Is This Lot Buildable?

Stephanie asks: Who is the right person to answer questions from the Land Buying Checklist?

Steve Bliss, of, replies:  Most of the issues raised in the Land  Buying Checklist  are also discussed in Questions to Ask, which suggests where to get answers to questions about vacant land. Questions are broken down by the various types of professionals, businesses, and government agencies whom you can go to for information.

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.

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