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Realities of Real Estate: Is farm livin’ the life for you?

Today, many homes have multiple high definition televisions, along with drawers full of remote controls to effortlessly click your way through an endless variety of on-demand programming. There’s often a TV in nearly every room, some even sport a flat screen in the bathroom.

But, when we were growing up, the typical household had one television, which was usually black and white, and you had four or five channels to choose from. At first, color television was a luxury, and remotes were something only rich people had.

Back in that day (the mid to late 1960s), one of the most popular programs on television was Green Acres. For those of you who didn’t watch the moon landing “live” like we did, just Google Green Acres on your I-Phone to see what we’re talking about.

In a nutshell, the sitcom was about a wealthy New York attorney who decides to leave the big city rat race and, much to the displeasure of his glamorous wife, move to rural America and pursue the dream of being a farmer. As you might expect, the show pokes good fun at the spectacle of these city-slickers as they attempt to adapt to the often gritty life living in the country.

The catchy theme song summed up this attorney’s hopes and aspirations with the first verse: “Green Acres is the place to be, farm livin’ is the life for me; land spreadin’ out so far and wide; keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.”

Here in Maryland, we’re part of the heavily populated east coast corridor. Yet, much of Maryland is really quite rural, something we have long appreciated, since both of us came from places where there are more cows than people.

The Eastern Shore is home to many farms, and poultry production is a big industry there, with the king of chicken, Perdue Farms, headquartered in Salisbury. On the western side of the Chesapeake, numerous horse farms dot the landscape, and everything from sod farms to corn fields work the land.

Consequently, life in the country is an important part of Maryland real estate. With the baby boomers reaching retirement age, some, like the guy in Green Acres, are looking to escape urban congestion and enjoy a simpler life out in the sticks. Most aren’t expecting to make a commercial go of it and plant 500 acres of soybeans, but rather, they’re just interested in being a gentleman farmer, or boarding a few horses.

For those who want to make the transition from city to country, there are some special issues associated with buying rural real estate.

-Agricultural taxes: In an effort to preserve open space and promote agriculture, Maryland provides a considerable tax break on land that is used for agricultural purposes. This might include the production of crops, running a few horses, or keeping other animals, like cows, goats and pigs. Regardless, if the new owner of a property doesn’t continue using it for agricultural purposes (as defined by the state), a large tax might be due at settlement.

Whether the tax is paid by the seller or the buyer is a point of negotiation. But it’s something that you want to make sure is clearly spelled out in the contract, because changing even a small parcel from agricultural use to residential can result in a tax of well over $10,000. That’s not the kind of surprise you want to pop up at the settlement table.

To maintain the agricultural tax break, the state has very specific rules for qualifying. At www.dat.state.md.us/sdatweb/agtransf.pdf, there’s some excellent information that describes when an agricultural tax might be due, how much the tax would be and under what conditions the tax break can be continued.

-Conservation easements: In keeping with goals similar to those of the agricultural tax break, conservation easements are also commonly found in rural Maryland. A conservation easement is usually put in place to protect some natural aspect of the land. It might be a water feature, like a stream; but frequently, it’s used to protect our state from deforestation.

If you’re looking at an open area of pastureland, and you see a grove of trees, chances are those trees are part of a conservation easement. In a conservation easement, there are significant limitations on what you can do with that part of the property. You might own the land, but the state will determine how you can use it. Normally, you will be able to hike or ride your horse in these areas, but grading, building or cutting anything down will be prohibited.

In a real estate contract of sale, this issue is covered with a Conservation Easement Addendum. This addendum makes buyers aware of these easements and helps inform them about how the easement might affect their use and enjoyment of the land.

-Right to farm: Another addendum you could see in a contract for rural property (especially on the Eastern Shore) is something called the Right to Farm Addendum. This addendum notifies buyers that they are purchasing a place in the country, and certain things go on in the country that city dwellers might not be accustom to.

For example, it states, “You may be subject to inconveniences or discomforts arising from (farming) operations, including, but not limited to noise, odors, fumes, dust, flies, the operation of machinery of any kind during any 24-hour period (including aircraft), the use of irrigation, vibration, the storage and disposal of manure, and the application by spraying or otherwise of chemical fertilizers, soil amendments and pesticides.”

In other words, man-up, because you’re living in the country now, and if you can’t deal with the special fragrance of some freshly laid manure, then maybe you aren’t cut out for country livin’.

-Animals: One of the great things about making rural America your home is the ability to enjoy some of God’s creatures, other than man. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean you can haul off and start your own zoo, or try and squeeze 500 head of black-angus into the backyard of your 2-acre Davidsonville estate. There are still limitations on the type and amount of animals you can have.

In Anne Arundel County, zoning laws describe this in terms of “animal units” and “bird units.” For each 40,000 square feet of land, which is just under an acre, you can have one animal unit, or one bird unit, or some combination thereof.

One “animal unit” is equal to any one of the following: two horses or mules; two head of cattle; four ponies, burros or donkeys; 10 sheep or goats; eight pigs; eight llamas; or eight alpacas. One “bird unit” is limited to any one of these: 32 chickens; 16 ducks; eight turkeys; eight geese; two emus; or one ostrich.

So, if you’re eyeing a 6-acre spread, you’ve got a little over 6.5 animal or bird units to work with, meaning you could have 13 horses, or 208 chickens, or whatever combination of bird and animal units that floats your boat.

For more traditional animals, Anne Arundel allows seven dogs for every 40,000 square feet of land; 5,000 additional square feet are required for each additional dog. For cats, there’s a set limit of nine per household.

As you can see, there are some important considerations when it comes to buying a place in the country. These properties encompass special qualities that many people appreciate; however, it’s a unique lifestyle, and there are also certain limitations on the land to preserve it for generations to come. So, just look before you leap and who knows, you might decide farm livin’ is the life for you.

Bob and Donna McWilliams are practicing real estate agents in Maryland with more than 25 years of combined experience. Their email address is McWilliams@BobDonna.com.