Buying land? Don't burn your fingers on these mistakes

'Land for sale' sign [Courtesy]

Samson Karanja regrets his gullibility. He does that all the time because the reminder of his naivety stretches out in front of him for close to two acres of land.

Often, owners of land are proud of themselves, especially if they had to toil to buy it.

But Mr Karanja, who lives in Naru Moru, curses the day he decided to hand over his hard-earned cash in exchange for land on which he could farm; one of his retirement plans. “I had been in the city for years. It was time to settle down and do some farming,” he says.

Born in Limuru, Kiambu County, Mr Karanja had only visited Nanyuki twice in his life, and he now reckons it must have been during the rainy season.

The vegetation was lush and the land seemed fertile. Nanyuki, bustling with life, looked like the city away from the city that one could occasionally visit. It also had a good reputation, and weren’t all self-respecting tourists planning a visit to the Laikipia town?

Mr Karanja knew he wanted land near Nanyuki.

“To the East, you have Mt Kenya. To the West, the Aberdares (Aberdare ranges). How could one go without rainfall here? Agriculture was an ideal plan,” he says.

A couple of months after he had settled, the dry season kicked in. Mr Karanja thought it was one bad season that would be soon forgotten, but he was wrong.

“After the dryness persisted, I started remembering how rushed the seller was. He certainly wanted to let it go when the rains were still aplenty; it was a trap.”

The neighbours, he realised, were keen to plant when it rained. When there was no rain, which was often, they sat back and went into alternative businesses.

The belief that parts of Nyeri and Laikipia should be generally wet throughout the year due to their proximity to Mt Kenya and Aberdare Ranges has led many to buying land for agricultural practices and regretting soon after.

The earth gets parched when the rains fail and no agricultural activity is sustainable for long periods. In Naro Moru, Timothy Mburu farms on six acres of land. His main cash crops are potatoes, cabbages and garlic.

Mr Mburu, however, has always known something that Mr Karanja and many other farmers in the area don’t.

“You cannot have sustainable farming here if you don’t have your own storage of water. The rains fail and you cannot depend on them for your farming- at least not all year long,” he says.

Mr Mburu has, therefore, hived off half an acre of land and dug a reservoir. When it rains, he collects runoff water and that ensures he is covered until the next rains.

Nanyuki is on the leeward side of Mt Kenya and receives little rainfall.

However, it offers one a lofty platform to savour the picturesque snow-capped Mt Kenya and Aberdare ranges across, with the undulations, between which tributaries to some of Kenya’s biggest rivers flow, also a lovely scenic watch.

Nanyuki is also a home for tourists who wish to climb the mountain or visit the game park. However, for landowners hellbent on farming, and pegging their hope on rainfall, it can be frustrating.

The common belief that Nyeri and its environs are suitable for agriculture has led many to drowning their hard earned cash in projects they could never have touched with a ten foot pole had they known the truth.

It is often due to failure of proper due diligence, as John Wambugu, who tried onion farming and failed miserably, discovered. Mr Wambugu had a sudden influx of cash that he was irrational, by his own admission, in decision making.

On Facebook, a man was selling a piece of land right in what he thought was one the most productive areas. It was an area famous for growing onions in the country.

Half an acre was going for half a million. It sounded like a bargain. Mr Wambugu whipped out his calculator and punched in numbers. Then he made a call he regrets to this day.

“Within three days, I had bought the land and was ready to start farming,” he says. It was a huge miscalculation.

The piece of land in Gitegi, Kieni West, Nyeri County, was virgin. He cleared the vegetation and, in the relatively dry season, planted onions. Rain was irregular but he did not mind irrigation. Water was scarce and he traveled long distances.

Towards the end of the season, he was still in for a big harvest. Then one day, while he was in Eldoret, a call came. “I was told that it had rained heavily and my onions had been swept away. Just as I was readying for the market, floods decided to help me harvest,” he giggles. “I do not know to what market my produce was taken.”

Mr Wambugu travelled to Nyeri the next day and was devastated at what he saw when he got to his farm. The valley inside which he had bought the land was a river course. All the onions were gone, as had the topsoil. This, he learned, happens whenever heavy rains fall.

Like Mr Wambugu, Mr Karanja has only himself to blame. Both their decisions were hurried and dependent on hearsay. In the same way, wayward speculation, thanks to the promise of mega projects’ rise, has seen many people lose money.

When the upgrading of the Kenol-Marwa highway was announced, prices of land shot through the roof, with “prime” land touching the tarmac even going up 200 per cent.

But the prices started going down once the takers faulted the logic behind the sudden appreciation, and kept away, meaning that those who had acquired the land at the rising prices with the hope of making a killing lost the jackpot.

Land economists argued that the road was adding little value to the adjoining land, mostly because the road already in place was a good, smooth one that did not hinder smooth transportation in any way. Similarly, projects such as Konza City, whose construction is still largely a matter of speculation, saw many buy land hoping to make a killing.

And the investors who buy land just based on popular opinion of an area have consistently been among the main losers in real estate.

Prof Paul Syagga, a former professor of land economics at the department of Real Estate and Construction Management, University of Nairobi, says that while the seller should give full disclosure when selling land, it is upon the buyer to conduct due diligence.

“That is why we have the Latin phrase Caveat emptor,” Prof Syagga says. Caveat emptor roughly translates to “let the buyer beware” and is a disclaimer that places responsibility on the buyer to conduct due diligence before making a purchase. It is the buyer, he says, who knows what he wants to use the land for.

As such, every buyer should have a checklist of questions that tell them if the land will be suitable for what they need to do with it.

Mr Karanja now sees many investors buy land in Naru Moru and Nanyuki to put up lodges and shops that tourists may need. He knows he made one big mistake.

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