A House in the Country – Part 2

In the previous installment of ‘A House in the Country’, I discussed finding the right site for a home, and the ins and outs of getting utilities to the property.  In the second part, I’ll take a look at some other considerations you should know about before you choose a home in the country.

DSCN0641Over a decade ago, my husband and I left a large southwestern city and moved to rural Iowa. We had no real idea what we were getting into. We aren’t farmers — in fact, I have a knack for killing off the vegetable patch I plant each spring. We just like having some elbow room and being able to reconnect a bit with nature after a long and stressful week at work.  We love it here, although some of the challenges of rural life have taken some getting used to.

The Distance
One of the most significant factors for many families living in the country is the commute to work and school.  Ours is about 20 miles in 20 minutes, and it’s not a bad drive — beautiful country highways where the only traffic jam is caused by a slow moving piece of farm equipment — but that makes 40 miles a day, minimum, and the gas bill adds up.  When you are considering purchasing a rural property, take the distance, time, and dollars into consideration, almost as if it were part of the house payment.  With that said, I know lots of people who have 30-minute city commutes in heavy traffic, and I’ll take my country miles any day!

Another thing about rural life is the convenience factor. It’s a lot harder to run to the store for a missing ingredient, and going back into town for an event in the evening takes serious consideration.  Play time with neighbor kids only really happens if you are willing to import the friends. We tend to stay home once we get home, we cook much more often than we eat out (this helps balance out that gasoline bill), and getting together with friends takes a bit more effort.

The flip side is that there are no Homeowner Associations to tell you when and how to mow your lawn or what color Christmas lights you are allowed to put up, and you don’t have to deal much with neighbors — unless you want to .  Of course, the inverse of this country liberty is that if your neighbors leave old junk outside, decide to target shoot at 7am on Sunday morning, or if their dogs bark incessantly, you’re just going to have to live with it because there aren’t many ordinances bossing country folks around.

Critters of Various Types
It is good to remember that when you live in a rural area, you are residing in the middle of a wildlife habitat. This means that you get to watch a great selection of birds, that the deer and rabbits will browse in your garden, raccoons will play on your roof, and creatures like mice and spiders will recognize your home as a warm place to spend the winter. Seasonal cycles will bring insects like box elder beetles and flying ant colonies into close personal contact with your space; and other people’s livestock and pets occasionally stop in for a visit. If mice rustling in your kitchen at night, and the subsequent snap of the mouse trap freak you out, be forewarned.

Another aspect of this communing with nature thing is hunting season.  Be prepared to either allow hunters to roam your property or to spend a fair amount of energy explaining to folks who have ‘always hunted here’ why you won’t allow them to do so any longer.  A general ethic in the country is that while you may own a parcel of land, access to walkers and hunters is generally given.  If you don’t want to grant that access, that’s fine, but you will need to make it clear, all around the perimeter of your land. Oh, and don’t spend lots of time outside during shotgun season, and keep your dogs close.

Dust and Mud and Snow
Many rural roads are unpaved. This means that traffic is a bit slower, but it also means dust. Lots and lots of dust.  Gravel roads during a dry spell can coat your home – not to mention your car, inside and out, with a fine gray powder; and in a wetter season, ankle deep mud can make roads treacherous and messy.  In spring, the need for a mud room takes on a whole new dimension, as every walkway and field becomes a quagmire.  But then, again, you probably don’t have white carpet in that country house, at least not if you have kids.

DSCN4346aSpeaking of roads, you should also know that the gravel roads tend to be a lower snow-plough priority than paved ones. This means that sometimes the school bus can’t get through, and that you may not be able to get out, even with 4-wheel drive.  On those days, just get in touch with your Zen self and settle in to telecommute or resign yourself to making snowmen and drinking hot cocoa. It’s a tough life.

What about the Iowa Fence Law?
There are some interesting laws in Iowa governing fences, their maintenance, and liability for livestock that may get through the fence.  If you live in a rural area, you will probably need to deal with the fences between your property and your neighbors, and you should be aware that you are responsible for helping to maintain these fences, whether or not you either erected or have use for them.  Further, even if you don’t have livestock, if your neighbor’s livestock gets loose through fences that were your responsibility, you could be held liable for any damages that they cause (like being hit by a car). Yes, you read that right. So, educate yourself on the Iowa Fence law, which is laid out quite nicely by the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association here, and communicate with your neighbors so that everyone knows what parts of any fences they are responsible for!

