Buying land for the first time can be intimidating. There are many asset-specific nuances that need to be considered and understood before the decision to buy is made. We have put together this primer on the basics of land research to get you up the learning curve faster and hopefully minimize any frustration. Here are some items to think about once you have found a parcel that looks interesting.
Understand the physical characteristics of the property and what surrounds it
Especially if you are buying land out-of-state or you aren’t very familiar with the area, the first thing you should do is enter the address or GPS coordinates into a satellite software application like Google Maps or Google Earth (both of which are free). Some counties have GIS mapping available through their websites that typically overlay the parcel map onto satellite images so you can get additional information about the shape of the parcel and the adjacent parcels. This software will allow you to virtually explore from the comfort of your home so you can answer questions such as:
- What is the topography of the property? – Based on your use case you may want land that is flat as possible, or perhaps you are looking for land that is partially located on a hill or in the mountains. The zoom and tilting functions of the satellite software will allow you to get a sense of the slope and other physical characteristics of the property.
- What resources are nearby? – How far is the nearest town or major city from the property? Where is the nearest grocery store, gas station, hospital, school, etc?
- How close are the neighbors? – You will get a sense of how densely populated (or not) the surrounding area is.
- What are the features of the surrounding area? – Are there mountains or lakes nearby? Are you near the ocean or an area known for fishing, hunting, off-roading or golf?
What type of access does the property have?
Having road access to the property is, of course, one of the most important aspects you should research. Many rural properties only have dirt roads that run near, through or along the parcels, while some are along paved roads. Use Google Maps / Earth to see what type of physical access the property has (if any) and, if it is dirt road access, how far it is to a paved road or highway.
The other aspect of access is legal access (i.e., easements) for properties that don’t have direct road access. An easement would allow a property owner to cross over another owner’s property from the road to access their property. Easements are typically recorded with the county recorder’s office and can be difficult to research. You will most likely need the help of a title company or attorney to complete the search given easements often go back many years and require an experienced individual to find and interpret the relevant information. If there is no easement available to access a road, you can contact the adjacent property owners to see if they would grant you an easement. Even if they don’t, many states have laws that allow property owners to forcibly purchase an easement from an unwilling owner. A property owner can speak with the local government to identify an access route to the road and determine a fair price. You should speak with an attorney (we aren’t attorneys, so nothing here should be interpreted as legal advice) to understand all of the relevant laws and legal processes in the jurisdiction of the property given how situation specific these issues are.
What is the property zoned for and what are the use restrictions?
It is important to understand the zoning of the property as that will determine what it can be used for. This is especially crucial if you are planning to build on the parcel. Some questions you will have to verify could include:
- Is the property zoned residential, commercial, agricultural, etc?
- What are the nuances of these zoning classifications and what are the use restrictions?
- Can certain types of dwellings be added to this parcel? (e.g., mobile / manufactured homes, traditional homes, container homes, multifamily, etc.)
- Are dwellings allowed at all?
- Can I park my RV on the land?
Every county differs when it comes to zoning and use restrictions, so you should give the county planning and zoning department (may be called the building department or the zoning department) a call to understand what the property can currently be used for so you can determine if this parcel fits your needs. They will also let you know what next steps you’ll need to take to build and let you know about any applicable permits, license fees or building requirements such as building setbacks. While beyond the scope of this article, there are ways to change the zoning of the parcel but even if that is your plan, you should know the current zoning and use restrictions and understand what the process would be to have them changed.
Are utilities available?
Not every property has direct access to public power, sewer, gas or water lines. If you are planning to live on an off-grid parcel, you will have to determine how near you are to public utilities and if it is cost prohibitive to have them connected to the property. Typically, if you call the local utility companies they will give you a free estimate of how much it would cost to extend their services to the land. If connecting to public utilities is too expensive, there are many alternative ways of getting power, water and sewer. Here are a few examples:
- Power: Solar or wind systems
- Sewer: Septic or other alternative waste systems
- Water: Wells or have water delivered to you which is held in a large storage tank
Calling local vendors of these systems to research the cost and installation timeline and speaking with the county to make sure these systems are allowed and what is required to install and maintain them (e.g., the county health department will typically help you understand what is required for septic systems and wells) ahead of purchasing the land will save you a lot of frustration.
