Now Is a Great Time to Buy a Farm or Estate

Now Is a Great Time to Buy a Farm or Estate

By Celeste M. Smucker –

People love country living for all kinds of reasons, and if you are in the market, now is a great time to buy no matter if you want acreage for farming or are dreaming of living in an historic estate property.  While agents are hopeful about a stronger market this year, at the moment it still favors buyers, which, when combined with continuing low interest rates, means some great deals are available.

Finding a great deal on our local rural properties is only one reason to buy. You can also expect to enjoy privacy, beautiful scenery, rolling hills and the peace and quiet that come from rural living.  And unlike other parts of the country where all of this often comes with long drives to town, in our area country dwellers can enjoy peace and quiet and still have easy access to the many social and cultural amenities of  Charlottesville. 

Farm land is available for those who want to raise crops, cattle or horses, and you will also find both contemporary and historic estates that are attractive to local buyers as well as those coming from great distances. And for people relocating from high priced markets like Northern Virginia or the west coast, a big attraction is our much lower land prices and property taxes.

Buyers moving to rural parts of our community are part of a trend that started when the first colonists planted gardens to raise crops for personal consumption.  This was followed by cash crops such as tobacco, first exported to  England in the 17th century in what may have been the first foreign market for this commodity.

Today Virginia’s agricultural economy provides more than 311,000 jobs and adds over $55 billion annually to our economy. The Virginia Department of Agriculture reports that nationwide we rank 8th in grape production, joined by peanuts for that distinction.  In addition, we rank 5th for tomatoes, 6th for apples, and 15th for cotton. Most of Virginia’s farms are small, and 90 percent of them are owned and operated by individuals and families.

When it comes to livestock, we have always been known for horse farms,  but cattle raising is also popular.  In addition many enjoy planting a large garden to feed themselves or to sell produce to local stores and restaurants or at farmers markets throughout the state. Still others want to be part of the growing market for agri-tourism.

For buyers looking for a farm or estate, now is a good time to shop. And if that is you, one of our fine agents can help you make your dream come true.

The Market for Rural Properties
One gauge of the popularity of rural property is land sales.  A recent year end market summary prepared by Michael Guthrie, CEO and Managing Broker for Roy Wheeler Realty Co., showed land sales increased in 2016, with 394 parcels selling compared to 372 in 2015.  On the flip side, both average and median prices dropped significantly (10 and 12 percent respectively).  These figures are a further indication that now is a good time for buyers to purchase land before prices start to rise again.

Justin Wiley with Wiley Real Estate believes the market for unencumbered land has “started to get better,”  stating that a big factor in determining land’s popularity is its proximity to Charlottesville.  He added that as inflation kicks in, as it is sure to do, “land will become a strong commodity for investment.”

“Farm land is of greater interest than other land,” Wiley said referencing the counties of Orange, Madison and Louisa.  He has enjoyed a couple of large sales of farm land recently, defining it as “land suitable for row crops or cattle.” 

“Estates are still poking along,” Wiley said stating they are often the last segment of the market to recover from a slow-down.  However the good news is that he is currently working with quite a few people looking for estate property.  Most are local individuals and families wanting to move out to the country to enjoy more privacy. 

However he also gets calls from people desiring to move here from other parts of the country, such as some who want to leave behind the congestion and harsh winters of the northeast.  Others are in-state buyers who enjoy the scenery and are ready to get away from all the development happening elsewhere such as in Northern Virginia.

“The farm and estate market has seen fewer buyers over the last couple of years especially in the surrounding counties that are less centric to Charlottesville,” said John Ince with Nest Realty Group.   He added that this means there is inventory available.  In addition “properties with mountain views, a home with character, a water feature and a good location will still get good traffic and good prices, but ordinary acreage has a lot of competition.”

Murdoch Matheson with Frank Hardy Sotheby’s International Realty is hopeful that the farm and estate market is improving stating that it often lags behind the equity market, which he described as currently “strong.”  He added that the recent uptick in interest rates should also have a positive impact as buyers will recognize the need to purchase before rates increase further.

Another factor impacting the market is what Matheson termed an increase in consumer confidence which should also help push things “in a positive direction.”  Recently he has experienced this vital index as “flat.”  He joined the other agents in stating that there are some “great buys out there, some great offerings that are attractively priced.”

