Land and decisions about its ownership or stewardship of it, have been a defining factor in the history of the United States. The promise of having a stake in the land brought so many to our shores. LAND, that one asset, is highly diverse, uniquely fixed, and limited in supply…
“Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything, for ‘tis the only thing that lasts, and don’t you be forgetting it! ‘Tis the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for…” – Gerald O’Hara to Katie Scarlet, GONE WITH THE WIND
RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY IN LAND BROKERAGE
As you establish yourself as a Land Broker, one of a select group of people who are willing to brave the elements and ford the streams, my best advice to you centers around RELATIONSHIPS. These important associations will help you today and over the years in your career of land brokerage. The depth they will provide to your practice will help you establish yourself as a Land Expert. Build this team and be loyal to them, and demand loyalty back! If you cannot call them when it may be inconvenient to them from time to time, find someone else to work with. As with most businesses, team effort is essential.
There follows a list of members you would do well to identify for your team in the land brokerage business. Try to find three folks you can work with in each category, but be sure to find at least one. These contacts will help you to know your market and the players in it.
LAND APPRAISER. Identify and meet with and interview this important member of your team. Talk with him or her about the average sales prices of lots and acreages. Keep track of this as you continue to keep in touch with this individual and chart it. This information is all-important as you evaluate land in your market. This information can support that you obtain from your local MLS system (if you have one). Be sure to use the MLS to chart the land currently on the market, too. Also ask your land bankers, they know about deals that didn’t go on the market!
LAND BANK. The land bank is very important in the land business. Here’s why: Down payments and interest rates. Any property over five (5) acres (with or without a home on it) is considered “non-conforming”. Conventional lending services will make a loan on vacant land, however they want 20 to 50% down. On the other hand, the Land Bank asks 15% down on a 20-year program. (This program is based upon demographics, so your market area may not apply.) Note: Most Land Banks have in-house Appraisers. Check with your local Farm Credit and get to know those loan officers. They are a wealth of knowledge.
ATTORNEY. Who can do business without a good attorney these days? Interview as many as you can find who specialize in land transactions. Talk with them about land, what they think about it, what brought them to specialize in land transactions, and how available they can be for you and your clients.
Try to identify at least three (3) attorneys you can work with and recommend to your clients. Remember, a land attorney should be very knowledgeable in subdivision laws, easements, timber contracts, mineral rights, extensive title searches, and land financing. There are definite nuances in the land business and your attorney needs to know about them and be available for consultation, even at night.
CPA/ TAX ACCOUNTANT/FINANCIAL PLANNER. There may be tax consequences in all land contracts. These professionals can help you identify them and can be a valuable resource to you and your clients especially if they specialize in 1031 Like-Kind Exchange work. They can explain how to figure the “tax basis” in your transactions.
SURVEYOR. A surveyor is a big help in determining the “highest and best use” of a property. Do the same thing with surveyors as you did with other team members. Take the time to interview and select as those you enjoy working with and can recommend to your clients.
Be sure the surveyor is up-to-date on zoning and subdivision laws in your market area. Find at least one who not only is available, but will work with you. That is important. I call my surveyor at night if I need to.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROFESSIONALS. Take the time to get to know your environmental health department professionals. Be sure to meet and spend time with the Health Department Director and Staff. At a minimum, learn from them:
- How to set up a septic system
- How to fill out septic applications; and
- How to understand and fill out well permits.
In addition, 1) learn how to do your own soil analysis, 2) know how to get a water sample if a property has existing well or wells, and 3) get copies of soil maps and system application forms so you will have them handy when needed. In a rural land transaction, the septic permit is all you need to close. Remember, the septic permit may take 2 to 4 (or sometimes more) weeks to obtain, so be sure to start the process as soon as you are under contract.
SOIL SCIENTIST. Soil scientists are an invaluable asset to your team because they can approve sites that a Health Department cannot. They can suggest alternative systems (probably considerably more expensive) and even override a Health Department decision. Most counties do NOT have a soil scientist on staff, so you will need to do some detective work to find and establish a relationship with at least one. A soil scientist can teach you how to evaluate soil, a lesson well worth learning.
SEPTIC SYSTEM INSTALLER. In the land business, where septic systems are common, what would your team be without at least one reliable septic system installer on board? Identify and interview several and select those you can work with and refer to clients. From your contacts, learn the different types of systems, their costs and how they are laid out. Go to an installation site and observe for yourself first-hand how the system is installed. Support your own research with a collection of information and brochures from various manufacturers whom your installer can recommend.
WELL DRILLER/CONTRACTOR. A poorly built or maintained well can allow pollutants to enter water directly. The closer the well is to sources of pollution, the more likely the well will become polluted. For instance, if the well casing is cracked and pesticides that are being mixed near the well are spilled, the pesticides can easily leak into the well and pollute your drinking water, so it is essential to take the time to get to know a certified well-driller in your area. A good place to start to look for a well driller is your State Division of Water Quality. Once you locate reliable resources, and identify those you will want to work with, find out about their pricing structure (most charge by the foot) and get basic knowledge like the typical depth of a well in your area, and now to chlorinate a well.
