Want to Subdivide Your California Property? What's Legally Possible

Find out what California law will require of you before taking steps to divide and sell off individual pieces of your land parcel.

That large vacant lot you bought in California 20 years ago is now sitting in the middle of a real estate boom. But no one wants to buy one huge lot. By subdividing your property, however, you may be able to reap the benefits of your property’s prime location.

You can’t, however, simply start drawing lines and selling off parcels as you see fit. Find out what California law will require of you before taking steps to subdivide your land parcel.

Advantages to Subdividing California Property

By subdividing your piece of property into multiple lots, you will potentially increase its uses and reap additional profit. The property's marketability may increase as you attract additional potential buyers, who perhaps wouldn't have been interested in a large piece of land or (if you plan to build before selling) unimproved land.

Simply stated, by subdividing you are creating more properties that can be sold to different people. Of course, if it were that easy, then everyone would subdivide.

Will You Fall Under California's Subdivision Law?

Almost any time someone subdivides California property—whether the land is improved (has buildings or structures on it) or unimproved, and whether the owner's purpose is to sell or lease the resulting portions, it's considered a subdivision.

That means the owner's actions must comply with California's subdivision law. The most common form of a subdivision is a condominium project; but even an ordinary person selling portions of a piece of property falls under California’s laws on subdivisions.

Will a Market Exist for Your Subdivided Property?

Before you go too far with your plans, make sure there is truly an interested pool of people wanting to buy lots in a proposed subdivision in your area. To find this out, you may want to reach out to qualified real estate agents and homebuilders who can provide you information on whether the market wants your proposed lots.

If you are not in the construction business, you may also want to consider selling your vacant subdivided property to a homebuilder who can then do the construction.

Common Legal Restrictions on Subdividing California Property

Your plans to subdivide must consider:

  • whether you bought the property subject to any existing restrictions
  • county and/or city rules and regulations regarding subdivisions, and
  • California state law requirements.

Start by reviewing your title report, looking for any deed restrictions, Conditions, Covenants & Restrictions, or even clauses in your Deed of Trust (if you have a loan secured against your property) that would either bar or restrict your plans for subdividing. If your property is subject to such restrictions, you may want to hire a real estate professional to research options for removing them.

If no restrictions bar you from subdividing your property, then your next step is to look into whether your county has specific requirements to which your property will need to conform in order to qualify for a subdivision project. Such requirements may include, for example, that you show that the project will comply with the county’s general plan (setting forth the county’s goals, policies, and programs for managing future growth and land), that local zoning regulations allow the subdivision, and that the property is large enough to meet the minimum acreage for subdividing.

If you plan to subdivide your property into five or more lots, then you will need to comply with additional regulations set forth by the California Bureau of Real Estate (CBRE). The CBRE is a helpful resource for information on the Subdivision Map Act and Subdivided Lands Act, which both establish the ground rules for subdividing.

Meeting State Law Requirements for Subdividing Property in California

If your property complies with the above considerations, then to be a legally permissible subdivision in California each lot must have:

  • vehicular access to a public right of way and
  • utilities (water, sewer, power).

(See California Government Code Sections 66410 et. Seq.)

Along with preparing your maps, you will need to hire engineers to confirm that all your proposed lots comply with both requirements.

Meeting County Requirements for Subdividing Property

As referenced above, your subdivision must comply with the county’s general plan, assuming it has one (as many in California do). By preparing your subdivision with the general plan in mind, you will have a better chance for approval.

At the same time, each proposed lot in the subdivision must comply with your county’s specific requirements, which are likely to include:

  • minimum lot-size requirements including minimum lot width and depth
  • proof of buildable site on each proposed lot (for example, it probably won't work if one lot is an unusable wetland or a cliff), and
  • proof that each lot meets the minimum building setback requirements.

If your subdivision won’t comply with any of the above considerations, you may need to consider amending your subdivision, which most commonly includes reducing the number of lots in order to increase the size of each lot.

Be prepared for an intensive review process by the county and its various departments. This article does not discuss the subdivision application process, such as recording the map, drafting CC&Rs, and creating an HOA.

Costs Associated With Subdividing Property in California

Although subdividing may be financially rewarding, it may give rise to various costs. For instance, it’s possible that your use of your property or the structures upon it may not, technically speaking, comply with current zoning requirements. But these uses or structures may be currently permitted, most likely because they were “grandfathered in” (were there before the zoning rules changed).

Once you subdivide however, it’s a whole new ballgame. You will be forced to bring your property into compliance with the latest rules. This could mean updating existing structures, expanding driveways, adding new septic and/or water systems, or paying additional taxes.

As well, if you have taken out any mortgages or deeds of trust secured by the property, your lender may require you to pay them off in part or whole before forming the subdivision. From a practical point of view, it would be risky to keep any liens (i.e. mortgage or deeds of trusts) secured against the property anyway. Unless the mortgage or deed of trust has been paid off or subordinated its interest to the subdivision, you face the possibility that the lender will foreclose and wipe out your subdivision.

To learn more about subordination agreements see "What is a subordination agreement?". If you are unable to pay off your mortgage, then work with your lender to have the priority of your liens subordinated to your subdivision.

Who Can Help You Plan a Subdivision of Your California Property

A subdivision requires preparation of technical drawings, plans, and documents, which can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. You will need to hire a surveyor and engineer to prepare the maps for the project and assist you in submitting the subdivision plans to the County. You may need to hire an attorney to draft certain documents, such as Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&RS) or to represent you during the county’s review of your subdivision. Regardless of who you hire as your consultant during the subdivision process, it will be your responsibility to pay for all the fees and costs to the county for its review of your subdivision plans.

Once you and your consultants (surveyor, engineer, real estate agent, and maybe attorney) have completed the due diligence showing that subdividing is legally possible and, most importantly, that there is an interested market wanting to buy lots in your proposed subdivision, you can then submit your subdivision application to the county.

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