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Finding Your Place in the Country
By Kim Pratt

The first step in finding your place in the country is knowing what you want. How many acres do you need? Will you be wanting just a flock of chickens and a small garden, or are you leaning more towards a few cows and a horse? Decide what kind of livestock you want to raise and have a good idea of how much property you'll need. Will you be wanting a place that already has a barn, shop, chicken shed and a house? If your budget allows, it would be nice to get a place that already has these. You can upgrade and renovate to your liking as money and time allows. If you can only afford the land, you still have placed one foot forward towards where you want to go.

Many people have purchased only land, then plopped an older mobile home or travel trailer on it as a place to rest their bones while they are planning and preparing the development of their place in the country. This is a relatively low-cost way to start. If you have the money to buy a place in the country that is already established and has everything you need, then that is great too. The point is - whether you start in a big way or get started in a small way - you've made a big step and welcome to country living!

Bottom line - know what you want before you start looking. Start with a dream and temper it with budget requirements and a realistic outlook.

Where to Start Looking

You may already have a good idea of the area in which you want to live. If you plan on going through a real-estate office, it helps to use one that has multiple listings. In other words, they have a list of not only the property they are representing but also a list of property listed by other real-estate agents. They get a commission on the referral so oftentimes you'll find them very helpful.

It helps if you have already decided exactly what you are looking for. We drove willy-nilly to many different pieces of property suggested to us by the realtor. All of which were so disappointing that we nearly lost our momentum. Finally we told the realtor EXACTLY what we were looking for. Acreage, amenities, outbuildings, location requirements, etc. We told the realtor to not call us unless they had a place that met all of our criteria. Wouldn't you know, the next time he called us we looked at the place and bought it. It was perfect!

Another method is to pour over the local newspapers and want ads for property for sale by owner. These are properties which might not be represented by a realtor. The owner may have decided to not go with a realtor due to the high commission required by the real-estate office. Unless you are extremely savvy and knowledgeable about land transactions, I would recommend that you enlist a third party such as a lawyer or land office to check for clear title (no liens on property), go over all the paperwork and make sure the whole deal is legitimate and well defined.

Another good source of locating property is the Internet. If you are reading this then you obviously have the necessary tools to do so. Most real-estate offices these days have a home page on the internet where you can browse through their listings at your leisure. Many have pictures and a contact number or e-mail address available for you to request a viewing. You can call your local real-estate offices and ask if they have a website.

Know Your Zoning

Before you plop down cash or sign a contract for a piece of property, make sure you are well aware of the zoning laws of that particular area or county. Don't take the neighbor's word for it, go down to your county office and ask. Get the zoning regulations in writing and study them. Many disappointed land owners have purchased property full of dreams and expectations only to find out that they are not permitted to have livestock. Or there is a limit to the number of livestock and what kinds of livestock you can have. Many other counties have regulations against barns and outbuildings.

Another thing to research is development in your area. You might be permitted at this time by zoning laws to have your livestock. But are there any plans filed with the county for a shopping mall next to you? Or a large blossoming residential area nearby? You could find after two years of enjoying your country live that you have just been re-zoned and the animals have to go. For this reason I personally would not purchase property that is within city limits or right on the outskirts. Talk to your county office about any possible re-zoning that could occur in your area.

Power, Water and Septic

Ideally you will have found a place that has it's own good well, clean power and a legal septic system. Prior to purchasing the property, be sure and have the water tested and if there are no logs for the well output capacity, spend some money to have it thoroughly tested. Water is critical. If your well ever fails in years to come, will the county permit you to drill a new one? Make sure you know where the septic tank and drainfield are. These can be hard to find if they are not well marked or mapped out by the previous owner. Check to see that it is functioning well. If not, it could just need to be cleaned. Is there standing water in the drainfield area? This could indicate the drainfield has lost it's ability to perc and another will need to be constructed which is an expensive affair. If you aren't knowledgeable about septic systems, have a professional come and check it out. The money you spend now will be small compared to money you might have to spend in the future to put a new system in or renovate an old one.

