We are in the process of looking for land to buy for our homestead and the results that pull up can be overwhelming. What do you need to look for when buying land to homestead?
There are properties all over the place available, some inexpensive, some… not so much. And while I do recommend finding a professional to help you through the process if you’re looking in an area far from your current home base (like us), there are several things that make buying land for homesteading different.
Buying property to simply build a house is a lot different than buying a place where you want to grow food, have livestock, and do your own thing without much outside interference.
Buying property is a big step and a large investment of time and money, even if it is vacant land. These tips should help you make the best decision when purchasing land and making sure that the land can fulfill your needs and wants.
How to find the perfect land to buy for homesteading
Does it have insurable access?
It’s rare to see this mentioned on lists like this, but it is absolutely the most important thing to look for!
Don’t ever assume that just because there is a road to the property means you have the right to access it.
This is especially important in areas where land surrounding your property is public land (forestry service, bureau of land management, army corps of engineers, etc) or the land has not been properly subdivided and platted (large farm/ranch sub divides are common, particularly out west).
Most of the time, if you’re working with an agent, they will have this information accessible to you. It will be in the form of a legal document such as an easement or an easement clause within recorded covenants.
Make sure you will always have the right to access your property. And be certain that your right is not revocable under any circumstance.
It would be an absolute shame to have to spend thousands in legal fees or abandon your dreams because you wind up landlocked due to an angry neighbor or the forest service decided you could no longer use their roadways to access your land.
What covenants or other restrictions are there on the property?
Lots of properties, large and small, have covenants, HOAs and other restrictions on them. While some aren’t very restrictive and won’t be a big deal, you’d be surprised.
We found a beautiful 30 acre property in a remote part of Southwestern Montana. One of the covenants was no more than 1 horse per 10 acres and no other livestock on the property. Nope, not for us.
While there are several properties that simply have an HOA in place to help pay for road management and winter maintenance (particularly out west) make sure that is all it is for if you happen to find the property of your dreams that has a yearly HOA fee.
And covenants need to be gone through with a fine tooth comb. Many, many properties have them, especially out west. But many aren’t particularly restrictive, others are very, very restrictive even on large land tracts.
This used to be an absolute deal breaker for us, I wanted land with absolutely, positively NO covenants. But, the property we are currently looking at does have 5 covenants. None of them restrict what we want to do, so the property is still on the table. Just make sure your land isn’t restricted from doing what you want to accomplish.
Do I have access to water? Do I have water rights?
It’s surprising when you find a property with a year-round creek or spring and you think you have access to water without having to worry. But not all properties come with that right.
It’s sad that we can’t access natural sources to obtain water, but rights to this natural resource are not always implied.
If you don’t have a natural water source or it’s not accessible for regular use, have a look at surrounding properties to see how deep their wells are and how many gallons per minute they produce. It’s fairly easy to access this information and an agent, a quick search on the internet or a trip to your local county health department (or whoever logs the drilling information).
You also need to take the location of any natural water sources or where your well will be located when considering livestock location. Many counties have restrictions on proximity of livestock to water sources and you don’t want livestock too close to your well anyway, the waste can leak into your ground water and… gross.
If a well is out of the question and there is no natural source of water, you could also consider a cistern, though that makes you very vulnerable to someone else to provide water to your property and, in my opinion, would be an automatic no.
Can I get to it?
How is the road to the property? Is it seasonal? Can it be plowed? Do you need a 4X4? Is it only accessible by foot? How far is the closest public, maintained road?
We’ve found many a property down privately maintained dirt roads that have questionable access even in the heat of the summer. Some are accessible, but not during the winter.
Sometimes HOAs pay for this. Everyone in the area pitches in a fee of $100 or so to help maintain the road, keep it graded and keep it plowed in the winter so the residents can get out year-round.
Maybe you don’t care if you’ll be snowed in for 6 months, but things can happen and I don’t mind being snowed in for a day or two, but we want to be able to get off of our property and to civilization if need be along with others having access to get to us.
What are the minimum septic requirements?
Every county is different on this. Some counties only require a minimum of a composting toilet while others require a specific sized, privately maintained septic system.
