A couple of months ago, I started looking around for land to serve as a remote observatory site. I’m excited to say that today, we’ve closed on a piece of land where we’ll build Face of the Deep Observatory! Here’s how it all went down.
Where to Begin?
Before I started looking at anything, I wrote down some criteria for potential build sites (you can read more about that here). One important aspect of this build site for me was that it had to be within 2 hours of home. Knowing that finding a dark site might involve some rough roads, this could be anywhere from 60 to 150 miles away. Thankfully, there’s a nice online tool called the TravelTime Platform that lets you create travel time maps. This took a lot of the guesswork out of deciding where to look. At this point, I hopped on Zillow and started looking in areas within reach of my TravelTime Map.
I found what initially looked like a great spot. It was a triangular chunk of land, about 10 acres in size, not far from a paved highway and bordered on two sides by BLM land. It didn’t have a parcel number or a boundary map, so I couldn’t be sure exactly where it was. I clicked the button to contact a realtor. Within an hour, I received a phone call from a realtor, and thought “Great, this will be simple!” This is where I hit my first major snag.
Snag #1: No One Seems to Know Where Their Own Land Is!
At this point, the realtor asked me for the listing number of the land I was interested in, punched it in his system, and sent me a screen shot of a map from the County Assessor’s office showing where it was. The problem was, it was over 30 miles away from where Zillow showed it would be. That threw me for a loop.
The realtor explained to me that in many cases, land in this area gets bought up by investors, sight-unseen, only to be held onto for a few years before they sell it again without ever having visited it. This was one of those properties. He also kindly explained to me that it was nowhere near the highway and that vehicle access would be difficult if not impossible; a quick look at Google Maps confirmed what he was saying. So lesson number one was learned quickly and relatively painlessly. Before looking at vacant land, first confirm its location with your County Assessor’s office.
The realtor helped me find a few new listings in my area of interest and I made a plan to spend the following Monday looking around. Monday came and went, and after having visited a few different properties, some recommended by my realtor and others nearby, I again found what I thought was the perfect spot. It was about 10 acres, 1h 45m from home, located on a hillside facing to the south (perfect for summer Milky Way observing). It backed up to BLM land, too, which was a nice bonus. However, it wasn’t one of the properties recommended by my realtor. This is when I ran into major snag number 2.
Snag #2: Some Sellers Just Aren’t Interested In Selling.
I’m telling you, this property was nearly perfect. Ten acres of nice big trees, lots of clear flat areas, and a great view to the south. It had a pretty rough road coming into it but I didn’t care (I’m persistent to a fault; you kinda have to be if your into this sorta thing). I called my realtor and asked him about it, and he said it was being sold by a little mom-and-pop realty agency nearby. He tried to get a hold of them but couldn’t. Being the persistent person I am, I called this other agency for three days until they finally picked up.
I told the seller’s realtor I was very interested in the property and would pay full price in cash. She told me there was one hiccup. Another buyer had put a nominal amount of earnest money down last fall (6 months ago at the time of the phone call). The agreement they had with the seller was that they would buy only if they could inspect the property first, which is totally reasonable. What was unreasonable was the amount of time they had tied up the seller over it.
Normally, these kinds of agreements last 30 days, at which point the deal is null and void and the earnest money is returned to the buyer or retained by the seller, depending on the terms. She had also said that the other buyer had consistently made the excuse that bad weather had kept them out and that the seller just wanted to get rid of it. After a week of trips out, I had been to the area several times with no problems. I asked this realtor how much time was left on the agreement and this is where things got weird. She couldn’t give me a straight answer. We went back and forth on this for about a week, at which point I felt like I was just getting the runaround. So I decided to bypass the realtor and go straight to the source.
I looked up the address of the owner of the property on the Assessor’s office’s website and wrote him a letter. I offered 5% over the asking price if he would go with my offer instead. Two weeks later, I received my letter back with a “Return to Sender” notice from the post office. Then, a weird thing happened; another plot two parcels over went up for sale that week (different seller)! I planned to drive out there once more and make an offer as soon as I could see it to make sure it would work well for my plans. Major snag #3 came shortly thereafter.
Snag #3: The Perfect Spot May Be Surrounded By Some REALLY Bad Ones.
I made yet ANOTHER trip out to take a look at this new piece of land literally hundreds of feet away from the one I really wanted. I had my realtor draw up an offer right then so we could present it to this new seller as soon as I had a chance to look at this new spot, thinking it might be just like that other one. Everything on paper looked great; similar price, same acreage, same hillside. As soon as we got there, we knew it wouldn’t work out.
It was 10 acres of heavily-forested ravine. The only flat area was a tiny bit of space on a ridge line that might have worked except the ridge line was shared with an adjoining property. Complicating matters was that this key property border stated by the Assessor’s office could have been mis-located by as much as 10 meters. If a survey revealed that the border was 10 meters to the East of the stated location, we’d own the entire top of the ridge line and everything would work out. If it were 10 meters to the West, we’d have zero flat space to build anything on and it would be a complete waste of space for us.
We asked the seller if they’d be willing to have a survey done. They flatly refused, so we backed out. Two months later, at the time of this writing, that piece of land is still on the market, as is the one we wanted to buy but couldn’t because of the disinterested seller. I suspect they will both remain unsold for quite some time.
Stick to Your Guns
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t discouraged. I’d spent almost two months searching the web, driving hours upon hours to look around, only to have my most promising options fall flat. For awhile, I thought perhaps I was being too picky and I should relax my criteria a little, but my wife convinced me not to budge and keep trying, so keep trying I did. I talked more with my realtor and made a huge list of properties to go see in one marathon trip.
I spent almost 12 hours that day visiting properties on my list, and it came down to two. Both had incredible views to the south, but one was 2h 20m away and the other was right at the two-hour mark. The closer property, while slightly more expensive, was double the size at 20 acres and had much better road access, in addition to being closer to town. It had large, mature Ponderosa and Pinon trees throughout with a five-acre meadow on the southern end opening southward from the tree line with views stretching to the horizon. It had far more flat space than even the first “perfect” spot I mentioned above and, according to the light pollution map, would be even darker at night. The short story is, we made an offer three weeks ago, the seller accepted, and we got it for not much more than any of the other properties mentioned here. It’s by far the best deal out of all of them, and I’m not sure we could do any better if we tried.
We’ve already spent our first night there; here are some photos from the trip. I hope they are the first of many, many more to come in the near future.
As for building plans, I’m not certain what will happen first. I think I’m set on the idea of a rectangular structure with a retractable A-frame roof, square telescope room with a couple of piers, and a smaller control room to one side, but it may be some time before any real building starts, perhaps not until next year. In the meantime, we want to make the area well-suited to camping with a couple of sand boxes for tents and a gravel driveway/trailer pad. A big fire pit for my family plus guests is a must, which I plan to make out of sand stone sourced nearby. At this point, I’m just happy to have a place we can visit and start dreaming about 🙂
If you could build anything as part of an observatory retreat, what would you build? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe!