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Acreage or facilities?

From: Lon

Dear Jessica, you are a God-send. Thank you for all of your wonderful work. My wife and I are about to retire and move out to the country. We have always wanted a place with some acreage. Her dream since I've known her (second year of college for both of us) has always been to own a horse farm where she could board some horses, train some horses, give some lessons, etc. I would like to have a few head of cattle. We're looking at several different parts of the country, and are currently torn between two different types of places. For the money we have to spend, we can get 20-50 acres in some areas, but with nothing much there, just the land and some kind of a house (that would probably need work). Or, we can get a place on 5-10 acres that has a nice house, a barn for the horses, some fencing already in place, etc. We're both good at working with our hands and know how to build barns and fences. My wife is leaning more towards the larger acreages, but I'm not sure that the two of us will be able to do what we want to do with our home and horses, and still manage a big acreage.

What's your feeling about this situation? I heard you speak at a conference a few years ago, and you mentioned that you were just starting up a new farm of your own. Did you go for acreage and plan to build, or did you choose to go with a place that had barns and fencing but not a lot of acreage, or what exactly did you do? If you don't mind my asking, that is. My wife says I'm always shoving my nose where it doesn't belong, so if I'm out of line asking you about your place, just say so. I just think it's so interesting to know what other people have done and how it's worked out for them, and of course anything you did would be of even more interest to me and Sylvie because we have so much respect for you and your wisdom. Thanks Jessica! Lon and Sylvie

Hi Lon and Sylvie! Thanks very much for the kind words.

You're about to embark on a big adventure. I wouldn't dream of telling you to buy one place or another, but I'll be glad to give you my thoughts on the question of acreage versus facilities. And of course I don't mind your asking about my place. I just don't know how useful the information will be. "Acreage" is such a vague term. In one part of the country, two acres can grow enough rich pasture to feed a horse for eight or nine months of the year. In another part of the country, the grazing might be so poor that thirty acres might be necessary just to keep one horse from starving to death... and fifty acres might be needed to keep it reasonably well fed.

What kind of riding does your wife do, and what sort of boarding/training/lesson business does she plan to have? If she is training barrel racers or upper-level dressage horses, she might not need much room. If she wants to train eventers, she'll need a great deal of room. If she wants to attract boarders, you'll need to be able to offer them somewhere to ride, and probably more than just a small outdoor arena. Indoor arenas are expensive - actually, outdoor arenas are expensive, and indoor arenas are extremely expensive. They also require space. How much space will you need?

Get some graph paper, draw a few imaginary (or actual, if you're that far along in your search) properties of various sizes, and then get some construction paper and cut out some items to scale. Everything takes up space, including spaces - the areas you'll need BETWEEN areas, so that you can get from here to there. A barn takes up space. So does an arena. So do pastures and drylots and sacrifice areas. You need paths that will let humans, horses, and machinery get to and from (and into and out of) all of those spaces. If your pastures are going to be pastures, as opposed to drylots, you'll probably want to be sure you can allow at least an acre per horse - and you'll want to rotate your pastures, and have some drylots to use as turnout and exercise areas whenever the pastures are closed. Will you have the space for all those pastures and drylots? Will you have a round pen - or more than one round pen? Where will you put the manure? Where will you store your equipment? Your house will take up some space, and you'll probably want a lawn and a garden. You'll definitely want a driveway and a garage. Where will people turn their trailers around? How about the fellow who delivers your hay and your bedding - and where will you be storing your hay and your bedding? Will there be enough storage for four or five times as much hay and bedding? You DID mention boarders...

If you're going to have boarders, you'll need extra space in the barn for them - or a separate barn. Their horses will need stalls, and you'll need to provide places for them to groom and tack up and wash their horses. What about a tack room? It's an excellent idea for boarders to have a tack room that's separate from your own tack room. They'll probably need some sort of lounge area - preferably with a bathroom... otherwise they'll be in and out of your house. Your boarders will also need places to park their cars - and, perhaps, their horse trailers. And they're going to want to put their horses in pastures, too... the list goes on and on.

This is why there's really no way for me to advise you on how many acres you'll need. A lot will depend on what sort of facilities you want, and on where you are located. If your wife's main interest is trail-riding, you have just a few boarders who are primarily interested in trail-riding, and your land is located directly across from a forest preserve, then 10 acres might be enough for you. Otherwise, I would say that your 20-50 acre idea is nearer the mark. (Don't forget to find out how many horses you are legally allowed to keep on your acreage!)

I'm less certain about the benefits of more acreage for its own sake. Inexpensive acreage may allow you to own many acres in one part of the country for the same money that would buy you just a few acres elsewhere, but more isn't necessarily better. In fact, more isn't necessarily even manageable. "Inexpensive" acreage can become expensive very quickly if you have to (a) fence it, (b) irrigate it, or (c) mow it. If you have boarders and an active training/lesson program, you will probably need to put up a lot of fencing, no matter where you live. In some parts of the country, you're responsible for keeping your own animals on your property. In other parts of the country, you're responsible for keeping other people's animals OFF your property. Either way, if your property is large, you're likely to be building a lot of fence - and walking a lot of fence, and maintaining a lot of fence.