Agriculture & Livestock
Iowa, as you’ve no doubt noticed, is an agricultural center. When you live in the country, you’ll be up close and personal with the various faces of ag in Iowa, some of which are picturesque and idyllic, others – not so much.  I mentioned farm equipment earlier, and the growing season, farmers are working hard, travelling from one field to the next on tractors, planters, sprayers, combines, and lots of huge green monsters that I have no name for.  When they plant or harvest, expect lots of extra dust. Don’t plant your own garden or trees too close to a corn/soybean field, because they’ll get sprayed with herbicide. Don’t get too attached to someone else’s grove of trees or prairie patch, because chances are it will be ploughed over before too long. But if you can live with these drawbacks, watching the annual process of planting and harvesting will help tie you to the seasons in a new way, and you’ll find new wonders in the hidden contours of the land revealed in a freshly harvested field.

Of course, not all the farmers are growing corn and beans. Some are raising livestock such as cattle or pigs. If your neighbor decides to build a hog confinement near your home, there is nothing you can do about that, except maybe to move; after all, your bacon has to come from somewhere. Cattle operations are quite a bit less, um, odiferous than hog lots, and honestly, cows can be really fun to watch. I know what you’re thinking, ‘this girl needs to get to town more often!’ But really, cows have their own society, they’ll talk back to you if you moo at them (little kids find this hilarious), and they only get out of their fences occasionally.

Maybe you’re interested in having a horse or a few chickens yourself. You can do that in the country! You’ll need at least an acre, preferably 3, for a horse or a cow, and chickens need a bit of room too.  Some folks have moveable chicken coops that they rotate around their property. Chickens and ducks are also great bug control for your garden, and do a bit of fertilizing as they move through. Keep in mind that livestock needs care, which means work and feed and shelter and vet bills too. It’s not all fresh eggs and pony rides.

I don’t mean to scare you, just prepare you for a few of the differences you are likely to encounter as you begin your adventure in the country.  I love it out here, the peace helps me cope with a hectic life, and being close to nature helps me remember why I am here in this world to begin with.  I wish you the same contentment, whether you choose the country life or prefer the hustle and bustle of the city.

A House in the Country

It’s a beautiful life, living in the country –  distant neighbors, little traffic, less noise. You’ve got your lovely little farmhouse, maybe a garage, maybe a chicken coop or a horse barn. You’re surrounded by prairie wildlife — or corn fields — and the livin’ is easy.

Well, maybe not that easy.  Or at least getting there may be a little more complicated than you think.

As a Realtor working in Marion County, I get lots of queries about country homes, so I thought I’d lay out some of the basics of buying an existing country home or building a new one.  My sources for this topic were Missy Poffenbarger, Marion County Zoning Administrator, the 2013 Marion County Comprehensive Land Use Plan (which can be found on the Marion County web site and which is a treasure trove of cool maps, if you like to geek out on maps, like I do), Jason from MidAmerican Energy, Randy Branson from Marion County Rural Water Association, and Robin Redding from Two Rivers Coop in Pella.

Rural IowaFirst you need the location.

Aside from what kind of terrain and view you desire for your country home, zoning issues do come into play in buying and selling property in Marion County.

Land use ordinances vary significantly from county to county in Iowa; for example, some counties set no requirements on rural land use, others don’t allow any homes to be built in agricultural zones at all.  Marion County uses zoning to help implement a long range land use plan.  Most of the county is zoned A1, which is the designation for an agricultural district. Towns are a mix of residential, commercial and industrial zoning designations, and there are pockets of residential zones scattered throughout the county, as well as a few undesignated areas. Check out the Beacon map site for your county to learn more about zoning in your area. Go to the Marion County Beacon site for more information on individual parcels in our county.)

So what does this mean for those of you who want to sell or buy a rural building lot or home?

