A Piece Of Land To Call Your Own
by Linda Boston Franke

Buying a piece of land in rural America can be the fulfillment of a life long dream. The acquisition experience can be quite different from that of buying a home in an urban setting. Here are a few of the features that are unique to the experience of purchasing rural real estate:

In an urban setting, water, power and other utilities, and phone service are a given – you don’t have to wonder if they exist or anything about their condition. Rural real estate properties can have all, or none of the above. At the very least, a rural real estate buyer needs to inquire as to the source of each of these:


The most typical water source for rural real estate property is a well water. If a property already has its own well, the buyer can have the well tested by a professional water well company. The test will be for productivity of the well – ie, how many gallons per minute the well pumps. The test will also be for “potability,” which relates to the quality of the water. Most counties have standards for water that is to be used for domestic purposes. If the water does not meet these health standards, there are many approaches that can be used for water treatment. One approach that is used is a reverse osmosis system. Other more cutting edge techniques utilize ozone. For more information on water treatment, visit our article called, “How’s Your Water, Partner?”

It is not uncommon for a rural property to have a “shared well” with an adjacent or nearby property or properties. Some rural areas have subdivisions of ranchettes, all of which utilize water that is provided by a few really good high producing water wells. Whenever two or more property owners share a water source, there should be a “well agreement” that specifies how the well maintenance costs are going to be handled and delineates decision making processes and management.

If you are buying raw land – ie, land that is completely unimproved -- you’ll want to look for the nearest power pole and telephone pole. Some owners of remote rural properties use alternative sources of energy, and there are some wonderful success stories.

Another typical scenario for rural real estate property is to have either a septic tank or a dry well for waste. The preferred method for waste management is septic. Waste flows from the domestic home into a tank which breaks down the waste and disperses it into the soil. In order for this system to work the soil has to be porous enough to “perculate.” Tests for “perculation” are relatively simple and inexpensive. For properties where the soil fails to perculate, an alternative to the septic is a dry well. A dry well is actually a very large hole in the ground in which the waste is deposited. Dry wells were the norm up until the mid 1900’s and many older established ranches continue to use dry wells that have been in place for decades.

Don’t assume that once you own the land that you can do whatever you want with it.  Governmental laws and ordinances from the federal level all the way down to the local level can impact any and all of these presumed land uses -- such as clearing the land, farming it, building a home and the location you choose for the home, building a second home and on and on. A buyer will want to investigate allowable "land uses" for the property they plan to purchase.

Among the federal regulations that impact land owners are federal protection laws for any species that has been classified as “endangered” or, secondarily, as “threatened.” Protection is extended to “invertebrates, wildlife, fish, and plant species that are in danger of becoming extinct.” If some part of your land is considered to be a habitat for an endangered species, then you may be restricted from clearing that portion of your land, farming the land, and building or developing that part of the land. The Department of the Interior maintains lists of “endangered” or “threatened” species and their known habitats. The federal governmental also has various ordinances related to wetlands and water courses (streams or rivers), both in terms of protecting water resources and protecting fish and other species dependent on the eco-system. Federal maps use “blue lines” to indicate water courses.

For most rural properties, greatest impact to land use will originate at the county level. An exception could be for a piece of acreage that falls within the boundaries of an incorporated city. The largest percentage of rural land throughout America falls in unincorporated areas and is therefore governed primarily by the county. Counties set up zoning laws, which dictate what can be done with the property. Each county has their own definition of what each zoning classification means -- for example, Ag II zoning in one county should not be assumed to mean the same in another. A land buyer should obtain zoning definitions directly from the county. Zoning will delineate allowable agriculture uses and should also spell out what development is allowable (for example, one main residence and a guest house, or two main residences, etc.)

Some counties may restrict home construction to “building envelopes;" they may have height restrictions, setback requirements and “ridge line” ordinances. Counties typically have a permitting process that must be followed in order to build a home, but some counties may also require permits for the building of barns and outbuildings, and in the extreme, they may institute permit a processes for such things as grading and building fences. Such procedures increase costs for the land owner, and also they invariably take time.

Often, a piece of land in a rural area will be accessed off a private road. The right for road access through a property to reach another property is called an “easement.” An easement is a legal right that is specifically described; for example, it could be a width of 24 feet extending from point A to point B. A road easement should be accompanied by some kind of road maintenance agreement that delineates how maintenance will be administered and how costs will be shared among the parties benefiting  from the road.

Other land owners may have road easements across your land for access to their land. You will want to know the location of such easements and the nature of rights that other land owners have to use your land. You will also want to know if someone makes a practice of using your land to access their land, even though they have no easement across your land. In some situations, continued use of the land for access can be grounds for creating an easement. Easements also exist for the running of utility lines, and public utility companies typically have easements in place across all private lands in their service area.

Easements are recorded with the county and should be reflected on a preliminary title report for the property. Easements are legal issues and questions or concerns about the easements that are in place should be directed to a land use attorney. Don’t count on the existing owner or the realtor to have all the answers for you regarding easement issues.

The rights to the oil and minerals that may lie beneath your land are not necessarily transferred to you when you purchase a property; in fact, quite typically these rights are held by another party. The party who owns the oil and mineral rights may have leased these rights – to an oil company for example. During the 50’s and 60’s there was a great deal of active oil exploration in states such as California and Texas. Nowadays,environmental laws have curtailed most oil exploration and much of the oil production in this country.
Any evidence of the dumping of toxic waste or hazardous materials on a property is cause for concern. Professional services are available to examine the property and issue an environmental report alerting the prospective buyer of potential areas of concern that could require clean-up.

The property lines of rural land are not always readily apparent; typically, the larger the parcel, the less clear the boundaries. Fences are not necessarily built on property lines, and rarely if ever are the built on exact property lines. A survey can be helpful, and marking the property corners with survey stakes is particularly helpful. A survey map can give precise measurements to and from land monuments.

Another thing to keep in mind is that financing for unimproved land, or homes on larger acreage will likely not be available in the high loan to value ratios found in the single family home financing market. Lenders prefer to make loans on improvements. When the bulk of the value in a property is the land itself, it places the property in a different financing category. A prospective buyer may wish to find a lender who specializes in making loans for land, farm and ranch properties.

As an owner of rural land, you’ll want to learn as much as you can about soil types and soil conditions, drainage, erosion or potential erosion, fire safety, and the various types of plants and grasses that can assist in all these areas. There are fascinating developments in the areas of water treatment, alternative energy sources, green building, sustainable agriculture, and many other areas.We here at "Resources and Education" are committed to bringing you more information in these areas, and in the months to come, we will be adding this information to this web site.

Meanwhile, enjoy the land where you live!  

To find that perfect rural property, use the SEARCH feature -- www.RanchAndCountry.com

[Author, Linda Boston (Franke) is a licensed real estate broker doing business as Remax Heartland Real Estate in the Santa Ynez Valley. Linda can be reached at Linda@BostonFranke.com

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