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Getting grounded

This article first appeared in a previous issue of Equestrian Life magazine. For more information or to subscribe, visit our home page here.

Tim Boland's Property copyright Equestrian Life/Roger Fitzhardinge 

© Roger Fitzhardinge

The post and rail fencing, all-weather shelters, abundance of shedding and a great house are glinting in the sun as happy horses graze on good looking pasture. Then the ‘For Sale’ sign goes up. The dream of owning your own horse property is a common one, but unless money is no object then it can turn into a sour experience of a waterlogged weed factory and an expensive, endless battle to achieve the right outcome. Jane O’Connor looks at some of the dos and don’ts.

Buying any sort of real estate, especially for first timers, is an emotional decision. And, with the levels of aspirational property ownership available to Australians, we can be particularly starry eyed. For most, there is – or should be - a vast difference between buying a property that we want to live in, raise families and enjoy as opposed to a business purchase with a focused eye on investment. The former is generally based on emotion and personal preference and one we will happily spend weekends working to maintain and putting a personal stamp on. The latter is a far more cold headed approach with a view to it ultimately appealing to the widest future buying pool possible without over capitalising beyond a good profit margin.

For the first timer, hankering after hectares should be very carefully planned. This is a perfect case where some sensible prevention and a good homework checklist is better than a disappointing and expensive cure. For the majority of Australians, the primary place of residence is their main financial investment, making us a nation of keen property watchers. But, we often fail to look beyond the superficial.

The old saying about land and how they aren’t making any more of it is true. Good land is valuable and across Australia the variances in cost and quality is enormous. Take it as read that any area in Australia will have its own peculiarities, levels of demand and price cycles. You can apply some general, basic rules, but the nitty gritty of each individual property environment will vary. There is strong competition for the prime end of country property. The ‘tree change’ phenomenon is well documented with the desire for a quieter, less urban lifestyle. That doesn’t necessarily add up to horses. Some simply covet space and a view, but it makes the demand for good hectares much wider than just you and your horse dreams.

Demographically, Australians stick largely to the coastal rims and watch major capital cities spreading ever further into what was once farm- land. Having your hectares cake and eating it too by being able to still commute to work has become an expensive proposition. Space and privacy, plus pretty close to the action is the most highly sought after combination. These days, anything between a few hectares and up to 50 or 100 tends to come under the heading of ‘lifestyle property’. Push that higher and you are into farming and strictly rural zones. Budget depending, it is then a case of having to pitch further out for affordable possibilities in the smaller hectare range. This then has you looking at a second layer in regional areas with some of the larger regional centers in reasonable proximity or; opting for a remoter move with all the isolation that entails.

Then there are the vast differences in climate, depending on which part of the continent is beckoning. Even a superficial view of that can be a daunting reality when your microclimate doesn’t do what the neighbour’s does or that pretty stream flows through the house every five years after torrential rain.

An important attitude to take is to try and set aside the emotion and give yourself time to study the pros and cons, what’s available, average prices and the types of location that appeal. Rushing in because that ‘bargain’ may be snapped up and without the right toolkit in hand can make for very disappointing decisions. Start planning well ahead. When the right boxes have been ticked, you then become a ‘qualified’ buyer and can list your requirements with real estate agents in a preferred area. So, as a general guide and apart from watching the real estate ads, where do you start? The first two considerations are purpose and budget. Then, depending on these, there are decisions about whether to pitch for undeveloped, vacant land or something already established. The considerations required will, like any real estate purchase, require compromises and commonsense and these will be entirely personal.

Undeveloped land

We are all individuals and somebody else’s ‘dream’ home or property isn’t what you had in mind. Whether economically or emotionally you decide to start with a blank canvas, then go through the basic checklist first in preferred locations. Again, budget will be a major driver, but forward planning is vital.

