Property purchase guide: what to look for when buying land?

While attending a workshop recently, I ran into a man with a property for sale. Its location was perfect: 30km from the capital, but not so distant that useful city services would be unavailable, decent topography and a welcoming ambiance. I thought to myself, if I didn’t already own some land I would be definitely considering this location as a potential property, providing, of course, I had the budget to afford it!

I’d be willing to bet that, even if you don’t already own some land, you’re currently saving up for it and looking for that perfect location. Just dreaming of the day you purchase a plot of land, convert it into a permaculture paradise and live there happily ever after.

Well, the biggest challenge with finding the perfect property is your initial decision regarding where you wish to put down roots. Joel Salatin would say:

“Bloom where you’re planted.” Farm where you have relationships and a reputation. It’s a lot easier getting started in a community that knows you.

Joel Salatin

..but deciding where to move is only the beginning…

Once you have a general idea of the desired region, you’ll need to find land that is both affordable and also appropriate for whatever you plan to do with it.

When considering all the possible choices, you’ll need to assess the potential worth of the site so you don’t end up with something you’ll later come to strongly regret. You really don’t want to make your life harder than it has to be!

Luckily, there is a method to all this, and once you are familiar with the process involved, it will subsequently become easier to begin your search.

Finding your perfect property

Finding the perfect piece of land can be rather expensive; nonetheless, once you have it, you’re setting a solid foundation for your future success.

I would say that all land has potential, but your final choice depends on your personal situation and your resources. Although I am here suggesting a specific hierarchy of what is important to look for when on your hunt, your situation may differ, that’s why we should always start with goals in mind.

Set clear goals

goals

When searching for land always start with your goals, as you want to be clear on your personal desires and the use to which you will put your property. Your criteria are going to be different if you are planning to generate income from farming or establishing a demonstration site and education centre and your potential locations may also be limited by a desire to remain in proximity to family and social groups.

Once you have a general idea on what you want, be even more specific and outline precisely the purpose for which it is to be used. For example, if your goal is to make a living from farming then be clear on what type of farming – is it market gardening, agroforestry or a permaculture orchard style of operation? Each of these activities is best supported by specific types of land, that’s why you need to set and develop clear goals and only then select the land that meets them.

You must be guided by your goals but also be realistic about what’s possible within your budget and consider both the short- and long-term ramifications of this investment.

Eventually, this goal articulation will generate a list of criteria that will guide you toward the most appropriate and economically viable sites.

With your goals now set, let’s move through the scale of important factors to consider before deciding to purchase.

Consider the influence of climate first

outback

First of all, be aware the climate in which you want to be. The climate will be the biggest influence on your land and your desired activities. One of the best examples is the plant hardiness zone that will determine what you can grow, period – there is no way around it.

Here you want to find out all you can about the climate: spring, summer, autumn, winter. Can you and your crops cope with these conditions? Can you, your family and your farm withstand the cold during winter or the extreme summer heat? For some, these aspects are deal breakers.

What about precipitation, wind and solar access through the year? You need to take all of this into account even before even considering looking for land in any specific part of the world/region.

Of course, most of us already know what climate we need and are capable of living in. Therefore, it simply becomes a matter of understanding that climate, its weather patterns, the risk of severe weather etc. and using that knowledge to better assess the property’s potential.

Narrow down your search to a region

population

After understanding your climate, narrow down your search to a region in which you would like to be located. Whatever you’ll be doing, you’ll need proximity to markets and social groups and, if you don’t want to end up with cabin fever, you’ll want to find a supportive community.

Be guided by the factors that you outlined your initial goals: your markets, family, other activities and make a largish circle of your favored region. Now look at the towns that are within your circle and find out about more about the demographics and culture of people living there. Think about how you would fit into that community.

Next, check what kind of amenities these towns can offer and the availability of services. Also, remember to check out their zoning and regulations. You don’t want to buy somewhere where you have to fight the local council for permission to build. Many people buy the land and then find that there are restrictions, zoning and/or other barriers inhibiting its subsequent development.

The location of the land and its relationship to both town services and the community affects its potential as much as the natural characteristics of the land, that’s why you want to check these factors before deciding on your community.

Now, when you have a pretty good idea of the population centre you want to gravitate towards, you can start searching for land within its vicinity: determine a radius for the furthest you’re willing to live from its centre and start searching in that area.

Site-specific criteria

Ok, so now you’ve started to search prospective properties in your preferred area/region, let’s move to a set of site-specific criteria for your desired location. However, first you’ll have to be clear on one essential thing…

Bare land or a pre-built house?

Photo Credit: Geoff Lawton Online
Photo Credit: Geoff Lawton Online

Before you do anything further, you need to decide whether you want to buy bare land or one with already pre-built house. A pre-built house could be an advantage but there is a good chance that it may not be located in an ideal position and not built to conserve energy.

For example, in preference, most people build their houses on the top of the hill for the panoramic view; however, this placement is expensive in energy terms – high up a hill often means a long trek to get there, water needs to pumped up and hilltops experience exposure to the wind. Moreover, in most cases, the amount of money you pay for that kind of house and the quality you get are disproportionate. So, it is significantly cheaper to purchase land without existing house.

On the other hand, if you decide to buy bare land, you should be wary of being attracted to cheaper degraded land. Unfortunately, there is a lot of this kind of land and it’s cheap to buy, making it a particular temptation to permaculturalists who badly want to practice their restoration skills.

