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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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. :)
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.
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.
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?
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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