Finding Land for Living

(or “How I Learned to Grow a Beard, Read a Parcel Map and Write a Manifesto in Ten Easy Steps”)

If the question is “How do I find land to live on?” then the answer would simply be “well Einstein… look!”

So in 2003, while sitting on a pile of cash from the (lucrative, LOL) sale of my house… I looked.

I quickly learned that the question SHOULD have been “How do I find land to live on that I can actually afford, have permission to build on, get onto with my vehicle, have potable water, electric power, a phone line, not get shot by crazy drug-addicted neighbors and, make sure I actually own what it appears I’m buying.”

Prologue. Start your engines.

While on a camping trip in the mountains outside of LA with my buddies, I found myself in a local watering hole, chatting it up with a commercial ranch broker. I just came into some cash and was looking to buy a piece of land in some remote Valhalla where I could eventually grow old, free of the rat race (and my annoying common-wall neighbors). His advice was to start with a local agent but to do all the research myself. He confided that many realtors often don’t put the same time and effort into selling vacant land that they put into houses. True dat.

Next day, I walked into the nearest mountain-town real estate office (the one festooned with the largest flags and loudest bunting) and announced I would be buying some land. I was assigned to the agent on duty, a lovely older woman with very little experience selling land. My meeting with “June” convinced me that indeed I would have to drive this land bus by myself.

The driving part was not so simple. This is what I learned.

Lesson One. Decide where you want to buy.

This is obvious but often taken for granted. “I’ll see what I can afford” is usually the first step but I say re-think step one. Take into consideration that while you’re building, you’ll be commuting from your home base. Friends will be more apt to visit if it’s closer to home. You’ll spend more time there if getting there is easier. I bought my land about 150 miles from my home in LA. Without too much traffic it takes 2 ½ hours travel time if I hustle, 3 hours on average (with a gas, burger and a pee stop).

The Internet is great for finding parcels of land but you’ll really need “boots on the ground” to show you what Google Earth and Microsoft Bird’s Eye cannot. Once you have your general location picked out, a local agent can send you listings that fit your needs.  One factoid…with vacant land, an agent’s commission is typically 10% but it’s usually paid by the seller.

The further away from a city your land is, the cheaper it is.  There are many factors that determine the price of land and for me, “getting to it regularly” was near the top. I scheduled viewings on weekends and would hit several lots per day. It’s good to see them back-to back to compare how they feel.

Lesson Two. The better it is, the pricier it is.

Trees cost more, water costs more, paved road access costs more, a view costs more, privacy costs more. Large plots do get cheaper by the acre though. I bought 20 remote acres for the same price as a 60’x100’ lot in the local mountain town. I needed trees, privacy, road access and ground water. I got it all. I looked at 30 properties over 6 months and sat down with my list of pros and cons before making my choice.  It’s a balancing act. Fortunately the property I chose was heading to a tax auction. I bought it for a very reduced price just 2 days before it would have sold to county insiders on the courthouse steps.

Lesson Three. Where IS the property line?

Most realtors will not know where the boundaries are. Have your agent get you the parcel maps on properties. They can usually just print ‘em out at their desks. These maps will give measurements and notes on where the boundaries are. The listing sheet will often have landmark notes, “North boundary is below the fork in the road and the big oak tree”.

I suggest buying a handheld GPS hiking device and use it to walk out the property. I set waypoints at the known corners and hiked the perimeters following the parcel maps. It was pretty simple to do and VERY enlightening. The GPS will tell you how many feet you’re walking in any given direction. The parcel map should have those feet measurements. Many counties now put their parcel maps online, overlaid onto Google Earth satellite photos.

Lesson Four. Easements.

Make sure you can gain access to your land. If there is no road in, the land will be cheap. If there is no road in, how will you get in? Permission to bulldoze a road over your neighbors land is legal but usually VERY hard to get and will involve years in court.

The out-of-pocket cost of bulldozing into your land depends on the terrain but it can get pretty expensive.

Make sure no one will be suing YOU for permission to bulldoze through your land to access THEIR parcel. I passed on 2 glorious parcels for these kind of easement issues. (As a note, 6 years later neither of them have resolved their access issues and one is still tied up in court)

Lesson Five. What do you mean I can’t camp on my own land?

I cannot stress this enough…Check the local county ordinances, zoning and building codes!!! Many counties will not allow you to camp on your vacant land or even park an RV or trailer without a house in place. Many counties have zoning laws that won’t allow mobile homes or manufactured homes to be put up at all. You MUST check the zoning. It’s often easy to do this research online through the county’s web page.

