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8 tips for selecting and buying equestrian property, by Tim Carey   By Tim Carey

Tim Carey is an experienced, second-generation Realtor with Coldwell Banker Real Estate Services in Morgan Hill, CA who specializes in the sale of country homes, ranches, land, vineyard and equestrian property. He and his wife have developed two horse-breeding ranches from the ground up, including their present 23 acre equestrian facility and home.


Finding the right rural property for the home or ranch of your dreams doesn't have to be a daunting task. Here are eight tips for evaluating " horse property".


Whether you are thinking of purchasing an existing country home or ranch, buying raw land and building your dream ranch from the ground up, or something in between, the same fundamentals apply. Keeping these concepts in mind as you search for that ideal place to call home will ensure that your final selection remains a happy one for years to come.


1) Work with a Professional.

Locating quality rural real estate requires more than searching listings in the paper or on the Internet. Make sure you use the services of a Realtor; one knowledgeable about your desired area, who specializes in country property and with whom you feel comfortable. In most areas, only a few agents are knowledgeable about, much less specialize in, country property. Fewer still understand the unique needs of specialized applications such as horse ranches or stable design and operation. Your agent should be very knowledgeable about zoning requirements, local development regulations, the permit process, septic systems, wells and water systems, and other land issues. A good agent can introduce you to reputable vendors for the installation and maintenance of wells, septic systems, fencing, barns, grading, vineyard layout and irrigation systems as well as other rural service organizations. While your agent doesn't need to be personally involved in equestrian or vineyard related activities, if they have experience with listing and selling rural property and knowledge of the regulations and pitfalls involved in doing so, communicating your property requirements as well as fulfilling your dreams will be much easier!


2) Think Ahead At Least 5 to 10 Years.

Just because a particular property looks like it will fit your needs as they exist today doesn't mean that it will continue to do so in a few years time. Do you plan on enlarging the home or adding more facilities? Is there sufficient space to expand or improve the existing infrastructure? Will you want to cover that arena, layout and cross-fence additional pastures or otherwise enhance the use of your land in the future, and will amount of irrigated land? How might local development plans impact your property? What is the likely direction for expansion and development in your community? Will you find yourself surrounded by tract developments or owners that don't appreciate some of the improvements or uses you have in mind? Will water remain plentiful and affordable? Could development impact water quality? Your Realtor, the local Planning Department, Water District, Agricultural Extension Agent and fellow ranchers are great sources for this important information.


3) Select a Topology to Match Your Use and Understand What Happens When It Rains.

Some people start their search for equestrian property thinking they want the flattest land available. Others seek sloped land for endurance training. While either choice can be viable depending on your intended uses and needs, the most versatile land lies somewhere in between. Low-lying land isn't called "bottom land" for nothing! Large animals like horses and cattle are notorious fence walkers and they will compact any soil where they congregate. In regions with dry, dusty top-soil, they can wear away an inch of soil per year in a dry-farmed (dirt) pasture, and more along the fence lines. Flat pastures then become swimming pools in rainy weather. Look for land that contains a slight natural slope in the range of 2% to 5%. This slope is moderate enough to be almost universally usable while still draining well. Slopes greater than 10% are not favored by animals and can lead to serious erosion problems if your facilities are not designed with water flow in mind. While that back hillside may provide privacy and look beautifully wooded, how will you maintain it from year to year? Can motorized equipments such as trucks, mowers or wagons get to every corner of the property? In the event of a fire, is there a way to get water and fire-fighting crews and equipment to the all reaches of your property?

Ideally you would view potential properties in rainy weather to see exactly where the natural drainage paths lie. If you're purchasing property in the dry season, walk the property with your Realtor. Look for evidence of previous water flows such as gullies, dry creeks and erosion contours. Look at your potential property from several angles and try to determine where the high spots are. What you would like to see are wide, shallow drainage paths where water will move slowly but in sufficient quantity. Check for long, thin lines of water-hungry vegetation which can appear as dark streaks in aerial photographs. These plants usually indicate where water sits or flows long after the rainy season has ended.


Aerial photo (Google Earth is handy for some of these!) showing creek contours as dark green lines of water-hungry vegetation.

Narrow, deep contours usually evolve into gullies or become significant erosion problems requiring constant care and maintenance. In many cases, the local Planning Department or Water District will have identified natural contours that function as major storm runoff paths (know as storm drain easements) that will be indicated on a parcel map or in the preliminary title report. Check with your Realtor or the Planning Department to determine if any of these exist on the property you are considering. It is important that you not disturb the drainage in these areas because of the effect they might have on neighboring properties both up and down stream.


4) Check the Setbacks and Other Restrictions.

Setbacks are the minimum distances that you can locate a building or other fixture from a particular feature of the land. There are minimum distances for spacing buildings from parcel boundaries, from creeks and storm drain easements, from roads and from utility or other access easements. Separation limits are also mandated between facilities like your well and septic system.  Setback distances range from less than ten feet to a hundred feet or more. Not all existing structures may have been erected in accord with the setback regulations. If something looks too close to you, it probably is; and will look too close to the county planner as well. If you are adding structures to a site, your site plan will be examined for setback violations during the site approval process. As the buyer, and subsequently the owner, you would be responsible for any setback violations even if they occurred before you made the purchase. While your arena may look great next to the creek, if the local water department says it has to be at least 75 feet away, that's where you will have to put it!  Setbacks between water systems (including your domestic water supply, that of your neighbors, streams, seasonal creeks and storm runoff easements) and possible sources of contamination such as septic systems, barns and even pastures should be carefully adhered to. Setbacks can eat up a lot of real estate, so beware of smaller properties with several creeks and drainage easements and always review the latest Planning Department regulations before you start your property search.

