Buying Land

Want to Make Money in Country property? Buy Education

The first land I bought was 60 acres about a 35-minute drive north of Amherst, Massachusetts. I paid $5,000 for the top of a mountain, much of which had recently been timbered. It had a deeded right of way easement that had never been developed. An adjoining landowner allowed us to use the traditional road into the property. This was 1970; I was 25.

I sold it about 20 years ago, regretting the need to sell. Even at 2008’s deflated prices, it would move today for at least 50 times what I’d paid, more likely 75.

Since buyer intelligence doesn’t explain my success, what does?

Time and proximity.

Time almost always appreciates land.

The other factor was proximity to a small town with a university engine powering its development…and all the land within convenient driving distance of it.

Current conditions favor buyers of rural property.

First, the economy is pointing down, and economists are fighting over how far it will go and how long it will last. The immediate future looks bleaker, rather than brighter. Unemployment is up; corporate profits are down. Stocks are down by almost 50 percent. Everyone thinks it’s a good day when the Dow Industrials fall by only 200 points.

Second, big banks with their securitized mortgage portfolios are now depending on the U.S. Treasury to offer them something more than what their “toxic loans” are actually worth. These banks are not lending much to anybody, including each other. Buyers of residential property in cities and suburbs are locked up and locked into circumstances where lenders don’t want to risk their money and borrowers can’t find mortgages.

Third, the housing market is getting worse. Some seven million residences are expected to be in default over the next couple of years and more than four million in foreclosure. Prices have fallen by 25 to 50 percent in most places. Their direction continues to be down. Some sales are occurring at those new valuations.

That’s part of the “good” news; here’s the rest.

Mortgage rates are relatively cheap.

Mortgage credit is available in the countryside through the federal Farm Credit Services (click on a state to find local coop information); credit unions; and locally owned banks.

Sellers, who have their property listed in these unfavorable conditions, are motivated. They know that prices are down and buyers are precious. They know that the valuations of a year ago are inflated.

I’m not gloating over these circumstances. I’m simply reporting where I see the real-estate market.

I would advise buyers to look for land that has some, or all, of these features:

  • 20 acres or more
  • “reasonably divisible” under local ordinances
  • buyable at a price pegged to comparables sold five to seven years ago
  • physical and legal access, either with adequate frontage on a public road or with a recorded right-of-way easement of sufficient width, usability and without restrictions
  • acreage confirmable by survey or deed-mapper program
  • boundaries in the deed coincident with boundaries on the ground—no boundary disputes or encroachments
  • general warranty deed preferred; special warranty deed is second choice
  • fee-simple ownership, including minerals; be wary of property where minerals have been leased or sold
  • no environmental deal-breakers—endangered species or their habitat, wetlands, floodplains, archeological treasures, soil instability (landslides, earthquake zones); water pollution, on-site dumps
  • no conservation easement or other significant use restrictions
  • adequate water for your purposes
  • mostly useable terrain—not to steep, wet or otherwise inhospitable
  • building sites
  • woods that have present or future timber value

As for location, it’s pretty simple. Find a place within a 45-minute drive of a major university located in a small town or city. (I’m not talking about small liberal-arts colleges and community colleges.)

Universities, like land-grant institutions, have a core set of facilities and payroll that will be carried through a recession. In better times, the institution will grow along with our population and its ever-increasing demand for educational credentials and training.

Budgets for public universities are likely to be cut in a recession, but universities don’t disappear.

Faculty are ready buyers for undeveloped country property and older farmhouses.

Universities generate business around them. A university and its micro-economy always drives land prices up in the surrounding area.

Get in now at the right price, and let time turn your profit.

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About the author

Curtis Seltzer

Curtis Seltzer is a land consultant, columnist and author of How To Be a DIRT-SMART Buyer of Country Property and Land Matters: The “Country Real Estate” Columns, 2007-2009.


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  • “buyable at a price pegged to comparables sold five to seven years ago ”

    i live in iowa and would like to buy some bottomland. the county I wish to buy has seen prices rise from $700 per acre in 2000 to $2200 per acre now. in fact almost every county in iowa–from top of the line farm land to bottom of the line woods, marsh, scrubby hills, unfit for farming… etc…has increased 300 percent.

    per your article, are you saying to make an opening bid based on the price per acre in the year 2000, 2001, 2002?

    There is a gorgeous 120 acres–nearly all trees with a stream. selling for 2200 per acre ($264,000). I would feel foolish making my opening offer of $700 per acre for the 120 acres. That is only $84000.

    Please clarify your point, or maybe someone else can give me some opening bid advice. thank you, will, from iowa.

  • Excellent points; I am seeing some of this near Athens, Georgia regarding rural parcels. It’s a prime time to buy no doubt. I am working one right now that the owner has seven properties (most with the good road frontage on major roads) for sale. He dropped the biggest one over half off just to get cash for other struggling businesses he has. And the upzoning has already been done to change it to commercial. One of my clients said it was the best deal he had seen in 20 years and is still trying to figure out how to buy it with some partners.

    Your features list is thorough and encourages taking some time to vet the property properly (I don’t like surprises and my clients don’t either) yet I view that as part of earning my commission, developing credibility, and keeping them coming back for more later on. (We mainly work with buyers and don’t list.) Plus, it’s fun……..well, when it closes and the check clears it’s a lot more fun.

    Thanks for the article, John

  • Land in Iowa has appreciated beyond what I would consider normal levels due to the demand for corn, and particularly corn used in ethanol. I think it’s overpriced, given today’s uncertainties and economic conditions.

    The price you should pay is the price that the land is worth to you, given your resources, plans and the property’s assets. That price has nothing to do with the seller’s asking price, or comparables. Figure out what the property is worth to you.

    Yrs. Curtis Seltzer

  • Curtis I am thinking about buying land in the caribbean around the resort areas of montego bay Jamaica! what do you think?

Pulse Question

How would you rate land as a hedge against inflation?


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