A former housemate of ours has a pug that wears a pink bowtie. I can assure you that this friend does not fit the stereotype you might attach to a person who dresses up their animal. The bowtie was actually a gift from Bailey. She purchased it from an acquaintance. He was peddling them on the sidewalk outside of the café where I work. A couple weeks later I saw him again. This time he was selling homemade coloring books; each page depicted a different scene from somewhere in Portland. Now genuinely curious, I asked him something to the effect of, “What, other than selling coloring books, have you been up to lately?”
“Putting up lightning rods,” was his reply.
“You mean literally installing lighting rods on buildings,” I pressed.
“Just trying to get struck by lighting,” He said. “If you want to get struck by lightning, you have to put up lightning rods.” I sensed the metaphor in his words.
He went on to briefly explain that he had been trying out a lot of different things, hoping to find one that worked. The first time I had seen him, it was dog bowties. That endeavor was somewhat successful, at least according to some metrics. The bowties are available at a number of local pet shops. Now, coloring books were being put to the test outside the grocery store. As I was ultimately there to buy food, his brief explanation was all I got. Despite the lack of elaboration, this exchange of words had a profound effect on me. I found myself thinking about it the entire drive home. I immediately told Bailey about it when I got there.
Getting struck by lightning is a highly unlikely occurrence. If that is your goal, standing on top of a hill with a long metal pole, in an area with a high frequency of lighting storms, will go a long way to improve your odds. The prospect of owning land did, at times, feel as likely as getting struck by lightning. The reality is that success, in our case, would involve far less luck. But, luck being involved, we wanted to improve our odds any way we could. The flyers we distributed, ads we posted, and letters and emails we sent, all acted as “lightning rods.”
Lightning, as it were, struck in the form a phone call that we received in response to one of the letters we had sent. Hearing the name given on the phone, I referred back to a list I had made. Matching the name to a property on the list, I was elated. I recalled a conversation between Bailey and I that occurred a little over a week prior. Sitting at my computer, looking over the county’s interactive map, I motioned for Bailey to come have a look. “This property would be perfect,” I said, pointing to a twenty-acre parcel on the map.
It was the owner of that very parcel that had responded to our letter. Actually, it was a woman with whom he lived, calling to inform us that he was out of town, but would be getting in touch with us upon returning. It was less than a week later that we were able to first speak with the property owner. As a result of another “lightning rod” we had erected, we were staying in a cozy vacation rental, free of charge. We became acquainted with the rental’s owner while visiting a friend who had recently purchased a parcel of land nearby to the one we were interested in. The fact of his purchase, I learned from a conversation with another acquaintance that had recently moved to the area. Upon recommending that we speak with this friend of hers, we learned that he was also a friend of mine, and had recently done the very thing that we were seeking to do, in the same locale nonetheless. We first visited this friend’s property while he was working on a project with his friend. Learning that we were often in the area, that friend offered us his vacation rental, as often as it was available.
That was where we found ourselves the night of our first conversation with the landowner. We were informed that, due to circumstances in his life, he was quite happy to receive our letter. He had recently been considering selling the property and was delighted to have an offer dropped in his lap. His only reluctance was our young age. I tried my best reassure him, making him aware of my real estate broker’s license and probably doing my best to sound mature. Being acquainted with many people of my own age, I can understand his concern. In that first conversation, we discussed some possible terms and identified some actions for each of us to take in the upcoming weeks. He would speak with a financial advisor in order to determine whether he should carry a contract, or take full payment from our lender. I would conduct a comparative market analysis to determine a fair price. The days and weeks that followed were, in storytelling terms, not all that exciting. We, of course, were very excited. I should mention that the day prior to that first conversation, the woman we had initially spoken to, granted us permission to walk the property. We knew from the moment we stepped foot on the place that it was the favorite of all the properties we had seen.
As it turned out, the bulk of my market analysis was conducted purely to confirm the suggestion of a veteran real estate agent in the area. Bailey and I have a habit of stopping at one the local coffee shops each time we are out in the area. It serves not only to satisfy our desire for coffee, but also acts a small step toward establishing ourselves in the community. On the same day that we had seen the property for the first time, we were again drinking coffee at a local café. Having spoken with the owner a number of times before, him being a fellow real estate agent, he approached our table and offered to introduce me to another agent he felt I would benefit from knowing. The man, to whom I was introduced, was gracious enough to listen as I explained our position, and generous enough to offer what guidance he could. The extent of his experience, combined with my delight in the price that he suggested, gave me little reason to want to prove him wrong.
