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Building Your Dream Farm

Oh, if we could all have unlimited budgets and build exactly what we want! Even people who already own existing farms, whether for 2 horses or 200, still envision how they would have built it themselves. They know what they would have done differently, especially to make the facility more user-friendly and less time consuming to manage. And we all want the farm to be safe and best for the horses that live there.

There is no denying that the biggest factors in building your own property are MONEY coupled with TIME — one depends on the other. The more money you have, the less that time is generally a factor. The more time you have, the less money may be a factor. Here is a brief outline of the process you would go through to build from the ground up.

Horse Farm
Some Serious Paddock Space
The Site
Building your own farm first begins with finding good, usable land. No matter what "dream buildings" you put up, the land will never change. Don't make the major mistake of purchasing and paying taxes on land you can't use, such as wetlands or easements you can't build upon — this mistake really does happen. Look for land that abuts public land that may be usable for trail riding. Some power companies may even let you put up portable electric fencing for additional paddock space on their powerline right-of-way. Abutting public land also minimizes potential problems from neighbors who complain about farm smells and activities.

Know the zoning regulations affecting the land before even bothering to go see it. The real estate picture may show you 20 open acres of fields, but the zoning could prevent you from building as you wish, with zoning restrictions running from "Agricultural Preservation Restrictions" (APR) land to residential. Most cities and towns have a Website where you can download the zoning regulations at no cost. Then, you call the town clerk, give them the address, and they'll tell you the zoning for that property. Each town has its own zoning regulations and permitting process and you need to perform research to understand what they are before you buy land there. You'll also find some towns more "horse-friendly" than others. Definitely consider budgeting money for a lawyer during the permitting process because it can really save time in the end. It all depends on how high the hoops are that the town may wish to make you jump through.

Other Considerations
Building your own farm also means waiting until construction is finished before being able to generate revenue. Consider how your current cash flow will be affected by paying a loan on land and progress payments on a barn while waiting for it to be completed before it can generate income. If you have enough cash to buy the land outright without a loan, you're a big step ahead because you can secure the land and allow yourself some time to find the right builder. With the land already acquired, your timeline for getting a return on your investment is tied to when you break ground.

No matter how expensive real estate may seem in your area, buying is definitely safer (financially) and cheaper than building. In a nutshell, existing buildings don't cost as much to purchase as building new ones. Ironically, buildings depreciate even as real estate markets appreciate. Land that costs $100,000 to buy and a barn that costs $100,000 to build would just as easily sell for 10-25% less than the cost to construct it new. The downside is that you're limited to what is available on the market and may still need to make leasehold improvements or changes to the property you buy to suit your needs.

Aside from using prefabricated structures, current figures show that it costs approximately $15K per stall to build a good, solid barn and that doesn't include clearing land, putting up fencing, and other added amenities that potential boarders would expect, such as, an outdoor riding arena. Knowing your real start-up costs and writing a thorough business plan will help you a lot as you search for a builder.

Gather as many estimates as you can. Try to find a builder with prior experience building horse barns and who will work with you on adding and cutting costs for materials where it's most cost-effective to do so. Likely, this is going to be a fairly large project, so expect that the estimates you'll receive will be a few pages long. If you receive a one page estimate that states, "Build 10 stall barn with loft - $100,000", it's a clear sign the builder doesn't take his job seriously, or worse, doesn't have the necessary experience in the field, and won't take the time to listen to you as the project progresses. A builder with high integrity won't hesitate to outline as many details as possible in his estimate because it protects both you and him, and also keeps communication clear as to expectations for the job. Making changes as you progress is inevitable and a builder should be flexible and accommodating.

Do request a list of references and check them thoroughly, either by visiting the site if possible and talking to the former clients, or at the very least, talking with them over the telephone. Also, check with your state's attorney general's office to see if there has ever been a major complaint against this builder.

It's customary for builders to receive a down payment to cover the initial expenses of buying materials, but that payment should be reasonable. It should not exceed 40-50% of the total cost of the project and typically can be as little as 10-30%. Remember, you're the customer and have the money; the builder needs to earn his pay. Once materials are paid for, the payment plan should run in conjunction with the builder's progress on the job site. It's also customary to hold about 10-20% until the project is totally completed. You can also include a clause in your contract that the project will be completed by a certain date or else there will be financial penalties on behalf of the builder. That 10-20% is the buffer that you can negotiate against if the project is not completed on time. You cannot start earning money on your farm until you fill stalls, so a completion date in the building contract is typical and a must. Further, the contract should also say, "Time is of the essence" if you really need a firm completion date. You can negotiate for an "early completion bonus" as an incentive to the builder on time performance. Be wary if the issue of timing is not addressed in the contract offered to you by a builder you're considering.

It's going to take at least several months to complete your dream farm depending on how big it is. Use your time wisely and don't just sit around waiting for it to be built. Get your boarding agreements and waivers of liability together and reviewed by a lawyer. Your insurance company may not insure your barn without these important documents, and the time to find out that the waiver you got off the Internet is not appropriate for your state IS NOT after your first rider has fallen off. Gather data on area vendors and be ready to place that first big hay order as soon as your loft is complete. Start advertising stalls available to get the word out. A serious customer will put down a conditional deposit before the stall is even built. Here is another reason to have a completion date with your builder so you can communicate clearly to your customers when they can move their horses to your new barn. You don't want to be forced to forfeit deposits because of failure to provide the stall when agreed.

If you're handy with tools, you might be able to work fencing installation while the barn is being built. Why wait until the barn is done to do this, or to trench frost-free hydrants to your fields? There are many tools and machines available to rent locally that you can easily learn to use yourself. Also, there are many finishing items you'll need in your barn that the builder won't provide, such as saddle and bridle racks for your tack room and blanket hangers by your stalls. You'll need hay forks, wheelbarrows, brooms, etc. Try attending auctions for great deals on these items and stash them away until you can use them later.

The time will actually pass by quicker than you think. It will be harder to get supplies and make phone calls once you have several horses to care for as boarders start arriving. Use the "downtime" during construction to tackle all of these small tasks that might get pushed aside later when you're too busy to address them. You don't want your first few boarders to arrive with expectations that are not met and then leave and tell their friends that your farm is not "up to speed". Your first boarder needs to come in feeling like your 1,000th boarder will 20 years later. It's stressful for a boarder to move his/her horse — a flawless transition will pay off in many ways, including how many of that boarder's friends get told about your wonderful new farm!

After you've settled into the new building, remember that most states have a "statute of repose" that requires the flaws of new construction to be addressed by the new owners earlier rather than later. So, don't hesitate to let your builder know in writing when a problem occurs as soon as possible. Snooze on this issue, and you'll lose the right to proceed legally on this matter in the future.

Good luck!

Jennifer Goddard has been training horses of various breeds for over 20 years using her natural horsemanship methods. She has also ridden and shown in multiple disciplines and is owner of Levaland Farm, a 30 stall horse farm in Massachusetts. Jennifer has a degree in Finance and Entrepreneurial Studies from Babson College, and is also President of Equine Business Solutions, a business specializing in the starting and running of equine businesses.

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