Buyer's Checklist for Purchasing Vacant Land

Never bought a vacant plot of land before? Don't begin building your home until you learn more about zoning, environmental, sewer, and other issues unique to this type of purchase.

By , J.D.

Designing and building your own home on a plot of vacant land can be hugely satisfying. But unless you've done it before, the process can be confusing. Here are some common things to check when purchasing vacant land.

What Are the Local Amenities and Government?

Start with the area where the land is located. Some issues to look into are similar to what you'd consider when buying an existing home. For example, is the local government well run, or will it make your life difficult when you need permits or variances? Is public transportation conveniently located? What about nearby schools, shops, parks, and sources of medical care?

How Will Environmental and Zoning Matters Affect Your Building Plans?

Investigate the immediate vicinity of the vacant land for concerns like landfills, noisy highways, or industrial uses. Maps and aerial surveys prepared by FEMA or Google or found on the Town Clerk's website can be helpful.

On the plus side, you might find that the plot is near conservation land or other protected resources, meaning you'll enjoy green space around you far into the future.

What Building Permit Obligations Will You Face?

You'll want to know whether you or your general contractor will need to obtain permits or approvals other than the building permit itself, most likely for:

  • Sewer service. Many towns and villages provide sewer service. But is there sufficient sewer capacity for you to make a connection? Ask the town clerk or local board of health. If a connection is available, how expensive will it be? If the property is far from the nearest sewer line, it might be more cost effective to install a private septic system. State and local health codes will likely govern the required soil quality, height of ground water, and distance from lot lines. If the property seller hasn't already pulled a permit for an engineered septic system, make your purchase contingent on having soils testing done and being satisfied with the results.
  • Water. Public water hookups might also require a permit, as might private wells. Many towns require that private wells—even those on neighboring properties—be located a minimum distance from a private septic system. Be sure you can get both on your lot.
  • Zoning. Virtually all towns have zoning bylaws regulating the kinds of uses permitted on vacant land, including how the lot can be developed, whether for residential, commercial, farming, or some combined use. If building a home, make sure that your land is zoned residential! Zoning also regulates setbacks from lot lines and similar issues affecting home design, like the maximum length of a driveway.
  • Subdivisions. If the land is within an established subdivision, additional laws and regulations may apply. Speak with the town clerk about whether the subdivision was properly approved and to check that your land is actually on a public road. Check the subdivision plans on file for rules governing detention ponds and use of common rights of way within the subdivision.
  • 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. These can severely restrict the area available for building. If your land might contain protected water resources, have an engineer evaluate it.
  • Hazardous materials. If, for example, your land is the former site of a large industrial plant, have an engineer perform preliminary research for you.
  • Special regulatory issues. Your land might be located in a historic district, or be within a protected view shed. See what you can find out at town hall.
  • Possible title issues. If you go ahead and buy, your attorney (or the lender's) will examine the land's ownership history. Even so, you can anticipate title issues by looking at the local paper or talking to neighbors. Are there rights of way or other easements that cross the property? Has the 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.

Are There Endangered Animals or Plants on the Land Where You Hope to Build?

Both the federal and states' governments protect a number of endangered species and their habitats. (County and smaller governmental bodies usually don't.) Some endangered species, like the bald eagle, are famous; others, like grey wolves, are the subject of contention, with farmers and ranchers fearing threats to their herds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publishes maps that locate federally protected endangered species near you, as well as the kinds of protections that the government will enforce (for example, limits on numbers of the species that can be "taken," or minimum distances between endangered habitat and new construction).

The news isn't always bad; the U.S. government offers grant or loan programs to finance protection of endangered species and their environments during new construction. Often, property improvements that protect endangered habitats can also improve storm drainage or reduce damage from soil erosion.

Many states protect a longer list of endangered species than the feds. Check your state's maps and lists. And again, look for grant or loan programs that will defray or cover the cost of protecting endangered species on your land.

Almost all government agencies enforce their endangered species regulations by granting or denying permits that are specific to proposed construction or other activity. If your land is home to an endangered species, you might need to obtain one or more permits before going forward. The permits may limit the location of new construction or require special protections, like hay bales, during construction.

Building without approval on a piece of land that contains an endangered species or its habitat is an invitation to disaster. If in doubt about whether your plans are legal, consult an environmental engineer or an environmental biologist.

Should I Hire an Attorney Before Building?

Even after the land sale has gone through, an attorney might still be needed. Without an attorney's help, you risk missing something important with regard to issues like:

  • What zoning regulations apply for mixed uses of the land? If, for example, you're hoping to build a combination home and daycare center, you and your attorney will need to make sure that both such uses are permitted.
  • What title issues must be kept in mind during planning and building? Prior to closing escrow, you should have reviewed the title insurance preliminary report for potential issues impacting your plans. The attorney can help you revisit that report and further evaluate what kind of recorded restrictions affect the lot, such as environmental or historical designations.
  • Whether previous land owners tried to build on the property. By reviewing your land's files at the local building and planning office, your attorney may find out whether previous owners attempted to build, and if so, why their plans weren't successful. Your attorney might also check with local courts for lawsuits involving the property or its neighbors.

There are numerous potential issues when building on vacant land, but having the right real estate attorney available to help will make the process much easier.

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