Waiting for the perfect property can be a strain on one’s patience. The rush of excitement when you think you found “the one” can be overwhelming, well, at least it can be for me. Looking at a raw piece of land never seemed so exciting until now. Your dreams start to become a little more real. But now what? The price is great, the acreage is perfect for what you need, and location, location, location! But land acquisition isn’t so straightforward. Before you sign your name on the line, let’s make sure this land is a keeper.
Having a solid understanding of where the traffic areas are is very important information to gather. You might think it is convenient to live so close to your kid’s school, only to find that the congestion at certain times of the day is a deal breaker. It is recommended to drive to and from the lot at different times of the day, and different days of the week. Drive to the lot before you go to work and note the commute time. Then drive to the lot after work and note the evening commute time. Do you have after school activities to consider as well? How is the drive to those activities at the time of day that you need to be driving?
Rural vs Suburban
A rural piece of property will have a few more things to consider than a suburban lot. For example, how is the road visibility at night? Consider the elevation and how winter weather could impact driving to and from work or even a grocery store. Who is responsible for maintaining the roads leading to the property? Is there a gravel road either leading to the property or as your driveway? If not maintained over time, the weather will wreak havoc in the form of pot holes and your car’s alignment could be impacted.
Regardless of whether your property is in a rural or suburban location, it’s important to know how your property is impacted by the weather. What are the conditions of the roads after a heavy rain? Does your property drain well, or does it tend to flood? All of this can seem unnecessary but it’s important to think about before you own the land, instead of afterwards.
An easement allows a person or entity the legal right to use your property for a specific reason, while the title to the land still remains in your name. Some easements come with the purchase of your property and will remain thereafter, but others can be canceled. It’s important to know whether you have easements, where they are and what kind of easement you are dealing with. There are several types of easements, each allows designated use of your property.
Easement by Necessity
What if you bought a beach front property and the only way for your neighbors to access the beach was through your property? You would have to abide by their right-of-way easement, also called easement by necessity, and allow them access to the public beach.
A utility easement, which as it sounds, gives easement rights to a utility company or municipality. A map of the easement and description are typically outlined in the deed. You can use your property however you would like, as long as you don’t infringe upon the utility easement area.
For example, if your next door neighbor received an easement for their solar panels, then you would not be able to renovate, expand or plant a tree that would block your neighbor’s sunlight.
Easement in Gross
An easement that may be canceled with the sale of the property is an easement in gross. An example of this would be if a homeowner had an easement in gross with a neighbor, allowing the homeowner to walk through the neighbor’s land to reach a fishing pond. If the homeowner sells the land, the easement in gross cannot be passed on to the next property owner.
This is just a brief overview of easements. It is always good to discuss with your realtor or real estate attorney about any possible easements your property has and the implications it has for you as the new property owner.
Zoning defines what types of development and operational use the land is allowed to have in a certain area. Municipalities tend to allocate districts and neighborhoods according to a master plan. This may be done to control the flow of traffic, manage noise levels, reserve living space for residents and to protect certain resources. Examples of zoning include industrial, light industrial, commercial, light commercial, agricultural, single-family residential, multi-unit residential and schools.
Residential zoning can include single family homes, apartments, duplexes, trailer parks, co-ops, and condominiums. The zoning can tell you whether mobile homes can be placed on the property, and the number of buildings the property is approved to have. Thinking of your current and future needs will help you decide if this property’s zoning is right for you. Will you need to build a detached studio for an elderly parent? Maybe you have a business you would like to have in your home. Depending on the type of business, hours of operation, employees, signage, parking, delivery and noise, approval for your business would need to be conducive to the property’s zoning.
Zoning & Animals
Zoning can also limit the type of animals you have on your property. Do you want chickens someday? Or maybe start a hobby farm? Typical family pets, like dogs, cats, or birds are not regulated; but chickens, pigs, llamas, sheep, horses and cows are bound by the zoning laws of that area. Farm animals are typically prohibited from being in a residential neighborhood, however, some areas only limit the number of animals based on the property size.
Your property is zoned how you need; you are aware of any easements; and all the other boxes have been checked so far. That’s great! There’s still more to look into. If you are planning on building in an area that has vacant land around you, go to the city and ask if there is a master plan for that area. This will inform you of any major roads, schools, apartments, or other structures that will be built around you. It’s best to not assume that your view and current commute will always stay as it is.
What is your view from the property? Is your favorite view protected from developmental or zone changes? Is there is a sight that you would rather not look at every day? If so, can an unpleasant view be minimized by:
- strategic landscaping
- an out building of your choice
- or a strategically designed floor plan; by limiting the windows on that side of the house?
Something to consider that you may not think about is the sunrise and sunset in relation to the topography of your land. My in-laws have a beautiful property. On the north side of their property, they can see for miles. It is truly a remarkable view! On the south side of their property, they see a large hill covered with 30-year-old evergreen trees.
