and the Abajo Mountains will have to suffice. People arrive from other hemispheres to sample the local slickrock, rapids, sandstone routes, cross-country trails, and tent sites. Approximately 8 percent of San Juan County is privately owned, but the isolationalong with Moab, 40 miles to the north, hogging the spotlightkeeps demand from overwhelming supply.
RECENT LISTING: Twenty acres in Montezuma Canyon near Monticello, with peach orchards, well, house-ready solar setup, andget thisseveral stabilized caves in the canyon walls, $210,000. Century 21 Red Rock Real Estate, 435-587-3166, www.southeasternutah.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Grinding up to 9,000 feet in the Abajos and then riding a vertical mile of glorious downhill.
FORGET IT IF: You can't live without Macy's: Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas are all at least six hours away.
HARNEY COUNTY, OREGON
"WHEN BURNS IS FILLED UP," says a broker about Harney County's metropolis of 3,000, "there'll be no place else to go." If you're looking for the precise coordinates of the middle of nowhere, look no further (Burns is 290 miles southeast of Portland). But there's a surprising abundance of Big Outdoors in this Big Empty: 9,733-foot Steens Mountain and its streams, canyons, and wildflowers; the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, whose vast, shallow lakes lure sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, and thousands of pairs of binoculars; and such mammalian novelties as elk, pronghorn antelope, and mustangs.
RECENT LISTING: Southern-exposed hills on 318 acres, a mile from the refuge, $54,000. Jett Blackburn Real Estate Inc., 800-573-7206, www.jettblackburn.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Hammock-bound, reading about how black-necked stilts nest here in summer, while eagles indicate it's winter.
FORGET IT IF: You need a medical specialist and don't like driving; your closest shot at one, in Bend, is at least two hours away.
Homeward found: Maine's Mount Katahdin
SHOPPING FOR LAKESHORE OR RIVERBANK property is a bit like shopping for a spouse: Infatuation is swell, but before you commit you should picture the worst and make sure you can hack it. Don't let the seductive vision of a moored rowboat bobbing at the dock blind you to potential problems, such as, for starters, rising water. Build on a hundred-year floodplain and you risk floating downstream on your coffee table some rainy day. States and counties often publish maps of floodplains, as does the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA's are called Flood Insurance Rate Maps, or FIRMs). On the other hand, too little water can spoil the party. Check with locals to make sure the river you hope to paddle all summer doesn't shrink to an ankle-deep trickle. Find out what's going on upstream as well. Herbicide or pesticide residues from farms can taint waterways. And according to the EPA, logged areas can dump as much as 7,000 times the original amount of silt downstream. Finally, try to find out how your potential neighbors use the water. The howl of powerboats and personal watercraft, if they're allowed, could wreck your Thoreauvian idyll.
UPPER PENINSULA, MICHIGAN
ALONG A 30-MILE SWATH of Lake Superior's southern shore, 15 miles west of Marquette, Michigan, lies the Great Lakes' best impersonation of Montana: dense stands of hardwood and conifer, inland lakes by the hundreds, the muscular Huron Mountains, and trout streams that reeled in Hemingway. Locals include black bears, deer, and reintroduced moose and timber wolves. Other localspaddlers, mountain bikers, climbers, and nordic skiershardly know where to start in this scenic playground.
RECENT LISTING: Twenty-nine wooded acres on 141-acre Thomas Lake in the Hurons west of Marquette, minutes from Craig Lake State Park and the Moose Cafe in Michigamme, $305,000. Huey Real Estate, 800-733-4839, www.upwaterfront.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Skiing through six inches of new snow on the same trail where you mountain-biked six weeks earlier.
FORGET IT IF: Winter is your least favorite season.
LAKE ROOSEVELT, WASHINGTON
PERIODIC WAVES OF URBAN REFUGEESback-to-the-landers in VW buses in the sixties, earthquake-fleeing Californians a decade ago, retirees from Seattle (226 miles west) last weekhaven't much ruffled the tranquillity of Washington's northeast corner. The "lake" is actually 130-some miles of dam-swollen Columbia River, flanked by the million-plus-acre Colville National Forest. Nearby, hundreds of miles of trails weave through the Selkirk and Kettle Ranges, home to pristine woods and quaint gold-rush towns.
