We did the research, found something interesting. Now what?
Pack some tools.
- A GPS. We used it to map properties, find the pins, check elevation, and plot features for later reference. My fancy smart phone generally didn’t work in the sticks. When we get back we use the gpsvisualizer online tool to show the waypoints on top of Satellite imagery. Plotting waypoints is also a good way to see what the various elevation differences are. With points of reference you can accurately map out areas and determine how much of the property is in forest vs. pasture for instance. We also used it to show how much buffer was required from creeks or wetlands. I actually strapped on hip waders on one property to try and accurately map the boundary line of a creek which was planned to be surveyed as a property line.
- A camera, or use my fancy smart phone’s only feature that worked sometimes. We took a lot of pictures and always regretted not taking enough.
- A notebook, and a pencil or oil based pen. Things are often wet and water based ink smears all over making your notes illegible in a hurry. We used this less than I would have liked but we rarely saw more than a few properties at once. Land is a lot more time intensive than house shopping.
- A shovel. To see what the dirt is like, in more than one place. In a few places (with permission) you may even want to dig a 36″ hole to look at septic potential. We learned to look for soil horizons, iron bacteria (redish mottled clay) and of course if you are getting seepage at 33″ it will be tough to get septic approval.
- Wellies. You know, muck boots, galoshes, whatever you call them, we will got muddy and liked it. If your realtor is following you around in tasselled loafers and doesn’t have a pair in the back of the car consider it a bad sign for a knowledgeable land realtor.
- A raincoat was handy too. We live in the Pacific NW.
- A clean bucket. Just in case it is the real deal. We use this for soil samples. This also means you need a really clean, rust free shovel. We never sampled on the first visit. We needed a lot of processing time to really understand what worked for a property.
When we arrive
First we are always amazed at how different it is from the pictures and our expectations. We found things that looked pretty flat in photographs to be too steep to walk. Outbuildings that looked serviceable seemed outright dangerous close up. If this was our first contact with the realtor we used our comments as a learning experience for them to help them figure out what we were looking for. They are our eyes on the ground so we tried help them understand what we want. (In the end this really paid off.) While we are there we look at everything and make mental notes or use a notebook, or take pictures for later discussion. Seeing multiple properties they can begin to blur together. We almost always checked cell signal and if there was cellular data available.
Going for a walk
Walk the land, what resources are there? Hills, soil, trees, existing buildings, even debris piles all have some value to you, note them and their aspect to the landscape, but keep a mental tally of the work you will need to exert or pay for to utilize them. We saw clear cuts that we still considered because of location or other factors, but I kept the labor required to remove stumps and repair topsoil in the back of my mind. If you are lucky there are salvageable fruit trees, but we never saw berries except for masses of blackberry vines in the price range we were looking at.
We always look over the fence. What kind of neighbors would we have? Gravel pits that are closed can be reopened. The neighbor who is spraying roundup isn’t a bad person, but requires you to maintain a buffer zone if you want to be organic. We saw a dead horse in a pond, burn piles of household garbage (remember these properties are often forced sales so the previous owners have sold everything and reduced costs in any way they could, it sucks but we tried not to judge, just ticked it off as work to do if we bought the property), creosote mills, gravel pits, timber industries, and big time junk collectors over the fences that didn’t pop out in Google Maps views. Some of this can be dealt with, other things not so much. Expecting your future farm customers to drive by a gravel pit vs. 50 junked cars and travel trailers may be acceptable but either way it will impact your game plan. Some customers are expecting bucolic peace on a farm after all.
As an example one neighbor’s junk yard had us thinking about focusing on produce delivery and less about the farm as an overnight destination. Lots of problems are like weeds, just a plant in the wrong place.
The land has a story to tell
Is there standing water? Does bear grass, reeds, lots of canary grass tell a story of wet soil starved for oxygen? If Web Soil Survey indicates hydric soil, make a point of finding it and ensure that nothing you need a building permit for (like adding a gravel access road) crosses it. Hydric soil is a red flag for counties mandating a wetland determination survey. If the area you need to develop is deemed wetland then you’ll need to change your plans for that spot or develop a mitigation plan which can require you to replace it up to a 7:1 ratio. We got a good book on weeds and the stories they tell too late in my opinion. But we could clearly see where the soil was in need of help.
A spade full of dirt from different places will help tell the story. Do the ball test, and heft it for a while to simulate compaction. If you like a place grab a scoop of dirt to take home and do the jar test with. But just hefting some damp soil was good enough for our first guess. I also checked to see how deep roots from the pasture went, and when the first strata of topsoil seemed to appear.
Buildings add a lot of “value” to a property. In other words you pay more for a crummy double wide. They do indicate that power, septic, and water are or were on the property at one point. Barns and outbuildings are nice too, anything we didn’t need to build meant we could focus on growing stuff. We didn’t see many properties with a home on it that were either affordable or where the land was really good. What we did find was a lot of buildings that were unsafe and needed to be torn down, and in one case as a requirement after purchase. Cost of demolition is one thing, and don’t get me wrong I like demolition and all the reusable material that comes from it, but black mold or chemicals need real precautions and I don’t want to put that stuff in a chicken coop or goat barn. So those two teardowns we saw on one property added up to a lot of money in addition to sweat and time.
If there is critter poo, take a picture if you can’t identify it. We have seen bobcat, cougar, bear, deer, elk, and coyote scat. If you don’t know what it is take a picture and ask a hunter friend, this seems like an awesome board game in the making. Trivial-poo-suit? At any rate I felt this was a good indicator of how much pressure our animals and crops would face. The main impacts would be fencing and choices and number of livestock dogs we might need. When I saw bear and cougar scat I had to hit the books to figure out what could be done.
If you like it see it again
We never made an offer until we had seen a property at least twice. We tended to see it the first time with rose colored glasses on. We’ve been surprised at how different a property looks to us the second time we walk it. We’ve walked away from properties wondering what we were thinking. I personally feel that seeing a property in the worst season, like winter or during rainy weather is best too. Snow cover was the only thing that stopped us.
And when time allowed…
Or when we were on our second or third pass we went to local restaurants to see how much local produce was offered. Was it played up? We asked perplexed waitresses where they bought their salad greens, and if there was a competitive local alternative how interested would they be in trying it. We went to farmers markets to see how vibrant they were. We tooled around in odd neighborhoods to see what the standard of living and standards of upkeep were. Local food needs local customers. People are either buying local already (competition), are too poor to worry about it (lack of market), or don’t have a provider or the bug to do it (massive opportunity).
The drive back
This is where the real action is. Exhausted, excited, and full of ideas we talked all the way home. Pros and cons, where to locate a house, how much of the property was useable, what market opportunities are there. I think half of the farm layout ideas I had happened on the road. This is also where we broadly categorized properties. That one was a destination farm. This one was a market farm. That one was a classic homestead where we live like hermits. Maybe that one could benefit from prison labor since it is right next door to the state penitentiary. 🙂