Pay attention to the property taxes, because just building a few structures can change the way your taxes are assessed. When you compare packages of house-and-land in various different locations, be sure to take a look at the zoning and the taxes, and find out what will change. If a house is already there, and you don't actually tear it down and build another one, your taxes may not change. If you build a big fancy barn, your taxes may not change. If there is no house there and you build one, what will that do to your property taxes? If you build a second house for a live-in barn manager, or even build a barn with an attached apartment, what will THAT do to your property taxes?

Don't believe anyone who says they understand all the local zoning and taxes - NOBODY understands those things, and in any case, they will be different from state to state. Not only that, but within a state, zoning and taxation methods will differ from county to county, and from one township or village to another. You'll need to get very specific information in each case. The town hall is often a good place to start. Mainly, you don't want to find yourself buying a large piece of land that's previously been taxed at (affordable) agricultural rates, and then discover that because of a quirk in the local laws, you will now be paying for many acres at a residential rate.

You also don't want to buy into an area, only to find out that you can't use your acreage the way you want to use it. Before you buy ANY land anywhere, be sure that you know whether it will be LEGAL to run a horse boarding and training and lesson business. If zoning isn't a problem and taxes won't be prohibitive, you'll need to look at other practical concerns such as weather and water. You might buy a home with a good well that supplies you and your wife and your own horses with plenty of water, and then discover that you'll need a SECOND good well in order to keep ten or fifteen boarders on the place.

You'll also want to know what is happening around your property and in your general area. Some places look lovely, empty, rural and bucolic, but you'll want to be sure that the fields around your homestead are actually farmland, and not (temporarily) vacant land that has been purchased by a developer and is about to become a busy subdivision... At the same time, you'll need to be sure that your wife will have an adequate "pool" of boarders and students, so you don't want to be TOO far out in the middle of nowhere. "Living the dream" can be complicated! It's not just about you and your wife and a dream and some horses on a place of your own. It's about fencing and facilities, and ordering gravel by the semi load, and figuring out how to get water to your pastures. It's about utility bills and taxes and equipment purchases and depreciation. It's about record-keeping! (Are you SURE you want to do this?)

As for my place, first, let me disabuse you of the notion that I bought existing facilities OR a lot of acreage. I don't have either. I have a house and a shed and some land. I bought an old farmhouse on a piece of open land. I liked the house and the location and the views, I didn't know enough about the cost of repairs and renovations to be intimidated by the fact that it was being sold "as is" (live and learn, right?), and - key point - the folks who sold me the house also owned all the land around it, and were willing to sell me another eleven acres. In theory, this meant that I could design and set up a good small working horse farm on a total of fifteen-plus acres. In practice, this meant that I could make a big investment in the land, and THEN try to figure out clever ways to fix up the house and set up the farm WITHOUT winning the lottery. It's a perpetual work in progress, and the working motto seems to be "Do less, and do it very, very slowly". ;-) I don't mind, but then I knew what would happen if I put money into land instead of facilities, and I was expecting those particular tradeoffs.

There are always tradeoffs - just be sure that you and your wife know what yours will be, and that you are both comfortable with them. The question of "buy or build facilities" is always rife with tradeoffs. If you set up your ideal facility and it demands so much of you that you're always on the run and you're exhausted all the time, you won't enjoy it. Also, you didn't mention your ages or fitness levels, but you should probably keep in mind the fact that there is a LOT of physical labour associated with any horse farm... and that you won't be getting any vacations. My advice would be that even if you buy a big place, you should probably start small, maybe just with your own horses at first, and add to your workload a bit at a time. Set-up is complicated enough without bringing boarders and students into the mix, so don't be in a hurry. And remember, YOU ARE NOT RETIRING - you are just changing jobs, and taking on a LOT of physical work. If you want a happy, leisurely retirement, you really would do better to buy that 5-acre hobby farm with the a nice house and a nice little barn and pasture for your own horses and cattle, and just enjoy it. Even a lovely little turn-key operation will still require quite a lot of work on an ongoing basis, but it's do-able. You both sound like energetic people, but whatever you do, set up your place so that it will be something you can manage and enjoy ten years from now, twenty years from now. etc. After all, thirty years from now, you may both begin to slow down a little. ;-)

If you can find a suitable property with useful horse facilities already in place, I'd advise you to get it! It's tempting to "start from scratch" and do everything just the way you want to, but don't forget that you'll pay a high price for having everything your way. It is MUCH more expensive - just as one example - to build a barn than it is to clean or repair or remodel or even completely rebuild an existing barn. Outside extremely horsey areas, horse facilities are never sold for what they're worth or even for what they cost. A nice house on five acres will sell for X amount; the same nice house on the same five acres WITH a barn and a small arena and several acres of good fencing will sell for X amount plus a little bit, but not for X amount plus the amount it would cost YOU to put up a similar small barn and arena and several acres of good fencing. When it comes to horse properties, the market is much kinder to the buyer than it is to the seller. That's to your advantage now, but if you think you might ever want to sell, it's something to keep in mind.

As usual, I'm going to recommend two books by Cherry Hill. One is "Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage" (the second edition, which I haven't even seen yet, has just been published). The other is "Horse Housing", by Cherry Hill and her husband, Richard Klimesh. I think that both of these books should be required reading for anyone who intends to buy property and set it up for horses.

Good luck!


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