Once you’ve found a parcel that seems attractive, you’ll want to do some preliminary, free research to see if it’s worth pursuing further. Start by asking the seller or seller’s agent all the questions on your list, and if things check out, move on to town officials who can provide a wealth of information – all for free. In general, you won’t want to spend any money on investigations until after your offer is accepted. The remaining questions should appear as contingencies in your offer.
The first place to start your investigation is with the seller or seller’s agent. Ask whether the lot is buildable, whether it has a well in place with an adequate flow rate, has any utilities at the site, or has passed a perc test. Ask whether there are any rights-of-way, easements, covenants, encroachments, or other issues that will materially affect the value of the lot or your ability to build. Also ask to see the boundary markers and a survey report if one is available. Then walk the boundaries to see what you are really buying and identify potential problems such as low-lying areas or wet areas.
An experienced real-estate agent working for you as a buyer’s broker may also provide some useful insights if they are experienced with land sales in the area. However, if you’re looking for legal advice, consult with an experienced real-estate lawyer in the area where you are looking. A few hundred dollars spent up front could save you from thousands of dollars in unplanned expenses later on.
Your best source for reliable information about whether a lot is buildable is often the town’s Building & Planning Department, so it’s always a good idea to pay them a visit. Involving zoning, building, and health department officials from the outset can only help you. Approach them respectfully, asking for their help and advice and they will most likely oblige, and can in fact be your greatest asset in getting your project completed. They are not there to prevent construction, but to make sure that builders and developers understand and follow the rules, most of which are established to protect you and the community. And it is always in your best interest to understand and follow the local rules, whether you like them or not! Violating zoning or building code rules almost never ends happily for the builder or homeowner.
Pick up a copy of the town’s zoning map and regulations and schedule an appointment with a building inspector or health department official (for well and on-site sewage questions). Tell them what you are specifically planning to build and ask if they anticipate any problems. Whenever possible, get answers or opinions from town officials in writing. Even though private communication with a town official may be non-binding, it may still prove valuable later if a dispute arises later. It is much more valuable in writing, especially if your “friend” in the building or zoning department who assured you that it would be no problem to build a three-bedroom house on your site has moved on to a new job by the time you apply for a building permit.
Surveys are important for land that is not part of development, which should already have a recorded survey and plat (map of the subdivision) For vacant land, ask if a recent survey has been completed and recorded at the town or county. Also make sure the property boundaries are clearly marked. Walk the site to locate the corner boundaries and other “bounds” such as along a river or. Older corner markers may be buried, hidden, or may have been moved or removed. Without clearly marked and confirmed boundaries, you really don’t know what you are buying.
While it is unlikely that you will want to pay $500 to $1,000 to a surveyor before purchasing a property, if the boundaries are unclear and potentially problematic, you can make establishing the corner markers a condition of your offer. A survey conducted by a licensed surveyor will show you exactly what you will own, and what you won’t own. Surprising things may turn up, for example, that the main road or the neighbor’s barn or septic system lies half on your property, or that the house site you chose is too close the lot line based on setback rules. (I’ve encountered all of the above at one time or another.) Ask the surveyor if the survey will identify any parts of the site that lie in a floodplain as this can dramatically affect your insurance rates, not the mention the risk of you house washing away in the next big rain.
Once you purchase a building site, a survey will probably be required by your lender, and the town may require an additional survey to make sure that setbacks are followed. Even if it is not required, a new survey, or updating an older survey, will ensure that you do not violate setbacks for your home or septic system, and that you are not building on a right-of-way or other prohibited area. It will also keep you from inadvertently encroaching on a neighbor’s property with your buildings, landscaping, or other uses. In most cases, the cost of a survey is money well spent.
What if your building site is perfect in many ways, but has some sticky problems. You need to decide whether proceeding is worth your investment of time and money, and evaluate the risk that you may not succeed, even after investing time and money or possibly even buying the lot. Minor zoning problems, can often be solved with a variance granted by the town that exempts you from one or more zoning rules.
Sometimes a lot that does not perc is buildable if you install a special engineered septic system, which may need special permission from the town. Ledge can be blasted, steep slopes stabilized, and problem soils overcome by specially engineered foundations. Surface water can be diverted and subsurface water, such as seasonally high water table, can be managed with expert site work.
However, you need to determine the feasibility and costs of these efforts before proceeding. Without written assurances from town officials that a site is buildable as planned, along with review by a lawyer, you are taking a huge risk in purchasing a piece of land. Verbal opinions by town officials can be helpful, but you should assume they are non-binding until you have the necessary approvals in hand.
To evaluate construction issues and costs, you may also need to speak with a local well driller, septic system designer, foundation contractor, and geotechnical engineer or other experts in the area, who are well acquainted with local conditions. For some problems, you may be able to get a unit cost such as $100 per cu.yd. to remove ledge, but not a fixed bid since the amount is unknown. For subsurface water problems, you may have trouble getting a fixed bid and a guarantee that your foundation will not leak.
Even if a lot is buildable, you may decide that the site is not worth the cost and effort, as well as the risk of problems down the road. There will always be another piece of land for sale. If this one doesn’t feel right, it’s probably best to move on.
You might get a great bargain on an “unbuildable” lot thinking you can find a way to develop it. Experienced developers sometimes do this and succeed in overcoming the hurdles. Without vast experience in this area, and intimate knowledge of the local rules and those who enforce them, this would be a highly risky venture. If it’s the perfect spot at the perfect price, you may be able to make your offer contingent on getting a building permit, or even pay for an option to buy the land at a given price within a certain amount of time. If you don’t mind spending some money pursuing variances and permits, this is an option – but not for the faint-hearted or the impatient.