Blog: R.E. Tales
Hey, not every place is pretty.
For the last several years, I have seen solar developers fairly regularly, enough of them that I've lost count; there must be at least 20 if not 25 of them who have approached me. And they all seem to want somewhat different things: three phase power, proximity to substations, southern exposure, hidden from view, on main roads, open land, back roads... it's a long list and which of these things are desired varies with each company.
But there are similarities. Here's what most tell me: they identify the property of interest to them, then try to get it locked in on some sort of lease or long term purchase agreement while they do their due diligence. The first year of this process does not require them to be on the land as they are dealing with the power company, local officials and the State, making sure it will fly - from their perspective. Then studies are done about endangered species, historical or archeological sites, all that sort of thing. Then, they survey it. Their upfront behind-the-scenes costs are far greater than the purchase price. Given bureaucratic lethargy, it takes 2-3 years to do all this.
So they offer owners an ascending series of incentives, ones which can be quite attractive. Typically, they use a carrot and stick approach, with huge rewards promised at the end, but only small ones, incrementally larger with the passage of time, before then. The further we go in the process, the greater their commitment to the owner. But they nearly always retain the right to back out in one way or another. I have not seen statistics and as this type of thing is in its infancy in our area, there probably aren't statistics out there yet, but my guess is that most of these contemplated projects will never get completed. But some do and I think that over the next several years we are going to see quite a few more in service. There is too much money out there for that not to happen.
As a landowner, my concerns would first be about the time it takes and whether the reward was great enough to warrent the risk of it not coming to fruition. These may be things we can dicker about. They all offer the terms that appeal most to them, naturally enough, but often seem willing to bend to the demands and requirements of the landowner, especially if they really want the property. Most of them will offer full price, assuming it's a sale the owner hopes for, which would be most often the case in the deals with which I become involved. I am aware that some have offered well above asking price to get the owner's consent. Often they prefer to rent. They will pay highly for this. And make it richly rewarding (on paper at least) for the actual land-owner.
One of my personal caveats in investing is to stick to something you know. If you have only cursory knowledge of a potential investment, you may bet the people on the other side know a whole lot more and you can also bet that they are looking out for #1, and that may or may not include you. Solar developers may not always be huge Wall Street listed firms, but their pockets are far deeper than your own. So is their experience. So if you want advice, who do you go to? One of my clients began looking for attorneys who have expertise in solar and wind development. Guess what they found? There were quite a few, and in nearly every case, they were already employed by solar developers. Your local attorney cannot be expected to be an expert in such cases, though they are gaining experience.
So, say you get past the fat contracts offered by solar developers and are satisfied that the deal makes sense for you and decide to go ahead with it. I am going to interrupt myself for a second: by "fat", I mean it in more than one sense. Their contracts are very involved and take up many pages. They may come in stages too. Lots to read and hopefuly understand. .And they are "fat" in the sense that a lot of money is involved, for you, and for them. OK, got that out of my system. Now back to the regular programming.
I have other concerns. First, as their project would be visible to the public, a public outcry would not come as a surprise. It has happened elsewhere. We all like the idea of free electricity from the sun but do not discount the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) factor. It's real, and it's common. I once had dinner with an environmental writer, who was in favor of all sort of environmentally friendly things and waxed eloquently about them. Then a minute later, he was raving about the possibility of wind towers being raised within the sight line of his home. These guys are your neighbors.
Secondly, there are a lot of these firms out there. Some are going to get swallowed by larger firms. Some will go belly up. It happens in other businesses, so expect it to happen here. In my short time involvement, I have seen this happen. They employ point men, who forge relationships with you. Then maybe he takes another job. There was a firm who employed me to find the right place for their huge project. We all had to sign a document for this. Then, when I found it, they would not even acknowledge my letters. Technology changes rapidly and we don't know where it will lead. What happens if they suddenly become unprofitable? How will you feel if they are raking in gadzillions and you only got a few hundred thousand?
Also political changes are another concern. We can't predict what Congress, State legislatures and local officials will do. In today's political environment, all we can be sure of is neither side wants to cooperate with the other. Where might that leave you?
These solar collectors have expected lifetimes; what happens then? Who is responsible for remediation if that is ever needed? Are they bonded? Is money set aside in escrow for the eventual dismantling of the project? (Probably not.) If they rent from you, you may be getting the big sums they promised, but what happens when the lease is over? Is it all on you if they are no longer in business? Of course if they actually buy your land, all that becomes their problem, not yours. You got a nice lump sum. Yes, you missed out on the big regular payments, but missed most of the worry and potential liability.
Lastly, remember "there is no free lunch". Our country, the world, is pushing us toward renewable energy. And that's good - but don't ignore the cost. Solar farms are not pretty and they change our landscape, interfere with our views. They take land out of production, land that might produce food. Wind farms are less objectionable from an aesthetic standpoint, but they can be seen for many miles. Nationwide, much more power is generated by hydroelectric, which means dams and flooding valleys - places where people could live or food could be produced. The second highest source of electric generation is by coal, the very product we are trying to avoid. The US has the world's greatest deposits of coal, especially so if you include lignin. Are we to abandon this resource? Maybe. Power lines must be built to handle the extra energy flow. They take up space too, crossing formerly private land (which might have once been your own - how do you like that idea?) and they are not exactly things of beauty. There are some nasty chemicals used in the manufacture of solar panels. What about them? When you start thinking, the list grows.
On the long range positive side is the fact that if enough power was harvested from the sun, global warming would necessarily lessen. None of this would matter if the world's human population was far smaller. In my life, it has doubled roughly twice and scientists who study this sort of thing have real worry how we are going to find food enough to feed the even greater number predicted to be around in 2-3 more decades. It makes me wonder what we are doing to our grandchildren.
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Research Potential Locations
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Network With Current Residents
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Connect With Other Remote Workers
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Look for Energy-Efficient Homes
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Using Natural Cleaning Products In Your Home
To create a healthier and more sustainable home, choose environmentally conscious cleaning products over toxic chemicals found in most stores. While it may seem like a small action to take when settling into your new abode, using natural cleaners is an important step towards helping combat global warming, inspiring those around us to do their part as well.
Start Your Own Business as an LLC
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If you're a remote worker ready to relocate due to climate change, we've got your back. Vet potential locations by considering local weather conditions and chatting up current residents for firsthand insights. And when it comes time to find homes, look for energy efficiency so that utility costs won't break the bank. All these results in easy sailing on your journey toward home sweet home.
~~~~~ Larry Waters
Changes in Our Society
For a long while now, I have not been proud of what our generation is leaving to yours. But have wondered if that is not something that generations before me have thought as well. And maybe ones after me will feel the same. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, my own observations are that as they age, folks tend to get more conservative. This is not just in politics, which scientists study, but in the general outlook on life, and that encompasses a whole lot more than politics. It's about change and the rate of change. You can be conservative and liberal at the same time. I tend to be fiscally conservative, socially moderate to liberal, moderate in my clothing, liberal in my eating habits, both liberal and conservative on environmental issues (depending upon what they are: remember there’s a relationship between “conservation” and “conservative”), conservative to moderate in my adoption of technology…. And I feel the word “radical” can apply to both Left and Right.