RECENT LISTING: Piney two- to four-acre tracts with 200 feet of shore, $42,500 to $55,000. United Country/Four Seasons Realty, 509-685-9655, www.unitedcountry.com/colvillewa.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Tracking black bearsat a polite distancethrough a cathedral of old-growth fir.
FORGET IT IF: January's first arctic blast leaves you convinced that a Carnival Cruise would be "really, really fun."
PENOBSCOT AND PISCATAQUIS COUNTIES, MAINE
NORTH-CENTRAL MAINE HAS no shortage of allure: granite peaks, loon-haunted lakes, Penobscot and Kennebec whitewater, the Appalachian Trail's northern homestretch, platoons of iconic moose. But this area, roughly 20 miles northwest of Bangor, is not exactly a well-kept secret. Timber companies, the state, and assorted land trusts own most of it, and new-money gazillionaires have snarfed up large tracts of what's left (derisively dubbed "kingdom lots" by locals). But it's still possible to find choice land. Since the state boasts 32,000 miles of running water, streamfront parcels are easier to locate. And if the word "pristine" isn't an absolute prerequisite, partially logged acreage can be had on the cheap.
RECENT LISTING: More than 1,100 acres of just-thinned forest with three-fourths of a mile of Birch Stream's bank, close to the University of Maine in Orono, $225,000. John Cochrane, 207-942-4941, www.land-usa.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Flipping through Essays of E. B. White while icing both knees and a six-pack after bagging the summit of 5,268-foot Mount Katahdin.
FORGET IT IF: You consider blackflies public enemy No. 1.
The neighborsand the viewin California's Owens Valley
IT'S AN ADMIRABLE FANTASY: You drinking tea on the porch of a turn-of-the-century farmhouse surrounded by rolling acres of buffalo grass. Just beware the potential trouble that can come with living in farm or ranch country. Intrepid is the man, for instance, who homesteads downwind of a hog farm or a cattle feedlot. Stagnant water can sully the air, too. In states with "open range" laws, livestock can wander freely, and if you want them to stay off your sanctuary you have to pay for the fence. And, as Barry Chalofsky points out in his book The Home and Land Buyer's Guide to the Environment, long-lasting residues of cropland pesticides and herbicides can invade adjacent land by way of surface runoff, tainted streams, and contaminated groundwater. If that seems probable, private labs can test soil or well water. Get a clear understanding of who your neighbors are before settling into your prairie dream.
OWENS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
THE PITCH: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia, as well as the alpine lakes, bristlecone-pine forests, ski trails, and primo granite climbing routes of the eastern Sierra and White Mountains, are all within a quarter-tank, in a valley of affable climate where folks still leave doors unlocked. The catch: Los Angeles, 270 miles to the southwest, has been gobbling up land (and water rights) here since the 1920s, and anyone seeking the proverbial foothills cabin on five acres and a creek has a Homeric search ahead. The fix: Snag a chunk of semidesolate ag land upvalley from Bishop, plant some Arizona cypress and pi-on, and call it a homestead. Also, memorize this phrase: "Lots of potential."
RECENT LISTING: Five flat sagebrush acres 14 miles out of Bishop, bordered by BLM land, with a well and wide-angle views of the White Mountains, $79,000. High Sierra Realty, 760-873-6227, www.highsierrarealty.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Pulling an all-nighter with the telescopetaking advantage of the nonexistent light pollutionto watch the Perseid meteor shower every August.
FORGET IT IF: You need a job.
SOUTHERN BLACK HILLS, SOUTH DAKOTA
COMBINE BOUNDLESS GREAT PLAINS with evergreen Rocky Mountain outcroppings, 1.2 million acres of Black Hills National Forest, and such perennial visitor magnets as Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Wind Cave National Park and what do you get? Four million tourists, for starters, most of them in summer. Stick around after Labor Day, however, as increasing numbers of modemites are doing, and discover what locals have known for a while. The southern end of the Black Hills, around Hot Springs and mile-high Custer, enjoys a balmier, drier climate, averaging just 38 inches of snow a year. And the farther you look from the region's population centers (Rapid City, Custer, Spearfish), the lower the prices for good-size acreage.
RECENT LISTING: Sixty secluded acres of pines and meadows, ten miles down a gravel road and walking distance from national forest, $75,000. Black Hills Land Company, 605-673-3167.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Investing in a pet buffalo.
FORGET IT IF: You still have nightmares about family vacations. This is the land of Flintstones Bedrock City, Reptile Gardens, and chuck-wagon cookouts.
