Blog: R.E. Tales
(Hey, not every place is pretty...)
9/6/21 A Race Like No Other
Sam was getting older and the hunting properties he’d cherished were turning into a burden, so it was time to liquidate some of them. One in particular was a problem; neither of us knew how to price it. He’d ask me to get it sold, I’d ask him how much he wanted. And so it went for a couple of years. Finally this spring he made it clear he wanted it gone. So once again I wracked my mind to figure out the highest price that would be obtainable.
I do appraisals. Why was this so hard? Well, you see this was no typical property. 30 acres of woodland, but that’s where comparable stopped. Nearly every inch was steep. Power was 1/4 mile away, and the Right of Way in, while a once-paved abandoned Town road, was quite steep, not in good repair, and the final culvert was washed out, leaving a steep 6’ deep gully, 20’ wide. From top to bottom was a 300’ vertical rise. Though structurally sound, the cabin who been heavily vandalized and never had water, septic or public power. It hurt me to witness the increasing vandalism over the years as I like to think our area is free from such acts. It almost is.
But then there were attributes that added to the value, namely a series of waterfalls and swimming holes. Some of the falls were along 2 small side streams, but the one that got serious attention was in a creek which formed the western boundary. The main falls was over 100’ high and had a large plunge pool at the bottom. And was far prettier than your average 100’ falls. Because the water before the falls flowed some distance over flat rock, its water was unusually warm. During storms, it might be 3’ deep, falling 50’ wide. In drier times, a peaceful sight. In the winter, one can climb behind the falls and look through crystalline ice to the outside. Below the falls were a series of smaller falls and more swimming holes. Isolated yet so close to town, it enjoyed excellent cell reception. It looked like a State park in the raw; in fact the Town once considered taking it for a park. There is nothing like it that had ever come for sale.
So, knowing we had to start somewhere, I priced it at roughly $3000 an acre, reasoning that once in a while some land brings that much here. We could always come down if necessary. It turns out what I’d established was not the asking price, it was the starting price. This hit the market just as COVID-inspired sales began to skyrocket and prices all over the US began their steep rise. On my first ads, we had no clue of what was about to happen.
But we figured it out pretty quickly. The phone rang off the wall. Me and my salesman Pete could not keep up with the showings. I had to create a database to keep track of the offers. One day, I showed it to 10 parties, walking 6 miles and climbing over 3000 vertical feet in the process. The entrance along the road began to look like a parking lot. We did this for 2 weeks to give enough folks a chance to see it and to make their offers, then we would accept the one Sam liked best. That happened to be one of the very first parties to visit; they’d offered, cash, well over 50% higher than the starting price. Short and sweet, huh?
Well, it proved to be neither. It seems the buyers wanted a survey. No problem: we had not one but two of them. I need to interrupt and do some explaining. Back in the mid-80s, when Sam bought it, Edwin, the owner, said he had a survey, but at the closing had to admit he couldn’t find it.. No problem, Sam ordered a new survey.
That’s where the problems began. When the new one was completed, we learned there were 20 acres, not 30, and the missing land was the part that connected with the right of way and contained the foundation upon which Sam wanted to build a cabin. You have to understand, this was a very cheap sale. Lawyers don’t like to waste too much time on cheap sales where not much money is at stake for either party. And since neither Edwin or Sam were hurting for money, so they diid not push too hard for a resolution.
Finally, Edwin found his survey. It looked radically different from the new survey. His surveyor had died a number of years prior., so we couldn’t go to him for any answers. Things went along, with tensions between Sam and Edwin tightening slowly but surely. Edwin did not like to have his word doubted, but could not prove that he was right. The new survey was unassailable.
