If I see a vacant lot, how do I find out whether the owner will sell?

There's no "For Sale" sign up -- but might the owner be willing to sell the vacant property anyway?

Question

My husband and I want to build our own home. We enjoy spending the occasional weekend afternoon driving around towns that we’d like to live in. Now and again, we see a vacant piece of land that looks perfect for our new home. How can we find out if the owner will sell to us?

Answer

Your first stop is the town hall for the area where the vacant lot is located. Here, the assessors’ office will provide you with information about the land (street address, number of square feet, street frontage, annual real estate taxes, the town’s assessment of the land, and its last sales price) and about the owner (name and mailing address, which you can probably use to find a phone number.) Many assessors’ offices maintain these records online, as well, together with maps or plans that will locate the land for you and give you its size and dimensions.

With the owner’s contact information in hand, you can write to or call the owner, expressing interest in purchasing the land and asking whether the owner would be willing to sell it. If the owner lives next to the vacant land, or in the same town, consider asking the owner if you could stop by to introduce yourselves.

Before contacting the owner, you may want to research the current market value of the land, so that if the owner responds by saying, “Sure, for the right price,” you’ll have an idea of what the right price is.

Start by checking with a few brokerage firms that are active where the land is located to see if the land you want to buy is listed. (You’ll likely find this information on their website.) Broader-based services that provide estimates of current market values, like Realtor.com or Zillow, may be helpful as well (but realize that their estimates may be outdated or based on minimal, publicly available data).

You can also work backwards from the estimated current market value of nearby houses, if that’s the only information that’s available to you. As a general rule, the value of the land is 25% to 30% of the value of the house, depending on the town in which the house is located.

Most owners are flattered when people express interest in buying their homes or land, even if they have no present intention of selling, so you needn’t be diffident about approaching a landowner. You never know: your letter or telephone call may nudge an ambivalent owner toward becoming a seller.

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