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Three northwest Minnesota towns offer free land for new houses

The promise of free land may seem too good to be true, but some cities in northwest Minnesota are handing out residential lots for free, or nearly free, to new residents on the condition that the recipient builds a new house on the land.

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A town sign in Middle River, Minnesota
Grand Forks Herald file photo
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HALSTAD, Minn. — Some cities in northwest Minnesota are handing out residential lots for free, or nearly free, to new residents on the condition that the recipient builds a new house on the land.

“A lot of people say it sounds too good to be true, but this isn’t one of those. It really is that good,” said Emily Finney.

Finney, a resident of Halstad, Minnesota, lives in a house she and her husband built on a free lot in 2013. They decided to participate in Halstad’s free lot program after seeing how expensive land can be. The couple was living in West Fargo at the time, and she said they could not find lots in the area for less than $70,000.

“We were looking to upgrade and build another house after we’ve been in our house for 10 years and just couldn’t fathom spending that much on just a lot,” she said. “We’d rather have had more house or more to put into our house than just to pay for the lot.”

Halstad has been offering free lots since the mid-90s, says Terri Trygg, Halstad city clerk, and she happens to live in one of them. Her parents built the house on a free lot of land from the city in 1995, and believes it was one of the first built in the program. Her grandparents also built a house on a lot from the same program across the street.

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But even though the program has been around since the mid-90s, Trygg believes that only six houses have been built through the program, with the most recent around three years ago, but there is an application in processing for the program.

“We encourage others to check it out,” said Trygg.

Right now, three lots are available in Halstad on the far east side of town.

“They’re good sized lots, the view is beautiful. It’s a wide open field in a nice neighborhood,” said Trygg.

Halstad’s incentive package also includes a five-year tax abatement on city taxes, and waived connection fees and reimbursement for construction costs for the first 75 feet of electric, water and sewer lines.

Free land, along with free amenity hookups and tax abatements, cut costs for Finney and her family, and building in a small town had other benefits. During the process of planning and building the house, city officials were very easy to work with, she said.

“This is a small town, governed by local people, so within reason, they’re willing to work with you for any projects you have or types of houses you might want,” she said. “There aren’t as strict of regulations as there are in some larger communities, so you can really get what you want.

Trygg hopes to ramp up interest in the program with more marketing after recent developments in the town of nearly 600. In August 2020, a new general store with groceries, hardware and off-sale liquor opened in town , and more recently, a new child care center opened at Halstad Living Center, a senior living community.

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“The nursing home is paying to have their staff use that daycare, so there’s an incentive for nurses and CNAs working in that nursing home,” said Trygg.

After a recent story in the Star Tribune , the free lot program in Middle River has gained national attention.

“We’ve been getting calls from all around the country actually,” said Smith. “It’s been a very good opportunity for our community.”

In Middle River, the free lot program came after the city created a housing committee to help grow the city’s population. The city purchased eight lots on the northeast side of Middle River, and in 2018, developed four of those lots for the program. Three of the first four lots have been claimed and four more were developed in May 2021.

With applications coming in, Smith expects the remaining lots to be spoken for soon enough.

People interested in the lots need to send the city an application with a plan for the house, and proof of financing and that they meet the income requirements. To qualify for the free lot program, the house needs to be at least 1,500 square feet, and for a family of two, total annual income must be less than $93,100. For a family of three, they must make less than $107,000 per year. The house must also be the builder’s primary residence once completed.

The free lot comes with a free building permit, two years of free water and sewer and free electric hook up, as well as a long list of gifts from local businesses in Middle River, like a $100 bar gift card, year subscription to the town’s newspaper and fire extinguisher from the Middle River Insurance Agency.

More than free land and other incentives, Smith thinks the location, community and job opportunities help draw people to Middle River. He says the proximity to Roseau and Thief River Falls provide jobs, while the surrounding area is good for recreation, with opportunities for hunting and fishing.

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“I’ve heard from a lot of people that they’re just trying to get away, looking for a quieter setting away from the hustle and bustle,” said Smith.

For those looking to build in Argyle, land comes with a small price. The city offers residential lots to potential builders for $1 per parcel.

“It’s $1 just so there’s a transaction, which makes it a little easier,” said Tamara Bennit, city clerk.

Builders also have to pay for the legal fees to switch the lot over to their name. Construction of the house needs to start during the first year after the purchase, and be completed by the second year.

Bennit says the program has been active for 15 years, and estimates 10 houses have been built through the program. But like Halstad, there have been no new houses built in recent years.

“We’re a good distance to Crookston, Thief River Falls, Grafton and Grand Forks,” said Bennit. “We have a lot of commuters and people move here for the low taxes and good school program.”

Related Topics: HOUSING
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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