LAND BUYING CHECKLIST

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Use this general checklist when evaluating a piece of land. A quick run through the checklist may remind you of questions to ask the seller, real estate agent, lawyer, title company, town officials, or outside experts, if necessary. It will also help you remember budget items that are often left out.  See also  questions to ask  and our budgeting guide for more details.

LEGAL CONCERNS

  • Is the lot buildable?
  • Has the site passed a perc test that is still valid (some expire in 2-3 years)? Is it suitable for a conventional septic system, or for an expensive alternative system?
  • Are the boundaries clearly and accurately marked?
  • Can the seller provide clear title for the property?
  • Is it zoned for the type and size of house you are planning?
  • Where can you build on the site? Does the proposed house plan violate any rules: setbacks or other zoning restrictions, septic rules, rights-of-way, covenants, wetlands, or other regulations?
  • Is there legal access by road or right-of-way? Who maintains the road?
  • Is there adequate road frontage to build?
  • Are there any liens, rights-of-way, easements, covenants, or other deed restrictions or encroachments on the property?
  • Are there building restrictions due to wetlands, water frontage,  steep slopes,  historical or cultural sites, or other local, state, or federal regulations?
  • Was the land formerly used to store old vehicles, farm chemical, industrial chemicals, or other toxins that you will need to clean up?
  • Does all or part of the lot lie in a floodplain?
  • Is there sufficient potable water?
  • Will you own the water and mineral rights?
  • Are there any endangered or protected species on the property?

CONSTRUCTION ISSUES

  • Is there adequate access for construction equipment?
  • Are there problem soils, including expansive clay, un-compacted fill, or ledge that may require blasting.
  • Is the area prone to high radon readings?
  • Is there a high seasonal water table, seasonal streams, or low-lying areas subject to flooding?
  • Are there steep slopes or unstable land that requires special engineered foundations.
  • Will large areas of cut and fill be required to level the land?
  • Are there areas subject to erosion that will need stabilization?

DESIGN ISSUES

  • Is the land flat or sloping
  • Wooded or open
  • Shaded or sunny
  • Solar exposure
  • Wind exposure/buffering

MAIN COST FACTORS

  • Cost of land acquisition
  • Legal fees: title search, title insurance, and other closing costs. Also may include variance applications, challenges from abutters, right of way issues, etc
  • Survey
  • Water and sewer connection fees  (for municipal systems) – may cost hundreds to several thousand dollars
  • Connection fees for other utilities: phone, electric, cable, gas,
  • Septic system (for rural sites): perc testing, system design, and  installation
  • Well installation: including drilling, pump, plumbing to house,  pressure tank, and water treatment, if needed
  • Land clearing
  • Excavation, cut and fill,  and final grading
  • Landscaping
  • Road/driveway  construction
  • Permits and fees: well, septic, building, driveway, variances, other
  • Impact fees: often cost thousands of dollars. varies by state and municipality. Also called development fees, mitigation fees, service availability charges, facility fees, and other creative names.

ALSO THINK ABOUT

  • Are there nearby nuisances such as unwanted noises, smells, or hazards: farmers’ silage, hunters, snowmobile trails, a firing range, or blasting at quarry just beyond the trees?
  • Find out who your neighbors are and whether their lifestyle (collecting dead pickup trucks, e.g.) are compatible with yours
  • Have any neighbors been granted a special exception or zoning variance and what for use –a pig farm perhaps?
  • What school district?
  • Distance to work, shopping, restaurants, etc.?
  • Property taxes
  • Fire protection – what is available in rural areas
  • Future development nearby: houses, commercial development, roads, highways
  • Insurance rates – may be higher near water, in flood plain,  in high-wind zones, or far away from a water source or pressurized hydrant for fire protection.

See also
Questions to Ask When Buying Land  and Budgeting Guide for land development.






Comments

  1. Paul Tessier says:

    What Are Restrictions on Lot Next Door?

    I am a realtor and my client wants to buy an empty lot next to his house. Where would he go to learn about any restrictions on the lost, and who might provide a loan?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      To learn about restrictions on development, the best place to start is the city or town’s dept. of building/zoning. You can usually find a lot of the basic information on the town’s website, such as the zoning district, setbacks, lot coverage, and other standard zoning regulations.

      Other land use regulations take a little more digging. Things such as boundaries, easements, and subdivision restrictions may be recorded at the zoning department or the county registry of deeds. These usually turn up during a survey or title search.

