Nearly 17 years ago, Jan Engwis, and his wife, Karen, decided to leave the congestion of city life in Denver, Colorado, for the solitude of Montana’s wide open expanses.
Today the couple lives amid thousands of acres of grasslands, stretched along more than three miles of the Yellowstone River on their Big Timber property. They’re still surrounded by hundreds of neighbors, though these native Montanans are mostly covered in fur, feathers or scales.
“You take in all the wildlife, the big, open sky, and it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen,” said Mr. Engwis, 71, mentioning that the deer, turkeys, ducks and songbirds near the river, and the antelopes, Golden eagles further upland, all of which share his ranch with him.
Along with being something of a natural—and personal—refuge, Mr. Engwis’s land, about 5,500 rolling acres with views of the Rocky Mountains, exemplifies much of what many brokers say is the sweet spot in the rarefied world of premium “recreational ranches.”
Recreational ranches providing wealthy a lifestyle
A ranch, by definition, is simply a swath of grassland that’s big enough to raise grazing livestock, usually cattle, that feed off the pastures. But a luxury ranch, or “recreational ranch” is more about indulging in a romanticized version of the cowboy lifestyle, nestled on acres and acres of pristine natural beauty. Premium recreational ranches still have some working ranch component (Mr. Engwis has about 100 grazing cattle) and might grow hay, but the real value is owning massive expanses of grand pastures and meadows, filled with wildlife, giving the wealthy private access to top-tier outdoor recreation like hunting or fishing, something that’s increasingly scarce, brokers said.
What makes a recreational ranch premium can be subjective, but brokers say it generally includes giant swaths of stunning, mostly untouched land and views, diverse wildlife for hunting, rivers and streams for fly-fishing, and, if possible, a property that abuts a national forest, giving owners easy access to even more land for hiking, camping or, simply, enjoying its beauty.
The most sought-after ranches in the U.S. are generally in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, which stretch through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, brokers said—it’s a range that’s both singularly beautiful and evokes a real sense of the West. These premium ranches generally range from about $10 million to $30 million, according to brokers, but are often the ranch properties that sell the quickest. Most of the properties are sold via market listings, with about 20% sold at auctions or through private sales, said Jim Taylor, a partner with rural real estate brokerage Hall and Hall.
In June,, Mr. Engwis listed his ranch with brokerage Fay Ranches for $19.5 million. It’s tough to let his ranch go, he said, but as he and his wife get older, they need to downsize. Mr. Engwis bought the original ranch in 2001 (for a confidential sum, his broker said), then later added on two additional parcels. Mr. Engwis’s goal in adding property was to preserve an even larger swath of land and help restore some of the varied flora and fauna.
When Mr. Engwis, who previously worked in construction, bought the land, he was interested in top-notch fishing and hunting, but life on the ranch changed his perspective. He said he won’t sell to anyone that doesn’t share his desire to keep up the natural habitats—that doesn’t mean hunting and fishing are prohibited, but care of the land should be paramount.
For the elite recreational ranch buyer, Engwis Ranch hits many of the right marks, said James Esperti, a partner with Fay Ranches representing the sale.
“Water is the name of the game,” Mr. Esperti said, referring to the sought-after slice of the Yellowstone River that runs along the property, considered one of the country’s best spots for fly-fishing.
“The property has amazing views of the mountains, diverse wildlife—you’re buying a certain lifestyle; it’s an escape” Mr. Esperti continued. “It’s a place where people can come with their friends, and teach their kids what it’s like to be out in nature, or to work the land.”
Mr. Engwis’s property also includes a three-bedroom main house, a guesthouse as well as specialty workshop, an indoor arena for riding horses and several late 1800s barn structures that have been updated. It also bears the footprints of early American history—Captain William Clark is said to have crossed the ranch in 1806 on his return journey from the Pacific.
Unlike Mr. Engwis, many buyers of recreational ranches don’t live on the property full-time, it’s just one of perhaps many homes they own. “This is like buying a plane or a boat for these guys,” Mr. Esperti said.
