How to Protect Yourself When Buying a Farm or Rural Property (or any property for that matter!)

How to Protect Yourself When Buying a Farm or Rural Property (or any property for that matter!)

what to know about buying a farm house rural property country
What we mean by “protect yourself” is:

Make a good investment.
Know what you are getting yourself into.
Prepare so that there are no surprises down the road.
Get exactly what you want from your dream property, farm, or homestead.

We bought our first house this past October. The perfect country property with outbuildings, acreage, and an old farmhouse. It took us over three years of active searching to find this place, partly because we were looking for a “forever home,” a homestead that we could put time and energy into making our own, investing in the land so that it could care for us in the future.

We were both first-time homebuyers. Even as two educated professionals, eager to learn, and with full internet access and neurotic researching habits, we still felt blind-sided by a few things we encountered during our searching and home buying process. It was a situation where we didn’t know what we didn’t know. You know?

Even if you aren’t buying a rural property or a farm, you should still find this information helpful!

We are cautious-knowledge-seekers to the core. A year or two into our house hunting process we started to realize that we weren’t like other people. It seemed like a lot of the people we were interacting with (internet companies, the DNR, etc) were not used to getting the types of questions we were asking. We couldn’t fathom that someone would buy a house without looking into the things we were looking into. Those people have guts…

That, or we really are just insane. We hope you can benefit by our craziness hard work.

After looking at houses for three years, and seriously considering far too many, we had our “property knowledge gathering process” down. As soon as a property met our initial requirements (things like square footage, number of bathrooms, location, acreage), we started to go down the long and exhaustive list of what we needed to find out about it.

Wondering what questions to ask before you buy a house? 
Looking for tips on buying rural or country property?
Considering a property but feel overwhelmed?

The following is our general advice, along with the things we looked into or encountered along the way. Things you might want to look into and questions to ask before signing your name on that line.

Fair warning, this is a novel.

Don’t Trust Anyone
Out of everything we learned, our biggest piece of advice is to not trust anyone.
And we know that that sounds horrible.

Nobody will look out for you like you can. It is your life, your house, your money, and ultimately all your responsibility! Plus, humans are, well…human.  We really liked our realtor, and after three years he became more like a friend. Our loan officer was incredible. The title people were great. Inspector was awesome. Did we ever trust any of them? Nope!

Not trusting is really hard, and you may even have to work at it. Dealing with overwhelming documents and hard-to-understand information that was easy to glaze over, plus working with genuinely nice people made it really hard to resist the urge to “just trust.” We really had to focus on looking out for ourselves and not letting our guard down. And we couldn’t recommend this enough!

This doesn’t mean we were rude, short, or condescending to anyone, no way. Simply stated, we took extra time if needed, asked a lot of questions, and always looked things up for ourselves.

Tax Information
In the areas where we were house hunting, the counties have tax and land information on their websites. The records go back many years and tell exactly what land zoning classifications the land has held and what the owners paid in property taxes. You may have to physically visit your county building if these records aren’t available online. Whatever it takes, you must see these documents!

Ask yourself:
What are the yearly taxes, and can you afford them?
Did the property valuation and taxes change throughout the years significantly? Why?
What are the land zoning classification?
Do the zoning classifications make sense to you?
Do you understand what you can and can’t do on that property, according to the zoning classification?
Are the zoning classifications right for what you want to do with the property?
If you change the land (for example: grow trees where there is field), how will the taxes be affected?
Does the land zoning classification impact your ability to get financing?

We were holding our breath for a couple days (after making an offer!) while our lender had to check into a couple things, as she didn’t realize our property had a “significant amount” (14 acres) of agricultural classified acreage, and that with tighter loan restrictions we might not be able to get the type of loan we wanted. Thankfully it worked out fine, but we were nervous for a couple days. We had no idea this was even an issue.

A couple properties we looked at had “managed forest” zoned areas, which required a lot of learning and phone calls to understand what it would mean for us. We even met with the county forestry guy (that is his official title by the way) to learn everything we needed to. By the time we decided not to buy that property, we were managed forest experts. It was a lot of time and effort for what ended up to be for nothing, but we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

If there is a zoning classification you’re not familiar with, you’d better find out about it.

rural property side house

People Searching
Who are the neighbors?

We not only looked up the owners of the property we were interested in, but also who owned the surrounding properties. We were able to find the names of the neighbors on the county tax information site and then search for them on the internet to find out if they had any criminal history, what they did for employment, and any additional information their Facebook pages would offer up. Stalker-ish? Definately, but we didn’t want any surprises.

With one property we discovered that the owner of the neighboring lot was a developer and a big housing complex was scheduled to be built next door. Um, not interested in that! We discovered another property had a fracking sand mine ¼ mile away. No thanks. No one is going to tell you this information, it is something you need to gather for yourself.

On a related note, it’s incredible what you can find out about someone!

You might even be able to find motivation as to why the people are selling their property (usually on Facebook). Divorce? Job relocation? Death in the family? Take any negotiating advantage you can get.


DNR Information

In our state, the DNR has land classifications that can be important, mainly wetlands. We learned that if any of our prospective property was classified as “wetland” or “potential wetland,” that it limited what we could do with that land because wetlands are “protected.”