You have to know how you will get rid of waste. Whether you’re installing grey water systems, having a traditional septic system, or utilizing a composting toilet or similar. Look into the laws and regulations in each individual county. We are looking at land across 3 counties right now and the regulations for each county vary by a lot.
Also, if you do need (or simply want) a traditional septic, you need to make sure your land will perk and that you can obtain the proper permitting for it. Some properties will already have these tests done, others it’s all on you. Some land owners will allow you to foot the bill to get the property perk tested before you purchase, and I recommend that.
It would be a shame to buy a piece of property to build a 3 bedroom house and find out that it won’t perk or it will only perk for a 2 bedroom. And this is a cost that is often on the buyers shoulders and it can get expensive, so look into the cost of getting the proper permitting if you’re going the traditional route.
Do I have timber and mineral rights?
A lot of people consider this a non-issue. But really, it’s important! Don’t ever let someone tell you that not having the mineral and timber rights to your property is not important.
While several land owners no longer know who even owns the mineral rights and it will probably never come up, if you notice the mineral rights are signed off to someone else? Run away quickly. If anything is ever found on your property, that someone can come on your land, legally, and mine whatever valuable materials they found.
As for timber rights, they are typically given to you. But make sure there are no timber contracts on your land. Many of the properties we’ve looked at explicitly state that you can utilize the timber to build on your own property as soon as you’re under contract, but you can’t sell any timber until the deed is in hand.
If there is a logging contract or timber rights aren’t exclusive to the buyer, beware. You can still buy the property, but you have no idea what the land will look like once the logging company removes everything.
How close is it to town?
While we all strive to become self sufficient, no man is an island. And we all have to get to town from time to time.
This is especially important if you and/or your spouse are going to have to work off of the homestead. Make sure you don’t live so far out that getting to a town with resources you may need in the future is impossible or so time consuming and expensive that you’ll spend all your time driving back and forth.
We live pretty far out now. It’s a 30 minute drive to civilization and we don’t mind it. I don’t want to be so close that town will swallow us whole in 5 years, but I don’t want to be so far out that we can’t make it to the store if we need something we can’t produce ourselves or get medical attention if it’s necessary.
Is the property large enough to meet all of your goals now and into the future?
Is it truly big enough to meet all of your needs? This is a very personal choice as we all have different goals for homesteading.
But, will it meet these goals? Is there room for a house, the outbuildings, pasture, orchards, gardens? Make sure you consider all of your future plans and overestimate how much space it’s going to take.
There’s nothing wrong with having a little too much land, but if there’s not enough room without having crowded livestock… then you’re either going to have to adjust your ideal goals or find a different property. And moving after building all of that infrastructure isn’t fun.
Is the property developed? If it isn’t, can it be?
Are there existing improvements on the property? What shape are they in and are they salvageable? If they’re not, how much is it going to cost to remove them? If they are, is that something you want to tackle?
Finding fixer uppers can be both a blessing and a curse, so if you find one, don’t immediately snag it up thinking it’s the deal of the century. Many people don’t consider the undertaking of renovating run down properties. Many times it can be much more expensive than building new. While I’m all about preserving our past, make sure it’s something you, and your pocketbook, can handle.
If the property is not improved, can it be improved? You may want to look into consulting a land planner or builder for this. They can help you take in the entire scope of the property and decide if it can meet your goals now and in the future and how involved the process is going to be.
I’m all for doing things ourselves, but sometimes it’s worth it to consult someone who knows a little more than we do. I don’t know much about land development and where I can and can’t put buildings, etc. And buying land can be an expensive, time consuming process. I plan to stay on our property forever and hopefully pass it on to our children, so I want to make the right decision the first time.
Also, whether you consult a professional about improving your property or not, topography (especially in mountainous areas) should always be considered. If your property is sitting on a rocky, steep slope… that might be why it’s so cheap and you may want to move on.
Are there utilities nearby? If not, are there resources for alternative power?
We aren’t for or against grid power at this point. When the right property comes along, it won’t matter to us as long as there is plenty of sun or wind to provide us with alternative resources.