• Check out the terrain, climate and any planning overlays. Local government and state government land management, planning and agricultural authorities would rather you get it right from the start. Go to them first, not when you have bought the land and then find a titanic battle ahead regarding what you can and can’t do. For instance, many councils won’t allow the keeping of horses within town boundaries. That two hectares you just bought may turn out to be a big back yard rather than a pony paradise. Check what services they offer. Will they give you a topographical re- port or do soil tests? What actually grows there and are there any residual ‘nasties’ lurking in the soil. Many former agricultural and mining areas were known for their use of chemicals and pesticides. If they have been allowed to sub-divide into smaller ‘lifestyle’ blocks then check this out if it concerns you. Agricultural departments will know and can outline any ongoing issues. For example, in my area, potato farms used high levels of dieldrin and arsenic was the preferred termite cure. Both are highly residual. A simple, free soil test by land use authorities passed it as clear of these, but neighbouring properties I looked at buying had very high concentrations. Agents should also be aware of soil status, so ask the question. What are the wind and soil erosion issues? What is the average annual rainfall? Look at the history of extreme events – flood prone, a high bushfire threat level, subject to drought.

• Walk the land carefully, even while you are waiting for details on the?issues listed above and ask a selling agent to outline what they have on?these issues. The slope of the land will make a difference to how safe your?horses are. Badly and constantly waterlogged areas present their own prob?lems. Is it overgrazed and in need of pasture renewal and is the soil type conducive to good pasture? Is there harsh, rocky ground or a network of rabbit or wombat holes? Is it weed infested and what are the requirements on you as the owner to eradicate them? Can you clear treed land and are there planting restrictions?

• Where will the water come from? Tanks versus town supply require different planning. Power supply is important. If power is a long way from the preferred house or facility site then a large additional cost may be lurking to get a supply from the grid onto the property. You will pay for that power run, poles etc. – not the supply company and it is expensive.

• Determine the effects of site direction as sun strike, prevailing winds and seasonal changes will have an impact on where a house, sheds or shelters are best sited. So too will slopes. Any structures you plan will be price- affected depending on the ease of building and extent of site works. Experienced shed building and infrastructure companies understand these siting and cost issues and are worth consulting ahead of the actual time when that mega shed or stable block is ready to start.

• How easy is it to create an entrance, what permits are required and how much of the cost from property to roadway will you bear?

• Is it already fenced? Even a few acres are a vastly different proposition to fence, compared to that suburban block. It can add up to kilometers to ring the perimeter, even on a relatively smallholding, let alone dealing with dividing fences. Get some approximate costs off fencing contractors, as the one-fence-fits-all philosophy doesn’t quite work if you have a specific horse purpose in mind. If fences are in poor condition, how conducive are neighbours to sharing costs?

• A popular option is to look at living in a shed; barn or caravan while a house gets built. Practical and workable, but be very sure what council authorities will allow, any time restrictions and permit needs and how well the climate is suited to such living conditions. What other structures need permits (always with fees attached) – sheds, stables, wash bays, septics, arenas, hay sheds, tack rooms, bores and dams. Shed, stable, arena builders etc. will know and many will do the permit process as part of the service. Being clear about these requirements can save an enormous amount of time and red tape.

• Consult the locals. Most urban fringe and rural areas include an invaluable resource known as ‘the locals’. Often they have been in the area for several generations and they know their environment. Even newer residents can be met at local horse events and are generally keen to share knowledge and experience. They will tell you whether the gorgeous, sunny day you are enjoying turns to a winter quagmire of howling, cold southerlies or skin stripping summer northerlies. They know how reliable water supplies are and whether the cockatoos will eat your windowsills and rip half the roof off if you build with cedar. Fore- warned is forearmed.