Is the land part of a POA / HOA?
If the land is part of a property or home owner’s association, you will want to research if there are any restrictions or covenants and how dues are applied. Many POAs / HOAs provide services such as road maintenance, assistance with utilities and other services. You can give them a call and they will walk you through the services they provide along with the costs.
How much are the property taxes?
Often you can determine the annual tax amount on a parcel by going to the county’s tax assessor website and searching via the address or APN (Assessor’s Parcel Number). If that isn’t available, you can always give the county tax assessor office a call.
Are there any title issues?
Title issues occur for a variety of reasons but what it means for a buyer is that while many documents may have been signed and things seem in order, you may not have full legal ownership of the property even after you paid for it. The way to guard against this is to have a title company complete a title search and issue you a title insurance policy. If the property is of any substantial value (i.e., more than a few thousand dollars or so), it typically is prudent to get title insurance to save yourself a lot of headache, money and time if you later find out you have title issues (e.g., when you want to sell the property and the buyer wants title insurance or when you want to get a construction loan and the lender requires title insurance, etc.). Given the importance of this issue, we did an in-depth article on title insurance here.
Is the property located in a flood zone?
Especially if a property is located near a body of water, you’ll want to do some research on if the parcel is located in a high-risk flood zone. If the property is located in a flood zone there are various implications based on your intended use of the property. If your plan is to live on the property then you’ll want to do some further research on the cost to get flood insurance, level of flooding risk, flood history, etc. before you purchase the property. A good place to start doing your research is on the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) website as you can access their flood maps for free. You can enter your address or GPS coordinates and their mapping application will let you know if you are located in a flood zone. You can then do further research by contacting insurance companies in the area to understand what it would cost to get flood insurance.
Do I need a survey?
Having a property professionally surveyed is not required to own property. But, if you are planning to build on the property then you will likely want a survey (lenders that provide construction loans usually require them). For example, most zoning classifications require a certain setback distance from the property lines so a survey is needed to determine exactly where those boundaries are. Or, if you want to put a fence around the property, getting a survey will probably save you a lot of hassle with your neighbors. If you hire a surveyor, they will mark the corners of your property with monuments (typically a type of stake) using latitude and longitude measurements. Once they complete their work, they will record the survey map with the county. You can search the internet for survey firms in the area (make sure they are licensed) or you can give the county a call and they will likely have a list of surveyors they can recommend.
Does the property have mineral rights?
Often the rights of ownership to the subsurface minerals have been separated from a parcel of land. It is typical that this happened many decades, or even over 100 years ago. Sometimes the legal description on the deed will describe any mineral rights (or lack thereof), but many times there is no mention of mineral rights at all. To find out who owns the mineral rights, you can try to contact the county to see if they can help do the title search but typically you will need the help of a title company and/or attorney. It can be difficult to determine the ownership of mineral rights as the chain of title can be broken for a variety of reasons (e.g., divorce, inheritance related issues, legal documentation errors, etc.). Especially in areas not well known for having an abundance of valuable minerals, you will often find issues determining who the rightful owner is. The mineral rights in these areas typically have very limited value (if any), so the owners often don’t take the time or expense to document their ownership properly. If an area is well known for valuable minerals, it may be worth the expense of doing the research. You can always contact a title company to understand the typical timeline and cost before you make a decision.
Visiting the land
Once you have done the research that can be completed from your home, the last step would be to get in the car and visit the land as pictures and maps can only go so far. Before you go visit, you should prepare by researching the directions to the property (typically using GPS coordinates) and what the roads are like (i.e., will you need 4×4 capability to access the parcel?) using satellite applications like Google Maps on your computer or smartphone. Google Maps also allows you to download the directions to the property on your smartphone, which will be useful as it is possible that you will have limited to no cell reception in very rural locations. Google has directions on how to download map directions to your smartphone for offline use here.
At Land Endeavor, we provide many of the basic items you will need to do your research in our listings. This information will serve as a start to your more fulsome research process to determine if a given property is right for you. You can take a look at our listings here.