Frugal Homestead Series Part 4: Searching For Land

Greetings fellow frugal weirdos, Mr. Frugalwoods here! Welcome to Part 4 of our Frugal Homestead Series, which explores the finer points of how we’re going to reach our version of financial independence and move to a homestead in the woods in 2017 at age 33. Mrs. Frugalwoods and I plan to buy 20+ acres of wooded land, likely with an existing home and outbuildings, in rural southern Vermont.

Part 3 of the series addressed why we’ve selected southern Vermont as our ideal homestead location. So, now that we know roughly where in the world we’d like to buy, it’s time to get our search on!

Today in Part 4, I’m outlining the process I use to vet properties online before considering them a viable possibility for an in-person visit.

A property we looked at in person

A property we looked at in person

Since we currently live in Cambridge, MA–a good 2.5 hour drive from our prospective homestead sites–much of our homestead hunting is conducted from afar. While we’ve made a number of trips up to Vermont to visit homesteads in person with our realtor, it’s important for us to triage listings in advance to ensure we’re only spending time on properties that meet our basic criteria and present no red flags.

Did someone say beast?

Did someone say beast?

The other reason for our extensive research is the fact that rural properties are incredibly complex. There are so many variables that go into each homestead–from the land size and quality, to the house, barn, other outbuildings, septic, well, approach road… the list goes on. It’s an entirely different beast from how we bought our current city home, which was a downright piece of cake (homemade, of course) compared to rural house hunting.

The Internet = Magic Answers Machine

Being a confirmed nerd* and the sort of person who harbors a deep and abiding belief in the power of the internet to answer any question you could ever ask… I turned to the world wide web for help in finding a property as soon as Mrs. Frugalwoods and I launched our plan to retire to a homestead.

*Mrs. Frugalwoods notes that this is 100% confirmed.

Where do I start my searches? I actually use two separate websites: Zillow and Realtor.com. Here are the pros and cons of each:

  • Zillow Pros:
    • The best search interface and the best search map
    • Remembers what you’ve already looked at and shows that on the map
    • For Sale By Owner (FSBO) listings
    • Higher resolution photos
    • Better historical data
    • Sometimes includes parcel boundaries
  • Zillow Cons:
    • Doesn’t have the freshest listings
    • Sometimes has “zombie” listings that sold a long time ago
    • Doesn’t always include realtor directions to the address, which can be a serious drawback with rural properties
  • Realtor.com Pros:
    • Fresh listings
    • Very few “zombie” listings
    • Always displays the realtor address directions
  • Realtor.com Cons:
    • Worse than everything on the Zillow pro list 🙂

Given the imperfect nature of both sites, I find I’m able to get the information I need by taking the best from each. I always start with Zillow since their search interface is the fanciest and then toggle over to Realtor.com to ensure I didn’t miss anything and to fill in any knowledge gaps (like directions to the address).

Case Study Property

I think this discussion will be much more fun using a real, live property as an example, so let’s give it a whirl! Don’t hold your breath though, this is not our future homestead, just one that we ran through our battery of initial viability tests (and, it did not pass… ).

Here's the current zillow view of Southern Vermont properties with more than 20 acres for less than $400k.

Here’s the current Zillow view of southern Vermont properties with more than 20 acres under $400k

Here’s the link to the above search in case you’d like to follow along in Zillow.

The screenshot alone reveals a number of trends right off the bat:

  • There’s not much inventory out there. It’s the middle of winter so fewer listings are up, but there isn’t really all that much more to be had during warmer months.
  • There’s more inventory farther away from the major town of Brattleboro (which you may recall Mrs. Frugalwoods waxing poetic about in Part 3). Close-to-town properties exist, but are far above our price range for the quantity of land we want (20+ acres).

Wishin’ There Was A Good Price Per Acre Search…

The first lesson I learned in rural house hunting is that there isn’t a decent website that allows you to easily search for a price per acre AND that has lots of listings. It would be incredibly useful to search for properties based on a price per acre because it would enable us to refine our initial search. But alas…

We’re looking to get a good deal on a sizable amount of land. But, since the only filter we can employ is overall list price, we end up with searches that yield gigantic houses on tiny plots of land as well as gigantic plots of land with humble shacks. It’s an interesting adventure, folks.

With regards to our case study property, we’re not so jazzed about paying $375k for only 27 acres. The house is nicer than we need, which accounts for the inflated price, and the land isn’t what we dream of. We can always renovate a house, but it’s very unlikely we’d ever be able to add more adjacent land to our property. Hence, we’re putting a higher premium on land size and quality than on house size and quality. But more on that in a bit 🙂

Finding The Address (Harder Than You’d Think)

The first step in investigating a property online is locating the address on a map. Coming from the world of city slicker real estate I didn’t think this would be a problem… but, let me tell you what, sometimes it really is!

Pop open Google Maps for our case study property and kazam, you’re presented with the below:

The view from google

The view, thanks to Google

Comparing the photos in the listing along with the description (the solar array is a dead giveaway) confirms that Google does in fact have the address pin in the correct place. This was an easy one!

