What You'll Wish You Knew Before Buying A Horse Farm
Updated: Oct 25, 2020
I grew up working on horse farms and, as a Realtor, I now specialize in equestrian properties in both Maryland and Virginia. Over the years, I’ve noticed that there are a number of things any farm owner will tell you they wish they knew before buying a farm. Truthfully, this list could go on and on, but here are the most common points:
Drainage Is Critical. Flooded pastures, barns, and indoors are all too common. If you plan on building on the property, get an opinion from an architectural engineer and be sure to stay abreast of any plans for construction in your area. If the county, neighbors, or developers plan to build soon, make sure they have detailed plans for drainage. Excess water flooding onto someone else’s property is often an afterthought and even something so simple as a new patio can cause costly problems (even for well-designed existing structures).
Boarders Are The Worst. I’ve worked in barns throughout my life and, as a boarder myself, I feel comfortable saying this. As much as you may love your boarders, at some point they will wear on your nerves. Oh—and they will break stuff.
Know What Equipment You Need. Ok, so you’ve budgeted for the purchase of the property, but what about farm equipment? Tractors and mowers are particularly expensive, but the previous owners might be willing to let them go rather than moving them to their new home. Ask if any of the farm equipment will convey with the property and, if not, see if there is any equipment they might sell to you. Make a list of all the items you will need for the daily care of your animals and find ways to save on some of the less significant items. It may pay to hit up some tack sales or Facebook Marketplace to save some money on the little things.
You Will Want An Arena. Plan for it. At some point, an arena will come in handy. If nothing else, leave some flat grassy space available for riding and lunging. Check out my article on building arenas for more information!
It Will Always Cost More Than You Think It Will. Such is the nature of horses. You may be buying a farm as a cost saving measure after boarding for years, but many farm owners will tell you that owning a farm actually costs more—though this is highly dependent upon the area and the individual property. Reach out to local barn and shop owners to find out the going rates for bedding, hay, and feed. Are there are any issues with supply? Some states do not produce their own hay so the price per bale becomes prohibitive. Will the grass provide adequate roughage for much of the year if you plan to keep your horses out? This depends on the area, acreage, and breed, but if the answer is yes then you may actually save some money!
The property’s condition will also determine if buying a farm does, in fact, save you money. If you’ve owned a home, then you know how much maintenance goes into keeping it in good condition. Now you have to think about maintaining a home, outbuildings, fence lines, and pastures. Inspections are incredibly important for farm buyers since many sellers neglect maintenance.
Hiring Can Be Impossible. Even if you don’t plan on hiring, there will come a time when you would like to take a vacation or spend fewer hours doing barn chores. Hiring barn help is tough. Barn work isn’t for everyone and it can be a burnout job. Competitive salary, living quarters, and lessons are all great incentives, but do not guarantee that your staff will stay put.
Neighbors Can Make Or Break You. Bad neighbors are awful. Bad neighbors when you own a farm pose some serious health and safety issues. Sellers may not wish to disclose their relationships with their neighbors for fear that it will interfere with their ability to sell. Just because a neighbor also has horses, doesn’t mean that they will be a good neighbor though it might be helpful in an emergency. Keep an eye out for neighboring properties that are poorly maintained. You can also politely approach a few of the neighbors to get their thoughts on the area.
Trainers Can Be Hard To Come By. Finding a trainer that will travel to your barn may be difficult. You will likely be less motivated to trailer off property than you think you will and it is important to keep this in mind when looking at properties. Quick access to major thoroughfares will make finding a trainer and actually making time to ride with them much easier.
Zoning Can Change. When you look at properties, your agent should have a solid understanding of the zoning in the area. Zoning for horse properties varies county to county and you need to be certain that you will be able to use the property as intended. Much of the information is available online and if you have further questions, it is always a good idea to call the county. What if zoning changes? Well, it is likely you will be grandfathered in, but if this is a niggling worry, there are areas like the Ag Reserve in Montgomery County, Maryland where this won’t be a problem. Truthfully, the biggest concerns are whether zoning in nearby areas is changing and if the current zoning prevents you from building or subdividing if that was your plan. A zoning change to a nearby area can bring with it noise, traffic, run-off, and bad neighbors. A knowledgeable agent should be able to help you navigate these waters, but it is important to educate yourself as a buyer and a future farm owner.
Permits. I recently wrote an article on buying land that goes more in depth on the topics of zoning and permitting, but it is worth bringing it up again because buying land to build on is tricky. The biggest concern when it comes to permitting is whether or not the property will “perc”. The percolation test determines how much water the soil can handle. If a property does not perc, a septic system cannot be installed. No septic system = no house (assuming there is no access to public water and sewer which there generally isn’t for farms). This is why you will often see ads for land that say something like “perc’d for a 5 bedroom house”. Just because a property failed to perc in the past, does not mean it won’t pass in the future, but the results of this test determine the value and usefulness of a piece of land. The county will conduct the test so you can call to get an opinion before buying.
Manure Removal May Not Be Simple. Depending on acreage and layout, you may need to plan to pay for manure removal. Figure out what services are available in the area and budget accordingly. If no removal services are available, plan to implement good fly control systems and think about what your waste management plan will be since manure mixed with sawdust is not environmentally friendly. Check out this article at Practical Horseman for a few ideas!
Poor Design Will Make You Want To Quit. You need a farm designed for ease of use. Try to minimize steps for daily chores with a good layout and remember: always add more gates and storage spaces than you think you will need.
I don’t want you to look at this list and see 12 reasons not to buy a farm, but it helps to be prepared before taking the leap. There are plenty of farm owners out there who would be willing to share their “what I wish I knew” list with you. Ask them. You won’t regret it!