In the last installment of Buying Rural Property in Alabama, I talked about several methods to create a pool of properties to consider. In this article we’ll explore the question that will determine your next step.
Is the property worth visiting?
In order to determine if a property is worth seeing, we need to know what our benchmarks for good land are. First, there are a number of criteria that should be considered for any rural property in Alabama:
Acreage – How much land do you need? Until you’ve walked some land, this one will be hard to nail down. When we started out, I thought I wanted 40 acres. The first time I walked a 20 acre plot, I realized just how big 40 acres is. Maintaining a large property requires a lot of time and hard work. With a little planning and the right piece of land, you can raise all the food your family eats on 3-5 acres. It didn’t take long before I decided that 10-15 acres might be a better fit for our needs.
Anticipated Use – What will you do on the land? You want to keep your options open with this one, however there are probably some things you can take off of the list with a little thought. While I was interested in some types of livestock, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to graze cattle or horses. At the most I wanted a half-acre for a garden, 3-5 acres to cultivate into a food forest orchard, 2-4 acres to develop into paddocks for small numbers of chickens, goats or pigs, and I really wanted a 1-2 acre pond if possible.
What type of land do you need? I have always loved hilly pastures at sunset. The way the light skims the heads of the uncut hay with trees silhouetted against the sky is powerful to me. However, I have no intention of raising cows or horses. We came dangerously close to making the mistake of buying 22 acres of pasture early in the process. I now know what it takes to maintain that kind of property, and I’m eternally grateful that we didn’t make that mistake. Flat land is easy to work with, but it generally is in higher demand. You can find some really great deals on property on the side of a mountain, but its uses are much more limited. Once you know what you want to do on the land, you should start to understand what land features will be most desirable to you.
Price – How much can you afford to spend? We started out looking in Springville as our ideal location, but once we realized that most of the land was listing for around $10k an acre, we set our sights more realistically. After a little research, our goal was to find land for $3000-$4000/acre. A number of people told me that we were crazy. You’ll find out later in the article if they were right.
Whether you’re planning to finance or pay cash, I would recommend that you secure pre-approval for financing from an agricultural lender at the outset of the process. As I called brokers inquiring about properties, I found that they took me much more seriously when I mentioned that we were pre-approved, even more so than when I told them I planned on paying with cash. That’s right, credit is better than cash. More proof of a broken world…
Access – Can you get to the property? Is the property on a county road or an improvised timber road? Is there road frontage? Do you access it directly or are there easements involved? From one direction our little farm is only accessible via a deeply rutted, muddy old timber road. The first time we tried to visit the property we almost gave up because we couldn’t get across the giant puddles in our mini-van. Later we discovered that the other end of the road is a beautiful chip and tar road recently installed by the county.
Once you get to the property, is there a network of trails or roads to get around or will you be forging through dense brush and briars? Some of the properties we visited were cleared pastures, some were covered in thinned timber, and some were densely covered in impenetrable blackberry briars. Our little farm was actually the latter, and as a result, most potential buyers decided it wasn’t worth the effort to see what was behind that tangled wall of prickers. Lucky for us they never ventured deep enough to see the mossy wet-weather creeks and ancient rock formations at the top of the mountain on the west side plateau. It was love at first sight for us! Whether the access will be easy or tough, it’s good to know before you go.
Also, driveways can be expensive propositions. You’ll need to have some idea of the cost if there is no existing provision for vehicular access when you’re deciding on a fair offer price.
Water – Are there ponds on the property? Is the property well-suited for a pond? Are there any creeks? Do they flow only during wet-weather or they flow year-round? Are there any low, flat areas that have a tendency to be soggy? Are they always soggy, or is it seasonal?
Our little farm is divided into thirds by two wet-weather creeks that run south-to-north. The original listing mentioned that the creeks were “wet-weather”, but we were really hoping for full-time water. The GIS mapping only showed the west creek, which is the larger of the two. Our desire was to have a 1- or 2-acre pond, so the creek looked like good potential for catchment for the future pond. Looking at the GIS mapping I could see ponds on several nearby properties, so I took all of this as a good sign.
Utilities – Is there convenient access to water, power, gas, phone, cable, internet, trash pick-up etc.? With economic conditions being what they are, utilities and the government agencies that grant them monopolies, have been quietly jacking up the prices for their services over the last few years. The cost for adding these services should definitely be considered when looking at a potential land investment.
To give you an idea, our tap fee for water (Odenville Water) was $700, and that’s before we run any pipe to the home-site. In our first round with the power company, they wanted $5000+ to bring power service to our home site. These costs can add up, so any utilities that are already established deserve consideration. If a property looks pricey to begin with and there doesn’t appear to be any services already available, it may not be worth your time.
