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.
Bailey Patrice & Jonathan David