Our generation was different than those before, and those after. “Different" does not mean “better”, though it could, but I am not using the word that way. Nowadays people like to assign names to generations and assume each one has certain characteristics, which, while overly simplistic, makes it easy to grasp without having to think too deeply. Before our time, that didn’t happen. People my age were rebellious as young adults and took up causes in numbers never seen before: free love and openness about sex, drugs, certain music (folk and rock), weird clothing, Left causes, wide-spread outdoor non-competitive sports, civil rights, environmentalism (that was not a commonly used word before our time), opposition to war (our country had never before experienced such widespread opposition to war; always before its had been tiny fringe groups),opposition to things previous generations had stood for (such as working for a corporation) along with a large dose of innocence about the change we wanted society to make. We were idealistic in number that had never been seen before. We were, stupidly sometimes, more concerned about living a complete life than earning a living. As naive as this was, we did make changes in society. But not nearly as many as we thought we’d make. Our parents did not like many of these changes either. But with time, everyone adapts. This is how come you see many folks still living happily and peacefully in some totalitarian countries (a good subject for another treatise).
Our generation was born on the cusp of many things. We did not share our forefather's experience of the Depression and 2 World Wars (wars which were well-supported at home). We had more money than previous generations and took it more for granted (thanks, parents); it was not a subject of great worry for most of us. We had freedom to be our own selves, whatever we thought that was at the time. My generation was forgiving about gay life and allowed it to surface. This has reached silly proportions now. Today you see this carried forward in confused teens thinking they are supposed to be a different sex than they are. Assigned roles for our children give them structure, which people need to a larger extent this younger they are.
The operative word throughout this is, I think, “change”. Today this is carried forward especially fast in the technical world. I can't keep up with it and my parent's generation would have been helpless. We are being led in directions that are simultaneously exciting and fearsome. We are being freed and chained at the same time.
One of the really big things behind all this is population growth, the huge downside of which tends to be ignored today. It’s a doubled-edged sword. One one hand we need more people to do the work and pay the taxes. And on the other, the more of us there are, the harder each thing becomes. Since I was born, the US’s population has doubled - twice. Probably similar in most countries. Yet the world has the same natural resources which are being replenished at the same rate, but they are now being used increasingly faster. Malthus' prediction is still essentially correct, even though it gets put back time and time again. Eventually, widespread starvation will result, unless of course there is a mass kill-off of humans. This is a scenario I can now envision without straining the limits of imagination.
I remember in the 60-70s there were widespread demonstrations about civil rights, the war, and other big issues. Our county had not seen anything like this before. I noticed at the time every one took place in cities. And in the warmer months. There are practical and explainable reasons for this of course… but still…. What happens when you overcrowd, say, mice? They begin fighting among themselves. I thought of that during those demonstrations and riots.
One of the good - and necessary - features of technology is finding out ways to handle larger and larger numbers of people without adding employees. Instead of personal service, we get “personalized” service, then chat boxes which purport to be human, then ones who don't even attempt that masquerade. Instead of someone showing you how to do something, there's a video on U-Tube to watch. Instead of attending a ball game, a lecture, or a concert in person, you watch it on TV.
So with a far larger population, everyone is scrambling to find ways to handle more work with fewer employees and at each step we get further and further from normal human contact. Which is not good for society and leads to a further dichotomy and division. It’s bad enough now. Algorithms cause you to find only things that reinforce your own way of thinking and leads to less contact with others. It becomes easier and easier to disagree with someone who thinks differently if you don’t really know them as people, if you don't have shared experiences and background. Folks no longer know their neighbors like they once used to. Friends are picked from a broad geographic area and it’s common interests that hold you together. It used to be most of one's friends lived near them and shared geography was one of the things which helped keep people close. There were fewer widespread interests back then, so it was more likely that you shared more with neighbors as well as proximity. We need to have greater human contact with people who think differently than we do if our society is going to go back towards being more benevolent and caring.
Out of door activities, hunting, hiking, biking, canoeing, backpacking…. give us a prime example of these changes. In my youth, you could go pretty much where you wanted (though we didn't enjoy the same latitude our fathers had) and no one much cared as long as you were decent and didn’t screw up top badly. But as population grew, solitude became harder to find and became more prized as a result. That is a prime reason why many folks move here - less people, less pressure and regulations, a more laid-back atmosphere. But some who moved here remember what it was like where they came from and they guard their property more jealously than they would have had it been 50 years earlier. So Posted signs appear where none had been before. On our public lands, the managers now have to grapple with a choice of giving folks access and protecting the resources they come to see. You have to make a choice now when 50 years ago, that was not an issue. So now in many areas there are now permits required, lottery systems, off limits areas, closed to the public hours, and so on. Coping with population change starts to limit the things we want to do. It will only worsen; we are on a slippery downhill slope, one which will be exacerbated by coming environmental change.
It’s an odd juxtaposition: the bonds of friends and family become increasingly important, just as the same time they are lessening. Just when we need our kids around to strengthen these bonds, they scatter further. You don't take the job your father and hisi father had. If you want to advance in your work, you don't do it at the corporation where you started; you go elsewhere - where you don't know people, where they don't know you.
A Race to Remember
There was a local fellow who was an accomplished liar and for years kept trying to buy his own farm, dairy preferred. He had no money; usually the story was one thing or another about how his grandmother would provide what he needed. Over the years, he wasted a lot of other people's time, as well as his own, but eventually managed to get a tiny place with a small barn for heifers. I assume he got this place the conventional way, by saving his money. He kept it nice, I will say.
Thirty years ago, I had a couple on their honeymoon who’d decided to start their new life together on a farm. I showed them a place and they agreed then and there to buy it. We signed the contract right away and I got his $10000 deposit check. And it bounced. I called him and learned that he’d recently switched accounts and had thought there was enough money left in the old one to cover this. And apologized, saying he’d get a new one out to me right away;. Days later,; he said he wanted to show the place to his father and said he’d bring it in person. Then he called, saying his father had suffered a panic attack on the way up (he didn’t want his darling to leave home), and they had to turn back. Shortening the story, it was one plausible excuse after another and we eventually saw the light and put it back on the market. But the story does’t end there. Fifteen years later, we got a call from his no longer new wife, apologizing for all he’d put us through. They’d split up over his accomplished lying. I wonder what lies he given her?
We are experiencing a similar situation now, but with its own wrinkles, lots of them. Jim and Sally needed to retire. Jim wasn’t emotionally ready, but Sally’d had enough. So much that she’d moved in with children leaving Jim alone on the farm until he was ready to join her. Right now with the low milk prices, dairies are kind of toxic, no one wants one, and this has been made especially worse since the milk handlers want less producers, not more. It’s a strange juxtaposition: prices are rising on all real estate, things sell quickly, yet no one wants operating diaries. That used to be 2/3s of my business.
So I was delighted to receive a call from Trent. He told me he wanted to buy their place. Fine, we want to sell it. He offered full price then and there. “Don’t you want to see it first?”, I asked. “No, I am a livestock hauler and go by regularly. I know the place and don’t need to look at it. Plus I am too busy at the moment.” O…K…
I drew up the contract and sent it to him, and got it returned, signed, and very quickly. I then took it to Jim and Sally and discussed it. It was a cash sale, simple, quick and easy. Trent had provided me with a statement from his bank saying that he has $5.9 million in assets there, in which $855000 was immediately available. It doesn’t get better than this.
As this is highly unusual, I’d discussed this with Trent a bit beforehand. Here’s his story. He had just sold a 1000 acre stocked and equipped farm in Pennsylvania to a cousin and banked the money, letting it sit there until he found his own place. Then I learned his last name, Feneman. That was a very familiar name to me. There are Feneman’s in the next county over, highly respected, successful in life, mostly dairymen. I knew some of them and knew of others by reputation. You never hear a bad word about that family. The one I knew the best was his uncle. I hadn’t been aware there was a branch of the family in Pennsylvania, but why not? So that explained something. Later I learned he’d inherited his place from his grandfather, who had a dozen or more farms in that area of Pennsylvania. It all made sense.
