Buying Rural Land: What to Do When You Get to the Property

November 10, 2013 — 6 Comments
This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Buying Land in Alabama

In the previous installment of Buying Rural Property in Alabama, we covered 12 things you need to bring with you on your first visit to the property. In this article we’re going to make sure you make the most of your trip by laying out what you need to do while you’re there.

Walking a trail on the property

There are some aspects of walking a piece of property that will be self-evident, but to the uninitiated there’s a lot you can miss. If you’re serious about a property, you’ll likely visit it a dozen times or more before deciding to buy it, but you never know which property is going to be the one. For the sake of your sanity, you’ll want to make the most of each visit. There’s nothing like sitting down to review notes from the trip and realizing you have to return to pick up on some obvious, missed detail.

Tips for making the most of your visit:


Walk with Someone Who Knows the Outdoors

I was amazed at what I learned about the Ant Farm when I walked it with an outdoorsman. One of the excavators we considered to clear and build our road, pointed out deer rubs, turkey nests, evidence of armadillos and fox holes that we had walked past numerous times. On a later trip a very experienced forester pointed out traces of terraces from a farm field, a location where stone had been quarried and evidence of a home site that was well over 100 years old. We had walked past these things dozens of times without any idea of what was around us.

Abandoned Well

Hand Dug WellBy the way, be very careful when you’re tromping through the woods. Abandoned wells aren’t just a Lifetime Channel movie cliche. They are very real, and I can tell you that it’s much easier  to stumble into one than you might imagine. The image above shows just how perfectly they can blend into the environment.

When I discovered this eight-foot deep pit, my toes were literally hanging over the edge before I realized what was happening. Had my daughter been leading us on the trail, who knows what might have happened. Century-old hand-dug wells like this one are extremely common. Notice the notches in the side. These were used to climb out for service and during digging.

Make Multiple Trips at Varying Times of Day

To properly evaluate a property it’s going to take more than one trip. It’s really best to plan to visit as many times as you can, at as many different times of day, or even year. The more time you spend looking at a piece of land from multiple angles, the more likely you are to recognize its beauty and its faults. If the property is heavily wooded, Fall and Winter are good times to see the contour of the land. Spring and Summer offer the chance to see foliage and identify plants and trees.

Make note of Access & Utilities

Roads are expensive. Take good notes on where you might want to locate a home and where a road might be built. How will you get power? Is phone/internet service available? What’s the condition of any existing fencing? These things will dramatically affect your offer price. They should be among your top concerns!

Don’t Stay on the Trail

Walk the perimeter of the property, and then criss-cross. Start on the established paths and then venture down the pig trails. I’m convinced that we never would have had the opportunity to buy the Ant Farm if other land shoppers had followed this advice. TheAntFarm---Old-Quarry

On the back acres of our property there is an amazing table top rock formation that was likely part of a quarry operation over 100 years ago. It offers a 270-degree view of the surrounding plains. There was no clear path to the rocks, so most visitors had no idea the land feature existed. It’s a priceless natural asset on our land, and nobody knew it was there.

Look for signs of Water

You’ll need to identify your sources for water, both potable and for irrigation. Look for water meters near the driveways of surrounding properties. If you can’t find any, a well may be your only option. This is another factor that can have a huge impact on your offer price.

Also, try to determine what runoff  water is doing on the property. How does it move? Where does it come from, and where does it go? Signs of erosion can be pretty easy to identify if you’re looking. The behavior of water is extremely predictable. It always moves downhill perpendicular to contour. Also, look for gray soil as an indicator of long-term saturation. When water constantly sits on soil or washes over regularly, it takes nutrients and minerals with it. Gray soil is an indicator that this has been going on for some time.

With a little bit of attention and thought you can identify potential problems that may exist.

Consider Solar Aspect

This is a fancy term for the position of the sun relative to your property. Ideally, your home site will be oriented facing south or southeast on a southern slope. If you’re planning to garden you’ll need an area that gets full sun, particularly in the morning.

Ideal-Solar-AspectUnfortunately, our entire property falls on the north side of the mountain, so it is heavily shadowed from the late afternoon sun. This will probably be a good thing in the summer, but winters will be a bit cooler in our little valley as a result.

Take a Soil Sample

It only takes a few minutes to put a little dirt in your bucket. Whether you decide to run an official soil test or just do it yourself you’ll have the sample ready to go. If you don’t need it, you can always toss it in the garden later.

Identify as Many Trees and Plants as Possible

This is one I really regret not doing more thoroughly. We’ve just begun the process of educating ourselves on the different plant species available on our property. While things have turned out pretty well so far, there’s so much I could have learned by understanding what plants are active on the land. Good soil, bad soil, wet soil, dry soil, rich soil, nutrient deficient… Many of these aspects can be easily ascertained with the type of plants found in a given area.

Just Stop and Listen

Take time on each trip to sit quietly and take in the sounds and smells. Which direction is the wind blowing? How many birds can you hear? Is there traffic or other noise? How many cars pass by in 15 minutes? There is a great deal to be learned from the surrounding sounds. Be intentional about taking it all in, or you’ll probably miss something.

In the next article we’ll examine a list of due diligence items that you’ll want to complete before making and negotiating an offer.




6 responses to Buying Rural Land: What to Do When You Get to the Property

  1. I very much enjoyed your whole article about buying land in Alabama– I already own land but I think I will try to use the GIS function on our land… You should submit your whole article to Permaculture Activist to publish in their magazine, the information is more general than just Alabama… We live in Prattville, I would love to come visit sometime when I am in the Birmingham area.

  2. @Kathy, Thanks for your comment! I wasn’t sure if the articles were worth the time it has taken to write them. I’ve still got to write about negotiating the deal, due diligence and closing!

    Autauga’s GIS can be found here:

    Unfortunately it’s VERY slow, and it doesn’t appear to include contours. However, there should be LIDAR based 2ft. contours available for the county from 2010. You’ll need to call the county and ask for whoever deals with the GIS mapping. The data is usually available for free or for a nominal fee. These maps are absolutely invaluable for planning food forests, evaluating water movement, etc.

    We’ll be moving full-time onto the property in January, and after we get settled in we’ll start entertaining guests. We’re definitely planning to use the farm as an example for our community of what can be done. I’m afraid there isn’t much to see just yet.

    I’ll check into Permaculture Activist, too.

  3. This is an incredibly helpful series of posts for me. We’re a few years behind you in terms of buying land and moving to it, but we’ll definitely be making use of the tips you posted here. Thanks for taking the time to write it up!

  4. Jake, I’m glad to hear it was helpful!

    A couple of years will pass before you know it, and you won’t be able to remember life before your land. Hang in there, it’s totally worth it!

  5. I cant tell you how useful this has been. You and your family seem to want the same thing mine does. I thought I was “nit picking” with all the questions I had and the concerns. You were NOT joking when you said Realtor’s are lazy! I swear, its like I have to BEG them to answer the phone, return calls, or just send me links! We have the ideal piece of property built in our head that we want, now its just finding it. We are looking for a similar piece of land like yours, small rolling hills and mostly wooded with year round water source(spring etc) so they really dont have much work to do other than send the links similar to that, right? lol We(hubby and I) grew up in Odenville and Ashville and couldnt wait to get out as young adults. Now, we are so ready to get back its not even funny! We want to raise our children in a more rural area, like we grew up! Thank you for ALL your advice here, it was a pleasure to read, also! Hope all is well with your and your family on the Ant Farm! Shalom!

    • Thanks Courtney. It’s always encouraging to hear that I’ve helped in some way. So are you guys trying to get back to Ashville? We’d be neighbors! 🙂

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