Investigate The Property Image

From just this humble map image, I can see that this property has:

  • Short driveway: Cheaper to maintain and cheaper to plow (snow), but there’s potential for more road noise than if you were set farther back in the woods.
  • Gravel road: Tougher to navigate during snow storms and mud season, but a good sign that there’s probably low traffic noise. If I was taking this search further, I’d want to determine if the road is town maintained or not (more on that below).
  • Road curve: Notice how the road curves right after the house? It’s straight for a ways before that, which can sometimes result in log trucks gaining speed and then roaring their engine brakes to slow down before the curve. Not necessarily a problem depending on the truck traffic the road sees, but certainly something to think about.
  • Grid power: See the power lines in the lower left corner? Even though the property touts a solar setup, they’re still grid tied, which is a good thing! Batteries are expensive and finicky.
  • House orientation: The length of the house appears to run north-south, which is not ideal for solar heat gain in the winter.
  • Existing gardens: Nice!
  • Forested land: The land isn’t entirely cleared and it appears there is some hardwood forest. This is a major pro in our book.
Power line corridor.

Power line corridor.

Another key attribute to be aware of is a property’s proximity to high tension power lines. This particular property isn’t impacted, but it’s common to see large, cheap acreage… and that’s often the catch. See the photo at right where I’ve circled a power line corridor in red. If you see that on the map image, run the other way!

I’m not convinced there’s any real health danger, but there’s certainly an aesthetic cost to having something like that stretch across your land. Beyond the appearance, these corridors must be kept clear of tall growing vegetation.

What’s the cheapest way for power companies to do this? Aerial herbicide spraying via helicopter. In Vermont you can opt out of that and ostensibly have them come and do it by hand, but it’s still a huge hassle.

Don’t forget that you still “own” this land and pay taxes on it–you just can’t do anything useful with it. In case you couldn’t tell, we’re avoiding land with power line easements!

Determining Property Boundaries

What can’t I tell from this image? The actual property boundaries. I have no idea whether the 27 acres is square, rectangular, or even serpentine! I don’t even know if the field next to the house is the same parcel. One place to seek answers is the Zillow map, which is below:

The property lines.  Maybe.

The property lines. Maybe.

See those white lines I circled in red? That’s what Zillow claims are the property boundaries. I don’t know where they get their data because sometimes it’s clearly wrong (either way too large or small compared to the listed acreage), but usually it’s enough to give you a rough idea.

But if I want to determine the boundaries more precisely, I need to get the actual parcel maps. In Vermont, these maps are kept on a town by town basis. And in some towns you need to go look at physical paper maps while others are online. In southern Vermont, many are thankfully online in KMZ format, which is a format you can import into Google Earth. Whew! Saves me a lot of time, though if we were already retired, I admit I’d enjoy tromping around investigating parcel maps in person.

Here’s another rural gotcha: even though this property’s postal address is listed as “Brattleboro,” I can tell from the Google Map pin that the property’s physical address is in a town called Halifax. So when I start my search for the KMZ file that’ll cover this property, I actually need to download the map from Halifax and not from Brattleboro.

Assessing Actual Property Boundaries

Once I downloaded the KMZ file, I imported it into Google Earth and searched for the address. Behold:

The view of the parcel boundaries in Google Earth using the KMZ file from the town of Halifax.

The view of the parcel boundaries in Google Earth using the KMZ file from the town of Halifax.

Now we can see the lot in context with its abutters, which reveals to us that it’s an oddly shaped lot! Long and narrow, with a frankly weird tail (no offense Frugal Hound) at the top of the lot. I’m biased against narrow lots. One of the reasons I enjoy the rural atmosphere is the ability to do whatever you want with your land. Another reason is the ability to not see your neighbor doing whatever he wants with his land :). This property would not enable that type of privacy since it’s tall as opposed to wide.

Also note that it appears the “Josh Road” legal trail falls within the lot for its entire length. It’s possible there’s an existing easement for public passage along that route (possibly up to 40 feet in width), which could prevent you from doing much with that part of the land. This would definitely warrant additional research if we wanted to pursue this property further.

Topography, Baby!

The other neat thing about Google Earth? Topography! Here’s how our case study property looks if you were to view it in a balloon at an altitude of 1,500 feet facing north:

Now in 3D!

Now in 3D!

What a difference a bit of “tilt” can make in how you perceive a landscape! Now we can see that the property slopes sharply to the east and that Josh Road is also likely Josh Creek during the wet months!

It’s also clear why they sited the solar array where they did. With the land tilting east and a bit north, there isn’t much high solar gain space to be had.

On The Road Again

The different classifications of roads in Vermont

The different classifications of roads in Vermont

Coming from the city, a road is a road… right?

Nope. In New England, there are plenty of roads classified as “not town maintained.” What this means is that the road won’t be plowed during the winter, making the properties along it inaccessible to vehicular traffic.

