Thursday, March 17, 2011

Country Living 101: Buying property

Just about the first decision anyone who wants to move to the country will have to make is what kind of property to buy. Needless to say there are endless variables to consider.

First, look at the big picture. What kind of climate attracts you? We can’t handle heat, so hot and/or humid areas were out of the question. Others can’t handle cold, in which case the north Idaho panhandle or the Michigan Upper Peninsula is off-limits. Look at the regional Big Picture and start focusing on general areas. Don’t forget to consider growing seasons in making your choice.

What kind of natural disasters are you prepared to handle? Keep in mind the hazards associated with any particular area, whether it's tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, blizzards, or other minor details.

How much property should you buy? More than you think. As much as you can afford. Just don't bite off more than you can chew – remember, we have tough economic times ahead. You don’t want to lose your land to foreclosure because you owe too much every month.

In 1992 we left suburban California and bought our four acres in rural southwest Oregon. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven. So much room! Why, our land was almost as big as a city block! Well, that room shrinks drastically the first time you get a cow/calf pair. Animals can eat down a pasture faster than you can imagine, and if your land is small you’ll need to supplement their feed with fodder purchased elsewhere. So depending on the price and your ability to meet your financial obligations, I would buy as many acres as you can afford.

That said, keep in mind what you plan to use your land for. If you plan to keep livestock, you’ll need more land. If you plan to keep only chickens and a large garden, you can get away with a half-acre or an acre. And obviously price will also play a huge part in your choice.

How far outside urban limits should you be? Most people limit their distance from urban areas for two reasons: (1) proximity to services such as essential shopping and medical care; and (2) employment opportunities. If you’re in superb health and work at home, you can live farther away (the advantage is prices are often lower). If you or a family member needs frequent medical care or you work in the city, you’ll need to live closer (the disadvantage is prices are often higher). There are obviously pluses and minuses to both.

Whatever location you chose, one of your primary considerations should be WATER as well as water rights (make sure you own them). Water should NOT mean city hook-ups. Water should mean a well, pond, year-round stream, spring, or other permanent source. Surface water can be filtered and will provide endless water for your livestock, garden, and orchard. Well water means you’ll need a pump. Most pumps today are electrical. If your well is less than a couple hundred feet deep, you can get a hand pump to supplement, or if you have the money you can go for a windmill or solar array to power your pump in case of no electricity. Whatever option you chose, make sure water is easily accessible through some non-electric means or through home-generated power.

Know what “rights” you are purchasing with your property – and know what “rights” don't come with your property. Timber rights? Water rights? Mineral rights? All these can be owned by someone other than you. Easements? Who can legally come onto your property besides you?

What about other encumbrances, such as CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions), land use or zoning restrictions, or building requirements or restrictions? There are plenty of things you need to have nailed down before signing the paperwork. If you can afford it, you might consider hiring an attorney with land expertise to sort through the legalese.

It should go without saying that your property shouldn’t be in a flood plain. I remember eight years ago when I was here in Idaho for the first time. I was traveling with a realtor looking at many different properties. We passed a flat level area where the houses were jacked up on ten-foot foundations. “Floods,” was my thought, and sure enough I was right. Floods are terrifying and destructive things, and believe me, you don’t want your little piece of paradise washed away in a 500-year monstrosity.

My personal preference for rural property is something off the beaten track. This can require certain adaptations – four-wheel drive vehicles and an understanding that you’re not going anywhere after a blizzard, for example – but I like the privacy of being off-road. It means our area is not likely to be “built up” any time soon. Eight years ago when we were deciding which home to buy in Idaho, it came down to two choices: our current location, and a thirty-acre drop-dead gorgeous piece of land an hour’s drive north of us. Our concern with the larger acreage was its proximity to a golf course. We ended up choosing our current home in part because it was less likely to be developed. Sure enough, after we moved in we heard constant radio ads urging people to buy condos on that golf course near the other home. We would have lost our coveted privacy within months had we bought the other place.