We also learned that most people have no idea that this existed or that their property even had wetland classification. In fact, over 50% of the properties we were serious about had wetland classification, and 0% of the owners of those properties knew that. Maybe it wasn’t something that DNR even enforced, but nevertheless it was something we wanted to know.

Another thing related to property classification and DNR regulations we found was “open” and “closed” land. In Wisconsin, if you own “open” land you get a property tax break, but it also means that other people may use your land for hunting, hiking and other things without your permission.

I’m sure all states are very different. Calling your local DNR or doing a thorough search of their website can’t hurt.


Township Ordinances

Our township seems pretty lax, but we know that many are not. These are the people who can regulate things like burning permits, if you are allowed to burn garbage, weapon restrictions, registering your dog, when you are allowed to have thrift sales, all kinds of stupid little things.

Our township has a website with some (but not all of) the information we wanted. You might even need to call a board member or go to a meeting to find out any restrictions or ordinance. Our township people are near impossible to get ahold of, we’ve found. They haven’t returned any calls or emails we’ve sent. Which we kind of like because we think it means that they don’t care too much (to each their own!) but it is a pain when we are trying to obey by the rules and just want to know what they are.

Look up this information before you make an offer, if you don’t want any surprises later.


County Property Records

We actually had to go to the county building and search their computers and archaic, heavy, really-cool-looking books to find this information. There were a couple things we were looking up while there…

Mortgages are public records tied to the property ID. Knowing what the current owners took out and seeing when or if they refinanced might give you a small window into their financial situation = advantage homebuyer.

It can also help piece together and corroborate the story of the house. The older the property, the more chance for “history” there. Property value went up the year after they refinanced and the homeowners state that they put an addition on the house that year? Well, that all makes sense, which is what you want. Contradictions don’t exist. If something doesn’t add up, you might need to do some more digging.

We also would look at how many times the property had been bought and sold, which can be very telling. Was it haunted? Too expensive to heat? Why was it sold four times in three years? That might be the definition of a big red flag. Was it used as a rental property? Ugh. Owned by the same family for 20 years? Yay!

Are there any easements or conditions on the property? These documents will also be there. This is information that is good to know and is usually something you have to be okay with because you often can’t change it.

Example 1: The land my parent’s own was originally owned by the railroad 100 years ago. When the land was sold to my grandmother, it was sold with the condition that the mineral rights would always belong to the railroad no matter who owned it. Interesting, huh? So if they ever find gold or oil, although extremely unlikely, it belongs to the railroad, not the land owners.

Example 2: An easement may mean that someone has access to a portion of your land. Are you okay with this? Our property has a driveway on the edge of it for access to the neighboring farm land, and we also have to help maintain it. Good information to know, so we aren’t chasing down trespassers. :)

Barn Summer

Homeowner’s Insurance
This was the big blind-sider for us. During our great home search, we never even considered how the features of the property we were looking at could greatly affect our rates or even our ability to get insurance. Because neither of use had ever had homeowner’s insurance before…

A fireplace or wood stove may increase your rate.
The farther you are from town/water/fire hydrant access, the higher your rate.
The age of your house and potential for old stuff in it may increase your rate.
Are there old buildings? Is there a barn or a silo? Even if not in use, it could increase your rate.
Will there be livestock? Farming? Cow’s hurt people. Cow’s may cost more money…

Don’t buy a property that you can’t afford to insure. We can’t believe how oblivious we were to this until after we had chosen, fell in love with, and had an accepted offer on a property!

There might even be different tiers of insurance available depending on what your property contains and the land zoning classifications. In our area there are three tiers: regular home, rural estate, and farm. We fell into the rural estate insurance category, but almost had to go up to the farm-type (which is more expensive).

A good insurance broker should ask about outbuildings, but if they don’t you should mention it.

It is a good idea to get a feel for the different factors that insurance companies in your area care about. If we did it over again, we would have gotten a quote before we made an offer (if time allowed).

Outbuildings & Equipment
Our property came with a nice detached garage and an old barn and milk house. We had a licensed inspector assess the house, and although he was willing (for additional fee) to take a look at the garage and barn, he made it clear to us that the information he would tell us was not “official” but that he was happy to give his opinion.

If the property you are looking at comes with “extras” and you aren’t an expert at assessing their quality or function, then you might consider hiring someone for their expert opinion. Especially if the value of these is figured into the offer amount. It is a small investment that might save you a lot of money and headache down the road.

Two points here: if you are getting an inspection, outbuilding and detached garages may cost extra. If you can find an inspector that specializes in farms, great! If not, you might even consider hiring someone else to look at the outbuildings or equipment, separate from the house.

I wouldn’t buy a used car without having my mechanic take a gander at it. Because I am not an expert. Same rules apply to farm equipment and outbuildings.
rural barn inside

Unknowns
Are there any features of the house that you aren’t familiar with?

We looked at one house with oil heat. We took one look at their heating bill and turned right around. We didn’t have experience with oil heat and had no idea the costs until we looked it up. Plus, the idea of having a huge tank of oil in the basement just felt weird.

Is there a reverse osmosis system? In-floor heating? Solar panels? Mound septic system?

If there is something you don’t have experience with, you’d better start researching! This goes back to the trust issue too. Don’t take anyones’s word for it, not your Realtor, not the homeowner… do the research yourself, invest the time and learn what you need to in order to make a smart financial decision.


