Your Dream Home Needs Dream Land: Tips for Buying the Perfect Building Lot—Part 1
Buying vacant land on which to build a home is a huge step, and it is often done by those who are looking for freedom and independence from a typical development community. You get to create exactly what you desire—and where your desire—in a home within your budget. So it is easy to fall in love with a piece of property before doing your due diligence.
You start dreaming of building a home with a fabulous view and feel a rush to move ahead quickly to create that dream. I know because I almost did! I have been through this myself and have done a lot of research—it's complex!
Ideally start to learn before even looking at land. We will focus on buying “vacant land,” not land that is within a development. Those lots have had much of the legwork already done for you and are easier to purchase without an issue.
Let’s look at the most important factors to keep in mind when buying land. I strongly recommended getting a real estate lawyer involved to check all paperwork before committing to a land purchase.
1. Clear Ownership
Do a title search. If you are getting a loan to purchase the land, it will be required. A title search checks for claims on the property by previous heirs and any liens or covenants (previous agreements that are legally binding). You can purchase title insurance to protect yourself should any problem be found and rear its head later. This is a bit complex, but if any issues are found you may still choose to go ahead with the safety net of the title-insurance policy. Having it may save you thousands of dollars down the road.
When you buy a large tract of desirable land (in this case with a great view over water), make sure there is clear ownership and there are no zoning or deed restrictions (House Plan #165-1090).
2. Zoning or Deed Restrictions
Can you build the type and size of structure you want on the property? For example, you may not be able to build a four-bedroom home but only a two-bedroom house for a variety of reasons. And judging by what a neighbor has on his or her property is no guarantee. They may have built prior to changes in zoning laws and been grandfathered in. Check for some of these answers at the local planning office or via your real estate agent:
• Upcoming Plans for the Area. Is any sort of industrial plant or other possible eyesore in the works? And you may be able to get aerial views of the lot, as you might notice a concern close by that you didn't notice on your drive in to view property.
• Does the Property Meet Fire-Department-Access Rules? If there are any issues with roads, and if any upgrades are needed, this can be costly.
• Does a Homeowners Association Have Jurisdiction over the Lot? They may have rules that must be obeyed and fees due annually.
• Is Some of the Land "Protected" in Any Way, Such As Wildlife Habitats? That may preclude your building in certain places on the lot. This issue, combined with percolation-test results (see below) may force you to build on a small area within the lot. Check out our house plans for narrow lots, as you can still create a beautiful home in limited space.
At 24 ft. wide, this one-bedroom house plan will fit on a very narrow lot (Home Plan #160-1020).
Water and sewage disposal are the primary issues. If the lot uses town water and the town’s sewage system, that's great, though you will need to pay to get access to it. In rural areas, however, that won't be the case. You will need to start from scratch:
Water: Is there water on property? It doesn’t matter how gorgeous the land is if you can’t get access to water for your needs.
• Will a well need to be dug? The depth of wells has a direct effect on the cost of creating them. And, unfortunately, depth is unpredictable before the work starts. A neighbor may hit water at 50 feet while your well may need to be much deeper. If a usable well is already in place, that may save money—but it still may need inspection.
When you purchase rural property, it is important to perform percolation tests on the site before closing on the lot. (House Plan #167-1524).
Sewer: A key thing when I was searching for land was the all-important "perc test." A percolation test is an official measurement of the quality of soil and drainage, which determines where and even if a septic tank and leach field (septic system) can be built.
• The perc test tells you where on the property the septic system can be placed. It may limit where on the lot you can build your home. It's very important and can cause you to alter your building plans because the well water and the septic system need to be a certain distances apart for safety.
• If a standard septic tank and leach field cannot be built, other newer but more expensive systems may be doable on the property. Your engineering company will be able to advise you.
• With some properties a perc test may have been performed by the previous landowner. It is great to have a passing perc test, as it saves you money. But be aware that there may be time limitations on a "passing test." It may need to be redone.
• If you need to have a perc test done, be aware there are limits on when it can be performed, depending on climate in your region. In New England, for example, winter is not doable because the ground is frozen. The county usually has a time range during which it allow tests to be conducted.
Electric and Phone: Be aware that some companies may legally be able to refuse to run electric, cable, and phone lines if your location is remote. Or an upfront cash payment may be required.
It is vital to get a survey to be sure that your 20 acres is not actually 16.5 acres. Or that a neighbor hasn't built a structure that crosses onto your property. Hire a local engineering to perform a survey of the property and provide you with a survey map (or “plat map”) showing boundaries, structures on the property, septic-system location, etc.
This example of a rural survey shows the boundaries and existing structures on an 8.57-acre parcel of land.
5.Access and Easements
Last but not least is the critical issue of easements. According to Findlaw.com, an easement is defined as a "right-of-way granted to a person or company authorizing access to or over the owner's land."
• Sometimes the access point to your property is not actually yours, it may be on your neighbor's land. You want to have a clause written in the deed that covers this issue to ensure that you have permanent, transferrable, legal access. I have heard stories of people losing access to their own property after a verbal agreement allowing use of a road on neighboring land falls through.
• An example of a typical easement is a utility company that maintains certain control to maintain access to their equipment on your property.