QUESTIONS TO ASK

WHEN BUYING LAND

In This Article
QUESTIONS FOR:
The Seller Or Seller’s Agent
Building, Planning and Zoning, and Health Departments
Utility Companies
Septic System Designers And Contractors
Well Drillers
Water Treatment Providers
Your Lawyer
Yourself And Family                    View all LAND BUYING articles
See also Land Buying Checklist

In looking at land, there are many questions to answer before making an offer. Start with the most important questions (Can I build on the lot and use the lot as planned?) so you can quickly weed out parcels that will not meet your needs. If you are working with a real estate agent, start with him or her. However, important questions should also be put to the proper authority or professional – such as  town officials regarding permits, setbacks, zoning rules, and on-site sewage. If answers seem vague or merely an opinion (“As far as I know, you should be able to put a three bedroom on that parcel” or “I don’t see why you couldn’t subdivide”), find out who the controlling authority is and schedule an appointment.

When issues remain murky, get a second opinion. If at all possible, get a public official’s opinion in writing. (I had the head of a town Health Department put in writing that by purchasing a 1/3 acre lot contiguous to my own, I would be able to upgrade from a three to –four-bedroom septic system.)   In real estate, only written communications have any legal validity.

In many cases,  you will not know everything about a parcel before bidding. For one thing, you do not want to spend any money on investigations before your bid is accepted. The remaining unknowns should be added to your bid offer as contingencies and investigated only if the bid is accepted.

QUESTIONS FOR THE SELLER OR SELLER’S AGENT

While you cannot absolutely rely on the seller or their agent for this information, it’s a good place to start and, in most cases,  you will get accurate information TO THE BEST OF THEIR KNOWLEDGE. Most of these questions appear in other sections as well, where you can get a more authoritative answer.

  • Is the lot buildable?
  • Are there any liens, rights-of-way, easements, covenants, or other deed restrictions or encroachments on the property?
  • What other construction is planned or possible on the surrounding land?
  • Are there any protective covenants?
  • Are there any common facilities (water, septic, road, etc.), or common property that the homeowners or developer will need to manage. How will this be handled?’
  • Will there be a homeowners association and fees?
  • Are any portions of the parcel designated as wetlands or floodplain?
  • Does the site have access to electrical power, natural gas, town water or sewer?
  • Is there potable water on the site? What flow rate and water quality?
  • Has as a perc test been completed? A septic design designed? Conventional or
  • Are the boundaries clearly and accurately marked?

QUESTIONS FOR THE BUILDING, PLANNING AND ZONING, AND HEALTH DEPARTMENTS
If the sellers or agent’s answers sound acceptable, and you are pretty serious about the parcel, your next stop should be the town or county offices of the Building,  Planning & Zoning (zoning questions), and Health Departments (water and sewer questions). Some issues may be handled by Building or Zoning, depending on the town.

Building Department

  • Is the lot buildable?
  • How many bedrooms are allowed?
  • What are the setback requirements for houses, porches, decks, outbuildings, or anything else you plan to build?
  • Can I locate the building on the lot where I want to?
  • Is there adequate road frontage or a suitable right-of-way for building?
  • Is the road publicly maintained?
  • Are there restrictions on house size, height, lot coverage, or other restrictions.
  • What permits and fees are required and what are the costs?  building, electrical, plumbing, porch, patio, well, septic, driveway?
  • Are there impact fees or special assessments? What is the cost?

Zoning and Planning Department

  • What is the property’s zoning district?  Does your house and other uses you have planned, such as an in-home business, duplex, guest cottage, chicken coop, etc., comply with the zoning?
  • Are you in a Special Zoning District? Any wetlands or floodplain on the property?
  • Was the lot legally subdivided?
  • Can I subdivide the lot (if that’s part of your plan)?
  • What lot coverage is allowed, and how is it calculated? (This determines what percentage of the lot you can cover with structures. Some count decks, porches, and driveways as well)
  • Are there any restrictions due to wetlands, flood plains, water frontage,  steep slopes, endangered species, historical or cultural sites, or other issues?
  • Any tree-cutting or land clearing restrictions?
  • Any other restrictions you should be aware of?

Health Department

  • If town sewer service is available what is the total connection cost, including fees?
  • Is there a valid perc test on record (some expire in 2-3 years)? What type of septic system is permitted? For how may bedrooms?
  • Has a septic design been completed?
  • If the land is not perc tested, can they recommend names of companies authorized to perform the testing?
  • What tests are required (deep hole, perc) and what timee of year can a perc test be done in this jurisdiction?
  • Does the area where you are looking typically have trouble with high water tables for poor soils for septic systems? If so, what types of alternative systems are allowed?
  • Are there any known problems in the area with well yield or water quality? How deep are typical wells in the area?