While we manage just fine trying to live without electric lights just for fun, we are still dependent on electricity to do so many things. It’s just the nature of the beast.
We do try to reduce our usage as much as possible, but I do want to have access to off-grid options, I don’t see us every being completely without electricity.
This can also be a big deal if you’re planning to traditionally finance your property. Many banks won’t lend on off grid properties or have stringent requirements for off-grid power resources. Counties may also have restrictions and regulations on this, so consider everything when looking at off grid properties. In some areas they are more common than others and won’t pose as big of an issue.
If you want grid electric and it’s a deal breaker, is it available? Some properties have power to the lot, for others it may be accessible, but it will be miles away. You can have it brought to your land, but it will be rather costly.
How are the neighbors and community?
No one wants nosy, cranky neighbors, so make sure you check this out. Even if you are looking at property where the closest neighbor is miles away, go chat them up!
You want to make sure that they aren’t going to cause issues and see how receptive they are to you and the idea of someone purchasing a neighboring parcel. Some people are very inviting, others not so much.
And also, whether you’re looking at incredibly remote property or not, look at the nearest community. If it’s an area you aren’t from, see how receptive they are to newcomers. See what their lifestyles are like and just get a feel for the overall area.
We actually have the advantage of having lived where we are relocating to, so we know the area well, we know the community and how receptive they are to newcomers and we have some valuable connections we made while we were there.
But, even if it’s a place you’ve never been, go visit while you’re property shopping and spend some time getting to know the local community. Go to local restaurants and businesses, meet the neighbors.
Not only will this help you make sure this is a place you want to homestead and spent the rest of your days, you can make invaluable connections for later on regardless of which property you end up purchasing. Community is essential in any situation, but particularly important in homesteading.
Can you procure wild game and fish on your property or nearby?
We currently hunt and fish for a lot of our food simply because we don’t have room to raise it here. But, this will still be a big deal even with a large parcel of land.
Being able to hunt, having access to land to hunt on and/or fish whether it be on our own property or nearby is incredibly important to us.
We enjoy wild game and fishing, taking our girls to do something fun and not having to depend solely on raising livestock to feed our family is important to us.
Do you need to finance? Can it be financed?
Financing vacant land without building on it can be tricky, though not completely impossible. Banks are much more hesitant to lend on vacant property and it can be easier to get a construction loan than just a land loan.
But, if you need to finance, you need to make sure it can be financed. Working with an agent can have its advantages because they typically know local banks and mortgage brokers that can help you through the process and help you decide what is best for you.
Also consider how much the downpayment is going to be. Most banks (and even owner finance deals) will require at least 30% down to finance. And, since I mentioned it, never hesitate to ask if the owner is willing to do an owner finance contract. Some are willing to, some will want all other options exhausted first and some are adamant to not do it at all.
Can you afford it?
All things considered, is this property affordable or are you going to be stretching it to pay?
Whether you are planning to buy property debt free or finance it, you want to make sure that you’re not spending all of your resources to purchase the property (and subsequently improve it) and/or that you have a mortgage payment that you can pay month to month.
Never buy something at the top of your price range, go somewhere in the middle. If you have cash, fantastic, but if you don’t put as much down as possible up front and be sure to run through different scenarios to be sure you can truly afford the debt.
Also, when buying property that will need improvements or has improvements that need renovated… take into consideration how much it will cost to do what you hope to do.
A lot of people only consider the cost of building a home, but there’s a lot more involved. Driveways, particularly, are a cost that a lot of people don’t consider when buying. Also, getting permitting for a septic, having a well dug (which is typically charged by the foot), and any clearing or outbuildings that will need built all need to be considered.
Also, consider what your property taxes are and get an estimate for what they will be once the land is improved. Some states/counties have really low property tax, others are insane. So, take all of this into consideration, no one wants to lose their land because they can’t pay the government.
Also, consider the cost of any improvements you need to make. How much will it cost to put a house there? A barn? Does it have a driveway? Will it need a septic? How much can you do yourself? All of these things are a factor.
Is the property free of any liens?