  • If you own land that is zoned A1, and you wish to divide a small parcel either for sale, or perhaps to give to your child, the division must be at least 3 acres, and the parcel must have access to a county road (i.e., it may not be a ‘land locked’ island without egress to a road).
  • If the land was divided sometime between 1985 and 2010, the parcel may be no less than 1.5 acres. (Why? In 1985, the County decided to allow 1.5 acre building lots, but after 25 years, it became apparent that too many septic systems had been built too closely together; moreover, larger and larger homes and garages were being built, and setbacks were becoming an increasing problem. So, the County reverted to the earlier 3-acre requirement.)
  • No more than 4 three-acre parcels, with no more than one dwelling on each parcel, is allowed in any given 40 acre tract, in an A1-zoned area. Rezoning is required if you want to go above this limit.
  • A building permit is required for any permanent structure built in Marion County — one benefit of the building permit, is that a 911 marker is generated for the structure, allowing emergency services to find the correct location, should they ever be needed. For more information on obtaining a permit, go to the Marion County Zoning page.
  • Each dwelling must have its own septic system, which must be built according to county regulations and maintained in a non-polluting state. If you are buying an existing home with a septic system, you should know that many lenders require an inspection of the system before approving the sale. If you are selling a property with a septic system, wouldn’t you rather have the issue addressed BEFORE it holds up the entire sale process?

Next, you’ll need Utilities

Electricity
If you are buying an existing home in the country that already has electricity, natural gas, and rural water hookups, you will need to call to have the utilities put in your name, just as you would in the city.  But if you are building a new home on a lot that does not already have utilities run to it, the cost can be significant.  Depending on how far your lot is located from the main lines, you some sources suggest that you may want to look into setting up your own systems such as drilling a well or installing geothermal, solar or wind energy systems.

I spoke with Jason at MidAmerican about the costs involved in running electric lines to a rural property. He laid out some ball-park guidelines to consider. Basically there is a per-foot charge to run power to your property, so the farther you are from existing power lines, the more costly it will be. There are two classes of lines, for the purpose of this explanation:

  • Primary lines that run from the main power line to the transformer which converts the high voltage power to ‘usable’ voltage. Most customer prefer to have these lines run underground. Cost: about $15/foot.
  • Secondary lines that run from the transformer to the house, geothermal system, barn, etc. The transformer should be no more than 200 feet from the house. Cost: about $6 per foot.

Gas
propane tankMany rural homes use propane gas to heat water and run furnaces.  You will need to buy a large propane tank, have it hooked up to the house, and make arrangements to keep it filled.  Many folks decide to go with a budget billing, and many also have their tanks filled in the summer when prices are lower. I spoke with Robin Redding at Two Rivers Coop in Pella for some idea of the costs involved.

Propane tanks come in 2 sizes, 500 and 1000 gallons. Most residential customers use the 500 gal. size. These tanks are available three ways: New, used, and reconditioned (which means the valves of a used tank are replaced). The tanks may be bought outright, or paid for on an installment plan over several years.  For example, a used 500 gallon tank is $650 plus tax. If you wish to pay for it over time, you will pay the tax up front ($175.50) and 4 annual payments of $130 each. This cost includes 2 pads and installation of the tank and digging up to 50 feet of line to the house. If you need more than 50 feet, you will pay and hourly labor charge (about $60 per hour) plus 50 cents per foot (over the initial 50 feet).  Additionally, you will need 2 regulators — one for the house, one for the tank — and some tubing, this is about $200.

Then  you will need to fill the tank and keep filling it as gas is used.  This is not an automatic process!  As of today, propane gas costs $1.12 per gallon, but this fluctuates considerably, peaking in the winter months.  Your tank can be filled up to 80% of its capacity, so figure about $425 to fill it today.  Most customers do a summer fill, and then need additional fills 2-4 times each winter. A very ballpark figure for average home annual propane cost is $1000. There are programs that allow customers to lock in the summer price — call your gas provider for more information.

Water Tower

Photo courtesy of IowaBackRoads.com

Water
Most country homes make use of the Rural Water system, and in our county it is the Marion County Rural Water Association that provides water outside of the towns.  Some areas access Mahaska Rural Water instead.  I spoke with Randy Branson at MCRW for details.