Existing Vegetation – Are there trees on the property? Are they pines or hardwoods? How old are the trees? Has the property been cultivated in the past? What crops? If the property is open pasture and you’re planning a garden, there could be trouble due to previous pesticide and herbicide use. Pine forests have a very different feel than hardwood. If you’re looking to build a home in the woods, then you should not waste time on pasture land. If you’re planning to raise cattle, you may not want the expense and hassle of converting forest. Visit a few of each types of property in the beginning to get a feel for what you like, but don’t waste time on anything that doesn’t fit your criteria.
Our property is covered almost entirely by forest. The eastern third is mostly pine (probably 70%), and the western third is mostly hardwood (probably 70%). The middle portion is an even mix of the two. I could tell from the satellite imagery that the timber had been cut in the last 20 years. I later learned that the timber on the property is worth about $30,000. I don’t believe that conventional crops have been cultivated on the land previously, but we did discover later that a steady, healthy crop of corn liquor was farmed there during Prohibition!
Contour – Is the property flat or hilly? Where would the potential home sites be located? Will directing rain water be a problem? This one is easy to address prior to visiting the property. The GIS imagery that is available for many counties (St. Clair is one of the best) often includes a 10ft contour layer. I don’t know how many parcels I came across that looked great until I dropped the contour on the map. There is a lot of land for sale in Alabama that is situated on the side of a mountain…
At the outset, I knew that I wanted land that was neither flat nor mountainous. My ideal property had some flat and some rolling areas. Having visited a number of properties already, I just found land with features to be more interesting. I also learned from our first failed acquisition attempt that floodplains are bad news. Beyond checking the floodplain maps, I knew I needed to look at the creeks and rivers nearby to see how water might be moving around the property. With a little examination, it’s pretty easy to see what water will do most of the time based on the data in a 10ft contour.
Our property has a gentle slope down from the road and flattens out in the middle with a gentle slope running south-to-north. The western part includes a small plateau. I knew as soon as I saw the contours that I liked the features. However, I had no idea how cool the property would later turn out to be. Based on the contour it just looked like a good candidate for our needs.
Current Owners – Who are the current owners, and why are they selling the property? Who owned it before them? What did they pay for it originally? Who owns the surrounding property? Is there any development in progress nearby? Once again, the information systems provided by your county will be your friend on this one. There is a wealth of information available through public records. Cross reference that to Google, and you might be surprised with what you learn.
Also, be sure to ask the listing broker about the owners. They’ll usually tell you why the owners are selling. In our case, the broker mentioned that the owners were planning to build, but there was a change in the job situation that moved them out of town. Sometimes, you’ll find that the land has been inherited by an out-of-town relative with no interest in rural property. It’s also not uncommon to learn that the property was purchased as an investment. All of this information can help you understand what you need to be looking for during the process of evaluating the parcel.
Neighborhood – What is the surrounding area like? Do you know anybody that lives there? What type of houses are being built nearby? What is the land use surrounding the property? What crops or livestock are being cultivated? Are there chicken houses or hog parlors? If you’re like me, you’ll definitely want to know about your neighbors. Use the public records information to check up on them. There’s no telling how many mug shots and news items I came across while investigating my potential neighbors. Do keyword searches on local news websites for the street and area you’re considering.
Use Google maps for research. If there is a street view, take advantage of it. It may reveal things about the neighborhood that you’d find interesting. Then zoom out and look around the area. I was really interested in a particular piece of well-priced property until I learned that it was prison adjacent! The zoomed out map can also be useful for identifying any nuisance-type farm operations in the area. A concentration camp chicken operation is easy to spot on a satellite map, but it’s even easier to identify on a hot summer day if your land is downwind.
I had limited success with calling the local police department and asking about the area. It’s my understanding that they aren’t supposed to talk about it, but I found many of the local officers would tell me which areas were more prone to problems than others. Worst case, they’ll just tell you that they’re not allowed to share that information. It’s worth a call.
It’s also a good idea to see how the homes in the area fit with your plan. It’s well known to anyone building in a rural area that obtaining financing can be difficult in the boonies. Banks rely on comparables for determining the value of a loan. They’re not going to loan you money to build a house that can’t be sold later to cover your debt in the event of a default. If you’re planning to build a 4,000 sq. ft. house in an area full of double-wides, you may find yourself in a bind later. If there are similar structures nearby, it may be safer to assume that you won’t have too much trouble later in the process.
Our property is actually located in a great neighborhood. The neighbors all checked out, and there were no stories in the papers about serial killers or drug labs, so we were good to go!
Existing Structures – Are there any barns or buildings on the property? Has there been a home on the land in the past? If you can take advantage of an existing septic system or well, the property might be more valuable to you. It’s also good to know if you’re going to be responsible for tearing down a dilapidated barn or trailer. Existing structures can be easily seen from satellite imagery. In our case, we didn’t have to worry about these concerns.
Many of these questions can be answered before you step foot on the property. A little research will save you from time wasted on properties that don’t fit with your plan. I don’t know how many times we drove out to a property only to discover that it was situated on the side of a mountain or right in the middle of a neat collection of burned out meth trailers.
In the next section we’ll explore some of the free tools that you can use to get to know the property before you pack up the mini-van.