You’d think this’d be something a listing agent might mention in the property description. Well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. We never assume a road is town maintained unless it’s paved, but pavement is rare in the areas we’re considering.

Roads in Vermont come in 8 flavors. Take a look at the map legend above for the entire rundown. The salient point is that only roads Class 3 and higher are maintained in the winter. Class 4 and lower roads may be just fine in the summer and fall… but you’d better have a dogsled (and a dog more athletic than Frugal Hound) if you want to use it in the winter.

The town plan road map for Halifax showing the property we've been talking about.

The town plan road map for Halifax showing our case study property

Google Maps, bless their little heart, don’t tell you what class a particular road is. If the road is gravel (like the one on the property we’re studying here) you’ll need to do more research.

Enter the town plan. All towns in Vermont adopt a town plan every few years to govern the direction and agenda for their near future. They make great reading and you can learn a lot about a town’s personality from their town plan.

Each town plan helpfully includes a bunch of town maps. Some will show zoning, others will show current use of the land, but the one we’re most interested in is the transportation map.

Halifax (the town in which our case study property resides) has its town plan (pdf), and the accompanying transportation map (pdf), online. Thank you, town of Halifax!

From the map, we can tell that the property’s road (Jacksonville Stage Road) is definitely town maintained. It’s a major route through town with a Class 2 rating. Just as interesting is the short spur of Josh Road that we talked about a bit earlier. Seems it too is town maintained for a short while. That means good access to two sides of the property, which is a plus, but we’d still want to know what the actual boundaries look like on the ground to see how much land the road consumes.

Google Stalking

Now I begin Googling in earnest. What information is out there about this property that the listing agent “forgot” to mention up front?

In order to weed out most (but not all) of the copies of the real estate listing, I like to search for the address as “3658 Jacksonville Stage -MLS” to exclude websites that mention the MLS real estate service.

And lo and behold, hidden on the third page of the Google results is the exact type of big fish I was angling for:

Bingo!

Bingo!

Well, well, well. It appears there’s a pending zoning action that would allow a granite quarry to start operations in the huge lot directly abutting this property. The property’s address is mentioned in an official notification document by the state that was sent to all abutters (and helpfully put online for Google to find).

I’d say that a potential rock quarry next door is a serious negative. Drilling, blasting, heavy trucks, increased traffic and dust on the road would all be concerns I’d have if we were interested in this property.

This Google expedition of mine also yielded the names of the current owners along with other personal info about them that could be useful in determining their bargaining position vis-à-vis their urgency for moving.

Determine The Prior Sale Price

Another useful piece of information is the previous sale price of the property. Knowing what the current owners paid helps Mrs. Frugalwoods and me figure out their anchor for valuing the property.

Zillow will usually show the prior sale price if the sale took place in the last few years. In this case, the sale must’ve been earlier than Zillow’s records. Not a problem because Vermont keeps property transfer records online.

Previous Sale from 2001

Previous Sale from 2001

Interestingly, the deed at transfer was listed as 34 acres but the sellers are representing it this time as 27 acres. Another mystery to investigate if we wanted to pursue this property.

The current owners paid $235k in 2001 for the property, which means they probably aren’t under water on the mortgage and indicates they might be more willing to negotiate than someone who is just trying to break even.

Does It Have Internet Access?

This, my friends, is the million dollar question.

Technically, most places on earth have internet access of a sort. You can get satellite internet just about anywhere you can see the northern sky. But it’s terrible quality and very expensive compared to what most folks in the city are used to.

This greyhound does not swim

This greyhound does not swim

While I’m sure Mrs. Frugalwoods and I could survive on satellite internet, we really don’t want to. Internet is an essential communication medium for us. Not only for Frugalwoods (hi guys!), but for keeping up with our families, and for learning important things like “can a greyhound swim” and “CPR for greyhounds” (not that we’ve ever had to Google these terms, but, uh, you never know!).

Vermont used to have a nice interactive Google map overlay of current broadband availability statewide, which was remarkably useful. Sadly, it no longer exists. Instead, you must sleuth intensely… aka call the phone and cable providers for the region and ask.

Even this is not guaranteed to yield an up-to-date answer. For our case study property, broadband isn’t technically available, but I happen to have good intel that a VTEL monopole antenna is permitted for the center of town, which will provide 4G LTE home service soon. It’s not fiber, but it’s not satellite either. So, for all intents and purposes, this property would provisionally pass the internet inspection test.

Final Thoughts

The relatively high price and low acreage of this case study property make it unattractive to us, but the potential for a granite quarry as a neighbor absolutely disqualifies it. Since we’re conducting our homestead search primarily from afar, this type of online vetting process saves us a great deal of time and allows us to only visit viable properties in person with our realtor.

And with that, I conclude Part 4 of the Frugal Homestead Series. Next up in the series we’ll explore the structural differences between rural and urban properties, such as septic, well, zoning… and many more. Want to make sure you’re among the first to receive Part 5 delivered hot and fresh to your email machine? Sign-up in the Frugal Hound email box below and she’ll send you a message.