These were among the things I discussed with Jim and Sally, in person and over emails and phone calls. One of their concerns was over him getting a milk market. They had one, with Agrimark, which utilizes a Canadian-style plan with a base for production. The base can be earned, but you get drastically less for your product while you establish the base. A more practical approach would be to purchase it from Jim and Sally. They were willing to throw in the feed since he’d offered full price, but the base was too much money to just give away. “Did he understand this?”, they asked me. I couldn’t say how well he understood it but could say that he’’d been so informed. And if he knew the dairy business, he’d understand.
So they signed. Trent had agreed to supply a $20000 check for earnest money, but I didn’t have it yet. This always makes me a trifle nervous though it is not uncommon.
Trent had wanted to buy the cattle too plus whatever machinery they wanted to sell and he arranged to visit Saturday afternoon to see these things. That made me feel better as now he’d have a chance to visit the buildings and see the land. I do NOT like selling things sight-unseen.
He arrived right on time, driving an older pickup, with his wife (girlfriend?) and kids in tow. And was a lot younger than I expected, still in his 20’s, he said. Jim and Sally’s place has a lot of fairly new buildings, including the home, but little effort is made to make things pretty or keep anything particularly clean. I worry about that. But Trent didn’t. He was fine with everything. And didn’t want to take the time to go inside the barns or even visit the home.
He explained his haste. It seems he had planned to buy the Flint farm and that had fallen through. I hadn’t known it was for sale. Flint’s mother had worked for us years ago and, ironically, had made two sales of property which I had listed - the farm Jim and Sally owned and the Flint place. Anyway, the story was that he had bought a some machinery from White’s Farm Supply and the Flints had made unreasonable demands upon him, one of which was that he was not to deal with White’s.
They went on to discuss prices on cows and youngstock. He agreed to everything without bargaining, except he said they’d offered the cattle at too low a price. He’d pay an additional $200 each. What? No one says this. I got the impression that Trent was naive, not used to having money, and now had so much that thousands here and there meant nothing to him. In the back of my mind, I now saw red flags in too many places and I was happy to remember that in one of my first emails I’d said something to the effect,”If something seems too good to be true, then it probably isn’t true.” Afterwards, I would go back to that theme in private communications with Sally.
That day, we discussed the sale of their base and said we’d have to talk with Agrimark to find out exactly what it was and what it was worth. Later, we told him $76000, to which he instantly agreed. This was too easy, why8 not? We’d had so much trouble with most every deal that it wa time for something to go right consistently.. Life had suddenly got very good for everyone. We thought.
One of two things Trent asked for was to park some machinery there he’d bought from White’s. That was not ideal, but they were good with it. The other thing was the chance to start working here before we had the closing. He stated he had cattle of his own in a farm in Pennsylvania and they were not being care-for to his satisfaction. He was anxious to get them were he could do that himself. (Yet he lives 2 .5 hours west of us.) I did not like this one bit: it is never a good idea to have to such contact before the sale; worse, Jim can be mercurial and has a temper. Plus adding 30 cows would be a 50% increase in Jim’s workload and he was short of feed already. Their lawyer nixed that idea, as I’d expected and hoped for. Since I have mentioned lawyers, Trent didn’t have one. I gave him some recommendations and urged him to select one immediately so he could review the contract in the time frame provided. That never happened.
Before he left, Trent gave me the $20000 check, then asked if there was a local gas station that would take a check. He was low both on gas and cash. I didn’t know of any and gave him $20 to get home on. Since I rarely use credit cards and never use ATMs, I did not think to ask why he just didn’t pay for gas that way. The wife (girlfriend?) and kids stayed in the truck the entire time. Strange; weren’t they even interested enough to get out?
The next day he asked me about another farm we had nearby ($525000), saying that since Jim and Sally’s house had only 2 bedrooms, that it might make sense to buy another farm with a bigger house and operate the two together. Then, a day later, he inquired about a place we have in Washington County, 2.5 hour’s drive east, could we show him that? That was getting totally crazy.
Things went fine for two days. Then my bank called me. They could not honor the check; no such account existed. Red flags and suspicions - heck; this was serious. I called his bank, which was large and not local, and not surprisingly, it took significant negotiation of their phone maze, but eventually I reached someone who confirmed the routing number/account number was not in their system. He was not very helpful in other ways, but I hadn’t expected to be that lucky.
Then I called, or tried to call, the bank executive who’d given him the proof of funds letter. The branch had never heard of such a person. A second call a day or two later was more revealing. As I was discussing things, the fellow at the bank mentioned Trent’s name. Only I had not yet told him who it was we were speaking of. Then he inadvertently said something that implied that Trent had another account. That was at least hopeful. Later on, I realized that the executive’s signature (largely illegible) did not look enough like the name as it appeared as printed. And one letter varied in the printed versions, a typo - but which was correct?
Friday night Trent called, apologized about the check, and said he’d send out a replacement check right away. That was two weeks ago; the mail sure is slow these days. Later, I did him the courtesy of letting him know it did not arrive - and got no response to my email. Always before, he had been extremely quick to communicate.
Meanwhile, I got on the horn with White’s Farm Supply and eventually got into a long talk with the salesman. His story was that Trent had come to him to buy two tractors and a baler, $130000 worth of machinery. They don’t often get the chance to make sales like that, especially to someone Trent’s age. This made the salesman’s day. But he had the money, Trent said, and gave them a check then and there with instructions to deliver it to Flints on such and such a day. Later, they discovered the check was no good, same story as mine. But that was after they’d delivered it to Flints, only to be turned back and make the drive back - fully loaded.
Sally, alarmed now since I’d been been in regular touch with about all these events, did some of her own due diligence, and learned Trent had been arrested for Grand Larceny. To be fair to him, arrested does not mean convicted. I did the same thing, visiting our friend Google. True, there was a radio station report that three months earlier he had been arrested. But I learned nothing more. So I called the Sheriff in that county. A couple of calls later (they were obviously not anxious to speak with me), I learned I wanted the sheriff in the next county over, not the one in which the radio station was located. I called the other Sheriff and found out it was a State Police investigation and got the name of a deputy who was on the case - back in the original county Sheriff’s. I called him today but had to leave a message. No call back (yet).
Later on, I had a phone discussion with Sheriff Lincoln from Steuben County, who has been investigating Trent. Apparently there were 4-5 bad check incidents from out that way as well, mostly for trucks and truck repairs. One truck purchased and recovered could not be returned to the rightful owner until the old owner paid a $1400 bill Trent had incurred for brake repairs. Another was quickly “sold” to someone else, recovered, but cannot be released to the real owner until the title reverts back to him. The proof of funds letters are each different, manipulated according to the intended purpose.
Lincoln has been trying to find him. Trent is never a found at his address, but a neighbor says he is there, late at night, once every so often, at week or longer intervals. Nor does he take the Sheriff’s calls. This is interesting: at the building where his address is, there is some sort of rehab or similar program of which he was a part, only he has not attended in weeks.
We had some rainy weather, so I took advantage of it to make some visits. First, I went to the Feneman who I knew best. He was glad to see me and began to talk cows.. and talk cows… and talk cows. But I did get to ask about Trent. Deleting the expletives, he claimed that Trent was no real relation of his. The story he told was that two Feneman brothers came across on the Mayflower. His side came from-the brother who went to New York while the other brother went to Pennsylvania. I doubt that was historically correct but the gist was that he had zero use for Trent, right from the start. I felt Trent was likable enough so was taken a bit aback at the venom displayed. It seems he’d met Trent twice. The first time was when Trent arrived and introduced himself to his “uncle”, then wanted him to sell him his farm and carry terms (the uncle is 88 years old now and does not do much of the farming himself any longer - but still does some). There was a blunt refusal. Then, weeks later, Trent reappeared, wanting to rent the farm instead and put in his own cows. Another blunt refusal.
