Having bought a plot of vacant land upon which to build, you probably know that you will need to hire surveyors, engineers, and consultants to help you draw up and execute viable plans. Do you also need to hire an attorney?
Probably so. As discussed in this article, an attorney can play an important role in helping you figure out important things like whether zoning restrictions limit your use of the land, whether any restrictions came with the title to the land, and what experience previous owners of your land had if and when they tried to develop it.
You may be able to do some of the law-related research yourself, and have an attorney review your findings. That would certainly save on attorney’s fees and costs. However, there’s a risk that you might miss something. Knowing the right questions to ask is just as important as obtaining the answers when it comes to building on vacant land.
What are the zoning regulations affecting the land you’ve bought? Your vacant land is probably subject to a zoning ordinance that regulates how the lot can be used and developed, whether for residential, commercial, farming, or some combined use. If you were hoping to build a combination home and daycare center, for example, you and your attorney will need to make sure that both such uses are permitted if you want to get your permits approved.
Your engineer may have already informed you about the zoning restrictions on your vacant land. If your building plans have since changed, or do not align with the existing zoning regulations, do not be dismayed. Your attorney can explain ways you may be able to contest, appeal, or change the zoning designation and/or restrictions on the vacant land. Each county has a process to seek a zoning change, variance, or plan amendment. Although likely costly and lengthy, changing the zoning regulations on your vacant land may ultimately provide you more options for building.
Hopefully, prior to closing escrow, you reviewed the title insurance preliminary report for potential issues that may impact your proposed building plans. In preparing to build, you will want to revisit that report and further evaluate what kind of recorded restrictions affect the lot. These may include, for example, easements, conditions, covenants, and restrictions (typically referred to as “CC&Rs,” which may apply if the vacant land is within a common interest development), notice of assessment and special districts, and environmental/historical designations.
Your attorney can provide you a legal opinion on how the recorded document will affect your plans to build on the vacant land. You might also want to ask your attorney whether it’s possible to remove some of these documents from your title and thus eliminate their restrictions on your vacant land, such as by filing a quiet title lawsuit. The title insurance policy may not provide all information affecting your vacant land, so your attorney may need to conduct additional research.
You and your attorney can review your vacant land files at the local building and planning office. The files may provide information on the process for building on the vacant land.
They may also indicate whether any previous owners attempted to build, and if so, why their plans were not successful. If their plans to build were denied, have your attorney check with the local courts for any lawsuits involving the property and/or its neighbors. That may give you an all-important heads up as to how your neighbors will react to your proposed development.
There are numerous potential issues when building on vacant land, but having the right real estate attorney available to help will make the process that much easier.