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Dreams of vacation home might become your reality

For some unknown reason, I used to take some time leading up to Father’s Day to visit and explore places where kids might enjoy spending vacation time. I did this even before we had kids.

Perhaps the reason was that June was finally here and warmer days were right around the corner. More likely, it was the pursuit of a summer experience that my dad gave me and my siblings – wonderful, lazy days at a waterfront cabin for a week or two every year.

I thought about those explorations the other day when my sister and her husband were in town. She mentioned that I often write about second homes, but that there was no way she could ever afford one. She had seen some of the prices in her favorite getaway area and, despite the economy, still would not be able to swing it.

“If you did the research, bought it right and rented it out when you are not using it you might be surprised at what’s possible,” I said. “Besides, some sellers have to sell and are willing to carry the financing.”

I still believe most consumers underestimate the number of days they could rent out a property they enjoy. If you like it, chances are other people will, too. While the Internet has made the research easier to conduct, there’s still no substitute for personal visits and legwork.

For example, more than 30 years ago my wife and I were fascinated by the switchback trails and warm tidal waters of a small beach community. I began visiting various properties in the area during the morning hours before my shift at a newspaper. I contacted owners of the seemingly cheapest cabins and vacant lots to see if they would consider selling. I tracked down the beach plats at the county courthouse, copied the lot numbers and found the listed owners through tax records. We then wrote letters and got several “maybe” responses.

One local man asked that we contact his attorney about a vacant lot on the east side of a small beach community. It turned out the man had been involved in the original platting of the community and at one time had owned quite a bit of property in the region. He said he thought his beachfront lots had been sold long ago.

His attorney researched the man’s holdings and concluded that the man did, indeed, own the vacant lot and would part with it for an agreed-upon amount. We told the attorney we would buy the 50-by-250-foot property contingent upon the approval of all services.

It wasn’t waterfront, but it was a price we could afford on a parcel across the one street in the community. There were no problems with power or water. The only thing that stood between us and a buildable dream lot was an approved septic-system design and percolation test. The lot had the required square footage, but water from the side of the hill periodically made the ground soggy.

While doing property research at the courthouse, I met a registered sewage disposal designer who said the drain field design, percolation testing and required county paperwork would cost $195. I considered doing the job myself (a designer or engineer was not required), but felt our chances for approval would be better if a professional did the work.

In the end, a health inspector decided the dry area of the lot was too small to adequately accommodate the septic system and she denied us a sewage-disposal permit – an opinion upheld by the district supervisor.

We were stunned. Without a septic permit, we could not build our cabin. Alternative systems were not allowed by the community association. Adding to the sting was the fact that most of the cabins were on lots smaller than the minimum size required for septic approval. They were built when the laws were less stringent.

Should we try to buy the adjacent lot? Maybe with an additional lot we could pass the septic inspection. But the county said the adjacent lot had problems, too.

We decided to walk away from the beach lot. The experience was not worthless. We had found a lot, its owner, history, taxes, neighbors, market value and requirements for building. It did not work out, but at least we knew why it didn’t.

A year later, we found a small cabin on a mountain lake by the same method. We continue to share it with another family. The place has appreciated significantly and the family memories are priceless. Scores of people have asked to rent it out.

Before she left, my sister wondered if there would be any merit in visiting a bank-owned view property with beach access once listed for $399,000 and now on the market for $159,000.

“Why not see what’s possible?” I replied.

Tom Kelly is a former real estate editor for the Seattle Times. His book “Cashing In on a Second Home in Mexico: How to Buy, Rent and Profit from Property South of the Border” was written with Mitch Creekmore of Stewart International.