17 Apr Andy Pettit Land Journey
Growing up in a tiny and crowded ranch house, my father used to remind us “that love grows in small places” and “to be thankful for what we have, no matter how it compares to your neighbor”. Those are insightful words that I’ve always kept deep in my heart. Like many of you, I’ve carried a lifelong passion for the outdoors and dreamed of one day owning my own piece of God’s paradise. Coming from such humble beginnings, I knew that land ownership would probably always be out of my reach. I always thought that I had to have hundreds of acres to have a great hunting property, I was overly focused on the destination…not on possible ways to get there.
In my late twenties, I knew that I had to find a way to get my own place. I was very blessed with some great friends who let me hunt their family farms, but I longed for a piece that I could manage, direct and grow with. I was recently married and had a brand-new baby, my gut told me it was one of the worst times to take a gamble and invest in land. The famous Will Roger’s quote kept sitting in my craw – “Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff”. That adage, outside of the infinitely rich sheiks in Dubai (who are literally building metal islands), has held true. Simply ask an elderly person in your life if they wish they’d bought land 50 years ago!
I spent countless hours with my bride at our kitchen table churning hypothetical budgets until we found a way to make it work. The next adventure was finding a property within our constraints. The property had to have potential for awesome hunting and family recreation, and one that could be improved with sweat equity. We found a 55-acre parcel in North Central Missouri, one that had been severely neglected for 30+ years and was within our budget. It lacked fencing, had invasive species running rampant and in fact was being illegally used for livestock grazing by a neighbor. It was almost four hours from our house in St. Louis, but had the rest of the ingredients of what we were looking for – opportunity for food, cover, water, availability of utilities and as a bonus was close to 12,000 acres of public ground. After a quick negotiation, we put down 30% on our new slice of heaven and were officially land owners!
As rough as this ground was, it will probably always be my favorite property. At just 55 acres, it is tiny in the scheme of ‘deer hunting’ – but Pops was right, love definitely grew in small places. At this place, I found my love for habitat restoration and wildlife management. I found that with hard work and a solid plan, even 55 acres can consistently produce higher-age class deer…even in a questionable neighborhood (close proximity to public ground and ‘brown and down’ mentalities). I found that it is invaluable to have a place of your own to watch your babies discover the great outdoors. I found that having the power to do what I want, when I want, at my own place was priceless. Want to hang a stand there? Do it! Want to cut down that tree? Do it! Want to invite a friend along on a hunt? Do it! Want to do nothing but sit in a lawn chair and admire the views? Do it!
We spent countless hours in a 3-1/2-year span dialing this property into a habitat haven. We got a survey, put up fencing, established annual & perennial food plots, planted crop trees, performed controlled burns, executed timber-stand improvement and got utilities brought in for a deer camp. I think an equally as important step was documenting the whitetail and turkey herds using game cameras.
As our family grew, the eight-hour round trip became harder to make. We reluctantly decided to sell the property to find something closer to home. We listed the property and had an offer within a week with a 25% premium of our original purchase price. There are many reasons that property sold fast and at such a nice premium, details of which I will share below.
We took the profits from the first property, and found another diamond in the rough, a 65-acre piece in Pike County, MO, about a 1:15 from our house. This property was as rough as the first one, and within two years using the same recipe as before, we fixed it up and sold it at a significant premium. We currently have an 135-acre beautiful property in a perfect QDM neighborhood, also in Pike County, MO. We instantly carried tremendous equity into this much larger property, equity that was rolled in tax-free from our other two properties. We are setting this one up for a sale in the next few years, much to my wife’s dismay (I have to constantly tell her, “this is a journey, not a destination” and “that our real estate and investments are always for sale”).
We are by no means wealthy and are firmly planted in the middle class. We can’t afford lavish vacations and have to think long and hard before making purchases. We set out with a large goal of owning a place we can leave to our three children. We never realized how much fun we would have along the way or that any of this would have been possible just 8 years ago.
If land ownership is a dream of yours, just start. I love developing and managing properties as much as the actual hunting. It is so much fun finding raw parcels and turning them into productive hunting properties. I tell my friends that have similar dreams, just start somewhere – even if it is on a 5-acre property. Do meaningful habitat projects, start keeping an inventory of trail camera pictures and upgrade when you find the next opportunity. Land investing has outperformed many of our financial market investments, and has certainly brought us countless joy as a family.
Some tips to consider in your land ownership journey:
- Proximity. Find land that is less than two-hours away from home. It will be used more frequently and you’ll be able to get more habitat work done. One hour or less is ideal, but may be cost prohibitive depending upon where you live. Generally, prices go down around two hours outside of metro areas.
- Water sells. Water is one feature that most buyers want, even if it is a non-fishable pond or creek. Look for possible pond/lake sites for future construction.
- Game cameras. Set them out from day one and file every relevant picture. Besides helping your hunting strategies and the joy of watching deer mature, having this history is an invaluable tool to help sell the land.
- Home / Camp sites. Ideally, you will want available utilities for future construction projects. If there currently isn’t an established settlement site, look for flat areas that are easy to access.
