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Real Estate And Other Madness

So as some of you know, recently I got a movie option on one of my books. And, after rather a long wrangling, they paid me.

This was not a life-changing sum of money, sad to say (although if they actually made the movie, it would be!) but it was money that I hadn't already earmarked to go somewhere. I hadn't ever counted on getting it because Hollywood is fickle. It was kind of like getting a tax return, except that as a freelancer, I haven't seen a tax return since approximately 2004, so I'm not actually sure what that's like.

So they paid me and I paid off my credit card and gave some money to charity and paid the taxes on it and then I stared at what was left for awhile, and thought "I should do something with this. If I just sit on it, I'll eventually fritter it away on car repairs and vet bills and whatnot. I should do...something."

The problem here is that I have basically everything I want. I have cheap needs. Two hundred bucks for a ton of fieldstone will keep me occupied for weeks. I have video games I haven't beat and books I haven't read. The truck is in good shape. Now that Gir has passed this mortal coil, my monthly vet bills have plummeted. (The vet claims that now that his records are out of the system, their computer runs faster, too.)

I am a nervous soul when it comes to money. My financial advisor at the bank had to forbid me from putting all my money in my sock and shoving it under the bed. Stocks are Right Out. But oh god, what if there's hyper inflation and suddenly my money is worth nothing? THE SOCK CANNOT SAVE ME THEN. What can I do that won't just go away if there's a recession? 

And very, very belatedly, it occurred to me that I could maybe buy a piece of land. Not a house! I don't want a house! Houses mean renters and other people and foolishness. But I live in the country. And I live in a county where dirt is, frankly, dirt cheap. And people sell chunks of it sometimes. And then you have dirt with an address.

I thought "Can I do this? Am I allowed? Can I just buy a piece of land and it just...sits there? And maybe someday twenty years from now when I can't handle stairs and a big house anymore, I put a doublewide on it? Is that a thing real people do?"

I asked Kevin. He confirmed this was a thing that real people did and was not a completely batshit use of a windfall. He added that I could also potentially sell that land in twenty years and make a profit. I had to go lay down for a few minutes with a cold cloth over my eyes.

I selected a realtor by virtue of driving down the street and finding one with an open sign and went in. The pleasant older woman there, who looked more like a children's author than I ever will, listened to me blurt out my thoughts.

"Is this a thing people do?" I asked her at the end. "Is this nuts?"

"No," she said. "I mean, it's not nuts. Yes, people do this."

I stared at her, probably much like Ernie the hound when he is faced with something outside his experience.

"It's fine," she added. "Let's look at some listings."

And that is how we wound up tromping through the woods this morning, looking at a multi-acre lot so cheap that I assumed it would be on fire while I was looking at it. There is a house from 1900 that will require the services of a man with a bulldozer and perhaps a priest. The lot would need a well dug, and if I wanted to actually live there, it would need various other things done, but none of them are urgent. It could just...sit there.

"Why is it so cheap?" I said, baffled. "And why has it been on the market so long?" I was assuming that the house was probably made of asbestos held together with lead paint, with a meth lab in the basement, but up close, no self-respecting meth maker would have set up shop there. There was a toilet and a privet tree on the front deck. Nevertheless, even with having to save for house demolition and lead paint disposal, I could probably make it work without breaking the bank. The bank might even help.

The realtor explained that it was not the best neighborhood. I looked at the neighborhood somewhat blankly. There was an abandoned house on one side, a couple of ramshackle farmhouses on the others, and a pasture full of goats. Was it the goats?

The realtor said it was not the goats.

It occurred to me, after some delicate hinting, followed by indelicate hinting, followed by pointing, that perhaps my notion of what a low-income rural area looks like has been colored by living, in the past, in low-income rural areas. People paying top dollar for lots in my county are usually going into a subdivision. We're a bedroom community for the Research Triangle. These people don't go out to a goat pasture with a ruined trailer on its side and say "AHHH, COUNTRY LIFE!"

"But once the trees leaf out, you can't even see the goats," I said. "Or the trailer."

The realtor gazed briefly at the sky.

"And I could--Oooohh! A dog skull!"