Then I went to visit the Flints. It did not look like a farm that would be for sale: they had lots going on, new buildings, a farm store, a younger generation now owning and loving it. They knew Trent - too well. Their side of the story was that he’d approached them to be a junior partner and would bring in $500000 as his share. They agreed. After all they’d still be majority owners and who can’t find a use for $500000? Trent’s story had been that he was buying them out at $500000. As for not allowing him to deal with White’s, they laughed at that one. White’s was fine with them. In fact they’d delivered Trent’s machinery there but were told not to unload it as they no longer had any agreement with Trent and didn’t believe he has the money.
Why didn’t they think he didn’t have the money? Well, he bought a bunch of their cows and had them delivered to a farm in Pennsylvania. Then the check bounced and they had to get a truck and trailer to Pennsylvania to get them back, at their expense. What I don’t understand is why Trent would move cattle to another farm if he was supposedly buying theirs. There’s probably an explanation; I just didn’t think to ask for one.
One story I heard was that he was romantically involved with one of the Flint owners, a young lady who was single, badly crippled from an accident long ago, the sort of person you might think would welcome advances. In my conversation with her, this did not come up. She is pretty smart.
But I did learn a number of other things. One, he’d given a bad check to Cazenovia Equipment and another to Hudson River, a local machinery dealer. Two, he’d tried to buy a farm in Washington County from two bothers who were desperate to sell out and eagerly grasped at the straws he offered. There is, she said, a lawsuit going on about that bad check.
The thing I learned that was most interesting is that she said he was bi-polar. That could explain a lot. One of the ways bi-polar can manifest itself is a manic stage where you feel you can do no wrong and are willing to take great chances. Did the fact he never replied to my email about not receiving the replacement check; indicate he’d now entered a depressive stage? Or did it mean he knew the jig was up with us? And how did Miss Flint find out he was bi-polar? While it should be nothing to be ashamed of, folks don’t normally announce something such as this to acquaintances. Though I could have, I failed to ask about that.
Getting back to Jim and Sally: after telling their bank that they had a cash sale, they had to go back and tell them the sale was off, back to normal. Here’s what she learned from that call:
‘…My son was talking to some people over in VanHornesville area yesterday and they were telling him about someone trying to pull a scam like Trent tried on us over in that area.
Then I called to let our bank guy know we wouldn't be selling right away - and I gave my report to one of the women who answers the phone and she said they have a client that fell for the same type of thing - but the cows and equipment made it onto the farm and they've been trying to get him out for the last month. she didn't tell me the name of the people, but she was very interested to hear about our experience and was going to share it with the other loan officers.”
That was probably not Trent. But it shows there are others out there.
Abstracts of Title
Abstract of Title
New York is called “an abstract state”. This does not mean our attentions are diverted, but rather that we typically convey title through the use of an Abstract of Title to establish what is called the “Chain of Title” (history of ownership). More common in the US now is the use of Title Insurance and a lot of the big firms that deal all over the US, make the incorrect assumption that Title Insurance is what we want here as well, so that’s what we get, whether we actually want it or not. Personally, I disagree with this, not that they listen to what I say. Either can be used to convey good title, but the insurance ends when I sell the property. With an abstract, all that needs to be done is have it updated then given to the next owner.
Once I get a Purchase Contract signed, the next step (assuming it is a cash sale) is to send the abstract out for updating. This means the seller has to deliver it to his attorney. If he can find it that is. So many can’t, and a frantic search ensues. After all, they haven’t looked at it or even seen it since they bought the place they are now selling. They will triumphantly produce the Deed. But we can get copies of that easily from County Clerk where they have been filed. Abstracts are not filed in New York and, until recently, not even copied. Some firms now provide digital copies, a huge improvement by my way of thinking. If your county files are converted to digital then the main reason abstracts are not filed disappears (lack of space - they get bulky). Some states have gone ahead have these routinely filed at the County Clerk’s. But not New York. You are responsible for it.
So you are in the middle of your frantic search and you realize you may not recognize it even if you found it. It may not say “Abstract of Title” on it. What does it look like? Most are on legal paper (8.5x14”) and have covers of colored somewhat heavier paper, stapled at the top. All but certainly, it will be fairly thick. I have seen them way over 100 pages. On the front is probably a tax map of the land. Inside will be all sorts of legal documents pertaining to the property: old deeds, wills, easements, various maps, deeds of neighboring properties which once may have been part of yours, foreclosure documents, mail receipts, mortgages, marriages and divorces information, tax searches, memorandums, copies of judgements, purchase contracts from the past, lis pendens (notice of a pending legal action), and certification of the abstract. If you can stand to wade through all this, it gives a legal history of the premises. Not everything mentioned above will be in each abstract - and there may be other documents someone once thought important to add.
Suppose you cannot find it at home, what now? Find out which attorney represented you when you purchased the property. He may have it in his files. Or check with the bank if you had a mortgage. Sometimes they have them. I have an abstract here of a place I sold 20 years ago. It had been at my lawyer’s who has since retired. When he gave me all my files, I found it in there. I called the current owner and told him I had it, but it should be in his records, not mine. He thanked me and probably promptly forgot about it. If he ever decides to sell, he is going to be frantic. Unless he remembers I have it, it will cost him an un-needed bundle and some lost time to recreate it.
Now how did it come to be in my files? I am not sure but when I sold ti, I carried his mortgage. That would explain how it came to be there, even though I was not in the habit of holding onto the abstract in such cases. There ware quite a few over the years, but this one, for some reason, was the only one my lawyer had retained. Or it could have simply been mis-filed. There are abstracts of property I own that are missing. I wonder where they ended up in? I keep such things in my safe and no where else.
Another lawyer had a flood in his office and lost all his older files. Not only his but the ones his father had before him, 2 generations worth. When all those folks need their abstracts, there will probably be a hundred grand spent creating them. Typically we go back 40 years in our abstract searches, so some of the abstracts, say those from 50 years ago, will be interesting perhaps, but not terribly useful.
After the abstract is updated, it is sent to the buyer’s attorney, who reads through it to give his opinion as to who he feels the legal owner is. If he feels someone else may have a legal interest in the property, then he’ll let the sellers attorney know about it and then they will have to do whatever is necessary to rectify this. We had one case recently where the title over time had passed through 4 different lawyers in various sales, each of whom was satisfied that the title was good. Not one ever challenged it. Then it got to the 5th lawyer who found something he didn’t like. It seems way back when there were like 17 heirs and when it was sold; one was feuding with the others and failed to sign off. As luck would have it, he was still alive. And still mad. This all happened so long ago that the Statute of Limitations had long passed, meaning he couldn’t have done anything about it if he had wanted (you have so many years to enforce your rights and if you fail to do this, you lose any rights you thought you had). He’d long ago lost his rights to complain. and, to be fair to him, he wasn’t complaining, not making any waves for subsequent owners. But he wasn’t signing anything either. The buyer’s lawyer would not let the closing take place until another lawyer, the owner of a title company, agreed to insure the title. Everyone knew there was no problem that had any chance of being informed, but the buyer’s lawyer didn’t want his client in any difficulty in case another lawyer surfaced who did not understand that the sorehead’s rights had long been extinguished.
ROW = Right of Way, the legal right of one party to enter lands of another in order to access their own land. It is a form of easement. And is typically used when a parcel is landlocked, as it saves you having to own a helicopter or a huge pogo stick to get to your land. But it is also used in other circumstances.