Farm and Estate Buyers
While frequently lumped together, farms and estates are really two separate markets attracting different buyers.

For example, Donna Patton, with BHG Real Estate III, well-known for her love of horses, works with many farm and estate buyers.  She explained that farms could include properties with as few as five acres, and, while raising horses may require a little more land, it can be done with a property as small as 10 to 20 acres.

Other buyers in the farm market are those who raise cattle.  Wiley has had two recent transactions with buyers like this.  One of them was already a farmer and needed to expand his holdings.  For the other, though, owning and raising cattle was what Wiley called “a life-long dream.”  For this individual, the cattle are more of a hobby as they are not his primary source of income.

Unlike farms, estates, are properties that have larger homes and often larger acreage, Patton explained.  Estates can be contemporary or historic. 

According to our most recent market report, the slowest part of our residential real estate market is resale properties in the $1 million plus range. This is in part because buyers in this price range, such as estate buyers, have more options, explained Rives Bailey, Broker with Montague Miller & Co. 

Buyers with more money and want a contemporary home are able to custom build and take advantage of the most current green building practices and technologies as well as open, functional, up-to-date floor plans often with first floor master suites.  For that reason they may be less inclined to purchase an existing estate property.

On the other hand, for some buyers, owning an historic estate is a big part of why they are in the market.  For example, Wiley explained that these are people who like the features of an older house such as established trees, traditional wood work, or heart of pine floors.  Sometimes the attraction is that some kind of historic event happened in the house.

Like any residential real estate, location is an important element of what goes into the decision to buy a country property.  While one of the main advantages of living on a farm or estate is enjoying a country lifestyle with its peace, quiet and privacy, many buyers also want the convenience of easy access to town.  This combination is much harder to come by when purchasing property near larger more developed metropolitan areas so it brings buyers to our area and puts a premium on properties that are closer in.

Location has become even more important recently Ince explains. “Buyers looking for country properties tend to be more focused on being close to town than in years past,” he said.  “I’ve seen a change in attitude in this current generation of near-retirees.  They enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside, but really appreciate all that Charlottesville has to offer as well.  That makes any country property inside 20 minutes from town, golden.”

Conservation Easements
Large farms and estates lend themselves to conservation easements, legally binding agreements that continue at the sale or inheritance of the property. Their purpose is to conserve the land and protect resources such as migration routes or sources of water. The result is large areas which are guaranteed to remain country properties, assuring the continuation of a rural lifestyle.

People with this interest are what Wiley calls “conservation buyers.”  These buyers want a property that already has a conservation easement on it, or anticipate putting it under such an easement.  “Conservation buyers typically are looking for a property they can use for relaxation,” he said. Often they are retirees, but not always.  For some this is a second home that they use to get away for vacations and weekends. 

Buyers who put their property under conservation easement will gain some significant tax benefits.  For this reason, some of these buyers will only look at properties not currently under easement, Wiley added.

“Conservation easements are a wonderful gift property owners can give to the public.  They are very common in this area, especially among the more expensive properties with considerable acreage,” Ince said.

Matheson works closely with the Piedmont Environmental Council and recommends conservation easements to his clients.  He described putting property in a conservation easement as “altruistic,”  and sees this interest in conservation as one of many reasons our area is a great place to live.  “In Charlottesville lots of  people believe in stewardship of land and we all benefit.”

One local community features a combination of conservation easements and estate-style properties as part of its appeal.  Bundoran Farms, at North Garden in Albemarle County, is a conservation-based community with 99 home sites of 20+ acres each designed to preserve views and minimize light pollution. A century-old working farm with 260 head of cattle is part of the community that also features an orchard with 25,000 apple trees.  Residents can enjoy hiking and bridle trails that wind through the property as well as two private lakes for kayaking and fishing.  If you live here, expect to continue to enjoy this special lifestyle since conservation easements are in place to protect the property from further development. 

If you have always dreamed of a country lifestyle with lots of privacy and your own scenic views, talk to your agent now about the property that would best meet your needs.  This is a great time to take advantage of today’s very low interest rates and reasonable prices on these very special properties.

Celeste Smucker is a writer, blogger and author who lives near Charlottesville.