How to Keep the Dream of Owning Country Property From Turning into a Nightmare
New England Autumn
Buyer Beware When Purchasing Country Property
Are you planning on purchasing that dream home in the Country? Maybe you want to build that family retreat in the mountains or that island cabin? If this is your first purchase of property outside the city limits, there are some important factors to consider before signing on the dotted line.
How does a country property differ from a city lot? Well, country properties have “weird” things like easements, septic tanks and mineral rights that affect how you or another entity can use or not use your property.
Understanding the differences between a city and a country property is crucial when deciding which piece of land or home to purchase. Here are some important considerations to help you make the right decision.
Protect Your Investment
Getting a title report from a reputable company is one of the most important safeguards you have when purchasing property, and luckily it is common practice in most realtor assisted sales. A title report will research the history of the property and look for liens against the property, easements, convenants and restrictions on the property, etc. Buyers should be sure the title company also issues title insurance for the transaction to protect themselves against any claims that might be made on the property after the sale closes. In a FOR SALE BY OWNER situation, you will want to contact a title company and purchase a policy yourself. And be sure to read it when you get it and before closing the sale. There may be things in the report that you had no idea existed since mineral rights, liens and easements are not really things you can see while stomping around the grounds of your dream country property, and the current owner may not even be aware of these things either. Or they might just not tell you.
I Read it, But What Does it Mean?
There are a few things in a title report you will want to look out for that are more likely to apply to a country property than a city one, and can affect who has rights to use your property for their own interests.
- Utility Easements are common on properties in the country, especially road and maintenance easements that grant access to the property for the purposes of road and utility maintenance. I had a neighbor who woke up to a guy straddling a pole outside her second story window working on the power lines next to her home, which sat on 25 acres of land, and trucks would sometimes appear in the lower pasture of our ten acres in the same neighborhood to work on the power lines there. Being aware of these easements can save you some alarm at the sight of unexpected people or vehicles on your private little paradise. They are also a good thing to be aware of as they may run right through that perfect future home for your equipment shed or horse barn.
- Access Easements: Sometimes land owners will grant an easement through a piece of their property to a neighboring one because without that easement, there would be no access to the second property. These easements are permanent and become part of the property, which gives the owner of the neighboring land the right to build an access road on that easement. These driveway easements are not always acted upon at the time they are granted so it is good to know if your new home or home site comes with any such easements. That way there will be no surprises when your neighbor shows up with a bulldozer and starts pushing your land around right where you planned to put your swimming pool.
You can find more information about easements here:
- Mineral Rights: Mineral rights are tricky business and country properties are particularly vulnerable to them. Basically mineral rights are the right to mine minerals, coal, gas or oil, beneath the ground of a given property. It is not uncommon at all for a country property to have one or more owners of mineral rights attached to the property. This means that when you purchase the property you are the surface owner of the property but you have no rights to mine minerals below the surface of that property, and you do not have the right to prevent the owner of the rights from mining on “your” property. This is serious business. It’s interesting to note that if you google mineral rights, you will find numerous web sites seeking to purchase mineral rights from property owners. This is apparently a more recent phenomonen. The race for new domestic sources of gas and oil, and the upswing in fracking wells, has led to a lot of misery for property owners who don’t own the mineral rights to their land and have little recourse to control the actions of those sometimes powerful interests who do own them.
- And according to msuextension.org: A standard title report will not always turn up the ownership of minerals. You will find an excellent resource article on mineral rights at their website by clicking the link below. http://store.msuextension.org/publications/OutdoorsEnvironmentandWildlife/MT201207HR.pdf
If I were currently purchasing a country property, especially one in a mineral producing region, this would be the one thing I would be paying the most attention to. Consulting a really good real estate attorney might be a wise move if you are planning a move to any of the country’s oil, gas or coal hot spots.
The Grass is Always Greener...