"You see," said the realtor, as I flicked pine needles of my new skull, "the things you want are...unusual."

"I shall name you Skull-Bob," I said to the skull.

"Annnnnway," said the realtor, "I'll talk to the selling agent and see if I can find anything more out about it. But I think this might actually be a good fit for you, since you're looking long-term and not to move right away."

"And this isn't nuts? I'm not missing huge red flags?"

"No, for the price and the neighborhood and the fact somebody probably subdivided out a family plot, this is actually all pretty normal."

"...Do I get to keep the skull?"

"You get to keep the skull," she said.


And now of course I am seized with doubt and wondering if this is all utterly mad and a horrible waste of unexpected money, but our area is on course to gentrify with the new development that went in and I have no illusions about saving the house or anything and...still, I'm thinking, am I allowed to do this? Do real people buy land? Real people who aren't, like, rich people?

Is this okay?

Well, no one has stopped you.

Real people buy land, and sometimes they become rich people (at least in England. I don't know about America, except from films.)

Yes! Real people who have a smidge more money than necessary sometimes buy real land for the express purpose of not doing anything with it for years and years. It just sits there and watches the animals go by. And I rather encourage this thinking.

We bought the property next door to ours when the guy owning it decided to retire to the city rather than live there. It had an old workshop/barn thingy and a chimney without house and a little pond (headwaters for a tiny-but-never-dry creek) and some trash and a dead possum and lots of trees. We love it. It just sits there on the other side of the vegetable garden and does nothing. We don't do anything much with it, either, besides walk around and breathe the trees. (And we left the possum skeleton there in case anyone else needed it. But we took the squirrel skull home for a friend.)

These people don't go out to a goat pasture with a ruined trailer on its side and say "AHHH, COUNTRY LIFE!"


I *am* the woman with the goat pasture and a dead car parked next to the fence. Bwa ha ha.

ETA: I can see you upgrading the decorations on the house a smidge. SKULL-BOB shall rule your mighty new empire!

Edited at 2017-02-23 08:06 pm (UTC)

This reminds me of the area I grew up in. Lots of fruit trees, few neighbors, huge unused areas, lots of trees, the occasional livestock, gardens and fruit trees, old rotting trailers with blackberries growing over them, old outhouses, homes built in the first half of the 20th century...

It wasn't terribly convenient in some ways, but it was quite lovely in others. The only major issues were a lack of cable TV options, a drafty house, and a lack of decent health care within a 45 minute drive. But I was a kid and didn't really notice. Also, we turned the outhouse into a chicken coop and we had artichokes growing wild around us. I thought it was all pretty cool.

"I shall name you Skull-Bob."

Awesome. Can I be "Fan-Bob?"

I think we are all Fan-Bob. ^_^

If you would need to borrow money to purchase the land then perhaps a bank would say you shouldn't buy the land, otherwise go for it. I know several people who have purchased land for the express purpose of letting it grow wild. They go visit it occasionally to go camping and hunting.

We lived rural a while back, after being city suburban folks for a lifetime. It was not uncommon for people to have a lot of acreage for which they would periodically sell the timber and then plant a new acre of trees. Around there that was called the college fund. I do aspire to that kind of longevity in a place.

Tax refunds are the money you get; tax returns are the paperwork you send to the governments.

When looking at a parcel of land, I would consider a couple of things:

First, is it a place I would want to build a house on? Either myself, or paying someone to do it, or a combination. If nothing else, having a place you could build a tinyhouse on for experimentation is a fun idea!

Second, is it a lot that I might want to grow things on? Plants, animals, or both. Maybe make a pond on?

Third, is it something I might sell in a few years at a profit? Remember you'll (presumably) be paying property taxes on it in the meanwhile.

Fourthly... might it be something I'd want to turn into a community effort? (E.g., "Hey, I have all this acreage, want to start a community farm on?" and see who'd want to do that.) Alternately, and this has lots legal issues, you could make a park.

And, lastly: yes, it's a thing people do, even when they don't really know what they'd do with it. Having an idea of what you might do, even if it's not fully fleshed out and you have multiple contradictory ideas, can be enough of a justification.

