How to Buy a Horse Property
By Jess Hallas-Kilcoyne
I can see it in my mind’s eye – a cozy four-stall barn bordered by white post-and-rail fences and fronted by lush, green pasture with (best of all) my mare happily grazing...all just outside my back door. And I bet I’m not alone. How many horse owners don’t dream about having their own property?
Let’s face it – you’d be hard pressed to find a horse owner who won’t admit to fantasizing about owning their own acreage. If you happen to be in the market for property of your own, do you know where to start to find your (and your horse’s) perfect home?
Get the inside scoop with these 17 tips from Canadian real estate experts to help you land your dream horse property.
Scoop 1 – Go the agent route
A competent qualified real estate agent will listen to your wants and needs, expose you to a variety of properties that you might not have found on your own, provide invaluable insight into the current market, and help you negotiate the legalese associated with the purchasing process. Think of your agent as an ally, who will use their expertise to help you end up with a property that suits your budget and needs.
You’d be hard pressed to find a horse owner who doesn’t dream about looking out their window and seeing their horses grazing happily in the backyard. Photo: Christina Handley Photography
A good agent will also have industry contacts, such as builders and contractors, should your property need any extras added on.
Scoop 2 – Choose your real estate agent carefully
If you’re in the market for a horse property, Rebecca McDiarmid, a real estate agent with Homelife Benchmark Realty Walnut Grove, in Langley, BC, recommends looking for an agent who owns and rides horses.
“Your needs and wants can be more fully understood and looked after by someone who lives your lifestyle and has the same passion that you do,” agrees Karren Winther, an agent with RE/MAX Aldercenter Realty, in Aldergrove, BC.
McDiarmid and Winther also advise choosing an agent who works in the area in which you’re looking to purchase and is familiar with the local zoning requirements and building regulations.
Other, more general qualities to look for in a real estate agent include good listening skills, reliability, experience, and a good reputation.
Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions. “Get a track record,” recommends Maggie Horne, a real estate broker with Royal LePage Royal City Realty in Guelph, Ontario, and a retired equine veterinarian. “Ask for referrals. Ask for testimonials.”
Scoop 3 – Work with your agent to identify your property needs
“What are you going to do with it?” is one of the first questions Winther asks new clients. “Are you going to ride on it, or is it just for your horses to hang out at home? What kind of riding do you do?”
Other things to think about: How many horses do you have? Will you be running a private or commercial facility? Are you a breeding operation? A hobby farm? A performance horse facility?
Scoop 4 – Think long term
You might be satisfied with the horse facilities on a property when you first purchase it, but keep in mind that your needs and wants might change over time. What might you want to do with it in five years? ten years? twenty years?
“I always ask clients, ‘What are your long term objectives for this property? What do you think you might want to do with it?’” says Horne, who says that choosing an appropriately sized acreage can be difficult. “Typically they’ll say, ‘I only need five or six acres,’ but then they decide ‘I want to build an arena.’ Well, they can’t. They don’t have the land base to do it.” An extra acre or so can give you the flexibility to consider expansions down the road. Also, keep the cost of future plans in mind when determining your budget.
If you are an avid trail rider, look for property that’s close to a trail system that’s horse friendly. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Scoop 5 – Location, location, location
Don’t underestimate the importance of location when searching for your dream property. “You can change the house or barn later,” says McDiarmid. “But you cannot move the property. Don’t compromise too much on distance from your employment, as driving to and from work can be a big negative.”
Your riding objectives will also play a role in determining whether a location will work for you. If you’re an avid trail rider, proximity to horse-friendly trail systems is important, and you’ll probably want to avoid properties on busy roads.
Scoop 6 – Get the lay of the land
Dry footing is of the utmost importance, so look for a property with good drainage. “It can be costly to create well drained areas for animals,” Winther warns. Land with a slight natural slope (around two to five percent) will usually drain well, but is still flat enough to be usable.
Good soil quality is crucial if you’re going to be grazing your horses. “Avoid rocky or clay-based soils and go with the ones that are more productive for pasture land or for producing hay,” advises Horne.
When it comes to vegetation, “look for growth of good forage for equines, and avoid heavy weeds and marsh grasses,” says McDiarmid, who also recommends checking the property for plants and trees that are toxic to horses.
Scoop 7 – Educate yourself
Familiarize yourself as much as possible with the rules and regulations in your municipality when it comes to environmental issues, land conservation, and property use restrictions. “You have to be knowledgeable about things like the number of permissible animal units allowed on a unit piece of property,” says Horne. “It’s knowing where you need to go to find the answers to those questions, rather than buying the property and then finding out that you can’t do what you wanted to do with it.” Your real estate agent should be able to help you find this information.