What you need to know about SEPTIC SYSTEMS:
Septic Systems are common place on country properties. Sewer systems might exist to service in-town rural homes, but anything outside city limits will likely have an on-site septic system. Any purchase of a rural home should include a septic system inspection, and financial institutions will require one if you are bank financing your property purchase. Your realtor will most likely have information on whether or not a property you are interested in has had an inspection completed but if you are buying a FOR SALE BY OWNER property, be sure to require one as a condition of the sale. You can also visit the local municipality and find records of septic systems on a given property from when it was originally installed to decipher if the home has a system large enough to accommodate any future plans you may have for home additions. Systems are usually built to accommodate a certain number of bedrooms and not by the structures square footage, so if you purchase a two bedroom home and want to add a couple of bedrooms you must have a system that is rated for four bedrooms. Otherwise, you will need to upgrade and expand the system.
Purchasers of raw land need to insure that the ground they want to build on is suitable for a septic system install. The building department will not issue a building permit if your land will not perk, which means it has soils that are permeable enough to allow sewage to percolate down from the surface soil in the leaching field area of the system. Or if they do, it could end up being a more expensive system than you expected. So if you are planning on purchasing raw land for a home site, you need to make sure the property has had a perk test, which will also often dictate where you can build on the property based on the perk test results. If you are going to make a land purchase of an acreage without a prior perk test, you can at least check with the local health, building, or Department of Environmental Quality, whichever one issues septic permits, about soil conditions in the area. You will also want to check on what type of septic system they require since some areas with heavier soils now require a more expensive mound style system over the standard in-ground leaching field systems used in the past.
What Does Rural Mean to You?
What do you think would be the best thing about living in the Country?
Raw Land or Raw Deal?
When purchasing a piece of "raw" land, you will need to pay attention to some key issues, or it could end up costing you waaay too much money or even end up being a serious safety concern.
Availability of power: Bringing power to a remote site is expensive so make sure your dream property has power on site or quite close to where you want to build. And don't assume that just because there is a power box or pole nearby that it will be a simple and inexpensive hook up, as the box you see may be for a neighboring property and the pole may need the addition of a transformer.
Access to the property: This is also important as road building is another bank roll breaker. Skip the mountain top site with the killer views if the road is basically a goat trail that even a AWD jeep finds hard to negotiate in the dry season. After all, it rains everywhere and while you may get up it today, you might not come winter storms or spring rains. Unless you have the financial resources or really don't plan on spending time there in inclement weather, but even then, see "Emergency Services" below for more serious considerations.
Emergency Services: This is one of those things it's easy to overlook if you are used to city living, but rural properties, especially in remote areas, are vulnerable. You want your property to have access to a fire hydrant or water source for fire suppression. Also, if your property access road is too windy or narrow, a fire truck may not be able to negotiate it and they will not go down a road they can't turn around and drive back out of. This was an issue in the recent Canyon Creek Fires in Eastern Oregon where I once lived, and homes were lost because of it. There are also issues of fire districts that are all volunteer, or under-funded, and EMT services that are simply non existent nearby enough to make response times acceptable in the case of urgent medical emergencies. This is something you will need to research carefully and talk to a knowledgeable local realtor about when searching for your future dream home site.
An Experienced Local is Your Best Ally
Working with an experienced local Realtor is your best bet when purchasing rural property. Be sure that they have expertise with the kind of property you are seeking--whether it is a 100 year old farm house, a ranch, a remote cabin or a raw undeveloped property, there's a realtor for that! A good reliable realtor should be willing to do research that can help you figure out if you can afford the property you have our heart set on. You know, the one that has no power, water or septic, but has the pine trees, meadows and wildlife you've been dreaming of. Their knowledge of some of the more mysterious aspects of rural land such as water and mineral rights could be indispensable. And their familiarity with local activities such as hunting and ATV trails that might affect the ultimate peace and quiet of your little slice of heaven might just come in handy too.
So cultivate a good working relationship with a helpful realtor. And if you find a FOR SALE BY OWNER property that sets your heart a flutter, you can always hire a realtor or attorney to help negotiate the sale, using the guidelines I've provided to help you make an educated, safe and sane decision that will result in a very happy ending!