In the last installment of Buying Rural Property in Alabama, I talked about a number of factors to consider when determining if a property is even worth visiting. In this article I want to cover my five favorite free online tools you can use when evaluating those factors.
Tools to Help You in Your Quest
These are the online tools that I have found to be absolutely essential to evaluating property both prior to a visit and during the due diligence phase. It is amazing to me how much information can be amassed in a few minutes with these tools. I often found myself teaching the listing brokers about their property during my initial inquiries as a result of these tools.
The acronym GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, and it basically involves relating data to geographic location using satellite position and imagery. Ironically, during my short stint in college, I was on a track to get a degree in GIS. It was a budding new scientific arena, and I was hooked the instant the recruiter allowed me to zoom in on a car in Atlanta traffic during a live demonstration. In those days, only the military had satellites capable of the high-resolution imagery that is available to us today. The university was given windows of access to the satellites for research and recruiting purposes. I was both thrilled and horrified at the level of detail that was available at the time. I’m even more thrilled and horrified now that the technology has gone public.
Most county agencies now have some sort of online GIS mapping system that is available to the public. The systems usually include tax records, zoning and other relevant data. Some are better than others, but I absolutely love St. Clair County’s. To use the system, go to your county’s website and look under mapping or GIS mapping. St. Clair County’s can be located here.
There are a number of companies who subcontract these services, but I’m only going to talk about St. Clair’s for the purposes of this article. You’ll find that once you’re familiar with one system, you can generally navigate the others pretty easily.
Once you launch the website, you will see a map-based parcel viewer showing the entire county. You can either use the normal navigational features (zoom, pan, etc.) to find your parcel or simply enter the address, and the system will locate your parcel and zoom the window accordingly. Once you see the parcel, click the “Identify Parcel” tool at the top of the screen and then click on the parcel. At this point, the Identify Parcel info palette should appear on the right side of your screen. The info palette will include a wealth of information including a tax report, taxes due, improvements on the property, legal description, previous owners, previous sales price, and more.
This information is available for any property in the county, so you can research the whole neighborhood while you’re at it.
The mapping data includes a wide array of public information in map layers that can be turned on and off as needed. The “Map Contents” palette should reside on the top right of the screen. Within this palette you will see check boxes for everything from police stations to voting zones. Scroll toward the bottom of the list, and you’ll see a selection for “Contour-10ft.” This will enable the contour mapping, so you can see the lay of the land. There used to be an option for historic imagery which would allow you to see previous imagery of the land, which I found useful for evaluating past use of the property, but I think they recently removed that capability.
The drawing tool looks like a pencil and allows you to draw shapes and lines to determine area and distance on the map. This can be extremely useful for determining acreage of a pond or field and general distances. You can also drop points on the map and get X,Y coordinates that can be plugged into a GPS, which can be useful for finding and walking the property later.
The other primary tool you’ll be interested in is a blue circle with an “i” in the middle. That’s the information tool. By clicking on a parcel with this tool selected, you can access a ton of information on the parcel’s current owner, previous owner, previous sales price, acreage, taxes, etc. I found this tool to be very useful for researching the area, particularly my would-be neighbors. A quick web search can reveal some pretty exciting tidbits about the neighborhood. If you’ve got time, plug some of those names into justmugshots.com, and see what comes up…
I’m not a huge fan of Google Earth (or Google for that matter), but it does have one feature that’s worth checking out. If you zoom in on the satellite imagery of the parcel you are investigating, you’ll see an icon in the menu at the top that looks like a clock with an arrow on it. That is the “Show Historical Imagery” button.
If you click the icon a sliding timeline will appear at the top of the screen which enables you to select between the different historical satellite images that are stored in the mapping database. On my property this allowed me to see snapshots of six different time frames going all the way back to 1997. The historical imagery can be very useful for determining previous use, recent development of the surrounding area, etc.
USGS Soil Mapping
The USGS is a government agency that provides, among other things, soil maps which are useful for evaluating soil type, drainage properties, agricultural potential and more.
