Buying Vacant Land on Which to Build a Home: What to Investigate Pre-Purchase

Here's a handy summary of the issues to look into before purchasing a plot of land on which to build a home.

Designing and building your own home can be one of the most satisfying events in the course of a lifetime. It starts with buying a parcel of vacant land. Careful investigation can make the difference between a wonderful experience and a terrible one. Almost all of this work is already done if you’re buying an existing home – but then you’d miss out on all the satisfactions of doing it yourself.

Here’s what you’ll want to look into before you purchase that ideal site for your new home.

Checking Out Local Amenities and Government

Start with the town or village where the land is located. Many of the issues to look into are similar to those you’d consider if buying an existing home. For example, how are the schools? Is local government well run, or does it have a long history of contentious boards and committees, poor planning or inefficient administration. Is public transportation conveniently located nearby? Hospitals or other reliable sources of medical care? Where will you do your shopping? What about recreational opportunities: Does this town have a lot of parks, playgrounds and kids’ sport programs?

Your future plans also have a bearing on what you’ll want to look into. For example, do you plan to stay after your children have graduated and moved on? Then the town’s senior services may play a part in your decision.

For information on how to research many of these matters online, see Nolo’s article, “Best Home Buying and Selling Research Websites.”

Checking Out Nearby Environmental and Zoning Matters

Investigate the immediate vicinity of the vacant land. Descriptions of the land – even those prepared by competent real estate brokers – won’t give you a lot of information about the property’s surroundings. Here, maps and aerial surveys prepared by FEMA or Google or found online or at the Town Clerk’s office can be very helpful. Is the town dump only a few feet away? Is the land near a potentially noisy highway or railroad tracks? Are you within feet of a large and busy commercial center, like a shopping center or mall?

On the positive side, you may find that the land is very close to conservation land or other protected resources. Knowing that the open land around you can’t be developed can be a big plus.

Checking Out Building Permit Obligations

You’ll want to know whether you or your general contractor will need to obtain any permits or approvals other than the building permit itself. Those permits come in many flavors:

Sewer. Many towns and villages provide public water or sewer service. Your land may have access to one or both. Is there enough capacity in the town sewer system for you to make a connection? Ask the Town Clerk or the Board of Health officer. You’ll also want to know how expensive that connection will be.

If you’re far away from the nearest sewer line, you may want to use a private septic system rather than bear the cost of the connection. In this case, state and local health codes will likely govern the required quality of the soils, height of ground water, and distance from lot lines. If the seller of the land hasn’t already pulled a permit for an engineered septic system, you’ll want to make your purchase contingent on having soils testing done and being satisfied with the results. (See Nolo’s article, “Before Buying Vacant Land: Getting an Environmental Assessment” for more on soils testing.)

Water. Public water hookups may also require a permit, as may private wells. Many towns require that private wells – even those on your neighbor’s property - be located a minimum distance from a private septic system. You’ll want to be sure you can get both on your lot.

Zoning. Virtually all towns have zoning bylaws that regulate the kinds of uses that are permitted on vacant land. Make sure that your land is zoned residential!

Zoning also regulates setbacks from lot lines and similar site issues, like the maximum length of a driveway. Your house should be designed to fit inside the building envelope created by the lot-line setback requirements.

Subdivisions. If the land you want to buy is within an established subdivision, additional laws and regulations may apply. Speak with the Town Clerk to see if the subdivision was properly approved and that your land is actually on a public road. Check the subdivision plans, on file with the Town Clerk, for rules that govern detention ponds and the use of common rights of way within the subdivision itself.

Regulated water resources. Building in or near wetlands, rivers and streams, ponds and lakes, and coastlines is governed by a complicated net of overlapping federal, state, and local laws and regulations. The presence of wetlands or other protected water resources can severely restrict the area that is available for building. If you think your land contains protected water resources, have an engineer take a look at the property with you.

Hazardous materials. The presence of hazardous materials on your land may be a show stopper. If you have any reason to think that your land may contain hazardous materials – for example, your land is the former site of a large industrial plant – have an engineer do some preliminary research for you.

Special regulatory issues. Your land may be located in a historic district, or may be within a protected view shed. See what you can find out at town hall about such special regulatory issues.

Anticipating title issues. If you go ahead, there will be plenty of opportunity for your attorney (or the attorney for the bank that is providing your financing) to search the history of ownership of your land. Even so, you can anticipate some title issues and decide if they make a significant difference, simply by looking at the local paper or talking to prospective neighbors. Are there rights of way or other easements that cross the property? Has this property been foreclosed on? Has the town begun proceedings to collect back taxes? Issues like this can often be resolved before or at the closing, but it can’t hurt to know what to anticipate.

That’s a lot of homework! But figure that for very little expense you’ll be dodging some very expensive and time-consuming problems down the road – especially after you’ve bought the land. You’ll sleep a lot easier when you sign that purchase and sale agreement.

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