Once again, cost to get the water to  your new country home depend a lot on how remote the home will be.  Generally, to connect your home to the water system costs a hookup fee of $1200, plus $375 if the location is along a gravel road, and $425 if it is along a paved road.  If it is necessary to bore under a highway, there is a $10 per foot charge, with an $800 minimum.

If you are extending an existing water line, you’ll pay a bit less, at $2 per foot, with another $250 for a new cleanout.

So, there you have it, the basics on location and utilities. There are also other considerations such as alternative power sources, fences, driveways, livestock enclosures, etc., that may need to be considered, depending on your particular situation, so I’ll address those topics in my next post!

The Villas at Fox Point in Knoxville!

You’ve probably seen the houses being built behind the old VA Doctor’s residences on West Pleasant.

Over the fence shot of a couple of the Villas at Fox Point under construction.

Over the fence shot of a couple of the Villas at Fox Point under construction.

As a Realtor, I’ve gotten numerous inquiries about the development, and I’ve heard plenty of rumors, for example that they are all low-income rentals, that they’re going to be filled with a group of Somalian refugees, that they’re going to suck up all the rental market, and that they’re going to be upper income units for purchase only.

So, I decided to find out more. I started with Harold Stewart, City Manager, and then did some digging around on the web, and wrapped up with a phone call to the property management company in charge.

I learned that the development is called the Villas at Fox Point, that it is a Section 42 housing development being built by the Iceberg Development company, and is slated for completion later this year. According to Wikipedia, a Section 42 project refers to the Section 42 tax credits that give dollar-for-dollar incentives for the utilization of private equity in the development of affordable housing aimed at low-income Americans.  In other words, Iceberg Development is investing their own money to create the development, with the understanding that they will get an equal amount of tax credit to their investment.  The credits for this project amount to something in the neighborhood of $800,000.

The Villas at Fox Point will be managed by Pioneer Property Management, and will have a total of 50 units, consisting of a combination of two-, four-, and eight-plex homes; with 2, 3, and 4 bedrooms; and will all be rentals.   The majority of these units will be rented to qualified individuals who earn above the threshold for low income assistance, but below the income level that would normally enable them to purchase a home.

Stewart told me that rent will be determined on a sliding scale based on income for most units, although several units will be rented to the general public at market rates. Currently, he told me, there are over 200 names on the list requesting information for these homes. Some time in the coming weeks, information and applications will be sent to the people on the list, and qualified applicants will be placed in the rental units on a first-come, first-served basis.  Stewart added that about half of the names have out of town addresses. This means that a number of new families will be coming to Knoxville, many with children who will attend our schools. He also said there is no specific preference given to immigrants of any nationality, but that such people are welcome to participate in the application process along with everyone else.

Knoxville could definitely benefit from more diversity, and from new tax-paying, economy-stimulating residents, so I personally welcome all sorts of people to join our great community, and hope that they will be contributors and volunteers, no matter where they come from.

There will also be a free-standing clubhouse, walking paths, a community garden, and an onsite resident manager. All units will be constructed with all required accommodations for disabled residents, and the complex will be landscaped.  There are also specifications that require the complex to be well-maintained, and regular, unannounced inspections will be conducted. Iceberg Development and their management company, Pioneer Property Management have earned a good reputation for keeping their properties in good condition, and we have every indication that they will do the same in Knoxville.

Will this development alleviate the need for rental units in our community? I think these 50 units will help, but as many of the families are coming to town from somewhere else, and keeping in mind the expansion projected at Weiler Industries in the near future, I believe that many more rental units will be needed.

Are you interested in investing in real estate?  It’s a really good time to get in. Knoxville’s Iowa Realty office gets daily requests for rental property information, and most of the time we have to tell folks that all the units we know about are already filled.

So yes, the homes at Fox Point will all be rentals, most will be rented based on income, but renters will need to have a high enough income that they do not qualify for ‘low-income’ housing assistance. No, there is no indication that the units are all going to be occupied by a group of Somali refugees, although families who come from other countries are welcome to participate in the process. No, these 50 units are unlikely to dry up the rental market for other landlords. And no, this will not be an upper-crust gated community.

If you would like to get on the mailing list, call Pioneer Property Management at 608.348.7755 to submit your information.