After you locate a promising piece of land, have your Realtor obtain a Property Profile (free of charge from a title company) for the parcel in question. Check the Preliminary Title Report to identify any CC&Rs (restrictions and other conditions in the deed) or any easements  or other encumbrances that may impact your planned use of the property. You can often get a color-coded map showing the location of each easement from the title company.


5) Don't Skimp on Your Water Supply!

Water is vital for life. While every locale has regulations for water quality, you must also be concerned about the amount of water available in the aquifers beneath your property as well as how much water your well system can produce per minute or hour. The Fire Marshall will dictate how much water you must have in storage for fire protection as well as the number of fire hydrants required and where they must be located. In many locales, newly constructed homes (and some barns) may require ceiling-mounted fire sprinklers. The Water District will have established minimum water production standards for a legal well and can determine whether an older, existing well can continue in active production. Usually a well must have a concrete sanitary seal installed to a depth of fifty feet or the agency will require the well be destroyed to prevent contaminants from entering the water supply via the well casing. Potential contaminants, including nitrates and heavy metals as well as certain bacteria, exist in all rural areas and the planned uses of your rural property will be evaluated as a potential source of these contaminants. Your well, or well plus associated filtration system, must meet the water agency's minimum standards for water quality to allow its continued operation.


If you plan on irrigating large areas such as pastures or vineyards, check with your local Agricultural Extension Office to learn which pasture grasses and grape varieties are best suited for your area and how much water they require. In our region, rainfall occurs only during the winter months with quite a few dry months in between. Your well must be able to continually produce sufficient water to irrigate your pastures year-round during these dry spells and any drought years. Depending on your choice of pasture cover and your local weather, as much as two inches of water per month across the entire pasture area will be required. Given that a cubic foot of water is about eight gallons, irrigating a single acre can require more than 7200 gallons of water per month. To be considered a legal well, some water agencies require a minimum production capability of three gallons per minute. If you are serious about irrigation, think in terms of several tens of gallons per minute of continuous, year-round production capacity. Local well drillers and your Water District can supply information on water availability, the well depth required to reach it and water quality. Along with the standard home, roof, pest and septic inspections, your Realtor should specify in your purchase offer that any existing well be tested for water quality and production as a contingency for buying an existing country home or ranch.


6) Understand Your Local Development Process.

Spending an hour at your local Planning Department can be time well spent. You can pick up informational brochures on a wide variety of topics including details of the development and permit process, permit costs, zoning regulations and how they might impact your planned use of a parcel, lot line adjustments, minimum parcel sizes for particular uses, and the availability of building permit exemptions for certain types of facilities (also known as "agricultural exemptions"). Discussing your ideas with a County Planner before you bring a final set of plans to their attention has been known to save people quite a lot of money, time and stress. Avoiding costly "surprises" and time-consuming changes is of paramount importance to any developer. When it comes time for site approval, the Planner's familiarity with a parcel, its owners and their hopes and dreams may smooth the approval process.


7) Optimize Your Ranch Layout

While no property is perfect for every user and use, a good layout can make or break a promising contender. Think about access in and out of the property as well as where large vehicles such as trucks, multi-horse trailers, large delivery vehicles can park and turn around. Consider prevailing winds and the natural terrain when laying out pastures, vineyards and gardens. When planning the location of your major facilities, or analyzing the appropriateness of existing ones, try to minimize unnecessary walking or driving when performing daily chores. I've found that circular driveways that are routed past key facilities like the horse barn, the hay barn, the arena, etc. make access, unloading and parking faster and easier for everyone who comes to our ranch.


Normal maintenance is a big chore even at the best designed ranch. Consider everything (painting, mowing, irrigation, manure and vegetation disposal, equipment storage, etc.) when you plan or evaluate facilities. Even if your area doesn't experience hard freezes, locate master water shutoff valves so they can be accessed quickly and easily, and so that sections of water lines may be turned off or drained without affecting the entire system.


8) Don't Forget Your Normal Due Diligence

While you're evaluating property from the perspective of your particular intended use, don't forget to do your normal pre-purchase and post-offer due diligence. Learn as much as possible about the area, its economy, its growth plans, weather and business resources. Review the Preliminary Title Report and make sure your purchase contract includes provision for any and all inspections that you will want to have performed. Talk to at least one lender, determine your financial plan and limitations, and become pre-approved for your purchase as early as possible in your search. Take the time to carefully review the Natural Hazards Disclosure that you will receive and all the disclosures the seller must provide by law. Don't take anything for granted; make sure all details are written down and formalized. Try to attend as many of your inspections as possible (good Realtors will always attend these on your behalf but you should try to attend as many of these as possible.) and ask questions of contractors and inspectors.


Use your vendor resources. Bring potential contractors on site to review your plans and provide suggestions. Don't be afraid of getting a second opinion. Maintain your long-term perspective knowing that each issue resolved is one step closer to your dream home or ranch. Good luck, have fun and enjoy the experience!



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