On May 6, 2021

More than ever, ‘Buyer beware’

By Julia Purdy

As I continued my search for a smallish property to settle into permanently – land or land-with-small house – my budget gave me no slack. On my side, I do have the advantage of knowing the southern Vermont counties well, being a native of the area and having returned almost 20 years ago, from many years away at school or living on the West Coast. 

When I started scouting last summer, the jump in acreage prices — not necessarily values — was both startling and dismaying, and then amusing. Long gone are the days when an acre, choked with weeds and rocks, good only for grazing livestock, went for $500 – or even $1,000. Vermont’s notoriously poor, rock-strewn upland soils have prompted much local humor, such as this example: Out-of-state prospective buyer to the old-timer, noticing the field of boulders on the hillside, said: “Wow, that’s a lot of rocks! How did they get here?” “Glacier brought ‘em,” says the old-timer. “Wow, that’s cool,” said the out-of-stater. “Where did the glacier go?” “Back for more,” says the old-timer.

But as I tooled around Darkest Shrewsbury one weekend (not the worst roads you could be on in early spring, but close) looking for a property I remembered, it seemed there was a new driveway punched through the woods, with a new residence in various stages of construction at the end of it, around every curve. 

The phrase “buyer beware” is as pertinent now as it was when it was coined in the Middle Ages as the Latin term, “Caveat emptor.” According to wikipedia, the complete phrase means “Let a purchaser beware, for he ought not to be ignorant of the nature of the property which he is buying (from another party) i.e., the buyer should assure himself that the product is good” and the seller is the rightful owner.

So I was checking on the status of some pieces of land I looked at last fall. One, with a water-damaged camper and dilapidated garage, a well and septic on half an acre, was on the market at that time for $50,000 and has finally sold for $20,000 below asking price, according to Zillow. The property had once had a mobile home on it, and the garage had one new-looking toilet installed amidst all the junk. When I asked the agent about it, he said the seller had done that to keep the system intact and functional. Zillow lists prior sales and dates and it had been purchased not long before. I never found out why the seller decided to sell so soon, but that was a red flag for me.

The 1-acre wooded lot up in Shrewsbury I had my eye on had standing water from drainage off the slope of woods above it. The 3-acre parcel in Chippenhook had about 1/4 acre of dry land, not enough to drill a well and put in a septic system, let alone comply with setbacks. The rest of the property stretches across the floodplain of the Clarendon River — undevelopable by every standard.

What seemed clear was that some landowners might have bitten off more than they could chew in a sight-unseen purchase, or were testing the waters and hoping for someone to come along and take on some of the tax burden for otherwise waste land.

The 1-acre Shrewsbury lot, I am now sure, is on a pile of rocks … runoff from above can’t soak in so it forms little pools and rivulets among the trees and feeds the small stream and wetland on the downhill side, that feeds eventually into Mill River that flows into Otter Creek, which in turn empties eventually into Lake Champlain. So it now comes under Vermont’s new stringent clean water law; the remediation measures apply to private properties as well and can be costly.

What to watch for when surfing the real estate-dot-com listings

Mislabeling is common. I was looking online for another parcel in a wooded subdivision listed in Shrewsbury, by following the main road to the subdivision road. I found myself looking at a completely different road … in Cavendish, just south of Ludlow. Also, the map spots for specific addresses in Google Maps are often out of place by several miles. Google only offers street views on roads highlighted in blue, where the Google camera van has actually traveled. And the odds of getting lost, turned around, and otherwise misdirected by Google Maps are very high, especially since the maps are interactive and people can change or add routes themselves. Zoom in and you can lose your bearings; zoom out for a bird’s-eye view and you lose the road names. You may easily end up in a place where you cannot actually turn the car around, you are without cell service, and you face a long walk back to the nearest farmhouse or main road.