Our personal preference in property is a mixture of woods and pasture. The woods provide us with fuel to heat our home and shade for our livestock. The pasture provides summer forage for our cattle. Your criteria may differ, but keep in mind you will need to heat your home and cook your food in some way, and you will need to grow some food as well. A heavily wooded property may provide lots of fuel for your woodstove, but if you have to clear an entire acre of trees in order to get enough land to grow a garden, it may be more work than you want to do. Alternatively if you have no trees on your land, you have lots of room to grow stuff but no wood for heating or cooking. You might be able to compensate for this by planting fast-growing hybrid poplar trees or some such wood source.

Another thing to consider is the health of your soil. We have heavy clay soil and must supplement our garden areas heavily with composted manure (which, fortunately, we have tons of – literally.) Other areas may be sandy or loamy or any number of other soil types. This is yet another factor to consider in your property search.

Know what types of noxious weeds are in your area and keep a sharp eye out for them when you look over your property. When we first arrived in Idaho, it was mid-June and the fields were ablaze with the most beautiful yellow flowers. It was stunning! Only later did we realize those fields of yellow flowers were the dreaded yellow hawkweed, an invasive species that out-competes native plants and grasses and is inedible to livestock. We have fought it ever since. We also have issues with knapweed, though it’s not as bad as the hawkweed. Other places in the west are overrun with star thistle. Learn in advance what kinds of plants you’re looking at when you view your property.

Though mountains are beautiful, be mindful of the amount of sunlight the property receives. We live in an area that is hilly but not particularly mountainous (the mountains are farther east), but I know some hilly places where the sun doesn’t shine literally all winter long. The houses there are in eternal shadow for months on end. A shaft of sun on a winter day can be a heartwarming thing – something to keep in mind. And adequate sunlight during the growing months, needless to say, makes all the difference in successful gardening and farming.

Personally I am of the opinion that rural property which can’t be used for food production doesn’t have much value, but that’s because I’m thinking like a farmer. You might be thinking pure bug-out, in which case your property requirements will differ. Make a list of qualities you are seeking and search until most of those qualities are met.

Neighbors can make or break your enjoyment. Does the land next to you belong to a mining company? A large chicken or pig farmer? A gun range? Is the fellow upstream of your pond moving a lot of earth that clogs your waterways? Try to meet your potential neighbors, if possible. Feel them out and give them a chance to look you over. They can, if so inclined, give you a lot of information you’ll never get from a real estate agent or an atlas.

You are always wiser to get a survey done of the boundaries, but sometimes it’s not really imperative. If you live in a state where adverse possession laws are strong and your fences (you do have fences, right?) have been in place for years, you are probably okay. But a survey will usually settle everyone down.

From the standpoint of preparedness, consider a few more points. How far is your property from the main road? Is it visible from that road? How easy is it to reach your place? How many ways in to your place are there? How easy (or hard) is it to walk in? If you have to bug out, how many options do you have as far as direction, concealment, or cover? How defendable is the property? Just some more factors to consider.

And remember this: no piece of property can fill all your requirements. You will always find something to gripe about. We have a pretty darned nice chunk of land, yet I fret that it’s too close to town (“town” being 1000 people four miles away). So whatever piece of property you find, look at its benefits and try to mitigate its disadvantages and be at peace with your decision.

(Some of these ideas were borrowed with thanks from


  1. Patrice

    Somewhere in my late teens I started thinking about a rural retreat. To help me keep track of things I started a list on a small card in my wallet, adding things as I thought of them. As my list progressed, it began to describe every aspect of the dream place; geography, topography, community, everything. By the time we were ready to look thirty years later the list was about 200 entries long, filling both sides of a 4x6 card, which still resides on my night stand even though we bought our Shangri-La ten years ago. This simple task of writing and revising a list was invaluable in focusing my thoughts and efforts. In the end we got everything on the list except for one, which means that we got about 99.5% of what we wanted.