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94 Responses

  1. So many things to consider! Thank goodness for the internet and Google! That Quarry would have been a major homestead killer. What is your plan if the right property isn’t available when you want it to be? Would you buy early? Continue the Boston life until the right property is for sale?

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      We’re actively looking now. For us to pull the trigger this early we’d need to get a screaming deal though. Carrying costs are substantial.

      On the other hand, we’re seeing that properties move really slowly. It’s not uncommon for something to be on the market for years before selling. So if we find a unique property at a great price… we’d jump on it. We’re also getting to know the market really well so that we can recognize those unique situations when they come along.

  2. Mrs. PoP says:

    The internet is definitely super useful for RE searching. While I found our house a fairly typical way – searching realtor and visiting it with a realtor, Mr PoP was in another country and we only put in an offer after he had taken a look at my pictures from the visit, read all the public records available on the property, and gone on a Google tour virtually through the neighborhood, confirming our house was in fact, one of the smallest, shabbiest houses in a lovely neighborhood. Just what we wanted.

    Also – I don’t know if Vermont has an equivalent, but in Florida we have spent a fair amount of time searching around in our county’s property appraiser’s website. They have sale records going back 20-30 years or more for most properties, permitting records going back 10-20 years (and the newer records are more accurate), basic layout of buildings (comparing the listing you can tell if the garage conversion or 2nd bathroom was permitted… a big help!), as well as links to public records where you can daisy chain from the property to the previous/current owners including mortgage liens, refinances, home equity loans, foreclosure proceedings, marriage and divorce records, etc. Very useful!

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Oh wow, so he never saw it in person before the offer? That’s hardcore!

      Property records in Vermont tend to be handled at the town level, which means to get info like that you mostly need to physically go to the records office (sometimes in someone’s attic) on the 3rd tuesday of the month that they are open :-). Its a different pace of life there, which I appreciate.

      Some of that info though I can get at the state level since VT taxes real estate on transfer. That plus some googling usually gets me 90% of what I’d get at the local level.

  3. Tarynkay says:

    Wow, you guys are so thorough! I think that post-retirement, one of your sidelines could be helping people make informed major life decisions. You know, like a life consultant.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Haha! We’re a bit intense when it comes to planning. Not sure our style is for everyone ;-). But gaming out situations is really fun for the both of us.

  4. First of all, congratulations and thanks on a great post on looking for land.

    When we searched remotely for a potential retirement property, we ended up looking 350 miles away from our primary home. We used Realtor.com as a way of not only finding available properties, but also finding the realty agencies that seemed to be most specialized in rural properties (which not all are). But, of course, a couple of 350-mile land search expeditions were necessary before we made a buying decision.

    We ended up buying a 102-acre property (80 acres wooded hills and 20+ acres flat pasture) in rural central West Virginia at a BARGAIN $600 per acre price because it was in foreclosure. (It appraised at $900 per acre!)

    Good luck on your land search!

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Wow, that sounds like a good deal. West Virginia is beautiful! We used to hike there a decent amount while we still lived in DC.

      Good idea on using it as a filter for which realtors deal in rural property. Our realtor is pretty good, but more importantly she’s very patient. We’ve been looking for 1.5 years, and may very well look for 2 more.

  5. I commend your due diligence! I too use Zillow and Realtor.com when searching for listings. Thanks for the Google address search hack that I was not aware of! I also find some towns/cities have sophisticated property tax records online, while other towns, well have nothing. Hope your searches yield a great property!

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Thanks! Yeah, online records are hit and miss. I can’t imagine how much more time it would take if we were doing this 20 years ago without good online resources!

  6. Amy says:

    I found this post fascinating! (Not that I don’t find all FW posts, fascinating, of course!) Having only purchased a house in a suburban-to-ruralish area, I cannot believe how much intel you need to do to get all of the information you need. Amazing.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Thanks! We (I) get pretty intense in the research phase. It’s such a major expenditure… and very illiquid if we decide we bought the wrong place!

  7. Very thorough analysis – though completely understood as to the reason why. Your comment on the roads being maintained makes me reconsider complaining that out city takes several days at times to get to our area. 🙂 We’re hoping to move ourselves within the next 2-3 years and are wanting something more rural – thankfully there is plenty of that in Nebraska. 🙂

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Yeah, the road thing surprised me early in our search. We found a place that looked amazing and cheap, only to discover that it was over 2 miles away from the nearest town maintained road. Then we understood 🙂

  8. Mrs. Maroon says:

    Holey smokes – talk about some research. But I completely get it. Rural property can have many hidden money pits or worse – nearby quarries. Uggh. That would have been awful. I continue to be impressed by the level of detail y’all put into evaluating everything. Thanks for sharing!

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Money pit -> quarry… haha! I totally should have made that joke in the post! But yeah, would have been a bummer to make that mistake.