I relayed what I had learned to the property owner the next time we spoke. He took no issue with the price I suggested other than to express concern about the value of the timber on the property. He presented us the option of removing the timber prior to closing, or adding the value of the timber to the price. Later that week I was able to speak with a consulting forester. Like the real estate agent at the coffee shop, he too was generous in offering his guidance. He pulled up a satellite image of our property and offered a rough estimate of the property’s timber value. I again relayed this information to the seller and we agreed to add $8000 to the price. One reason I opted not to have the seller log the property prior to our purchase was that it would leave me free to manage the woods in whatever way I see fit. Additionally, our hope is to be able to harvest some of the timber ourselves, for use in building a home and outbuildings.
Having decided on a price, I went about writing up a purchase and sale agreement. Generally, when a client wants to purchase a home, I simply fill their information into a boilerplate form, adding any details specific to that deal. Not having access to any Washington specific forms, I was left to write the contract myself. Through borrowing and combining language from a number of different forms, adding a bit of my own, and making some changes, I was able to produce a contract that satisfied our needs. I was quite proud of myself in the end. I found myself wondering whether or not I should have gone to law school to become a lawyer. As the seller, being the old school guy he is, did not have access to email, I sent the contract over to his secretary. A day or two later we had an official deal. From there, a simple email was all it took to open escrow and order an appraisal.
The next step for us was to find out what we could about the water situation on the land. Without a potable water source, the value of the land, to us and to the market, would be drastically reduced. In an ideal world, we would have been able to drill a well prior to purchasing the land. Not having the estimated $30,000 for a well, we were left with fewer courses of action. Locating the well logs for a given area is a fairly easy task. While the wells on the surrounding properties are not superb, they are at least present, and contain potable water. The only other action we were able to take was hiring the local dowser. Dowsing, or witching for water is a strange folk method that seems to have been practiced for thousands of years. Opinions as to its efficacy are wide ranging. Given the limited nature of our options, we decided it is at least worth a shot. For $100, an old man resembling popular images of Santa Claus walked the perimeter of our field with a bent metal rod in hand. Holding the rod out in front of him, he would stop each time the rod swung to hit him in the chest. He would then kneel to the ground and hold a straight rod in both hands, letting it sway freely. As I understand it, the number of the times the rod moved back and forth and up and down would give him some indication as the potential depth and flow rate of a well drilled in that location. He decided on what he felt would be the best place to drill and we hammered a stake into the ground. The location he suggested happens to correspond to the place where the seller remembered his father thinking there would be water. While far short of a guarantee, it provides us with some feeling of hope.
The last issue we worked on with the seller was that of easements and access. A four hundred yard dirt road connects the main road to our land. The dirt road passes over two other parcels. Access easements for both were already in place and were made available for our review in the title report. Where the road meets our property line, it turns ninety degrees south and offers access to a forty-acre parcel also owned by the seller. Knowing that we would want to improve this road, we set about negotiating the details of a road maintenance agreement, as well as how we would share the cost of improvements. Like the purchase contract, I wrote the road maintenance agreement myself. Once the bulk of the wording was in place, I sent it off to a local attorney for review. He formatted the document, made a few changes, and sent it off to our title agent for recording. In the end, the seller agreed to pay for $8000 of the estimated $10,000 cost of improving the road. The improvements will likely take place sometime this summer.
While all of this was happening, Bailey and I made a number of trips out to the land. Each time, we worked down our checklist, doing our best to discover any potential problems. I studied maps of the area to ensure that there were no airports, quarries, landfills, or other such nuisances nearby. We met as many of the neighbors as we could. Additionally, we were able to experience the land during the worst weather of the year; from early in autumn, when the land was at its driest, to late in the winter, when it was covered in snow, and later at its wettest. One thing that we did not do, that I would recommend, it send soil samples in for testing. We had no reason to believe that the soil was in any way contaminated, thus it didn’t weigh heavily on us as a priority. Another neglected task was staying a night on the land. We had planned on doing this, but it ended up not working out.
A couple of weeks later, we got the results of the appraisal. The property was valued at six thousand dollars over the price we were prepared to pay. This was good news to us and to our lender. The final thing required by our lender was approval from the county for installation of a septic system. Needing to know where to start in satisfying this requirement, we paid a visit to the county health department. Upon first entering the building, the unlocked door was the only sign that the place was even open. There was not a single person in sight. A small sign led us up the stairs to our destination, still no one to be seen. As we entered the room, making our way toward the reception desk, a woman came rolling around the corner in her office chair.
