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 a 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 registrar’s office. You should be able to obtain a copy for a nominal fee.
The recorded survey can be helpful if the property boundaries are not clearly marked. Without clearly marked and confirmed boundaries, you really don’t know what you are buying. Walk the site to locate the corner markers and other “bounds” such as along a road or river. Older corner markers may be buried, hidden, or may have been moved or removed.
Using established boundaries and a 100-ft. tape, you should be able to get a pretty good idea of the piece of land for sale. Depending on the type and thoroughness of the survey done, it may also identify existing structures and improvements, easements and rights-0f-way, flood-plains, encroachments, and other legal issues affecting the property.
If your offer is accepted, you may be required by your lender or title company to get an updated survey. Even if you are not required to get a survey, you may choose to do so as part of your due diligence. If you can find the previous surveyor, you can often get an updated survey for a discounted rate. It’s usually 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.