Saturday, June 15, 2013

Buying a Small Farm

During my high-school days, I discovered Thoreau's Walden, the story of his two-year life in a cabin in the woods. Walden became my bible, Thoreau my hero. Like him, I wanted to get away from the human race. I wanted to live off the land somewhere, I wanted to hunt and fish and gather roots and berries, or perhaps grow a vegetable garden. I didn't want to sit in an office for 50 years with a necktie around my throat. I wanted to find a way of life that involved, as much as possible, neither earning nor spending money. To live that kind of life would mean getting away from the city, geographically and in every other sense.

Later, while I was living in Ottawa, I got a catalog from a company that sold cheap rural land. I sent in a down payment and managed to buy 78 acres (31 ha) of vacant land southeast of Lake of the Woods, near the Ontario-Manitoba border. I visited the property soon after I bought it, but it took 23 hours of driving to get there from Ottawa -- not including any stops. The soil seemed suitable for gardening or farming, and deer were quite numerous. But I was living in Ottawa, and that first visit was my last for a very long time. Afterward, I was always lacking either the time (i.e. I had a job) or the money (i.e. I didn't have a job) to go up there.

Several years after that, I began to think again about that Lake of the Woods property, which I hadn't yet sold. I started planning to put a house there. When I wrote to the township clerk to tell him of my idea, though, I ran into obstacles. He told me that, according to the bylaws, it was illegal to build a house that was not on a "maintained municipal road." To build a real road I would need the cooperation of all the adjoining property owners, and the road would have to be built at my expense -- many thousands of dollars. Even if all those problems were solved, I would still have to pay for the septic system, electricity, and perhaps a telephone line. Because of the distance to cover, each of these would be very expensive.

I realized that the biggest problem with buying rural property is the laws: the building codes, zoning restrictions, health codes, and so on. Once you decide to live in anything more civilized than a beaver swamp, you are automatically hit by the most amazing variety of laws. In plain English: it's illegal to live in a log cabin. In most of Canada and the US, it's against the law to live in a house that does not meet the requirements of the standard building codes.
For the US, there are about three major building codes, for different parts of the country. For Canada, there's only one code, with some regional variations. But all of these codes are basically the same. They all largely restrict housing to the familiar type of wood-frame construction. They all have strict requirements for electricity and plumbing. Don't think about living in a yurt, a tepee, a geodesic dome, or an octagonal cabin, not unless you're miles from any road or trail. A "log home" (versus a primitive log cabin) may be permitted, but by the time you've conformed to all the laws the house is not worth the bother; it's the same as a frame house but takes a lot more wood. Even mobile homes are illegal in many areas, although even in those areas you may get away with living in a "legal non-conforming" mobile home, meaning a mobile home that was put on the property before the building code was established in that area.

Rural properties nearly always need wells and septic systems, and the construction of these will add another few thousand dollars in expenses, although some areas still allow the old-fashioned pit-type outhouses.

Exactly what is allowed is a difficult thing to say, because the laws vary somewhat from one area to another. In the US, these laws are determined by the county, while in Canada the decisions are made by the township. There is no easy route: you need to check with the clerks or inspectors of any and all areas that you are interested in. But there really are not many places where there are no building codes to deal with.

Such laws put ruralites in an ambivalent situation. People who live in the country are certainly "nature lovers," or they wouldn't be there in the first place. At the same time, because of the horrors of global overpopulation, resource-consumption, and environmental destruction, legislators everywhere are introducing laws that severely restrict access to the wilderness.

It's hard to say whether the present building codes and zoning restrictions do more harm than good for the "back-to-the-landers." They certainly make life complicated -- and expensive -- for the buyer. On the other hand, since my neighbors have to follow the same laws, they ensure that I will not be shocked by the sound, sight, or smell of whatever is going on down the road. And if I buy a house, I can be fairly sure that it will not blow down the next day.

