The Dos and Don’ts of Buying a Homestead

What to Know Before Grabbing That Cheap Homesteading Land for Sale

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The Dos and Don’ts of Buying a Homestead

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It’s a dream held by many: buying a homestead and getting back to the land, raising children in a wholesome environment or retiring with a slower, simpler life. But what should you know or research before buying a homestead that seems perfect at first glance?

My family recently moved onto our first rural homestead, after working ¼ acre of city property for almost a decade. And it certainly wasn’t ideal homesteading land. We knew that “ideal” would probably never be within our price range and “adequate” just wasn’t available in our area. We found a piece that used to be a farm, had been neglected for a long time, and needed a lot of hard work to even support a small family.

But for us, that was okay. Buying a homestead means something different for each person.

Whether you relocate across state lines to work the land of your dreams, or what you need is available right in your area, pay attention to a couple “dos and don’ts of buying a homestead.” Find facts, ask realtors, and talk to neighbors.

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Do: Make a plan. What do you hope to do with the land: have an orchard, raise exotic livestock, perhaps eventually become an organic farmer with a stall at the town market? Now, can you see yourself meeting all these goals on the piece of land in front of you?

Our homestead used to be a commercial organic potato farm, but the water rights had been sold long ago and the plot reverted to alkaline desert. If it was going to reach former glory, we had to pay a lot of money for those water rights. But our goal wasn’t to run a commercial farm. We wanted an orchard, large garden, and someplace to run livestock. We could do that on this stretch.

Don’t: Think you must do it all at once. Even if the property already has orchards and paddocks, constructing a homestead may take any money left over after closing costs … and more! It’s okay to start with the basics and work up from there.

Our growing conditions aren’t “difficult.” They’re outright hostile. We need to fortify soil with minerals and organic material, build windbreaks, purchase and install water lines, construct livestock shelters… and that’s just the beginning. It simply won’t become a homestead paradise within the first few years. But we’ve made incredible progress in just two seasons.

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Do: Make a list of what matters most. These can include:

  • Is the land close to a town where you can purchase whatever food and supplies you cannot produce yourself? Is it accessed by a county road or do you have permission (and access rights) from someone whose land you must drive through to get to yours?
  • Is the land large enough to meet your dreams?
  • Don’t just look at realty prices. After closing costs, you will still need money to build homes and/or outbuildings, relocate your family, and develop the land.
  • Is there enough space and are the buildings/roads oriented in a way that gives you the privacy and security you seek?

Don’t: Forget to list what you’re willing to compromise:

  • Are you okay with a learning curve? If you gardened in the Midwest but now you’re in the Rocky Mountains, the same growing rules don’t apply. Adjusting and learning new techniques will take work.
  • Are you okay with the work involved? Are you willing to put in more sweat and tears for an undeveloped piece of land at an amazing price?

Within a few months of working the land, a few tears of frustration, and a lot of money wasted on the wrong plants, I admitted that I was very good at farming my urban plot in a sheltered neighborhood. This desert might as well have been 700 miles away, not 70. But if I had known the work and learning curve involved, would I have still chosen this property? Yes, but I would have done better planning.

Do: Study the landscape Study its potential to flood, whether it has windbreaks, and what type of soil it has. Do you want rocky hills that goats can climb, but which will require terracing and/or raised beds for gardening? Or do you want broad expanses of flat, smooth soil that you can plow? Will dry brush and one-lane dirt roads become a wildfire hazard?

Probably the biggest landscape issues we face on this property are wind and erosion. The spring gusts top 70mph. Rainstorms wash away dirt and wind hurls it across fields. I’m in a race against nature to establish those windbreaks and ground covers before another storm can rip up the plants.

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Don’t: Buy land that involves a lot of work that you can’t do yourself. This involves hiring people or asking for favors, all of which can take money, time, and patience, especially if the work isn’t the quality you need.

The more remote the homestead, the more difficult it will be to bring in contractors, schedule deliveries, or just invite friends for a good, old-fashioned work days.

