What do I need to know before buying land?
April 27, 2014 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I wish to buy some undeveloped rural land for recreational purposes. What words of wisdom or relevant recommendations (books, blogs, etc.) can you offer?

I own a home in the metro St. Louis area, but would like to buy some undeveloped land (about 20 acres) overlooking a river about 75 miles outside of town. I'm not looking at this an investment opportunity, nor do I have plans to move there. I mainly just want a private place to go camping, fishing, hiking, cycling, and so on. I expect I'd be out there a couple of times a month when the weather is nice, and almost never during the winter.

I haven't talked to a real estate agent yet, so I want to get educated on this before I call. What advice do you have?
posted by tomwheeler to Home & Garden (4 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

This guy did something similar, with the final intention of moving off-grid at some point. He talks a lot about improving the land, something you may or may not be interested in doing, but it still brings up many interesting points regardless. Lots of things I'd never thought of and I'm fairly outdoorsy myself.
posted by _DB_ at 9:33 AM on April 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

We did something similar in a rural part of Wisconsin. It's a big undertaking, and your question is hard to answer. Some parts of the puzzle:

-official stuff. Zoning, building permits. Local government, utilities, etc. Even if you don't plan to build now, you really want to know how difficult it is. Also, what can your neighbors do? What if a hog confinement facility is built on the next property? How are taxes assessed and how often?

-social stuff. What is the culture of the area? What will your immediate neighbors be like? Rural people sometimes resent outsiders. Have people been using your prospective property for generations, cutting through or using your access roads for their own purposes? Will you need to post "no tresspassing" signs everywhere, or gate/fences? And will the locals resent this, especially if you don't actually live there? How close are services - gas station, grocery, etc.

That's what comes to mind at the moment. Feel free to MeMail if you can think of specifics.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:43 PM on April 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

A friend and I did something similar a few years back. It's been a real adventure.

First, I would check with the county, or whatever govt body administers that area. They may have something like this, which is not from the county where we bought land, but is nearby and is useful information about country living. But it covers a lot of stuff that werkzeuger mentioned, like the things your neighbors might be able to do that you can't do anything about.

If you are absolutely positively certain that you will never ever ever want to build a home there and live in it full time, then that may change a lot of things regarding how much you should care about zoning and building permits.

A big part of talking to your county officials is knowing the right questions to ask, and asking a lot of them. We found out, for example, we could NOT build or live in a yurt on our property if it had heat and plumbing, because that made it a "dwelling." But we could live in anything with wheels. However, on more probing, the truth was that we could indeed build and live in a yurt, as long as we did not live in it continuously for more than six months at a time. Easy!

Also we were limited to only one house on our land. Then we read the county zoning laws for our type of parcel, and it turns out we could have several houses, as long as they are not always occupied and are for recreation or temporary farm worker housing.

Our quick and easy solution was to buy a couple tiny aluminum 1960's trailers, which are great and only set us back about $400 each.

What are your water, sewer, electric, internet/phone needs? Do you intend to be fully off-grid? If there is an electric line near the edge of your property, running a line may be worth it when compared to the cost of solar panels, inverters, and batteries, and may allow you to heat your place with cheap electricity.

Also, I don't know what your realtors are like out there, but out here even the ones based in the country were not very helpful at determining anything about the property or the zoning. They did drive me to the county HQ, but that was all.

The eastern part of our state (Oregon) is full of recreational high desert parcels on which you may never build a home. But their definition of home, varying by county of course , often just refers to how long you live there continuously.

Just a bunch of questions to consider:
-Is there trash service out there?
-Is there a structure already on the land? If there is and you want to destroy it, will you be able to get a dumpster to put the parts in?
-Are you allowed to burn your trash?
-Will you be able to insure the land against liability? You may need to find a niche insurer for that. A good rural insurance agent should be helpful there. There may be requirements, like heavy signage against trespassing. Also, IANYL, but if you are unable to insure it, talk to a lawyer about forming an LLC that might shield your other assets, but potentially allow your land to be forfeit in the case of a judgment.
-Will you be able to get a loan for the land? Paying cash will open up a lot of options for you.
-What is the largest "shed" you can build without a building permit? ;)
-What makes a "dwelling" a dwelling? (Heat? Electricity? Indoor plumbing?)
-What are the hunting/fishing/water rights?
-What kind of access is available to the property? Is it a county-maintained road or is it something all the neighbors pay to maintain?
-If you cut down some trees to build a dwelling or to sell them to pay for improvements to the land (something a lot of people do out here), how does that change your taxes for the land? Do you need to replant trees to stay in forest land tax deferral?
-What are the fire codes? If you build a dwelling, do you have to have a certain length/width driveway to allow fire dept access? Do you have to have a certain buffer around any building? (In our case, we need a turnaround for any driveway over 150 feet, and must have 75 feet from any building to any large trees.)
-How nosy/fancy do the neighbors seem to be?
-Is the tree cover dense enough that you could build whatever you wanted to build as long as it wasn't visible from the road or from satellite photos? (This is how some counties check for property tax compliance.) Inexplicably, many of our neighbors in the country cut down all the trees along the road, then complain that the county wants to tax the new barn they built, which the tax collector can see from the road. In some counties here, local zoning officials have been known to camp out in their cars overnight to observe people through binoculars waking up and exiting structures in the morning, to prove that people are dwelling there.
-Does the county have any plans for your local road? Widening?
-Who owns the land around you? What are their plans for it? A paper company owns all the forest around us, so our entire view will be clearcut within 20 years, replanted, and sprayed until the trees are mature enough to block the light for weeds.

I'll post some more if I can remember anything else. Feel free to memail me too, if you have any specific questions.
posted by MonsieurBon at 9:07 AM on April 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Since you're in St. Louis, you may already be aware of this site: ozarkland.com

Lots of small, very rural plots to choose from, many with creeks on property, some with great views, some close to the Big Piney or Current rivers. The guy handles financing himself.
posted by General Tonic at 11:48 AM on April 28, 2014

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