CASCADE COUNTY, MONTANA
IN 1960, THE POPULATION OF GREAT FALLS, Cascade County's seat, totaled 55,244. Forty years later it had, um, ballooned to 56,690. So much for overcrowding. In this time-warp cocktail of Old West and Midwest, Lewis and Clark and rodeo cowboys are local heroes, and winter wheat and the four-year drought are conversation staples. The plains give way to mountains and buttes here, a commingling of geography that encourages fishing and paddling on the Missouri, and hiking and biking in the nearby Little Belt and Highwood Mountains.
RECENT LISTING: Pheasant farm and preserve on 505 acres and a mile and a quarter of the Sun River west of Great Falls, with log house and two stocked ponds, $525,000about the price of a two-bedroom fixer in Pasadena. Holiday Realty, 406-761-8630, www.holidayrealtymt.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Paddling downstream on the Missouri, packing a dog-eared copy of Undaunted Courage.
FORGET IT IF: You seek New West glitz. Letterman owns a ranch nearby, but he's not exactly known for throwing lavish celebrity clambakes.
The Vista, near Weaverville, Trinity Alps, California
FEW RETREATS ARE MORE APPEALING than a cozy hideaway in the hills. But if you intend to build on mountainous terrain, consider that the very characteristics you find so captivating about itthe slopes that afford such gawk-inducing viewstend to snarl construction. Building houses on steep terrain takes longer and costs more, and structures can suffer from soil erosion and even mudslides. It's wise to visit a mountain lot during a rainstorm to see firsthand how water drains. And even if you find a level homesite, it still must pass all the other commonsense tests. Will the soil allow for a septic tank? Is there southern exposure for crucial winter sunlight? Might shallow bedrock make it difficult and pricey to drill a well? If the area has been or is being mined, find out whether any hazardous abandoned mine shafts remain. If someone else owns mineral rights to the property, find out whether they intend to use them. Mountains also amplify the importance of access. Your remote hilltop hideaway may seem a lot less appealing if you have to negotiate a double-black-diamond driveway during a blizzard to reach it.
TRINITY ALPS, CALIFORNIA
LAND DOESN'T LANGUISH on the market in northern California's Trinity and eastern Humboldt Counties. Reason one: bikeable back roads and fire trails, Wild and Scenic Rivers alternating tame flatwater with Class II to V chutes, 9,000-foot peaks overlooking one of the country's largest vestiges of ancient forest, and the Pacific just an hour or so downhill. Reason two: Prices might shock a Dakotan, but the remoteness (it's a four-and-a-half-hour drive southwest to San Francisco) keeps them palatable by California standards. A tip: Shop around for a real estate agent knowledgeable enough to steer you clear of logging, helicopter racket, and other nuisances.
RECENT LISTING: Four acres of meadows and old-growth Douglas fir on the Trinity River, with three-bedroom trailer, near organic farms and redwoods, $199,000. Doug Thron, 707-822-4870.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Sitting on your front stoop, munching pesticide-free watermelon from the farm down the road.
FORGET IT IF: You'd feel queasy having either militia wingnuts or cannabis farmers for neighbors.
CHAFFEE COUNTY, COLORADO
SIX OF EVERY SEVEN ACRES in Chaffee County, 75 miles west of Colorado Springs, is public land, and all that green ink on the map is both blessing and curse. It means unmolested scenerythe broad valley of the Arkansas River, lined by the imposing Collegiate Peaks (Mounts Harvard, Yale, and Princeton)and year-round playtime (with paddle, skis, boots, or pedals). It also means a relative dearth of private land, which has helped spike prices. But you still get more charm per greenback here than in nearby Summit Countywithout the I-70 infestation of faux-chalet condos.
RECENT LISTING: Five acres shaded by tall ponderosas at the base of 14,269-foot Mount Antero, 20 minutes from Salida's fetching Victorian downtown, $150,000. Colorado Backcountry Realty, 719-539-0188, www.coloradobackcountryrealty.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Soaking in the Mount Princeton Hot Springs at eyeball level with a rushing stream.
FORGET IT IF: You want rapids all to yourself: The Arkansas draws more than 300,000 paddlers a year.
