Big life events have a way of causing me to spend money, though probably not in the way you'd guess.
In my teenage and college years, I was obsessed with bass fishing. I couldn't, of course, afford a bass boat. It wasn't until a few weeks before my wedding day that a friend emailed me saying his buddy was selling his bass boat. The condition was excellent and the price wasn't horrible, so I went to the bank.
Perhaps it was due to the jitters of impending marriage and the reality that being a husband might cut down on my chances to buy a boat. I don't know. What I do know is that I got my bass boat right before I got my bride.
My desire to own a sweet fishing rig paled greatly in comparison to my desire to own hunting land. But to be brutally honest, the latter was a dream I doubted would ever materialize, so I didn't think about it a whole lot.
Then, a good buddy bought some property in north-central Wisconsin. It was part fields, part high woods and largely swamp.
The place looked terrible for deer, but Ben had a plan. He spent weekends planting trees, cutting brush and simply taking small bites out of the seemingly insurmountable workload.
Such process comes naturally with taking marginal land and making it more deer-friendly. I helped Ben several times, as I felt the work was simply a good excuse to get into the woods.
It was, but it was also more than that. Ben, along with his dad and brother, started to kill a few deer there. Then his dad shot a beauty of a swamp buck, and Ben's decision to buy cheap deer ground didn't seem so foolish.
As I helped him with some of the work, Ben let me start bowhunting his place. It didn't take too many deer for me to realize I wanted my own land. But I still felt it was financially impossible.
It was during this time that my wife informed me we were going to have to start budgeting for a crib, onesies and other assorted baby necessities. That set the clock to ticking. Even more so, while I was mule deer hunting later that year, she informed me that we'd need not just one crib, but two.
Panic set in, and I realized that if I were going to buy land, it would need to happen within about five months. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't be able to do it for years.
The problem was, I couldn't find cheap land I liked. One property, a 28-acre parcel not far from Ben's land, caught my eye. It was listed for $35,000, which was too high for that part of Wisconsin. I didn't drive over to look at it. It turns out that the seller was a college kid from North Carolina who'd inherited the piece.
At some point, though, his tuition must have got the best of him, because the listing dropped all the way down to $15,000. When that happened, I dropped everything and drove 2 1/2 hours to look at it.
Half of the property was low swamp; the other was high woods, but not ideal high woods. Maybe one-quarter of it looked like decent deer ground. It was also shaped like a lightning bolt: long and skinny and odd. But the price was right.
So I called my father to see if he wanted to split the land, and he agreed. We made an offer and ended up getting it for well under $500 per acre. I never even got to hunt it once before my wife's water broke.
Since that moment, I've bought another property in Minnesota (splitting the cost with a good friend) and a second Wisconsin piece on my own. Getting over the fear of extra debt and realizing that nearly all ground has some deer potential helps a lot. It all starts with the amount of work you're willing to do.
When we see habitat improvement on outdoor television shows or in magazines, it most often involves heavy equipment and serious investment. Both are out of my reach. For me, it's all been about lugging in gear by hand and doing the work the old-fashioned way.
It's not easy, but it is cheap. And it works in aggregate. Eventually, all of the random days cutting junk trees, planting more desirable ones and carving out food plots starts to pay off. It's a slow process, but not that slow when you take stock in how quickly your life is moving.
Before you can start this process of sweat-equity improvements, you need to realize which kind of land is realistic for you. I'm of the opinion that this is where most of us go wrong. We all want the dream deer property. They do exist, but they carry price tags that are beyond most of us.
This might be the case for lower-quality properties as well, depending on where you live. I live in a suburb of the Twin Cities, so I know that issue well. That's why two of my properties are in northern Wisconsin. That's not too far to drive for a weekend, but it is far enough away from the major metropolitan areas to sell for prices I can afford.
This is why it's critical to figure out your price before deciding to look for land you want. The range I'm comfortable with dictates what I'll shop for. It's that simple.
Too many of us decide we want deer land that's either financially unattainable or just doesn't exist. By that, I mean we all want beautiful deciduous trees, rolling hills, maybe a pond here or there.
Essentially, we have visions of a perfect-looking deer property. The problem with ground like that is, it's never priced for the average working man. Land like this sells to the big dogs. At the very least, guys whose rich and generous uncles kick the bucket and leave behind sizable chunks of dough.
I think an awful lot of us look for land like this so we have an excuse not to find anything we might make an offer on. It's kind of like telling yourself not to hunt because it's windy.
It's like convincing yourself the deer won't move, as opposed to suiting up, hitting the woods and realizing that the deer are moving just fine. We want an excuse to not take the plunge, and, more often than not, we'll find it.
While I dream of champagne properties, my pocketbook is more suited to domestic-beer ground. That means I look for ugly woods. Thick, nasty cover is ideal — and if you can toss in some wet, low ground, that's even better.
At least in my area, there are more properties like this for sale than ideal pieces, simply because fewer people want to own swampy thickets. This means there are more options for a budget shopper like myself.
It also means a lot of whitetail hunters won't consider these properties because they look terrible. In fact, my buddy's dad checked out the first property I bought before I got there, and his words to me were, "You'd be nuts to buy this place. It's terrible."
It certainly wasn't ideal; I'll give him that. But a lot of deer use the property, and it was really cheap.
I now have a couple little kill plots in there, and it took me all of one day of bowhunting last season to fill my tag. Better yet, I can see what it's turning into after five years of working on it. It will never be dream ground, but I can say confidently that it's better than not owning hunting land.
On that property, and the other two I've bought, about half is low ground. There isn't a lot you can do with a swamp, and that isn't appealing to very many people. I'd take high ground over low as well, but one thing I've learned is that the bucks on my properties have wet feet.
Those swamps and wetlands function as pretty solid sanctuaries for all of the deer, which is the best reason to own them, in my opinion.
So if you have the itch, forget what you know about quality deer habitat and shop for something you can afford. If you're willing to work on the land enough, it'll turn into something you truly enjoy hunting.
Even with excellent credit and a decent down payment, you might find it's not all that easy to get a loan for recreational land. I know it was tough for me. Banks don't understand hunting land, and they don't seem overly excited about loaning money to people who want to buy it.
Perhaps your experience will be different, but it's best to know there are some options. Splitting a property with a buddy or a relative is one, but this is a situation that should be carefully considered. I've split two, and both experiences have been just fine — but I also know people who've had it go the other way.
Draw up a contract beforehand and lay out exactly how the entire process will go and what will happen if one party wants to sell at some point.
Personal loans are another option if you're not asking for too much money, but the interest rates can be pretty high on those. For my last property, while chatting with my banker (who happens to have a son who loves to bowhunt) we decided to get creative.
I'd nearly paid off a 3-year-old pickup truck at the time, so she suggested we do an auto refinance. The result was that I got a 4-year land loan for an interest rate of 1.99 percent.
There are ways to make the financing work if you're willing to get creative, but the best bet is to start saving up. Banks are much more willing to take a risk on you if you can put some serious skin into the game right away. That can seem daunting, but if you're only interested in a small parcel, it might not be that bad.
And while going into debt over anything stinks, it's somewhat different with hunting land. After all, recreational land holds its value really well. And if need be, you can always put it up for sale.
It seems like a far-fetched reality, but it doesn't have to be. Land ownership comes in many forms. For the hunter looking for a little piece of deer paradise, that might require some sweat equity, but it's entirely possible.
Just remember to shop for what you can afford and see the ground for what you can make of it, not what it currently is. That vision is the key to taking the plunge. And once you do, you won't regret it.