Randoms

Sex Offender Registry- eek, anyone close by with a record?

Internet Access- do you care and do you know what is available in the area? This was an important factor for us and it often required a great deal of investigative work. We learned that if you will need internet newly run to the property, that you have to surpass the sales team and talk directly to the technicians to get the best information on timeline, feasibility, and internet speed.

LP Gas Tank- is it owned or rented (this makes a difference on where you can buy gas).

Rented Equipment- is something rented (not owned), like a water softener or water filtration device? Will you be getting a bill for it or will someone be coming to collect something that you thought was yours?

Weapons- can you use guns on your property, and do you know what kind? You might have to look even further into this, as there might be county, city, and township ordinances.

Gas and Electric Bills- is the house an energy hog? Will it cost you a small fortune to live there? You can ask the homeowner for copies of their recent bills, but we often found it faster to just call the companies and ask for the usage information for that property. Try: “Hi, I am looking at purchasing a property and wanted to know the electric usage for the past year.” “Hi, I am looking at a purchasing a property and need to know how much gas was delivered in the past 12 months.”

Snow Plow Route- will it be days before your roads are plowed after a snow storm?

Predators- what kind of critters are lurking in the area. Bobcat? Mountain Lion? Bear? Wolf? You may find information by googling “bear sightings in (name of city here).” Or stop by and ask the neighbors! Speaking of neighbors…

Chat Up the Neighbors- people love to talk, especially about other people! It is worthwhile to stop in and introduce yourself to the folks next door. “Hi, we are looking at purchasing the property next door. Have you lived in this area a long time? Is there anything you can tell me about this area? Do you love living in this area?” This is a great way to find out detailed information. And maybe even some dirt…

Cell Reception- a good thing to check while you are at a house showing. Set a reminder on your phone for when you are there so you don’t forget this.

Water Source- is it drinkable? Is it good? Clean, safe water was on our top priority list. Out in the country sometimes this can be a toss-up. We always asked how deep the well is. We also found some county plumbing records online that were helpful. We were able to see all the surrounding property’s water tests from the past six years or so. Great information for worry-warts like us.

Health Risks- are there any factories nearby? Anything giving off waste products? When doing some research we found that manure and fertilizer manufactureres were risky to live by as the ground water around them was often more contaminated. Remember the movie Erin Brakovich?

On a similar note, are there any odd crops planted nearby? Are there fields next to yours that will be sprayed with heavy chemicals? Growing an organic garden becomes near impossible if this is the case…

Railroads- they can be noisy, are you okay with them?


The Offer

This is somewhere where we trusted our Realtor just a little too much. Everyone knows that signing your life away on paper is probably the most nerve-racking part of buying a property. Here is how we protected ourselves when signing documents that seem to be written in a foreign language. And what we would have done differently.

We got blank copies of the Realtor’s documents ahead of time. We wanted to read EVERYTHING, and didn’t want to make the Realtor sit there for hours while we went over every detail, and didn’t want to feel rushed the day we made the offer. This also gave us time to research anything we didn’t know.

Even though we did have the papers, we wished we would have done more research on some of the things we didn’t fully understand. If we had to do it over again we would have looked up every single line item on the offer papers. There were a couple things that came up that we wished we hadn’t “okayed.”

For us, one was the seller’s right to finance. We didn’t strike this line and really wished we would have. We overlooked it. It didn’t end up being an issue, but we freaked out for a week when there was that little snafu with our loan and we realized we didn’t strike that line out.

Karl found the Wisconsin Realtors Association website to be very helpful (we wish we would have found it sooner!) It is actually for Realtors, but they have a legal hotline with great explanation and recommendation for many of the paperwork line items that we wanted to know more about. You might want to check out your state’s Realtor Association website.

It would be a shame to put so much effort into finding the perfect property and being well-informed about it, only to be let down by the paperwork.

This is a lot of information to consider and you may have to pick and choose the things that are most important to you, being limited by time and sanity. Finding a homestead, farm, or rural property that meets your needs takes more time and energy than finding a city property; there is simply just more to consider.

It isn’t about finding a place that is 100% perfect and with no risk.  It is about being completely informed, knowing what the risks are, and being okay with them. But just like any homesteading venture, if you put the time and effort into the project, you will be rewarded for it! Happy homestead-hunting!

Do you have any tips or advice for rural homebuyers? 
Anything that you stumbled with or would have done differently?

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76 thoughts on “How to Protect Yourself When Buying a Farm or Rural Property (or any property for that matter!)

  1. Such a good article! I also live in Wisconsin – Northwestern part of it – and we are currently trying to sell our small home in town to purchase something a little larger in the country. Such good reminders that there are so many things to look into when buying a homestead! I will make a list and make sure to do more research before we are ready to make an offer on the place!

  2. Whoa! Thanks for writing this. We are going out in FIVE days to look at some rural property and pick which one we want to live on for the rest of our lives. I THOUGHT I was obsessive and anal but, dang, after reading this I’ve got some homework to do this week. You’ve brought up several excellent issues that never crossed my mind.

