Start by considering water availability. Much of our nation is drought-prone. Water might only be available seasonably, and then the aquifers dry up.
I searched for and found one of the regions where droughts do not happen for our homestead.
Where I grew up, by May-June of each year the wild grasses are all brown and dead. Trees that are not 'drought-tolerant' die. You might be able to drill a well deep enough so you can have drinking water year-round. But that is no way to supply a garden and livestock.
It requires energy to pump water. The deeper the well, the more energy it requires. In a Post-SHTF scenario, ask yourself what energy source are you planning to use to pump that water?
I agree with Galen, water availability was first on our list. But we didn't just want a a high water table for water availability, we also wanted a good creek. We found a property with a high water table and a year round flowing creek fed by an Artesian well.
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. -B. Franklin
John, I think it helps to have a list of what you want to do with your land. If you have specific goals in mind, that will help you find what's suitable. Dan's and my goal was self-sufficiency, so we were looking for the potential to do that. Here's our "dream farm" list from 5 Acres & A Dream The Book, chapter 1, "The Dream."
When we started looking, we compared the potential of each property against that list. We asked ourselves what it would take to turn it into our dream farm. We had financial limitations, so that narrowed down our search considerably. You're correct that there is no perfect property, and we eventually figured out we would have to compromise on some things. What we finally found doesn't exactly match the list, but the potential for working toward our goal becoming self-reliant was still there.
There were a few things that were deal breakers for us. Dan had to be satisfied that the house was livable and fixable. Property located next to folks who didn't care how their place looked (my polite way of saying "trashy") were out, as were odd properties stuck in under power lines, on steep hillsides, or placed on heavy-traffic roads.
Echoing what Galen and T.J. said about water, I think the one thing we regret is that we're on city water. We know there's an old well somewhere on the place, but we've never found it (nor know if it's still viable). Dan talks about digging one (!!!) but our alternative has been an extensive rainwater collection system.
For myself and my husband when we leave the ministry (we just got here so it won't happen any time soon) we are looking to buy a piece of land with the money we save up. My salary includes housing, electricity, heating etc and I literally live next door to my office so I don't commute. My husband is a full time mailman. We hope he gets a regular route before we transition out so that he can transfer to another regular route in a more affordable state. New Hampshire has the second or third highest property tax in the country.
So my first priority is lower taxes.
We also want moving water like a creek. I have always wanted to make hydro-power :D
1-5 acres of land but the more land the better.
I'd like to live with less snow but I seem to always end up back in the North. We lived in NC for a year before coming back to the ministry to be permanent staff - I was pushing hard for land down there but we couldn't get a mortgage until hubs was at his job for two years (God wanted us here so it makes sense)
I wouldn't be opposed to MI because that is where I grew up and my entire family lives there besides my brother who built his home in the sub-temperatures of Alaska.
For a having only 5 acres on which to grow all/most of your food, I would want healthy soil (of course) and I would want at least some tree cover. I would be tempted to want/plant/let grow a living fence around the property and I would harvest some portion each year. I would not clear cut any of it, just take a tree/bush here and there.
I suppose I would want the ground relatively flat.
John Rogers wrote:... what factors would be weighted most heavily in your property selection criteria?
For me, the neighbors and surrounding area were just as important as the topography and soil. Supposedly there is a saying that "when you buy a house you buy the neighbors too". Something could look great and all the while what's next door or down the road could make it not ideal, for some. As a quick example, when I was looking for land on the internet, I first narrowed down parcels on websites, then I googled the physical address and looked at the aerial pictures. I remember one in particular looked really good: nice home, forty something acres, mix of woods and pasture - it really had potential as a homestead. The real estate website had pictures taken from strategic angles making it look great. The aerial view revealed it was adjacent to the county fairgrounds and the circle dirt track. Peace and quiet was high on the priority list for my wife and me, and this place was not for us.