Jesus, you can see how long it's been since I had one! (Tax refund, that is!)

I could do all those things! Maybe not the park, but the others.

Also, and this may sound crazy, but you can even...take the dogs there and let them sniff around and pee on things and be amazed by the smells. Like your very own dog park.

And you don't even have to clean up after them if you don't want to!

Yes, property taxes that you HAVE to pay every year, and assessments that can come out of the blue and kick you in the head. Check zoning - will you be able to do what you want with the land, and how likely is it that the local Powers That Be, County Commissioners or whoever, might take a dislike to you or your plans.

I tend to be a priestess of the Crone and look at everything that can go wrong. It would be better than putting money in a sock, IMHO. Land tends to go up in value, because, as they say, no one is making any more of it.

Ask about zoning and what the estimated property taxes per year are. That should be public record.

Go for it!


It sounds like a good plan! You might have to do a few things to make sure that it stays yours, like check for squatters, post signs, pay taxes, and the like, but it's completely reasonable.


This is great.

Also, yeah, real people buy land.

Also, this is going into the list of funny stuff to read aloud to people. Because.

Yes, you can buy land, and no - you don't have to do anything with it. Except pay taxes each year - less if it's undeveloped, more if you put structures on it. Even less if you fence it and run a few farm animals on it - Ag exemptions are nice!

Check the zoning for any restrictions - that might limit what you are allowed to do (but with goats next door, I wouldn't worry too much.)

And speaking of taxes and structures, it's definitely worth checking out the current appraised value of the 1900-era house on it, for comparing that part of the annual property tax to the hiring cost of the bulldozer and priest.

You also should check with the insurance agent for your current homeowner's (or renter's?) policy, to see if there is some manner of insurance that can be obtained that would provide coverage against an idiot wandering through it, injuring themselves, and then suing. Since at least for the short term you don't care if it covers any damage to the house/ruin there, it should be relatively cheap.

If there's grassy areas, you might want to consider having it mowed every few months, when the grass has gone to meadow... because after that, it tends to start going to light forest, which is $ubstantially harder to have mowed and gets in the way if you want to do most anything with the land.

I have to wonder, can you hold onto these (this, the gun store essay, probably other stuff) and publish them as a book? Is this a thing authors do? Because they're great.

A more surrealist version of the stuff Bombeck and Garrison Kellior used to put out. My impression is the market is smaller these days, but there's probably room for an entry. She might put a pile of the LiveJournal entries into a document to pass off to her agent to see what anyone makes of it.

It seems Jenny Breeden's "Devil's Panties" is a comic strip counterpart to this.

Yay land! Think of all the stuff you could plant on it ^_^

What they all said. Yes, it's better than putting money in a sock, or just letting it sit in a bank account, which is only safer than a sock because so far banks rarely burn down. You could even set up a tent and camp out for free! Have parties!
Along with zoning laws, check county Planning Commission development plans. You'll want a copy of the plat - the official map of the property - and walk the boundary line so you're sure where the edges are. Find out about road access - you should have a way to get to the main road without having to depend on the friendliness of whoever might buy out the neighbors someday, and a place where you (and visiting friends) can park your vehicles without being hassled. Find out what the original house had for a water supply, there may already be an old well, which would be a hint about where to have a new one put in. Also you'd want to know where the old drain field is. Check whether the toilet works, it might. Find out if the foundation is good, is there a cellar or is it just built on top of the land. Look at where potential flooding could happen. This is all stuff that should be known even if you wind up selling it later.

How excitement - getting paid for a movie option, being able to use money for something out of your ordinary..
All good things
Enjoy Skull Bob
Maybe he will let you stay the night on occasion.

Build a cob house on it (zoning permitting, anyway)! Do bees! Make it into some kind of an art park, with a maze! Dig out a portion of it and install an underground bunker! Start a commune!