My land is zoned “A-1” agricultural. I cannot camp on it. Many counties will demand that you determine the use of a vacant parcel by putting up a structure. A home (residential use), a barn (agricultural use), a business (commercial use), crops, or something that will establish what KIND of use. In my case I can live there ONLY if I build a minimum 440 square foot house that is NOT a mobile or manufactured home. If I was zoned R-1 (residential) or MH (mobile home) I could live in a double-wide!

There are pages and pages of restrictions on what, where and how I can build my house, EVEN THOUGH it’s quite remote and nowhere near Los Angeles. If any of my neighbors were to complain, the building department would make a total pain-in-the-ass of themselves, even in the middle of nowhere (they have already done this to my next door neighbors because of their live-in trailer).

Lesson Six. What, no mortgage?

It is virtually impossible to get a mortgage on vacant land. You must pay 100% in cash at escrow OR try and get the owner to carry a loan for you (usually with 50% cash down & 5 or 10 years of payments).  Real Estate companies will often package land parcels with a low down payment and monthly terms but double-check the details. They’re often used on undesirable parcels and you could end up over-paying based on the local comps.

In 2003 when I bought my land, Bank of America WAS writing mortgages on some vacant land IF there was a working water system in place. I’m not sure if this is still the case. Which brings me to…

Lesson Seven. Water.

You gotta have it. It’s availability will alter your purchase price dramatically but,

You gotta have it.

If you have city water pipes already in place, you’ll pay for it up-front in the purchase price (and you should check on the monthly fees). If there’s an existing well on the parcel, you’re in luck. If there’s a well shared with neighbors, that’s good too. If you need to drill one, take a deep breath.

Ask the adjacent neighbors how deep they drilled and who did it. It’s a good shot that your well will tap into the same water table. My well went down 260 feet through decomposed granite (easy to drill through) and in 2003 it cost me $10,000 (original estimate was $7,000). This is just for the damn pipe in the ground. A 3500 gallon (minimum) storage tank is required by my county (for the fire dept). This will cost me another $5,000 and the pump, pressure system and piping will be another $5,000.

Lesson Seven A. Utilities.

I’m not sure how important electricity and a phone are to you but I found that I REALLY needed phone access. Power poles are often located near a property line but many parcels are beyond the reach of the grid. This can be a plus to many, especially with the advances in solar and wind power. The close availability of the grid will “up” the price of land but power is a whole other issue. I just need a phone.

I found it extremely difficult to coordinate with realtors, surveyors, contractors, friends, work and more without a phone. Many remote parcels are beyond the cell grid so communication is tough. Access to a land line was important since I’ve no cell service for 10 miles in any direction.  I will eventually need to work from my mountain so this was on my checklist as a “must-have”. I did manage to convince the phone company to drop a line off the pole at my driveway entrance. I told the installer that the delivery company was late in dropping off my new double-wide, could he please just put the phone box on the side of this tree and take this $50 bill for his trouble? Score!

If you’ll eventually need access to the Internet, DSL’s are rare in the wild and you can forget about cable modems, LOL. Dial-up has become my demon.

Lesson Eight. Do I even own it?

Vacant land can often have title problems.

“Pops said he won the land in a card game in 1931 but he’s in a nursing home in Omaha with Alzheinmers, we can’t find any paperwork”,

“My Father left this parcel to us 7 kids but it’s in probate til we find Crazy Sally”,

“Winnie said the papers burned up in the trailer fire”,

“When they cleaned out the cabin, all we could find was his manifesto”.

Yes, 3 of these are actual quotes I heard from people with land for sale. Make sure the title is clean and your escrow company does due diligence. I have an on-going border dispute with my neighbor Hal about an alleged easement that was hand-written on note paper in the 1930’s. Hal’s bulldozing a road and heading straight for my property line. The county won’t get involved and neighbor Hal carries a shotgun so my surveyor is afraid to go near that border. I figure Hal’s really old and has been pretty sick lately, he’ll probably die before his bulldozer makes it to my property. Problem solved.  But ohhh, the title issues his kids will face when they try to sell!

Check the title.

Lesson Nine. No Fear.

Ask lots of questions, even if you feel like a total dumb-ass. I’d bought and sold homes in the past but with vacant land, there were so many issues I’d never seen before (dig for my water, wtf?!). The folks I dealt with were always more than happy to explain the smallest detail when asked and they eagerly referred me to their vendors and resources.

Lesson Ten. Git ‘er done.

Don’t let my gas-bag bloviating deter you. The entire land-finding process was WAY fun. I learned new stuff every day and as I moved forward, I felt smarter and more in control of my own destiny. Now that I’m actually building MY cabin on MY land, I feel like I’m on top of the world and I guess, I really am.

Good Luck!

Elroy aka E. aka UrbanRancher

© 2009 Redheads & Roosters Publishing