QUESTIONS FOR THE UTILITY COMPANIES

You’ll need to find out what companies can provide electrical power, natural gas, and other utilities to the building site (ask the seller, agent, or a neighbor)  In some cases, you’ll have more than one choice, but for budgeting purposes, the costs are likely to be very similar. Have your street address and parcel number handy when you contact them. Also provide them with a site map showing the planned location of your home. It may make sense to talk to an electrician or plumbing before contacting the power or gas company to see if they can do some of the work for less money than the utility company.

Power

  • Can your company provide power to my building site?
  • Will the lines run on poles or underground? What will be the total costs be to bring power to the home, including fees,  trenching, and meter installation?
  • Will any trees or other obstructions need to removed to reach the home?

Natural Gas

  • Can natural gas be brought to the home?
  • What will be the total cost to bring gas into the home, including fees, trenching, and meter?

Telecom

  • What are your options for phone, cell phone, cable or satellite TV, and high-speed Internet?
  • How much can you save by combining multiple services from a single vendor (it also can simplify your life)?
  • What are the setup fees and monthly fees?

QUESTIONS FOR THE SEPTIC SYSTEM DESIGNER AND CONTRACTOR?

  • What type of system is the most economical and reliable?
  • If an alternative system is required, what are the options with pros and cons?
  • Where on the lot can the system be placed?
  • How much will it cost to install, including permitting?

QUESTIONS FOR THE WELL DRILLER

It’s good to speak to more than one driller. Also neighbors can be a good source of well info. Finally, check with your local health department and the Dept. of Environmental Protection to see if they are aware of any well water issues in your immediate or surrounding area. Although water tends to move slowly through the aquifer, a problem a couple of miles away, like leakage from a landfill, could become your problem a few years down the road.

  • How deep are neighboring wells?
  • What are  flow rates and water quality of nearby wells?
  • What are costs to install the well (based on estimated depth)?
  • What are the labor and material costs to complete the well and plumb to the house? (including pump, trenching and backfill, plumbing, wiring, pressure tank)?
  • What water problems are common to the area, such as hardness, acidity, sulfur dioxide (rotten egg smell), other minerals such as iron, manganese, sodium (salt), magnesium, and copper. Any evidence of nitrates or other potentially hazardous materials?
  • What sorts of water treatment systems are commonly used in the area and what do they cost to install and maintain?

QUESTIONS FOR WATER TREATMENT PROVIDERS

Some water treatment issues need immediate attention. Others like hard or acidic water can be dealt with a few years later – or maybe never if the house is only used seasonally. If the water will need treatment, you  should learn about the range of options and a rough estimate of costs. After a water test, any health-related questions need to be addressed and any offer should be contingent upon an adequate supply of potable water.

  • What water issues need to be treated for health reasons?
  • Which will affect smell, taste, staining, and other nuisances?
  • Which will harm or reduce the efficiency of plumbing and household equipment?
  • What treatment system do you recommend?
  • How many gallons per day of treated water can the system produce with your well’s flow rate?
  • Is the unit NSF-certified as a system (not just the individual components) to treat your specific water quality issue?
  • What is the initial cost and operating cost, including power, additives, filters, and other consumable parts?
  • What routine and long-term maintenance is required, and how long will the equipment last?
  • Does the company offer a service contract?
  • Are rental units available? How does the price compare with owning?
  • How reliable is the unit in the installer’s experience? What are common problems?

Is there a written warranty and what does it cover? What is not covered? Has the company honored warranty claims, in the installers experience.

QUESTIONS FOR YOUR LAWYER

Any question that remains murky after speaking with town the seller, agent, and town officials should be run by your lawyer, or the appropriate professional: engineer, well driller, septic system designer, etc. If the answer from you lawyer is “that will take some research,” get an estimate of how much it will cost to find the answer and decide whether it is worth it. Most questions about legal ownership and encroachments will be answered during the title search. Depending on the characteristics of the land and nature of the deal, questions might include?

Pre-bid

  • Are water and mineral rights a concern in this area?
  • What should I add as contingencies to the bid offer?
  • How much time do I need to address these contingencies?

If bid is accepted

  • If title problems are found, how much time and money will it take to resolve them?
  • Will any variances be required to build what and where you like, and what is the likely outcome of applying for these variances?
  • Will I be getting a warranty deed for the property? If not, should I purchase owner’s title insurance?

