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LAND HO!

CHANNELING ONE'S INNER PIRATE IN

PURSUIT OF AN UNLIKELY REAL ESTATE DEAL.



The pirate captain spots an opportunity, throws the rule book overboard,

and then undertakes a months-long, Ahab-like chase.


My reaching the age of 65 this past November was, of course, a significant milestone... and, according to my college buddies, not all that short of a miracle. Among other things, I suddenly became eligible to "move some money around," i.e., withdraw money from my rather modest work IRA without penalty and invest it elsewhere... somewhere other than the stock market, as methinks it on increasingly shaky ground.


And for me, that "somewhere other" would be land-- land ideally within an hour of our home; land measured in dozens of acres, not square feet... lush, verdant land, with lots of wild plants and trees... good trees like maple, oak, hickory, and evergreens... land teeming with wildlife like squirrels, partridge, rabbits... and especially DEER. I got hooked on deer hunting as a youngster (see GOOD SWEATER HUNTING) and simultaneously developed a high comfort level with outdoor spaces well wooded and far from the nearest road. Indeed, the depths of the forest-- most any forest-- has long been my favorite place in the whole world. And so I started scouring the Internet for forested hunting land I could afford. And while searching, I soon discovered two important things:


LAND IS ALWAYS VERY EXPENSIVE.

(Or almost always, as we'll soon see.) One real estate truism holds that the best time to buy land was thirty years ago, and the second-best time is NOW, because land values (and prices) almost always trend upward. And yet I was working with a finite budget... and if rural land anywhere near a population center in my region is legally and practically considered "build-able," then demand from downstate New York empty-nesters in search of weekend getaway property tends to drive the price into the stratosphere. Another real estate concept-- that of the "best and highest use" of a given property-- puts hunting at or near the very bottom, a sensible use for land only if it isn't good for much else. In short, viable and affordable hunting land within my budget was in very short supply... and the land that was really only good for hunting was often either barely accessible, or perched on a steep slope, or swampy, or just plain scraggly.


THE REAL ESTATE BUSINESS IS RIFE WITH FRAUD.

If an offering for a parcel of land seems too good to be true, it probably is. While reviewing various listings I found more than a few that were 100% fictitious-- including one for a lot that I personally owned! I began to recognize a pattern in the fraudulent listings as I continued my search, as they were quite naturally concentrated in the low-end price range. And the more I looked, the easier it became to spot them.


In early November I found a 5-acre property for sale in Columbia County (right near where I regularly hunted in my youth) for the exceptionally low price of $19,000-- a price that set off my B.S. meter, since that area sits at the northern terminus of the Taconic Parkway and thus has always been in high demand by Big Apple escapees. Using some of the skills I honed long ago as a professional skip-tracer (and, truth be told, as a deer hunter) I bypassed the obviously dishonest listing agent, proceeded to learn everything I could about the property and its owner, and then tracked him down and contacted him directly. No, his land was not for sale, he said; however, now that I mentioned it, he would be willing to sell it to me... for only $7,000!


I excitedly drove to the land through the rolling and gorgeous Columbia County hills. Said excitement soon dissipated as I walked the land itself and not only found no signs of animal existence, but also that I could physically sense the property's utter lifelessness-- though heavily wooded with mature hardwoods, there was no nutritious undergrowth atop the rocky soil, no cover that four-legged critters instinctively seek for protection. It was eerily depressing, like a set from some gothic rural horror movie... a feeling I definitely wasn't accustomed to experiencing in the typical forest. Oh, for a mere seven grand I really tried to see the good... it would require a lot of strenuous logging to make it sufficiently attractive to deer, I figured, but at such a low price, maybe I could buy it and then snap up a similarly-priced adjoining parcel or two and create a sprawling estate to eventually sell to some wealthy New Yorker.


Based on my observations I made a counter-offer of $5,000, and in exchange for a bottle of exquisite Châteauneuf-du-Pape I enlisted the aid of a family friend/realtor in the area to learn more. She dug deeply and reported back that, due to quirky subdividing when the region's electric power company and the Tennessee Gas Pipeline acquired their easements, this parcel became completely landlocked, as in no legal access, not even for its owner. I promptly withdrew my counter-offer and kept looking.


And then, Dear Readers, I stumbled upon what looked like the mother of all fraudulent listings-- 28 acres in the beautiful town of Bristol, less than an hour south of me.


Scammer Realty. Sue me for calling you that.


Market Value: $132,000

Enchanted Farms Discount Price: $99,500... Savings of 25%!!

(Terms and conditions apply. 10% APR in-house financing available only for purchase at full market value. All deposits and/or down payments are absolutely non-refundable.)


