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Listen to the Land: Listing Advice

This article on land listing advice was originally published in the Summer 2016 Terra Firma Magazine.

Some years back, a long walk in a fallow field changed my career path forever. Peanut hulls, gobbler tracks, and flint flakes dotted the river-silt loam around my boots. It was March, right when Eastern North Carolina starts to warm. The soft dirt slowed me down, and I accepted it as a vehicle to better observation — of crows raising cane in the hardwoods, of deer crashing through a cypress slough, of wood duck squeals, of the muddy Roanoke River hissing along cut banks.

This property was four-hundred acres of fields and hardwoods set to be developed into twenty acre strips, river to road, like someone cutting tenderloin into steaks with their eyes shut. I was working for the developer, fresh from a long jaunt as equal parts boat captain, writer, rod and reel wholesaler, and boat salesman. I was young and ready to make some money. The rush was on for waterfront land, and this developer found a niche cutting up river and marsh-front farms in off-radar towns. But surely not this farm, I thought, bending over to pick up the base of a quartz spear point.

As luck would have it, the marketing plan didn’t work. The grand opening had few attendees. Only one of the twenty lots was reserved. Several of the migratory investors cited dissatisfaction that the only place to buy a snack was a Red Apple gas station thirty miles away. The developer, who had picked up on my outdoor affliction and who did not often put on boots, called me into his office.

“What should we do?” He asked me, having never sold fewer than all his lots in a single day. He was on seriously foreign turf.

“I could sell the whole thing to someone for a hunting place,” I said.

“Hunting? Would they pay me enough?” He asked, chewing on a giant cigar. “I need to get one point two out.”

“Yes sir,” I said, crossing both sets of fingers in my pockets.

“Well, then, you got your first listing,” he said.

carolina river

It’s a good story for me, one that hits home because it finally turned my avocation into a vocation that could put food on the table. The “listing” moment and the drive home from closing were like lightning bolts hitting pine bark – burning out all the job doubts I’d had until then. But many years later, looking back, I see new things –so many other critical lessons learned from that one sale that had very little to do with me.

I sold the farm to a sporting investor who had a mind for everything from deer, to dirt, to conservation, to equity-share sporting clubs. You could say that we “rescued” or changed the life course of that four-hundred-acre farm forever, but I believe that the farm did the work. Location, habitat, proximity to water and wildlife corridors, soil, floodplain, and agriculture – all of these things played specific roles in scratching plan A and trading off for the ultimate end user. Each element saw its higher and better use by keeping the property intact as a joint equity hunting property.

Strangely enough, the real credit goes to the developer. Instead of banging his head against the wall, he was willing to take a new approach. He listened to me and he really listened to the land and let it guide him toward a better solution. Here was a guy in a Tommy Bahama shirt, with his loafers on the desk, making a quick decision based on a very sophisticated hybrid of economics and land stewardship.

In that sense, a huge part of land listing and marketing is letting the property be what it is rather than forcing it into a box or flaunting it for something it’s not—which means that someone, most likely a land owner, may have to concede their original vision. It sounds corny, but it’s critical as a good broker to “feel” the land and how it fits with wildlife and the surrounding neighborhood.

If you have a good sense of the land and surroundings, you’re ahead of the game with the seller. I think it’s important to stick with what you believe when you meet with a listing client – whether you’re discussing price, preservation, the property’s long term potential, or lack thereof. Not sugarcoating things with the listing client or the end user always yields more solid footing, and in my experience, more closings.

A good friend of mine came to Charleston yesterday, and we rode my skiff out to a newly listed property in the Santee River called Cane Island. Mottled ducks traded across the river in the late light, and all sorts of birds moved before roost – roseate spoonbill, least bittern, glossy ibis. It was a bird and fish paradise, and we clinked bottles to that, talking about the value of Cane Island as a fish and waterfowl haven and a no-brainer conservation easement play.

river land

Riding back upriver, my friend talked about his own properties in North Carolina, one of which he was beginning to develop. “You know those old hay fields north of town,” he said, “I’m about to ruin them, I guess.”

“Nah,” I said, “That farm is naturally on the residential path.”

His other properties include big managed pine tracts south of his town, ones further from the progress stream. Outside the ducks and fish, his passion is quail, and he follows his setter around in the open longleaf on his days off. In a sense, he epitomizes the point by taking one tract to market based on location and timing, and preserving the other for its life in recreation.

Three listing and marketing suggestions stand out that all have to do with “listening” to the property and refusing to compromise:

  • List properties that match you and your skill set, passions, and beliefs rather than taking everything that comes along.
  • Market those listings according to what they are by using platforms that mirror and properly display the property.
  • Recognize when the buyer and property don’t match, and concede.

As luck would have it, my first listing both fit and shaped me. I learned from the experience, and finding a great steward for wild land became my ultimate goal – the model for the listings and buyers that I would pursue. At the time, I just used a simple hunting network via email and phone to locate the buyer.

Today, I would use a marketing venue that fit the property – whether that was the local newspaper or a sophisticated digital platform.

In any real estate niche, the goal should be the same – Find the right buyer for the property and the right property for the buyer. I believe that an honest evaluation of the land is critical to that match.

About the author: Douglas Cutting is the Vice President of Garden & Gun Land and BIC of Cutting Land & Consulting, LLC based in Charleston, SC. Cutting is an experienced outdoors-man and land broker with a diverse background in the woods and on the water.