A Place of Your Own

By: Rick A. Lucas, CD Forester

A few years ago a good friend of mine made a bad real estate purchase. And by bad, I mean, he really didn’t get much for the amount of money he spent on his purchase. Unfortunately, to this day, his wife reminds him of it every time we visit them.

Everyone loves a great deal. The problem was…. this wasn’t even a good deal. To my friend’s fault, he let a spur of the moment decision and his emotions override the many obvious deficiencies in his purchase of property.

In some respects, I can’t fault my friend entirely for not keeping his emotions in check. After all, purchasing a piece of land is a big deal. For many, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and quite exciting at that. On several occasions, I have had landowners share their excitement in what ultimately led to the deciding factor in “sealing the deal” with the purchase of their land. Several avid hunters stated seeing deer, turkey, waterfowl or other game species upon their first visit. Yet for others, it was a certain view or water source that contributed to their final decision in purchasing the property.

Our poor economy over the last ten years has put a ton of land on the market for sale. This is a great time if you are one of the fortunate looking to purchase a piece of land. But, before you spend a dime on land, you really need to make sure you know exactly what you are buying, how much you can afford, how you intend to use it, and what its assets, potential, as well as limitations are. Be aware, not all sites are created equal.

Without a doubt, you have to like the way the land looks. It’s even better yet if you possess the ability to visualize how you want the land to look over time. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon that you will probably be drawn to a piece of land for reasons you won’t completely be able to explain. And, that’s o.k. So, setting your emotions aside, how do you analyze a piece of land to be sure you get all of what you want?

Most will agree it is a buyer’s market right now. This means several things, but more importantly for purposes of this article, it means you will have the opportunity to look at a lot of available pieces of property. Make sure you do this, my friend didn’t.

Before you start your search, take some time to identify the land characteristics that most appeal to you. Very few pieces of land will have every characteristic you are looking for. Therefore, it’s also important to have the ability to recognize potential. Some characteristics can be changed, some can’t. Yet, others can be, but at a large expense. It’s important to keep this in mind as you evaluate various sites.

One of the most important characteristics is access. This means, access to the property, as well as, access within the property. Landlocked parcels sell for a lesser price for good reason. If a parcel is lacking roads and/or trails within its boundaries, these are types of characteristics that are usually easy to overcome. Access across wetlands is possible, but may be expensive and will require proper permitting. Many a landowner has under-estimated the value of access.

Viewing wildlife on your property is one of the purest joys of owning land. Many types of wildlife habitat enhancement activities can be implemented to produce a desirable outcome. One such example is the planting of trees and shrubs. It will require your patience for a few years to reach the desired outcome. However, it can be very rewarding to complete this type of activity yourself. Plus, it’s a lot of fun!

A word of caution: enhancing wildlife habitat comes in a lot of shapes and forms. Some can be done relatively easily with immediate results, yet other activities will require a dedicated effort including a great deal of time and money to achieve the desired outcome. A visit with a natural resource professional prior to and after your purchase is the best guarantee to implementing proper management activities.

I would even go one step further. Before, or at least shortly after any land purchase, visit a USDA Service Center housing the Natural Resource Conservation Service. With their assistance, determine if any of the activities are eligible for cost-share assistance upon implementation.

For many people, having a source of water on their property is a high priority. If it is a creek or stream that you seek, make sure the parcel already has it. Ponds, on the other hand can be built, but still may be time-consuming, will likely require a permit, and may cost more than you think.

Sites with existing forest cover also present some cautions. We have all heard it before. “There is a $1000 worth of timber per acre out there.” Be aware, this may or may not be the case. I’m not saying that someone may be purposely deceiving you, but many sellers are grossly misinformed when it comes to present timber values. The best advice would be to get an expert opinion on the current timber value. This can be as simple as contacting a consulting forester in the area of the property. A list of consulting foresters listed by county can be found on the DNR website. Their fee for this service could save you big dollars in fulfilling your expectations. Additionally, this information will be invaluable, and save you a lot of money on future taxes, if you ever conduct a timber sale.

More recently, with all the mineral lease activity of the past year (at least in the northern lower peninsula), be sure you know who retains the rights to ownership of the sub-surface minerals, namely gas and oil. As surprising as this may seem, sub-surface mineral rights ownership trumps surface ownership rights. What I mean by this is, you may end up with gas or oil exploration activities occurring in your backyard whether you want it or not. Most will agree, the only people who like the sights, sounds and smells of gas and oil exploration are those who are receiving royalties from the activity. Beware!

Lastly, a lot of people are selling land without the services of a realtor these days. Be sure the property boundaries and acreages presented are accurate. Enough said.

If a parcel appears to be dirt cheap (no pun intended), there is probably a reason for this. Cheap land is cheap for a reason….it’s land-locked, cut-over, swampy, downwind of a hog farm or has some other feature that makes it less appealing. Don’t simply “look” at a piece of property. Compare it to a list of land characteristics that most appeal to you. Determine if the characteristics are currently there. If not, determine if they can be changed and at what cost. Remember, there’s a lot of property currently available. Have fun looking and comparing!