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5 Tips to Avoid Buying Bad Property

A small house in the countryside

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We bought property during the pandemic, but it wasn’t an impulse buy. We weren’t suddenly trying to escape from the confines of society in a mad dash to find fresh breezes and room to stretch.

We’d been on our search for several years.

We had finally decided against building in the forested areas (too many wildfires) and agreed to buy property on the plains just over an hour’s drive from the closest big city and about the same hour or so from my job.

If anything, we were even more driven than before due to my successful completion of chemotherapy and the realization that we needed to stop putting our dreams on hold and start enjoying our lives together. Like, really enjoying ourselves.

And for us, that means stretches of blue sky, pastel sunsets, the sound of birds instead of sirens, and fresh soil bursting with the food we grow for our family.

So when we stumbled upon 70 acres of rolling farmland with mountain views on a well-maintained county road, we were hooked. We found the property during the summer, and by autumn, it was ours.

We spent the winter dreaming about what we would build: a home, a barn, a Walipini-style greenhouse, and acres and acres of native grasses that would attract wildlife, control erosion, and restore the area’s natural beauty.

A potted tomato plant

But then we met our first neighbor, and our excitement started to dwindle. They let us know that their well water was undrinkable. We would need to filter our household water and acidify the water for the garden. Not exactly what we had hoped for, but it was manageable, so we put in for our water well permit (and rain catchment permit) and started collecting bids from well-drilling companies.

Next was our perc test. The test came back showing that our soil had high levels of clay and absorbed water instead of letting it drain through. That meant we would need to install an engineered septic system (to the tune of more money) instead of having a simple, gravity-fed system.

And finally, the soil test for our house came back as our biggest disappointment. Our foundation would need to be supported by caissons—not because we were on a hillside or had a high water table, but because the soil expands and contracts too much, so it can’t support a house without the extra stabilization.


Each of these—the lousy well water, perc test, and soil test—were a surprise to us. But you don’t need to end up with the same surprises after you purchase your dream property. Read on to discover five things to look out for before signing a purchase agreement. (You might be able to add water and soil tests in your contract as contingencies, but expect to foot the bill for testing since the seller isn’t obligated to pay.)

Well water

If the property you are interested in already has a well, ask to have the water tested. You may be able to take a sample to a local well company or county extension office for lost-cost testing to make sure the water is safe to drink and use for household purposes.

If the property doesn’t have a well yet, try talking to your neighbors. Ask them if they’ve had any issues with the water, if they need a whole-house filtration system, and what aquifer they’re on.

You can also check your state’s water quality division to see how deep the water wells are in your area, so you’ll know how deep yours will need to go, too. (The deeper the well, the higher the drilling costs.)

Septic perc test

This one’s a little trickier unless the property you want to buy already has a septic system. Again, talking to your neighbors is a good way to gather opinions, but checking with the county to see if the septic systems in your area require engineering is a safer bet. If you don’t want the extra expense of an engineered system, it’s better to find out before you’ve signed on the dotted line.

Soil test (core drill)

Some counties require a core sample before they will grant a building permit. Check with your county, then find out if you’re going to need engineered plans for your home. You can ask your neighbors, but we learned that not all soil is created equal, and just because properties are nearby does not mean they share the same type of soil.

Our soil contains more clay and is more expansive than our neighbors’. We’re also just slightly uphill from them, so our increase in elevation might be part of the reason for the difference. They were able to plunk their house down on a standard foundation, while we were required to have an engineered foundation with caissons to keep our home steady on the expansive soil.

Zoning requirements

Although this might sound obvious, check your zoning requirements before purchasing your land. Some of the counties we looked at would only allow site-built homes (no modular or manufactured) and had stricter regulations than an HOA—even though there were no HOAs in the area.

Other counties have more of a you-do-you attitude and allow homeowners to build anything from an Earthship to a ranch with multiple dwellings. Make sure the property you’re interested in meets your needs.

If you want a property with agricultural zoning to raise livestock and grow food for the table, make sure you understand what is required to keep the property in agricultural status (which usually means lower taxes, too). Just owning a horse or a few chickens won’t do the trick.

You will generally be required to raise food or fiber for profit—or own a large enough acreage to keep the status simply due to size. Another option is to register as a farm with the FSA (the USDA Farm Service Agency) and get involved with the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The NRCS can help you conserve your soil, apply for federal grants, and possibly receive funding by signing up for a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Property taxes

We found some beautiful, rolling farmland closer to town than the property we eventually settled on. What made the difference? Several thousand dollars a year in taxes! Check your county and find out what the taxes are for agricultural land, residential property, and vacant land (which sometimes has a considerably higher tax rate than either of the previously mentioned types).


For more information on how to buy land without buying a lemon, check out these helpful reference books.

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