QUESTIONS FOR YOURSELF AND FAMILY

  • Do you like the building site, the views, the sunlight, and breezes?
  • Have you considered the four seasons?
  • What changes are likely over the next several years: new roads, housing developments, strip malls? Are your views and peace and quiet  likely to last?
  • Can you afford the land and development costs?
  • Do you like the neighborhood, schools, and property tax rates?
  • Distance to work, recreation, shopping, banking, medical care, etc.?
  • Any nuisances to be aware of, for example:

noise from a an industrial site, gun club, nearby snowmobile trail, or airline flight path overhead
smells from a pig farm, or silage spreading in the spring or fall
chemicals from a golf course, agriculture, or an industrial site






Comments

  1. Karen Beskau says:

    Can Devloper Build on “Green Space” Next Door?

    Can a developer sell you a corner lot, and tell you the land between you and the corner is “green space”, so you won’t have anyone next to you, and charge you a “premium” for a corner lot — then after your house is built, decide to sell the “greens space,” since it was bigger than they thought, so now you don’t have a corner lot anymore?

    Our house was designed and built for a corner lot, and now will have large windows looking into the new house.
    Is there a way to stop the developer from selling that green space and make our lot an actual corner lot?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      This is a legal question and I am not a lawyer – so I suggest you find a lawyer with a lot of experience in real estate litigation (not just attending real-estate closings).

      Your experience sounds extremely frustrating on several counts. You feel you were mislead by the developer which cost you real money in the premium you paid for the lot. Also your house plan is compromised and you don’t have the privacy or views you were promised.

      On the face of it, it sounds like you have valid claim to either be compensated for the loss of value in your home, or to stop the land from being developed. In buying vacant land, it is largely up to buyer to investigate the conditions of the land. An exception to this is fraud, defined the legal self-help publisher Nolo.com as “intentionally deceitful or misleading words or actions that wrongfully benefit the perpetrator of the fraud at the personal or monetary expense of another.”

      My guess is that you will have a pretty strong case if you have anything in writing documenting the developer’s description of the “green space” and connecting the price of your lot to its bordering on undeveloped land. Was this supposed to be common land owned by a homeowners’ association (HOA)? Is the green space part of the site development plan approved by the local zoning board? Did the developer commit to the town or the other homeowners that this space would remain undeveloped?

      You can do a little research yourself by visiting your town’s zoning office and requesting to see the site development or subdivision plan (also called a plat), which should be part of the public record. Ask to meet with the zoning office to discuss the subdivision plan and see if the town might be willing to get involved.

      In most cases, however, you would need to take legal action, or at least threaten to take action, to persuade the developer to change their plan. In any of your neighbors are impacted by this, they may be willing to join you in your effort. The first step is to arrange a brief meeting with a lawyer to describe the situation and see if you have a strong legal case. Ask what are your options, the associated costs (in time and money), and the likely outcome of taking legal action.

      To make efficient use of the lawyer’s time and get a meaningful opinion, you should do as much homework ahead of time as you can, bringing along any documentation of the developer’s promise that the lot next door would remain as green space. Best of luck!

  2. Can Builder Help Evaluate Lot?

    First of all, thank you very much for your great information and advice! Like your website, it’s really helpful.

    My question is, will a builder objectively evaluate a lot for me even though I don’t yet know whether I’ll eventually select that builder to build my home?

    Here’s the situation. I want to build a modular home, have a general design in mind, and am looking for land. I’m considering three different reputable manufacturers, each associated with a different local builder. Because my lot characteristics will affect building costs, I’m told I need to choose a lot before I can get total cost estimates from these three manufacturer/builder teams to compare. I’ll then select a manufacturer/builder team based on what they can provide (including quality per spec info), price, and whatever else I can find out including builder reputation.

    Since I can’t know who my builder is until I get bids, and can’t get bids until I have a lot, is there a way to obtain a builder’s objective advice on a lot? It seems awkward. How do you recommend I proceed? Thanks!

    • buildingadvisor says:

      If these builders are willing to take a look at the lots you are considering, by all means I would accept their offer. My guess is that you will get similar feedback from all the builders as the site issues will be more-or-less the same for all three. Getting the opinions of two or three builders should help you assess the pros and cons of the various sites. The more information you get about site development costs and issues, the better.

      In general, the cost quoted by the modular manufacturer only cover the cost of the building delivered to the site. They do not typically include the foundation, utility hookups, site work, paving, landscaping, well and septic (if needed), permitting, and on and on (see Budgeting for Site Development). Using modular construction can still save you money, but not nearly as much as you might think based on the net cost of the modular.

      Once you’ve settled on a particular site, you should try to get turn-key pricing from the builders. If you don’t have a lot of experience, it’s can be hard to recognize what is NOT covered in their bid. Ask lots of questions, including “Are there any other costs I should anticipate before this house is ready to move into?” Compare the bids, not just on price, but also on specifications and what exactly is included and excluded from the bid. Making an apples-to-apples comparison takes some effort.

