They may not all be young men, but a fair number of wealthy investors are taking Horace Greeley’s advice to “go West”—to buy up the region's ranch land.
Investors in increasing numbers are spending significant sums to buy working ranch land in the western U.S., with the intention of eventually selling it for a profit, passing it on to heirs or fulfilling the philanthropic goal of preserving the land through conservation easements.
Sales are booming. In Montana, for example, average deeded acres sold grew by 286% between 2009 and 2012 over the previous three-year period, according to rural appraiser Norman C. Wheeler & Associates. The majority of properties selling are moving at between 7 percent and 12 percent of list price. Other states that are seeing a lot of sale activity include Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Oregon and New Mexico.
Last year, Fay Ranches, one of the largest ranch brokers in the region, enjoyed its best year in 20 years of operation, with sales of more than $180 million, up 16 percent over 2011. Forty-five transactions had an average price of $4 million and averaged 1,800 acres per property. “We’ve had a unique opportunity to be on the leading edge of this growing trend,” the firm CEO Greg Fay said.
While investors are driving the sales, the fringe benefits that ranch land ownership brings have also helped fuel activity, he said.
“What often begins as an investment for our clients evolves into a place of escape and rejuvenation,” Fay said.
The majority of Fay’s clients made their fortunes on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley or in Texas oil fields. Much of their money is in cash and they want to come off the sidelines after getting spooked by the 2008 financial crisis.
“They’re suffering from frugal fatigue,” he said. “Their powder has been dry for a long time, and now they’re ready to spend.” But they’re disaffected by the stock market.
Ranch land offers them a secure and tangible alternative investment, a place “to park $5 million to $30 million,” he said. It’s a hedge against inflation. And it’s a finite product; the inventory of ranches is diminishing because ranch properties are being aggregated. Fay said it’s not unusual for an investor to buy one property, and then set his sights on a contiguous one—or two or three.
Beyond investment, investors buy ranches to enjoy the great outdoors, and have a place to hunt and fish with their family and friends.