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this land is your land, we can’t find our land!

Sunday, June 6th, 2010 by

(With apologies to Woody Guthrie.)

According to all the books I’ve read, you aren’t allowed to build a house—modern or otherwise—until you possess the land you are going to build it on.

As persnickety as this rule might be, it appears to be globally enforced, so we’ve resigned ourselves to performing the task of finding the perfect place to build Fred.Triangle Google Map

At first blush, this seems like a fairly simple chore. Just fire up Trulia.com, search for land that is the size and in the location you want, send the owner a big PayPal payment and it’s yours. Surprisingly, it turns out to be a bit harder than that, so I thought I’d share some of my techniques for finding and evaluating land that is for sale.

Finding it is harder than you might think. The entire real estate marketing eco-system is geared towards selling houses and structures. The tools for finding land, and learning the details about that land are pretty lame. Sure, a lot of stuff shows up listed on Trulia, but the listing usually consists of a picture of a bunch of trees (and sometimes—amazingly—10 or 12 pictures of subtly different trees), a price, and if you’re really lucky, an entry for acreage. Sifting through all this is very tough, and even drilling down into the listing agent’s own website is usually futile, because they just aren’t geared up to give you the info you need. In fact, some of them don’t even list land at all; only houses seem to make the website cut.

So what is that info you need? Well, the aforementioned acreage is nice to know, but there are lots of other things to find out. What is the topography? It’s pretty expensive to build on the side of a cliff, and houses last longer when they don’t have a seasonal stream running through their living rooms. Are there restrictive covenants on the style or type of house that you can build there? That one is a huge issue if you want to build a modern-styled house. Here’s a hint: If the architecture committee has a listing of the three acceptable color palettes for your exterior siding and shutters, just move on to the next candidate, ’cause your glass box tribute to Philip Johnson is DOA baby.

More stuff. Is it in a flood plain? What sort of stuff is around it, and how is it zoned? Your beautiful rural paradise may sprout a 1,500 unit Levittown redux in its previously pastoral backyard if you don’t pay attention to the county’s 20 year development plan. Conversely, is it next to the latest and greatest ultra-high density industrial hog farming combine? (I’ll spare you a link; feel free to Google among yourselves.) If your entire family was born without olfactory glands that might not be a problem, although the family dog may kill you in your sleep.

Are there any easements or right-of-way issues? (That one is still a fresh wound; we’ll wait for more scar tissue to form before we expand on this particular encumbrance.) What sort of soil issues does it have? In the areas Laura and I are looking, soil composition affects the perk test that is needed in order to build a septic field. If the land doesn’t perk—absorb liquids—well enough, then you won’t be allowed to build on it if there is no city sewer service for you to hook into. Speaking of city services, the whole list should be checked: Sewer, water (or well?), power, gas (utility lines or LNG tank?), cable (or satellite?), phone, internet. Too many of those going the ‘wrong’ way can knock your budget out of the park, so they need to be discovered early.

Some things just have to be explored visually, but with Google maps and Bing’s bird’s eye view, you’d be amazed how much you can learn from right where you are sitting as you read this. (If you are standing, you can’t learn anything however, so be sure to sit down first.) If the area is wooded, look for pictures taken in the winter, so you can determine the quantity of coniferous vs. deciduous trees. Pan around the site and see what sort of houses (and property valuations) your neighbors may have. We’ve walked away from a few plots that were nice, but were surrounded with double-wides and “open-air vehicle repair and salvage plazas”, aka the front yard.

So, where do you find out all this stuff? You dig. You can’t depend on the selling agent to give it to you. If you find listings from a Realtor that specializes in land, they often have full packets that contain some of this info, but the average residential house-focused agent will not have that neat and tidy package pre-assembled for you. Of course, if you have a great Realtor like ours—Linda Cromartie—who is acting as your buyer’s agent, you can ask her to get a package from the seller’s agent. However, you will often find that if the seller’s agent sucked at posting the information in the first place, the tend to suck equally at getting it for your agent. (This is the infamous ‘Sucking Agent Corollary’ phenomenon, often abbreviated as ‘SAC’, because, uh… ‘SAC’ is a funny word.) I personally like to attempt to get as much info as I can before we bother Linda, because I’m already bitter and cynical, whereas she’s a much nicer person than I am.

One of the best sources I’ve found is the local County record system and GIS. All the counties we are looking at have most of their land records and all of their maps online, so you can easily learn a tremendous amount about the zoning, hydrology, soils, topography, essential services, etc. of any piece of land in that county.

Another benefit is those maps are often linked to the County Registrar of Deeds, and all the relevant documents, including surveyor’s plats, covenants, deeds, property tax assessments and rates, and other legal documents are downloadable as PDFs. I can’t tell you the number of times I have found easements and covenants that the listing agent wasn’t aware of, or—if your world view is so negative that you suspect Mr. Rogers’ original neighborhood was in Kabul—covenants that the agent was trying to hide as part of a global conspiracy.

Once you get proficient with these tools and websites, you can get a tremendous amount of info in about 15 minutes of digging per candidate. That’s how quickly I can do a pretty thorough first pass, and many times I can eliminate quite a few listings that just don’t clear the bar.

Just remember, a little digging at this stage is much cheaper than having to backfill the other type of digging when something gets ‘discovered’ further down the road!

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