"Study books and observe nature; if they do not agree, throw away the books." ~ William A. Albrecht
nearness to town
Water - if you don't have water you're not even up s___ creek, you're up a dry river bed. Water is the beginning of life. You can get by with less, create storage systems, swales, etc, but you're pretty much stuck with the water that either falls on your land or you can get (using energy from somewhere) from a well. If you're dream is to get by on 6 inches of rain a year, embrace it, but realize what you're getting into.
Access - This will vary with the individual. Some folks may want a home you have to back pack in 20 miles to reach, or even fly into. I want something I can get a vehicle to. I had a friend who would had a long clay driveway that would turn into a mud hole every time it rained. He routinely had to leave his four wheel drive stuck until it dried out in a few days. (That would be include, access to various parts of the property. Once again, look at what you want/need to fulfill your dreams.
Neighbors - I don't mind someone a little 'careless' about their property, but I have an aversion to drug addicts, thieves, etc. If you're pretty 'straight' you might not even recognize the signs. I lived next to a meth addict for a few years and I was too damned green to recognize what he was. A couple of guys with more 'street knowledge' came by the house, at different times and without knowing the others assessment, saw my neighbor from the end of a long driveway and said "Oh, you've got a meth head living next door". When I moved, he broke in and robbed me of most of my stuff (I was coming back for it). Everyone has their preferences for who they live around (some folks might be fine with a meth head but not want to be around 'church people'. Figure out what you want and what you won't put up with.
Topography - I'm at an age where I have no desire to go mountain climbing to walk to the back of my property. Varied Topography can be a blessing (water power) or a curse (erosion, places you just won't go as often as you should). Weather conditions can emphasize problems with topography.
Nearness to town - Again, it varies. Some folks are like Pecos Bill's dad. Someone settles 20 miles away and they think "the country's filling up!" Personally, while I treasure my wild spaces and want plenty of 'elbow room', I also don't want to drive 2 hours round trip for a bottle of aspirin. I'm good with a 1/2 hour from town. Nearness to town also translates to nearness many resources that are there, as well as alternate or emergency employment opportunities.
Power - maybe this isn't a priority for you, but having commercial power is sure nice.
Internet access - may not be a priority for you, but once again, it sure is nice.
Make sure you are on the same page as your spouse. My wife has even tighter 'near to town requirements'. She is fine with my ideal of 20 acres of wilderness, as long as it's on a good road, with nice neighbors, 5 minutes of less from all her shopping needs, preferably near a major university. We laugh about it (I may have exaggerated her list a tiny bit). Realistically, we are still working together to figure out which of those requirements is going to be adjusted, because unless some unknown billionare uncle dies and leaves me a huge pile of cash, there is no way all our wants are going to be met.
The things I'd consider first are those things which I have no control over and/or can't change.
Neighbors & location are definitely priorities. A bad neighbor can turn your little slice of heaven into the 5 acres from hell. Additionally, I don't want to invest in a property in an area being developed, or in the general direction that the town is expanding towards. I would hate it if I spent 5-10 years developing a homestead, just to have the area evolve into a residential neighborhood or commercial/retail zone.
Secondary priorities are probably accessibility in different seasons, and the layout of the land. It's a lot easier when you can get to all areas of the property, and you don't have to fight nature through every step of development. Growing up, our farm had deep, red clay and it was easy to get a vehicle stuck just driving down the driveway when it rained.
Wildlife is important, as I would want to know if there's any threatened/endangered species that I could disrupt when developing a homestead. Or, I would want to know if there's an overpopulation or raccoons, coyotes, etc. if my plan was to have a large poultry operation.
Overall, I think it's best to have a plan laid out and base priorities off of the goals. I would want to select a property that would allow me to complete the goals with as little resistance as possible.
When we bought our property in France we too had a wish list.
At first, we were okay with a fixer-upper house but eventually, we realized we did not want to spend all that time making a place liveable especially if we wanted to develop the land. So we wanted a house that was ready to be lived in even if it needed a bit of polish. Next, we wanted outbuildings-- we ended up a huge attached space with a huge stone barn, a large garage, a space ready to develop into a second living space and a 5 bedroom house.