The United States Geological Survey is ” the Nation’s largest water, earth, and biological science and civilian mapping agency [which] collects, monitors, analyzes, and provides scientific understanding about natural resource conditions, issues, and problems.”
The USGS offers an online soil mapping system chocked full of useful information, if you can figure out how to use it. It really is a pretty terrible interface, but your tax dollars paid for it, so you should learn to make the most of it.
Start by going to the website. The landing page has a list of instructions that weren’t entirely clear to me, but it’s probably worth a quick read. To get started, click the “Start WSS” button at the top. This stands for Web Soil Survey.
Next, zoom in so that the parcel you’re considering is on the map. This can be done using the “Quick Navigation” menu on the left to enter an address or by using the zoom tool at the top of the map window to manually navigate to the area the property is in. Like most things on the USGS site, it will load very slowly…
Once you have an area that contains your property on the map on your screen you’ll need to set an area of interest (AOI). This is done by using one of the AOI selection tools at the top of the mapping window.
Select the tool and then click and drag to set an AOI around the property. It’s actually desirable to leave a little buffer around the property so you can see the surrounding soil types as well as your own. Now you wait… again… Once it’s finished processing, the area you selected will be covered in diagonal blue lines on the map.
Next click the “Soil Map” tab at the top of the map window, and your soil map will be displayed. To the left of the soil map you’ll see a legend that explains what soil type is in each of the zones.
For those of us, mere mortals in a world of soil science gods, who don’t inherently know what a Minvale-Nella-Townley association is, there is a handy report you can review by clicking each of the soil types in the legend. It includes a ton of useful information such as average annual rainfall, average days without frost, and classifications for desired uses such as pasture, agriculture, etc.
I’ll post more in the future on floodplains, but the bottom line is that you can’t afford to ignore this issue. It’s a deal breaker. You don’t want to fool around with land that is in a floodplain or is close enough to be incorporated in next year’s unexpected expansion of the official floodplain boundaries.
There are really only two ways to address the floodplain question. You can either go down to the county’s Office of Floodplain Management and review the official maps with the county’s agent, or you can use the online Risk Assessment Map. The online tool is a great place to start. If the floodplain boundaries are nowhere near the property you’re considering, then you’re good. However, if the boundaries are somewhat close, you’ll probably want to spend a little more time investigating the issue.
To use the online risk map, go here.You can read more about the map here. Start by entering the address of the property (or a nearby property) on the left side of the screen. Click on the address when it appears in the Results window below the address. Now you wait…
Eventually the map will appear with zones marked for the different classifications of flood risk. You’re hoping for ‘Zone C’ or ‘Zone X’. These types indicate property that is at a minimal risk, above the 500-year floodplain level.
A ‘Zone B’ isn’t terrible. It represents a level between the 100-year and 500-year flood levels. You’ll definitely need to investigate further if your property is in Zone B.
What you really don’t want to see is anything with an A in it (ie. Zone A, AE, AH, AO). These zones represent areas that are within the 100-year floodplain, and they will present problems for septic system permitting and financing.
The property can be close to a flood zone, or even partially covered and still be a useable piece of land. You’ll just need to tread lightly.
The Ant Farm is in Zone X, high above the floodplain, so it’s no worries for us.
If you have a smartphone, there is an app that can be incredibly useful, especially if you’re looking at buying land in St. Clair County. The app is called ARCGIS, and it’s available for iPhone and Android devices at no charge. All you have to do is go to the applicable store and download it to your device.
It uses the same mapping data as the St. Clair County WebGIS service, and it can use the GPS in your phone to show your location on the property. While your tramping about the land, you can see property lines and parcel data in real time. It also allows you to take measurements for distance and area, just like the WebGIS service.
Once you launch the app, use the search tool to find St. Clair County Alabama. The records mapping should show up in the list.
So there you have it. Five free tools that can save you a ton of time while evaluating property. If you have any suggestions for other useful tools, let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve.
In the next installment we’ll take a trip to the property and walk it for the first time. Now it’s getting good!