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Purchasing Country or Rural Property in Sonoma County, Calif Part II

CountryPropertyIn Part I of “Buying Country or “Rural” property I explored the differences of a “Town” versus a “Country” property.  The major difference between Town and Country? Onsite “waste disposal systems” and “water supply” residing on the same property as your home. Many consumers will back off buying a rural property simply for this reason.  However many will sally forth knowing owning a country property brings with it many rewarding years of living closer to nature. You just need to do YOUR HOMEWORK when buying. Part I of this series dealt with septic and well tests but there are many others usually recommended in this type of real estate purchase. Let’s explore and discuss other points you NEED to understand when purchasing Country or “Rural” property.

“Charming” is used by many a Realtor when describing country property. “Charming” is another word for “old” or in my grizzled eyes—“WORK NEEDED!”  I was once told by a Realtor that her country listing “oozed with charm” and only needed “tender loving care” or TLC.  She also stated “some of the buildings were NOT done with permits” and there was a minor lot line “dispute” with a neighbor.  I drove out to the property, walked up the rather creaky stairs to the front porch and fell THROUGH the front porch up to my knees! Since then TLC means to me, “Tear down, Level and Condemn”!

Turned out the unpermitted buildings included a large shop the owner used in his on-site welding business. The “minor” lot line dispute? The shop straddled the neighbor’s PROPERTY LINE.  Here’s a valuable lesson—NEVER TICK OFF YOUR NEIGHBOR in the CITY or COUNTY.  If you gain the wrath of your neighbor they will watch you like a hawk waiting the day you do ANYTHING without a permit or a use NOT contained in current zoning. At the Sonoma County Code Enforcement department most ALL complaints are by ticked off neighbors.  How to remedy this mess? You NEED a professional or better yet—an advocate to help you through the mind-field which is our county permit process.

Ask your Realtor for a referral to a “Permit Consulting Service”.   Consumers usually do a minimal check of County Records.  This is a “level 1” exploration. You first start at the Permit Resource Management Division of Sonoma County (PRMD). You, the buyer or seller, can search your property permit “history” by going to http://prmd.sonoma-county.org/ and entering the property address or “parcel number” or “AP#” (Assessor’s Parcel). Our property listings have the “AP#” on the MLS print out.  On-line you will see in chronological order your property permit history.  Your next step would be an in person visit to the PRMD (2550 Ventura Avenue, Santa Rosa). Here you can ask to see the property “File” which is recorded on Microfiche. Hopefully there is MORE information for you to note. However, do you UNDERSTAND the information? You’ll most likely mutter, “What does this all mean to me and how does it apply to my purchase?”

A competent “Permit Consultant” can go beyond level 1 and dig deeper into the County records. The Consultant will make sense of what’s on record and KNOW the right turns to make at the maze called the PRMD. Also, asking the “right” questions of the County can save you much time and money.  A Permit Consulting Service offers professional assistance at the building department. They know the process and will advocate for you. The consultant’s expertise comes from decades of experience in all phases of plan and permits processing and can work for you in any of the 10 building departments in Sonoma County. They can further help with building or zoning permits, or just help you understand what permits were taken out for work done in the past. If you need plans drawn in order to pull a permit, many can do those for you also. They can handle the whole process, start to finish, or coach you through it. And it’s not getting any simpler. You’ll save time and money by getting a professional on your side.

Sellers who have owned properties for 20-30 years don’t KNOW what was done in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Many disputes center around “non-disclosure” but many times the SELLER had NO clue as to a dispute or permit issue. A professional consultant may be the safest way to go with the example I gave at the beginning of this column and which led to the shop being torn down by 50% to get it OFF the neighbor’s property line and allow for a “set-back”.

Years past many a country property was “split” or sub-divided to help a farmer through a bad growing season. The farmer would sell off a 1, 2 or 5 acres to supplement their income. And many times to a neighbor or friend who “allowed” the farmer to keep his cow barn even though half of it was on the 5 acres he sold. Over time this verbal agreement and the lines became hazy.  This is why a SURVEY of your country property is always a good idea.

Surveying an existing parcel should be mandatory when buying country property. MANY consumers NEVER get this done relying on old fence lines or the owner’s knowledge of the property lines. OLD fence lines are NEVER a good indicator of neither property lines nor Seller’s knowledge.  Play it safe- use a reputable surveyor to determine your property lines. The costs are dependent on site complexity, but usually run in the $2,000-3,000 range for an acreage sized lot. Obviously larger acreage in very steep terrain will add to the cost. And NEVER rely upon the Assessor’s Maps (AP). You’ll note a large disclaimer on every plat map, “For Assessment purposes ONLY” which means they are NOT accurate. I’ve seen folks grab large tape measures and attempt to determine property lines by using google maps and an AP map. NOT a good idea! Get a professional. Do you really want that shop hanging over your neighbor’s property? Didn’t think so. Part III coming up next.

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