  9. Kaytee says:

    These websites may also be helpful for addressing additional utility related criteria in your search:
    The natural resources atlas – http://www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/maps.htm
    Good for things like parcels (if available), wetlands boundaries, soils, hazardous waste sites, FEMA boundaries, and other natural features.

    Well reports, if you are looking for at a place with an existing well – http://www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/dwgwp/cfm/WellReportSearchFormi.htm.

    Wastewater permit database – if the place has a septic system already. Unless grandfathered in, all systems should have some type of permit on it. http://www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/dwgwp/cfm/wwdocs/index.htm

    VCGI interactive map viewer for other GIS layers – http://vcgi.vermont.gov/maps.

    Some towns have their own GIS as well.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      That septic lookup is really useful, thanks! I wasn’t aware that was online! Finding accurate info about property infrastructure can be challenging.

      The next post is going to be all about trying to evaluate existing site improvements. AKA I dive way too deep into the field of civil engineering and talk about the cost and complexity differences between types of waste water treatment systems 🙂 It’s one of those things that I didn’t realize would be such a big determinant of property value!

      Thanks again for the links, I’ve already learned a couple of things about properties we’re interested in that I didn’t know before. Super helpful!

  10. Wow!! I honestly never even thought about how much time and research it would take to find the land for the homestead. There are so many other details you need to consider with land purchasing rather than just home purchasing. Thank goodness for the internet, though, and google maps! 🙂

  11. Rural property shopping is SUCH a different beast from a regular town or city. There are so, so many more things to learn about, like you’ve mentioned. Just the shopping process alone can cause you to learn all sorts of fascinating information, like the history of some water regulations, access rights and whatnot.
    Great outline of your sleuthing process, this was fun to read.

  12. Jeff says:

    There are so many things to worry about when looking for land. Around here, they separate the “surface” rights from the “mineral” rights – and usually you only sell the surface rights. That means if there’s something under your land that’s valuable (like oil or coal) whoever owns those rights can come in and start extracting, on your property.

    Sounds like you guys have a good screening process in place, but I’ve got a question. If you find the perfect lot (or something very, very close) are you going to buy it before you’re totally ready to decamp?

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Thankfully mineral rights aren’t a thing in New England, but there are plenty of old nearly forgotten easements that we’ve heard you need to be careful about. It’s the same sort of thing… 99/100 you’ll be fine, but that one time will be a giant expensive headache.

      We’ve been studying the market so closely so that we will be able to identify any unique situations that we see over the next couple of years. While I’d rather not pay the carrying costs for a second property when we’re not using it full time… for the right screaming deal on an awesome property we’d certainly think about it.

      In fact, we put in an offer last fall on a place. We couldn’t come to an agreement on value (more on this in a future post) but had they accepted our offer it would have met the qualification of “screamin'” 🙂

  13. Norm says:

    Man, this is so fun. I love doing this type of research.

    We’re definitely not moving in the near future, but I fantasy-search Zillow sometimes, usually in the Hudson Valley, but also Vermont and Cape Cod. You probably filtered out this one, but there is a plot of land for sale just NW of downtown Brattleboro for $120k. Just land, no house, and *only* ten acres or something. I know you want to live further into the country, but I admired that lot on Zillow and Google Streetview for a good 15-20 minutes imagining the house I would build (big windows, south-facing, everything unrealistically clean like in a magazine), and walking the short 1.5 miles to Chelsea Royal Diner for breakfast every morning. That might actually be my dream retirement. 🙂

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Heck Norm, that’s so close to down it’s arguably suburbia 😉 Just kidding, it’s a nice looking lot. As you imagined the price/acre isn’t quite what we’re looking for.

      But I’d totally come visit (and use your sure-to-be-faster-than-mine) internet if you were to pick up that lot!

  14. Joy says:

    Impressive. 🙂

  15. What, you don’t want a rock quarry for neighbors? You could get some sweet deals on crushed granite and if you’re ever site mixing concrete, some excellent pricing on aggregate. 🙂

    Ever thought about a retirement side gig as a real estate agent? You’re more thorough than any real estate agent I’ve ever heard of. It’s a little silly paying 5-6% commissions to someone when you can (in fact, you often have to!) DIY the due diligence and research.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Yeah, funny enough it’s something we’ve talked about. Mrs. FW has the social skills, I have the data skills, and we both have good investigative noses.

      But then that starts sounding like a job. 🙂

      But maybe, who knows! It might be fun if we didn’t need the money and only worked with clients we liked. Funny how that financial independence thing can open doors…

      • From my perspective on “the other side”, a very part time job isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as you get to pick the hours and your terms of engagement. And it’s something you can drop at any time.

        You might enjoy the challenge of searching, data analysis, organizing the data, developing a computer program or app to assist you or to be sold to the public as SaaS or in the app stores. Just spitballing here.

        Mrs. FW might like the social aspect of meeting people wanting to move to your new community (or move within your community). And it would provide an excellent cover story for nosy locals as to how that zany FW family passes their time in the woods. They’re real estate agents! 🙂

        • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

          A cover story for our secret identity… I like it. We’re adding it to the (long) list of things we’d like to investigate once we’re not 9-5in’ it.