One I am working with now is a great example, a 118 acre tract with lots of road frontage on a paved year-round road. Only a creek parallels the road, too closely. To build between it and the road. You have easy access - if you don’t mind wading. And on the other side it’s steep. There used to be a Town road through the property, coming downhill to the paved road. It is now legally abandoned in that area and the bridge is long gone. There is a seasonal road in the back that goes right to the property. It used to lead down to the bridge, but it also veers off along the side. Except the last bit of this road before our 118 acres begins is now also private land and though it looks good, the Town no longer maintains it. You cannot tell on the land where it ends legally, but definitely the owner of the 118 acres does not have the right to use it without permission. It’s a “so near, yet so far” case.
With the road frontage there, you will not get any help from the State. You have ample access, just not by car. But take heart, we discovered a survey map and on it is, yes, a Right of Way, one that lead up a nice driveway off the paved road and then a short distance off it on in to the property. It is 20’ wide, not really enough by modern terms, but it’s perfectly legal and ample to drive a car in and even pass another. You just can’t turn a fire engine around on it, which is what some Towns want in new ROWs. Along with the right to pass here is normally the right to improve ti to whatever standard you may feel it warrants. This assumes your improvement does not interfere with the landowner's use. You can come and go whenever you want, but you can’t park in it in case the actual owner needs to use it. He has the right to use it too; after all, it’s his land. He just can’t keep you from also using it.
I went to the County records and checked and, yes, it is clearly established in all the deeds, the owner’s and his neighbor’s. Most often a ROW that you have will not show in your own deed, only in your neighbor’s. So when I am asked to research ROW’s that’s where I first look, in the adjoining landowner’s deeds. Why is it this way? Because the ROW affects what the neighbor can do or not do with his land. It does not affect your land as it is not your land the ROW is on. But it sure makes a difference to you, having it. In this particular case, the neighbors have different attitudes about it. The husband readily acknowledges the existence of the ROW and said the buyer could do with it as he wished, only don’t trespass even an inch. OK, fair enough. He’s got that right. The wife takes a different approach: use it and we’ll find a lawyer. I cannot see how she could win, but if she sued, the new owner would have to pay to defend himself. And of course all this concerns him a great deal. And I can see it using marital strife next door. We’ll see how that plays out. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.
I said it was clearly established. By this, I mean it’s existence. The wording on its location is on the vague side. Yes, it clearly shows on the survey map, but no surveyed coordinates or distances are shown. The map refers to a barbed wire fence, one which we can’t locate. Maybe with the snow gone, it will reappear. Wouldn’t that be nice? Or maybe someone removed it. The survey is not so old that it is likely to have rusted and rotted away. There is another potential solution. Approach the neighbor, ask him where he thinks it goes, maybe offer to move it somewhat if he prefers that. He should appreciate the courtesy of that offer. The two owners can do anything they both agree to. If they both want to move the ROW, they can.Then formalize it legally.
There are also a surprising number of ROWs that are not in any official papers. There may have been a legally-binding document drawn up that was never filed. Or, the right to use another’s land may have been handled informally between two friendly neighbor for many years. When a property is being sold or transferred, a sharp lawyer will make sure this gets formalized to avoid future difficulty. After all, the next neighbor might not be so friendly. There are times, analogous to Adverse Possession, whereby a landowner can get an “Easement by Prescription”. In such a case, one party may have historically been using a certain way in. It does not have to be only for access; other possibilities I have seen include getting water from a well on another’s land, gathering firewood, and even hunting there. Do it long enough and eventually someone acquires a legal right to do what he has been doing right along, especially if the actual landowner does not exert his legal rights or does nothing to stop him during this period.
There is place for sale right now with a nice driveway, except no one can park on it. It is also a ROW for another party, who lives further back in. But he has his own separate drive and his own road frontage, but for some reason he also has a ROW up the driveway. And he uses both ways in, probably to assert his rights. And he’s nice about it. He even keeps it cleared of snow and nicely graveled. So they drive in, park on the lawn, and everyone stays happy.
There is also something called an “Easement by Necessity”. A landlocked parcel to which there was no ROW would be a good example. Some years back, the State came out with a ruling or law that allowed owners of land-locked property to force access where none existed before. At the time this passed, I asked several attorneys how it worked - and not a one of them knew. But I could tell the attorneys sure wished they wouldn’t ever have to deal with such a case. Since in the 30 years since a situation like this has not come up with me, so I still don’t know. In the case with the 118 acres that was first mentioned, this would not be appropriate to employ because the owner has complete legal access from anywhere along the paved road. The word “access”is defined broadly and does not mean “vehicle access”. This would be ridiculous for people who own islands.
We once had a man ask us to list his woodland. This was located in the back of his property; fields were in front of it. He wanted to keep those. I pointed out that unless one of his neighbors wanted to buy it, a new owner would not have the legal right to visit what he bought. Without an easement or ROW, the land was worthless and that’s exactly how someone else would value it. He considered this and came back to us later on with a legal ROW that he had an attorney draw up. It followed the boundary, which was a good idea as it was now clearly defined. But it was only 15’ wide and there were several right angle turns along the property lines. Hey, a car cannot turn a right angle in 15’. But he didn’t want to give any more width. Then I noticed that one boundary crossed a small lake. So even if you got your car to that point, unless it was amphibious, it still couldn’t reach the woodlot. We declined the listing. That’s not salable, except to someone whose land adjoins.
Easements and ROWs may have expiration dates, though usually they don’t expire. When they don’t, they are called Appurtenant, they run with the land. To get rid of one of these, there are two things you can do. One is to simply buy the property from whoever who has the ROW through your land. If the owner can be persuaded to sell, that is. Owning both, you can now get it off the deeds. Or you could pay the owner enough to make it worth his while to relinquish the ROW. Note that there are counties where this last suggestion won’t work as they no longer allow new parcels to be landlocked, to exist without access. But there are instances where a party enjoys more than one ROW; then it could work.
I once had the opportunity to buy 80 acres at a bargain price. Nice land too. Checking out the maps, I noticed it completely surrounded another parcel of land. Visual inspection of the smaller parcel showed that someone was actively doing something there with bulldozers and rocks. Later I heard a fellow had bought it and planned to build a very nice home there. He already had in a quite nice drive I did more checking on legal documents and could not find any mention of a ROW. How did he think he could get there? Then we found two buyers, one for each side of the drive. So I wrote to this fellow, offering him a ROW if he’d survey the drive so I could use it for a legal description for my buyers. After 2 or 3 weeks, he called me and said it had been surveyed already but he didn’t need any ROW from me. “Are you sure?”, I asked. “Once it’s sold, I can’t get you in.” He was sure. So I shrugged my shoulders. If he wanted it that way and was happy, then so was I.
A few days before the closing, he called me again. “Ahm, about that right of way… can I still get it?” Well, now all the papers were drawn up and I’d have to pay to get them changed. I replied, “Yes - if he paid for the changes and got them done immediately.” He was only too glad to pay. Later on, I learned that when he bought his land, his lawyer was supposed to take care of the ROW, but had neglected to do it and now it was way too late. We owned it, not the old owner. Were we that kind of people we could have sold it to him for an outrageous sum. He was over a barrel and had no choice. We had him by the short hairs. But we weren’t that kind of people; I want folks to speak well of me and say they’d always been treated fairly. If I hadn’t brought this to his attention, he would have never known he didn’t have the ROW he thought he had. And then the new owners would have him by the short hairs and he’d either have a very expensive home or they would have had extremely cheap land to add if they wished.
