Our interest in North Central Washington was piqued and our appetite to find a parcel was voracious. And when that happens with us, we border on obsession. We contacted the realtor we worked with to purchase our house to see if he had any referrals for an agent in the Wenatchee area. Introductions were made, and we started emailing and calling back and forth with a jovial woman named Jolly (seriously, that's her name!) who had years upon years of experience selling homes and properties in that area.
Lesson 1: Cash is King
Meanwhile, we set out to figure out exactly what kind of budget we'd be working with. Operating on the same assumptions as buying a home, we reached out to our mortgage officer to see what it would take to get a small loan for purchasing the property. Much to our dismay, since we were interested largely in undeveloped property with no existing utilities, conventional financing wasn't a possibility. Most banks have requirements that the purchase be zoned residential and that, if undeveloped, you intend to build a primary residence or second home there within a certain span of time.
He recommended we investigate a farmers credit union, but a little more research revealed that, as the name would suggest, an agricultural or livestock operation is a key requirement. We approached our own credit union for a personal loan, but the amount they were willing to underwrite was surprisingly low, considering our assets at the time.
Then we learned about seller financing. Many of the owners of the types of vacation/hunting properties that we were looking through are real estate agents themselves or just plain own a lot of land as investment. Seller financing is when they personally extend a contract loan for purchase, almost like a rent-to-own furniture store. Initially this seemed like an interesting idea, but when we took a closer look at some of the details, they were typically offering 8–10% interest with 5-, 8-, or 10-year terms. When you add to that the fact that this is just a person-to-person contract and not a formal lender relationship, we wanted to back away slowly.
Knowing that cash was the only viable solution, we refactored our calculations and double-checked income projections to see how confident we could be with a revised budget. Where we were initially looking in the $70,000–$80,000 range anticipating the help of a loan, an all-cash offering reduced our scope to $30,000–$35,000 if we still wanted to act quickly. It was going to have to be a balance between immediacy and our means, but we were certain we wouldn't be disappointed.
Lesson 2: Take Your Time
Less than six months prior, we had emerged triumphant from a very fast-paced home-buying process in the Portland area—inventory was scarce and we had to act quickly to view listings and put in offers—and we were thinking this would be a similar ballgame. No one really told us until much later that it wasn't uncommon for undeveloped land, especially in rural areas, to sit on the market for six months to a year or more. There just isn't that much demand for it and turnover expectancy is much longer.
Despite this (and with a certain combination of ignorance and impatience), we planned a second trip to Wenatchee just two weeks later, anxious to get serious and make this happen. We drove up to Wenatchee in the evening, stayed the night in a budget motel, then fueled up for an exciting adventure the next morning.
We met with Jolly, and even though she was already booked up with other client showings, she took some time to pull a handful of listings and encouraged us to go hunting for them on our own. She did warn that back roads and hand-written directions could be confusing, since most of these parcels have no physical address and GPS was largely useless. Three options seemed to have the most potential, and so our quest began in earnest.
Property #1 was nearly 100 acres outside of the orchard town of Orondo. It sat among a half-dozen other parcels used for cattle-grazing and several of them had recently sold, leading us to believe that they were in high demand (and contributing to our belief that the rural market operated similarly to the residential market). The photos promised views of a steep canyon carrying US Route 2 east from the Columbia and Orondo toward Spokane, as well as of the Columbia River Basin itself. If only we could have seen it.
Yet again, our poor little sedan couldn't make it up more than a quarter-mile of the rough, storm-eroded access road, and the hike up to the top would have taken far too long. If we decided one thing after seeing the little red cabin, it's that we didn't want to have to rely on four-wheel-drive to get to our retreat, and when combined with the $75,000 price tag, it was a no-brainer. We turned around disappointed and set out to find the next on the list.
Property #2 was labeled as "Lot 55 Canyon Springs #1" and the listing was accompanied with a very rough, truncated set of directions for finding the place:
From McNeil Canyon Rd, go lft onto Spring Canyon Rd. Stay lft & head up to the top of the mountain. At the top take a rt at the V & head back down the other side. Directional arrows & signs are in.
Back up to McNeil Canyon we went (the same area as the little red cabin). Spring Canyon Road was easy enough to find, but that's where it got a little weird. There was no mention of distance in the directions, so at the first climb and V in the road, we veered right and quickly found ourselves at a "no trespassing" dead end. (Our likelihood of taking any chances trespassing in these parts was very low.)
We backtracked and continued along the main gravel road, which led down into a gully between two mountains, littered with stands of ponderosa pines and dotted with a few small houses and hunting cabins, most of which were only half-built. It was beautiful in that narrow little canyon, but we could tell there was too much shade and nary a sweeping vista in sight.
About a mile in, the road snaked around and started climbing the hillside, then turned right into what seemed like the end of the line. A strange mish-mash of solar-powered shacks, broken-down vehicles, and a "no socialism" sign spray-painted on the side of a white van with "No Trespassing" signs littered throughout would have been enough to scare us away, but then two big dogs came running to investigate, barking at us invaders. Discouraged and anxious, we crawled through a bit further to find a place to turn around and high-tail it out of there, then discovered that the road kept going as it curved right through the middle of this hermit's compound.