  3. Great info Crystal – Man you are one smart lady and sounds like your Carl is too. Unfortunately Eileen and Kevin didn’t have the time to research buying their house and did depend on Lenny my brother who was the realtor. Been in the house 4 months and so far no unexpected surprises. The heating bill was high this year but look at the unusually artic winter we had and it’s still not over :( They have a big house and lots of mature trees (which considering they only had 1 tree in Barneveld that they planted) there will be more yard work. Because they moved in the winter don’t really know how many kids there are in the area the same age as theirs. Did meet some of the neighbors during the Holidays seem nice. But again, they have cousins close by now and planning to spend more time at the cabin in the summer or frequent trips to see Mary & Jonathan. Taxes in EC were cheaper than Barneveld and so are groceries for the most part. Dance & swim lessons cheaper. They have alot to learn as you are but all in all it was a blessing to be able to move back home.

  4. Great info! I can relate to so much of it. I wish I had read an article like this years ago when we bought our property. We didn’t/don’t have major issues. But, there are tons of little things that are just part of our life now. Our road doesn’t get plowed. So, our first winter we were stuck at home for a week with 2′ of snow. I didn’t even realize we would get that much snow. Our neighbors aren’t the friendly people next door type. Because we’re off a logging road, we have to pay to drive on it. We have to pay the fire department directly because we don’t pay for that coverage with our taxes. I could go on. Great post & I’m sure it will help others looking to buy property.

  5. This is really great info! We came within hours of closing on a piece of property that we never would have been able to build on. We had no idea. It is really a good idea to find out all you can before it is a done deal. Thanks for sharing this at the HomeAcre Hop!

  6. Wow, what a great article! Really, you guys should make an e-book out of this! It will come in so handy as we consider various rural properties. Thanks again!

  7. Can’t seem to find in your article what a DNR is..seems to be an important information source from the context, but what do the initials stand for?
    otherwise, very informative! thanks a bunch.
    Betsy

    • Hi Betsy- thanks!

      DNR stands for Department of Natural Resources (in Wisconsin these are the people who regulate hunting and fishing, state parks, and land conservation and species protections issues).

  8. One huge area to consider is the property in a FEMA flood zone?
    Ours is zone AE, backyard backs to a very small river (more like a creek) and it was a big hassle. Our house is not a vacation house, is less than 1,800 sf and was built in the 1980s where the builder didn’t have to get FEMA insurance. After Sandy and Katrina, FEMA raised insurance rates dramatically, which homeowners like us are required to have FEMA insurance for the whole house (not just for the flooring or foundation). FEMA didn’t pursue the correct process when re-drawing maps. Congress passed a measure where the new FEMA rates won’t go into effect for several years and will be phased in thankfully. Still, a hassle.

    • Great tip Carl, thanks!

      That is something we didn’t really have to worry about (thankfully!) in our area, but certainly there are a lot of areas around the country that do.

  9. Southwestern Wisconsin checking in! The driftless area has been a whole new set of challenges and differences from where we were from. I’d suggest checking for big storms in the past few years as well. Definitely wasn’t expecting the two tornados we were surprised with earlier this month! Not sure it would have been a deal breaker for us, but other people may think differently. ;)
    Great article!

    • Great tip Rose, thanks! Hope your home and family are okay.

      And thanks for bringing up a good topic…
      In an area with known tornado activity I would want to take into account if the house has a basement or cellar for safety during a bad storm. And if you have little kids and have to go outside to get to your storm shelter- that is something you’ll want to seriously think about. On a related note- tornado activity and bad storms can equal heavy rain and flooded basements. Something to keep an eye out for.

  10. Great post!! We are currently apartment dwellers from Arkansas hoping to acquire some land in the next couple of years! This was so helpful to consider all the homework we need to do before settling in.

  11. this is an AWESOME article. the only thing i don’t agree with is the owning of arms on your property. that is what the second amendment is for, you should never have to ask to have weapons such as guns on your property.

    • Thanks Tiffany! And I totally agree with you. Owning and having guns isn’t the problem, it is wether or not you are able to shoot them off. I believe that because of proximity to roads and other properties/houses, some types of guns (usually rifles) aren’t permitted to be shot. So, something good to check into before you buy a property, if that’s what you intend to do! :)

  12. I have purchased three homes in my lifetime. You certainly did much more research than I ever did (and I wish I had). Very smart thing to do. Thank you for sharing your adventure in home buying!

  13. Do some of these not qualify if the home my significant other and I are going to buy belongs to the family and has been in the family for years? Or would different things come up?

    • I think that almost all of it still probably applies. You are paying for the house and want to make a good investment regardless of who you get it from. It is nice that you probably already know neighbors and the history of the house, but you still need to make sure that you will be able to do the things you want to do there, and can afford to insure it, heat it, or fix what needs to be fixed, etc.

      And I still wouldn’t take anybody’s word for anything… even if they are family. Do the research yourself. :)

  14. Thank you so much for writing this article! My family and I are currently looking to purchase property in NW Wisc and our biggest challenge has been figuring out easements/zoning and rules/regulations, like you had mentioned- none of them call you back or email. Very frustrating! Have you found any websites/pages that might help? On a side note- be careful how much info. you ask/tell the DNR- they are not your friends(no matter how “nice” they are) and are looking for any reason to “investigate”. (Please don’t ask how I know this)! Can’t wait to read your next article-

    • Thanks Pattie! We did find some helpful online documents regarding the rules and regs on a county level, but they were specific to our county. I went to the county land/zoning/whatever office multiple times, had someone teach me how to use the computer and the big old books they had there and looked at every document ever associated with the property for myself, which I actually found to be very interesting! This is where the easement/deed/zoning/tax info was (some I could see online, but a lot of it I couldn’t).

