My fiance and I have been looking online via Redfin, Zillo, Landwatch, Land & Farm, Mojave Realtor, and a few others. Some of the lands that are for sale show up on all the same sites, so we're wondering if we should simply buy the land through a real estate agent or directly from the seller (via Craigslist, for example)? We will only be able to fly out to California from the East Coast one time to view the land & make the deal. We also need to be able to camp on the land while we build; off-grid is okay but we'll need access to water even if via well because we have pets. We're looking in San Bernadino, Kern, and San Luis Obispo counties. Thank you for your time and advice.
I had limited success with the sites recently. It's a great way to get acquainted with the pricing in an area but I was unable to get the feel of any property until I was able to visit it, and often I was surprised how poorly the listing represented the land. People don't know how to take pictures of land bigger than 1/4 acre.
I would recommend finding an area you're the most excited about (I picked an area near Havilah) and find a local realtor. Describe to them what you're looking for and see what they recommend.
Something you should consider is that California is HUGE. Depending on the biome you're looking for, you could get a temperate coastal rainforest, semi-arid high desert, or many microclimates in between. Based on the areas you mentioned you're focusing on the southern half.
The real estate market here has been insane for a while, so areas that are easily accessed and near major metro areas get quite expensive. A lot of foreign investment makes it difficult to get housing at a reasonable price in those areas.
I would urge you to make sure that wherever you end up is nowhere near the Salton Sea. That whole area is an ecological disaster in slow motion.
This is a bit far from the places you mentioned, but I would check out Clearlake. It maintains its rural character due to being surrounded by mountains on all sides. Most tourists driving north stop in the more easily accessible Napa Valley, or head out west a bit to Sonoma. Most people also come to Cali to see the ocean, so the idea of seeing the largest natural lake in the state is less appealing. This has kept the prices in Clearlake lower than much of the surrounding area, and there's a lot of raw land for sale there.
I've never lived there, but I visited and it's quite nice. The lake had a major problem with algal blooms and toxic algae, but it's been getting cleaned up for a while now and the lake is better than it's ever been in recent years. I would advise against getting property on the eastern side of the lake without making sure it's good for you, because it tends to be very sloped and not have as much space. But every piece of land has it's own character, and it's all going to depend on what you're looking for.
The southern part, the town of Clearlake, is definitely a bit more rundown. It has the character of a town that relied on tourism, and ultimately lost it. Prices are lower there than Lakeport on the north side. Getting away from the lake, the town of Upper Lake has a lot of established farmland, and Kelseyville on the southern side has a lot of vineyards.
Hope this helps!
Edit to add: I also recommend that you don't buy any land that contains wetlands, swamp, or marshes. Wetlands in California are very protected by the government - getting permits to change it would take a LOT of effort.
“There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematician that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”
― G. K. Chesterton
I would recommend having a realtor find you a property. They have access to a database known as MLS which lists every single property as soon as it comes on the market. Sites such as zillow are full of stale listings that have been on the market for a long time and haven't sold for one reason or another. A realtor will also look out for your own best interests. A good example would be a property with a lien on it that even the county didn't know about, you might not understand all that but they do, they will make sure you get the proper title insurance, they will know things about the neighborhood you don't know, the local climate and so forth. Even make sure you aren't offering too much for a property. Most realtors build their name and reputation by having clients who stay in the local community and are satisfied in the long term, then refer their friends. Buying real estate on craigslist is risky, especially for a first time buyer with no experience in real estate or the local area.
Do you plan to build a standard stick frame house, or something further along the alternative building scale? Once you find a county you are interested in, make sure to reach out to the building code folks to confirm everything you want to do is permitted, or what hoops there are and account for that in your costs/timeframe. Some counties only allow you to camp for 30 to 90 days a year for example, and then you'd be fined for living on your own property past that, as silly as that sounds.
I'm not quite a lumberjack, but that's OK, I sleep all night and I dream all day; I'll coppice trees, I'll grow my food, and compost poo and pee! With a well and off-grid solar, it's a permies life for me! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FshU58nI0Ts