  16. Up here Realtor.Ca lets you search for Acerage and price. I’ve never found much use on realtor.com whenever I looked at US properties (just for fun, yes, property searching is fun for me!)

    It’s amazing the amount of information that can be found online about potential properties. Even when we’re just looking in town, the internet helps us eliminately most properties without needing a showing.

    A potential gravel quarry find is a big score. Nice work! Have you guys found any new contenders?

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      We’re always finding new contenders, and then ruling them out! It’s the slow season for real estate at the moment, and won’t really pick back up until after mud season in the spring. Which is a good thing, since it’s hard to evaluate land when it’s covered in 4 feet of snow!

      • Greypaws says:

        The best day of the month to check out property is actually the worst day of the month. Go when you are in the middle of a monsoon. You can see if the roof leaks, basement floods, where there is standing water and if the driveway is passable. If you like it on a rainy day, you’ll love it when the sun is out.

  17. Thegoblinchief says:

    Wow. I’ve really appreciated your insight in our emails back and forth, but this is a fantastic knowledge bomb. Thanks! And oof, spotting that possible quarry – what a nightmare if you’d missed that and it happened.

    This article is definitely going in my (growing) bookmark folder for “homesteading”. Depending on how bad my RSI is, I will slowly start searching semi-locally to us, and then maybe a few other areas around the country.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Yeah, the quarry would have been a bummer. Who knows if it will actually get allowed by the town… but the uncertainty is a risk I don’t need!

      I think casually browsing is a great idea. Before we were this intense, we would just breeze through the listings once a month or so and “save” our favorites. Then next month we could see what sold, for how much, and start getting a gut feeling for pricing and market velocity.

      I think having that gut instinct is so important when it finally becomes time to make offers. When you _know_ you are getting a good deal it’s much easier to commit quickly than if you are worried something better might come along. At least it is for me! That’s how we bought our Cambridge house. We saw it on a Saturday afternoon, and put in an offer the next morning. It was technically the 5th house we’d “seen” but we’d looked at hundreds online over the course of 3 years. We were comfortable moving quickly because we knew the market well.

  18. You have a lot to think about and investigate. It will be exciting to see the homestead you actually choose! I often look at zillow and JohnLScott to see what possibilities are out there. It’s so fun to look and dream!

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      It is so fun! We’d be looking at real estate even if we weren’t seriously in the market. We honestly still go to open houses in Cambridge just for fun.

  19. Very thorough! Kudos on the internet search minus the MLS. Clever! You can never tell with the internet availability. We have property at the back of a neighborhood. The neighborhood has up to date services but we had to do some serious negotiation to get them to run high speed internet down the gravel drive to our house. We just assumed that since the neighborhood had it we would also.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      I knew it would be hard to nail down, but I didn’t quite realize how unorganized some of the telecom companies would be. I’ve gotten several “well… maybe?” answers to questions about access at specific addresses. I mean come on!

  20. I’ve never looked for property from afar, usually I use Zillow and Redfin and drive by the houses I like. I wish you luck in your search, definitely exciting!

  21. Tawcan says:

    Wow that’s a lot of things to consider and spend time to research. Definitely more complicated than buying a property in the city.

  22. Frugal Homesteaders – it seems to me you are going about this is an amazingly organized way – and looking for the kind of information we are providing on our http://www.oldfarmhouseforsale.com website. There we explain that old homesteaders can’t always leave foot first. We are preparing to move to a nearby ‘walkable city’ which will be perfect for our old age. Good luck to you and all your followers.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Hey Pat and Henry! What a great looking property! Gorgeous gardens too!

      If you ever find yourself in the Cambridge area don’t hesitate to shoot us an email. We’d love to pepper you with (likely hilariously naive) questions… and frugal hound loves visitors!

  23. Wow, you are doing a great work and I completeloy understand your thoughts. I can’t wait to read the Part 4 of The Frugal Homestead Series 🙂

  24. Eileen says:

    You guys are certainly being thorough about your search! Have you ever come in contact with Jenna at Cold Antler Farm? She lives on the NY side of the border, but it’s essentially the same area (and I know she lived on the Vermont side before buying her homestead too). She might be a good resource to talk to! http://coldantlerfarm.blogspot.com/

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      I do follow her blog, she’s a great writer! She’s definitely on our list of folks to look up the next time we’re making a prospecting trip out in that directions. She is a little farther west than we’d ideally be, but definitely in the neighborhood.

  25. longwaytogo says:

    Interesting about the cheap acreage under power lines. I grew up all but underneath a large high tension power line (my parents still live there). But in MD our utility PEPCO bought all the land from my great grandfather I believe in the 50’s. It was an “eminent domain” situation where you had no choice but to sell but they do own it all now, not a right of way situation. I’ve never seen them use aerial herbicide but we always mowed our section.

