Fall Real Estate


It might feel like ancient history, but not long ago, you could drive just a short distance outside the heart of metropolitan Los Angeles -- to places like Riverside and the San Fernando Valley -- and find yourself among seemingly endless acres of citrus groves and dairy farmland.

Now, not only does the same drive take considerably longer, but the landscape is forever changed. The orange trees and Holstein cows are gone. In their place sprawls an urban grid of identical tract homes, each one painted a slightly different shade of beige and situated within spitting distance of its neighbors. It's enough to make anyone long for a different way of life, one that can only be had in wide-open spaces -- spaces like those of the American West.

Even today, the romantic Western lifestyle is there to be had, as the West still boasts plenty of open land, complete with working ranches, ranch estates and all the joys of outdoor life, from fly-fishing and mountain climbing to equestrian sports. But in 21st-century America, no resource is left untapped, and even the nation's iconic landscapes -- especially those in the Rocky Mountain region -- have been falling prey to subdivision and development. The statistics are eye-opening: According to the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the country's strategic agricultural resources, the U.S. loses two acres of farmland to "developed uses" every minute of every day.

"Farms and ranches provide wildlife habitat, they help protect watersheds, maintain air quality and provide scenic and recreational opportunities -- all lost when we begin pouring concrete and laying asphalt. It is a crisis, in other words, that is felt by all Americans," writes Courtney White in the new book "Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West."

But the damage is not yet irrevocable. The West is in transition in more ways than one, and some of the changes happening in the ranch real estate market are proving beneficial to both the land and the people who love it.

White, executive director and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico-based nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the concept of land health, explains that while subdivision is ongoing, today's "new rancher" is increasingly concerned with "how to live sustainably on these landscapes." And Quivira, White says, which grew out of the "grazing wars" of the 1990s, when "ranchers and environmentalists were at each other's throats" about who should be able to do what with the land, now finds itself helping ranchers understand how to best manage their properties in a responsible, sustainable way.

Marcus Wiley, a broker with Ranch Partners Real Estate, works mostly with buyers in Colorado and Wyoming (where, along with Montana, some of the most sought-after ranch real estate is located). He, too, finds that buyers in the ranch market are increasingly conservation-minded. "There's the occasional guy that may see that (a ranch) could eventually be sold off to 20 different buyers or 100 different homes or something," he says. "But for the most part, it's kind of the 80-20 rule. I would say 80% or more of these buyers are looking to preserve what a ranch has to offer. That's why they're attracted to this area, because of the open fields and the working ranches and the agriculture and the recreation, so they're trying to preserve it."

Preservation is a key aspect of ranch real estate, not only of nature and wildlife but of the ranch lifestyle -- a mythic part of the American experience -- because the traditional rancher is a dying breed. For the most part, ranching operations, whether based on crops or livestock or both, no longer pay for themselves, and third- and fourth-generation ranchers are aging and finding themselves "cash poor but land rich," Wiley says. With most of their children abandoning the family ranch for city life, these ranchers are cashing out of their land, and new ranchers, often high-net-worth individuals who might or might not have any knowledge of ranching, are moving in, sometimes hiring the original ranchers as ranch managers.

For the conscientious buyer in particular, ranch property can be a quality investment and a family legacy. It's both an emotional and historical purchase, as most ranches date back to the days of the Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, and the great Western migration that hinged on the gold and silver rushes of the mid-19th century.

"People accumulated land, families accumulated, cattle operations grew, your ranch grew, and you kept buying more and more. That's how these big ranches were put together," says Ranch Marketing Associates broker Billy Long, a third-generation rancher and former stuntman and actor who sold Steven Seagal's 25,000-acre ranch in Montana.

Now, says Ranch Partners' Wiley, ranch real estate is "transitional," meaning that "its highest and best use in the past may have been ranching hay and cattle, but now the highest and best use may be preserving the open space, getting conservation easements (by which a landowner essentially gives up development rights with regard to a certain portion of land, ensuring that it is preserved as open space, and receives a tax credit in return), improving the fishery, the hunting, and then putting nicer homes on it, so turning it into still a working ranch but more of a recreational ranch."

Even better, explains Harry Howard, founder and principal of Yellowstone Traditions, a Bozeman, Mont.-based custom builder with projects throughout the West, when ranchers who share that philosophy own contiguous properties: Acres and acres of wilderness end up protected, unspoiled and oftentimes improved.