Your regional DENR Groundwater Section office, county health department or local Cooperative Extension Center can be a valuable source of information on the following topics: New well or spring construction and site selection, well inspection and maintenance, Certified well drillers, Unused well abandonment, Construction records for existing wells ,Well water testing including— – Advice on appropriate tests to run, – List of certified testing laboratories, – Assistance interpreting test results, – Health risks. Your local Cooperative Extension Center can also provide information on: Backflow prevention, Water pollution and health risks, Water treatment devices, Groundwater.
COUNTY/CITY PLANNING BOARDS. Attend meetings of your local board. You will gain invaluable knowledge and insight which you can share with your clients. Get current copies of zoning laws, subdivision laws, zoning maps, flood plain maps, and other information that will be of help to you. Know of plans for the future including zoning changes and annexations, as this will help you anticipate the market. Learn how to establish a new street name and address.
MAPPING STAFF. Get to know the mapping staff in your county. They can help you to identify property, property owners, provide tax maps, topographical (topo) maps, and aerials of property. (Most counties now have GIS systems.) The mapping staff can teach you how to use these tools if you take the time to establish a relationship with them.
REGISTRAR OF DEEDS STAFF. Get to know the folks at the Registrar of Deeds Office. They will help you do your own title search and do the research to discover anything that may affect the title or value of the property including: any type of easement, encumbrances, mineral rights, timber rights, and so forth. Remember: ALWAYS get a copy of the Deed or deeds involved as you do your research. Do not rely on the attorney to do this for you. You are the expert and responsible.
TAX ASSESSMENT OFFICER. Take time to go to meet the tax assessment officer. Such individuals are helpful in understanding what has sold and trends in sales beyond MLS date. My agent furnishes me leads from time to time. This member of your team can be an excellent resource and most Realtors do not use them, so you can stand apart if you do.
TIMBER EXPERT. Professional Forestry services can help you as you identify the “highest and best use of the land” and a timber expert is an excellent addition to your team. That person can help you remember which tree is which, learn how to identify prized trees, learn how to “cruise” timber, provide a “certified cruise” and basically learn how the timber market works. You need to know about or how to figure board feet, how a timber contract works, and how to auction timber. TIMBER IS CASH. Your client actually can buy land with a timber contract, cut the timber, and still own the land with no out-of-pocket money. Being able to evaluate timber will help you price land.
ROAD BUILDER. The construction business has become a more complicated one as environmental and safety rules proliferate and methods and equipment become more sophisticated. The increased complexity of the field makes planning jobs even tougher than before Road construction, grading, concrete work, retaining wall construction and taking preventative measures, which are cheaper than curative ones, can reduce the risks of landslides and increased soil and water erosion. Your road builder can tell you about the importance of aligning a road along a ridge, especially with a south-west aspect, and how it helps to avoid water drainage problems, avoids exposure to excess moisture and frost, and uses sunlight to keep roads dry. Ask him or her about phased construction, such as gradually increasing the width of the track, avoids having to manage large amounts of excavated material and allows for the natural compaction of earthwork by rain. Road building is a complicated effort and you will want to add a seasoned road builder (or more) to your team. They can let you know the cost of putting in basic access roads to state-specified built roads. This will also help you on a break-up evaluation.
CORPS OF ENGINEERS/SOIL & WATER/ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCIES. All these government agencies are resources for you and may well be involved in any land development project in which you are involved. Get to know them and what services they provide.
LAND CONSERVATORY. Identify the local Land Conservatory decision-makers. They may be aware of purchase programs and incentives that may purchase your listing or a part of it. Tax benefits at the Federal and State level may aid in your sale.
UTILITIES PROVIDERS. Contact the utilities providers in your area including telephone, power and cable. Know who they are, what their service area is, how they work in terms of applications and so forth, what their charges are (if any) for new service, or moving a pole or poles and possibly create a hand-out with this information you can supply to your clients.
LAND BROKERAGE TOOL KIT
These are must items to help you become a LAND EXPERT if you use them.
- 300’ tape
- Surveyor’s flagging tape
- 4’ surveyor’s stakes
- Small hand sledgehammer
- A handful of 10-penny nail (Who is holding the dumb end of the tape?)
- Really good walking/hiking shoes
- Beverage container you can wear
- Insect repellant
- Professional compass
- Hand auger
- Scale ruler
- Digital camera w/ extra disc
- GPS locator
- Area maps
- Topographical maps/ aerial maps of subject and adjoining properties
- Septic/well permits application forms
- Think about what else you may want to add to this list!
You also may want to contact Ted Turner. He is the true lover of land. He now is the largest private owner of land in the United States. He owns over 2,000,000 acres of land. Does he know something we should know?
Now you are ready. Happy land brokerage and good luck!
© Lou Jewell, Accredited Land Consultant 2004
About the Author: Lou Jewell, ALC, has for over twenty-five years has provided expert experience in rural markets in Western Piedmont North Carolina and Southern Virginia. He has over 1,000 successful transactions and has developed over sixty rural subdivisions. A member of the Realtors® Land Institute since 1998, he achieved the prestigious Accredited Land Consultant (ALC) Designation in 2004 and is one of less than 500 ALCs in the United States.