Private estates are by far the most popular choice when it comes to virtual land. 80% of the land in Second Life consists of these private regions.
You can buy your own private region...you pay Linden Lab a startup fee of $1,000 USD (ouch!), and a monthly maintenance fee of $295 USD (ouch ouch ouch ouch...) Although this is expensive, there are advantages.
- You have more control over the land itself. You can terraform up to +/- 100 meters. You can apply a .RAW terrain file to create the land contours you want without all that tedious terraforming. And you can alter the terrain textures.
- You have access to tools that let you see in more detail what scripts are running on your land (and which ones are causing the most lag).
- You can restart the region if things get messed up or bogged down.
- You can request a "rollback" from Linden Lab to take the region to an earlier time period (prior to, presumably, the time that Something Bad happened.)
- If you wish, you can have your region placed where there are no adjoining neighbors. If you then restrict teleport access, this gives you a completely private place in Second Life. It is the ONLY way to ensure complete privacy.
- Owning one full private region allows you to buy the "lighter" homestead and open space regions as well.
- And of course, paying this much entitles you to Concierge level support.
However, most people don't have the money to spend on an entire region. Instead, they "buy" a parcel of land from another resident, the Estate Owner. I put "buy" in quotation marks, because even though a lot of Estate Owners claim "you own the land, and have full permissions", really the Estate Owner is still the owner of record, and pays that $295 per month fee to Linden Lab. You are really renting land on a private estate, no matter what anyone else says.
It's an important distinction. Because if the Estate Owner decides she doesn't like you, or wants to do something else with the land, she can kick you off with no warning and no refund...and you have no recourse. If she sells the region to a new owner, they can kick you off too. If she fails to pay her fee to Linden Lab, the region may get deleted right out from under you, taking all your stuff with it. (If that ever happens to you, file a support ticket with LL. They will usually put a deleted region back on the grid for a short time to allow you to get your stuff back.)
The point to remember is that, on a private estate, you are at the mercy of the estate owner. This is usually not a problem, but it can be, and you have to be aware of that. Most estate owners are honest, and want their tenants to be happy, so they can stay in business. But you should do some research on your potential landlord BEFORE you lease land with them. Ask their tenants how they are treated. Google the owner and look for complaints about them on blogs and forums. If they own more than a few regions, and/or have been in business more than a couple of years, it's a good bet that they are in it for the long haul and will be careful of their reputation.
You should also read the Covenant before you buy. The Covenant is found in the About Land window, and it sets out the owner's policies...what you can and cannot build there, how much you will pay, and how often, what activities are not permitted, and so on. Be sure you understand everything that's in the Covenant. If you have any questions that what you want to do with your land might not be allowed, discuss it with the Estate Owner before you buy. (Some large estates have their own websites that provide additional information about the estate, parcels for sale, and events of interest.)
Now, the above probably sounds scary, and you might be asking yourself, "Why would I ever want to buy land on a private estate?" The reasons all stem from the same thing that creates the cautions: the Estate Owner.
Estate Owners generally are more active managers of their regions than Linden Lab is. They are very often more readily available to help solve problems. They do a better job of enforcing their zoning restrictions. They can and do help keep griefers and troublemakers away. Their continued business depends on their making their tenants happier to be there than on the Mainland or on someone else's estate.
Estates may have a theme. The Victorian Steampunk theme of Caledon makes it a fun and interesting place to visit or live, and the residents who get into the theme have a lot of fun with it. Other estates may have different themes...dark urban post-apocalyptic settings, tropical paradises, or realms of magic and fantasy.
My first Second Life "home" was on a private estate, and it was a beautiful, quiet, and peaceful place. I never had to add anyone to my parcel ban list. Now I live on the Mainland, and life is more...colorful. I like that somewhat edgier flavor, but you may very well prefer the peace and quiet of a well-run private estate. Certainly the majority of SL residents seem to!