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Buying Country Property or “What did I just step in?”

Here in Sonoma County,Calfornia, “The Wine Country” folks are snapping up “Country” properties. Country could be defined as 2+ acres of land (0.8084 Hectares), using an “on-site” waste disposal system or “Septic Tank” and drawing water from an “on-site” well. Here’s the first part of my 4 part series which appeared in our local newspaper, “The Press Democrat”. I write a column approximately twice a month. Enjoy!

West County Country

Buying “Country Property” So you want to raise some chickens and things? Pt I


In my last column two columns we have been discussed writing a lean and mean offer that will stand-out from all others in a “Multiple-offer’ situation.  I gave techniques on writing offers with a minimum of inspections (all according to the buyer’s level of sophistication and comfort level) in order to make your OFFER “cleaner” and more attractive to a Seller. However, those techniques concerned a “town or city” property on public sewer and water on a subdivision lot (3500 to 6000 sqft). Now I want to explore the complexities of purchasing a “country property” replete with multiple acres of land (an acre is 43560sqft), septic systems, well water,  permitting issues for older buildings or additional “units”,  property line disputes and possible toxic issues. And you thought buying a “town” property was tough and complex.

The biggest differences in the two types of property are generally lot size and on-site “systems” for sewage disposal and water.  The thought of sewage disposal and water supply ON THEIR LAND is somewhat shocking.  No treatment plant miles away but an ON-SITE septic tank with leach lines just yards from home. Water?—from your own Well which means both systems go into and come OUT of the same land. This takes some getting used to.  Many buyers don’t know just HOW big an acre really is. For instance, I had a client insisting on a 5 acre parcel. He grew up in the “Avenues” of San Francisco (5,000 sqft lots) and wanted “wide open spaces”.  I showed him a home on one acre. He looked at me and stammered, “I had NO idea 5 acres was THIS BIG!”  He ended up buying a ½ acre and thinks he moved to Montana.

Multiple offers also occur when buying “country” property. Well priced country property is very much in demand. Techniques for buying property with multiple offers still apply but beware of waiving your contingencies on inspections. The “City or Town” property may require just a Pest Control AND Home Inspection reports. Country Property? You can expect many more. And the sheer expense of these reports means you’d best REALLY want this home.   As we mentioned you now have a septic system and a well. You’ll want them BOTH inspected. As always, a well prepared Realtor may have these on file as bringing a property to market is very similar for City properties. The Realtor may also have a recent survey as well.  Here are common reports for buying country property and the costs associated with each:

             Septic Inspection- $325 to $375 + Tank pumping: $375 per 1200 gallon tank. We recommend Mike Trienen for this.

             Well Production/system inspection: $370.00 We recommend Nick Braseco at Ray’s Wells Service for this.

             Water Testing varies from $135 to $435 depending on WHEN you need it. The shorter the time the costs go up.

             Permit Consultant: $90.00 per hour–Tom Havstad is THE man!

             Surveyor- Based on land size, terrain, and difficulty in finding markers. A 2 person team at $200-$225/hour.  Phase One toxic inspection $2,000 to $3,000 depending on site complexities. Hogan and Associates are 2nd generation surveyors.

Remember; allow yourself TIME to do your inspections. Many of these consultants are a week or two OUT and reports may take a week or two to process. Consult with your Realtor and the listing agent for how much time is available for reports. Caveat: if you DON’T buy the home you STILL must pay the costs of the reports or have prior negotiated costs with the Seller. Let‘s explore these reports and what they cover:

Septic System:  Your inspector must be qualified so I would recommend seeking out an inspector who is  R.E.H.S (Registered Environmental Health Specialist) and has experience in OUR area to inspect the septic system. Septic inspection requires tank pumping (within the last 2 years) of effluent prior to inspection. Your inspector will examine if the system is filed at the Permit Resource Management Division of Sonoma County (PRMD). You, the buyer or seller, can search your property permit “history” by going to and entering the property address or “parcel number” or “AP#”. Our property listings have the “AP#” on the MLS print out which your Realtor can provide to you.

A qualified septic system inspector will also go to the PRMD seeking a site plan in the PRMD property file.  The inspector needs to know WHERE to look for the system.  If a site plan is not on file he will be “probing” for tank and leach lines which may increase the inspection fee.  Areas of concern; failing leach lines, cracked or damaged septic tanks and water table areas where water intrusion can fail a system.. Your inspector does an internal investigation of the tank to make sure both “baffles” are working properly. The baffles control flow to and from the tank to the leach lines. Leach lines will disperse the sewage effluent to the field. A cracked tank will mean a NEW tank—a costly discovery. Septic Systems are a “finite” system. The older the property the more prone to failure or repair.  Erma Bombeck’s great book, “The grass is always greener over the septic system” refers to a system in distress!

Well Report: Your inspector will do a very thorough report on the Water production of your well as well as a system inspection. You’ll learn the gallons per minute or GPM of your well, TYPE of pump you have, how much water is being used when the system is pumping, plus water testing for Bacteria, E.Coli, Arsenic, Nitrates, etc in the water. You can test water further for lead, pesticide scan and toxics. All reports? Expect to pay $550.00.

Remember, Sonoma County agricultural was THE economy for years.  Many chemicals were used in the “old” days without the best standard of care. DDT, old underground oil or gas storage tanks plus many other chemicals now banned still reside in soils throughout the county at various levels. I’ve seen high deposits of residue DDT to a worker wearing tennis shoes having them melt underfoot from an old battery acid deposit site! And while Petaluma was the “chicken capital” of the U.S. for years it also left a “nitrate” belt of contaminated ground water. Talk to your Realtor and please do your homework!


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