Thursday, November 15, 2012

Land Ho! Getting Started as a Property Owner

There are a few important things you should look into before making the leap into land/property ownership…

1.) A budget is obviously the most important part of any investment. What are your personal funds or lack there of? If you open your wallet and a one-winged moth coughs out, you may want to reconsider an investment this large. Stick to what you’ve got and save to get what you want. But my advice is to do whatever you can to save as much debt as you can- a.k.a., take out as little in loans as possible.

The current housing crisis is still looming, and if anything it’s getting tougher each year. You don’t want to be stuck in a mortgage that could be hanging over your head for the greater portion of your life-Loans are meant solely to create debt, and make banks lots of money. Your accumulating interest, is in their best interest, not yours. You need to start small, and live within your means. If you can borrow from friends or family, do so.

That being said, land is gold. To own land is to be able to secure your own future. When you own your own piece of earth, you are the rule maker. You don’t pay rent, and you don’t really answer to anyone. Even if it’s a ½ acre, it’s your start to build and do whatever you please with. Especially with an economy as unstable as it is, you need land to be able to accommodate your needs as they may arise.

2.) Next is to ask yourself what are you really looking for? Are you looking to be a new homeowner, to build your own house, to farm and raise animals, to have neighbors close by or to have privacy? Know what you want beforehand. Be completely honest with yourself, and if it helps you any, organize your thoughts by making a list of things you want to get out of your investment.

3.) After you’ve narrowed down what type of property you want, it’s time to hit the newspapers, Internet, and your local real estate agencies to research properties on the market. Look for key words in ads that sellers often like to use to fool the unsuspecting eager buyer.

“Cozy” means small, there is no other meaning on the planet we call earth when it comes to homes or apartments- see also “quaint”, “charming” and any use of the word, “nook”. “Handy-man special” or even the phrase, “full of possibilities”, means you better have credit at Home Depot and the next 20 years of weekends free. Any number followed by the word “century” means they are selling it at a price as if it’s protected by the national historical society, when in reality, it’s just old.

There are more terms, but you get the point. That being said, surprisingly when they are messing up and accidentally revealing the negatives of the property, they often times forget to mention facts that would be found quite attractive to buyers. For example being near a good school, having a stream or natural water source on the property, etc. The truth is, you will never know until you look, but buyer-beware.

4.) After you’ve made your list of possible properties you are interested in, you need to phone the owner and then visit several times in person. It’s a good idea to visit the property on different occasions at different times of the day. You want as full of a picture of what your investment contains, both the pluses and the minuses.

For example, what portions of the property get the most sunlight and for how long during the day? What is the neighborhood like? Is it too noisy and crowded or is it too quiet for your taste? The loudness may be different in summer when people are more active, than when you visit a property in the winter. Is the property mostly meadow land, or is it mostly woods? Is there any wetlands on or nearby that could give you trouble during mosquito season? What kind of trees are on the property, are they hard or soft wood?

Lands Basic Requirements

Soil Quality

Soil fertility is of course the most important factor if you are looking to use your land for farming or if you are a serious gardener. When you go to visit the property, either bring a spade or ask if the owner has one available to borrow ahead of time. Dig into the soil at different locations so you can get the best overall judgment of the land. The layer of topsoil should be at least 10” deep, but the deeper the better- 15” would be ideal. The topsoil should be dark in color and loose and crumbly. You want to make sure that it’s evenly balanced, not too sticky (too much clay which will water log your crops and cause them to rot), or too crumbly (too much sand which means that water will just run through and not be absorbed by the plants roots). Take a sample and bring it to your local county agent or even a local university to have the ph levels measured and mineral content analyzed. You will want a ph as close to neutral as possible, which is around the number 7. Slightly above or below this number is normal. Another good way to gage the land is to observe the neighbors and see what they are growing, if anything. Chances are if they are successful with a certain type of crop, then your land will be as successful with the same type.

Walk around the property and take notice of any signs of erosion. Look for exposed roots around trees and bushes. The soil will appear light colored and very dry. Erosion means you have to replace the topsoil in order to plant, which is costly and time consuming. Inspect the property after a rainstorm. Is the land very boggy and muddy? If so, that means the soil isn’t properly draining away the excess moisture. Take the spade again and dig down into the ground after it rains or during the rain, about 3-4 feet deep and see what the soil looks like. If it is very dense and packed that means that it’s virtually impermeable to water, which will be detrimental to your crops.