You could build a treehouse, or a skinnydipping pond; ... Hey, wonder if the house with the toilet on the porch is haunted? pro

We bought a parcel of waterfront property out at the beach when I was six years old; this wasn't very stable ground, it was white-sand NW Florida land with a few twisty burn-pines and wild rosemary growing on it right down to the salt water edging it. It was fairly sizeable, though, and after hanging onto it for a few years my parents sold it at about a 20% profit when the area got developed. It's the reason they were able to pay off our house, though, so it was a good idea.

I have no advice on the buying-some-land question, except to say that you should definitely check out the book A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson. He's a British entomologist who bought a bit of farmland in the French countryside, complete with rundown old house, expressly for the purpose of letting it grow wild (and occasionally helping it along) and going and looking at bugs. The book is full of rapturous descriptions of the death-watch beetles clicking in the rafters and how wonderful it is that they will slowly eat their way through the beams until the whole structure collapses, and amusing near-death experiences with the wiring of the house, and lists of all the different species of insects he spots on a particular day. Basically if you and Dave Goulson weren't both happily partnered off it would be a match made in heaven.

Thanks for sharing that author! Both of his books looked so intriguing, I've just put them on hold at the local library.

Not only is this a thing people do, it's a thing my mother did ages ago - she didn't have any immediate plans to *use* the land, but some came available in an area she liked for a price she could afford, and she knew that it was never going to be that cheap again. So she bought it, and didn't do anything with it for a few years except amuse herself with occasional thoughts about what sort of house she could build. Then stuff came up, and she sold it - at a MASSIVE profit, because now there had been development in the area and there was a community, and local amenities and so forth - used some of the money to sort out the situation, and re-invested the leftover profits into some more property. It's an asset that almost always goes up in value and is really hard to lose or have stolen. :P

I would caution that "assets that almost always go up in value" can be prone to bubbles. That is after all the root cause of the 2008 crash.

But yes, real estate is usually a fairly safe investment. I believe it ranks somewhere between stocks and bonds in terms of stability vs. average return? That is, bonds are super-stable but low-return, stocks are much more variable but high-return, and real estate is somewhere in the middle. Caveat: it's been awhile since I did my research on this stuff. These days I usually just punt any spare money I have into an S&P 500 index fund.

Skull-Bob is your new land's mascot

It's totally okay, and in fact it's awesome.

I did exactly this, many moons ago, in the hills around Napa. I had intended to eventually build a house on it, but when I instead wound up exiled to the East Coast I sold it at a (small) profit. When I owned it I would go camp out on it sometimes, which was fun. Your potential purchase sounds fantastic. You can give it a cool-sounding name like Witch Creek and call yourself landed gentry.

Yes, this is definitely a thing people do.

Would you be able to hunt deer on this property?

And you might want to have the soil tested, just in case this was the neighborhood's battery and paint disposal pit thirty years ago.

Yes, I was immediately wondering if this was a bit of land on which ursulav could hunt deer. Just to combine the recent "WTF, I'm really allowed to just do this?" nature of it.

It's probably not large enough to actually rent out the hunting rights, though.

Former NC Realtor here. Just a word of warning that the real estate business is.. cut-throat is probably being too nice about it. I got out because I could not deal with the unbelievable amount of illegal machinations, horrible people and shifty business. Please, please keep your wits about you and investigate everything on your own as best you can; don't take what Realtors say as gospel. Also understand that Realtors actually cannot legally tell you much about a neighborhood. If you want to know how crime in the area is, or what your neighbors are like, they can't tell you. They can try to be super-vague and hint around about it, but the licensing board is incredibly strict about this and will yank a Realtor's license in a heartbeat if they've been shown to disobey this rule. I would strongly advise visiting the local police department and courthouse with the address of the property and asking them about the area; you'll get a much straighter answer from them.

Oh, good to know! It should be said that it's literally five miles down the road from me, so I have a pretty good idea re: crime and's not bad out here, it's just kinda remote. But I'll check all the GIS stuff and whatnot myself and try to make sure it's not in the middle of a flood plain or something.

It sounds like a good spot for you to go birding, take the dogs for a walk,skull BoB may be a sign!

If you can afford the extra property taxes, etc go for it!

That sounds lovely. I think you'd be a fantastic steward of the land. And hey, it gives you something new to mulch if you run out in your current yard!!!


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