We wanted water- a stream or river access but we ended up with access to a spring on our neighbor's land, not soo far away from our place but unfortunately, not on our property. We plan to store a lot of water that falls on our roof--there is a lot of roof!...and a lot of rain in the fall and winter but not that much in summer, so storing water, wither in the soil or in storage containers will be a priority for us.
We wanted fairly decent growing soil--we looked at the farming nearby and figured it must not be too bad. Most of our land has been covered in grass for many years, so we have a clean slate more or less to do with it what we will. We did not realize it was as rocky as it is but we are working with that as do all the farmers in the area.
We wanted to make sure it was not downstream from a farmer who used pesticides. Since we are on the crest of a hill, I think we are safe there.
We were looking for at least some of the property facing south--the area where we plan to put in our kitchen garden is so, though we also have to deal with the shade of large trees from the neighbors.
Speaking of neighbors, our place is in a hamlet. We have very sweet French neighbors who are very helpful to us. I did not want to be isolated but we are finding the neighbors are a bit too close so we are redesigning the driveway and planting a green barrier to give ourselves more privacy.
We live a 2 km walk from our town that has a grocery store and a few other shops, and the bigger town is about 22 km away, two cities are 60 minutes away. Having access to civilization is important to us--and also, since we do not live there full time, getting there from the nearest airport-either 2 hours or 5 hours drive away.
One more thing, beauty and/or cuteness or potential for it.
Anyway, once you find your place, you live with it, good stuff and not so good, but you make it your own and start loving it because it is yours
I bought 5 acres last year, we had 2 before so I had a list of things it had to have
2 acres + max 5
Main road frontage suitable for a farm stand
Decent land, not wooded, not swamp, not a 30% hill.
House of minimum 120m2
Barn of minimum 300m2
Bathroom with room for a bath tub if it had been removed.
Decent sized kitchen
Fiber internet available if not already installed.
No really close neighbours to the house
No street lights No town heating
No large stinky farm up wind (mink in particular)
No wind turbines closer than 1km
Not so far out towards the coast that the soil becomes nearly pure sand
Since I am in a very damp country water is not something we search after but something you actively avoid.
We got all of those things, with the sole exception of the stinky farm.. we have a pig farm over the road, slightly downwind normally, but every now and again you get a good sinus clearing waft.
Our wishlist to purchase our property was limited by how much cash we had in the bank but included:
Mostly Forested land, with clearing or house
5 or more acres
Well water on nearby properties is not salt
No protected zones on the property
Power access be at the road already
No recent logging of up to 40 years
Close enough that we could commute to Seattle within 3 hours
High-Speed Internet for my job
A place to get brunch within 40 minutes
We ended up with a property that had an unsafe shack on. No clearings at all besides the driveway and around the shack. The land had been logged in the past but not for at least 80 years. It also backs up to 20 acres of rural forest that is inaccessible to any road. We are hoping to buy this plot down the road, but that would require way more cash then we have. I wish we walked the property in rain, but we were on a tight timeline.
We had 1 week to find and buy a house when my husband was transferred from Ontario to Vancouver Island, BC 20+ years ago when our son's were 2 and 4 1/2. Hubby absolutely didn't want suburbia, but I also knew that he'd be working long hours and not have a lot of time for managing a property. Under the circumstances, we did quite well.
We have 2 deep wells, but electricity is mostly hydro-electric in this area of the province and reasonably priced.
Too many huge cedar and fir trees that block a lot of light in the places I'd like to garden. There are days I wish I wasn't too small/light to be comfortable using a chainsaw!
The house was a compromise, but every time I try to suggest certain changes, hubby gets bogged down in - "should we just renovate with a bulldozer". Houses of this one's era tend to have asbestos hidden in them, particularly the stipple ceiling, so testing has to be done first.