      On the township level was the worst for us for finding information. Were able to find that our township has office hours (well, 1 open office hour per week, on a Saturday)… maybe yours has something like that too, where you could go in and ask questions. I think most townships have at least a primitive website these days, which is a good starting place. If you’re in city limits than it should be easier.

      Hope that helps, best of luck!

  15. My husband and I bought a 36 acre slice of heaven just a few months ago and because we didn’t question all the sellers stipulations, we had to scramble for $2000 because they decided to only pay part of closing costs and our Realtor had said she ‘would take care of it.’ We’re first time home buyers too, and aside from that and delaying closing for a week (so much extra paperwork when you run a home based business!!), we had a good experience. We put in our offer on Feb 8, inspection passed, closed on March 17. :)

  16. I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart; you saved me and my husband from a huge mistake. We looked at a small acreage (going on three times) on the edge of town lines, but far away from the town itself. I was asking what I thought were the right questions (including why they were moving). I was feed a lie from the realtor that we could buy or use the adjoining town owned land (as the previous owners had for their horses for 30 years). I than found your blog while planning my new homestead (I arrogantly almost didn’t read it). Taking your advice I search as if possessed and by morning (I phoned to make all the pieces fit). The town using a development bylaw plan from 1984 has sold via sealed tendering the surrounding lands to commercial bidders. That gorgeous acreage will be a small island surrounded by a storage space place, a towing company and a contract sprayers among other things (it’s a town of 450 people this much development at once is uncommon). Even though I don’t think the town was hiding this it’s shocking how hard it was to find out. The realtor and owner (who as you said were nice) definitely knew and didn’t say. It was a unlikely event that I never would have found without you, this is a life lesson I will never forget.

    • Oh wow Nicole!! Thank you so much for sharing this with me- it makes me so happy to hear that my article helped you. Isn’t it crazy how deep you have to dig for property information?! So glad you found that stuff out before it was too late. Best of luck on your search for a homestead! -Crystal

  17. These are some great tips, and I appreciate your advice to find out about any zoning classifications that are unfamiliar. My wife and I are looking to buy a small farm, but we haven’t lived on a large property before. We’ll definitely be sure to do some research and asking around if we run into things we don’t understand. Thanks for the great post!

  18. Thank you so much for writing this article!!! I want to buy a small farm or acreage for a small farm, but this is completely out of our comfort zone or even knowledge! We are originally from an island in the Caribbean and having a farm was never in our plans, but it is something that God put in my heart and we are trying to learn as much as we can before even considering an actual property!!!!!!!

    Again THANK YOU!!!!

    • Well… I think that depends largely on where you live. I mentioned it briefly in the post- but it wasn’t something that concerned us, based on the area we were looking to buy in. It is my understanding that sometimes you can find out by looking at the county records, and sometimes it is buried and hidden- that there are many ways land and land rights can change hands, and it isn’t always organized or obvious- so some people hire a special property/mineral lawyer to get to the bottom of it (=$$$).

      I think it also varies by state, and maybe even further by county, the lengths that mineral right owners are allowed to go to. Could they come on to your land and mine your pasture? Excavate your beautiful garden? I don’t know- possibly? It probably boils down to where you live and what things are being mined. We don’t have anything currently/obviously worthwhile where we are, but if you’re buying in Alaska, California, Texas… that might be another story.

  19. You have done amazing research, and are doing a great service by providing it to those looking to purchase the same type of property. One day my husband and I would love to have a property where we can’t see our neighbors houses and it is peaceful – our own slice of heaven.

  20. I bought a rural home on 3 acres back in 89 that I still live on. Although I researched everything I could think of, a couple of gotchas got us. The main one was septic system capacity and condition. We had the septic tank drained and inspected before we bought and they did a percolation test to make sure the leech field would handle everything ok. What didn’t show up until occupancy went from 2 people to 8 was that although the tank was big enough (1,500 gal) the leech field was too small to handle more than 4 people AND it had been built with orangeburg, a Coal Tar Impregnated Wood Fibre Pipe over 50 years ago. Over time this orangeburg pipe collapsed in several places, making the drainfield even smaller. The only way to know this stuff is part of your system is to dig up and expose part of it. If we had just dug a hole at the outlet end of the septic tank when we dug up the tank to inspect it, we would have seen this and adjusted our offer accordingly. Eventually the whole leech field failed and we had to lay another one at a cost of several thousand dollars. Also had to move to a motel for a couple of weeks while we hassled with the county inspectors, the permit process, finding a contractor that would do the work for a reasonable, less outrageous amount. If they see you are desperate, house red tagged, no occupants, they will try to bend you over.

    • Well that sounds like a terrible ordeal! It’s amazing how hard you have to work to find information- and even then sometimes you can’t find it all. Great info Ron, thanks!