Compared to the other rough access roads, Spring Canyon Road was in much better shape. Aside from dodging ruts and small boulders here and there (and keeping our trusty Chevy Sonic in first and second gears), we continued to climb up the mountainside through a series of hairpin switchbacks. Once we reached the summit, the Columbia River and Lake Chelan came back into view and we stopped at a fork in the road to determine which way to go.
There amongst the grass in the middle of the fork, blown over from the wind and covered in dust, was a small RE/MAX directional arrow pointing to the right. Suddenly the directions all made sense! This was the "V" at the top of the mountain. We hopped back in the car, hung right, and slowly descended the face. We passed by an adorable [finished] cabin with a hand-painted sign out front reading The Whitbecks, 16 Road J, our hearts warmed back up a little, and we continued on down toward a few other cabins, campers, and travel trailers dotting the hillside.
The road was getting consistently worse, eroded and rutted from the heavy spring rains and not nearly as traveled as the first two miles. Just as we were about to stop, fearful that we could go no further without bottoming out the car or damaging the undercarriage, we spotted another RE/MAX sign at the front of a driveway off to the left. This must be it!
We crawled up the driveway in what must have been a comical cycle of Justin getting out of the car, moving big rocks that were in the way, and hopping back in to travel another 100 feet. The last third of the drive climbed up a small hill and ended in turnaround, and we finally turned off the car and got out to investigate.
Make It Go
As we walked toward the front of the hill, we stopped and stared silently at a breathtaking view. Perched nearly as high up as the red cabin but much closer to the river, we could pan 180º+ and see a long stretch of the Columbia River, the eastern end of Lake Chelan and the small town on its shore, orchards along the river banks below, a municipal airport, the Cascade Mountains off to the west, and even distant peaks of Canadian mountains to the north.
The mountainside below us descended sharply more than 1,800 feet to the river bank, ravines and coulees cutting through basalt rock monoliths jutting out in awkward places. An occasional pine dotted the ridgeline; the rest of the ground was covered in sage, low brush, and grasses.
Speaking of sage, the smells! The hot, dry breeze and 90-degree weather (still in September, even) filled our noses with that sweet and spicy herbal musk. It was intoxicating.
We gathered ourselves and walked around a little more to investigate the property itself. An old, partially dismantled barb-wire fence seemed to bisect the land, but out side of that and a few seemingly random property markers, it was difficult to tell where this parcel ended and the neighbor's began. Such is the case for most undeveloped land—it all flows together until someone decides to cordon off their own slice.
The parcel itself amounts to 12.5 acres, and from the rough map we were provided, we could tell it was a long, narrow plot about 300 feet across and 1800 feet long. Being there in person, we could see that where the driveway ended at roughly the halfway point down the length, the remainder of the property descends down the steep slope toward the river. (Further research and mapping revealed that the lower property line borders a several-hundred-acre swath of BLM land along the river's edge.) Having been on the market for over six months, the price had just been conveniently reduced from $39,000 to $30,000, making it within our reach.
Two spots had been "bladed" (roughly bulldozed level) for building sites, and a knoll adjacent to the end of the driveway offered even more of a vista over the valley below and a potential third location for a structure. Looking back along the driveway, we could see a depression sheltering a stand of pine trees, partially shaded by the ridge to the south.
Justin turned to me and said, "This is it. Make it go." I looked no further than his bright eyes and boyish smile and nodded enthusiastically.
Achievement Unlocked: Land Baron
The weeks that followed comprised a flurry of terribly scanned PDFs, misspellings and errant listing data, and evidence of funds documents. When all was said and done, on October 20, 2013, we officially owned 12.5 acres of paid-in-full land in Douglas County, Washington. No utilities, no structures, just sage, rock, and glorious, glorious dirt.
And on the first day of possession? A camping trip, of course! We knew the temperature was going to drop quickly and the steep roads would be dicey in winter, so we packed up the gear and spent our first night enjoying the most expensive tent site I've ever stayed at.
Elation and beauty aside, we did learn a few things about camping on our newly-acquired property:
- The wind cuts the temperature down significantly, especially when you pitch your tent on the crown of the knoll.
- You have to dig a fire pit down pretty deep to keep the wind from sweeping ashes into the dry brush surrounding it.
- The deeper you dig, the less the fire's heat radiates toward you.
- It can be kind of scary in the dark with absolutely no one around and no light but the stars and moon.
- The full moon in a clear sky is really bright!
- Our tent could only do so much to keep the warm in and the cold out, no matter how many extra blankets we piled atop our sleeping bags.
All that to say we didn't sleep much that night. But hello, property!!! Worth it? Absolutely.
We spent the morning warming back up as we hiked down to where we estimated the bottom of the property line was, scrambled up a monolith that looked much, much smaller from above, climbed back up through the small wooded area, then packed up and made the drive back, giddy little boys who had a secret fort all to themselves.
Oh, and that drive we were so worried about? Yes, it's 5.5–6 hours long, but most definitely worth it. In fact, the benefit is that aside from our initial one-night camping trip, it's far enough away that we need to dedicate at least two nights (preferably three) for it to feel reasonable, and it's not so close that we would take it for granted. The scenery is gorgeous along the way (we have three routes to choose from), and we can still get there in a half day.
This land is ours. Now what are we going to do with it?