Do: Learn about potential predators. Will cottontail rabbits consume your garden? How about coyotes that will snatch up chickens? Or destructive dogs that owners refuse to contain but can hurt or kill your sheep? Is the land close enough to highways and civilizations that the human kind of predator is an issue?

For Ames Family Farm, we checked “all off the above” on the predators list. Each garden bed involved digging down two feet to lay hardware cloth (for the gophers), building thick wooden sides (for the rabbits), arching cattle panels over top (for the deer), and wrapping it all in chicken wire (for the quail.) We constructed our chicken coop from a steel frame, then wired cattle panels onto those for the coyotes and stray dogs, then wrapped that in hardware cloth and chicken wire for the smaller predators. It’s a lot of work, but we knew what we were up against.

Don’t: Snatch up the first “perfect” option that grabs your heart. There’s always a catch. Is it something you can accept?

Our catch was that we had to accept the property “as is.” This means we will be replacing the roof before winter.

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Do: Talk to the neighbors. They know details the realtor may not, such as whether the neighborhood falls victim to teenage mischief. Or if previous five tenants sold the property because of one neighbor who makes life miserable. Other local homesteaders will know if the USDA map says you’re zone 7 but your particular microclimate is more like zone 5.

Don’t: Assume the future neighbors will have the same mindset. Just because you have ten acres doesn’t mean an otherwise nice neighbor will complain if your goats get too *ahem* “goatish” during rut. Placing beehives may be perfectly legal but a neighbor with an allergic child might object.

This was something we learned at our former urban homestead. City urban homesteader laws were relaxed: we could own poultry and bees, garden any part of our property, and even process the smallest livestock in our backyard. My friend’s husband, a municipal police officer, knew what our urban homestead entailed and gave his blessing. But, depending on who rented the house beside ours, we were often grateful for the six-foot privacy fence that kept opinions and drama on their side.

Do: Read up on water rights and laws. Few homesteading plans come to fruition without water. If your land doesn’t have specific water rights, are you allowed to dig a well? Can you water livestock from that well? Is it legal to gather rainwater? Or to dig swales and catchments to harness runoff? If the property contains wetlands, are you allowed to alter shorelines or take water from the ponds? Before buying a homestead, check on how you can irrigate it.

Rainwater collection recently became legal in our state, but it doesn’t rain that often anyway. With million-dollar water rights hanging out of our reach, we learned about permits that allow us to pump from the canal and irrigate up to a half-acre of non-commercial garden.

Do: Read up on other laws and zoning. Is it legal to go off-grid in that area? Do any regulations restrict the type of homesteading you want to do? Can you obtain mineral rights, in case you discover gold while digging a foundation?

In my area, one thing we cannot start a cow, sheep, or goat dairy farm without running a gauntlet of red tape. Selling milk requires a county dairy commission, strict licenses, and inspections. There are so many regulations that, though multiple dairies exist within a short drive of my property, only one has the licenses allowing local milk sales.

But can we raise exotic animals, own thousands of chickens, and send hogs to the butcher for a customer to pick up cut and wrapped? No problem.

Don’t: Forget to ask about the area’s history. Is it prone to tornadoes and hurricanes? Could it be contaminated with toxins or heavy metals? Is the intersection beside the property notorious for deadly vehicular accidents? Perhaps there were evicted tenants that could come back and cause problems?

I have a friend who bought land out in Tennessee. It seemed perfect, so green with acreage that allowed them to construct a business up on the highway while building their homestead further back for privacy. But though they knew tornadoes occurred there, they didn’t realize how much they impacted life until after the move. It was too much. After days of production ruined by each tornado warning, they sold the property and decided buying a homestead out west was better.

But with all the restrictions we’ve faced, all the work involved, and all the obstacles we hurdle, is it worth it? Absolutely. Homesteaders are hard workers and buying a homestead that can help meet our dreams is a step toward a blissful future.

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