“What can I do for you?”
“We need to talk to someone about a septic system.”
Only a moment later we were told to go around the corner and through another door. There we found the local health officer at his desk, a young man in his late twenties or early thirties. I tell this story only to contrast it with the experience I have had many times at the county offices in Portland. Getting anything there requires a trip to a busy office and generally a thirty-minute wait. Thus, as I sat and spoke with the man at the health department, I felt a little giddy.
That initial feeling returned on the day we met him and the excavator out at the property. As they were well acquainted, having worked together many times, the whole process felt extremely relaxed. After the excavator had dug a hole, the officer would jump down into it. A visual inspection and a few smacks with a hammer were enough to satisfy him. Back into the hole went the soil, and we moved on to the next one. This process was repeated four times. All the while, the two men talked of unrelated local matters and made jokes. This also served as my opportunity to get a look at the soil for the first time.
With all of the pieces in place, we made an appointment to sign all the documents at the title office. The feeling of that day is reminiscent of our wedding day, most of the excitement overlaid by a thick layer of surrealism. After signing the papers, we made the fifteen-minute drive from town out to the land. As expected, it was just as it had been the time before. But, like getting married, there was a fundamental change in our relationship to that land. Even now, having spent a number of nights camping there, we are getting used to a type of relationship we have never before experienced.
As I stand at the high point of our field, it is thrilling to consider the prospect of making that place our home. Much stands between that reality and us. Like the purchase process, we will learn as we go, doing our best to be patient, seeking to enjoy every step we take along the way.
I’m sure I have left out many details of this process. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.
The following is the third part of an ongoing story. Part one can be found HERE. Part two can be found HERE.
Professional skateboarder Ed Templeton, having heard his friends talk of getting high on “grass”, once smoked grass clippings from his backyard. I remember reading this story in a skateboarding magazine. I was in middle school at the time. In that interview, Templeton talks of the reasons for his success in skateboarding. He tells of how, in high school, while his friends focused their attention on girls, he stuck with skateboarding. While I am only a moderately good skateboarder, I took a similar approach in high school. I was able to foresee the eventual parting of ways that would take place with any girl I spent a significant amount of time with. Thus, while many of my friends spent time with their girlfriends, I was skateboarding.
Searching for a piece of land involves similar emotional turmoil to what one might experience in dating. In getting married, Bailey and I opted not to wait until we had our proverbial “ducks” in a row. It’s a good thing, as our “ducks” have proven difficult to line up. The nature of purchasing land did not afford us this option. Minimum down payments, credit scores, and loan pre-approval were just a few of the ducks that had to be in a row before we could make the leap into land ownership. Despite this, like a hormonal teenager, we began looking at land well before we were ready to make a purchase. Many of our days were spent driving around in the area where we wanted to buy. By way of our ramblings, we found the confidence we would need to make the daunting decisions that lay ahead.
With one important distinction, this is the approach I recommend. The distinction is between looking AT land and looking FOR land. The difference lies in the extent to which the emotions get involved. Prior to being ready to make an offer, one should only be looking AT land. By this I mean, assume that any land you look at will not be available once you are ready. This goes even for land that’s been on the market for nine years. I speak from experience.
While magazines constituted the majority of my reading in middle and high school, my reading list today looks much different. One of the themes in my recent reading is that of goal setting. Those authors that advocate for goal setting seem to agree that goals should be as specific as possible. “Live on land” was the extent of our goal at the beginning. As we had very little income, “buy land” didn’t even occur to us as an achievable goal. If we were going to own land, we thought, someone was going to have to give it to us.
Having started down the financial road that would lead us to land ownership, we set about adding some specificity to our goal. It was a fairly logical process. Some things we knew from the outset, having some understanding of what makes a good place to live. For example, we knew that we definitely didn’t want to live on a north-facing slope, in a floodplain, or on a soilless expanse of rock. The first question to which we lacked an answer was, “where?” Bailey and I were lucky enough to grow up in the Pacific Northwest. Both our parents live in the homes in which we grew up. We agreed that we didn’t want to move more than two hours away from our families. I sometimes envy those who live far away from their families for the freedom they feel to make home wherever they like. While this is a freedom to which we are entitled, it is not one of which we take advantage. The second constraint was, as I explained, our limited budget. As Bailey’s parents live within the metropolitan area, this limited us to the outer reaches of the radius we had drawn.
