Do I need a special real estate agent to buy vacant land?

Buying vacant land involves different issues than buying an already-built home, so getting an experienced buyer's agent by your side is worthwhile.

Question

We’ve ready to make the jump from renting to owning our own home, and we’d like to build it ourselves. We know where we want to live – a small town with lots of open space and wonderful schools – and we’re ready to start looking at land we can build on, but we've never done this before, and we’re not sure what kind of real estate broker we should talk to. Should we be looking for a real estate broker who specializes in buying and selling vacant land? Or should we just start looking around and then call the agent’s number that we see listed on the sign?

Answer

Typically, residential real estate brokerage agencies don’t specialize in different kinds of real estate (for example, rental apartments or single-family homes). However, individual brokers who are affiliated with that agency may be specialists, or at least experienced, in specific kinds of real estate. So you could theoretically contact any brokerage, though you might want to first scout around for individual brokers who focus on vacant-land transactions.

What you probably don’t want to do is to call the number on the seller’s sign. Doing so might lead you into a situation where you don’t have your own, buyer’s broker by your side to help negotiate and conclude the transaction.

By way of background, real estate brokers represent clients in one of two basic ways: they represent the seller (in this case, the owner of the vacant land) or they represent the buyer (you).

A brokerage firms or agent can also, however, represent both the buyer and the seller at the same time. If two different agents in the same firm represent the buyer and the seller, it’s called designated agency; if the same agent represents both the buyer and the seller, it’s called dual agency. While such an arrangement can appear convenient even to the buyer, realize that it involves an inherent conflict of interest in which of the seller’s agent can’t convey important information to you because of confidentiality based on his or her simultaneous duty to protect the seller’s interests. It’s best to avoid such arrangements.

The presence of a second, buyer's broker won’t cost you anything; the seller’s agent and your agent will simply split the commission that the seller has already agreed to pay.

A good buyer’s agent can help you learn more about the town you want to live in, find suitable listings on the Multiple Listing Service and other listing agencies, deal with the seller’s agent, arrange for you to walk the land, obtain helpful information not provided by the seller’s agent, and generally walk you through the entire process of purchasing the land on which you’ll build your house.

You won’t regret the time and effort you’ll spend on choosing your own agent. Buying raw land adds a level of complexity to your planning: You’ll need to think about issues that are already resolved when buying an existing home, like sewer hookups or septic systems, zoning restrictions, environmental regulations, and building codes. Your real estate agent should have the experience and training to deal with such issues.

Word of mouth is still the best way to find a good real estate agent; there aren’t any reliable national rating services for real estate brokerage agencies and their agents. Check reviews of real agents in your area online. Talk to friends who have just bought or built a home. Visit the clerk’s office in the town where you want to build, and ask for some referrals.

And, if you see any homes that are under construction in that town or area, talk to the contractors who are working on the house and ask for the names of the brokers who represented the buyer and the seller on the sale of the land. Selecting a buyer’s real estate agent isn’t a science, but you can increase the odds of ending up with a good one by asking lots of questions.

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