Developed property

Is there such a thing as the perfect property? Unless you have custom built it, then it is unlikely. But, knowing what you are buying and being prepared for it can eliminate some nasty and unexpected discoveries. Buying an established horse property can require a ‘helicopter view.’ Whether or not you like the pink walls in the house or the kitchen needs an upgrade take second place behind potential major infrastructure costs. Apply a similar checklist to the one on the previous page regarding purpose, budget and location, but impose it on what is already there. Often, you need to live on a property for a while to get the true, practical feel of it before racing ahead with plans to stamp your own personality on it. A year of observing and living there will almost always lead to changes of mind and often the saving of a lot of money splashed on more spontaneous outlays. But, you don’t need to be an agricultural scientist to work out that the soil type won’t sustain pasture for the 10 horses you have in mind. If you haven’t owned a larger property, workloads can come as a shock, even on modest holdings. Not only could a house need attention, but fencing, drainage, extra tailored out buildings take more than a bit of weeding and a motor mower.

• Ask why the owners are selling. This could be as simple as the property is now too much work and they want to retire or they are looking for more land. A well-loved property will often come with owners willing to provide as much detailed information on how it works as you need – the status of water bores or dams; what the go is with septic cleaning; any ongoing guarantees on structures, local services and amenities etc.

• What is the quality of any infrastructure, how well sited is it for the lay of the land, how good is access or exit and does it cater for your specific purposes? Within that, things can be adapted, but how easy would that be?

• Understanding any planning restrictions and environmental overlays will save a lot of future grief. Just because the house and other structures are there doesn’t mean the property isn’t subject to restrictions. Check that structures have the right permits and compliance in place.

    Getting absolutely everything you need to suit your purpose is a big ask. If it is a niche, specialised property you are after then note the agents who operate in a certain area or list such real estate and lodge your interest. Being able to view newly listed properties carries no obligation.

    What are the likely ongoing maintenance and other costs? That 30hectare spread may have a $10,000 a year rates bill attached based on estimated value per hectare. Is there added value such as producing your own fodder or an expensive slashing job needed regularly? What are the insurance costs for rural property? It is different to urban considerations. Flood, fire and storm damage are an Australian reality, but ‘house and contents’ take on new meaning and different premiums when fences and major outside infrastructure needs to be covered. Specialist rural insurance companies will outline these details.

    What are the most sought after items when people go looking for a horse property? It is easy to over-capitalise on real estate. The Jacuzzi and lap pool might be ‘sexy’, but the lack of good shelters or an exercise yard and nowhere to store fodder can restrict the potential buyer pool. This is about determining the basic ‘must have’ list as opposed to the ‘wish list’ that can be achieved later. Don’t let one over shadow the other if money is an issue.

       • It is often the less visual items that can cost the most in time and money. Because a property looks good on the surface it doesn’t mean it has great soil or that the stables are water tight or not shrouded in shade and wet when winter turns up. How long have septics or water tanks been in place? Infrastructure ages.

       • What sort of problem do pest plants or animals pose? if there is a mob of chubby, happy kangaroos in every second paddock and the wombats have a highway network

       Under the fences, it may be quaint for weekend visitors, but you have some serious pasture competition. An invasive weed issue can mean more time with a spray pack than in the saddle. Know what you are going to deal with.

       At the end of the day, buying a larger horse property is really no different to any other property purchase where the rules of ‘buyer beware’ and commonsense should apply. But, it often carries a much larger checklist. Even armed with all the realities, it is often good old fashioned ‘gut instinct’ that makes us fall for a certain location, outlay or look. And, taking everything into account on the pros and cons list, there will almost always have to be compromises. At the end of the day, it boils down to what you have the means and the will to tackle in order to achieve your best personal out- come, but at least approach it from a position of knowledge.

Smart shopping

       When the property of choice has been secured you can bet there will be a 'wish list' of necessary installations or even replacements. In some cases, the savvy potential buyer will already have a ballpark idea of what they want on such a property and what it will cost.