"I call it a private revolution," he says, "because there are literally hundreds of thousands of acres annually being preserved in the West in a very healthy way that builds communities that actually improve the environment and provide lifestyles for a whole bunch of people."

But ranch buyers have much to consider, even though the majority purchase ranches as second homes and are, at most, seasonal residents. First, as with any real estate, there's the location. A property is especially desirable if it abuts public land, but the land's features are also important, such as the trees, the terrain, water and views. After all, buyers in this market are specifically looking for "scenic beauty," says broker Jim Nerlin, partial owner of Colorado's Telluride Real Estate Corp. "They're looking for natural beauty, natural surroundings and seclusion."

RMA's Long describes the "perfect recreational lifestyle ranch" as encompassing a "river bottom, hay meadow and then mountainous terrain. If it's a perfect ranch, it'll be on a river, it will have hay meadows and irrigated land, and then it would rise up into timbered or mountainous property and back up to national forest or public land."

However, a perfect ranch also needs to be "private yet close to civilization," he adds, joking that no matter what clients say, they can't be "more than 25 minutes to cappuccino, (meaning) restaurants, culture."

That makes ranches close to resort towns such as Aspen and Jackson Hole particularly attractive -- and expensive. Ranches are mostly priced on a per-acre basis, Wiley explains, and a "typical large working recreational ranch is going to be in the $5,000-$10,000-an-acre range," but there are ranches to be had at many different levels, starting from $1,000 an acre and going as high as $80,000 an acre in the Jackson Hole area.

Once a buyer settles on a location, however, upkeep and management must also be taken into account. Ranch buyers might never have thought about the business aspect of a working ranch, but it's an important factor, as taxes on agricultural land can be significantly lower than taxes on residential land. What's more, working ranches are a functioning part of the local community.

Matt Johnston, director of ranch and resource management and a broker associate at RMA, is a fourth-generation Wyoming rancher and the founder of Ranch Resources, a ranch management and consulting company. Even if a buyer hires a manager, it's wise to understand that running a ranch involves a host of concerns, he explains, from learning ranch "vocabulary" to understanding crops, livestock and how a property's business is handled. "I just call it Ranching 101," he says.

But assuming that a buyer understands the land they're purchasing, whether it's a working ranch or a secluded ranch estate, there's real pleasure to be had indoors, in the ranch home itself. While some new ranch owners build from scratch, many purchase ranches with numerous structures that are often quite old; in those situations, there's an opportunity for renovation with an eye toward the history of the property and the region.

Says Yellowstone Traditions' Howard: "Many of these people buy large properties that have existing buildings, infrastructure, barns, and we will re-create that. We will re-create a brand-new environment for them using the historic components that are on the ranch, but often we will take down a lot of structures and reuse the materials or renovate in place and then build from scratch to complement what was there."

With ranch properties, as with any other property, Howard explains, just about anything can be done. The real question is what should be done. "We try to take materials that are very local," he says, "and build a house that is extremely well-insulated, thoughtful to its environment and timeless in nature, so you give essentially two generations something that they won't have to really mess around with."

That means building or renovating a home that tucks into the landscape, working with its surroundings rather than against them -- a concept that most of Howard's clients come to appreciate, even if they began a project hoping for "a centerfold piece up on top of a hill with a big view." And that doesn't mean that a thoughtfully built ranch estate can't still have all the creature comforts; it can, from gourmet kitchens to the latest in energy-efficient technology. But in many ways, a ranch estate can be a way for buyers to experience a different, more natural kind of luxury.

"When (clients) walk into one of our places, it just smells of oil and leather and wax," Howard says. "It doesn't smell of synthetics. It's not full of carpet, full of Sheetrock, full of paint and formaldehyde. It's just rich."

The appeal of ranch living, after all, is the richness of being in harmony with nature. It's not about re-creating city life in the country.

Howard finds that after his clients spend some time living where the air and water and soil are pure, and the mind and body can wander, they are permanently altered.

"I watch the shift in all of my clients, because they often come in not just Type A, but Type Double-A," he says. "And after a couple of years of living there, and then eventually a decade of living there, and then sometimes 20 years of living there, they become deeply changed and much quieter people.

"Not that they weren't loving, not that they're not still smart," he continues. "It's just I find that the nature has a tendency to work on them in a very good way."