Our desire to live on land grew out of a discontent with certain aspects of our current living situation. I write this from our living room, just steps from an extremely busy street. Most nights we are lulled to sleep by the drunken people at the bar next-door, unaware of the volume at which they’re speaking. The sound of garbage trucks and car alarms obscures the singing of birds in the morning. Each weekend, hundreds of people wait in a long line for biscuits, some opting to use our driveway as a place to discard their trash.
Despite feeling like a misanthrope at times, there are things we like about living here. Walking a mere seven blocks brings us to our small grocery store where we can buy the special foods to which we’ve grown accustomed. Most things we need are within walking distance; good food, coffee, parks, and social events. Work is a fifteen-minute bike ride away. Living in the city provides us with a myriad of opportunities to make money.
As the negative aspects of city living nudged us toward the country, the positive pointed us in the right direction. Coincidentally, it was alliteration of factors that enabled us to make up our minds: friends, food, and finances. Having decided not to move far from our families, we were assured that our friends would remain nearby. The hope of new friends attracted us to places inhabited by folks who shared our interests and values. These folks would also be the key to satisfying our other criteria. The presence of like-minded people meant access to good food as well as a potential market for our services. Like us, some of the people, who live in the small towns around which we focused our search, value health, fitness, food, and being outside.
Other factors in our decision making process were beyond our control. Our budget practically guaranteed that we would not end up with prime agricultural land, an epic view, or hundreds of acres.
I can remember my first day of kindergarten. Kyle and I took apart a typewriter, and I met my first school crush. Being afraid of talking to the girl I had a crush on, and knowing next to nothing about girls, physical appearance was the only thing I had to go on. By the time I met Bailey, I had developed a much better framework for what I wanted in a partner. The process was much the same with land. As we wandered about the countryside, we gained an increasing familiarity with the qualities that we were drawn to in a parcel. Additionally, we became well acquainted with the region and some of its idiosyncrasies.
Alongside training our intuition in this way, I turned to books. Through reading, I put together a checklist that would serve as a way of evaluating a piece of land. Pairing the instinctive with the practical is a reflection of Bailey and my relationship, and served us well in achieving our goal.
Turning onto the road that led out of town, we were always careful to note the time so that we could calculate how far we’d be driving, should we decide to make our destination home. The elapsed time constituted the first item on our checklist. Anything over twenty minutes tended to instill some hesitation within us. As we approached each property, my mind would continue down the list to item number two, access. Our search for one property took us through two miles of knee-deep mud. It was all I could do to keep breathing until we finally reached gravel. Another property took us down a long dirt road; our car straddling foot-deep ruts most of the way. These, we promptly eliminated from consideration. The rest of the checklist I address in the next portion of this story. I’ll suffice it to say that if a property seemed to satisfy the checklist, I would turn to Bailey, relying on her intuition to guide us further. We joke that Bailey is the CEO in our relationship. While the responsibility of due diligence rested with me, the real estate professional, she held the power of veto.
Undeveloped land is a relatively slow moving market. Thus, we quickly exhausted the on-market possibilities in our price range. Upon receiving preapproval from our lender, there was only one property on the market that fit the bill. We immediately contacted the listing agent. As the property had been on the market for seven years, the swiftness of our actions was primarily a result of our eagerness. Two days into working on our purchase offer, the agent informed me that another offer had been submitted. He assured me that our offer would be considered provided he received it by the morning. Three hours later, that same evening, we learned that the offer had been accepted. Thus, our submission became a backup offer. What ensued was the emotional turmoil I mentioned earlier. The next few days found us agonizing over a number of other properties that would require serious compromise. We eventually decided on the route that I recommend to anyone, that of patience. By that I do not mean mere waiting. Instead of compromising, we began to explore more unconventional means of achieving our goal.
Our next day off found us walking around town; posting “Land Wanted” flyers anywhere we could find a bulletin board. We continued with a practice we had begun earlier in our search, telling everyone we talked to that we were in the market for land. We posted ads on craigslist, and on the local Internet forums. I emailed over a dozen local real estate agents, informing them of our desire and requesting they keep us updated. Lastly, we spent an afternoon hand writing letters to landowners, asking if they were interested in selling. This tactic, a last resort for us, was one I had come across in my reading. In years past, the name and address of a landowner could be found in the county records. Today, many counties have online interactive mapping software that allows one to access this information easily. A simple click on any given property reveals its size, zoning, surveys, as well as its owner and their address. We mailed out a first round of six letters. That was the only round of letters we sent. Four of the six letters solicited replies. One of those replies resulted in the last part of this story, of which I will tell in part four.
Read part four HERE.
Bailey Patrice & Jonathan David