      Read more on Modular Home Cost Savings

  3. Who Can Help Evaluating Lot

    We are looking into buying a piece of undeveloped land. Do you recommend a contractor takes a look at it before buying (or civil engineer)? Our concern is that once we go to build the lot is not as build-able as we thought. We want to avoid any sticker shock after buying the land.

    • buildingadvisor says:

      That’s a great question and I wish there was a simple answer. If you are buying a house, you hire the best home inspector you can find, but who do you hire to inspect a piece of land? Undeveloped or “vacant” land is far more difficult to evaluate than an existing home.

      If you have a specific question, then you can consult with or hire the appropriate professional — for example, a septic system designer about on-site sewage, an excavation contractor about site work, or a surveyor about boundaries, easements, and issues such as protected wetlands or flood plains which should appear in a current survey.

      A seasoned general contractor who has purchased and developed vacant land could certainly be a good resource and could help you identify the big cost items and help with preliminary budgeting, if you can find someone willing to share that information. Anyone who has built at least a few spec homes in the area on unimproved sites is well aware of the issues and costs involved.

      A civil engineer would also have a good overview as they deal with most of issues you are likely to encounter in developing a site. The trick will be finding someone experienced with small-scale residential development such as single family homes. Most engineers (and land development consultants) work on larger scale projects with multimillion dollar budgets.

      Contractors or architects can provide you with names of suitable engineers. Interview a few on the phone, focusing on small firms or sole practitioners. Tell them what you need them to do, ask if they are a good fit for this, and what they would charge.

      To make the best use of your time with an engineer or other paid consultant, bring a written list of your questions and concerns along with a description of your preliminary building plans and any site plans, subdivision documents, protective covenants, or any other deed restrictions you are aware of. Also bring any existing perc test reports, well yield reports, or other relevant documentation you can put your hands on.

      Best of luck with your search for a great building site!

  4. Victoria says:

    Who Builds The Road to Our Lot?

    We are looking at a piece of property that does not yet have road access. We know where the right-of-way is and where the road would go. My question is who is responsible for getting the road put in? Who do we contact to get information like the time-frame and our potential cost?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      Who is responsible for the access road or driveway depends completely on the conditions of sale. If the lot is in a development, the developer would typically build the road to your lot line. In other cases, they buyer would be responsible unless you negotiate otherwise.

      You, or your real estate agent if you are using one, should start by asking the seller about the road – who is putting it in, when, and what type of road. If the seller is building the road, make sure this is put in writing. If it’s not well documented, then you should make your offer contingent upon the road being completed before you close – or later if that’s agreeable to you.

      If the seller is not building the road, you can make your offer contingent upon your getting a suitable bid for the road (within, say, 14 days). If your offer is accepted, you will need to contact one or more companies to get an estimate from an excavation or paving contractor.

      One thing to keep in mind is the right-of-way. This is a legal issue and might need review by a lawyer before you proceed. You would need to make sure that the right-of-way is legally valid and is consistent with your plans. If there is any uncertainty on your part, I would make the right-of-way and your usage of it a contingency of your offer. You may want a real-estate lawyer to help write, or at least review, your offer.

  5. Should Seller Remove Tree Stump?

    I have recently bought a piece of undeveloped land. The seller has cut down a tree and left the stump, hiding it under the wood chips on purpose. Is that legal? How can I legally make the seller pay for removal of tree stump?

    • buildingadvisor says:

      The answer to these kinds of questions is never black and white. That’s why there are so many lawyers!

      Disclosure laws requiring sellers of real estate to disclose “defects” vary from state to state, and are generally stronger with respect to homes than to land. Unfortunately, with land, the operative rule is often “caveat emptor,” which means “Let the buyer beware.”

      Also, a stump would generally not be considered a “defect,” like buried toxic materials. On the other hand, if the seller promised you that he would cut down the tree and remove the stump, then he is bound by contract to remove the stump. If such an agreement is in writing, then you’d have a much stronger case. If he simply said verbally, or in writing, he would cut down the tree, but did not mention stump removal, then it is less clear who would be responsible.

      At the end of the day, the practical question is how much of your time and money you want to expend trying to get the seller to remove the stump. One meeting with a lawyer could easily cost you more than the cost to remove the stump. And in Small Claims Court, it’s not clear that you would win unless the seller specifically agreed, in writing, to remove the stump.

      Keep things in perspective. If this is the biggest (and most expensive) surprise that you encounter in buying and developing the lot, then you are luckier than many buyers of raw land. For most people, a land purchase is much more difficult to evaluate than a house. Land development expenses, which can run into many thousands of dollars, catch many buyers by surprise.

      A recent question om buried debris addresses many of the same issues.

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