If you’re looking for land, here are our top 10 things (in no particular order) we think are highly worthwhile and important to consider *before* you buy land. Do these things and we promise they’ll make your life more easy and productive.
Does the land you’re looking at have any? In urban areas, generally the answer is yes as you’ll be connected to mains, but not always. In this case you can go for rain tanks and different types of passive water harvesting including things like swales and swale pathways. There may also be opportunities to divert water from neighbouring properties and road ways (without heavy pollution). In rural areas, water is a really important consideration, especially when you plan of having animals and/or cropping systems. Look for the following things:
- Water catchment: Even if your land comes without dams you might be able to put some in – choose land which has a good, clean water catchment to ensure successful water harvesting.
- Dams: Land that comes with dam/s is a great asset – check to make sure they don’t leak – i.e. holds water and keep in mind that if there isn’t any already, you’ll need additional infrastructure, think pipes, pump/s and maybe tanks.
- Rain tanks: In rural and urban areas rain tanks are a must for drinking and garden irrigation.
- Natural springs on farms mean you have a more secure water source.
- Bores: Have a water test done for bore water to check for things like salinity.
- Creeks and rivers: Generally there are really strict guidelines around using water from creeks and rivers, talk to you local environment body to find out what these are. In Tasmania talk to NRM South, North, Cradle Coast or your local Council for guidance.
It just so happens that we’re not the best people to talk about access. We bought a house and land with no driveway, it’s only legal access is a 100m staircase from the road up a *very* steep hill (around 26 degrees). Luckily we have some kind neighbours who have let us use their driveways to bring in truckloads of garden materials over the past 3 years. But it’s not ideal and we’ve been working on a solution for quite some time now which is almost at fruition (watch this space).
So make sure you have easy access, or can get some. This includes roads across all areas of your farm, ideally along boundary lines and to desirable land for grazing/cropping. For urban areas, if you can get vehicle access to your front and back garden this is ideal, it means you can get bulk materials delivered for your garden (compost, woodchips etc) easily. I’ve lived in a house where we had to push wheelie bins and barrows through the house to get into the backyard, not ideal and a bit messy – luckily the landlord didn’t mind.
When I think of the most useful structures (besides a house), fencing and sheds come to mind in a milli-second. If I think for one more second I would add a hot house (or glass house) to that list. Fencing in Australia is generally used to keep livestock in and native wildlife out. We have a lot of wildlife (wallabies, possum, rabbits) which will ravage the landscape and any crops you put in. Fencing can be a major expense, in some cases it may also be appropriate to have portable electric fencing to move your animals around. But if wallabies are eating all your pasture, you’ll still need to consider permanent wallaby fencing so you have some grass for your animals.
Where we live in cool temperate Tasmania in the southern hemisphere, having access to sun is really important. If you live in a place with no, or limited sun over Winter, life can get a bit hard – for you and your garden. Look for a north facing aspect (that’s south for you folks in the northern hemisphere) and make this high on your priority list. And don’t be swayed by the real estate agent insisting that a south east facing property/house is just as good as north. It’s not, believe me. And yes, I’ve actually heard a real estate agent say this. Of course, if you’re in the hot tropics this isn’t such a big deal, you’ll be looking for shelter from sun and weather with landforms and vegetation – it’s all about context.
On a rural block having some established vegetation is generally a fantastic asset. Especially is it’s acting as a windbreak to buffer you from the prevailing winds and can potentially provide you with firewood and building materials. Funnily enough, in urban areas vegetation can often be a limitation as it casts shade and can dominate the soil with roots (i.e. gums). If you’re looking for a gum forest on an urban block this is no problem at all, if you’re looking for a veggie patch and orchard, you may have to consider making some strategic removals. If you are removing vegetation on a small or large area, consider the local wild life, especially the little birds who often love nesting in dense understory. You might think about clearing trees and shrubs gradually to help an easier transition take place.
Some people are very passionate about only working with ideal soils and that nothing else is worthwhile, however not everyone has access to the best soils due to price (it’s expensive) and geography. The good thing is that with time you can build soil. The main thing I look to avoid is soil contamination. If you’re interested in rural or urban land you can get a quick and affordable soil test done for heavy metals and suspected pesticides. Old orchards are commonly treasure chests of old pesticides such as DDT and arsenic, in urban areas lead is the common contaminant you have to deal with.
7. Property boundaries
If you can, check them before you buy the land. In Tasmania you can use The List to do this for free. More than once we’ve worked on properties doing permaculture designs where we’ve found the boundaries are incorrect. Generally it’s not a big deal, but every now and then it can a major factor that needs addressing.
Talk to your local Council and Fire authorities (Tas Fire Service) about certain guidelines you’ll need to adhere to for your patch of land. This isn’t such a major issue for people living in the city, but can be a significant one for rural folks, especially if you plan on building a new house and you’re looking at purchasing a bush block.
9. How much work is this going to be?
An important reality check. The other question to ask is along side this one is how much will this cost me/us to make it how we want it be? Sometimes people neglect these questions, leading to years of frustration and struggle. On the flip side there are ways to gather support and think beyond money, including wwoofing, helpx and your community of friends and family. It’s just important to acknowledge this as a real consideration.
Edit: Remember that you don’t necessarily need to buy a large parcel of land. Many people we’ve worked with buy large farms and then realise they don’t need that much area to grow food, keep animals etc. Smaller is often better as you can manage it more easily.
10. Connection to community
Whether you decide to live in a rural or urban area, we strongly believe that you should have easy access to community and services relevant to you. This can look like many different things for people depending on where you are and your particular needs. For example after much deliberation, we decided to live in an urban area where we weren’t car dependent and could walk or ride our bikes to work, see our friends easily and do general errands.
Obviously we sacrificed other things for this, but it’s what rang true for us and meets our needs in living a life not dependent on driving (and fossil fuels). So ask yourself, what meets your own needs for connection to community?
Notice how we haven’t mentioned views?
We know they’re nice, but we also feel that they determine people’s property choices perhaps a bit too much and take priority over the considerations we’ve listed above. A good view generally means you have no/little soil as you’re on top of a ridge line or mountain, all the good top soil is half way down the mountain on or the river/creek flats. While there are definite exceptions to this rule, this is a guiding truth to be aware of.
And of course, if there’s a house – get a building inspector to check it to make sure it want fall down on you.
As you might have already realised, it might not be possible to get all 10 points, you may need to compromise. We compromised on access and structures (we’re building a shed in the near future and have built all our fences). You need to remain flexible and realistic in the face of what opportunities arise.
So we wish you strength in the face of the gung-ho real estate agent, a level head in moments of heightened emotion (looking for land can do that to you) and perhaps a touch of luck in the stars that you find the land/house you’re looking for.
** The feature image on the home page is from some lovely design clients of ours (who chose their block quite well:-)).