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.
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.
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 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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever house or land hunted remotely? Would you like to?
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