There are folks who do not now what this means. And a lot more do not know all that it implies. A parcel of land which is landlocked does not have any road frontage or, sometimes, any frontage on a waterway big enough for boats. This means you cannot see foot on your land without trespassing or without permission of the adjoining landowner of land that you must go through to reach your own.
Or…. Or you may have a Right of Way or an Easement so you are not trespassing or going in and out (“ingress" and “egress” is how they say it). These are legal documents or are part of legal documents that state your rights to use someone else’s land. These can also exist on land which has road frontage. The owner of that land cannot stop you from using his land, provided that you are using it as proscribed in the documents.
There are many ways this is done and many forms a ROW or easement can take. You may be able to use it to get yourself in and out, but not other. Or, for example, using it for getting felled timber out may not be permitted. Or you may be able to use it to get machinery to and from a field for crops but not use it to get in to hunt. Or you cannot use it between midnight and 6 AM. Whatever. But most often, use is not restricted like this. I mention these examples to demonstrate what can happen.
Years ago, people were pretty off-hand about these things. They knew each other. “Sure Tom, you can go in and out. Any time you like”. “Well, let’s go in this way this time. Earl won’t mind.” Maybe good ole Earl won’t mind but his heirs might. Or the person he sold his place to might. If it’s been written down somewhere and signed, you have more legal legs to stand on. Some of these documents were never filed with the County and as such are not part of the record. But they may be legal. If you can find them. If it was filed, it still may not be in your deed. Why not? The ROW is a restriction upon your neighbors deed, not yours, so it needs to be there for anyone contemplating an interest in his property in the future. A good lawyer back when would also have it placed in your deed as well. But it needs to be somewhere retrievable if it is to be legal.
Now, suppose there is no easement, no Right of Way? What do you do now?
You approach your neighbor and, very politely, ask him for a Right of Way. If he does not agree, offer him money, enough to change his mind. If he is still intransigent, approach another neighbor if you can. Then do the same thing. Remember honey catches more flies than vinegar.
If that doesn’t work, you can offer to buy his property, or perhaps just buy what you need. Or, sell him yours and be done with it. Remember, he hold all the cards. He knows your property isn’t worth much if he doesn’t play ball.
I once owned 80 acres that we split in two pieces to all to two parties. The dividing line was a driveway to a third property which was otherwise completely encircled by our land. When I researched the deeds, I discovered the tax maps were right. That property was landlocked. A survey had shown a road to get into it going through out land, but there was no easement or ROW. The owner hadn’t owned it long, so I had our lawyer check to see if I’d made a mistake in my interpretation. No, I was right. So I wrote to this person saying we owned the land completely surrounding him and we were about to sell it. In the interests of being a good neighbor, did he want us to give him a ROW down the survey line?
His answer surprised me. “No”, he said. “I’m fine the way I am”. I repeated my offer and got the same answer. OK. Maybe he has a helicopter. If he’s happy, I am. We went back to preparing documents for the closing. Just before the day arrived, I got a call from this fellow. He was eating humble pie. Thinking over what he’d said to me, he called his lawyer and, sure enough, the lawyer had screwed up and forgot to file the planned Right of Way. It was way too late to do so now. He was going to need that helicopter. The way I solved his dilemma was to ask my buyers if they were OK with allowing him to have the ROW he thought he had. The agreed (good neighbors!) and I asked him if he would take care of the extra legal expenses that we now had to incur., He was delighted to do that and probably had been sweating that we’d ask for many thousands of dollars to allow him to use his own land. He’d already started excavation for his new home.
If you don’t get a someone like on the other end, what do you do, other than give up? You get a good lawyer - not a mediocre run-of-the-mill variety. Years ago, I was told by several people the New York State now allowed landlocked property owner to force a Right of Way if they could not get one any other way. Wanting to know as I figured at some point this would be something I needed to deal with, I asked, over time, three real estate lawyer how it was done. None knew and all were skeptical. Not a good start.
It seems there are two ways this can be done and not all will work in all circumstances. You can get a ROW by Prescription. Analagous to Adverse Possession, this works if you have used the neighbor’s property to get to yours in a ”hostile, open and notorious way” for a number of years. By “hostile” we mean you made him no payments and did not have permission; you don’t have to be feuding with him. The other way is by Necessity. Here, you need to establish that the land would not be useable without it and that one had to be implied when it was firs landlocked. You’d have to prove it never had frontage or was once part of a larger tract which did. If a previous owner had neglected to grab or record the easement of ROW, you would need a court order to enforce it. It’s easier if the owner of the land you need to go through was once the owner of the land you want to buy or own now. This is the kind of stuff you bring in lawyers for.
Getting access does not necessarily mean you can drive in. Access by walking or by boat may be considered legally sufficient. I had a client who for some reason sell off his woodland. It was hard to get to as a large beaver pond separated his open land from his woodlot, He’d made sort of a earth bridge to accomplish his logging. . So - bright idea - he said he’d give the new owner a legal Right of Way In. What did he come up with? It was 15’ wide, following the northern boundary of his land as it twisted and turned. This was not the way he used himself.. There were two right angle bends along the boundary. Think about this. How can you make a right angle turn in a vehicle in only 15’? Worse yet, you’d need a amphibious vehicle to get across the pond. It was several feet deep at that point. We declined the listing.
We saw and ad for a large woodlot in the Southern Adirondacks. $100/acre at a time when go land was around $1000/acre, How could you go wrong? As I guessed, the land has just been heavily logged. It would be 20 years or more before another cutting could be taken. But it was not a bad piece of land, not at all swampy as I’d feared. But it was landlocked. There was an obvious road in and we were told by the agent who owned it and where they lived. We knocked on the door. It turned out to be a woman who my wife, a nurse, had helped during the death of her husband. Of course she’d let us walk in. She didn’t recommend driving with our 2 wheel drive low clearance vehicle. We don’t mind a walk and took one, knowing we wouldn’t buy it no matte what we found. The lady said she’d let us go in and anybody else she lied, But she wouldn’t sign any documents giving anyone a the right to drive in. It was important for her to retain that control. Well, that’s fine until one of us dies or sells. Then all bets are off. No thank you. This is the stuff that long drawn-out and costly lawsuits are made of and we didn’t want any land bad enough to step into that mud puddle.
I routinely attend county auctions of tax-foreclosed land whenever I can find the time. Landlocked parcels are popular in these sales. No surprise: a naive buyer gets this wonderful parcel at a bargain-price only to find out it he can’t get in. After a few years, he gets tired of paying taxes as if he could use it, so he stops paying. The county take possession ion it in due time and it goes to auction, only to have th process repeated. In Schoharie County, they have a policy of not allowing landlocked land sold unless there is an easement or ROW - or the successful bidder owns adjoining land. They then require the parcels be combined so the County doesn’t get into this again in the future. Smart of them. And it’s slowly eliminating such parcels.
Now, suppose you get yourself a ROW, there are other questions that need to be addressed. Who pays for maintenance? The old owner won’t want to pay for you to get to your land, but he might want you to pay him if for part of the way in you use his driveway. In general, if you want it nice, you now have the right to spend as much as you want on the ROW, provided you do no harm to the owner through whose land you are traveling. In other words don’t put a road across a wet area without putting in culverts to avoid flooding his land. If you rut up his own driveways, then be prepared to promptly repair them. Twice I have owned land on a private road. I had the legal right to use the road, no problem. On one, a person who owned land past mine demanded I pay a share of the maintenance to his land. On the other someone repaired the road, plowed the snow and took care of its I never found out who, nor in the 15 years I was the owner was I ever asked to contribute. And in neither case did I ever find documentation of my obligations, or even if there were any. Someone screwed up; it should have been addressed when the development was first done.