  2. I am so glad you emphasized WATER. I have seen so many people be enchanted by a property and forget to ask about WATER!

  3. So true, water is a huge deal. Our well is 385 feet down, but we have one, and we're not down on the river flood plane like many of our friends. We're thinking of splurging on the big water well hand pumper and will go down deep, forget the brand. The beautiful mountians are to the North of us (perfect) and get tons of sun in summer and all that is offered in winter. No trees, bummer. Wind in winter, bummer.

    Great post, thanks so much, we're looking for more, this was great timing.

    Jane in Alaska

  4. WOW, you totally nailed all the right order, with all the important points....nice job!

    Are those some of Andy's paintings?

  5. Having just gone through this process I found your article very through and helpful. I might add one more comment. Here in NC motor cycles are very popular. At one time I lived off Hwy 9 outside of Black Mountain, a good 1/2 mile from the main road. The motor cycles drove me crazy on the weekends. In buying our new land we made several trips on different days of the week. We seem to be in a very quiet area and no motorcycles! Yeah! In order to be able to afford what we deemed necessary for our needs we traded convenience of being "close in" to "you better not forget the milk."

  6. Jane in Alaska, I would be VERY interested in knowing what kind of hand pump can handle deep wells. Our well is 610' deep and we gave up on the idea of a hand pump, so if something is out there that can handle deep wells, I'd like to know. Be sure to post the brand when you remember what it is.

    Thanks, Patrice

  7. Patrice -

    You might want to check with Dankoff Solar. They have low voltage D.C. pumps that are admittedly low flow, but can pump from great depths as well as over long distances for filling cisterns and the like.

    Good luck!

  8. NatureGirl, I confess I get my pictures by going to and sorting through "Fine art" until I find something pretty. I don't sort by artist so all the pix are by different people.

    - Patrice

  9. Pam, thank you for the suggestion - we'll check them out.

    - Patrice

  10. Patrice, going back to your question to Jane about hand pumps for deep wells, I live in Alaska, too, and water is often in short supply especially in the winter when the ground is frozen. I haven't found a "deep well pump" either, but where I live, it is wise to install water holding tanks in the basement or crawl space for water shortages.

    On the kitchen counter next to our sink, we are seriously thinking of installing a well-built hand pump that runs up from the holding tanks in the basement. That way, when our power goes off or when we have to supplement our water (always in winter) by hauling water, we can bring it up from the basement without electricity.

    Yes, WATER -how much, how little, well depth, and ground water (and whether it is on a flood plain)is an aspect of choosing land often overlooked. Often it is a quite costly one down the road.

  11. Well said, Patrice.

    Other considerations to take are railroad lines, power lines, taxes, and federal land boundries.

    When lookng for a place to relocate to from the GOM area last year after the BP oil volcano erupted and poisioned the gulf, we searched high and low on the internet before we went out and actually looked at properties. It took us 3 days and looking at 32 properties before we found our little slice of heaven.

    My major concerns were tax rates and being away from any big powerlines, r.r. tracks, and interstates as these will become lines of drift for the golden hoarde.

    We escaped from Florida last June and we couldn't be happier with our choice to GOOD when we did. I just joined the local FD, we have some great, like minded neighbors out here in the knobs, and plan on being able to live off the land real soon.

    Life out here in the country isn't easy or for the faint at heart as hard work, and muscle aches are the norm around here.

    Being a Florida city boy for forty years means that this is a whole new experience for me and my wife but together, and by the grace of God, we'll be just fine no matter what comes our way.

    Now, If only there was a way to shorten that 10 year learning curve that I keep hearing about! lol!

  12. Thanks, Patrice :D

    My well info is outdated, but back in the late 90s we looked into alternatives to electricity for our well (because even the slightest breeze would knock off the electricity)......ours was around 580' deep....'Bison' came up quite often when we asked around ( ) ~ there's a more up to date discussion on here ......

    If it was me, now, I'd pick solar power assuming you have a lot of sunshine on a regular basis....