This is part of the reason that making sure you work with a professional can pay off in the end. After all, realtors get their commission off of the final transaction, not out of your pocket directly.
We’ve found a few properties available by private sellers. One had liens on it, not a good idea. While a property can have liens (anyone who has a mortgage has a lien) they need to be paid off.
This is why a title search and title insurance are incredibly important and making sure you use a reputable title company or real estate attorney to complete your closing and paying the fee for that insurance are important.
No one wants to buy a property only to realize it has tax liens or other liens against it. It’s actually amazing the liens that can be on properties. We had a secondary lien on a property we owned years ago that we weren’t even aware of from putting in a water filtration system… crazy.
So, do your homework and make sure you’re protected.
Is it in an area of runoff?
Pollution is a big deal, especially with all of these fields being sprayed with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. But beyond that, being in an area of runoff can be a bad thing, a very bad thing.
Check for sources of pollution nearby. Whether it be livestock up stream, a factory, or simply a farm. We want to live in a fairly remote area and haven’t come into any of these problems, but it all depends on where you’re looking.
Sometimes this can be a huge issue and sometimes it isn’t at all, but all things should be considered.
Also, I wouldn’t buy property if it had huge power towers, cell phone towers, or anything else running through it or directly next to it. For one thing, you’re just asking for trouble when the company utilizes their utility easement and for another, I’ve heard some not so good things about living in close proximity to those things.
Consider potential future hazards
Is there a risk for potential future hazards like mudslides or wildfires? Is it in a flood plain or is it prone to soil erosion?
Sometimes things are too good to be true and this would be one of those things. While we can’t really prevent natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes and wildfires, we do need to take those risks into consideration.
On the other hand, if the property is in a flood plain or seems prone to soil erosion, walk away. If you have the opportunity, I would check the property out in different weather conditions, especially if you have the chance to check it after a heavy rain. See how the drainage is and where water stands or doesn’t stand. This may simply change where you think you will put things or it may change your mind completely. A land planner can also be invaluable in this instance, especially if it’s an area you aren’t familiar with or is far away (like us, it’s a 1,400 mile drive).
If you don’t have that opportunity, you can look up 100 year flood plains online and see where your property falls. And make sure it isn’t a property that will need flood insurance because… well, that’s just smart.
Look at the soil composition
It’s not any fun to get property and have a bunch of eroded dirt instead of soil. But, finding property with eroded dirt is especially common in a lot of places.
Just check out the soil composition, do you think you’re going to be able to grow food there? What kind of work do you think it will take to improve the soil enough to sustain a garden?
We recently met a man who gave us tons of free leaf compost on a piece of property he had to let sit for 10 years just to let it rejuvenate after years of being over-sprayed and over-tilled. So, look into it.
Get a land survey
Lots of surveys are old. They use landmarks that are no longer there and were done differently. So, make sure you get one done.
This is especially important if the survey is over 10 years old. You may be able to get the seller to cover this, but they’re not typically very expensive and can make a world of difference when it comes to knowing exactly where your property sits and how much of it there is.
Some properties have been resurveyed and been acres less (or more) than what the current plat states. This will also help if you ever need to know where things like utility or road easements are and if you need to keep your animals so far from property lines, etc.
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is
We’ve all found them. The perfect property, cheap, and the person is ready to sell it yesterday. But, it just seems too good to be true.
Well, it probably is. There have even been people who will list properties for sale that don’t hold the legal right to sell the property.
Be sure to do your homework on any potential property, get the coordinates, look it up on a plat map, get a title search, get a survey, talk to a local real estate agent or even the county assessor to ensure it’s the real deal.
This is especially important if the property you’re considering is listed by a private owner. While there are good deals to be had and some people are just trying to save on commission (which can be quite costly), some people are shady and looking to scam others out of thousands of dollars.
We are looking at land that’s too far to just go look at every weekend, so we are working with a local agent along our search, and I highly recommend it. But, this is a choice you have to make. Just make sure you’re doing all of your homework and playing it safe.
So, there you have it. You’re all set to go find and purchase the homestead property of your dreams.
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