Farmland Prices: The Cost of Growing A Suburb

subdivision construction, Minnesota iStock_000000167877XSmall.jpg

Summer in Minnesota – land of 10,000 lakes — is, for many families, about boating, with the Harley the preferred mode of ground transportation. In winter, snow mobiles are popular. Hunting and fishing replace the corner coffee shops as hangouts. Three car garages are considered a minimum – four even better!

So how did it come to pass that out-of-control land prices would destroy the economics of housing in this small-town region? And why was the pattern repeated in markets like Las Vegas and Phoenix?

In the 1980’s the Metropolitan Council in Minneapolis became concerned with sprawl. The MET Council thought Portland, Oregon’s policies to control sprawl by creating an Urban Boundary would be beneficial to the Twin City area, a seven county region. This area is topographically simple: no ocean boundary, and, unlike Portland's region, no mountain ranges. The MET Council did not anticipate that their attempt to control growth would end up contributing to it.

Farmers who owned land with sewer capacity outside the boundary knew that its value had just skyrocketed. When a supply — land — is limited, those that control it can name their own price. Within the boundary land was too expensive to develop affordable housing. So cities outside the MET Council's control began to attract developers. Places that nobody had heard of much: Otsego, Albertville, Elk River, and Hugo are all a very long drive from the Twin City core. These towns had two important components for builders: city sewer and cheap land.

As the tiny towns outside the Urban Boundary attracted more development, they also attracted the national developers. All of the nation’s Top Ten Home Builders discovered this region. Each year 25,000 or so new homes were built and quickly sold to suburbanites who preferred a 30 to 40 mile commute over living near the city core. (Keep in mind that Minneapolis / St Paul has one of the nicest core areas of a major US city. Even downtrodden sections look pretty nice. And Minneapolis stays alive in the evenings and becomes a social Mecca that is also relatively safe.)

Much of the escalation in home pricing was due to a bidding war over developable farmland. National builders, using their Wall Street dollars, competed for desirable acreage. If Farmer Fred was able to sell his property for $50,000 an acre, when Roy next door put his farm up, the starting price was $50,000 and the final fee was likely to be $60,000, the starting point of the next site for sale. By 2005 the outer small town land that could have been bought for $12,000 an acre a decade earlier was worth more than 10 times that amount.

In the past, builders would look at the price of a finished lot, and assume that the house they built on it would cost a maximum of four times the finished lot price; a sort of "one-quarter" rule for land costs. If the lot cost $30,000, they would not build a home that ultimately cost more than $120,000.

By 2005, if outer suburban land sold for $150,000 an acre and the density (after required park areas, wetlands, buffers, and shoreline zones) was two homes per acre, that meant that $75,000 of a new suburban home was in raw land costs. Add to that $25,000 in construction of roads, utilities, fees, etc, and the lot price skyrocketed to $100,000. Using the one-quarter rule, this meant the builder would need to get $400,000 for the finished home.

At the 2006 Land Development Today Breakthroughs conference I spoke about our research into the impending market crash and its basis. The market had just begun to show signs of slowdown, and nobody was predicting a big fall.

Our “study” was based on a comparison of our local housing market in the Minneapolis region with markets where we were working in about 40 States. It involved a simple search of major builders in the top markets. We looked at areas where land prices were escalating much faster than inflation in order to see the common elements. The National Association of Home Builders average national price for a 2,400 square foot average home was $264,000. It should be no surprise that impromptu results indicated the average price of a 2,400 square foot home in Phoenix was $331,000 (20% above average), in Las Vegas $442,000 (40% high), and in the Minneapolis suburbs $349,000 (25% high).

Weather was not one of the common elements. But all three areas — Las Vegas, Phoenix, and the Twin Cities — had explosive growth for two decades until 2007 (2006 for the Twin Cities), and all three had most, if not all, of the nation’s Top Ten Home Builders selling and building.

In March of 2005 one of my clients made me an offer. If I convinced a certain farmer to sell, I would receive not just the planning fees, but also 5% of the profits. The land in question was about an hour’s drive from the urban core during rush hour traffic. I looked at the site and took out the slope restriction, the Department of Natural Resources tiers, the wetlands, the buffers, and the land that was otherwise not buildable, including the rolling surface areas that resembled more Moto-Cross course than residential developable land.

The cost for the remaining buildable area would have been about $300,000 an acre. The numbers simply did not work out. Land prices had reached the breaking point. Since there was no possible way to profit, my 5% of zero would still be zero. I suggested that my client not do the deal, and saved him from financial ruin.

It’s easy to make Government the scapegoat. Even though the MET Council set in motion policies that likely caused sprawl by trying to curb it, it was not the cause of land prices going out of control. All the major developers with their deep pockets outbidding each other for over a decade was what did the economics in. Today, housing prices in the Twin City market have plummeted to a more realistic point that is about what the national average was in 2005.

Five years before the crash many actually believed that high land prices were a sign of a great economy. Well guess what? They were wrong.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable. His websites are rhsdplanning and