Also, road maps alone do not tell the whole story. A 6-acre parcel, also in Shrewsbury, contains giant power lines that do not show up on a simple road map. Seeing those towers in person tells a different story. These power easements rigidly restrict activity under them. In addition, even though electricity is available, water and septic are another matter. In general, the entire parcel is very rocky, judging from the view from the road.

To know, go!

All of this is to say: don’t buy sight-unseen unless you are 100% confident of layout, facilities, condition and topography, or have the resources to deal with the unforeseen. The next best option to making a road trip is to spy on property from the air: the satellite views and other resources from a variety of online sites.

Having worked in residential real estate myself, I do recommend finding an agent who will be invaluable in locating the right property, making sure everything is legal, and also holding the sale together if necessary. But as with any major purchase, and with information at our fingertips, it is now much easier to become informed so you can ask the right questions. These days the “buyer’s agent” is popular, even though both the buyer’s and the listing agent ultimately work to get the property sold. But the buyer’s agent can be a very important go-between if you are buying from a distance or don’t want to negotiate yourself. The buyer’s agent should provide a written disclosure of his or her relationship to you and to the seller. You should not have to pay extra.

Note there is a difference between Realtor® and real estate “agent” or “professional.” A Realtor® belongs to the National Association of Realtors, which among other things addresses professional misconduct. Only Realtors® can access the Multiple Listing Service that contains every last piece of real estate listed by its member brokers. Any Realtor® can sell any listing in the MLS system. The commission is split between participating brokers. 

When you buy direct from the seller (For Sale By Owner) you have no such advantages except through an attorney. In that case, make sure you have an attorney who specializes in real estate.

So let’s say you are driving around on the back roads, as I did, looking over the landscape. You see a real estate for sale sign. You like the area and the setting. The buildings look good (or maybe not) and you want to know more. You note down the road address or a nearby address if necessary.  The three online resources I use are: Google or Bing maps (by address, for the aerial or street view), Caltopo.com (many layers to choose from), and the individual town’s tax maps.

When you look at the Google or Bing satellite views, study the area of the parcel that you can’t see from the road, and zoom in to look for buildings, waste ground, vehicles, fencelines, etc. Look for a stream and notice the vegetation that grows in wetlands…the coloration is usually tan (the reeds), as well as dump sites, quarries, cultivated fields. When you zoom in, a street address might appear.

Caltopo opens with a county-level, generic map for you to add layers to, yourself. First, you zoom in on the location you want. Experiment with the preset combinations (lower right corner) for what you need to know: the elevation changes, sunlight through the day, even the underlying rock composition.

Everything along Otter Creek goes underwater dramatically and predictably … that is why farmers farm it, the soil is so rich in the floodplains… The region’s experience with Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 proved that even with much smaller streams you may be awash, if not toppled or sent downstream. Stringent remedies and preventive measures have been put in place by government in anticipation that it will most likely happen again, sooner or later.

The tax, or parcel, maps are now online via town websites (many states house land records at the county level, but this is Vermont!). This is a welcome advance, since town offices are now normally closed to the public except by appointment, due to Covid restrictions. You will be looking for “Tax Maps” under the appropriate town department, which will usually be PDFs of the individual map segments, with an index to same.

For shrewsburyvt.org, for example, the department would be Town Office, then the Listers page, where there is a link for the Shrewsbury Parcel Maps. The first screen gives you the map key, just like in the physical map book. Scroll down through the maps to find the map you want. On Map 6, for example, you will see the abovementioned 6-acre parcel as well as the big power line that cuts straight across the land, northwest to southeast, with its 350-foot right of way clearly marked. Redfin says the site has a “VELCO 33’ right of way only about 17’ estm or so along border line.” According to the town parcel map, the Redfin information is misleading. Yes, there is a 33-foot right of way for VELCO equipment to access the powerline, but the total width of the power line right of way is 350 feet. When I sat in my car and looked up at those giant towers marching across the land, I knew I would not be interested even if the terrain was flat and rock-less.

Caveat emptor!

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