    My parents 5 acre lot is actually split down the middle by the power line property but my father has always kept a large (1 acre+) vegetable garden under it and they have never complained. Both his adjoining neighbors use them for horse pastures. Definitely an eyesore though I guess I grew up with it so I never paid much attention to it. But when people visit for the first time they always comment on it.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Yeah, I’m sure we’d get used to it and eventually hardly notice it… but I can’t help but think that we’d regret optimizing our viewshed sometime in the future.

  26. MEL810 says:

    Grit.com, which is rural and homesteading site, has a very good realty ad and search function for rural only properties. They also have tons of information on making the move, etc. and people you can chat with who are doing or have done the rural relocation thing.
    Wanda Urbanska also wrote some good information about small town or rural relocation.
    I do know that a federal rural relocation program exists. I don’t know where the properties are and if y’all would be interested or qualify.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Thanks for the link, I had not run across that before! We’ll check it out. Always a blessing to be able to hear the hard lessons others gained through experience 🙂

  27. Carissa says:

    Great tips! I too spend a lot of time on Zillow, google maps, property maps, etc. My husband and I are currently farming a small piece on his parent’s acreage, but are looking for more land to spread out on, and you’ve given me some new info to work with. It’s no price per acre, but I do use the minimum lot size (in sq ft – 20 acres is over 871,000!), combined with max price to do a more refined search.

    • Carissa says:

      Well, now that I click on your Zillow search, I see that of course you’ve utilized the lot size filter… Didn’t sound like it from the wording of your post, and I was surprised that folks as thorough as you wouldn’t have figured that one out. 🙂

      • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

        Hah, yeah, sorry about that. I definitely could have been more clear in explaining. We’re just as interested in getting a good “value” for the land as we are with getting “perfect” land. So being able to search only for plats under $400k AND with a price per acre of under $3k would be what I was looking for 🙂

  28. Impressive. You’ve done your homework. Sounds like with the information you’ve complied you could write an e-book or a course on how to conduct a remote property search like this. (hint, hint)

  29. Nice research skill, Frugalwoods. I hope I could be that detail-oriented and meticulous like you are. You really maximized the use of the Internet and Google! Nice work!

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Thanks! It’s definitely more complex and involved than buying a house in the city or the suburbs, but it’s an interesting challenge on the whole.

  30. Christina says:

    This is a great post, even for those not looking for land! My husband and I own our home, but we are thinking of selling and moving to a more rural area. I would have never considered half of what you’re looking at! I know the considerations for land are different than for a house but looking up historical listing data, how the property is graded, road condition, etc., are great ideas no matter what kind of property you’re looking for. A home is a huge investment, and you should definitely be planning accordingly to get as close to what you want as possible.Thanks for the added considerations!

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Thanks! It is a terrifyingly large expenditure compared to everything else in life we’ll spend money on. So I figure if we spend a couple minutes deciding on what sort of fruit to buy this week, it’s totally commensurate to spend several years deciding what property to buy 🙂

  31. May says:

    Very thorough! You are fortunate (and smart) that you have time on your side so you can take a deep dive on all the possibilities and not just do it on impulse. I have family that bought and built on rural property without doing their homework and a massive dairy operation opened up across the way and they now have to deal with trucks 24/7 and noise ~ not exactly what they were hoping for so good on you for doing your homework. I am enjoying your homestead stories.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Thanks, glad you are enjoying the series! It’s a ton of fun to write about. We are super fortunate to have time on our side. I can’t imagine trying to find a rural property in just a couple of weeks… or even a couple of months. Even now, after seriously looking and researching for 1.5 years, am I starting to feel confident about my ability to evaluate properties. I feel like buying something too quickly could turn out just fine, but it would be a huge gamble.

  32. yardley says:

    Thought you would like :
    17 Tips To Start Your Homestead Right

    http://www.justplainmarie.ca/2015/02/17-tips-to-start-your-homestead-right.html

  33. My son found our house rental online. I’m not sure where though. I do love Zillow. I spent a lot of time on there when we were selling our house. I love the extreme amount of research you guys are doing on your future homestead. When you find the right place, it will all be worth it for sure. Best wishes on finding the perfect place for all 3 of you plus the future little you’s. 🙂

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Thank you, Kay! Since we have the luxury of time with this search, we figure it’ll be worth it to put in the research hours. Hopefully we find something that fits :)!

  34. We rented a place in the country for a few months in between the sale of our old house and the purchase of our new one. There was no way to get internet aside from a mobile hotspot (we didn’t want to install satellite on a rental we were staying in for 3 months). It was extremely expensive! Hope you find the perfect place soon!

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Internet is definitely high on our list! Pretty sure Mr. FW would rather live without running water 😉

  35. Oh my goodness. There is a lot that goes into searching for rural properties! I feel spoiled now thinking back to the process of buying our suburban home compared to the process you just described. I agree that you have to take Zillow for what it’s worth. I wrote a post about 2 years ago about how they don’t really take into account upgrades to a home and the Zestimate can be very misleading.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      It’s a lot more work than buying an urban/suburban home, but, we’re just glad we have the time to research everything in advance. It’s not the type of property you want to buy on a whim!