  21. My sister is looking into buying a ranch. I love the idea of looking up tax information so that you know what you could be paying in taxes. I’ll have to tell y sister to look up this information before she buys her ranch.

  22. So glad I found u. I do exactly what u do when looking for a property and suffer the eye rolling from family and friends. Not going to stop me tho. Getting ready to look at a 17 acre property and wanted to refresh myself on all the things I need to know and then some. Thank u for making my search so worthwhile. Happy life to u !

  23. The only thing that you left out is don’t forget to ask your realtor and the sellers these questions. Many states require truthful answers and if you do buy something that turns out to be misrepresented you will have legal recourse. My mother sold real estate for 30 years and often ratted sellers out for lying since she didn’t want to be party to any legal actions.

    • I whole-heartedly believe in seeking out information for yourself whenever you can. And if you do have to ask the seller a question, I would fact-check it if possible. When talking about a home or property that you plan to live on forever and invest time and money in, I certainly would hate to get into any legal battles! Don’t believe anyone! :)

  24. I think it’s a great idea to look up the tax information for the land you are going to purchase. A friend of mine wanted to buy land for his family for some time now, but wasn’t sure what to look for. I will have to let him know to look at the taxes and make sure he can afford it.

  25. We bought a foreclosure almost nine years ago. We spent thousands updating and modifying the place for our needs. After living here a few years someone asked if I had a copy of the covenants and restrictions. I told them no, I was not aware of any restrictions or limitations when the property was purchased. They told me the limitations still applied but I to;d them unless they have a signed agreement for me to abide with whatever they planned, it wasn’t happening. I had already lived in a neighborhood with a homeowners association and swore I would never reside in another one. I will use my land as I see fit and let the objectors do their worst. I only plan to own chickens or goats, not operate a slaughterhouse or nuclear disposal site.

  26. An excellent resource for anyone who is considering purchasing a rural property. While it can be a unique and rewarding experience, there are certainly things to consider that would not be a concern in a suburban or city setting.

  27. I really like your tip about checking country records of the property you are looking to buy before purchasing. It’s always a good idea to know exactly what you are getting with your property so that you can decide if it’s still the right thing for you and your family. I will keep these points in mind in case I decide to one day invest in rural property.

  28. Hi. I realized, after reading your article and following posts/comments, that my mother and I are natural gluttons for punishment. We find “dream” properties and research the heck out of them. One of the properties was 10 acres with house and storm cellar. Originally on market for 86K. Owner died. Children upped the price to 110K. 4 ac were bought along with house and cellar at 95K. Now the same kids(Adults) want 175K for 5 ac that has 20ft of hwy frontage and so odd shaped that unless you want to live in a snake-like apartment, isnt feasible for the “potentialy multi-family zoning” (not even a sure thing yet). We’ve learned a lot by also looking up public financial records, i.e. foreclosure, liens, and probates. Those three things alone are nasty to deal with in the durst person sense, dealing with these “unknowns” in the secondary sense sucks a whole lot more.

  29. Thanks for sharing all this helpful information! I have a few more helpful hints. As young homebuyers, my husband & I trusted too much when buying our 2nd home in the early ’90s. We asked our realtor about viewing the property survey to verify the location of the property lines & were told that ‘no one has an official property survey done in this area due to the expense’ & ‘the property lines are straightforward & plainly what we were viewing from here to there, etc, etc.’ Once we purchased the property, we went to the expense of getting an official survey since we had property improvements we intended to do to make the property our ‘dream’ & found that we were now stuck with an irregularly shaped property with a sewer line easement that ran the entire length of our property. Nothing even semi-permanent like a fence can be built on the easement. On the other side, what looked like ‘straightforward property lines’ when viewing in person & on a tax map (which was not to scale) were anything but straightforward. We put our big dreams aside & settled for the limits of the property. Now older, wiser & armed with the Internet we have educated ourselves with the ins & outs of purchasing real estate in our state of Pennsylvania. Fracking of Marcellus shale for natural gas makes owning the mineral rights to your property extremely important when purchasing property since the shale veins can run under your property. While there can be lucrative supplemental income generated by allowing the gas companies to access the shale vein on your property, if you don’t own the mineral rights to your property you will be vulnerable to the significant negatives of the fracking process without compensation (exhausting the water table & poisoning water resources over acres of land, window rattling noise, high powered lights, and heavy truck traffic 24/7, just to name a few.) There are companies developing methods of utilizing the layers & layers of shale under the Marcellus layer making future fracking a definite possibility as well. Another consideration real estate buyers may never have thought of is to confirm that their potential property has not housed a lab to manufacture methamphetamines or that the processing chemicals have not been ‘dumped’ on the property. That was a shocker for me! In PA, this is a legally required disclosure. It is definitely worth checking how this is handled in the state where you intend to purchase real estate. Hopefully I’ve helped to expand the long list of potential pitfalls of purchasing the dream homesteads we all desire. Buyer beware is not just an old saying. Good luck!!

    • Hi Wendy- great advice! Thanks for adding to the conversation… sorry to hear you had to learn the hard way on some things. -Crystal

  30. You did an excellent job spelling out what to look for when buying land with improvements.

    I worked with land and water management and land acquisition for forty years. The only land use You didn’t mention was floodplain management.

