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

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.

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

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!


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!