If you have purchased undeveloped land that does not have either power, water or septic you will need to find out if you are sitting on or near an aqueduct or water table that you can drill into. Oftentimes you can look at county logs to see statistics of wells drilled near you. These will tell you how far down they had to drill to reach the water source and oftentimes will even tell what company did the drilling. A well can be an expensive affair if you have to drill down hundreds of feet. If there is no existing septic, make sure the land "percs". This means that you need to do a "percolation test" to determine the rate that water will be absorbed by the soil. Usually a hole is dug of a certain depth (depending upon county requirements), water is poured in and replenished over a period of time. The rate is recorded and thus the ability of your land to "perc" is determined. It could be too slow, too fast, or just right. If the land does not percolate sufficiently then most likely you will not be permitted to install a typical septic system. If you are downright determined to purchase the land, it is possible that you can install an alternative septic system. Check with your county agency to find out. Bottom line though - have a perc test done or make sure there is legal documentation for a previous perc test done by the landowner.

A Word About Financing

Financing issues can be as varied as people themselves. Everyone's budget is different, so it is difficult to give advice on how to manage a monetary affair. You need to consider both your present and future income level and decide how large of a monthly payment you can handle. There are three primary things to consider: 1) You'll most likely need some money up front for the down payment and closing costs; 2) You'll need to be able to pay the monthly mortgage and other monthly expenses; 3) You'll need to qualify for the mortgage.

There are so many variables here. Are you a first time home buyer, or do you have an existing home you can sell? If you have an existing home then you are probably already very familiar with the ins and outs of purchasing property, plus you probably already have good credit established and a good idea of what you can afford monthly. Mostly we are speaking here to the first-time buyer so you can gain some knowledge of the basic concepts and have some ideas to think on.

The down payment required on your new property can be as low as 3% of the total cost and on up. There may even be cases of purchasing the property with no money down. This is not as common, but don't rule out the possibility. In our case, when we found the property we wanted we had absolutely no money available for a down payment. Since it was an owner-contract, we talked the owner into letting us in on a "rent to own" arrangement while we were putting together cash. Since the property had been on the market for almost 2 years he was very open to the suggestion. He had nothing to lose, since if we could not come up with the money he had at least received a tidy amount of rental income in the meanwhile. Again, every situation is going to be unique. Find the best one for you and don't rush into anything.

Obviously you should make sure the monthly mortgage is something you can put up with now and in the future. You'll need to lump into that the cost of property tax and house insurance. Consider the sum of all these when figuring out what you can afford to pay.

To qualify for a mortgage, most likely the lender will want to see ability to pay which would include a steady income that has been coming in for a reasonable amount of time. He will want to examine and factor in your current debts and review current bank account activity. When we purchased our property, we had zilch in the bank and quite a large credit card debt. But we had held our jobs for several years and when everything was factored in we showed an ability to pay. Again, ours was an owner-financed home and I feel that his standards weren't as rigid as the banks would have been. But he was smart enough to see that even if we didn't have a lot of cash at hand we had the ability to pay.

Although it varies from state to state, many banks will not loan money for a piece of property larger than 20 acres. You'll find many properties that are this large or larger to be financed by the owner - which can be very desirable depending upon the circumstances. As I mentioned in a previous section, if you plan on purchasing an owner-financed piece of property I recommend that you enlist a third party such as a lawyer or land office to check for clear title (no liens on property), go over all the paperwork and make sure the transaction is legitimate and well defined.

You've Got Your Land... What Next?

Okay, you've taken the big step and purchased your ideal piece of property. My best piece of advice would be to start small and build from there. Don't rush out and buy a dozen chicks, 2 goats, a horse, a few pigs and a steer all at once. Build up your farm species by species, learn to take care of them and be successful with it prior to moving on to acquiring additional livestock. For example, you might want to start out with just a flock of chickens. Study up on chickens, learn their housing and nutritional needs and decide on what breed to go with - before you get them. Once everything is prepared, get your chickens and work with them for at least a month (or more if you need it) until you are quite comfortable with them and the responsibilities involved. Then decide on your next species and do it all over again - study, prepare, procure and live the experience. If everything is going smoothly and you desire to add more animals, go for it, but stick to the "one species at a time" rule and make sure your land can support them and you have enough time (and money) to take care of them properly.

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