In this part I want to talk about how to evaluate your property once you find it. Here’s where my real estate and personal experience comes into play: there are no 100% perfect properties. Let’s say that again for emphasis: there are no 100% perfect properties. If you have your list of must-have, do-or-die then you are in a better position to know what imperfections you can tolerate.
No matter what you want to do the kind of soil the property has and how much water it has is extremely important. Please don’t pick a property because it has a nice view unless all you want to do is sit and look at it.
Let’s say you want to raise goats or sheep. Perfect, fertile soil is not necessary. Most breeds of goats and sheep can subsist on forage grown on poor soil with a little supplementation. However, if you want to grow vegetables you absolutely must have good soil. Unfortunately, when you look at property it’s not always obvious what kind of soil it has. It could be a thin layer of topsoil with hard pan clay underneath or—god forbid—granite rock or even lava! When I look at property where the goal is to grow food I bring a shovel with me. I find the potential garden area and see if I can dig holes. If I can dig holes, then, yay! If I can’t then I have to find out why. However, digging a hole is just the start. That just shows you that the land is friable enough to get a spade into. What is the condition and quality of the soil? The area County Extension can give you more information about this and it’s wise to investigate.
When we lived at The Ranch in Northern California I could not think of a worse soil for growing vegetables. I tried to improve the soil with loads of compost but ultimately I gave up because it also turned out that the soil—and the water—was highly alkaline. My tomatoes developed blossom end rot because they couldn’t get the calcium they needed. I had to buy a few yards of topsoil so I could grow what I wanted and had to supplement to offset the alkalinity. It was an expense I did not have money for. If I had looked into this before we would have a saved ourselves a lot of grief. Take a sample and have the soil tested for the mineral and acid/alkaline condition. You can do a quick sedimentation test for basic information on clay, silt and sand components.
Is the land in a flood plain? Before you make an offer go to the FEMA Flood Plain website and see for yourself. If you’re looking at the property in the dry time of year the conditions during the wet time of year may not be apparent. Ask the neighbors what the conditions are year-round. People who have lived in the area will know what the history is.
Size Matters—But Only to the Budget
If you can’t afford a big piece of good, arable land it is better to buy a small piece of good, arable land. You might get a “deal” on the larger acreage but you’ll pay for it in spades with all the work you have to do. Get the best quality land you can afford and if that means buying a small piece then that’s best. You can get a lot out of a half-acre of land. After you develop it you can choose to sell it later for a profit. If you’ve handled your finances and credit wisely you will be able to leverage that into more land. You’ll also have a ton of experience to make an even greater success. John Jeavon’s book How to Grow More Vegetables on Less Land Than You Ever Thought Possible is indispensable.
He Who Controls the Water…
Water issues surprise many people who move to the country. They are used to turning on the tap and not thinking about it because their water comes from a seemingly endless supply. In the country water can be big issue because you will be dependent on your own personal source—the well. Even on a property in an abundant rain area it’s always a good idea to have the well thoroughly tested. What is the flow? Flow is also known as GPM or “gallons per minute”. If you have a well that produces only 5 GPM you might find you are trucking in water if you go through an extended dry period.
What is the quality of the water itself? Is there agricultural runoff or bacterial contamination? Hire a good well expert. They can test the well for all these things and more. You can make an offer on a property and within the 17 days contingency review you have time to find out all you need to know and if it doesn’t work out you can rescind your offer and not lose your deposit money.
If there is a water storage tank give that a good once-over. On our ranch we were dismayed to find out that the in-ground storage tank was an old fuel tank. It had been installed before anyone realized that was a bad idea and had been there so long it had rust-throughs around the cap. We took the lid off and saw a snake swimming around. Needless to say, we got bottled water to use for drinking!
The last thing in evaluating the water on a property is the water delivery infrastructure. If you’re lucky enough to have water lines and hose bibs that go right to where you will want your water then that’s a great property. If not, then you have to consider do you have the budget and ability to do what you need to do to make it right.
In the next part I will talk about how your lifestyle will be different in the country.
Renee grew up in Iowa and migrated to San Francisco in 1977. She lived and worked in an urban setting for years and then abandoned it all to live and work on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch in Northern California. Now she is part owner of a small acreage in the Central Valley of California where she has chickens, horses, dogs, cats and a substantial vegetable garden. She is a full-time real estate agent which sounds improbable when you think about all the projects on her property. Kudos to her husband Marty for filling in the gaps.