Considerations for Buying Rural Property in California

For many, a dream in the back of our minds is owning a rural property. Some of us may want to escape the suburbs or city and find a peaceful place to go and escape noise, stress, and pollution. Others may dream of starting or taking over an existing farm with the goal of earning an honest living from the land. While some may just want to find an affordable place to live and raise a family or own pets. Whatever your reason is, let me tell you, identifying and buying a rural property or a rural homestead is in many ways far more complex than you can ever imagine, certainly more so than buying a traditional home or condo. That said, my intent in writing this rather long-winded article is not to scare anyone away from living out their dream in the country, rather it’s more an attempt to ensure you go in with your eyes wide open and that you’re ultimately happy with your choice.

In my case I grew up on the edge of the suburbs at the intersection of farmlands and suburban sprawl west of Chicago, Illinois. After attending college in Colorado, I eventually moved out to California and have lived in an area they call the “Peninsula”, south of San Francisco, for almost thirty years now. As it was during my childhood, our home here is located in a transition area right on the edge of a rural, and in this case heavily forested land of the Santa Cruz mountains, sandwiched by Silicon Valley on one end and San Francisco on the other. Although we certainly are not living in the city or traditional suburbs, I have felt this pull towards the country, wanting to be farther out, have a little more space, and be less a part of the consumer-driven life of the city and suburbs.

After slogging away for much of my professional career at various high tech companies in Silicon valley, chained to a cubicle, computer, and phone, I just couldn’t take it anymore. My body was atrophied, my mind over-stressed, and my appetite for technology and making a corporate salary was gone. I needed out! Adding to all of this was the fact that my wife was still immersed in the corporate world and we had a young son who needed to be dropped off and picked up from school, soccer & little league games, friends, etc… Life was crazy, and we only had one kid! To make a long story short, I was convinced that I needed to quit the corporate world, become Mr. Mom and that our small family needed a simple place outside the buzz of silicon valley where we could decompress, spend time together as a family, teach our son life lessons on nature and self-sufficiency without distractions from cell phones, the internet, and suburban consumerism.

After many heated conversations, I was finally able to convince my wife that putting together a portion of our collected resources and buying a piece of rural land was a great idea; although I’m not sure my wife’s vision of “rural” was quite aligned with mine, she probably was thinking more like a rural beach house, or something at least a little closer to town. In any case, with our visions not completely in sync and our intent and strategy still a little cloudy, we agreed to try and find a rural property that we could afford and agreed on a basic area to search. Since this article is intended to outline the considerations one should make before jumping into purchasing a rural property, I’ll just say we did successfully purchase a piece of rural land and that there are many things I wish we would have thought about and researched more before we did. So, in the spirit of helping others, here’s a decision tree of considerations, that I wish we would have better used to consider before purchasing a rural property. I hope you find it useful.

Before you even start –

  • Intent – What’s the motivation and intent of purchasing this land?
  • Lifestyle – What are the family and lifestyle implications of making this move?
  • Profile – What land & climate profile do you require?
  • Acreage – How much land do you really require?
  • Skillset – What type of domestic and rural skills do you have?
  • Budget – What is your budget not only for the purchase, but for maintenance and upgrades to the property?
  • Searching – How will you search for a property and what type of realtor should you work with?

Once You’ve Identified a Property –

  • Zoning – What is the zoning on the property and is it compatible with your intent?
  • Water – What is the source of water on this property?
  • Energy – What is, or will be, the source of electricity & heating/cooking energy?
  • Septic – Is there an existing septic system, if so what are the details? If not, has there been a percolation test done and will it support your needs?
  • Communication – Are there phone or cable lines on the property? If not, what type of phone & internet options are there available in this location?
  • Access Routes – Private/Public? Cost to maintain? Does it support your intent?
  • Distance from Town – How far is it to the closest grocery store, hardware store, garbage dump, hospital, etc…? Multiply the time it takes to get there by 2X, as you’ll need to get there, and back.
  • Insurance – Is the area prone to natural disasters and if so, what are the insurance implications?
  • Neighbors – Who are your neighbors? How is their land used? What’s their reputation/status in the community?
  • Easements & Designations – Are there any easements on or getting to the property that will have implications with your intent? Are there any designations, such as the “Williamson Act” or another conservancy designation that will restrict your abilities to use the land as you desire?
  • Environmental Restrictions – Are there any state or federal environmental restrictions associated with the property that could impact your intent?
  • Existing Buildings – What’s the condition and build quality of existing buildings on the property? Do they need substantial work, or will you need to build additional structures to support your intent?

Some Additional Considerations for Budgeting and Final Decision Making –

  • Income Opportunities – Is there immediate income generating opportunities associated with the property? If not, and you plan or need to generate income from the property, how much will it cost you to get to a point of actually making money?
  • Ownership Options – Getting a loan on a rural property, let alone one without structures and improvements is very tough and may be impossible, so what’s your financing and ownership plan?
  • Maintenance & Improvement Budget – Owning a big piece of rural property can be very expensive to maintain, let alone improve. Just maintaining a large game fence can cost many thousands/year. What’s your realistic budget and can you afford to support not only your intent but unforeseen maintenance issues?
  • Property Taxes – How much are they?
  • Hired Help – Where will you find hired help and how much will it cost? You’ll definitely need it.
  • Special Equipment Requirements – You’ll almost certainly need a pick-up truck and some type of work vehicle to help maintain the property, e.g. mowing, road maintenance, etc… In some cases, you’ll need a lot more, e.g. tractor(s), attachments, backhoe, etc… What will you need in the way of dedicated equipment to support your intent and how much will it cost?

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