12 Things To Consider When Purchasing a Rural Home
A rural life sounds romantic, but finding the right property can be complex. Here are some pitfalls to keep in mind when buying your country home.
Once the pandemic hit and remote work became a norm, ditching the city and the ‘burbs for a simple country life turned into a reality for some Americans — including my husband and I. In 2020 we moved back to my home state of Colorado, with the idea of buying a rural fixer-upper and building some sweat equity.
Even though I grew up in the country and knew some of the tangles to avoid, we nearly closed on several homes that would have been horrible mistakes. Fortunately, persistent investigation, luck and advice from our ever-patient Realtor saved us.
“The number one absolute rule is don’t buy a house sight unseen,” says Sarah Jardis, our broker in Colorado, who works with Code of the West Real Estate. “And be thoughtful about where you are trying to relocate and if it has the services you need.”
Here are a few other things to keep in mind when looking for a house or land in the country.
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Zoning and Covenants
Rural land feels like it should be a free-for-all. It’s not, regardless of what the wording in the listing leads you to believe.
Before falling in love with any house or land, check the state and county zoning, plus any Homeowners Association (HOA) or Property Owners Association (POA) covenants to see what uses and structures are allowed.
In many places in Colorado, for instance, you’re not allowed to camp on your land for more than two weeks a year, even while building a house. Also, you may be required to install a septic system and possibly a well before you camp or build.
If there is an existing structure, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legal or grandfathered in. We nearly bought an adorable little cabin on a stream by a pond, only to find out that once the deed was transferred, the county and HOA would have required it to be removed.
“With code enforcement, in some places, a lot of people aren’t playing by the rules,” says Jardis. “Most rural places are not rich, and so we don’t have a lot of code enforcement. But that changes when more rich people move in and it becomes less rural.”
Just because it’s listed as a house doesn’t mean it’s fully functional. Not all rural homes have a well, septic or on-grid electric. Many lack landline phone, internet and cell service.
Check with utility companies and confirm well and septic permits with the state or local government. A new septic system can cost upwards of $15,000 in a state like Colorado, which requires engineering.
If there’s no existing well, ask the state or local well-drilling companies about the typical area wells depth. This will give you an idea of how expensive it would be to drill a new, or redo an existing, well.
Water rights are another factor, especially in the drought-riddled American West. Just because you have land doesn’t mean you can drill a well. And just because you have a well doesn’t mean you can use it freely. Some well permits don’t allow for watering a lawn, garden or washing your car.
Also, if your prospective property includes water, don’t assume it will always be there. That house with the stream and the pond? We discovered that, because of drought, that water would eventually be diverted indefinitely away from the neighborhood to the wetlands of a nearby wildlife sanctuary.
“Obviously in Colorado, water is a big one,” says Jardis. “People coming from elsewhere just don’t understand it. But you’ve got to drill down into those specifics and research them wherever you’re looking.”
Industry and Mineral Rights
Find out what industries are, or have been, in the area. Get a water and soil test to check for contaminants.
Paper mills and livestock operations (industrial pig farms, cattle feed lots, etc.) can create intense smells over long distances. If you live downwind of farm fields, you may have dust storms when crops aren’t growing. Active or abandoned mines can affect water quality. Also check for nearby Superfund sites to make sure they’re not too close for comfort.
Find out what fossil fuel extraction is happening nearby. Fracking can contaminate groundwater and flaring methane can create air pollution. In Trinidad, Colorado, tremblers from new fracking are causing structural damage to buildings.
And just because you own the land doesn’t mean you own the mineral rights. The entity that does could have broad rights to set up oil wells on your land.
Nature, Weather and Animals
Ask locals about yearly weather patterns, including seasonal flooding. If the driveway is north-facing, you could have snow for months longer than those on the south slope. This is a classic newbie mistake by people moving to mountainous areas.
Look around at the bigger picture. Wetlands nearby means mosquitos may be intense. Is there wildfire danger? Has an area upstream burned in the last few years? If so, find out if it’s considered at risk of mudslides or flooding.
Does the forest look healthy, or is it browning from drought or a blight like pine beetles? You might also ask if there are any animal migrations. It’s wonderful to be in the path of a thousand sandhill cranes, but not so much a million Mormon crickets.
Research climate change projections. In the West and some of the Midwest, drought is expected to accelerate. In the South and East, more extreme weather events like tornadoes, flooding and hurricanes are expected. Will the area become too hot? Will sea level rise or wildfires jeopardize your ability to get homeowners insurance?
Verify you have right-of-way access to the property, that the road is open year-round, and it’s not too rocky or steep for your vehicle even when covered in ice and snow. Ask if the roads are plowed and maintained, or if you will be responsible for that.
How Rural Do You Really Want to Go?
“Some people love the ideal of country, and say they want to be somewhere where they can’t see another house,” says Jardis. “But then when we drive down long dirt roads to get to a place like that, they say, `Whoa, that’s really isolated!’ Then we usually end up in a subdivision where you can see other houses, but not hear them.”
The novelty of being an hour from a grocery store, hospital or hardware store can wear off pretty quickly. Be realistic about how self-dependent you actually are and how far you’re willing to go for services.
While some rural communities welcome new residents, others are wary. An influx of city-dwellers can mean increased property values, but also divide longtime residents and newcomers. The latter love the country charm but want more amenities and regulations.
“I want my road to stay unpaved and dirt,” says Jardis. “I want it to stay country. I don’t want to be in a subdivision. But as communities grow, that’s inevitable. So are political and religious differences.
“I’m an eternal optimist. We can find ways to do it better. But if you are really looking for a relocation, you need to talk about how that’s going to work.”