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January 8, 2010

So, You Want To Buy A Farm

Being able to look out your back window and see your horses contentedly grazing is one of the main motivations for buying a farm. Photo by Tina Karlen.

Be sure to know exactly what you want—and where you’re willing to compromise.

The dream of bringing your horses home—being able to glance out your kitchen window, coffee cup in hand, and see your horses contentedly munching grass on your own property—all starts with a farm search.

Looking for a property to house you and your horses multiplies all the house-searching frustrations exponentially. Not only do you have to consider the livability and style of the house for the human inhabitants, but you also have to assess the viability of the land and buildings for the equine members of the family as well.

Here are five real-life stories of finding the perfect (or as close as you can get) farm.

From The Ground Up

Debby Jenkins searched for less than six months to find the open land she wanted.

“I wanted vacant land so I could put up exactly what I wanted. The places I looked at with existing barns needed too much reworking,” she said.

Jenkins, who performs administrative work from home, bought 5 acres with a house and shed just outside Crown Point, Ind., surrounded by soybean fields. She keeps one or two horses on the property.

To make it suit her needs exactly, Jenkins, who rides dressage, added a two-stall barn with tack and feed rooms, an attached indoor ring and fenced-in paddocks. “I had to apply for two variances for the indoor arena—both
for height and square footage. This required a zoning board hearing where the community was allowed to protest. It made for some nervous moments until I got the variances passed,” she said.

Her first priority in shopping was the land. “I was looking for nice, flat land to build on and that it was zoned for horses. The second thing that sold me on this property was the house. It was in very nice condition. It helped that it was close to town and the highway but still surrounded by other small acreages.”

The sale of her house in the city funded Jenkins’ new home and barn. She would have preferred land with an existing house in move-in condition, but major house renovations would have stretched her budget too far. “With my experience I’d say go for the vacant land if the budget can handle building to suit,” she said.

She waited seven months from the sale of her original home to the arrival of her horses on her new property.
But for Jenkins, it was more than worth the wait.

“It’s priceless knowing when they are happy and healthy, or when they are not quite right—not having to hear it secondhand from a barn owner or barn manager at a boarding barn. And the best thing about it is going out for night check in my jammies and sitting in the aisle, barn cat on lap, listening to horses munching hay,” she said.

A Kentucky Log Home

Larke Marvin looked for two years before she and her husband found just the right property. They then had to wait nine months for their former house to sell before they could buy the 10 acres they’d found in a small suburb of Lexington, Ky.

Their new property includes a log home, four-stall barn, run-in shed, large tobacco barn for storage, three pastures, a fenced grass arena and a spring and creek. They keep four horses for trail riding and pet goats there.

“Everything we looked at before this one, we either liked the barn and pastures or the house but never both. This came the closest to meeting all of our ‘wants.’ We looked at both open land and established properties but really wanted something already fenced and with a shelter to keep costs down,” she said. “We love it there, and it’s a dream come true!”

Marvin’s other priorities included a house that required minimal renovation and good areas to ride. “In our area, there are a lot of steep hills and rocks. We wanted flat and/or rolling pastures,” she said.

For her, the house was secondary to the horse facilities. “However we’ve always dreamed of having a log home, and that is what we bought,” she said.

Marvin, a quality analyst for a financial shared services company, experienced a surprise common to first-time farm owners: the cost of accessorizing. “Our farm came with a tractor, but we could use an even bigger one. Now we need a manure spreader and an all-terrain vehicle as well for chores. And we’ve bought literally tons of gravel and still need more. Plus, there’s the expense of gas to run all the random things we need for mowing and up-keep,” she said.

They also ran into a hurdle in the closing process. “Our appraisal wasn’t near as high as we’d hoped. The appraiser didn’t place as high a value as we did on a newer barn and fencing, the outbuildings, water and electric in the barn, etc. Also it was hard to find comparative home values for log homes,” Marvin said.

It’s All About The Land

Heather Richards searched for 11⁄2 years to find a property that would work for her and her husband, as well as their two horses.

“I’ve looked at more properties than I want to count. I probably set foot on 30 to 40 properties,” she said.
They currently are in the process of closing on a 10-acre farm in Culpeper, Va., with a four-stall barn and riding ring where Richards can enjoy her love of dressage.

“We had an idea of the kind of topography we wanted, more than anything. You can’t change the land—you can change everything else. It needed to be open and have a high percentage of usable land, and it needed to be easily fenced if it didn’t already have fencing. It was our preference to have an established property. The more we looked, the more we considered the possibility of buying just a house on some land and building our own barn. It’s expensive to do it that way, and that’s why we weren’t that excited at the prospect.”

