When the kids were younger and "needed a nap," I would stick them in the old Volkswagen bus, sprinkle a few Cheerios in the tray of their car seat and drive around looking at interesting properties until long after they had fallen asleep.

The truth is I eventually would have made the drive anyway because I’m interested and curious (sometimes appalled) with the way owners utilize real estate. I also am a dreamer when it comes to waterfront and view land and often wonder "what could be" if I happened upon something remotely affordable.

The best values, and surprises, usually result from visiting a specific area and talking with its people rather than relying on a printed, or online, description.

While the remotely affordable days absolutely seem to be over now, they also seemed to be over more than 30 years ago on Father’s Day weekend when my wife and I started making such drives in our casual search for a weekend-vacation getaway.

It didn’t take long, however, to realize that virtually everything we looked at was out of our price range. The smallest, most remote cabins and lots in prime beach communities were far more expensive than anticipated. Yet, I felt that somehow, somewhere, I would find an acceptable property with decent terms and conditions.

I contacted owners of the seemingly cheapest cabins and vacant lots to see if they would consider selling. I tracked down the beach plats at the local courthouse, copied the lot numbers and found the listed owners through tax records. We then wrote letters and got several "maybe" responses.

One owner asked that we contact his attorney about a vacant lot across the street from waterfront cabins in a small beach community. It turned out the man had been involved in the original platting of the community and at one time had owned quite a bit of property in the region. He said he thought his beach community lots had been sold long ago.

His attorney researched the man’s holdings and concluded that the man did, indeed, own the vacant lot and would part with it for $5,000. We told the attorney we would buy the 50-by-250-foot property contingent upon the approval of all services.

It wasn’t waterfront, but it was $5,000 (a big number to us then) and across the only street in the community. There were no problems with power or water. The only thing that stood between us and a buildable dream lot was an approved septic-system design and percolation test. The lot had the required square footage, but water from the side of the hill periodically made the ground soggy.

While doing property research at the courthouse, I met a registered sewage disposal designer who said the drain field design, percolation testing and required county paperwork would cost $195. I considered doing the job myself (a designer or engineer was not required), but felt our chances for approval would be better if a professional did the work.

In the end, a health inspector decided the dry area of the lot was too small to adequately accommodate the septic system and she denied us a sewage-disposal permit — an opinion upheld by the district supervisor.

We were stunned. Without a septic permit, we could not build our house. Alternative systems were not allowed by the community association. Adding to the sting was the fact that most of the cabins were on lots smaller than the minimum size required for septic approval. They were built when the laws were less stringent.

Should we try to buy the adjacent lot? Maybe with an additional lot we could pass the septic inspection. But the county said the adjacent lot had problems, too.

We decided to walk away from the beach lot. The experience was not worthless. We had found a lot, its owner, history, taxes, neighbors, market value and requirements for building. It did not work out, but at least we knew why it didn’t.

And, the research helped us prepare — then pull a timely trigger — on our eventual getaway. A year later, we found a spot on a freshwater lake that we still share with another family. We had our ducks in a row, and made an informed offer while two other competing buyers would not commit without knowing more about water and sewage.

Father’s Day is right around the corner. If you enjoy driving around and seeing property, take a drive and explore the possibilities. In these times, you never know what someone might be willing to do.

To get even more valuable advice from Tom, visit his Second Home Center.


What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.

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