The property came with a chicken coop that totally doesn't meet "permaculture principles" but we made portable shelters and use the building for our brooder and gardening tools. What started out as "a few free chickens for our eggs" turned into my hubby's retirement business. Being on a moderately busy road in a community that appreciates farm fresh eggs and is 5 km to the business area of the local small city (and the public library's even closer), are major assets. What we've given up in "isolation" we've more made up for in time/money/gas saved by having important things close at hand.
So sometimes I think it's all about working with what you've got, making do, fixing up, and not chasing a dream that could change in an instant. I try to celebrate the things that work and be thankful that I can try new trees/shrubs/veggies/animals and see things grow.
I'd like to live near liberal minded people, but also in an area with no or unenforced building codes. I think the answer to that is the edge effect, living on the border of a rural county and a more urban county, but in the rural county. This will also give me access to a lot of the amenities and markets of a the more urban county with the low taxes and low cost of living of the rural county.
I need to add, do not limit yourself by artificial constraints. Yes, financial limitations are normally very real. But too often we decide what has to be when it doesn't.
To play this in reverse, I have an ex neighbor do a real head scratcher. He insisted on selling off his house and 40 acres as a unit. He had the opportunity to sell 20 acres of land and 20 acres with the house which would have gotten him $50,000.00 more. But he got it in his head that deer hunters would want the full 40 .....even though he had paying customers in front of him. People freeze their thinking far too often.
"Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions." ... Mark Twain
Most of what I list are specific to my location and specific needs but the first item on my list is basically impossible to change once you are on a piece of land.
Solar Aspect and sunlight. NH is a heavily wooded state with lots of hills and mountains and an average rainfall of 40" a year. It also has a short growing season a sunny location that isn't a frost pocket was our number one priority.
No wetlands or ponds. We get plenty of rain here but there are 50 to 250 feet easement restrictions on anything the state considers a wetlands. With a small property that could have made it impossible to for us to homestead on it let alone add any out buildings or animals. We used the state's fish and game maps as a reference to see if a property we were looking at had any designated wet lands, streams, ponds, bogs or other bodies of water that would make things difficult. If we were looking at a larger property we would have been looking for water on it but it is too much hassle on a small lot when we can easily build water catchment.
Agricultural zoning, no excessive permit requirements, and allows animals. Here in NH zoning, permit requirements and property taxes vary dramatically from town to town so you have to do your homework. I wanted the option to have animals, a farm stand, or start a commercial farm.
Well water and septic. I didn't want to be on city water and sewer.
It had to be with in a 40 minute commuting distance for my husband and close to a small city. Being closer to most of the goods and services we need became insanely important when I had to stop driving due to vision problems. I am close enough to town I can get an Uber or Lyft or a friend to drive me if my husband can't take me.
No dirt roads or driveway on a slope that could easily wash out in a storm. This happens all the time here.
It needed to be in a quiet location and we with good neighbors who wouldn't care that we have a lumpy front yard garden with silage tarps on it and project materials along the driveway. We seriously lucked out with amazing neighbors. They are kind, helpful and all doers with various projects and businesses they run from their homes.
We need a place we could age in place and or have retrofitted if I become more disabled faster than I would like. We may not stay here when my husband retires but we don't want to be forced to leave if I develop too many physical limitations or need to have our parents live with us.
We took a 10 day PDC in Vermont with Whole Systems Design right before we started shopping for our current homestead. It was a sound investment because we quickly realized that we only needed 2 to 3 acres for what we wanted to do. We also learned we didn't need a big old barn or a garage to do what we wanted. This saved us money buying the place and with property taxes which are high in NH. We bought a 3 bedroom ranch house on 2.5 acres on the southeastern side of a hill 15 minutes outside of a small city. We love it here and after 6 years we haven't even started developing the back half of the property even though we have been expanding out homestead every year.
For us raising most larger farm animals was not something we wanted to do nor did we want to harvest all our own firewood. I have physical limitations and we are designing our homestead to allow me to keep doing the things I love, room for my husband to build things, and grow a large percentage of our own food. We are doing that on 2.5 acres and are loving it.