Buying the Right Property – Avoiding Tears and the High Cost of Getting it Wrong

September 19th, 2013 by

For the past 5 years I have been consulting in permaculture, which is the design and integration of:

  • renewable energy systems
  • low energy buildings
  • food system design – both annual and perennial
  • water harvesting, small and large
  • liability mitigation (financial, life, food security and disaster)
  • waste water and composting toilet systems

and I have started to recognize a pattern… People generally have no clue about how to buy the right property – one that meets their needs and goals. Typically, I get called in after they have the home or property and listen to all of their dreams and goals only to tell them that they bought the wrong property. This is usually when the tears start. This is not a criticism of them, this information is just not common knowledge which is unfortunate because I think that it should be. This is why I teach Permaculture Design. Not everyone, however, wants or has time to take a course.

Getting your property purchase wrong can cost a lot of money. On a $500k property, the real estate fees, legal fees, lost time and opportunity costs can amount to 15k or 20k over the life of the mortgage, not to mention the cost of selling the property so that you can get the right one. Placing your home in the wrong place can be even more disastrous. For example, improper orientation to south will cost you a life time of heating bills and interior thermal discomfort. Placing the home on a flood plain or in a fire sector can be financially and emotionally disastrous. It is because of all the tears that I have witnessed that I recommend that people slow down when considering a property purchase and get it right the first time around.

Setting Goals

One of the first things that you have to get right from the beginning are your goals. Goal setting is hard, and trust me, I have had issues setting my own goals in the past. It was not until I met two of my students in the last two years that I have really sat down and gotten serious about goals. Goals are a higher level expression of what you want to achieve. For example, you might think that a food forest is a goal when, in fact, the real goal is a highly productive biodiverse food system that takes care of itself. The former is just a food forest, while the latter could be so much more. There are thousands of ways to realize that goal, which works so much better with the design of ecological systems. Another example might be “I really want a straw bale home” instead of “I would like to live in a natural-built, healthy home that is energy efficient and comfortable”. The reason the latter is better is that straw bale homes don’t make sense everywhere, as you may not have the straw, clay and sand required in your particular location. However there is always a design opportunity to meet the natural built energy efficient home wherever you are.

Your goals should be set in the higher form instead of instantly going to the details because if you are fixated on the details, you tend to design the wrong things for the wrong property. We call this a type one error and I can’t count the number of type one errors that I see because people do not define their goals properly. Usually the short circuit of goals is a result of sentiment that we have about a certain building, element, property or design and this is why it is beneficial to have other family members or consultants have a look at things for you. One of the best services that I can offer people is the hard truth, which is hard to find because people are afraid to make you cry. I’m not saying I enjoy making people cry. In fact, I would love to be involved in the process from the beginning so we can avoid that all together.

After you have set your goals, finding the property is so much easier and you will be so much happier with the product. I had a student two years ago that wanted advice on a piece of property that she wanted to farm. Her question to me was “how can I drain a property that has too much water on it so that I can farm it?” My response was, why would you try and force the property to function in a way it is not good at? Aquatic systems are 28 times more productive than terrestrial ones, so get good at farming with water. If you don’t want to farm with water, get clear on your goals and find the property that suits what you want to do.

From a design perspective, having well defined goals can save enormous amounts of money. If I am the designer and I know what these high level goals are, I can whip through design much faster with a better product at the end which saves money in design, and having to redo things later.

Alternative Goals

The other way to go about design is to be much more fluid with your goals. For example, if you determined that there was a specific region that you had to live in and you found a property that was amazing and you had to have it, you could argue that your bioregional preference was your goal. In this case you can use all the same permaculture design tools to design the property by understanding what the key features of the property within the bio-region are and then design systems around the attributes and strengths of that landscape.

Where we have problems is when we set our lower level goals (the food forest instead of the biodiverse food system), purchase a property with no understanding of how that property will or will not meet our expectations and end up hitting our head against a brick wall.

Get clear on your goals first!

If you are in the market for a property and need help with your goal setting and pre-property evaluation and design, contact us! We can help save you thousands of dollars, but more importantly, lots of time which is the ultimate commodity because you can’t buy any more than what you have been gifted.