It is finally time to find your ideal country place. Do try to exercise patience—you’ve come too far to make a mistake now by hurrying. Take your time—look at a lot of properties before you make a decision. Yes, it is possible that the first one you look at will be the right one, but keep looking anyway, or you will always wonder. In this case, resist falling in love before the marriage.
We have a neighbor who, after seeing our place, expressed the common buyer’s lament: “We didn’t look enough.” He and his wife have a sound house on 40 acres, garden space, plenty of forest for firewood, and at the back of their property the downstream part of our creek. They are very nice people and we hope they stay, but his statement needs little interpretation.
When to do itThe great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree.
We Americans have a cultural quirk to take actions according to the calendar. In the doldrums period following Christmas and New Year’s Day we fret about who, what and where we are and we resolve to initiate change. Our social conditioning programs us to refine ourselves, to be more bold, to do things that we have been putting off—and to do them at the beginning of a week, a month or a year.
Throughout my real estate career in the San Francisco Bay Area I found that the first four months of each year registered the heaviest sales activity. In northern-tier states, real estate sales activity tends to follow the habits of plants: with spring warmth comes activity—with the snow comes hibernation. Northern sellers know that buyers are few when the days grow short and the white stuff falls. The reverse is true in states such as Arizona and Florida. Boiling hot summers and wilting humidity motivate siestas rather than serious activity.
Financially, the best time to buy is when the weather is worst. Prices and interest rates tend to rise with strong sales activity. There is often a correlation between interest rates and election years. As national elections approach, politicians court voters with low interest rates and an infusion of federal (read your/my) money.
Time of year
The ideal number of times to inspect property is four, in each of the seasons. That will be impractical unless you are living in the area and unless the owner of your dream property has Job-like patience. Realistically, determine what conditions are like during the worst times of the year: when it rains the most—when mud and flood enter each conversation, when it is the hottest and the coldest, when snow and ice cancel all travel. If you like a property during those conditions you will love it during better times.
My preference is to look at property after the school year begins. I struck the deal on my ideal country home in late September. Droughts most often occur in late summer and early autumn, so water supplies are most strained. Grass is brown. Sellers are more realistic about prices and terms as they look forward to winter in a place they no longer wish to be. Tourists have gone home and the community is most like what it is during the majority of the year. Local people have more time to talk.
Depending on the area, the inventory of available properties may be smallest in the fall and winter. One strategy is to find a place you like in the fall, then wait until spring when listings are most numerous, look at all the new listings and, unless you see one you like better, buy the one you found last fall. A plus is that you will have seen the property during two different seasons. The downside to this plan is having to resist the hungry real estate agent’s sound logic that buying during the winter will likely get you the best price. Expect many phone calls. Worst, there is the chance that someone else may submit an offer while you are waiting.
Time of the week
Weekday and weekend sounds and activities are often drastically different. The property that looks ideal on a quiet Saturday or Sunday afternoon will be awful on Monday through Friday when garbage trucks thunder by, stirring up clouds of dust on their way to the dump at the end of the road. That was exactly the case with friends of ours until they were able to sell. Conversely, the road that is quiet during the week may explode with weekend traffic heading for the local swimming hole, fishing stream, picnic spot. So once you find a property you like, make your second inspection when conditions are most likely to be different than when you first saw it.
Time of the day
The action of the sun may make a cheery kitchen in the morning and create hot boxes of rooms exposed to the burning rays of afternoon. Again make your final inspection at a different time of day than your first visit.
Looking at properties
Looking at country property requires attention to more details than when looking at city property. Without city streets, codes, ordinances, utilities and services to insulate you from natural and human conditions you will want to consider essentially everything. Some of the material in this chapter has been covered earlier but is so important that it will be restated.
Make appointments with real estate agents a few days before you will see them. Help agents help you best by being open about your needs and your financial position. Explain completely the type of property you are looking for. Show them your criteria list. Tell them your priorities. “We want a nice place in the woods that’s not too expensive” just doesn’t get it. To hold back pertinent information is to waste your time and the agent’s time. Do not wait until after you’ve been shown several places to tell your agent that he or she is on the wrong track.
After an agent has shown you everything they have available, move on to the next agent. If there is not a local multiple listing service you will have to see several agents in each town to make sure you have seen everything. Repeat the process. Tell each agent the features of properties you have seen and what you did and did not like. Keep a scoresheet on each property.
If your agents tell you that there is nothing available that meets your requirements, move on to the next agent. If you get the same response from several agents, you may wish to rethink your demands.
How many places to look at
In Harrowsmith Country Life (January-February 1992) Richard Todd explained “The Eleven Farm Theory.” He wrote, “Look at ten farms. Buy none, but rank them in order of appeal. Then buy the next farm that you like better than the one you liked best.”
Todd tried it. He made it nearly through the first ten before he fell in love with a place that, well, for the rest of the sad tale I refer you to that issue. Suffice to say the theory might work for you. Don’t feel guilty if you, too, fall in love before ten. It’s as good a time to fall in love as any other.
If you find yourself confronted with too many places to look at, you may have given your agent only a general description of your target. Narrow your instructions down: “We want no fewer than X acres and no more than X. The house must face south or southeast. There must be at least X space open around the house. There must be at least X acres of hardwood forest for firewood. There must be live water within X feet of the house or house site.” Like that. When you give specific information on items that are most important to you, the list of possible places gets shortened.
