What to Know Before Buying a House in the Country

Dealing with issues city dwellers don't face, like the need for a water source and septic system, boundary uncertainty, rural zoning limitations, and more.

By , J.D. · UCLA School of Law

If you're considering a move from hectic city existence to bucolic country living, you must consider a number of issues unique to rural homes before you buy. Otherwise, you could end up owning a host of problems that city dwellers do not regularly encounter.

Is There Safe Water for the Home?

You no doubt want to be able to drink the water in your new home. Unlike city homes, however, which typically access water through a public, municipal water supply (most often distributed from a central, treated source), water for a rural home is more likely to come from a well or possibly a spring.

City health regulations typically require that the public water is routinely tested to ensure it contains no toxins or harmful impurities. As a homeowner in a city, you can therefore be pretty sure the water is clean and safe. A rural home's well or spring water, however is typically untreated, and its quality can be uncertain.

Before purchasing a rural home that relies on well or spring water, you'll want to test the water quality. Your county's health department probably offers water testing, or a state certified laboratory can test a sample. (To locate your state's testing laboratory, go to the EPA's website: www.epa.gov/waterlabnetwork.)

If the test results show the water is unsafe for drinking, a filtration system might solve the problem. If not, you might need a new well. Either way, obtaining a clean water source can be costly and time consuming. (For more information on water sources see Buying Vacant Land: Will You Have Water?.)

Is There Adequate Water for the Home?

You don't want to move into your beautiful country home only to find that the well on the property doesn't produce enough water—a type of issue you probably never had to worry about as a city dweller. Before you buy, you must make sure the water supply is both steady and reliable.

If the property's water pressure is too weak, or the water supply is limited, this might indicate the need for a new well. Engage a professional water engineer before you purchase to evaluate the property and the adequacy of the water supply.

Also check into what the water that's available to the house can be used for. As a city dweller, you can typically use available water for whatever purpose you want (although to conserve water, some cities might regulate things like what days you can irrigate your lawns).

In rural areas, especially in drier climates, your well permit might limit what you can use your water for. For example, permit restrictions might prohibit you from using the water for anything other than household purposes (which would mean no watering the lawn, or even washing the car). Check the well permit, and discuss the water regulations with a professional engineer or attorney in the area.

Will the Home Have an Adequate Sewage or Septic System?

Public sewer systems take care of the waste from urban homes so that city dwellers need only worry about the condition of the plumbing inside the home, and possibly the connection from the home to the main sewer line.

In a rural area, by contrast, the property is more likely to use a private septic system for waste disposal. Septic systems can malfunction, and they sometimes require maintenance and pumping.

If the property you are looking at has its own septic system, get it checked out by a septic engineer before you buy. Find out its condition, when it was last pumped, how it's been maintained, and whether there have been any problems with it.

Also ensure that the septic is big enough to serve your needs. If you have a family of six, for example, you'll need a septic with greater capacity than you would as a single person. Septic system problems can be nasty and smelly, as well as expensive to fix. If a new septic is required, you could be in for a large, expensive construction project.

(For more information about septic systems see Buying Vacant Land: Will You Need a Septic System?)

Do You Know Enough About the Property's Boundaries, Easements, and Other Survey Issues?

Rural homes typically come with more land around the house than a city home enjoys, which means a greater potential for problems with boundary lines and easements. That makes commissioning a survey practically essential when purchasing a rural property.

A survey will verify where the property boundaries are located. It will also show whether anyone else has permission to use portions of the land (by showing the location of any easements) or whether a neighbor's improvement (such as a garage or driveway) is partially located on the property (by showing any encroachments).

(For more information on surveys, see Before Buying Vacant Land: Yes, You Need a Survey.)

Does the Property Have Toxins or Environmental Cleanup Concerns?

Your prospective rural property may be large and have a varied history of types of uses—all of which adds up to a greater risk of environmental contamination than exists for a home in a long-established city neighborhood.

To make sure you don't purchase a toxic property requiring an expensive cleanup, you must obtain an environmental assessment. It will include a thorough professional review of the property to check for potential environmental issues.

(To find out more about environmental assessments see Before Buying Vacant Land: Getting an Environmental Assessment.)

Can You Use the Property in the Way You Want?

Owners of rural properties are more likely to want to use their property for a variety of uses (not just residential). If you buy some country acreage, for example, you might consider raising livestock or growing crops. Whether you can carry out your desired uses depends on the zoning ordinances affecting the property.

City neighborhoods are ordinarily zoned "residential." A rural property, however, might have a "residential," "rural," "farmland," or even "environmentally sensitive" zoning classification.

You must check the local zoning map and the applicable zoning ordinances to determine how you can use the property. Check the zoning of neighboring properties as well, to make sure your neighbor's prospective uses are compatible with yours. (Knowing that your closest neighbor has the right to start a pig farm or rooster breeding operation, for example, might dissuade you from buying a property on which to establish a B&B).

A local real estate attorney can help you determine the land's zoning and research the uses allowed.

If you consider the differences between city and rural properties before buying, you'll have a greater chance of purchasing a country home you'll be happy with.

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