I've always loved Bristol. When I was quite young, my father used to hunt partridge there and bring me along. Bristol sits smack in the sweet spot of the Finger Lakes region-- right near Canandaigua Lake, multiple wineries, precious little towns like Naples and Hammondsport, and close by the Bristol Mountain Ski Resort. (Location, Location!) Bristol is close enough to population centers with their stores and services and such, yet still ruggedly rural. So this parcel was absolutely perfect... except that this listing was clearly fraudulent, as evidenced by the property's description that read like a poorly-translated Chinese restaurant menu--


"Discover a remarkable 28.1-acre land property nestled in the prestigious Finger Lakes region. With its desirable RURAL RESIDENTIAL zoning, this parcel presents an array of possibilities for the discerning buyer. Embrace the freedom of constructing a stunning single residential dwelling, perfectly tailored to your vision. Located in the esteemed Zone A. Rest assured, electricity is readily available for your convenience just a simple verification away. In order to ensure self-sufficiency, a well and septic system are required, empowering you to personalize your oasis. Agricultural enthusiasts will rejoice in the freedom to cultivate their own farm and raise livestock, truly embracing a harmonious rural existence. The fertile land invites you to nurture your agricultural aspirations and create a thriving haven. Seize this chance to manifest your dreams on this captivating 28.1-acre canvas, where the possibilities are as vast as the land itself."


Real or fake, a hundred grand was well out of my budget; however, I am a deeply curious person, especially when something seems so obviously amiss. So I contacted the listing agent. Her company was based in Florida, an especially scammer-friendly state. Her English was rather poor, and yet she had clearly mastered the word "deposit," and she really, really wanted one from me to supposedly secure my purchase. That's the scam, I concluded-- they list land that isn't theirs to list, and then they collect "non-refundable" deposits. Rinse and repeat as often as possible, and keep everyone's money. Brazenly illegal though that is, it would cost those thus victimized more than it was worth to legally recover their funds.


Now that I was certain of the scam, I felt an obligation to prevent would-be buyers as well as the landowner(s) from getting screwed. And I also entertained a tiny sliver of hope that doing something rather than nothing might somehow eventually make this land mine. ("You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." --Wayne Gretzky) I found the name of owners in the parcel's property tax records. A little Internet searching revealed that they were in their early nineties. I phoned the land line number on the tax record, but it was no longer in service. My mind raced through the possible and likely scenarios-- might they be in a Florida nursing home, with the scammers going room to room collecting property titles? Are they even still alive? But then I donned my skip-tracer's hat and ascertained that they resided just two towns over from me.


And then, with nothing to lose, I decided to counter Enchanted Farms's apparent wickedness with a little piracy of my own-- I drove over and knocked on the landowner's door one morning. The elderly Mr. K. answered it. "I'm nobody official," I began. "But I live nearby, and I'd like to talk to you about your land in Bristol."


"C'mon in," he said after a lightning-quick assessment of me as he simultaneously opened the door and restrained his especially frisky new puppy.


Mr. K. was quite mentally sharp for a 90-year-old... or, actually, for anyone at any age. He was also pretty darn upbeat and lively for a recent widower with a pacemaker. He had purchased the land forty years ago for a possible retirement home, he explained, but, you know, life got in the way. Yes, he knew all about the scammers offering his land for sale, and he had already reported them to local authorities.


"Well," I eventually got around to asking, "are you interested in selling this land?"


"I haven't told anyone yet, but... yes. Yes I am."


"Okay... how much would you like to sell it to me for?"

(If you are getting a sense of déjà vu regarding this and the previously mentioned Columbia County deal, so was I.)


Mr. K. quickly mumbled through the relevant numbers, weighing his original purchase price for the property against his current enthusiasm for no longer paying taxes on it. No, he assured me, his children had no interest in it. And no, he insisted, he didn't need to check with anyone to sell it-- this was HIS land, and he could do as he pleased with it. "How about--?" His presented price was WAY below that of the scammer's listing.


Wow... I knew I could just barely make his asking price figure work. "That's a good price," I said. (It was a VERY good price.) "Let me drive down and take a look at it."


Mr. K. sent me away with some detailed maps of the property... and I was soon reminded that actual land can look very different from its two-dimensional representations. For instance, what seemed on the map and even the satellite photos like a quaint little trout stream turned out to be a ridiculously deep gorge... one that definitively cleaved the front of the parcel from the rest of it and required all four of my limbs to cross as I descended a steep slope down to the trickle of water and then up the other equally treacherous side only by clutching exposed tree roots. There was a second, smaller gorge... and also a very large and very dilapidated old camper parked on the land that would surely cost a lot of money to have removed and properly disposed of.


I went to see Mr. K. the next day, bringing extra copies I had made of his maps. "Looks like I'll need to build a couple of bridges," I said. He chuckled in agreement.


"I've already spec'd them out-- all you need is eighteen-inch galvanized drain pipe and a few yards of crushed dolomite. Ran to about ten grand a few years ago... probably closer to fifteen now." Would he accept, say, 20% less than his previous asking price for the land as-is? He thought for a few seconds and said yes, he would. We shook hands.