So, there you go.  That’s the scoop on the Villas at Fox Point.

About Non-Conforming Lots

Knoxville Zoning Map You may have heard that our community is dealing with a bit of a crisis surrounding the regulations around what are termed ‘non-conforming lots’. Just what is a non-conforming lot? And what’s the big deal?

A non-conforming lot, in any municipality, is a lot that does not meet the minimum size standards set forth in that municipalities’ ordinances.  In Knoxville, specifically, a lot must be 60 feet wide and at least 7200 square feet to be considered a conforming lot. There has been a bit of discussion about whether or not that 60 feet of width must be at the street, and according to City Manager, Harold Stewart, it does not. So, for example, in the case of a pie-shaped cul-de-sac lot that is not 60 feet wide at the street, but does meet that width farther back in the lot, the lot is considered to be conforming.

This standard was set by the City Council in 1983, and at that time those lots throughout the city which were non-conforming (over 400 of them based on a recent count) were ‘grandfathered’ in; and any structures on those lots were allowed to stand, with the stipulation that any future structures on the lot are prohibited. Additionally any building lots platted after 1983, must conform to the minimum size standard.

The problem with non-conforming lots in general is that if the home which stands on one should be more than 50% destroyed by fire or other disaster, the owner will not be allowed to rebuild their structure.  In the past, the city has been known to issue a re-build letter, granting a exception to the code, when a home built on a non-conforming lot is destroyed.  This has been an infrequent occurrence, simply because the need for it has been rare.

So why is it suddenly an issue in Knoxville?  The answer is a bit complex: On the one hand, there is a newer city administration that was given a clear directive by the City Council to enforce those laws and ordinances that are already on the books.  They are taking this directive seriously, and have stated that they will adhere to the letter of the law, and do not foresee issuing any re-build letters on non-conforming lots.

But the biggest change has taken place in the banking industry. As banks and mortgage companies are faced with tightening regulations in the wake of the recent economic crisis, among many other changes, they have been paying more careful attention to local ordinances related to conforming lots. Some mortgage companies or government loan institutions will not finance a home on a non-conforming lot at all, or may require a bigger down payment for this type of property.  Further, owners of non-conforming lots must often have an additional insurance rider on the property to cover rebuilding in a new location, should their home be destroyed and not allowed to be rebuilt in the same location.

What does this mean, practically?  It means that if you own a home on a non-conforming lot, it may be more difficult for you to sell it. The issues that come with such a lot are a deterrent, in the first place; plus the pool of potential buyers is smaller when options like FHA or VA loans, or low down payment loans are ruled out. Further, loans on non-conforming lots are more difficult for banks to sell on the secondary mortgage market, which naturally makes the banks hesitant to loan on these types of properties.

2015-04-24 10.29.18If you have a non-conforming lot, it also means that you should make sure that you have insurance coverage for your home that will protect you even though your lot is non-conforming.

What can be done? The Realtors, bankers, insurance companies and the County Assessor recently brought this issue to the attention of the Planning and Zoning Board, the City Manager and Assistant Manager, and also alerted the local media. Our intent was to let people know that many of them had one of these lots, and that they need to take steps to be sure they are protected. We also felt that there are steps that can be taken by the city to amend the ordinance, to offer relief to owners of these lots, who are in many cases lower income or elderly residents living in small homes in older neighborhoods.

The City Manager and the Planning and Zoning Commission are now addressing the issue, and hope to be able to come to a quick resolution.  As of earlier this week, Stewart told me that he has taken the research presented by the concerned Realtors and the County Assessor, including identification of non-conforming lots and the ordinances of several similar communities which address this issue, and has done his own research on the topic and has come up with a suggested plan that will be taken to a professional City Planner in Des Moines early next week.

Possible solutions include some combination of decreasing the minimum size of a conforming lot, allowing for rebuilds on those lots platted before 1983, within certain parameters, and adjustments to the ordinance.

We look forward to the City Planner’s recommendations, and to the city’s implementation of changes to the ordinance.  In the meantime, you can check your lot’s dimensions on the Marion County Assessor’s Beacon website, and if your lot is smaller than 60 feet wide with a total of 7200 square feet, you may want to have a conversation with your insurance company!