Water Supply

One of the most important things to find out before purchasing land is to find out exactly what access to water there is, whether from pipelines from the city, or from a well, or if there is a spring, stream or pond on the property. If there are none of these things, next inquire around town as what the average cost is to dig a well. Water is important not only for drinking, cooking and bathing, but you are going to need an adequate supply for any crops or animals you plan on raising.

Water Consumption per Day

Human = 30-70 gallons

Horse = 6-12 gallons

Milk Cow = 35 gallons

500 Square Ft. Garden = 35 gallons

The best time to inspect the property for water availability is during the summer time, when the temperatures have peaked and not all streams and springs that were there earlier in the year are still flowing. If there is no current water supply, and you are forced to dig a well, be sure never to attempt to dig it on your own if you are an amateur. The risk of cave-ins is not worth saving the money of doing-it-yourself -- you could end up doing-in-yourself.

Most wells are about 15-20 feet deep, but at times due to the location of the water table they have to be dug as deep as 100 feet. If you can find out the level of your water table ahead of time, do so to save yourself the headache of wondering if you are digging all the way to China.

What is a water table? A water table is the top of the groundwater reservoir. When a water table breaches the surface you get springs, swamps, and ponds. Depending on how many people are pumping water out of this reservoir will affect the level of your water table. This underground water source is often encased in rock where it forms an underground stream. If the stream originates from a high enough elevation the water will be under such intense pressure that it will bubble up to the surface without the need for any drilling. This form of water source is called an Artesian Well.

Well Digging

Back in the day people would use the knowledge and expertise of their local Dowser to find a location to dig their well. A Dowser is an individual who is able to detect water underneath the surface by using twigs, pieces of metal, or two hot dogs extended out in front of them-in other words, their tools don’t make a difference, you have to feel it! In their methods, they say that the energy of the water is detectable if you are sensitive to its’ resonance, and that if you are in tune with the energies you can find water and even various mineral deposits. The Dowsers tools will suddenly be pulled towards the ground where the water is located, as if honing in on an X on a treasure map.

A lot of people swear by their use, and the Dowsers themselves can attest and often prove their capabilities. But if you are not feeling adventurous enough to depend on someone walking around with a couple of branches yelling ‘Eureka!’ and then digging holes all over your yard, there are more…conventional means, to find out what lies beneath. But with convention comes cost…so here’s your stick.

Bored Well:

This well construction is done with a borer, I know, I know, as surprising as that sounds. First the soil is broken up with either a large pick or a crowbar about to a depth of about 1 ft. Then the borer drills down from there, with you adding segments to the drill the deeper down you go. Every now and then the drilling must be halted to empty the hole of any debris. The problem with this method of well digging is two fold. If the well doesn’t strike water before you reach 50 feet, you can’t proceed any more with this method of digging. The second is if you find a large rock formation, you have to start digging at a new location starting from scratch again. But if you do manage to dig down unscathed and find water, the well piping and water intake is then installed.

Driven Well:

This method is by using a steel pipe that has a point on one end, with a screen to prevent dirt from getting inside, (since this digging pipe will also be used to get your water from later), and hammering it directly into the ground. This method of well-digging is excellent for deep wells over a 100 ft in depth. Since this is such a deep digging method, to periodically check to see if you’ve found water, lower a string tied to something like a small rock or something with weight, and pull it back in to see if its wet or not. As soon as you see that you’ve hit water, you need to dig down at least another 20-30 feet to ensure that you have enough of a water supply to meet your needs.

Water-Jetted Well:

Just as the name implies, its method is by using a powerful water jet that forces water down into the soil down a pipe. The pressure that is created by this down-force of water, which pushes the loosened soil up on the other sides of the pipe, up and out of the well. A casing is installed in the well as you are digging down to prevent cave-ins, but with all the moisture coming up from the water, it creates a muddy side to the well which helps maintain the shape and structure and prevents collapse. This is an opportune way to dig a well, but again the issue is if you hit a rock formation you will be forced to stop. But if everything goes smoothly you should be able to dig down do a depth of about 300 feet!

Drilled Well:

This is a great way to dig a well if you are going to need to get through strong rock below. Diamond tipped drill bits are required for extremely tough rock formations. For this method, due to the friction created in the drilling process, you will need a water pump to pump water down to both lubricate and cool down the drill bit. Also this water will help flush out the debris that is created in the drilling, back up to the surface. The hole you drilled will be relatively narrow, so after the drilling is finished the hole is reamed to a diameter of 3 inches and then the well pipe with screen, or a submersible pump of some kind are installed. The depth that you can attain with this method of digging, is only limited by the amount of horsepower your drilling engine has. But with a 3 horse-power drilling unit, you can reach depths up to 300 feet, so more power sometimes is just a waste, depending on what you need of course.

