In This Article
Variance Granted, Neighbor Sues!
Septic System In Road
What’s That Pungent Odor?
Covenants Protecting Whom?
How High Is Too High?
Right-Of-Way Seems Wrong
An Explosive Surprise
I Can’t Cut My Own Trees?                  View all LAND BUYING articles

I have bought a few pieces of undeveloped vacant land, almost bought a few, and sold a couple. Each one was a learning experience. A few lessons learned in buying land:

In 1995, I bought a small rural lot in a coastal community. Under current zoning, it would not be buildable due to its size and new state septic regulations. However, I was assured by town officials that the lot was “grandfathered” as a 3-bedroom lot and that I could meet septic regulations with a zoning variance allowing the placement of the leach field closer to the lot line that is ordinarily allowed. I was issued the necessary variance and a building permit, and had the foundation in place when I was blindsided by a lawsuit from an abutter. The neighbor, silent up to this point, wanted me to stop all building based on alleged violations of the state septic codes. One legal hearing and two thousand dollars in legal fees later, the suit was dropped and I was able to continue building as planned.

Lesson learned:  It ain’t over till it’s over. In many communities, no one wants anything built in their “backyard” and anyone in the community may oppose your project on any number of grounds. To avoid problems, make the lot purchase contingent on acquiring all the necessary permits, and make sure you have all permits in hand before putting a shovel in the ground.

On one rural parcel I purchased, one corner boundary was in the middle of the existing unpaved road, although site plans showed the road about 15 feet over. When it came time to install the septic system (with a variance) it ended up extending into the middle of the road. You would think the septic designer, the leading local sanitary engineer who had visited the site more than once, would have specified a system suitable for traffic loads. He didn’t – I caught the problem at the last minute when I visited the site with the septic system half in the ground, and asked the installer the obvious question: “Can this system be damaged by car and truck traffic?”  So we called the designer and switched to a concrete lid over the leach pit rated for vehicle traffic. (This system was designed with a  leach pit rather than the more common horizontal field.) This saved the system from destruction with the passing of first garbage or UPS truck. I was owner-contractor on this job and could only visit the site once a week or so, so I just got lucky.

Lesson learned: Trust, but verify – and ask a lot of questions. I assumed that an experienced septic system designer would specify a system suitable for vehicle traffic as the leach pit was almost entirely under the road. Or, as a fallback, I would have expected the installer to raise the question when he saw that the leach pit was being placed under a road. Neither happened. I had hired top-notch professionals, but still they missed this. The installers position was that he was just following the plan – a reasonable position – and assumed that I had worked this out with the sanitary engineer. I knew that the leach pit was going in the road, but had trusted that a licensed sanitary engineer would design an appropriate system. My mistake was not asking the question earlier, “So, this system can handle car and truck traffic, right?” If anything seems suspect, ask lots of questions. Make sure you get clear, satisfactory answers. Trust, but verify because no one cares as much about your project as you do – and Murphy is hiding behind every bush on a construction project!

On another rural lot I purchased, I discovered that the neighbor’s aging cesspool was half on my land – this was resolved when the property changed hands requiring an upgrade to current code.

Lesson learned. I would have discovered this earlier had I taken a closer look at the septic plan, which required minimum distances between  all well and septic systems. A small dot on the property line, which I hadn’t paid much attention to represented the old, but still active, cesspool. It pays to find the boundary markers, walk the lot lines, and study the site plan, plat map, and any other documentation of the site, correlating the drawn map with features on the site.

One lot I made an offer on had a protective covenant which gave the original developer of the subdivision design approval of any house built, even though the development was over 10 year old and I was buying the lot from a private seller, not the original developer. My offer was contingent on my house design being approved. However, it was not approved, even though it complied with all the written guidelines regarding style, size, etc. It wasn’t big enough, the developer said, and would be bad for property values!

Lessons learned. Make sure your offer is contingent upon your ability to use the land as you have planned. Don’t assume developers, abutters, or others will be reasonable and welcome you into the neighborhood. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality is a powerful force in some areas where no one wants anything built – after their project!


The top 2 ft. was chopped off this house due to a violation of the town’s height restriction. Getting a building permit doesn’t guarantee compliance with zoning.
Photo by author

I frequently drive by a house with three feet chopped off the peak of the gable roof  due to a violation of the height restriction in the zoning ordinance (photo at left).

Lesson learned. Ignore zoning rules at your own peril. Being granted a building permit does not guarantee that you are in compliance with all zoning rules. When in doubt, check it out with the governing authority: zoning board, health department, building inspector, or other, and get their opinion in writing. (They could easily forget what they told you or have moved on to another job by the time the issue is raised.)

I bought one parcel, after being  assured by the developer that the trails nearby were for walking only. First snow, 25 snowmobiles came barreling though – turns out it was a favorite approved snowmobile trail with a long-term easement – so much for peaceful X-country skiing.

Lesson learned. Get it in writing and, if it’s critical to your use and enjoyment of the land, make it a contingency of your offer.

One rural lot we considered buying was beautiful and quiet – on the weekend we visited. Later we discovered a large limestone quarry about ¼ mile away that had huge rumbling trucks and earth-shaking blasts during weekdays. Guess when the sales agents showed that property?

On another beautiful site, not too far away, the peaceful country setting was interrupted on our second visit by rounds of artillery fire. Turns out that a private firing range lay just beyond the treeline. Neighbors had unsuccessfully fought the firing range for years, and it wasn’t going away anytime soon.

Lesson learned. Before making an offer, visit a site as much as you can, under different conditions, to learn about the sun exposure, wind, neighbors, and nuisances. See how the water drains after a heavy rain. Visit the local zoning and planning department, look at zoning maps, and ask about what types of projects are permitted nearby and what projects are currently in the pipeline.

A lawyer from an urban area bought a large waterfront parcel on a nearby reservoir surrounding mostly be conservation land. He was required to build the house a few hundred feet from the water, so he proceeded to cut a few acres of trees for an expansive water view. Turns out he violated special zoning district rules on tree cutting, as well as clear-cutting rules that applied to the whole town. He paid a stiff fine and had to replant hundreds of trees. c

Lesson learned. The days of the frontier are long gone. Title to a piece of land does not give the owners the right to do as they please. Ownership rights are constrained by zoning, health, subdivision, and building regulations, among others. Check with local authorities before starting to clear land, alter water courses, build structures, start a hog farm, or any other activities that might impact the neighbors or the environment. Or you may be unpleasantly surprised.



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