Is a Rural Retirement Right for You?

Why some retirees skip the golf course and buy land in the country.

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Curtis Seltzer, a rural land investor and author of How to Be a Dirt-Smart Buyer of Country Property, says rural buying should start at the ground up, literally, with a focus on dirt. "Most buyers from the city and suburbs, including me, focus first and almost exclusively on the country house, whether existing or planned," writes Seltzer. "This comes at the expense of paying attention to the dirt on which the house stands and which surrounds it. We do this, I think, because all of us have a passing familiarity with houses. So we evaluate country property in terms of what we know rather than what we don't."

[See 10 Places to Buy a Retirement Home for Under $100,000.]

Seltzer offers these tips:

• Look first at how the land lays—its topography. Which direction do its slopes face? How steep are they? If the land is flat, will it drain quickly or hold water because the subsurface contains a lot of clay? The surface vegetation and the feel of the dirt in your hands will give you an initial reading. Topographically interesting land is usually more interesting to spend time on, but it's also more expensive to work with and much harder to work against.

• Second, look at your soils. Different soils have different characteristics and capabilities which will determine what you can do with your property at a reasonable cost. Your first stop in scoping property is to pick up a copy of the county's Soil Survey at the local U.S. Department of Agriculture office. County-level aerial maps and soil-survey information are available for some states and counties, and can be found at soils.usda.gov/survey.

• Third, look at the location of your dirt. Will it be hard to get to in bad weather? Is it subject to flooding, earthquakes, mudslides, windstorms, fires, and prevailing weather? If you have shoreline, is the land low (bad) or high (good)? Is the shoreline eroding? Is the land facing in the right compass direction for your plans?

• Finally, look at your dirt in terms of proximity to local goods and bads—hospital, fire station, public water and sewerage, rescue squad, floodplain, job opportunities, and distance from your current residence, post office, bank, supermarket, and objectionable facilities—however you care to define them.

Trending now. United Country's Duffy says rural destinations in the Mid-Atlantic are drawing rising interest for their temperate climate, mix of mountains and shoreline, and reasonable distance to centers such as Washington, D.C. This way, retirees may maintain consulting positions and ease into their retirement. One micro-trend is what he terms the "half-backers." It's a population that spent their working years in the Northeast, then retired to Florida, but are now finding unattractive pricing (or lack of housing or elbow room there) and are moving halfway back to the Northeast.

Duffy says "small" ranches of a few hundred acres in Texas are popular searches on his firm's website. He also notes increasing migration from California to the "unspoiled" and less-expensive mountain retreats of Colorado, Montana, and Idaho.