    The federal government mandated states to adopt floodplain management ordinances and maps of all mapped floodplain. Building in or near mapped floodplain can dictate what, how and at what elevation your building may be constructed.

    Great job. Wish more people looked into details as you did.

    Mitch

    • Hi Mitch, thanks for your kind words and also for the information on flood plains- a great addition to this conversation! -Crystal

  31. Get advice and article! You might mention for people to look at the NRCS soil web site. It gives all kinds of information on soil type, uses, drainage, etc.

    Your advice is much needed and appreciated.

  32. you should also see if the area is prone to droughts. you don’t want a sand box when growing crops or all ways buying food for the cows.

  33. Great article! I’m a KW Farm & Ranch Agent. I have gone through many situations regarding wetlands, zoning, easements, etc..people do need to keep alot of things in mind. Are you going to use that beautiful old barn for a wedding venue? Is the county o.k. with it? Is it zoned residential? If so, you may think of checking to see what the future land use is permitted for, what the township and county will allow…and if you need to apply for permits..you need liquor license if it’s being served, Residential land won’t necessarily allow a business, is there a policy for parking? Especially if it’s off of a county road..can you have horses there? There are township and county guidelines as to how many and how many acres needed. Just because you can put up a fence on your property doesn’t mean you can put any animals you would like on it. If you are buying a property is it in a DNR program? If so, for how long? Maybe you’re not hunting or farming that land for another 5 years! Is there an easement, and who can use that drive and who takes care of the maintenance? Is that additional 20 acres in the very back of your property what you plan to sell off for someone to build on? Well not if it’s land blocked and there isn’t access from the road…I’m in Northwestern WI, is anyone has any questions. This is a great article, and good for you for researching as much as you possibly could. countryroadtakemehome.kw.com 715-222-8579. Jennifer Kling, KW Farm & Ranch – A rural division of Keller Williams

  34. We just bought 21 acres in rural NW Washington to build a house on.
    The advice given is important research everything, especially Critical Areas (Wetlands, special critters, trees etc…) Well and water testing/reviews, Septic, Forest management plan, and so on.
    Have a lot of cash on hand. Every time we turn around there is an obstacle or expense to cross. Our Critical area and well review were $700, well testing was $300, Permits were $1400 with $2500 due when the county finishes their review. Our newest expense will be our building loan closing cost… $29,500
    At times we wish we had bought something smaller and already developed, but one look at our property and we realize we did the best thing for us.

  35. We bought 5 acres in NW Washington and used many of your methods for research before buying. Wetlands studies are at a premium here and for the county purposes was needed to show in the wet season and dry season, so that cost over $5,000 total. Topography is another consideration. If you have a large gully, cliff, or steep slope you will need specially engineering to build anything. Another consideration here was things like bald eagle nest sites are restricted for many uses so if the county has a nest marked on their site you needed to consider that. Another is if anyone logged the land you cannot build on it for a number of years. While getting a permit I overheard an unfortunate gentleman who was so excited to build on the land he just bought only to find out it had been logged and he couldn’t build for another 5 years. Neighbors are definitely something to consider. Although we had met them and they seemed nice at first, unfortunately retirement aged and not on social media, they have turned out to be nightmares. One lied and tried to tell us where the property lines were, we thanked him and told him we would be hiring a surveyor anyway. He was witnessed trying to convince the surveyor to move the lines in his favor. Thank goodness the surveyor was an honest guy! We caught the same neighbor trying to keep the excavator from working for an hour and a half. He came over with his usual false nice attitude and we told him we saw him on the cameras, he hasn’t uttered a peep to us since. Turns out he doesn’t even own the place, his daughter and her soon to be ex-husband actually own it. They have over the past two years moved in at any point in time 8-10 family members on a septic system. We all have septic and wells. Concerning for a septic failure, but if you know the laws then you can have the county keep that in check. If they are a month overdue for their annual maintenance on the health district website I report them so it gets checked in a hurry. We also put up game cameras in several areas of our property on a hunch prior to starting our house build. Another neighbor threatened to sue after eliminating a pre-existing drainage feature that ran the length of both of our properties during the rainy season for water coming onto his property from our portion of it. Thankfully we did our research and what he did was illegal so not our problem. We keep evidence of old ariel photos of the area to prove it. Which speaks to another thing to research. Look at old arial photos and see if and how the land and surrounding areas have changed. It can be interesting what you find. Another neighbor, whose family owned all of the properties at one point many years ago before his parents passed away and it was divided. He didn’t want construction vehicles on the road so he tried to say that we couldn’t use the road to access our property. Survey showed we own half of the road and Washington laws state he couldn’t deny us access, especially on a road that dated back 70+ years. Knowledge is the best thing to have and be armed with when dealing with rediculous old neighbors!! Especially when they don’t know the laws, codes, or even their own property easements. After all the confrontations with them, while they tried to assert control over us and our property, and they couldn’t so now they just leave us alone. Be prepared to stand your ground if you need to. Don’t be afraid to use your resources and report things that aren’t right to the proper authorities to protect yourself.

    • Wow, thanks Carrie- such good and helpful information to add! Sorry to hear about your not-so-nice neighbors. -Crystal

  36. Great information, but some of these take a lot of time to research, and in some markets that time just is not available unfortunately. In Washington, around Seattle, properties go in a matter of hours.