The Old Fashioned/ Crazy Way to dig a Well:

Again, this is not for amateurs- I highly recommend not doing this unless you are accompanied by an experienced digger. The dimensions of the well to start are about 3 1/2 feet wide, or a comfortable width for one person to be able to climb into the well. To keep the soil from crumbling and falling in the well as you dig, a piece of steel (culvert piping) about 4 feet in length is installed at the top. It’s a good idea to also extend this piping above the top surface of your dig by several inches. This prevents the accidental kicking of tools and materials on top of some unsuspecting diggers head. The well is dug until water is filling in faster than can be bailed out by hand. To prevent pollution of the well water from the surrounding soil, the top half wall of the well is lined with bricks and non-porous concrete. The bottom portion of the wall and the floor is lined with stones without any concrete. At this point you can either attach a hand pump to a long pipe with a strainer at the bottom of it to pull up filtered water the hard way, or you can install your pipe and strainer to an electric pump to pump the water directly into your home. At the top of the well should be a concrete cover with a covered manhole to allow you to inspect your water supply safely and to protect it from contamination from the outside elements. (See drawing above)


The next important task to look into is the sewage. Is there a septic tank and leach field? Is there a city sewer line to connect to? If no to both, you will have to install your own septic tank and leach field. A leach field is nothing more than long piping underground with holes in them that allow moisture to leak out into the soil. Make sure that both the tank and leach field are down slope from your water supply, for obvious reasons. If you do wind up having to install the tank and leach field, check to make sure that the land is permeable enough to take in the water as it slowly drains from the septic tank through the leach lines. Also make sure you have a county inspector accompany you to the site to see if there is a location on your property that allows this.

Green Options For Sewage and Grey-Water:

In recent years, more people are looking into the option of recycling waste. As we are ever populating the earth with more and more of us, our waste is building up and being dumped into lakes and rivers which as a result is withering away our surrounding ecosystems. These methods ensure that not only can we protect the environment, but our waste can also be used to make it flourish, and we can also reduce the amount of water consumption that we use on a daily basis by using alternative methods of disposal.

Composting Toilet:

The great thing about the composting toilet is it is energy free to operate. The only thing that is needed in abundance is Oxygen. This enables the aerobic bacteria to break down the refuse inside your compost toilet chamber. The other benefit to this method is that unlike the horrors of using an outhouse, this toilet is odor-free and to your relief during the winter, it can be installed indoors. Your cheeks will thank you when it hits below zero, believe me. The easiest construction of the composting toilet is to use a fiberglass container between the floor joists and the ground or basement floor. The ideal temperature that the bacteria function at is between 90 degrees F and 140 degrees F. The fiberglass container will help lock in the heat that is generated by the bacteria breaking down the waste, so the process is kept constant. The container must be set at an incline so that the waste slides down slowly as it is broken down. Piping is installed that brings in air from the outdoors into the compost chamber, and keeps the oxygen supply at the necessary levels. Also a flue can be attached to let out any odors that may accumulate to vent out with a blower through your roof. Another useful idea, is if you are constructing your home, have it so that your kitchen has a compost waste drop that drops kitchen scraps directly into the compost toilet chamber. This will aid the bacteria and cause it to break down the toilet waste faster and also to create high-grade fertilizer.

Pit Privies:

This is an elegant way of calling an Outhouse. Make sure when you build the outhouse, that it is nowhere near your water supply, so in other words, downhill from any water source. Also make sure that the water table is several feet below the bottom of the Outhouse’s pit. Once maximum capacity is reached in your pit, it must be covered and the privy moved to a new location. Like I mentioned before, as eco as the Privy/Outhouse can be, it smells horrible and is a nightmare in the colder months. Also if you are like me, you will be in a constant state of paranoia that some critter jumped into the pit and is going to bite you as soon as you sit down- But maybe that’s just me.

Incinerating Toilets:

This is a more costly method of all the options of recycling waste. This functions by an electric motor which operates a burner jet, and a blower, which is fueled by either liquid or natural propane gas. How it works is when you lift up the top lid of the toilet seat, a flap at the bottom of the toilet bowl/Hopper opens up and a cycle timer is set. When the top lid is closed again, the flap drops closed and the refuse is burned for approximately 15 minutes. Then after the waste is burned, the blower kicks in to cool down the unit. The Hopper should be cleaned out regularly, at least once a week, and then the ash should be removed from the combustion chamber before it builds up.