Lifestyle ranch buyers—the vast majority of whom don’t have much, if any, experience working on a ranch—often hire ranch managers to handle care of the land and livestock. Prices for ranch managers vary, depending on whether they run all the livestock operations. Some rural real estate firms, like Hall and Hall, arrange flat monthly or quarterly charges for a ranch manager, based on responsibilities, the size of the land and amount of livestock.
Currently a buyer’s market for top-tier ranches
In the last six months or so, with the stock-market up, ranch broker Billy Long, with Concierge Auctions, said he’s seen an uptick in interest in top-ticket lifestyle ranches.
“People are making a lot of money and they want to put it somewhere.” Buyers almost universally pay for the top-tier ranches in cash, brokers said.
Mr. Long is representing the auction sale of the Horseshoe Ranch in Dayton, Wyoming. The 3,800-acre property, with views of the Bighorn Mountains, a wealth of elk, wild turkeys and other wildlife, along with creeks for fishing and nearby trails for hiking and horse riding, was appraised at $17 million for a July 27 auction, and Mr. Long said that, so far, has interest from about five “high-net-worth individuals” looking for a private recreational ranch. The Horseshoe Ranch’s sale is now pending after the auction, though the price has not been made public yet.
The sellers, Ron and Cathy Vanderhoff, who raise cattle and horses for a living, bought the property at a foreclosure in the 1970s. The ranch includes a nine-hole golf course because the land was going to be used for a development, Mr. Long said, though the couple made the ranch—which runs cattle and horses, and includes a nearly 5,000-square foot main house, several barns and three guest cabins—their home and raised their children there.
Brokers said many buyers are looking for a certain lifestyle and a solid investment when picking up thousands of acres of ranch land. The ranch market in general is a buyer’s market—there’s a surplus of ranches, several longtime brokers said, but “premium” lifestyle ranches are often the first to go, regardless of the market.
“We have a long list of people who will quickly buy something really super [that are] under the radar at a top price but won’t even consider places that aren’t quite super,” said Hall and Hall’s Taylor
Though not the most common method of sale, Mr. Taylor said that this year, his firm sold four premium recreational ranches—ranging from about $10 million to $40 million—without ever formally listing the ranches.
Putting a premium on the beauty and recreation value of a ranch really began in full-force in the late 1980s, Mr. Taylor said. In 1989, he helped broker one of the largest and perhaps most well-known recreational ranch sales of the time: Ted Turner’s purchase of the 107,000-acre Flying D Ranch in Montana for $21 million. “After that, the floodgates opened,” Mr. Taylor said. “People were then really willing to pay for the scenery, for the trout fishing, it was much more than just about a ranch.”
“What makes a premium recreational ranch can really depend on the buyer, but when it has a lot of those bells and whistles—really beautiful views, privacy, great hunting and fishing, tucked up near a national forest, and not too far from civilization, it’s something people who can afford it will buy,” said Jeff Buerger, a Hall and Hall broker who represents the Stealey Mountain Ranch—a $24,950,00 Colorado property at the foot of the San Juan mountains, a soaring and rugged range of the Rocky Mountains. Along with wildlife and expansive views, the more than 2,100-acre property, bordered by the Uncompahgre National Forest, also features an 8,079-square-foot main residence, perched on a hilltop, with an indoor saltwater pool. The seller of the property, which has been on the market for about three months, declined to comment.
While the demographic of the top-tier lifestyle ranch buyer is generally someone from the Baby Boomer generation, “someone who maybe grew up watching John Wayne and really put value in that old-fashioned Western way of life,” Mr. Brueger said, he’s also seen a growing number of younger buyers, especially from the tech world, looking to invest in the land and the lifestyle.
“A beautiful ranch can really be like buying a beautiful piece of art,” Mr. Buerger said. “It can be a be a long-term investment, and it’s also very subjective.”
Follow Mansion Global:Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn | Messenger
Write to us: firstname.lastname@example.org