  37. We also bought land in Wisconsin (Door Peninsula) and, though much of these points are ones we had used and I was thrilled to see you take time to spell them out, it also sounds like some folks are making mountains out of a molehill.

    Take permits. Permits are needed whether in a City (where we came from) or in the country. Our neighbor had a Stop Work issued on his house b/c of improper permitting. Are permits a “Big Gov” money racket? Somewhat. But I’ve also experienced the problems of unlicensed professionals doing work … as in literally smelling the problem after trying to plumb something without following the code. The permitting process (application, review, inspection) is meant to ensure code is followed so we all avoid those problems, like your bathroom smelling like a waste management center.

    And take wetlands. We intentionally _wanted_ a wetland — or rather a natural source of water which was a creek in a wetland on the property. It sounds like “wetlands” are a pejorative here and considered a negative feature of the land?! simply because they are regulated?? Wetland preservation is critical to our environmental protection. We fully plan on reaching out to DNR for a permit before building because that is the responsible thing to do as land owners.

    Finally, a point on all this research that sounds like a time suck: much of this we found online. Perhaps it wasn’t 4 years ago when you wrote this article, but we searched from 2017-2018 and with the click of a few buttons confirmed this list of items:

    1. wetland locations
    2. managed forest locations
    3. flood plains
    4. tax payments
    5. septic / sanitary records
    6. well drilling records
    7. easement locations
    8. property owner names
    9. ordinances & permit requirements
    10. zoning lines
    11. … I’m forgetting everything but suffice to say a LOT is online now

    Each county that we searched (in Wisconsin) had the above data online. We never set foot in a county office. Though we did call a few offices to clarify their ordinances & regulations when their online information left us wondering, nevertheless we got a hold of someone who was in-the-know and got quick answers — often same day.

    Testing & verification takes some set of skills and doing them is valuable so I don’t consider hiring professionals to do these as being “nickled and dimed.” I looked at how to DIY for some of these tests but we opted to hire out and review the work because I’d rather focus on managing the process than micromanaging the details. Nor do I subscribe to this idea that everyone is out to rip us off. We hired for:

    1. well & water test
    2. septic inspection
    3. home inspection
    4. property survey
    5. title search & insurance

    (5) is where a mineral rights question appeared and got resolved (the Company’s rights had expired so were ours again). (2) was a written report from the Sanitarian’s office that we were grateful for because of minor issues they found that weren’t blockers but we’d want to eventually fix. (3) we were onsite with the inspector for 2 hours combing through items that we wanted to check on. Was (1) – (5) a substantial amount of money? Sure. Was it worth the money vs DIY? Well everyone has to make their own decision.

    Lastly, on neighbors & neighborhood. We worked with born & raised local realtors. And temporarily lived in the region while looking. We did that by RVing full-time. I realize that isn’t an option for everyone but it was the next best thing to being born & raised on the land ourselves. Our realtor and temporary living opened our eyes to many things that nobody can capture from researching online or even with a phone call. For example: by talking to locals, we found out that we were buying land from a well known landowner who people spoke favorably about in a kind of “Oh yea Bill, he owns the land behind us” way. Another example: we shifted our search after finding out how tourists clog up country roads despite traffic on Google Maps looking all “clear” and green — a point our realtor had warned us about but we had been stubborn on. So no amount of digging around in county offices or online sleuthing could have captured the local living experience.

    Still your article captured things for folks to think about. It’s not overwhelming if you delegate out, tell folks what you expect of them, and trust professionals.

    Jp

  38. Oh my!!
    Thank you so much for your intense, but grateful, information. I have been dreaming and looking at a nice rural property for a month now. I had no idea so much was involved before buying. I must do my home work! I so much want to be a market gardener, raise chickens, fruit trees, etc! Thank you again! Judy

  39. You did an incredible job laying all this information out. I own a drilling company so checking wells before you buy is so important. When we bought our land in Montana a few things we also thought about were developing springs, solar wells for livestock, and potentially windmill wells. Now this is my field of work so that might be overkill for some.

  40. So helpful. There are so many things here i added to my list. Also things to note is asbestos and radon. Usually older home are at risk but many 2000s homes were built with drywall from china that contains unapproved chemicals..due to a drywall shortage after the new orleans storms. We are buying rural to put horses so many more things to check for online!

  41. Thank you for providing this information. My Wife and I are currently in escrow on 7 acres in San Diego and I was starting to think I had OCD with all of the research I have been doing.

    A notable point that you provided is the research on the surrounding properties & OWNERS. This is what I will spend part of my day doing now :) We have also just requested a fire Marshall brush inspection since the owner has moved ~6 months ago and let things/weeds get some what out of control. LEASED solar is also something we are not very happy about with 15 years remaining on a $170 obligation, requested a $70/month credit to offset this terrible deal.

  42. You did an excellent job spelling out what to look for when buying land with improvements.

    I worked with land and water management and land acquisition for forty years. The only land use You didn’t mention was floodplain management.

    The federal government mandated states to adopt floodplain management ordinances and maps of all mapped floodplain. Building in or near mapped floodplain can dictate what, how and at what elevation your building may be constructed.

    Great job. Wish more people looked into details as you did.

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