Picture yourself in a true modern farmhouse, gazing out the window as your horse grazes nearby. You go to the henhouse and get a few fresh eggs for breakfast. Later today, you’ll check the vegetable garden or the vineyards to see how they’re doing, then take a horse ride.
If an idyllic life in the country appeals to you more than the thought of running a working farm, a gentleman’s farm, hobby farm, or ranchette might appeal to you.
We’ve investigated gentlemen’s farms, talked to a real estate agent who sells country properties, checked tax laws, and looked at dozens of listings to provide a complete overview of this niche real estate market. Read on for the answers to all your questions about gentleman’s farms.
What is a gentleman’s farm?
The term gentleman’s farm dates to when wealthy men owned a country home that doubled as both a summer retreat and a place where someone hired by the gentleman-owner would grow produce and raise livestock for the family. The New England Historical Society points to George Washington as a historical example of a gentleman farmer.
Today, the idea of a gentleman’s farm is similar. It’s a country property with acreage whose owners don’t need to run a farm to make a living or put food on the table.
The owners may have a job in the city or other sources of income. They may dabble in some agricultural activities for fun, or they might choose to leave most of the land in a natural state. Some may rent out the fields to working farmers. And some owners of gentleman’s farms are environmentalists who are introducing sustainable farming methods or practicing conservation methods to restore and preserve the natural landscape.
Around Houston, the common term for such properties is “ranchette,” says Mary Stewart, a real estate agent in Sugar Land, Texas. She has worked with 82% more single-family sales than the average agent in her market.
Generally, she finds buyers are looking for a place with a large home, a pond so the kids or grandkids can learn to fish, and room to drive an off-road vehicle. Buyers prefer 50 to 70 acres because “if you have 5 acres, you have to keep it impeccable, but if you have 50 acres, you just have to keep the acre around the house impeccable.”
Many buyers want the property as a weekend getaway space, she adds, and prefer a place with a caretaker, so it’s less work for them.
How do I find a gentleman’s farm for sale?
Farms are generally located in rural areas, so that’s the best place to look for properties for sale. Take an old-fashioned Sunday drive to the farming regions of your state to get a sense of what country life is like.
Get details about country life
If you’re a city or suburban dweller dreaming of country life, it’s a good idea to assess how much your life could change if you live full-time in a rural area. Ask yourself:
- How long of a commute are you willing to put up with? Do you have the option to work remotely?
- What kind of amenities do you need nearby? You’re unlikely to find big supermarkets, specialized doctors, shopping malls, and full-service restaurants in most farming communities.
- What are your high-tech options? If you’re going to work remotely, or simply like to stay connected, check what cell phone reception and internet speeds are available.
As you search for possible locations, there are other factors to consider.
How accessible is the area?
Could heavy snow prevent you from getting to work or trap you at home? If the region is prone to heavy winds or storms that can knock trees over, are alternative routes available if a road is blocked?
Are there any natural areas or resorts nearby?
Finding a property near a national forest, state park or resort area can bring many benefits:
- Touristy areas attract amenities (like restaurants) that you don’t find in most rural areas.
- If your property abuts a conservation or wildlife management area, you don’t have to worry about development in your backyard.
- The property may be easier to sell in the future.
Talk to local agents
Once you’ve narrowed the area for your home search, meet with a local agent to discuss your wants and needs. An agent who knows the community is best-suited to find an available property that suits you.
The property may not be listed as a “gentleman’s farm,” “hobby farm,” or a similar term in the MLS, so local knowledge is essential.
Stewart recommends working with an agent specializing in country properties who understands issues such as water rights. Such an agent will likely have access to a four-wheeler and can drive you around all the acreage, she adds. Without touring it on a four-wheeler, you probably won’t be able to see all the land.
Factors influencing the price of a country property include the value of the existing house, acreage, location, other facilities (such as a barn), and water availability, such as a pond.
What should I know before buying a gentleman’s farm?
When you buy a farm, you may encounter some issues and concerns you’ve never had to worry about.
If you’ve owned a home previously, you’re familiar with property taxes. However, property taxes for agricultural land are different. Agricultural property tax rates are usually lower than the tax rates on a home in a subdivision. Agricultural exemptions are designed to help keep farms in business.
How the land is used determines its tax classification. Because property taxes are a state or local issue, the rules vary by location.
To be assessed at the agricultural rate, Ohio requires that 10 or more acres be used exclusively for commercial agriculture purposes. If less acreage is farmed, the farm’s gross sales must meet a minimum amount for the property to qualify as agricultural.
In Georgia, land used for agricultural purposes is assessed at 75% of the value of non-ag property. Acceptable uses include horticulture, forestry, dairy, livestock, and poultry.
Texas, and some other states, impose rollback taxes if agricultural land is developed for another use. In Texas, you could owe three years of taxes covering the difference between the agricultural value of the land and the higher market value if you change how the land is used.
Talk to a tax specialist who’s familiar with state agricultural tax rules. If you’re planning on turning a working farm into a gentleman’s farm, you may face higher taxes than expected. A tax expert can advise you whether renting out some fields or another action might help you preserve the tax break. (Keeping just one horse or a few chickens probably isn’t enough.)
Finding a way to maintain the agricultural tax rate can save an owner thousands of dollars a year in property taxes, Stewart says.
Water and mineral rights
You should also investigate what water and mineral rights come with the property. In some cases, you will likely need the advice of an attorney.
In some states, you might not have the rights to water that flows by or through your property, such as a stream. If you don’t have the rights to that water, you can’t use it for your livestock or to irrigate fields.
To make it more confusing, the rules governing groundwater tapped by a well may be different than rules for aboveground running water.
Most of us aren’t expecting to find oil or iron ore on our property, so mineral rights don’t seem like an issue. But if you’re buying acreage in an area where minerals are commonly found and extracted, it makes sense to determine if the mineral rights have been conveyed to someone else. Contact a lawyer in the area who specializes in mineral law.
Issues like water rights and agricultural exemptions make purchasing a gentleman’s farm more complicated than buying a suburban house.
Potential buyers should also be realistic about what it takes to run a farm, cautions Stewart, who owns a 160-acre farm. “You’re going to work hard unless you get a caretaker.”
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