Buying Recreational Land, Part I

Hunt 365, January 2017  Buying Recreational Land, Part I  (A version of this article is published in the January 2017 issue of Iowa Sportsman Magazine)

Owning your own recreational land to use and manage can be one of if not the most rewarding experiences you could ever have.  For me, managing my own farm is almost more rewarding than the actual hunt itself.  It extends the season outside the traditional fall months making it a year round endeavor.  This extension of the hunting season to include off season land management is what makes owning your own whitetail farm a dream for many hunters.

Buying recreational land for most hunters is a huge investment…it might be the biggest sum of money you will ever spend on a single item in your life.  It was for me!  It makes sense then to do your homework like you’ve never done before to make sure you get what you want and avoid any pitfalls or mistakes with this purchase.

Back in 2010, when my wife Amy and I set out to buy our first Iowa farm, we knew what we wanted.  We had saved and invested our savings for most of our adult lives to get to this point.  But to be honest, I had no idea then just how ignorant I was about buying land.  What makes a piece of land more valuable than the next?  What kind of farms are the easiest to hunt?  How do you make sure you are buying land in an area that will allow the kind of management goals you have in mind?  I was lucky in a sense that up to that point, I had hunted leased farms, private lands owned by relatives, and public land.  Those experiences; remembering the good farms and what made them good, helped me immensely in my search for my perfect Iowa farm.

Location, Location, Location

I don’t know a lot about buying residential real estate, buy I do know that buying the “roughest” home in the nicest neighborhood is usually a good buy.  The exact same concept carries over to buying hunting land.  Buying a farm with little to no hunting improvements in a good neighborhood is a great way to maximize your investment.  That sounds easy, buy how do you find the great neighborhood in the first place?  To help answer some of these questions, I tapped the knowledge base of an Iowa realtor whom I’ve come to trust.  “Finding the right property can be tough.” says Jason Hull of Mossy Oak Properties, Boley Real Estate.  “Either you have to know the area yourself, or trust the advice you receive from an agent, friends in the area, or the locals. I say this because unless you have a very large budget, your management goals are going to be effected by the management practices of your neighbors. Unless you live in the area where you are seeking property, doing it on your own can be very time consuming.”

When I started my search for our first Iowa farm, I was lucky enough to have hunted in the general area I was targeting; however, I lived hours away.  It was hard for me to drop everything when a listing came up and drive to the farm to investigate.  I was forced to wait until several listings were available before I would take an in person look.  This resulted in me potentially losing out on several farms.  I met Jason during this search phase of my own process.    He wasn’t the first realtor I dealt with in this process but the first I felt I could trust…and who actually had a good understanding about whitetail recreational land and income potential on each farm.  Jason has some advice on finding your own advocate or agent while starting your search…“Building a trusting relationship with an agent can be very challenging. Do they really understand your goals? Do they really have your interests at heart? Locals can be unreliable unless you have taken the time to really get to know them and understand their motives to help you. My advice is to be careful not to pigeon hole yourself, don’t be too narrow minded, and be open to suggestions. There are a lot of good farms that get overlooked because they’re not “turn-key” or the aerial photo doesn’t “pop” off the paper. Recognizing the potential of a “rough” farm, or how the vision of your management goals can be applied to that farm can be key to a successful search.”

I cannot stress how important it is to find a good realtor.  A good realtor will advocate on your behalf during the negotiation process…that’s the easy part.  They should also filter out the marketing schemes used by listing agents to make property seem better than what it might be.  In all reality, the listing agent’s job is to sell the property.  A good realtor (or buyer’s advocate) representing the buyer should be able to keep your goals in mind without having to “make the sale”.  A realtor that has never seen a bad property or seems like they are trying to constantly “make the sale” is not a good buyer’s advocate.  This is why I would recommend finding your own realtor that acts on your behalf instead of always going through the listing agent.  Remember, they work for you.

The Process

Even though I knew the general area I wanted to be in, this still covered over a county’s worth of land.  My goal was to find a farm in that area that had low hunting pressure and, if possible, neighbors with similar management goals.  I used several pieces of data to help me with this process.  First, I only targeted listings that were in areas with larger acreage property owners.  This lends itself to lower hunting pressure simply because there are less land owners involved…fewer land owners usually means less hunters.  I also spent a year or two driving around this county making note of hunting pressure during the rut and shotgun seasons.  I did this by simply observing vehicles parked “for hunting”.  If I saw a lot of trucks pulled into farm driveways or blaze orange, there was a good chance hunter numbers were high.  I made notes of areas I thought had low hunter numbers.