Scoop 8 – Assess the water situation
Always a crucial factor, adequate water supply becomes even more important for horse properties. “Good well water supply with at least 10 gallons per minute (gpm) and/or city water supply is important,” explains McDiarmid. Also, look at where the water access points are. Hauling buckets of water manually to fill the water trough in the field that’s out of hose reach from the barn is a lot of work and time.
Convenient access points to a water source will save you the time and work of hauling water by hand to fill water buckets or troughs. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Scoop 9 – Remember your budget
This may seem obvious, but make sure you set a realistic budget and then stick to it. “Buyers often overspend and regret this later,” says McDiarmid. “Stay in your comfort zone for budget.”
Scoop 10 – Get the right financial advice
Talk to a financial institution or mortgage broker who is familiar with financing rural properties or horse properties, “because it’s very different from financing a house in town in terms of rules and regulations. It’s a lot tougher to get financing on a rural property than it is in town,” says Horne, who usually sends her horse property buyers to a broker rather than a bank. “A broker can farm it out to a variety of lenders whereas a conventional bank is dealing with their own specific system.”
Scoop 11 – House or barn?
“It’s very rare that you’re going to find THE house and THE facility all in one package,” says Horne. “It is less expensive to build a barn than to build a house but there can be more regulations associated with building a barn because you’re dealing with animal housing units and all the environmental issues that go along with that. It’s the buyer’s choice. What I find is that, for the true horse people, the barn usually is more important.”
“Understand that it is hard to ‘have it all’,” Winther warns. “Be prepared to make trade-offs. Be honest with yourself on what is important.”
Scoop 12 – Remember that renovations are possible
“Anything can be renovated,” says Horne. “I look at the bones of the structure. If the bones (foundation, wiring, plumbing, etc.) are good, then the interior stuff is almost a cosmetic thing.”
But, if the house and barn require repairs, “be aware of what those repairs may cost,” warns McDiarmid. “And have the budget for urgent repairs at hand.” A horse savvy real estate agent will be able to provide you with solid information about the cost of renovations.
“How willing are you to do updates and do you have time?” Winther adds. One of the most common mistakes Winther sees buyers make is taking on too much of a “project property,” which can take the enjoyment out of owning acreage and also imposes a financial liability.
Scoop 13 – Barn builder beware
If you decide to build your own barn, think hard about location.
“I like to see proximity of barn to house,” says Horne. “I know someone who built a facility and it’s probably a half kilometre hike from the house to the barn. Most people if they’re in their home like to be able to look out the window and see that their horses are still standing.”
Building a horse facility from scratch can be expensive, and you’ll never get your money back out of the property. “Consider your average farm that sells complete with barn, arena, land, and everything else,” Horne says. “If you took the sum of all the parts, the price on the property is less than what it would cost to reconstruct it.”
Check each property you look at for vegetation that is toxic to horses, such as foxglove.
Scoop 14 – Always think resale
“When you’re buying, you’re not thinking resale,” says Horne. “But eventually you probably are going to have to sell for whatever reason and you want to make sure that what you purchase will continue to remain attractive to a potential buyer.”
“Ensure that the location is a good value for resale,” adds McDiarmid. “This is an investment.”
If you do end up building your own barn or renovating, keep in mind that the more specialized that barn to your specific needs, the more specialized your future buyer will have to be, meaning that the property will be less attractive to a larger percentage of potential buyers.
Scoop 15 – Be realistic in your price expectations
Don’t expect the seller to compromise on price simply because the property doesn’t come equipped with all the facilities you want or need.
“Let’s say I’m selling a horse with a cheap saddle,” says Horne. “If you want to buy yourself a Passier saddle, that’s your choice. I’m selling a cheap saddle. As long as the property is priced accurately – and that’s the realtor’s job to ascertain if the value is there for the buyer, even if they plan on doing improvements – they’re not overpaying for what they’re currently buying. If that value is there, you can’t expect the seller to reduce their price just because you, as the buyer, want to build an arena.”
Scoop 16 – Don’t fall in love and lose sight of your priorities
McDiarmid, Winther, and Horne agree that the most common mistake they see buyers make, is falling in love with a property, or a single aspect of the property, and losing sight of other factors.
Scoop 17 – Don’t rush the process
“All acreages are unique,” McDiarmid says. “Buyers can get fatigued when they can’t find exactly what they want and compromise, only to regret it later.”
“Take your time, weigh your options, and consider what experts in the field tell you when you make your decision,” Winther advises.
Main article photo: When you look at a property, make sure you check out the condition of the fencing. Good, solid fencing keeps your horse safe, and new fencing and fencing repairs are surprisingly expensive.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.