       For instance, there may already be an arena on-site, but could it benefit greatly and reduce maintenance with the right modifications? What does that barn or stable, shelters and sheds you have been eyeing off on some- body else's block cost and are you comparing apples with apples? Setting up your horse property post-purchase needs another checklist. Start with the all-important basic plan - what is already there, what is needed and what is your preferred layout? Armed with that, the businesses you approach can get an idea of where you are headed. For instance, seek out products that may provide an upgrade to existing buildings rather than starting from scratch. The up-front price is only part of the equation. Factor in low maintenance, long life, easily installed options as they can add up to better value for money over time. You will also run into an array of building materials, building techniques, tailored modifications, new hi-tech products and advice that will affect not only cost, but also quality and enduring outcome. And, unless time and money are no object, then expect your 'grand plan' to take time.

       It can be a daunting process to go shopping for such a plan, but that effort can be pared down. Divide the 'shopping list' into categories and prioritise it. For instance, if a shed, barn or shelters are at the top, and then concentrate on just those. Or, while waiting for fence quotes to happen, check out some great new electric fencing on the market that could solve a major containment headache and be used for other applications down the track.

       What you are looking for above all else are companies and suppliers that understand the equine market. Such expertise means you aren't labouring to get your requirements across. They may well come up with the perfect solution. In the case of big-ticket items such as sheds, barns and stables, consult experts such as Winners Circle stables. In the case of stables - as with large arenas and sheds - there are industry standard sizes. Modifications are fine, but remember these will impact on the granting of building permits. What may be unwelcome surprises for the novice is second nature to an experienced company. Companies such as swan Hill Engineering and Central Vic sheds have also been dealing with these processes for many years and can advise on the best way to approach individual needs. Again, it gets back to being armed with your basic layout plan, making sure it shows climate, prevailing weather directions, topography, drainage, access and the likes of soil type. Expert companies can work with this to suggest modifications or elements that will cut excavation, time and labour costs, buildings getting too much or too little sun or shade or avoiding them being surrounded by mud and impossible to access. It may also affect choice of materials - from concrete to colourbond and timber or a combination - that are available and what their advantages and disadvantages may be in your location. Determine methods of construction, construction times and how they will suit a property and your schedule.

And, while proven methods stand the test of time, bear in mind that no section of the building or property improvement industry stands still as new and often better ways of doing things emerge. This is particularly the case with products involving technology, that have come off the back of consumer-led demand or that can add to amenity. Modern, environmentally friendly materials enter the market; technology is applied that cuts maintenance costs and; ideal materials and fixtures initially designed for other industries prove a perfect solution for equine applications. Examples include new fencing materials that do away with treated pine, have a long, non-rotting, recyclable life and horses don't chew it. Or grid materials used to stabilise roads in the mining industry or build durable boat ramps and a myriad of other applications are then used as a new - and portable - all weather surface for arenas or exercise areas and can boost drainage and eliminate mud areas at the same time. For instance, the Galahad Group's Diamond grid is a product that has been used to drain and stabilise a wide variety of heavy-duty industrial surfaces. It has found its way onto arena and other equine exercise surfaces, or as a solution to particularly wet and mud-prone areas. This Australian-owned company's product ensures a surface remains solid, dry and secure in any weather, is easy to install, made from recycled material, has little ongoing maintenance and is totally relocatable. Another prime example of progress comes in an area horse owners are very familiar with - electric fencing. Traditional versions, using small diameter steel wires, are ubiquitous as we strip graze, to divide stock or need a solution for barrier fencing.

Platinum Equine's Electrobraid fencing is highly visible to horses, has a breaking strength equal to steel wire and the copper components won't rust. The low level shock is harmless, but very effective and it can be easily self- installed either as a single strand on almost any type of fence or as a wider barrier solution. It carries a 25-year warranty. The same company also offers a comfort- able, waterproof flooring system for stables. Any dirty bedding is easily removed from the stable, wall-to-wall surface, again cutting maintenance time and ongoing costs for the likes of wood shavings or other surface material in need of constant replacement.




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