- Good fences make good neighbors. Try to purchase a place that has clearly marked property boundaries with solid fencing. If not, negotiate a survey in the purchase price and put up a fence. Fence laws vary from state-to-state, but most places state that you own and are responsible for the “right half of your fence as you’re facing your neighbors”. Not every neighbor will be willing or have the resources to put up a fence, so that is a cost you might have to consider. I have worked out deals where I bought the materials, and the neighbor put it in. Solid property lines will help you avoid potential frustration in the future.
- Spaces. If the property will be used for family recreation as well as hunting, try to find a place that you can have fun away from the core hunting area. As we know, mature deer will not tolerate human interaction. Even on a 40-acre piece, peel out a portion of it for family activities.
- Neighbors. Look for properties with large land-holding neighbors. A simple visit to your county courthouse or a purchase of a plat map could pay huge dividends. Our current 135-acres has two separate neighbors that each have over 1,500 acres. This isn’t always perfect, as one guy could have 50 people hunting on 1,000 acres, but I’ve often found that isn’t the case in the Midwest. If your property is in a neighborhood with 7-10 smaller parcels, more than likely there will be undue pressure on your herd.
- Photo Logs. Keep a photo diary of your habitat work, before/after photo logs go a long way. Your new owner will appreciate the pride you took in your land and hopefully you will pass the baton to another habitat junkie!
- Diamonds in the rough. Look for properties that are unimproved; this is where you will be able to turn your greatest profits through sweat equity. Things I look for: old overgrown cattle pastures, unmanaged timber, land without low-cost and simple improvements (gates, paths and creek crossings, etc.). I also look for areas that could have permanent timber clearings for hidden food plots. $1,500 or less in dozer work can get you a couple of awesome acres to work with for food.
- Screening from roads. The most perfect deer habitat is habitat that others don’t know exists. Agriculture fields and food plots (and large deer & turkey) that can be seen from the road are an open invitation to poachers, road hunters and trespassers. Out of sight, out of mind.
- Easements. If your property is land-locked; ensure there is a recorded legal easement. I’ve heard horror stories around confrontations with neighbors and easements. Hidden nail strips, fist fights and even shots fired; have a legal leg and clear documentation to stand on to access your paradise.
- Edge habitat. This sounds obvious for most deer hunters, but it is worthwhile noting that properties with significant edge features provide greater hunting. Even in monolithic timber stands, look for properties with a variance in timber age.
- Room to grow. You may find that your initial purchase is everything you ever wanted in a place and may never have designs to upgrade. It is never a bad thing to identify adjacent parcels for future purchase. Once decent relationships are formed with neighbors, I generally ask for the first right of refusal if they ever decide to sell and I offer the same courtesy in return.
- Finances. You will have to have at least 20% down and a lot of banks may want 30%+ down depending upon the property’s improvements, income and your personal financial situation. There are a lot of options available out there; balloon payments, variable interest rates, owner financing, etc. Properties with a livable dwelling generally offer more flexibility in terms of down payment and loan length terms. A great first step is reaching out to a local bank or Farm Credit Service in the general area you are property shopping and get pre-approval.
- Property searches. The above finance pre-approval step can be a crucial step in ultimately landing the property you want. You will find the best properties, especially those close to a major metropolitan area, will sell before the listing realtor will even call you back. In fact, many carry “pocket listings” that never even hit the MLS system or land websites that are offered to buyers that are on their roster and ready to go. I found my first two properties online without a buyer’s agent, both by dumb luck and a day or two after they were posted. Many realtors will not even show properties without a pre-approval note or a sense that you are a serious buyer. One other note, if you are searching on your own, you will encounter countless listings that are actually “sold” that realtors keep out there as “available” to market other parcels and gain you as a client. Frustrating, but part of the game! A buyer’s agent can sift through a lot of the non-sense listings for you and does not cost you a thing!
- Upgrading your property. When you find that next “project” and are ready to sell, use the experts. Make sure to keep accurate accounting records from the initial purchase. An hour and $400 with a qualified accountant up front can save you a lot of money and headache on the back end. We have used a capital gains feature called an “1031 Exchange”, that lets you roll your capital gains (profit) on tax free/tax delayed basis into another qualified land purchase. There are a lot of stipulations and rules, but your closing company and selling realtor can typically suggest a qualified party to help you execute the exchange. Expect to pay $500-$1,500 for this service.
There are piles of other suggestions I could lay out for you, but I’ll save those for another day! I’ll follow up this article with some lessons learned and mistakes made with habitat work and land ownership/management in general. Thanks for reading and God Bless!
Andy Pettit – St. Charles, MO
Andy lives and breathes hunting and habitat management 365 days a year. He spends his days working in the fast-paced high-tech industry and dreaming of being outside. He has relentless passion on working to ensure his hunting properties have the best habitat available in the neighborhood and helping others in their journey. He focuses primarily on deer & turkey, but will often be found with a fly rod in his hand as he is trying to achieve a lifelong goal of catching a fish in all 50 states on a fly rod. Andy lives the WKP mantra by introducing and mentoring his 3 children to God’s glorious outdoor creations (as he frequently chases them through the brush).