I found my ideal place on the third day of my search. It was tempting to make an immediate offer but I continued to look for many more days at dozens of additional properties, found nothing to match it, came back, looked at it again and made an offer. If I had not looked at those extra dozens of places I might wonder if I missed something better. As it is, I know that I bought the place that was best for me out of everything available.
Make a careful and thorough inspection
When inspecting homes, buyers are often shy about opening closets, cupboards and drawers. Don’t be. This is your potential home. Look at and into anything that will help you know that place. If you are not sure what you are seeing, ask. Do not be embarrassed about not understanding a pressure pump system, gravity-flow wood furnace, chicken self-feeder, compost bin or any of the countless other items often found with country homes.
Building site evaluation is similar whether the property has been improved with a house or the land is bare. Any building site must have stable soil and good drainage, especially in high-rainfall areas. A site slightly sloping to the south is ideal.
Waterways, side hollows and other obvious drainage areas should be inspected for signs of flooding. Past flooding will have caused erosion and left leaves, weeds, pieces of bark and other detritus in the low branches of trees and shrubs in the stream or drainage area. This evidence often will be found many feet above the ground.
If the land is flat, look for low spots that do not drain well. Flat land in high-rainfall areas often has drainage problems, especially where soil is heavy. Such conditions may make it difficult to have a good garden or orchard or install a septic tank and leach field system for waste disposal. If in doubt, a percolation test should be made a contract condition and performed after contract acceptance.
Ridgetop and valley pros and cons
Ridgetops usually have superior views, freedom from flooding, good access and good air flow. Disadvantages include well depths, dryness, susceptibility to fires (fires burn upward), rocky or thin soil and exposure to high winds.
Valley advantages include springs and streams, plentiful groundwater, good soil, abundant trees and other vegetation. Disadvantages include steep access roads, flooding and a later sunrise and earlier sunset. Cold air drainage from above is a negative in wintertime and during late spring frosts at peach blossom time, but welcome during the summer.
Ask your agent to verify the fact of legal ingress and egress rights. If the property does not front on a public road there should be a deeded easement for access purposes. If in doubt make that a condition in the contract.
Dependable year-round access requires a good road. South-facing slopes are drier and melt snow most quickly. During cold weather, north-facing slopes hold snow and ice, alternately thawing and freezing, making roads dangerous or even impassable. Unless built up with gravel, lowland and flatland roads are prone to rut, hold water and grow mud after rain, which becomes ice in the winter.
The house site, garden site, pastures and cropland will ideally have effective solar exposure. South slopes receive maximum solar exposure both summer and winter. Southwesterly exposure is warmer than southeasterly because afternoon sun is hotter than morning sun. For gardens I prefer southeasterly slopes because they receive first light, warm earlier in the spring and are protected from prevailing northwesterly winds.
During the growing season, the warmest land is that which is most perpendicular to the sun’s rays. South-facing slopes are typically drier, sunnier, warmer—roses, grasses, tomatoes, oaks and pines do well there with adequate rainfall. North-facing slopes are cooler and more moist—good for ferns, azaleas, rhododendron, blueberries and fruit trees—to lessen the chance of premature bloom and late-freeze damage. North-facing slopes are preferred house sites in hot climates.
The main consideration here is to ensure that electric and telephone service are installed or, if not, to determine what it will cost to bring them in versus the cost of an independent solar and generator-backup system. If you will be working with a computer you will want high-speed Internet access. If that is not yet available, you will want to discover dial-up conditions such as telephone line static, electrical voltage fluctuations and historical frequency and duration of outages. If the agent or owners do not seem to be forthcoming about utility conditions, then talk to neighbors and others nearby. Check with the phone company on the availability and cost of a private line.
Do not assume that neighbors will allow an easement across their property. If power lines must be brought in, make getting a legal easement a contract condition.
While evaluating views, keep in mind that trees grow. If they are yours, you can trim them or cut them down and replace them with shorter varieties. If they are a neighbor’s you will likely have to live with them. Many trees reach 100 or more feet at maturity. Conversely, if your enjoyment of the property is a forested area, consider that the trees may one day be cut down.
Learn wind directions and speeds. A home site exposed to persistent hot summer winds and cold winter winds can be a disaster. The exposed side and the lee side of a hill can be as two different worlds. Trees work well as a windbreak if they are large and thick enough.
If you are considering using wind to generate electricity, know that most wind plants require an average monthly wind speed of 8 to 14 miles per hour. Sites should be clear of upwind obstructions.
Use the property scoresheet
Some recommend using a property checklist. Yep, there’s a house. Check house. Yep, there’s a tree. Check tree. Garden? Check. Road? Check.
I prefer to use a property scoresheet. Let us not just make sure everything is there; let us decide what it is worth to us. So make copies of the property scoresheet and use one to rate each place you look at. It is the only way to effectively compare properties. After you have looked at ten to fifteen places, there is no other way you will remember the details of even several of them.
If you don’t have a camera, borrow one. Take a picture or two of each place. Be sure to make a note on the scoresheet of some unique features shown in each picture so pictures can easily be matched with the correct property.
Now let’s learn how to make a final evaluation before making an offer to purchase.
To make looking at an area even more enjoyable, send for free information on Back Country Byways from our Bureau of Land Management. Ask for information relevant to your preferred state.
C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20240