Shopping for a Site
If you go land shopping, keep in mind that costs for vacant acreage have been rising steadily, so don't be so eager to buy and build that you make a serious error with the lot you select. Not all land is valuable. You may be able to pay as little as $2,000 for a one-acre lot somewhere, but it might be impossible to build a home on that site. It may not be accessible to utilities. It may be so far off the beaten track it is difficult to reach. It could have poor drainage. Maybe it is not zoned for a home.
You may not be able to afford land in an established residential neighborhood — if, that is, there is any open land left — or in farm country, where land is being sold to developers in parcels of thousands of acres apiece, if it is being sold at all.
More than a few buyers are dismayed (frantic might be a more accurate word for it) to learn that the lot they purchased is too small, according to local government restrictions, for the house they want to build — or for any house. Make sure the lot you buy is large enough for the home you have in mind.
Not discouraged? Good. Following are some important points to note when shopping for a home site:
Be sure to look at environmental concerns. It will pay to check into what your state environmental agency has, or has in mind, for land trust purposes and where it could be putting a total moratorium on development.
Don't buy too close to a major highway. You might find the state highway department is planning to widen a road right into your parlor. Check as many master plans and environmental agency reports as you can for the area you are considering.
Find out if the land can be used as a home site. What type of permit do you need to obtain? Are there water and sewer hookups? Is your lot large enough, according to local zoning laws, for the construction of a home? All of this can be checked at your city or town hall.
Check that the lot is not too steep for building, another unpleasant surprise for some buyers.
Find out if there are government restrictions. With the rapid growth in housing development over the past ten years, cities have imposed height restrictions.
Check the soil. You might have to add topsoil to your lot or take some topsoil away from it. Rock too close to the soil can add to the expense of the foundation or make digging one totally impractical.
A high water table or ground not stable enough to support a house could mean you run into still more expense. Be especially wary of acreage over a landfill, where flooding can occur as the water table rises. Ask about all of this at your town engineer's office.
Find out if you can erect a manufactured home — your most affordable choice — on the lot. Some municipalities have regulations against such houses.
Utilities are another point to check. Is the lot you are looking at serviced by public sewer and water? If not, you will need a septic system and a well.
Be sure you get clear title to the land. You can do the title search yourself at the town hall, you can pay a title search company to do it, or you can buy title insurance, which will insure you against potential lawsuits. For the latter two options, see “Title” in the Yellow Pages.
Will you be landlocked? The selling of landlocked lots is illegal in many states. Small plots in the middle of nowhere only reachable by helicopter cannot be marketed anymore — there must be an access road.
What will be going up around you? Again, look at local master plans to see what kind of growth is forecast. Ask around, too, to see what is in the talking stages for the acreage around the lot you have selected.
What about the shape of the lot? The more road frontage on an already completed thoroughfare, the more valuable the piece of land will be. The more expense required to develop the land, the cheaper your purchase price should be.
Do not forget to consider resale value. Being plunked in the woods far from even the nearest hamlet might suit you fine, but when it comes time to sell, buyers who feel the same way might be fewer than you would like.
You will also need to consider how you will pay for your lot. Financing is important. Many sales of land are cash only. Sometimes the seller holds a short-term mortgage. Check with mortgage brokers. Some can put you in touch with a conventional lender who will finance your lot if you intend to build on it within two years.
You cannot forget the local political entity where you buy. Learn to whom you report building plans, requests, problems, and the like. Be sure you know jurisdictions, town borders, and county lines. If you have to appear before a zoning board or a city council meeting to petition for a zoning variance, try to get a reading on those people. How do they feel about development, even on the small scale you are planning? Are you likely to win your variance?