Online Tools for Finding Land

Posted January 1st, 2010 by Michael Janzen and filed in Issue 14: Finding Land for Living

For many people these days the search for land begins online. Typically affordable land is not easy to find using most of the big real estate websites because they tend to focus on single family homes. But I’ve found a certain combination of methods useful for exploring new places and uncovering what appear to be good deals.

Google Maps

From the Google Maps start page begin by clicking the Show search options link that is located next to the Search Maps button at the top. This will expose a hidden drop down menu with the default value All results. Click on the drop down menu and change the selection to Real estate. Now enter the location where you want to start your search and click Search Maps. For this article I searched for Klamath Falls, Oregon and got the map result below.

Each red dot on the map is a piece of real estate for sale and an occasional rental. On this screen you can now filter out the properties that don’t match your criteria. Remember the keyword search box at the top is included in the search criteria so if you leave it blank — which seems counter intuitive at first — will allow you to search the viewable map and not constrain you to a single city.

In this next example I’ve removed Klamath Falls, Oregon from the search field, added $20,000 as a price limit, zoomed out a bit, and clicked on the Terrain button in the top right so I can see topography instead of the aerial view. On the left you’ll see the details of each property but you can also click on the red dots to get more detail too.

I chose Klamath Falls, Oregon because it’s within a day’s drive distance of of my home… but I’ve never been there. Luckily Google Maps can give me a quick tour now that I’ve identified it as a place with inexpensive land. I still don’t know if it’s an owner-builder friendly place at this point but before I dive in too deeply I want to explore it a little to see if it would be a place I’d like to build a tiny cabin.

So the next thing I’ll do is turn on the mapped photos and Wikipedia articles. Simply click the More… (1) button at the top and select the things you want.

After spending some time looking through the photos and Wikipedia articles I was ready to try to uncover if this was owner-builder friendly place. From the Wikipedia article about Klamath Falls I was able to quickly find the county website and their local building codes and ordinances.

Local Planning Department Websites

The best way to find out if a community is owner-builder friendly is to ask people who know. But it’s also fairly easy to get a basic idea of what is required to build a small home from a little online research. In this example I discovered:

  • Klamath County code enforcement officers are sworn deputies by the Klamath County Sherif (source) and can ticket you for code violations.
  • The permit fees were reasonable but not low cost.
  • The Klamath County general codes are published online.
  • I could find no published minimum size requirement for homes, which is a good thing.
  • Oregon also has a state-wide building codes division and an online quick permits tool for contractors but not owner-builders.

I may be jumping to conclusions but my general take was that Klamath County has a bit of red tape and may not be the easiest place to build without expert assistance. But it also doesn’t look terribly oppressive. The next step would be to start a more specific search for land and contact realtors to find out if these initial suspicions are true.

Lands of America

My next online search would be at Lands of America. You can also find these same property listings on Mother Earth News. I like Lands of America because they have a lot of low cost bare land listings unlike most of the big real estate websites.

When I started searching in the Klamath Falls area I found a few properties that look like great deals online and then did a little more digging.

This particular property caught my eye. The real estate listing (pdf of original here) had a lot more detail than most and the 20-acre parcel cost less than $20,000.

I then discovered that Oregon keeps all the tax plat maps online on one website, which is really handy for researching. Most of the time you’ll find plat maps on county websites if they are online at all. These maps show lot lines and general geographical features but not much more. Using Google Maps I found the property in order to get a better look at the topography and what it looked like from the air.

I was stunned when I found that this parcel appeared to be under water. Here’s a side-by-side screen shot of the Google Map and plat map. The property in question is the 20-acre parcel just to the left of the B in Bear Valley. You can visit the live Google Map here.

I emailed the realtor, who happens to be in Texas, and asked if the land was on a silted in lake or under a real lake… since Google Maps aerial view sure made it look like a lake bottom. I’ve not heard back from the realtor yet but it is the holidays after all so I’ll cut him some slack.

But this is the perfect example of why it is essential to assume nothing about buying bare land. It’s also best to work with local realtors since they will be able to answer all your questions. Even when you walk land yourself you will still have questions about legal access, property lines, water availability, and so on. When you are looking online you really have too little information to make a purchase decision and if a deal looks too good to be true there is a reason for it.

So use the internet for exploring and getting a general sense for a place, especially if it is new to you like Klamath Falls, Oregon is to me. But when you are ready to get serious about buying land, plan on spending some time on the ground in the area visiting with realtors, potential neighbors, and talking to the local planning department. Also be sure to find out if it is legal to camp on your own land while building. At the end of the day the internet is a great tool for researching but you never know what you’ll find in the real world until you get out and check it out.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, and visit my design blog, Tiny House Design. You can also read more about me at MichaelJanzen.com.