By Steve Phillips
“No investment on earth is so safe, so sure, so certain to enrich its owners as undeveloped realty…There is no such savings bank anywhere.”
Grover Cleveland – American president
SANCTUARY the word conjures up an array of meanings: For some, it means safety; for others, serenity, perhaps peace of mind; for buyers of real estate, it means all of the above, and also insurance. Russell Sage, the legendary American financier and politician, once said, “Real estate is an imperishable asset, ever increasing in value. It is the most solid security that human ingenuity has devised. It is the basis of all security and about the only indestructible security.” Lately, it’s in high demand.
After years mired in the quicksand of the economic downturn, a fickle stock market and worldwide political unrest, upscale buyers everywhere are looking for land, lots of land. They long for large, developable tracts that offer space for building their ranch retreat, with plenty of room left over for extended family and friends, perhaps a few hundred acres of agricultural ground, maybe even a low density development that won’t interfere with their own slice of quiet, their own personal sanctuary.
Buyers’ primary motivations haven’t changed much over the years. First and foremost, land is finite, limited quantities are available. It requires little or no effort to maintain and steady appreciation is almost assured. Statistics show that, between 1992 and 2012, the financial return on raw land was roughly three times that of single-family homes. Aside from the profit motive, potential tax advantages and obvious estate planning options provided by open land, buyers are seeing other, less tangible benefits.
It’s an emerging trend that harkens back to earlier times in the west. John Jacob Astor, the first multi-millionaire in the United States, counseled almost 200 years ago: “Buy on the fringe and wait. Buy land near a growing city! Buy real estate when other people want to sell. Hold what you buy!” Fortunately, opportunities abound in the Park City area for buyers looking to escape the urban sprawl, from five acres to 5,000.
Patrick Bates, president of Bates Land Consortium, has served this sector of the market for over 40 years. He sees his job as bringing people together. “Two things I love about what I’m doing: first, I’m helping sellers solve problems, plan their estates or get liquid, all of that comes into play; and second, I’m helping wonderful buyers acquire properties for all the right reasons. I’m passionate about my work and I never intend to fully retire.”
According to Bates, only about 17 percent of the state of Utah is deeded land, property that can be bought or sold. The rest is owned by the federal or state government. “So here in Utah, you have a built-in supply-and-demand situation,” he says.
Bates says many of his buyers have long harbored the dream of owning their own Shangri-La. “Some of the people I represent have been thinking about this for 15, 20, 30 years. People still buy large ranches, farms and open land for the same basic reasons: agricultural production; investment safety and appreciation; conservation of natural resources; or simply personal happiness at having a large, beautiful tract of land all to themselves.” Bates points to several properties on the market now that fit the bill. “The Goose Springs and Hell Canyon ranches, as well as the Lake Creek Retreat are all fantastic properties,” all close to Park City. He points to one ranch in particular. “The Big Piney Mountain Ranch is an absolute gem, a rare opportunity.” Roughly 12 miles square, and only 15 miles from historic Main Street in Park City, the ranch is a sanctuary not only for humans, but also for a myriad of wildlife. Elk, mule deer and moose roam the expansive meadows and find shelter in many stands of trees. It’s a nature lover’s dream.
Mountain West Ranches, headquartered in Fruitland, Utah, has been buying, developing and selling recreational properties since 1990. Family-owned and run, Mountain West deals exclusively in small ranch properties in Duchesne County, just over an hour’s drive east of Park City. The area features some of the best fishing and hunting in the state and an endless trail system for four-wheeling, snowmobiling, cycling or cross- county skiing. Most of their offerings are small ranches or undeveloped land from five to 20 acres.
The firm is unique in the marketplace. “We own every property we sell and we offer in-house owner financing,” says Brantley Grant, Mountain West’s marketing director and an agent. “That really makes our properties affordable on nearly any budget.”
Grant says market activity has been very good this year. “We’re currently selling more property than during the peak of the economy back in 2007. Prices are going up a bit, but properties are still selling very quickly.”
Grant, whose father founded the firm, takes great pride in his work. The best part, he says, is providing families a place they have dreamed about, but haven’t been able to afford. “People are always shocked at how easy we make everything.”
Paul Benson, with Sotheby’s International Realty in Park City, says he’s seen a change among high dollar buyers recently. “I feel a market shift. These buyers are more interested in large land parcels than ever before. They feel very uneasy, not only about the economy, but also world politics. They’re not necessarily running the numbers as before. They’re looking for large tracts of land they believe will become more desirable in the future. Flexibility is important to them. We’re seeing people looking for land where they can build a housing development or use as a private club ranch.”
Benson says his market is heating up. “There are some special parcels out there and they’re easier to sell than individual homes in this market.” Like Bates, he acknowledges the personal satisfaction he gets from his work. “I was fortunate to have a large land sale last year,” he recounts. “The family that purchased this property near Oakley has homes all over the world.
Their goal here was to have a place where everyone could come together as a family, a place where they could get back to the land, to fish, hike, and hunt and snowmobile together. I spent some time with them recently and I think it’s actually brought the family closer together. They’ve turned this property into their favorite place. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
Private land conservancy groups in Utah, like Utah Open Lands and Summit Land Conservancy have taken note of the trend toward buying large tracts as well. Many of the private buyers in the market are also interested in preserving open space. On a local level, they’re the “Ted Turners” of Utah open space. “We’re always looking for white knights to buy and preserve lands for their conservation value,” says Cheryl Fox, executive director of Summit Land Conservancy. “The land they protect is forever. Conservation buyers can be real local heroes.”
Patrick Bates agrees. “One reason to do it is favorable tax breaks. It’s all private money and I applaud that.”
In the final analysis, there is virtually no downside to owning land. Ultimately, it’s the best way to create a “place” for oneself in the world, literally a way to feel grounded. Fortunately for all of us, Utah offers many such places.