You could be in the position of not needing a ROW, then finding out you do. For example if your land was accessed by a little-used town road, and the Town later abandoned the road. What do you do? Or suppose your access was taken by Eminent Domain (the government has the right to take personal property when it is perceived important to the general public)? Or maybe a stream changed course. When that does, ownership changes can happen if the stream was considered the boundary. The answer to this, if there is one, is spelled “G-O-O-D L-A-W-Y-E-R”. And don’t ask me.
My training and expertise does not qualify me to judge timber yields or value, which goes up and down seasonally as markets rise and fall and as demand for certain species changes, so potential timber value, if any, is not something I can expertly advise people on. That disclosure over with, I’ll go on…
Do not ignore timber value. Years ago, one of my clients had a 350 acre woodlot and he took out two species, ash and cherry, and only those above 18” diameter at “breast height”. That’s a pretty big tree. Do you know what he received? $350000. That’s right, $1000/acre, which is more than he could have sold it for at that time, land and trees together. And his land was worth nearly as much after the harvest than it was before. Why? Buyers usually do not pay much attention to such things and since the woodlot was left looking nice, a typical buyer would be happy with it. There were still plenty of big trees left to admire, since only the two species had been taken.
On the opposite side of things there was a 100 acre woodlot outside St. Johnsville we had for sale - -until the owner decided to log it. He got a very different kind of logger. Loggers and foresters are not the same thing, keep that in mind. When the logger was done, it looked like God had been through it with a weed whacker. There were 30” deep skidded ruts all over. Slash was everywhere, hip deep in places. Once perfectly healthy trees, the few that were not taken, were scarred and bent by the skidders, disfigured and damaged beyond what time could restore. The place was a nightmare. And it would take 50 years before it began looking normal. Brush and briers were beginning to spring up. Since nearly every tree was taken, there was now enough light coming in to allow them to sprout.
You see, loggers are the professionals with the absolutely worst reputation, worse even than politicians, worse even than preachers and real estate agents. And for good reason. They have been known to ”not notice’ when, chainsaws in hand, they crossed over the line into a neighbor’s forest. They may have agreed to give you half of what they took, apparently honestly putting felled trees into two piles of equal size. Only one has the more valuable trees and your pile holds the culls. Or they may have just said that there was not nearly as much timber there as you thought, so your return was disappointing. Was this guy being honest? Or was he selling more and telling you about only part of it? Were you there, watching every load that went out? Don’t get me wrong, there are scrupulously honest ones too. But how do you know which is before you, talking slickly? If you don’t employ a forester to work for you at least ask for references and talk to the references at length. Find out how he left the property when he left? Was the slash all removed? Burned? Left in neat piles? Or left just wherever it fell? Were the skidder ruts filled in? How do they know they got a fair return?
If it is felt that real timber value exists on a place, my suggestion is to employ a professional forester to do an evaluation. In many cases, timber value has surprisingly little effect upon the price any given property may sell for. If you have owned a place for years and have not done any logging, it may be well worth the expense of having the timber resources professionally evaluated. A professional forester can evaluate not only the value of standing timber but also the health of the stands and make recommendations for improvements. If employed to find a harvester for timber, he will put it out for bids - but only among those firms he knows are reliable, honest, and will leave the forest clean afterward. And he will monitor the harvest to make sure only those trees he designates will be taken. He knows what value is there and will make sure you get your fair share. And he’ll make sure you are not left with a mess and a severely devalued property.
Let’s take the above paragraph apart some. If you have owned it for years and have never logged it, that does not guarantee you will have real value. If it was in woods when you bought it, then very likely. If it was brush, then maybe not. I went through a woodlot that was full of white pine, probably our more desirable species of softwood lumber. Trees were big around at the base, but then usually split into several vertical branches a few feet up from the ground. Those were not nearly so large. What happened? Daughter #2, the internet guru, did some research and determined this was due to a disease. I have since seen it in several stands, now that ai have learned to look for it. A forester might tell you to take them all down, chip them, and plant another species - then wait 25 years. Or he might know a pellet or plywood company that can use such timber.
I once hired a forester to separately appraise a property that I was appraising, then moved him to a woodlot I owned that I felt had potential for timber. Boy, did I learn a lot that day! The first thing I learned was that I didn’t know nearly enough. He’d look at one tree, one I felt was of dubious worth, and say, “That is worth $300”, then point out another that looked the same to me and say it wasn’t worth anything due to some disease. Then he’d show me how to recognize the symptoms. He’s show me one there that worth hundreds 2 months ago, but with the changing market for that species, he’d now advise me to let it grow. In general, it’s the hardwood species which ebb and flow in demand and price. He also suggested that I just cut down certain trees and let them rot, the idea being that they were just competition (for sunlight, for minerals, for space) for more desirable trees. Since that involved work and time and since I wanted to sell the place, I did not do these things. I hired him to help me decide how much I could get for the woodlot when sold. And I passed along his recommendations to the new owner once I found one.
Once I made a sealed bid on a property I wanted to buy. There was a field, an old home, some other buildings and lots of woodland. Bob, a friend was the successful bidder. Later on, he placed the woodland for sale with me. I had not even gone in it before, being chiefly interested in the buildings and open land. Gosh, the place was like a park! Big trees, no undergrowth, grass between the trees, a peaceful and beautiful space. Then he told me, “You know, I took out enough timber here to cover my entire bid.” Boy, had I screwed up by failing to recognize what value there was in that woodlot! His logger had done an exceptional job of leaving things neat and clean. I looked about and, yes by gosh , there were recently cut stumps. But they did not jump out at me like they would in a property left in a lesser condition. The now-harvested woodlot sold readily, too.
Buyers see a recent cutting with white-faced stumps all about and slash lying in your way everywhere and their minds begin to yell, “Rape”. So if you are going to take a cutting, plan to do so some years before you want to sell it. Then take the time to let the slash rot to nothing (or sell it for firewood) and let the stumps get covered with moss. Get the ruts filled in if the logger did not do that for you. Or be really smart like Bob was. He makes his living doing things such as this.
The Market Doesn't Care
A decade or two ago, I spoke frequently with a family who wanted land. They were folks who had obviously never had much money, but were poised to come into quite a bit as their rent-controlled apartment was going to be razed and they were the sole holdouts. They’d been holding out for years and were the only ones left in the entire building. “A long shot”, I thought, but it turned out they ended up relatively wealthy, at least relative to where they’d started from. Mostly, my relationship was frequent phone calls and emails, very friendly ones I must say. Then they finally scheduled a visit, one which proved a disaster for me, as they arrived 30 hours late, driving up from New York City (3 hours away). It became obvious from that one showing that they had no clue about what good land is, or even on what they wanted. We drove around a neglected field and one of them got all excited over seeing a seedling pine tree (they were all over). They asked if they could have it and, upon receiving an affirmative answer, pulled it up, leaving some of the roots in the ground. Then they sat it in the back of the car where it could get full sunshine and dry out good and thoroughly on the 30 (?) hour trip back. They wanted to plant it in a window box. “That pine is doomed”, I thought, just like the day had been for me.
They never did buy from me or anyone else in the firm, though they looked with the others as well. No loyalty, despite years of friendly exchanges. Some years later, I got a message from the son, Roberto, who had always been my contact. They’d bought not one but two pieces of land and one was only a mile away from me! Not only was there a lack of loyalty, but it was a kick in the pants. My solace was that both pieces were kind of crappy land, though one held some potential. If things did not turn out well, we could not be blamed.