      It’s a good idea to add a reasonable study period as a contingency of any land offer. It usually takes more work and more time to perform due diligence on vacant land than an existing home. I am often asked who can provide this service – similar to a home inspector for an existing home. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any profession that offers this specific service. You really need to identify what the critical questions are and then consult the relevant professional: surveyor, engineer, architect, contractor, or lawyer.

      One thing to consider: If your client combines this lot with their own into a single lot, then the zoning rules for their current lot will change. For example, they may be allowed to add more bedrooms, increase the footprint, and so on. The town’s zoning department can be a useful resource for this information as well. Scheduling a face-to-face meeting the a zoning officer, with a list of questions and any proposed plans, can yield a lot of useful information.

      See also Who Can Help Evaluate Lot?

      A loan for land is really no different than any other mortgage, but banks and mortgage companies usually require a higher down payment.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Who Can Answer Land Buyer’s Questions?

    Who is the right person to answer questions from the land-buying checklist? Thank you.

    • buildingadvisor says:

      While a good home inspector can do a pretty thorough job of inspecting a house for construction defects (although they frequently miss things), they cannot tell you about problems with title, liens, HOA regulations, and so on. Similar, with land, you need to speak to number of different people for help with evaluating the site.

      And while home inspection is now a common profession, land inspection is not. I am not aware of anyone who offers this service to individuals. Large developers can hire land development consultants, who will evaluate a piece of land using engineers, surveyors, and other professionals as needed.

      The closest you can probably get for one-stop-shopping would be a surveyor, who could give you a detailed legal description of the land, its boundaries, its general zoning status, any problems with protected wetlands or flood plains, any improvements on the property such as utilities, and any encroachments such as easements, as long as these are readily accessible in public records. If the land has a recent survey on record, you can obtain this information from town or county officials, but may still want a surveyor to help you understand the information, which can get pretty technical.

      More detailed zoning information about what size house you can build with how many bedrooms you would need to confirm with the town’s zoning officer. Some older lots have grandfathered zoning status that might be less restrictive than the current regulations.

      If you suspect that their might be water, drainage, or septic system issues with the land, you may want to have an engineer (civil or geotechnical) or septic system designer take a quick look.

      With unimproved land (also called “vacant land”) there are no real short cuts here, but a lot of work to figure out what you are buying. The phrase “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware – is applicable here. With improved lots from a developer, with utilities and permits in place, there is much less risk for the buyer, but you will pay a premium for the improvements.

      Before hiring any professional to assist with your land research, provide them with a list of questions and find out ahead of time which they can answer and what the cost will be. If you are lucky, you can find people to give you a “best-guess” professional opinion without doing thorough (and expensive) research at this point in your search.

      You can read more on this at Questions to Ask, which is broken down by the various types of professionals, businesses, and government agencies where you can go for information.

  3. steve patel says:

    Can I Build On Lot After Tear-Down?

    I am thinking about bidding for a house lot in Buena Park, CA. It is approx. 12,000 sq.ft. It has an old house on it, which is a complete tear-down. The land slopes from the street to the back of the lot approx. 10 ft. Can one build a new house on this lot?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      This sounds like a pretty gentle slope, so that should not be a problem. California contractors routinely build on much greater slopes, although foundation and site work costs can be significant.

      On a small lot like this, I would be concerned about setback requirements and rules limiting house size, number of bedrooms, and lot coverage (total area of all buildings and paving). These are all zoning issues, subject to the zoning regulations in the city or town where you are building.

      Older lots are often “grandfathered” in and not subject to all current zoning regulations. Your best bet is to schedule a meeting with the building and zoning department in the town, explain to them what you wish to build, and ask whether this is feasible. Bring a sketch showing the approximate size and location on the lot of the house, any other structures, and the driveway and paved areas.

      While you’re there, ask for a list of the permits that will be required to tear down and build and all fees that you might incur (including any impact fees) – always a big issue in a heavily regulated area like California.

      Best of luck with your project!

      Read more on the Budgeting for Site Development

  4. Check HOA Regulations and Dues

    Another thing to consider when buying land is to check if there is a governing HOA. There can be a lot of regulations about how you build and develop your land. You will also want to check on what the HOA dues are and how the HOA is structured. Also, get your land surveyed so you know what the land is worth.

