By February I'd located five properties I wanted to look at, including a plot of 13 acres for only $11,000. But most of the bargain-bin prices turned out to have very distinct reasons: chief among them, then land was often inaccessible.
The 13 acres was up a snowmobile trail, landlocked by farms on all side. Another was off a seasonal road impassable to vehicles several months of the year (but not to the skiers who helped me find the property). And what could anyone do with four acres of land all on a six percent grade?
In the end, one piece of land stood out. It was about five and a half acres in Hector, within a half hour of Ithaca and almost exactly 10 minutes from both Trumansburg (which has a few good bars, a coffee shop, organic grocery and an exceptional pizza place), and the wineries along Seneca lake.
But beyond the location, it looked flat and I could afford it.
That was really it. In fact I cringe a little to say this, but I never walked the land before putting in an offer. How could you, in three feet of snow and with impassable mounds of brush? Flat and affordable. I never met the real estate agent. He was just a phone number on a sign.
The first offer was turned down. The realtor and I had written into the offer that a new survey would be done, but at $600 for a survey it represented a significant portion of the total purchase price. In the end we found an agreeable price and I agreed to walk the land and locate the survey pins, relying on an existing survey, before closing.
There was still snow on the ground when we walked the property. And this was when I realized what I'd bought: Five and a half acres of rose-bush scrub. The property is roughly 650 feet long and 325 feet wide, so in theory you could walk around it in 10 or 15 minutes. But the realtor, my brother and I took the better part of two hours to find those pins. We should have brought machetes, the scrub was so dense. My brother got frustrated and left us to it halfway through, but then got turned around on his way off the property.
Closing took a month longer than expected. The lawyer said he usually gets 1% of the purchase price as a fee for updating the property abstracts, title searches and so on, but “I just can't do it for that amount. $500 is my minimum fee.”
On the day of closing I woke up at 4 a.m. in D.C., did a little work and then drove straight through. The lawyer's office was an old home in a small town, across from a shuttered gas station. I recognized his secretary's voice from many phone conversations, which was comforting. He had a bible in his stack of reading material in the waiting area, a wall of law books and little crocheted signs about how much ge loved golf.
Saul Goodman, he was not.
But that was that. I handed over the biggest check of my life and drove to my brother's cabin for some celebratory shots. I owned land. Such a strange thought.