HIGHLAND COUNTY, VIRGINIA
RESIDENTS OF "VIRGINIA'S SWITZERLAND"all 2,536 of themclaim their county has the highest mean elevation east of the Mississippi, and no one seems to be arguing. A four-hour drive southwest from Washington, D.C., the lush hardwood ridges of the nearby Appalachian Mountains top out above 4,000 feet. But it's what surrounds the peaks that often seals the deal: sheep farms hemmed by miles of split-rail fence, trout-stuffed rivers, even a syrupy spring Maple Festival. Saunter one county to the south and you'll find the hot springs where Jefferson himself dipped.
RECENT LISTING: Sixty-five wooded acres on Jack Mountain with poetic views, a Disneyesque cast of critters, and a stream, $136,500. United County/Shamrock & Stephenson Realty Inc., 540-468-3370; www.monterey-va-realestate.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Devising a vacuum-tube system to tap your own maples for pancake breakfasts on the deck.
FORGET IT IF: You think the Civil War is no longer controversial.
A slice of life in Port Orford, Oregon
West Coast blist: The Pacific Ocean rolling out from Oregon's Port Orford
FIRST, THE OBVIOUS: If you want to see blue, you gotta cough up some green. With rare exceptions, oceanfront (and ocean-view) property commands the highest per-acre asking prices of any real estate in the country. Once you get past that, you can heed some earthier considerations. If a property lies right on the water, see it at its extremes of high and low tide to find out how the shoreline fluctuates. Does the receding tide leave a mudflat where you envisioned building a dock? Does high tide lap at the margins of the only level building site? Find out how far the water might reach during a storm surge or a hurricane. Study up on zoning and building codes, too, which are often more restrictive on the coast. If you fall in love with a property's ocean view, anticipate problems that could tarnish it. Does anyone have rights to remove the trees in the foreground? Is there a chance someone could build on the land between you and the water, high enough to block your vista entirely? Rare is the coastal town that hasn't seen nasty lawsuits filed over issues like these.
PORT ORFORD, OREGON
OREGON'S BREATHTAKING STRING of coastal state parks and its strict land-use lawsa byzantine tangle of urban-growth boundaries, grid tests, and other conundrumskeep property values high. Which means that the price of admission, especially within sight of the Pacific, ain't cheap. But if you don't require urban amenities (like single-malt-and-cigar bars), Port Orford, 170 miles southwest of Eugene, offers tempting substitutes at reasonable-for-Oregon rates: pristine beaches and forests, clean-running rivers like the Elk, Sixes, and Rogue, and enough wind to keep every last boardsailor and kitesurfer stoked.
RECENT LISTING: Fifty-four blufftop and monastically private acres of Douglas fir and myrtle overlooking Humbug Mountain State Park, with a rock-fireplace-bedecked log cabin and a view of the Pacific, $399,000. Sixes River Land Company, 888-291-8275, www.sixesriverlandcompany.com.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Beachcombing for driftwood and agates while waiting for the sunset at Cape Blanco.
FORGET IT IF: You think one grocery store, one movie theater, and zero stop signs sounds like a judicial sentence.
TAYLOR AND DIXIE COUNTIES, FLORIDA
OUTSIDE OF A SMALL SUBCULTURE of hook-and-bullet Southerners, Florida's Big Bend country, 90 miles southeast of Tallahassee, remains an enigma on the map. Coastal towns are few and scattered, with only sporadic road access to the Gulf of Mexico (better known here as "the Guff"). It's not a beachy stretch. Instead, tidal creeks, salt marshes, and seagrass beds support bountiful marine life; Taylor is one of the few Florida counties that still allow scalloping. Cool and crystalline spring-fed rivers invite tubing and canoeing nearby. Drowsy fishing towns like Steinhatchee attract those who like their sunsets dazzling and their seafood and ambience Southern-fried.
RECENT LISTING: 160 acres, including two barrier islands at the mouth of the Suwannee River, with mature oaks and two freshwater ponds, $350,000. United Country/Sawgrass Realty, 352-498-0119, www.unitedcountry.com/steinhatcheefl.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Humming old Jimmy Buffett tunes through your snorkel to the manatees in 72-degree water.
FORGET IT IF: You're driven. Ambition comes here to die.