Gray-water Disposal

This is an effective addition to your composting toilet, for the waste water from the sinks, shower and tub will need to be still drained into a small septic tank and leach field. What you can do is to hook up an underground hose network from the gray-water tank to various parts of your gardens, or to a cistern for storage to be hosed out when need be for irrigation. It is best if you are going to effectively and safely use the gray-water, to have a filtration system in place to filter and clean out the water as much as possible. It is possible with this filtration system to recycle the water to be used in the household again for dishes and bathing, but not for drinking purposes.

Water Storage/Catchment Systems

Rain Catching:

If you have a series of gutters on your roof, they can be used to channel rainwater into a cistern for storage later on. The cistern, to be effective, must hold enough water to get through any dry seasons. In an area that receives average rainfall (about 25-30’’ a year), a roof that has the surface area of about 1,000 square feet, will be able to collect upwards of 50 gallons of water a day. 50 gallons of water would supply the needs of a two-person household. So from there you can estimate based on the size of your household what you will need to store for you.

Ponds as water storage:

Another excellent source for holding water and using it for crops and animals is a pond-This is for large-scale water storage. If the property doesn’t come with a pond, you can either excavate if the water table is close enough to the surface, or you can build an embankment of soil to collect runoff. But again, this type of water storage is not intended for human consumption, but only for the irrigation of plants and for watering your animals.

Methods for Collecting Spring Water

Spring water is an amazing resource to have, because the work is literally done for you, water just seeps out from the ground. Now to be able to retrieve it and use it is another story. You can either put in some kind of tiling after you dig around it to prevent the area from mudding up, or you can sink a pipe in there about 3 feet deep or below the frost line if that is applicable to your climate zone. The difficulty that you might encounter is that springs can disappear during drier seasons, but if there is a pretty strong water flow coming out, the chances of this happening diminish.

You could build also a spring water collection structure made of mostly concrete with a waterproof lining encasing the spring water, which will protect the clean spring water from outside contaminants and runoff from the surface soil. Then piping can be installed to direct the flow of water to your cistern, and another pipe should be installed in case of overflow to direct the water out of the structure.

Spring House:

This is an old structure from the last century that used the coolness of spring water to keep their perishables from spoiling in the heat of summer. How it works is that the spring water is fed into the building through a pipe, which funnels it into a type of trough. The water is first directed into a tub for drinking water, and any over flow from this water tank is fed down the trough into where the food is kept. Back in the day, this springhouse kept milk cans, cheese and other dairy products fresh and cool. The water is then funneled out of the building through an outlet pipe at the base of the structures foundation. This water could then be directed to another cistern for watering the plants or animals, so as to not waste it. (Spring House drawing above.)

Water Cisterns:

Most cisterns can hold about 180 cubic feet of water. In order to support this amount of water (water = 62.4 lb per cubic ft.) weight, the entire cistern must be enclosed in solid concrete of at least 1 foot in thickness, and should be screened off in areas where it is exposed to the outdoors to prevent insects and debris getting in. The cistern and the foundation it is on should be strong enough to withstand 5-6 tons of water weight.

Sizing up the house/buildings on the property

If the land you buy comes with any structures, examine all of them thoroughly. Is it big enough to meet your needs? How well taken care of was it? Does the house face the most light to be energy efficient in the colder months? Is there any signs of wood rot? (Test for wood rot by taking an ice pick or sharp tool and poking the beams of the structure. If it pierces easily you have wood rot.) What state are the windows in, are they well sealed off, are there storm windows and screens? Look around to see if there are any small holes in the wood parts, this is a sign of termites and carpenter ants. Check also the fuse box to see its condition and also check if the voltage meets your needs. Look over the water heater to see if it’s the right size for the number of people who will be living there. (I.e. a 4 person family= 30 gallon gas heater or a 50 gallon electric heater). Look for any signs of leaks, there will be stains on the ceiling and walls.

Zoning Laws & Building Codes

It’s a good idea to research into both of these things before forking over the cash. Building codes concerns not only the person interested in constructing their own home, but also if you ever want to expand the house if your family gets too big, or put up a new garage, or even build a small shed to house all your tools. Different counties have different regulations and fees for permits for the smallest structures to the biggest. Even if you are the handiest of people on the planet, and got a Phd. in the field of I-made-it-all-by-myself…you still have to get a permit. They care- or rather, they care about your money, and by saying they care for your safety they have a reason to charge you whatever they want to build on your own property. Zoning Laws is a little more nitty-gritty and it’s best for not only this but also the building codes, to check with your local county agent ahead of time. Zoning Laws can restrict you if you want to grow crops, or if you want to raise certain kinds of animals. Again, it depends on where you locate to, which depending on your interests could severely hamper your plans. Look into both of these items carefully before getting too attached to a property. Better yet, if you are searching within specific regions, check each regions restrictions first- and depending on which one is the cheapest and most lenient, will give you a better idea of where you are going to settle down.