To a varying extent, the laws about rural property are simply ignored. You need a building permit to do major renovations to your house, but not small ones. The difference between the two often gets intentionally blurred, and I know of one contractor who does his work first and deals with any building inspector later. Often an owner and an inspector get into a war of nerves; someone else I know kept up an argument about whether his mobile home was permanent (hence illegal) or temporary, until the inspector decided to try his luck elsewhere. To a large extent, if none of your neighbors complain, it's quite likely no one will ask you to stop what you're doing. For me, however, the fear of getting caught is just not worth the bother. Being an "outlaw" is too much of a headache.

(Or consider what in Canada are called "unorganized areas": the building codes in such places may exist on paper but it's not very likely that they'll be enforced. Pure wilderness is tempting. The Cochrane Southwest Unorganized Area, in northern Ontario, for example, consists of 553 square kilometers and a population of zero. There would be no serious problems with water, firewood, game, and fish, and probably even arable land. The long, harsh winter would be the main drawback, requiring the cutting and stacking of a great deal of wood. In addition, such a location would only suit a physically fit person who enjoyed long-term solitude. Another catch with wilderness life is that the distance to any settled area is so great that it cannot easily be covered without a motorized vehicle; if a long journey were ever necessary, the “simple life” might no longer be simple.)

As a further step toward country living, my wife and I bought a house on the edge of Toronto, with a large backyard. For four years we grew vegetables and even grains there. Each summer we grew about 20 or 30 kinds of food plants, constantly experimenting. But eventually we wanted something bigger and more remote. We looked at many real-estate listings and put together a shopping list that was roughly as follows: a house or mobile home in fair condition that could be used for year-round occupancy in accordance with the building code and other local laws, a few acres of arable land, a year-round road, a well, and a septic system. We thought electricity and a telephone would be nice, perhaps essential. Based on what we'd been seeing and on what we could afford, we decided to aim for a house that would cost about a quarter of the price of a house in the city -- even though the new house would have far more land. Eventually we found a good property: a mobile home on a full basement, surrounded by four acres of mostly-cleared land, with a minor highway at one end and a beautiful river at the other.

Finding the money to buy rural property is always ironic. The people who most need to get out of the city and away from the endless expenses of city living are those who have the least money, while the people who find it easiest to get out of the city are those who are rich enough to be hauling huge motorboats behind them as they travel. Sort of like Marie Antoinette dressing up in a shepherdess outfit. There are a few ways out of the bind, however. Try working at tough but high-paying jobs that no one else wants. Or buy a run-down house in the city, renovate it, and take advantage of the profit that comes from the renovation and from the general increase in housing prices. If at all possible, save enough money that you can buy rural property without having to pay off a mortgage.

When you start looking at properties, one of the trickiest questions is water, and the topic often gets omitted from the advertising. As we discovered, unless a cottage or cabin is stated to have a well, then it probably does not. If a rural house has no well, there is no guarantee that one can drill for water later and actually find it. A hydrologist could come and take a look and then make an educated guess. By looking at surface water and neighboring properties, you could probably make a good guess yourself. A test drill would give a definite answer, if you were willing to pay for it. Other than that, there's always the chance that there's no water at all below the surface.

Of course, one way of ensuring a water supply is to buy land that adjoins a river or lake. Lake-shore property, however, is rarely worth buying. It costs about 10 times as much as other land, and you will be crammed in with other cottages and their attendant motorboats and portable radios, unless the lake is only accessible by canoe -- in which case, you'll find it nearly impossible to build or renovate a house. Property on a river or creek is somewhat less expensive, and if the water is too shallow to be navigated by motorboat then the land is less likely to be crowded.

The land has to be suitable for growing food. That means that you should not buy bare rock; in fact, you should have at least 3 or 4 feet (1 m) of soil, so that the roots can grow long and deep in search of water and minerals. It's possible to grow crops on only a foot (30 cm) of land, but only if you irrigate (add water). Land that is too wet is also unsuitable, because the crops will just rot; wet lands include swamps (roughly speaking, wet land with sphagnum moss) and marshes (roughly speaking, wet lands with cattails, rushes, or reeds). Land covered by shrub willows and alders is likely to be underwater in the spring. In fact, land that is too wet in springtime is far more common than a city-dweller might imagine.