She ended up finding a place with all the basic structures, which allows her to fix things up as she chooses and to take on one project at a time.

Richards, director of land conservation at the Piedmont Environmental Council, has unfortunately been through the contract process of buying a farm before. A property she found earlier in the year appraised much lower than the contracted price, so the deal fell through.

“Not getting the first house we had a contract on was hard. We put $1,500 into that, with the appraisal and inspection and everything. You expect to do that once, but I wasn’t thinking we’d have to do it twice,” she said.

And finding financing can be tricky when you’re purchasing a large tract of land. “We ended up buying a bigger house than we really need, because getting lenders to approve a bigger piece of land with a smaller, not-so-nice house, is really hard,” she added. “The new appraisal requirements for lenders are extremely strict. We’re lucky that we could go with a local bank that understands small farm properties and doesn’t sell their mortgages.”

Doing It Long Distance

Tina Karlen looked for two months before buying her farm in the spring of 2004. “I was open to all kinds of properties and/or layouts as long as it could accommodate three horses,” she said.

She ended up with a 10-acre “gentleman’s farm” where she keeps three Quarter Horses. It’s in a deed-restricted equine community of other properties of the same size, with a total of 22 lots, in Citra, Fla.

“It’s surrounded by larger farms, both beef cattle and horse farms. It came with a six-stall center aisle barn with a loft, a four-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style house with a two-car garage and an in-ground pool,” said Karlen, a systems analyst for United Healthcare. “There was no riding ringat the time that we bought it. I did
have a riding ring fenced in after the first year but stayed with grass footing in the ring.”

Karlen, who works from home, was moving from Connecticut to Florida, so buying open land and building her own farm wasn’t an option. “We could not afford to buy open land and maintain our home in Connecticut until the Florida home was completed,” she said.

“In our case, the house was about as important as the barn and land as we needed something to be livable from Day 1,” she said. “But we were willing to buy a house that needed some cosmetic work and had to put on additions anyway for our extended family.”

Karlen’s real estate search was complicated by the fact that she was doing it long distance, so finding the right agent was essential.

Even though she’d been thorough in her search, Karlen was still surprised by a few things in the move-in process. There was a section of barbed-wire fencing that hadn’t been obvious that needed to be removed and replaced with horse-safe fence. And she had to have the barn exterminated and cleaned before she could move her horses in, so she had to board them locally for four days.

Just A Starter Farm

Lauren Davidson looked for four months before she found her horse property in Williamson, N.Y. She bought 8.5 acres with a small house, detached garage and three small sheds. She’s in the process of building a two-stall barn and fencing two pastures for her two event horses.

“The price was dirt cheap because the house needs work. With our price range, we knew we’d be looking at fixer-uppers,” she said. “The layout of the land—6 acres of clear land, backed and sided with 2.5 acres of woods—makes it very private. I wanted to design the farm—barns and paddocks—how I want them, rather than deal with fixing existing buildings.

“One of the pros of building on your own is you can make things how you want it the right way, without the challenges of changing what’s there. Cons are the money involved and the time to design, get permits and build. There is also the cost of boarding while you do all of this,” she added.

Davidson, an IT tech associate, also ran into some problems in the closing process. “Our closing kept getting put off because our property is near the line for two towns, so they kept bumping it back. It was a challenge, as we needed to move out of our rented house within the month of closing,” she said. “We wish the house were
in better shape and the neighbors weren’t so close, but this is just a starter farm for us. We plan to fix the house up and sell it in five or six years and get more land with a bigger barn and more privacy.”

Things To Think About

• Do you want to buy open land and put in your own fencing and build a barn, or do you want to buy an existing farm?

• What can you afford? It’s wise to visit a mortgage professional before you even start looking and find out how much farm you can afford to buy.

• Find a real estate agent who understands horse farms and horse people, especially if stall size matters more to you than bedroom size.

• If you’re buying bare land, is it zoned for farm use or for horses? Getting the proper permits and variances can be time consuming and costly.

• Do some homework before you look at a property. “Knowing what I know now, I would probably be pickier about what I actually went out to look at,” said Heather Richards. “With time, I got a lot better at doing research before I wasted anyone’s time going to see a place. At the beginning, we were going to look at places and knew the minute we drove in that they wouldn’t work. I figured out how to do better research—looking at topographical maps and aerial photographs. Some places, I would even pull county tax assessment records before I would go look at them. You can learn a lot from five minutes on the computer.”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "So, You Want To Buy A Farm" ran in the January 8, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

 
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