The truth is restoration takes time, and can sometimes be a decade-long process of very laborious work. Poor quality land, until restored, will be reflected in low and poor quality crops. Unless you’re attracted to the opportunity of restoring the land to fertility, it can be very difficult to set up a viable farm in the short-term, and may prove too much of a challenge for many novice permaculturalists.

Is your site safe from flooding and wildfire?

flood

Upon arriving at your potential site, the first thing I would be looking for is the potential risk from natural and manmade disasters. This is the climate of the site, so to speak.

Do not underestimate the importance of these factors, even if, say, the flooding is not that severe, with the increasing extremes of climate, the consequences of severe weather events are becoming increasingly commonplace. It takes just one widespread fire or flood to wipe clean the years of labor you’ve invested.

First look at the neighborhood, are there nuclear plants around, mining operations or toxic dumps, you should certainly strongly consider steering clear!

Second, analyze the prospective site for its 100-year flood potential and read up on past floods in the area. If the site is near the coast, think about the potential for tsunamis. In addition, fire is a significant hazard and you want to make sure your site is not in a zone where fires are commonplace, ask the owner about any recent fires and look for the traces of recent burns on the vegetation.

Water

creek

If you’re planning on growing anything, water is always the primary necessity. Its availability should be a key consideration in your decision to purchase. A reliable water source is mandatory.

First, look at the size of the watershed, as you want to make sure that your piece of land captures the most water possible. For example, David Holmgren’s property, Melliodora, is two acres in size but its watershed is 50ha, you can bet there is plenty of water in his two dams all year round, even in the driest years.

Next, look for water sources on the property itself. What types of water sources can you identify, are there any rivers, creeks, lakes, dams/ponds, what about groundwater? Ok, so if there are water sources, are they reliable? Having a water source and its level of reliability are two different things.

Finally, look at the potential for water harvest storage on the property. Ideally, you want to harvest and store your water high in the landscape to maximize its potential for rehydration. Think about where you would position everything water-related, and whether you can identify sites for tanks, swales and dams or ponds.

Slope and aspect

elevation-change

Slopes in the land are beneficial, and as we’ve already touched on when discussing water, having a slope gives you the opportunity to store water high in the landscape to allow gravity to reticulate it further down rather than expending energy and needing to pump.

However, if your slopes are over 20 degrees you’ll have limited options for utilization and it will be very difficult to put in productive systems without a lot of expensive earthworks. Steep slopes like these are best left to regrow as a forest.

In contrast, flat land can be really productive, but without any slope at all they can become subject to strong winds and flooding. Most importantly, they simply don’t have any potential for gravity-fed irrigation.

You want also to look at the orientation of slopes, this aspect is very important to consider and it needs to be favorable in relation to the location’s climate.

In most cases, you’ll want end up with a south-facing slope (northern hemisphere) or north-facing slope (southern hemisphere). West-facing slopes are the second best choice in case you can’t get the south facing one. You’ll simply want to maximize your sunlight exposure unless you’re in very dry arid conditions.

Access

road

Access to the property is another of the most important features. The first thing you’ll need to think about is the ease of access to the property and the distance from the main road to the house site. If this access road is too long, it will simply mean additional costs in time and money, especially when you consider the cost of installing and maintaining such a long road.

Access is of particular importance because it’s multifunctional as it can be designed to harvest water, thus adding more efficiency to the system. You can link the access road to systems that harvest that water and run it into swales, eventually ending up in the dams/ponds.

If the access already in place you can make a judgment as to whether it is beneficial to your design. Ideally, it should be on the contour or along the ridgeline with a small gradient, so the water runs off it slowly. This will also ensure low maintenance costs.

At this stage, you’ll also want to consider access to the utilities you desire. These may include telephone (fixed, cellular, internet), propane/LPG, electricity…If these amenities are not already there, find out how much will it cost to introduce them.

Soil and vegetation cover

forest

The last aspect to consider is soil and vegetation cover. However, while soil is certainly important, I have placed it last (but not least!) as it can easily be influenced.

When you think about the other aspects described above, to make an impact on them you’ll really need to put in some energy. Soil is different as we can build soil quickly using permaculture methods. In this, we have many options to choose from, such as keyline plowing, compost tea, cover cropping, to name just a few, that will boost the fertility of the soil rather quickly, but…and this is an important but!

You should not underestimate the value of good indigenous soil. If your primary goal is to quickly realize an income from your farming activities, then why not make your life easier and try finding soil that will enable you to grow with less effort, amendment and water. Finding land with good fertile soils is a favorable option for those wishing to start generating a profit within a short time-frame.

In addition, the vegetation cover can tell you a lot about the soil itself and what can be easily grown on your site. With the vegetation cover, you want to see what you have on the land in relation to the size of the whole property – pastures, forests, weedy areas…Basically, you want to have an idea about existing vegetation types and their potential.

In conclusion

To sum up, if you are thinking of buying farmland be sure to begin by identifying your goals and be specific on what you’re trying to achieve. Once you have your goals set, the whole process will be easier. You’ll be clear on what climate you want to be in, which region is best suited to your personal preferences and what your future site should contain.

Later, when you start searching throughout the region for the potential sites, be sure to go through the process of first identifying the hazards, then water, slope & aspect, access, soil and vegetation. Moreover, be sure that you go to the trouble of visiting the potential property on multiple occasions – do not think that a single visit will be enough. If it’s a good property you’ll grow more excited each time you’re there.

So, how is your land search going? Any luck with finding the right land? Let me know what you think in the comments!

William writes at Permaculture Apprentice about how to make a transition to permaculture lifestyle and start a permaculture farm. He shares proven models and strategies from people who already have successful permaculture farms and also documents his own experience of starting out.

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