Finally I tried to intervene. Going through the old deeds, I went back over the years, deed after deed, until 1920, when one of them appeared to be more accurate than the ones that had followed it. I copied down the description and tried to draw a map. I couldn’t, so took the figures to a engineer who ran them off on a computer program. It didn't close (meaning the starting and ending points were not the same, there was an error somewhere), but it came close enough to still encourage me. Playing with my copy machine, I changed the scale of this line drawing until it matched the 400 feet to the inch scale of my aerial photos. Then, I made a overlay on clear plastic and took it to Edwin’s lawyer. We taped the aerial to the window and then the over lay on top of it. Instantly the lawyer recognized what the problem was. He knew how to settle it.
It seems when Edwin had sold his farm a few years ago, the buyers had ended up with more than the farm. Mistakenly, they also got the missing part of the waterfall property. To be fair to the new owners, they never knew this, and had never considered that they “owned” this land. But now that they knew it was legally theirs, they didn’t want to let it go. This riled Edwin, as you might expect. For years, he had let them use his bulldozer whenever they wanted. He let them take hay, for free, from a field that he continued to own. Edwin held the mortgage on the farm and each year, he gave them back their last payment, saying they might as well have it as the IRS. And if they didn’t play ball and give it back, all this was going to end. Since it was steep, wooded land, land they had no use for and never thought they owned, they saw the logic in Edwin’s threats and gave in and the dilemma between Edwin and Sam was settled.
Back to the present. It seems the original survey had been housed with Edwin’s lawyer’s records. But a few years ago, the creek in town had flooded, wiping out many decades of records the firm had stored in their basement. The tax maps and deed descriptions were correct, but we could not prove it with surveys. A desperate search was made for another copy of the the original survey. We found a surveyor in another county who had in a roundabout way ended up with the original surveyors records, a pile 2’ or so thick. He did not find what we wanted and was too busy to make a concerted search.
What all this meant was the the new buyers had originally asked for a new survey but Sam said, “I gave them everything I had. The title is clear and the description accurate. If they want a third survey, let them do it.” But they wouldn’t. And this led to a 6 month-long stalemate, during which each party began to plead with me to get the other moving forward. I tied, but good nowhere.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, buyers continued to call - despite me clearly marking it “UNDER CONTRACT”. They either hoped it would fall through or did not know what those words meant. Regardless, they kept calling. At times it was my most active property, if measured by inquiries received. My database grew to nearly 250 separate parties, some of which who had made backup offers, more than doubling the starting price. As time wore on, the pace of the inquiries increased. Some were savvy enough to realize that if it had gone this long without closing, there was a problems and they hoped to take advantage of this. Others were clutching at straws because there were so few other properties left on the market. And none of those had waterfalls. With each inquiry I carefully answered their questions and explained that it might or might not every reach the open market where they could seriously consider it. But I would let them know if it did.
By this time, my inventory was 20% of what was normal. I half-joked with people: “Yes, I am making a ton of money this year, but may find myself out of business next year.” A bit funny but way too likely. It is a seller’s market, something we have not witnessed in the 40 years I have been in real estate;
So finally Sam’s lawyer gave the other side a “time of the essence” letter, meaning “either close right now or withdraw”. This letter closely followed an offer from one of my new callers to buy them out (he offered them a very large incentive to withdraw in his favor - but they did not even consider this). That was evidence they really wanted the place and after a couple of days, Sam’s lawyer called to tell me a closing was scheduled.
Then he called to tell me of a new wrinkle. It seems Sam had formed an LLC for his various properties in New York and New England, a plan designed to make it easy on his heirs. We knew this but had just found out that Sam’s downstate attorney, who had done all that work, had never filed the deed in the LLC’s name. It was still in the old name as far as the State and County knew, which is what all the title documents and searches were based upon. Now, they had to repeat the process under the new LLC name. Since it was recent, the process would not be so time-consuming as it was before, but they were not ready to close as they’d supposed when they had drawn the line in the sand with the time of the essence letter.
So, when will it close? Hopefully, later this week. But we’ve heard that before. And then I have to inform 250 people to look elsewhere for their waterfall.
Some are merely amusing, some 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.)