PRINCE OF WALES ISLAND, ALASKA
ON PRICE OF WALES, your natural grandeur comes with a healthy dollop of extractive-industry detritus. But the periodic clear-cuts on this third-largest U.S. islandroughly 135 miles by 40 at the widestgive way to the steep peaks of the Klawock Hills towering above glacier-gouged valleys, streams, bays, and waterfalls. Coastal temperate rainforest looms over a limestone underworld of caverns, sinkholes, and subterranean streams. Black bears, moose, and wolves overlap with bald eagles and wild salmon. And whatever you think of loggers, their thousand-plus miles of gravel roads make it much easier to get around.
RECENT LISTING: Nearly four acres with 350 feet of shoreline, sporting a small A-frame and a hand-built cedar cabin, with four-wheel-drive-only access, $185,000. Prince of Wales Island Realty, 907-826-2927, www.ktn.net/powr.
PICTURE YOURSELF: Venturing out in your sea kayak to hang with the neighborsporpoises, sea otters, sea lions, and whales.
FORGET IT IF: Ten feet of windblown rainfall a year sounds like...a bit much.
No Irish luck required: the green coast of the Emerald Isle
There are hundreds of reasons why Americans become temporary expatriates: wanderlust, job transfers, and prior convictions, to name a few. But the larger, better reason, we think, is to settle into and harmonize with a different culture and landscape, maybe learn a new language, grab a fresh perspective on life.
If you're with us on this, consider starting your search on International Living's Web site (www.internationalliving.com) or on EscapeArtist.com (www.escapeartist.com); both offer real estate leads worldwide. After you zero in on a locale, "Get title insurance," says Lief Simon, a real estate consultant with International Living. "It's cheap peace of mind." More tips? "The asking price in most countries is just that: asking price. There is no way to legitimately and easily, except by hearsay, find out what the person next to you paid. So don't be afraid to offer as little as 50 percent."
Here are a few prime overseas precincts where, at the moment, the Yankee dollar goes long.
NEW ZEALAND: This perennial sweetheart of globetrotters' "Favorite Destination" polls has endured a double financial whammy: Its currency and the underpinning of its economy (timber, wool, mutton) have sunk like anchors. This means that prime slices of its Middle Earth landscapesranging from tropical bay islands and aquamarine glacial rivers to snowcapped Southern Alps and mock-Irish farmlandsoften come on the block at nostalgic prices. One recent example: a prim two-bedroom cottage on Great Barrier Island, near Auckland, with solar panels, diesel and wind generators, and panoramic views of Hauraki Gulf, just minutes from the beach, all for a modest $98,000.
IRELAND: Expect no bargains in and around Dublin, but in the more remote regionsCounty Sligo, in the less-developed western part of the country, and County Roscommon in the northwestyou can still find old stone farm cottages (in need of TLC) on three-acre parcels for less than $50,000. Both areas boast rolling hills, glacial valleys, deep glens, rushing trout-filled rivers, and enough shades of green to exhaust your supply of adjectives in no time. Bonus: Irish residential land incurs no property tax.
OUT ISLANDS OF THE BAHAMAS: Turquoise bathwater coves, sugar beaches kissed by trade winds, kaleidoscopic reef fish, and pastel villages are a given on these 700-odd outposts, sprinkled over 100,000 square miles of the Atlantic and a mere hour-long flight from Fort Lauderdale. Now factor in an English-speaking population and beach frontage for perhaps a tenth of the going rate in Nassau or Freeport. On Cat Island or Long Island, half-acre ocean-view tracts sometimes list for $50,000. Two provisos: Transfer taxes and fees can add as much as 15 percent to land prices, and the cost of living is, to put it politely, Caribbean.
FRANCE: The upshot of rural France's youth migrating to cities is a sinking real estate market in the countryside, and such tantalizing recent offerings as these: a ramshackle 1700s stone two-bedroom on nearly an acre in the Charente region of southwestern France, with exposed beams, fireplace, and barn, for $47,000; four-bedrooms of the same ilk in the Auvergne, in the Massif Central (densely wooded, braided by rivers, and home to the country's largest natural park), in the $60,000 range; and a stone-and-slate one-bedroom cottage with garden in Brittany, ten minutes from the beach and two hours from Paris, for $20,000.
Let's get real estate: the nitty-gritty of buying smart
Dreaming about your off-the-grid oasis is one thing. Buying itand building on itis 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.
MAKING A DECISION
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.
LANDING YOUR LOAN
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 propertyor up to the property lineto 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.
BEFORE SIGNING ANYTHING
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 landwhich can increase value but doesn't necessarily spare it from development or resource extractioncheck 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.