Some people buy their dream home, while others want to build from the ground up, having a say in every little detail. Escape Home contributor Timothy Harper has the scoop on what you need to know before buying that plot of land.
My friend the singer-songwriter knows what he and his actor wife don’t want in a dream home in the country. They don’t want anyone else’s dream.
They’ve visited lots of friends in their weekend homes, rented lots of rural getaways and looked at country homes that are for sale. Most of those places have been nice. Some have been very nice – nice enough that they could see themselves there.
My friends sometimes visit a home, and talk about how it could be renovated to be more to their tastes.
But they always end up telling each other, “This could work for us, but wouldn’t it be nice if we built our own place…”
Sometimes a dream home is just vacant land. Dirt and trees and rocks. A pond or lake. A view. Sometimes the dream home exists only in the imagination – it is truly a dream.
People have lots of reasons for buying land or empty lots, real estate agents say. Many, like my friends, literally want to build their dream. Others see buying vacant property as a cheaper, intermediate step.
Tim Zinselmeier, a real estate agent outside Springfield, Illinois, often helps people find farm land or wooded properties where they can create their dreams. Some might want to have a hobby farm, raising chickens or goats or growing vegetables and flowers. Some want to board horses or raise llamas (yes, that is a real thing in parts of the rural Midwest). Some just want to be out in nature, away from people – like Daniel Boone, who knew it was time to move again whenever he could see the smoke from his nearest neighbor’s chimney.
Zinselmeier, who works with his brother-in-law KC Sullivan in their firm S and Z Property Brothers, couldn’t talk when I reached out recently; he was taking his kids to the county fair that evening.
When I finally got him on the phone, untold carnival rides and deep-fried corn dogs later, he said one recent sale was pretty typical: the new owner bought 11 wooded acres with a creek and isolated frontage along the Illinois River – ideal for driving four-wheeled recreational vehicles, camping, short hikes, fishing and hunting – squirrels, rabbits and especially ducks.
Zinselmeier said the typical buyer for that kind of property is a guy in or approaching middle age who wants some property of his own for his family and friends. Sometimes the buyers have plans to build on the land, maybe a big house but maybe just a cabin. Sometimes they bring in a trailer or park an RV on the land as a first step.
My friends, who live in New York City, aren’t the hunting and fishing type. They aren’t going to be raising llamas any time soon.
But like Zinselmeier’s clients in Illinois, my friends want to build their own place, to their own needs and taste, laid out to their liking. That means a good working kitchen, space to entertain inside and outside, a comfortable spot for viewing movies, a studio, and a view. Not just any view – they want a lake view. The lake should be close enough that they can walk out the door for a swim or paddle. They know the area they want in the Hudson Valley, not too far from the city.
Unlike Daniel Boone, they are way more comfortable being able to see neighbors’ chimney smoke. They want to be near enough to a small town that it’s a quick drive to groceries, coffee and a pub or two.
Whether in rural Illinois or the Hudson Valley, people considering buying land should follow a few guidelines from Zinselmeier and other real estate agents:
The first bit of advice for prospective buyers is to work with a licensed real estate agent. (Real estate agents always say that, of course, and it really does make sense, especially someone who knows the area and the market, especially the prices on other properties for sale.)
Be aware that it is often tougher, and more expensive, to get financing. Mortgage lenders typically prefer tangible assets like a house. Sometimes sellers will sell on a “land contract,” a rent-with-the-option-to-buy variation: the buyer makes a down payment, followed by a series of monthly or yearly installments and a final “balloon” payment. (If the buyer can’t make the balloon payment, the seller keeps both the land and the money already paid.)
Check on what utilities are available. Is there a municipal sewer? Or will you need to plant a septic tank? Will you need to dig a well? How about electric power and internet access?
Have a survey done. Is there good road access to the property? Are you going to need to establish an easement to use someone else’s road?
Are other people accessing the property? Under the doctrine of adverse possession, people who have been freely using the property for years sometimes retain the legal right to keep using it, whether that means driving on the private road or roaming the land to hunt and fish.
Determine how long it would take emergency vehicles to get to the property. Sometimes properties are not well marked, even on digital maps, and the fire truck or ambulance doesn’t know where to go.
Consider having environmental tests done on both the soil and the water. You want to know if there’s a problem, and if it requires remediation. Sometimes long-ago uses of the land or more recent dumping of toxic materials can mean a major environmental cleanup.
Establish with local authorities what hoops you need to jump through in order to use the property the way you want, whether that’s for racing dirt bikes through the woods or building a big house on the lakefront. What rezoning or zoning variations will you need?
Finally, ask neighbors and everybody about the history of the property, official or not. If you’re lucky, you might inherit a legend. Do turtles cross the road to lay their eggs and then return to the lake? Was the property once a Girl Scout camp? Are those strange sounds in the woods at night “lady chop-chop”?