Where to Begin
Once I had read all the books and articles I could find on buying land, I started my quest in earnest. We had to first decide what geographical area would be suitable for us. Our needs were pretty simple. We had grown up on the northeast side of Birmingham, and we wanted to stay on that end of the world. Due to the recent colossal bankruptcy making national headlines, I knew that no matter what we did, we needed to get out of Jefferson County as quickly as possible. I also needed to find property that was close enough to commute to our office on the southeast side of town. Ultimately, we wanted to stay as close as possible to our friends and family, but my wife and I were also personally motivated by different aspects of the project.
Leigh was looking to give our children the experience of growing up “outside”. With lots of woods and bugs and animals, our kids would benefit from a little nature in their nurture. Wide-open spaces and a little hard work would round out their developing characters nicely. My biggest personal goal was to find a place where the reach of corrupt municipal politicians and interfering government bureaucrats would be as limited as possible. No homeowners associations. No ordinances. No non-sense. After living in Trussville for seven years and seeing how a city council can lose its mind and so totally lose its perspective on what makes a small town great, my ideal locality was an unincorporated patch of dirt just outside the jurisdiction of the do-gooder busy-bodies in elected office. Liberty was my top priority.
Like most people, price would be a big driving factor in the whole affair. With Leigh’s well-honed accounting skills, we faithfully live on a budget, and we don’t do debt. One of our big goals was to make the move from the suburbs to the farm, and end up owing absolutely no one in the process. This would prove to be one of the biggest challenges we would meet along the way.
With all of this in mind, I started by looking at every town within a certain radius of my office. I was already commuting about 45 minutes every day, so I started with a radius of 40 miles using this tool. I then made a list of all of the cities and towns that fell within the radius and began searching the online listings in these areas.
Why we decided to focus on St. Clair County
Based on our geographic target area, the choices were Jefferson County, St. Clair County, Shelby County and Blount County. As I mentioned before, Jefferson County was off the list from the get-go. There were a few possibilities for small towns on the edge of Blount County, but it was really on the fringe of our 40 mile radius. That only left Shelby and St. Clair Counties, and for the majority of our search, they made up the short list.
As we got further into the process, there were a number of disturbing not-so-Liberty-oriented aspects of Shelby County that began to emerge and ultimately led me to focus on St. Clair County. Shelby County is dominated by the large metropolitan city of Hoover, and the county commission had in recent years implemented a system of zoning laws and other legislative initiatives that seem to have been taken straight from the pages of UN Agenda 21. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch, but you don’t have to dig too deep into those documents to see that someone with my focus on Liberty would not find much peace in that environment. Add that to some of the questionable dealings surrounding a new quarry in Vincent, and the decision became a little simpler for us.
On the other hand, St. Clair County is small and doesn’t include any large metropolitan centers. The towns are mostly rural and provide a better fit with our worldview, so St. Clair County won out in the end.
There are several good resources for getting started in the search for the ideal property:
Land Brokers & Realtors
I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but most realtors absolutely suck. They get paid 6-8% to take some horrible pictures, drop a listing in the MLS database and sit around waiting for the property to sell for their cut. I know that somewhere there must be good realtors, but I can’t seem to find them. If you stumble across one that will return your phone call, they’re better than average. They answer your call, and you’ve hit the mother-load.
In theory, a realtor would be an awesome member of your team, helping you navigate these uncharted waters, saving you time by sorting through the properties and making sure you only look at the ones with real possibilities, then researching the properties to find potential caveats and ultimately helping you negotiate the best price possible at the end of the journey. In reality, it just doesn’t seem to work out this way.
In all my dealings, the realtors and brokers could rarely answer questions about the properties, and they rarely came through with useful information when they went looking. Heck, most of the time the listing agents had never even walked the property themselves. When it came time to make an offer, they were either trying to convince me to offer more, thereby increasing their commissions, or at best acting as disinterested third-party spectators in the process.
If you’ve found a good realtor, hang on to them with a tight grip. They’ll save you time and energy. As for the rest of us, we’ll have to buckle down and learn to use the available tools for ourselves.
Word of Mouth
I’m prone to believe that the best deals available probably exist in a world completely outside of the formal process. I’ve heard so many stories about someone scoring a great deal on prime land because their uncle knew an older lady who was thinking of selling long-held family property. The property never hit the market, and it was never listed anywhere. Unfortunately, this falls into the “who you know” category. However, if you’ve got friends or relatives living in the area you’re interested in exploring, make sure to ask them at the outset of the process. You might just get lucky.
Most of the agents you’ll come across will send you huge piles of aggregated listings they’ve pulled right off of the MLS. With a little legwork on your own, you can create dynamic searches that will send you listings that meet your specific criteria on an ongoing basis. Every time a new property is listed, you’ll get an automatic email update.
There are a number of online listing aggregators that pull listings from all over the internet and show them in one place. The online listing service that I found to be particularly useful during our search was Landwatch. The site offers search filters by county, city, acreage, price and a number of other factors. I set up a free profile in minutes, and the site sent regular updates with new listings as they were added. To this day I still get updates on properties that are coming onto the market.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement of this service is that I found our land in one of my Landwatch updates. Ironically, the day I signed the contract on the property, a broker that I had talked with many times sent me a long list of properties that included our little farm. Too little, too late.
Be sure to cruise all of the brokers’ websites you can on a regular basis. There is often a delay between when a property is listed with a specific broker and when it hits the broader MLS because the brokers are trying to get both sides of the sales commission. There were several properties I came across that would have been great deals, but I found out about them a few weeks too late. A good realtor probably could have helped me, but don’t get me started on that one again…
The big brokers active in my area were:
I would cruise these sites every Monday to see if something new popped up. When I found something new, I’d move to the next question on my list…