  36. Suddenly very happy that I like city-livin’. I think I need to lie down after reading all the ins and outs.

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Haha, yeah, there are definitely a lot more factors to consider out there in the country. Our city house was an absolute piece of cake to buy in comparison!

  37. You guys are doing all the right things. The other thing we did when we land-hunted was to search the county website for boundary maps and other property info. The county website was a huge help for us in making sure we understood what we were looking at and whether or not it was for us. Also, we researched enough to understand what the median per acre price was in each county. This helped to know if a house was overpriced or not.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Thanks Laurie! Figuring out how to value these properties is a real puzzle. Part of the problem is just how slowly the market moves. We’ve looked at places that have been on the market for over 3 years! Sales prices are all over the map (hah!) and often have to do with things that aren’t included in the listing, like timber value. But it’s a ton of fun to figure it out. I often feel like a detective piecing together a crime when I try to reconstruct how a recent sale could have been worth that price!

  38. Jessica says:

    As an attorney, I have to say I am 100% impressed with your research skills. I have had to research land transactions in deed books and plat maps in rural Illinois and will confirm that it is an interesting experience. Just to throw another issue at you, before purchase you may want to have the property you select surveyed to ensure there aren’t any boundary encroachments or even adverse possessors on the land.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Oh thanks! Always good to hear from someone who actually knows what they are talking about (as opposed to us!) 🙂

      Boundaries are certainly wily critters. We’ve set out to walk the lines on a couple of properties we’ve looked at, and discovered that it can be a history lesson. Trying to find the corner noted by the 1922 surveyor’s notes as “the large maple with 3 stones at it’s base” can be an experience!

      Thankfully many of the boundaries here are marked by old stone walls, so that makes it somewhat easier.

  39. The county auditor is the best resources especially when considering rural land.

    They usually have photos (required in most counties) of the front of the house and the land. It also has more accurate property lines than zillow. To me every site (MLS, Zillow, Trulia, Realtor) — Leads me to County auditor. They usually have property report cards that sum up the entire property 10x times better than all other sites combined.

    Good luck in your search.

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Yeah, in Vermont property records are held at the local (town) level and can vary wildly from town to town. There’s been an effort to digitize these records in recent years, but it’s still hit or miss. It’s all there, but many times you have to go in person to dig it out of a musty basement!

  40. Barbara Zaslow says:

    You totally should consider getting your realtor’s license once you have moved and settled into your homestead. Your unique marketing approach could be the exact in-depth analysis you are implementing for your search. We could of used you here when hubby and I bought a rural Massachusetts property with a septic tank that had to be dug out, a buried oil tank and a driveway that was virtually impassable when it snowed without a four wheel drive vehicle. Oh, and it snows a lot in Massachusetts, just saying. We traded in our city cars for all wheel drive Subarus after our first big snow storm and that was NOT a planned for expense. Ouch.

    Good luck with your search!

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Hey thanks! It’s sure fun to do the research. I’m not convinced there is a very big market for it… though if it was a “hobby job” then I guess it wouldn’t matter too much how large the market was 🙂 I’m sure there are yearly fees to the state to hold a license, so I’d need to at least get over that hump!

  41. lana says:

    We moved cross country twice. I found listings I was interested in and then triangulated them to hubby’s job, kid’s schools etc. Being informed, doing due diligence, is vital. Your listings seems so cheap from where we live!! What a deal!

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Land in rural New England is pretty reasonable, as long as it’s not right on top of a ski mountain. 🙂

  42. Doug says:

    Have you used the VT Natural Resources Atlas? It’s awesome for what you are trying to do. I also use it to learn about land from afar all the time. Topos, aerials, streams, wells, wetlands, lot boundaries, act 250 stuff, hazardous sites, rare plants – you name it, this site’s got it for Vermont. Have fun! http://anrmaps.vermont.gov/websites/anra/

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Yep, this is an awesome resource. It’s one more piece of the puzzle, though as a software engineer it’s reliance on silverlight makes me want to tear my hair out 🙂

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:

      Thanks Roy! I do keep an eye on Landwatch, though I find that mostly they are just reposting what is on MLS and I have other sources for that info. Occasionally they’ll get an exclusive, but not often.

  43. Mary says:

    There is a tool for price per acre for rural properties. Try http://www.landsofvermont.com.

    We like you are going to homestead and we’ve been using landsofkentucky.com quite a bit. I just checked and there are properties in your area.

  44. Susan says:

    Relatively new reader–congrats on your new homestead and thank you for this series. My husband and I are starting to explore retirement homes and your methodology reworked for our criteria is spectacular! And I love it that you go with data–I am such a data nerd! And I find your game of “how little can we spend today” very inspiring and effective! And our standard poodle says hi to Frugal Hound–she says she used to sleep on her back too until she became a senior dog!

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