"Great," I said. "I'll have my lawyer draw up the papers." That was in early December.


I had my real estate attorney draft a formal Purchase & Sale agreement, then I brought it over to Mr. K.'s house to have him sign it. Done deal, right? Not in real estate, where it isn't truly over until it is really, completely over.


I insisted that Mr. K. retain his own attorney. For one thing, buying land from someone his age at such a great price invites what one might delicately call harsh scrutiny. But Mr. K. balked, claiming that when he bought the land forty years ago it was simply a matter of a personal check and a handshake with no fancy lawyers involved. So I offered to pay his lawyer's fee. He accepted, but he would have to wait for his daughter's return from an extended overseas vacation because she handles all his financial and legal matters.


Fast-forward to late January. I had been checking in on Mr. K. every week or so, but he still didn't have an attorney. His daughter had returned from her vacation, but now she was recovering from some sort of minor surgery. By mid-February it was starting to feel like this deal was stuck in limbo... and that if I didn't do something to un-stick it, the opportunity might well expire for any number of reasons.


Bristol really is this beautiful. Whenever I felt really frustrated with this deal,

I just thought of scenery like this and whispered to myself-- "Bristol... Bristol..."


All I had was Mr. K.'s daughter's first name, but by once again slipping into skip-tracer mode I was able to find her. I left a voicemail introducing myself, and she promptly returned it. She was the executrix of her mother's estate, she said, so she already had an attorney who could handle the deal for them. (I really, really liked that he was also a specialist in Elder Law.) The two lawyers exchanged paperwork, but there would be another delay for a complete title search and abstract, work that would be outsourced to a specialty firm. Three weeks later I called Mr. K's attorney for an update. It seems that title searches are backed up for a month, he said. Three weeks after that I contacted the title & abstract firm, and they told me that the work had been completed two weeks ago. Arrggh!

(I know... "Bristol... Bristol..." My new mantra soothed me somewhat.)


Now it was well into March, and I felt like I was walking a tightrope, fretting like a love-struck teen fearful of ruining things by doing either too much or too little to make something good happen... and having no idea which was the correct path. When the calendar flipped to April I was wondering if this deal would ever happen, so I called both lawyers. Mine said that he hadn't heard a thing, except that the original seller's attorney had passed the matter off to a different lawyer in his firm and he hadn't heard anything since; the original seller's attorney, meanwhile, said quite emphatically that yes, he was still Mr. K.'s attorney, and that his paralegals were working on getting Mr. K.'s old and paid-off mortgage properly recorded as duly discharged. Furthermore, he had sent numerous emails to MY attorney that had gone unanswered... yet another log jam for me to personally resolve.

("Bristol... Bristol...")


By the second week of April I was all the more fearful that if I didn't give this deal yet another kick in the pants, it would likely stop moving forward and eventually just disappear. So, at the risk of pissing off multiple lawyers who could break this deal by simply doing nothing, I sent all parties involved a group email explaining where I thought we now stood and what the remaining obstacles were, and requested that we all communicate more effectively. And by God, it seemed to have worked-- two days later I got a most surprising email from my attorney asking if I could appear in his office just three days hence to finally close this deal.


And so now, Dear Readers, my bride Andrea and I are the proud and happy owners of twenty-eight hillside acres of mature hardwoods and evergreens in beautiful Bristol, New York. Ontario County is so flush with deer that they have a special September season to thin their herd, and I have reason to believe that when my deer hunting days are finally over maybe a decade from now, God willing, we'll be able to sell this gorgeous property at a profit that more than justifies all of my efforts in acquiring it.


LESSONS LEARNED AND/OR AFFIRMED IN ALL THIS? TWO, TO WIT--


One lesson can be stated several different ways--

To everything there is a season-- a time for patience, a time for initiative. Praying for the wisdom to know the difference cannot hurt; likewise a soothing mantra. ("Bristol... Bristol..")


In other words, know when to be a priest and when to be a pirate.


Or, when you have nothing to lose, there's really no reason not to risk everything you have.


Or, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take. (Thanks, Great One!)


Or even, always be patient and respectful... but only up to a point. Beyond that, be willing to grab the bull by the balls, give'em three full turns, and then yank sharply downward.


The other lesson is perhaps self-evident, yet worth mentioning--

Simply doing your homework, doing the requisite legwork, remaining flexible, being creative, and being willing to knock on a stranger's door and make a personal connection can result in a truly wonderful outcome.


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Congratulations, Danny and Andrea! Wishing you years and years of happiness on your new barony, which for fun you should name "Enchanted Farm."


Side note: Danny is more than a skip tracer; he is THE skip tracer. He found a long-hidden relative in a trice, as though doing so were no more difficult than losing money on a meme stock. Thanks, Danny!

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Awesome. I’m so happy your due diligence paid off! You and your lovely bride have your own Bristol Eden. With deer and everything. Totally cool.

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