Flat land is fine, if you're sure it isn't in danger of flooding. A gentle slope is really the ideal topography, since the slope will ensure good drainage. Too much of a slope is not a good thing, since you'll find all your soil washing away as soon as you remove the grass; you could devise some sort of terracing, Tibetan-style, by collecting stones from the fields, but to produce a large enough garden by that method would entail an impossible amount of labor.

Land completely covered with trees would provide firewood but make gardening difficult; the trees could be chopped down, but removing the stumps would be a major task. (The pioneers often just left the stumps to rot.) On the other hand, don't be discouraged by land that has tall weeds, since they indicate fertile soil; it's land that has little or no vegetation that should worry you. Whether the soil is clay or sand is not terribly important, although somewhere between the two would be preferable. Even land that has been "farmed out" -- impoverished by misuse -- should not necessarily be avoided, since there are sometimes ways to improve the fertility of land.

More information on soil fertility can be got by studying government maps on the subject. In Canada there are the maps of the Canada Land Inventory, no longer available on paper, but with a little luck they can be traced to various Web sites. The US Department of Agriculture has maps produced by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Before buying land, get a copy of the Rodale Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and read it until you've memorized it. Learn the difference between fertile soil and barren soil. And tell yourself, over and over: "Soil is not dirt." Don't make the common mistake of urban armchair-gardeners and assume that fertile soil is just dirt plus compost. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Fertile soil has 16 important elements, from boron to zinc, and I'm not talking about artificial fertilizer, I'm talking about things that have been in that soil since the creation of the world.

You'll need about 5 or 10 acres (2-4 ha) of forest for firewood. That land can be cut indefinitely, relying on what is called the "annual increment." Even if you don't have a large piece of land, it's a good idea to start getting rid of some of the dead and overcrowded trees on your property (but save a few for wildlife habitat). For firewood, hardwoods are far superior to softwoods such as pine, cedar, or spruce, but any wood is better than none. If the hardwoods include sugar maple, save the good ones for a maple-syrup operation; three or four maples will provide enough syrup for an entire family. What is more important is that you do not burn wet or rotten wood. For your first year of firewood, any dead but solid tree will do, but it's better to use trees that are still standing, not lying on the ground and absorbing moisture. You can use live trees for later fires, but you'll need to cut them down and store them for at least half a year before burning them. You would need about four full cords (15 m3) of wood to heat a well-insulated small house at about latitude 45 in Ontario; other types of houses, or houses further north, might require 10 cords 36 m3).

The house should be in good condition, but it doesn't need to be large. Urban houses today are nearly three times as large as those of the 1950s and hold fewer people; don't get caught in the tide of consumerism. The biggest question is: Are you going to buy a ready-built house, or build a new one? Probably you're going to buy a ready-made one, and there are two reasons for that.

The first is financial. It's generally cheaper to buy a house with land, rather than to buy land and build a house later. That's particularly true if you're buying a fair amount of land. If a farmer is trying to get rid of a piece of vacant land, he can wait until someone is willing to pay his price. If he's trying to get rid of a piece of land that has a house on it, he's in a bit of a bind, because he's going to be paying high taxes on it (well, higher than on vacant land) every year until someone buys it. That problem of taxes can work in your favor; the seller will keep his price low enough that he can get rid of the property fairly quickly. That rule isn't always true, by any means. Obviously the condition of the house is a major variable, for one thing. But you'll probably find that a house and land separately are more expensive than a house and land together.

Having said all that, though, I should point out some exceptions. For one thing, you might not have the money to buy both land and a house, in which case you might want to buy one at a time. Buying the two separately might also give you more to choose from. Here in Ontario, for example, there are endless opportunities to buy vacant land ranging in size from 10 acres (4 ha) to 50 (20 ha), with a good road adjoining the land, and the list price will be about $10,000 in every case . You could camp on the land until you had built a permanent home with some further cash. If you find an area that is tolerant of mobile homes, you might find that the most economical approach is to buy the land and later put in such a home.