Jason has some other suggestions when looking for a farm in a great area. “Search the record books, see what counties have historically produced, and continue to produce. There are a lot of trophies that are never entered into the books in this day and age but it’s still a good starting point. I would stress trying to learn as much as you can about the bordering properties and who your neighbors will be. If you are using an agent, ask a lot of questions.  If you are searching in an area that you do not live in, your agent can be a valuable resource. When walking the property, be sure to walk the boundaries…are there multiple stands along the property line? This could give you insight about your potential neighbors and local hunting pressure. Maybe knock on some doors, visit some of the locals, see what you can find out about neighborhood management practices, and local hunting pressure. Keep in mind you may not always get the whole truth, and you might put a neighboring property owner into panic mode if they are interested in purchasing the property themselves.  Access to the property can be a huge part of your plans. If you are considering building on the property access to power and water are critical. From a hunting prospective, are the best hunting acres accessible…will predominant winds be in your favor or will they make it difficult to access those areas? Are streams, rivers, or swamps going to restrict access or possibly help?  If access is an issue, an easement might be able to be negotiated with an adjacent property owner. This could be done by the current owner prior to purchase and be part of your offer to purchase.”

When walking a new farm you are considering for purchase, one way to judge hunting pressure by neighbors are line fence stands. If you find them, chances are greater that hunting pressure is higher.

One idea I learned from Jason was the whole idea of “property line stands”.  If I saw them I was immediately leery of the farm.  The other things I looked for when walking a property was overall deer sign, but more specifically bigger rubs.  Then I looked for farms that had great habitat…thickets of bedding cover, mast trees, warm season grasses, and food plot potential.  If they didn’t have bedding cover, good habitat, or even established food plots, that was ok…as long as the potential existed!  I first made sure the farm was in a good location, then confirmed access and management potential.

When I’m walking a new property to buy I look for great habitat or habitat potential, and sign of big bucks. Large rubs are a great indicator of big deer on the property.

Farm Details

There are a ton of different opinions on what makes a great farm for whitetail hunting.  I look for a farm that has at least 30% open ground in places I can put transition food plots and larger exterior food plots.  I also look for fingers or draws that are easier to hunt than blocks of timber.  I try to envision how I would get in and out of the property while hunting it without bumping deer.  In my opinion, a farm with multiple timbered draws as opposed to just large tracts of timber/cover is much easier to hunt.  Don’t be discouraged by farms that are more open.  I’ve hunted some great farms that were mostly open ground with one or two brushy/timbered draws running through them.  They make for excellent rut hunting farms.  One of my all-time favorite farms I’ve ever hunted was 80% open ground!  Farms with bedding cover or timber that can be hinge cut in places to create cover are a must.  If you are looking in hilly country, make sure the farm has both bottom ground as well as ridge tops to hunt.

Breaking it down, I prioritize my searches this way…1. Location-making sure the farm you buy is in an area that meets your management goals…or the hunting pressure is low enough that neighboring properties don’t affect your goals as much.  2. Access to the Property-you must be able to get in and out of your property without bumbling through the whole thing.  If you plan on building, access to power, water, or permitting is necessary.  3. Habitat Potential-security cover and bedding habitat are necessary to hold deer throughout the season.  They either need to be there at the time of purchase or the potential to create exceptional habitat is very important.  4. Huntability-will you be able to have multiple stands for morning and evening sits…different wind directions, etc.  The farm has to have all 4 but I’ll give up a little bit of huntability to be in a better location.

I asked Jason what he looks for in timber vs. open ground.  “This is a tough one. Everyone has their own opinion. Personally I like a farm that is at least 50/50, for me probably even more like 60% timber and 40% tillable. I want enough places to hunt and not have to worry about burning out my stands. I also want enough timber to have the ability to hold deer, somewhere they will go and bed, other than the neighbors. That said, you also need the ability to attract the deer with food, so having tillable land that is either being farmed or allows for planting food plots is important.”

Buying your own recreational property for hunting whitetails is exciting, but it is also a huge decision.  Starting your search in good neighborhoods or in areas with low hunting pressure can help immensely if you are managing for big deer.  Finding a knowledgeable realtor than can advocate on your behalf is almost a must.  This article is first in a series in which I attempt to help hunters find their perfect farm.  This first article was meant as a broad overview of where to start and applies to anybody looking to buy recreational land, not just those in Iowa.

In next month’s issue, I will attempt to break down the economics when buying recreational land.

(Author’s Note:  I want to thank Jason Hull of Mossy Oak Properties, Boley Real Estate for contributions to this article.  Jason is a licensed Realtor for Iowa and is also a friend of mine.  He was my advocate representing me for two Iowa farm purchases since 2012.  I received no monetary or other benefit for using him as a reference for this article.  Without mentioning Jason by name would have been to plagiarize his ideas and knowledge.)

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