How To Look At A House

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What problems should I look for when buying a country house or rural property?

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Evaluating a rural property is pretty much the same for a home inspector as a suburban one, with the exception that a rural house has a well and septic system instead of municipal water and sewer. But there are a number of points that you need to check that are beyond the scope of a home inspection as part of your due diligence before buying a rural property. 

   Here’s our “Top 10” list of questions for you to answer, based on our experience owning a home for years on acreage, 12-miles from the nearest small crossroads town, and inspecting hundreds of rural properties in North Florida:

1) Is the water safe and well equipment adequate? It’s amazing how dependable municipal water systems are. Everyone living in a city just expects the water to be there when they turn on the tap and it almost always is. Only during a natural disaster is there no water pressure.   But a private well is fragile and can be shut down by any one of several problems. If the pump dies, the level of the aquifer recedes below the depth of the well, or the well collapses, you will be without water for sinks and toilets for a day to a week—or more—while it is being repaired. There may also be a water treatment system that is necessary to make the water palatable.

    A home inspector will evaluate the well equipment and some inspectors, like us, do a basic on-site test of the water quality. But a sample of the well water should be tested in a certified lab for any bacterial contamination. Often, the local health department will test a sample of the well water for free or a minimal charge. 

     If the home is in an area with a history of water contamination with fertilizer runoff or other problems, it should have a spectrum of lab tests to verify that the water is “potable,” which means drinkable, by standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You may be required for have the well water tested to apply for some mortgages. See our blog post What is the required water testing for an FHA, VA, or USDA mortgage application?

2) What type of septic system is underground? Modern septic systems have two parts. The effluent is collected in a septic tank, which  contains anaerobic microbes that digest the organic matter and allow the solids to settle to the bottom, while the liquid flows out to perforated piping in a drainfield. The size, design, and location of the system in relation to the well is inspected by the local health department when installed. To determine where it is located, see our blog post How can I locate my septic tank? 

   But older septic systems are sometimes a cesspit, which is  a perforated tank or just a hole in the ground, that leaches the untreated sewage into the soil. This type of system can contaminate the well and is no longer allowed. An inspection of the system by a septic system contractor will tell you which one you have and the condition of the system. It’s well worth the cost.

3) How dependable is the electric and internet service? Most rural areas are served only by satellite internet, which is slow by comparison to fiber-optic networks in urban areas. These systems also lose their satellite connection for the duration of a heavy rain. Can you live with this type of internet service?

     Because country properties are spread apart between miles of overhead power lines which are often surrounded by tall trees, power outages can occur multiple times during storm seasons. Recovery of service can sometimes take days. Find out how often the area loses power on average each storm season.

     Also, because loss of electricity means no water to drink, bathe, or flush toilets, you should plan on having a generator with a wattage rating to at least run your well pump, refrigerator, and a few lights—or verify that the generator on the property is adequate and staying after the sellers leave. Well pumps, like all electric motors, require a surge of electricity to start up, so make sure the generator is large enough for start-up.

4) Is the access road public or private? What condition is it in? Private roads typically require a contribution of all the property owners on the road for maintenance. If the final stretch of road is private, find out the average maintenance cost. Whether your road is public or private, if it is unpaved expect mud or dust on your personal vehicle daily. 

   If the road is public but not paved, how often is it graded or otherwise maintained by the county? Secondary rural roads in the rural areas of North Florida are limerock or, some cases, packed dirt, which develops potholes and requires regrading regularly. They can be a painfully bumpy ride and also dissolve into truck-stopping mud after a heavy rain unless you have 4-wheel drive. How good the access roads are in winter is also a concern in colder areas of the country.

5) How do you dispose of the trash? There is no community garbage pickup in the country. You have to take you garbage to the nearest dump site or transfer station. How far away is it? Do you have a personal vehicle that can transport garbage without stinking it up? There may be a private waste service and, if so, find out the cost and how often they pickup. 

6) What are the deed and zoning restrictions on the property? Just because it’s the middle-of-nowhere doesn’t mean there are no restrictions on your use of the property. Deed restrictions in an equestrian development may not allow livestock (goats, pigs, chickens). Also, a zoning restriction may require a minimum number of acres before a horse is allowed, for example.

7) What is happening on nearby properties? If you are moving to a farming area, you will quickly find that growing food is more of an industrial than a pastoral business. A large dairy or pig operation with hundreds of animals creates a stink that can carry for miles downwind. Growing corn or watermelon requires spreading ammonia-based fertilizer and spraying insecticides. A rock quarry nearby may not be visible through the trees, but you will hear the dredge and dump trucks. 

    We once had a shade-tree mechanic across the road, and would swear his only tool was a hammer. Is hunting allowed nearby? Then expect to hear gunfire during hunting season.   Check out the surrounding area at different times of day and night. Look, listen, and smell.

8) How difficult is it to maintain the property? Are you up to it? Acres of grass will require a serious riding lawnmower or tractor with mower attachment, along with a commitment of time and sweat. Most city folks realize this. But acres of trees require maintenance too. Dead trees and downed limbs have to be removed, limbs pruned along driveways and near the house, and underbrush cleared occasionally to maintain the property. It can be a big job.

9) What is the character of the nearest town? What services does it offer? Small towns can be welcoming or insular. One realtor we know says this about the small farming and dairy town she lives near, which has families that first settled there in the late 19th century: “I’ve been here 25 years and they accept me, but I will never be one of them.”

   How close is the nearest town with a hospital and how long does it take to get there in an emergency? The typical rural property is a few miles from a crossroads with a small grocery and a gas station, and perhaps 20 miles to a medium size town with a Walmart, doctors and fast-food restaurants, then 40 or 50 miles to a larger city with a major hospital, Starbucks, dozens of restaurant choices, movie theaters, and other amenities that city-dwellers are accustomed to. How often will you need to make that drive?

10) What flood zone is the property in? As part of getting homeowner’s insurance, you will learn the flood zone you’re in and its 100-year flood expectancy. An equally important issue, though, is the frequency and severity of flooding in the surrounding area. It is possible to be high and dry on your property, but unable to get out of the area due to flooded roads.

    A good source of information is the neighbors. Some rural property owners moved out in the woods specifically to get away from people and will be downright unfriendly. But most country people are happy to talk with you and share their knowledge about the area. Just be sure to close the gate on your way out.

    Also, see our blog post Should I trust the Seller's Property Disclosure Statement?

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  To learn more strategies for getting the best possible home inspection, here’s a few of our other blog posts:

How can I make sure I don't get screwed on my home inspection? 

How thorough is a home inspector required to be when inspecting a house?

Can I do my own home inspection?

How can homebuyers protect themselves against buying a house over a sinkhole? 

The seller gave me a report from a previous home inspection. Should I use it or get my own inspector? 

    To read about issues related to homes of particular type or one built in a specific decade, visit one of these blog posts:

What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1940s house?

What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1950s house?

What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1960s house?

• What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1970s house?

What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1980s house?

What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1990s house?

What problems should I look for when buying a house that has been moved?

What problems should I look for when buying a house that has been vacant or abandoned?

What are the most common problems with older mobile homes?

What do I need to know about a condo inspection?

What are the "Aging In Place" features to look for when buying a retirement home?

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