The other reason why you would probably buy a ready-made house is that it is difficult for one or two people to build a house that meets the restrictions of today's building codes. I've met men and women who've built their own homes, but such people are not common. If you've spent a few years doing construction jobs, then you might consider building a house with your own hands, but otherwise you're facing quite a challenge. Building codes are complicated. Even if you could follow the regulations, it would take a great many hours of labor to finish the job.

There are a few pros and cons to living in different areas of North America. The general rule is that west of the 100th meridian the US is rather dry, so the availability of water becomes a primary consideration. Anywhere in the Boston-New-York-Washington megalopolis is too crowded. Generally speaking, I wouldn't look for land that was within two hours' drive of a large city, because it would be too expensive. Yet prices can be surprising: land within an hour's drive of Toronto is sometimes cheaper than similar property hundreds of miles further north. Don't buy land right on a seacoast, because it will be too rocky, and the salt in the air won't be good for your crops. You may want to ask a real-estate agent about high-crime areas; in rural areas, it may take a couple of hours for police to arrive, so stay away from an area if a family of crazies is already living there. On the other hand, don't let Hollywood movies convince you that ruralites are dangerous -- generally speaking, the loonies live in the cities.

Buying a house, rural or urban, involves a certain ritual, and to deviate from that ritual can be fatal. If you see a listing that tempts you, call the real-estate agent whose phone number is shown, and make an appointment to look at the property. If possible, book two or three trips in the same area on that same day. When the agent shows you the property, have a good hard look at the house. Start by having a look at the outside: if the walls are leaning or badly cracked, the house cannot be repaired and should not be bought. Look at the roof: if the shingles are so old and wrinkled that they look like potato chips, then there's a fair chance that the plywood underneath is rotten, which means thousands of dollars in repairs.

Go inside: any water stains on the ceiling or walls? If so, are the stains still damp, or have the leaks been repaired? Check the floors: if they sag like a trampoline, they're rotten. Check the plumbing (turn on the taps, flush the toilet). Check the windows (are they single pane or double, and what's the condition of the frames?). What kind of electrical system is in place? Don't worry about dirt -- you're bound to find enough of that, especially if nobody is living in the house -- but pay attention to serious defects that will need to be fixed and that will therefore add to your labor or expenses. There's a mysterious border between "fixable" and "unfixable," and if you buy a house that's in the latter category, you'll just end up reselling the place for less than you paid. (None of that will bother your spouse, because he or she will have left you by that point!)

Then go outside again. Look at the land: is there really enough arable land, enough water, enough sunlight? Don't go on your gut feelings; it's far too easy to fall in love with a property -- it's almost instinctive, that cave-dweller's craving for a place of one's own. The more practical approach would be to start taking notes on the back of the listing page; by the time you get home you'll have forgotten half of what you've seen.

It would probably be a good idea to hire a professional home inspector, if you can find somebody in that area. Unfortunately, the qualifications for that job are often rather vague, so try to get a name from someone you trust. Make sure the inspector isn't also a renovator, or you may get conned into repairs you don't need. If you find someone reliable, make it a condition of the sale that the inspector be allowed to look at the house and submit a written report.

You'll need a good wood-burning stove. You might not need what is called a "wood-burning cook-stove," a 600-pound (about 300 kg) monster with an oven, a hot-water reservoir, and so on. A small, simple, 300-pound (about 150 kg) wood-burning heater can be used for boiling or frying, costs far less than a cook-stove, and will heat an average-sized house, even in the colder parts of the continent.

If you're new to a certain area, it's considered ethical to shop around from one agent to another for a while. Once an agent has taken you on a number of trips, however, it's generally considered your responsibility to stick with that agent. It's hard to say when such a partnership begins, but if you're willing to place your inquiries with one agent you'll find that the benefits are mutual -- loyal customers tend to get better service. On the other hand, if you feel that you're being taken on too many wild-goose chases, it may be better to find another someone else.