At long intervals, I would get a friendly note or a call from Roberto, often telling me about events in his family’s life. And he liked to hear about my family as well, though he’d never met any of them. Some folks are like that and I am alway glad to keep up the relationship. Most just want to use me and then forget me when they have no more need for my services, so it is refreshing when one wants to keep the relationship going. Some years passed and the exchanges started again. Now, he wanted to sell one of his pieces of land. We talked, and the price he quoted that he wanted was several times what the market would bear. I told him so, but Roberto insisted that was what he wanted. I wished him good luck.
Three more years passed before the next contact. He wanted to sell them both now, and of course for the same ridiculous price. He’d been half-heartedly advertising them, but had gotten nowhere, which was hardly surprising. Buyers are not fools. This began a very long email exchange. When I give long explanations, I like to make them in writing so the recipient can go back over and ponder what I have said. Through the course of the correspondence, I gave many, many long explanations on what market conditions were, why he could not expect to get anywhere near what he’d hoped for. Now, in response to my arguments, he was willing to come down - but to a figure only 3 times what each was worth. That was an improvement, I suppose, not that it would make much difference.
I was pretty frank and said, in as every way I could think of, that people would not pay anywhere near what he wanted. If he had to get that, then he had better expect to wait some years for the market to approach those figures. How long? I didn’t know, who does? A decade maybe? Perhaps longer. I even told him the best reason for me to even take the listing was to make other property look better.
Roberto’s response: well, they’d owned it all these years and paid taxes all that time, didn’t they have a right to get back their investment? ….Well, no. No one ever has a “right” to make money or even to keep from losing it. This is the United States and we embrace capitalism. No guarantees. As an aside, adding the years of taxes to their purchase price (which was not cheap, they definitely did not get any bargains when they bought, which was also at the height of a price spike), and they would still be asking for a 2-300% profit. It didn’t sink in, none of it. I was convincing only myself.
I told him that buyers don’t care what his investment is or if he made or lost money; they only care if what they buy is worth it to them. And they are definitely going to check prices on similar properties before they buy, especially in these days when all you need to do that is an internet connection. I mentioned that once in a great while a buyer, thinking he was astute, will look up what someone paid for the land they are selling. It’s public information and available to anyone who knows how to look for it. And these “astute” buyers may then complain if someone is making too much money. My response to them is that they should always focus on what anything is worth to them, not what someone else paid for it. Immediately after saying that, I follow through with this: “If the seller was losing money on it, would you up your price?” Naturally, none of them would ever do that and they then realize the foolishness of their line of reason. Or they should. Some won’t.
This sort of reasoning does not work on Roberto. I told him that every property on the market is in competition with each other and the cheapest ones sell first, nearly every time. So, if you are over-priced, the best you can hope is that the competition gets sold off and then your turn comes. But that only works if nothing new comes on the market, so it’s not of much use. He replies like a stuck record, that he deserves a return on his investment (>200%?). He has a teflon mind: my explanations and reasoning just refuse to stick.
I explain to hm why his land is not that good. One piece is flat and wet and a huge high line cuts it into. the other has a very shallow soil, especially at one end. Heck, at that end, there is no soil, zero. He says that is why he likes them - they are flat. The land was run-down decade ago when he bought it and one piece has not even been farmed since. The bushes are only more prevalent and higher now. Then he tells me of the great barn that there is on that piece. I explain that this barn is nearly 50 years old now and the town values it at only $2000. Which gives me an idea - look up assessed valuations, which I do. And lo and behold, it turns out that the Town figures (at fair market value, current prices) they are worth even less than the figures I have quoted him, which in turn are a fraction of what he wants. I let Roberto put that in his pipe and smoke it for a while.
He called back, making the same arguments. But now he is willing to capitulate some; won’t someone just make him an offer? I reply that other than professionals and certain ethnic groups, people just don’t do that. If the asking price is not close to what they want to pay, they will not bother to make an offer. (True, very true.) I finally agreed to take someone by one of them in the next couple of days, which I did. The buyer, who was ethnic, told me to not even stop but did ask a single question: why was the seller asking so much money?
A few days later, Roberto asked me what the buyer thought about the land. I told him, talking to deaf ears. Hey, Roberto, wanting something does not make it so. The market does not care what you want. Nor do buyers. So he finally agreed to ask a bit less, only 2 1/4 times its worth on a good day. The current dialog has been going on almost daily for a month now. Last night, I was up to midnight preparing listings to get signed. Let’s see if he signs them. I ‘ll bet that he will want to add my commission on top of the price he wants.
Roberto is a motivated seller too. They are in danger of losing their home to the bank. Their taxes are behind and the County could be taking any of their three properties and that has got their bank worried about their investment in the home (which is not for sale, not now). But I am not worried about them losing their home as they have lots of experience staving off institutions. They know all the tricks.
What Affects Land Value?
What Affects Land Values?
What gives land (not buildings) its value to people? Here’s what is most commonly valued, based upon the order I think of things. You may order them differently - and should.
WHAT ADDS VALUE ?
1) A mixture of open and wooded land
3) Water (steams, rivers, farm ponds, lakes – generally, the bigger, the better)
4) Green open fields, or fields growing impressive crops
5) Privacy and quiet (which are not the same thing)
6) An area where folks want to live
a) Condition of nearby properties
b) Low taxes, good schools, distance from jobs
c) Proximity to amenities
d) Who the neighbors are (relatives, friends, values, and mores….)
7) Timber value (many fail to consider this – a few do; everyone should)
8) Variety in the topography and landscape
9) Quality of soils, levels of fertility
10) Organic certification (some could care less – I look at this as a selling point more than something that adds dollar value, meaning it attracts, but only a few would pay extra for it)
11) Recreation potential (off road vehicles users and hunters regularly buy land, cyclists and fishermen don’t)
12) Easy to visualize boundaries
13) Sunset potential, along with a general feeling of brightness
WHAT HURTS LAND VALUE ?
1) Woods that have been recently heavily cut, especially those showing big ruts with slash lying around (buyers think “rape”)
2) Neighbors that are too close (most of my buyers come to escape urban and suburban landscapes)
3) Large power lines and, to a much lesser degree, pipelines (this aversion was much worse many years ago, but it still persists)
4) Lack of access to electric power and, to a lesser degree, internet, natural gas, cell phone service…)
5) High taxes (high taxes hurt far more than low taxes help)
6) Wetlands and, less often, steep land
7) Lack of eye appeal (duh)
8) Inability to see most of the property from a single vantage point (truly hidden places are fine to advertise but are harder to sell)
9) Rights someone else has over your land (mineral rights, Right of Ways, water or hunting rights, deed restrictions, tenancies…)
10) Lack of easy vehicular access – nobody wants to build up driveways over wet land, to erect bridges, or to bulldoze away knolls that are too steep
11) Famously poor or disliked schools
12) Brush – it says you do not care enough about your land to keep it clean or maybe it wasn’t worth improving – and it also tells folks that if they want it to look clean, it’s going to cost them in both effort and money.
13) Being surrounded by nearby higher land (they call it “being in a hole”)
14) Weird shapes to the land boundaries (believe it or not, some folks have a thing for straight lines and rectangles)
Naturally enough, each of these does not affect every buyer the same. Each sets their own values, none embrace or reject all those which I have described above. So, I speak in generalities. Take neighbors that are too close for example: I have actually lost a couple of sales because the wife or someone wanted nearby neighbors and didn’t feel they had enough of them at a particular place. But for every one of these which I lost, there were 50 who rejected a property because the neighbors were too close. One man’s meat, another man’s poison.
Some blogs are designed to amuse; others can be an immense help. All are interesting.
After 40 years, I've learned a lot, & acquired unforgettable experiences. Follow these long enough and you'll eventually get the whole book. (Names probably changed, for obvious reasons.)