Electricity & Phone Service

An obvious question, but “Do you have access to any on the property”. If you are looking to just buy land to build on, you need to ascertain if it has these commodities installed or if you are going to have to pay for it. Most phone and electric companies will comply on getting you connected, but of course for a fee! I’m not talking about installing a phone jack in your wall or putting in an electric meter. I mean the actual phone lines and electric lines coming across your property. If you are just buying a cute house in an ordinary neighborhood, then you will not have to worry about this. This is for the adventurous souls who are buying land either with a house that has been not lived in for quite some time a.k. a. a fixer upper, or with not a single structure on it and you are going to be doing the building.

If the property has nothing available on it as of yet, the question arises whether you want to bring in the wiring, or if you want to invest in your own green power system (i.e. solar power). That kind of system can cost you up front from $5,000 to $10,000 to install, but once it’s operational, the long-term savings will be well worth it.

Access Rights-Driveway

This is an issue that more often comes up for people who are buying land in the countryside. Sometimes lots of land are sold in a middle lot surrounded by other peoples’ property on all sides. Are you sharing road access or will one of the neighbors allow you to put a road in to get through? What are the costs to put in a driveway? What length of a drive will you need to reach your property? Remember, even a short driveway can be expensive. You figure you will need the drive to be at least 10 feet wide in the straight areas, and 14 feed wide where the drive curves. Also the middle of the driveway should be higher than the sides so that water will run off to the sides and not carve deep ruts in the spring time or in severe rain. About ¼” per foot in slope is required from the center of the drive to its edge in order to make this water shedding effective.


If you have kids or are planning on starting a family, you will need to also research the schools in the area. Does the bus run near your property, or will you have to drive your kids in? What are the schools like? If you have the time and commitment to home school your children, you will first have to check with the local school districts policies and regulations to see if that is permitted.

Timber Restrictions

If you are looking to be able to log wood on your own land, you will have to check with your county zoning board first. You may need their permission in order to cut significant amounts of wood. Another concern for landowners in densely wooded areas is the danger of forest fires. How close to your home is the wooded area? If you are located in a thick wooded area, do you even qualify for fire insurance? If so, what are the costs?

Home Based Business Ventures

If you were planning on working from home by setting up shop on the premises to save money on renting a space elsewhere, certain zoning restrictions may apply. This depends on what kind of business you are looking to start. Before investing in your idea of a home-based income, look into this matter with your county agent.

Title Search and Title Insurance

I’ve seen this devastatingly affect friends of mine who bought property to put up a business. Please look into a title search in your property before purchasing to determine if there are any back taxes, liens water rights, judgments, etc, against the property. You have no idea just how critical this is, especially during these economic times of trouble. A lot of people just bail and don’t resolve the fees or issues against their property they are selling. Also, title insurance is an important thing to obtain too. This means you know exactly where you property lies and your neighbors’ property ends. You don’t want to end up in a battle down the road when your neighbor decides to put a fence across your land or extend a drive through it. You take them to court to find out that a portion of your property technically belongs to them.

Mortgage Contracts

Lawyer, lawyer, lawyer- Always have one to either help you interpret the mortgage contracts or to make your own up. The downside to any investment is of course the part where you fork over the money. Before signing any mortgage contract, make sure you read the fine print before signing. Beware of such a clause as a Balloon Payment. Sounds harmless enough, but when in actuality it means that after a certain length of time of you making your normal mortgage payments, on a date mentioned in the clause the remainder of your principal owed for the mortgage will come due in full. For the unsuspecting soul, this can become the difference between having a home and suddenly being homeless.

Paying off the Debt

There are some private sellers who refuse cash in full payments. Even if you’ve saved, they’d rather make the principal plus interest spread over a period of time so THEY can save money on their income taxes. Over time with interest on your payments, they will earn double than if they had accepted your payment in full up front.

Look closely at your contract and make sure that it says you can pay off the debt sooner if you are able to and also willing. The bad egg sellers out there, sometimes specifically seek out individuals who they know won’t be able to make the payments. Then they can earn some payments to start plus interest, seize the property when you are no longer able to afford those payments, and they will now own the land again plus any improvements you made to it. Then they just resell it to the next victim and the cycle starts all over again.

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