Be careful with real-estate agents. Most are honest and efficient, but some are better than others. Beware of agents who try to con you with certain expressions. "This'll sell quickly. You'd better put in an offer fast." "Don't worry about that clause. I don't know about you city folks, but around here we generally settle things with a handshake." "What do you mean, the roof is caving in? What do you expect for that kind of money?" "Gee, you want to see inside the place? What's the matter, you don't trust me?"

In some places, real-estate agents must state whether they are acting as vendors' agents or as buyers' agents -- i.e., whether they are working for you or for the other guy. The distinction is not entirely necessary, since most areas have laws stating that agents must fully disclose all relevant information; they aren't allowed to tell lies or to omit critical facts.

If you find a property that seems to meet all your requirements, go home. Take a deep breath. A day or two later, if you're still convinced that the property is worth buying, call the agent and put in an offer. How much to offer is always a difficult question. Very roughly speaking, a property can be bought for about 80 percent of its list price. But that's very rough. It may well be the case that the owner is desperate to get rid of it, in which case you might even get a 30 percent discount. Or the opposite can happen: maybe the owner is quite happy to wait for ages until someone is willing to cough up the asking price. That question of price involves some real talent at haggling. It gets to be a war of nerves: you don't want to pay the entire asking price, but you may still be afraid of letting a nice piece of property slip through your hands. When you've told the agent what you'd like to pay, you'll be sent a purchase-offer document, with standard clauses inserted, and of course with your name and your offering price.

Be certain to give this paper to a lawyer before you sign anything. Yes, you'll have to pay the lawyer a few hundred dollars to do all the legal work, but it still works out to be cheap insurance. You'll save yourself a lot of suffering if a lawyer can spot errors right away; 6 months later is not a good time to find out that you don't own what you thought you owned.

During the negotiations, don't be shy about calling that lawyer. You're paying him or her to do a job, so you have a right to ask questions. Don't sit by the phone, waiting for the lawyer to call you instead; your phone may never ring. Some lawyers do an excellent job, whereas others seem to think they're being paid hundreds of dollars just to sign a piece of paper. For various reasons, lawyers sometimes take on too many clients, which again means your case might not get much attention if you say nothing. In any case, informed questions get better responses than dumb ones, so read the purchase agreement carefully; if you don't understand the terminology, go to a library or bookstore and get a few books on the subject of real estate.

Be especially careful with all clauses involving wells and septic systems. Is it a dug well or a drilled well? What kind of pump does it have? Get a potability test. What kind of septic system is installed? How old are the well and septic system? Ask your lawyer to get copies of all relevant documents regarding construction and maintenance.

If both you and the lawyer are satisfied with the purchase offer, sign it and fax it back to the agent. The offer will mention three dates: the irrevocable date (the last date on which the vendor can agree to your offer), the title-search date (the latest date on which your lawyer can check the title), and the most important one, the closing date (when you officially take possession, which can be anywhere from 1 month to three months after you sign the offer). The agent will show the offer to the vendor. If the vendor is satisfied, he or she also signs the offer, and it is sent back to you. There may be some last-minute haggling, but at some point both parties have to decide when to stop quibbling and just sign the paper. Practically speaking, the property is now yours. You must then send a deposit to the agent (whatever deposit amount you stated in the offer). If you need a mortgage, you must be sure that your bank is ready to lend you the money, although the general agreement with the bank should have been worked out even before you started looking for property.

Now that the property is yours, you can start thinking about the future. Ideally, you should have plenty of time to clean the new house thoroughly before you move in. When the cleaning is finished, paint anything that needs to be painted. Keep the paint simple, and don't get involved with wallpaper, because it takes longer and costs more. When the painting is finished, you can move in the furniture. And unless there's snow on the ground, you can start preparing a garden.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

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