  5. DAVID OTERO says:

    Bought Unbuildable Lots on eBay

    I am a beginning investor and I was sold some mountain land, 2,600 sq. ft. on one lot, but it is too small to build on according to the San Bernardino County Building and Safety Dept. They say you need 4 lots grouped together to build and minimum size requirements. Well this one is too small and it is right on a drainage ditch. They sold me a drainage ditch not buildable to say the least. They did not disclose this and I bought it cash at an auction on Ebay.

    Next I bought another lot 2,800 sq. ft. lot but this one had taxes owed of $2,830 on it and will go to tax sale next month. This one is also not buildable. I lost twice in the last few weeks. I bought these lots on an eBay auction. Wow.

    I have learned the hard way, but I wish I could take these people to court to expose them for the crooks that they are.

  6. How to Locate Best Site on Lot

    We are considering buying a piece of land in MA, subdivided by a property owner, who has written proposed building restrictions, one of which is that she must approve the site where a house (or any other structures) will be placed. We don’t want to build for at least five years. Obviously, we want to make sure that we can build in a desirable location on the property. Who do we consult to figure out the best site for a house on the property (about 3 acres)? After doing so, we would hope to make sure we have approval from the “grantor” before agreeing to buy the property. Should we call a landscape architect? A real estate attorney?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      On many building lots, by the time you account for setback requirements, location of the septic system (on a rural lot), site drainage, road access, etc., the optimal building site is pretty evident. On a three-acre lot, however, you may have the luxury of choosing from several possible sites.

      Issues to consider are views, exposure to sun, privacy (including distance from present or future neighbors), drainage, soil type (e.g., you don’t want to have to blast through ledge for your foundation), and cost issues. In general, the farther you are from the main access road, the greater the cost for bringing in water, gas, electricity, etc.

      The owner who subdivided may already have a house site in mind, so I would start by asking her. Find out what her main concerns are in siting the house. Perhaps she does not want you blocking her (or other’s) views or has concerns about privacy. In some cases, the site plan and septic plan are already established and would be difficult for you to change. If there are many options, however, and the optimal site is not clear to you, then an architect or landscape architect would be a good resource. Hire them on a limited, hourly basis, to consult on siting the house — should be no more than a few hours of work.

      You absolutely should get the grantor to sign off on your proposed location before sealing the deal.

      Several years ago, I made an offer on lot in a rural subdivision, where the original developer had retained the right to personally approve all house designs. I was buying the lot from a private seller, not the original developer who subdivided the lot many years earlier. My offer was accepted with a contingency for design approval which I had added the offer. I quickly sketched out a house design that fit in nicely with the local architecture and neighboring houses. The developer rejected the design because my design was, according to him, too small and would “hurt property values,” an absurd notion. The design complied with all the subdivision design guidelines, including minimum house size!

      The moral of this story is to be wary of design review by an individual, or even a committee, who has the power to say no based on subjective criteria — or just their personal taste. Got approval beforehand.

      As for consulting a lawyer, it’s always a good idea with a land purchase – especially if you have unanswered questions about zoning, deed restrictions, or other legal issues. Hiring them to review your offer may be the best $200 you ever spent. Local zoning and building officials can also be a great source of information and are usually very happy to speak with you about your prospective building plans.

      See also Questions to Ask When Buying Land

    • kevin halligan says:

      Due diligence is huge. If you were to do all the work that is necessary to select a good area on the site that meets your needs and is legal / feasible it would then be troublesome to find the neighbor/former owner having a veto power on that location. It would be better to have them identify what they don’t want or where they don’t want it. Like maybe they don’t want to see your home OR maybe they don’t want their views blocked OR they’d hate to see a certain grove of trees removed for a home. They may be reasonable or they may want to impose their thoughts on every aspect of your home and life. Crappy neighbors will make you want to move. Crappy neighbors that control significant decisions in your life can make you homicidal.

      A deed restriction that has unlimited veto power is a lawsuit waiting to happen if they are less than reasonable.

  7. Barbara West says:

    Who Pays for Survey?

    Who should pay for the survey?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      There’s no simple answer to your question as surveys may be done at different times for different purposes – e.g., to stake out a lot, to establish zoning compliance, setbacks, clearances to lot lines for leach fields or other building components, and so on. If you already own the lot, you will have to pay for a survey if it is required by the town or if you want it for your own peace of mind. This is often a concern on small lots where your building or leach field is close to the lot line.

      If this is a lot you are considering buying, it is a matter of negotiation. If the lot has clearly marked bounds and the survey is recorded by the town, you can be reasonably confident that you know exactly what you are buying. If the boundaries are unclear, you can make a survey a condition of your offer. Read more on surveys.

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