If you were to visit their property, you wouldn’t think about how those evergreens impact their property. However, because their house sits at the base of the hill, the trees tower over them. This blocks sunlight during certain times of the day; especially during the winter months. From the end of November to the end of January, there are places on their property that never see sunlight. As a result, their winter conditions are worse by the topography of the land. Their freezing rain stays frozen longer. Areas of their land that would be good, usable land, is actually not usable for planting a garden due to the lack of sunlight in those areas.
Some people would never live in a neighborhood that had a homeowner association (HOA), and some would never live without one. It’s all personal preference. Homeowner association rules and regulations are outlined in their Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs). These documents are recorded with the county where the property is located and are legally binding. This means that once you buy a home in a neighborhood that has an HOA, you will be legally responsible to abide by the HOA rules. The CC&Rs outline what you can, can’t and must do with your home.
Benefits of an HOA
The benefits to having an HOA is that it helps keep consistent standards for the homes in your neighborhood. Some typical HOA rules could be that everyone needs to bring their garbage cans in from the street, no broken-down cars allowed for an extended period of time, homes need to be well maintained and painted with approved colors for an overall cohesiveness. This helps keep property values up and prevents neighbors from being frustrated that someone hasn’t mowed their grass all summer.
Negatives of an HOA
Those who would prefer to live in a neighborhood without an HOA have valid reasons too. If you would like to add some landscaping or maybe a pergola in your backyard, you could do so without needing to ask permission from your HOA. Do you prefer DirectTV or Dish Network? If you don’t have an HOA, then can install whatever you would like on your roof. You have more freedom to make changes to your home, or to have your in-laws stay for a month in their fifth wheel.
HOA Questions to Ask
Reviewing the neighborhood’s CC&Rs prior to buying your lot is very important for understanding what you are committing to and paying for. Homeowners associations costs are another thing to inquire about. What are the monthly dues? Are they paid monthly, quarterly or yearly? Were budget goals met in previous years? It might be worth asking a neighbor if the HOA costs are actually what they said they would be or do repairs tend to be more expensive than budgeted. Are you willing to pay for the extra costs incurred for the maintenance of the common areas? Lastly, would you be willing to join the HOA board to make necessary changes to your neighborhood if needed?
Well & Septic
This may not seem like an important topic to discuss in land acquisition, but it is in a few cases. Digging a well may seem like a quick answer to how a rural country property will obtain water. But there’s more to it.
First, how far down will the well need to be to reach water? If the property was at a higher elevation, it may not be able to reach water or it may be expensive to install. There is no guarantee that water will be found, even if the neighboring property has sufficient water flow. However, a more common scenario would be that water is found but the flow rate is low. A minimum of 5 gallons per minute (gpm) for two hours is the minimum recommendation for a family household, which would be equivalent to 600 gallons of water within a two-hour period. If you need to water your yard, garden or feed livestock, talk with your local plumber for how much water would be sufficient for your needs.
What is the quality of the water? It’s an easy assumption to think that well water is fresh and free of imperfections, but it needs to be tested for coliform bacteria, nitrates, pH, sodium, chloride, fluoride, sulfate, iron, manganese, total dissolved solids, and hardness. If you have high levels of iron, for example, it will impact your ability to keep your whites “white” when doing your laundry, leave yellow stains in your new white sinks, and water filters will have to be used for all drinking water.
Working with an Existing Well
Some properties have an existing house that you might consider remodeling or tearing down to start over. Either way, if in a rural area, that property most likely has a well. The condition of the well will need to be assessed; as well as the distance the well is to the house. If you are planning on using the existing footprint of the previous house, then be sure that the distance of the well to the house meets the current code for that county. However, if you plan on expanding the footprint to build, then you will need to find out the minimum distance the existing well can be from your house. Your local well drilling company will know about your local requirements and regulations.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the most common ways well water becomes contaminated is from a failed septic tank or system. One of the ways to prevent contaminated well water is to be sure the septic is at least 50 feet away. It is important to meet with a professional to discuss the cost, length of piping, and the type of septic system your property will need. All of this can be discussed during the feasibility study.
While walking your potential property, pay attention to:
- the topography of the land,
- the quality of the soil
- the health of the trees
- the location of where your future home will be
You might think that only a rural property would require a lot of maintenance; but even a suburban lot needs to be assessed. One of the suburban properties that we owned had a drainage issue in the backyard. We purchased the house in the middle of August. We didn’t know to ask about the type of soil used in the backyard; because who knew to ask!? As our kids played outside, even on a hot day, the grass was incredibly muddy. I contacted the landscape designer and he informed me that our entire backyard landscaping was on fill dirt. It will take years for the soil to settle properly; and in the meantime, we needed to pay for a French drain.
If you would like to plant a garden, what kind of soil does your land have? Is it sandy or mostly clay? Is it too acidic or too alkaline? Test the soil so you know if you need to spend time and money preparing your soil for a garden. The pH levels of your soil will tell you a lot. A neutral pH level would be 7.0. Anything above 7.0 is considered alkaline, and anything below is considered acidic. Most plants prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil, from 6.0 to 7.0.
Trees are beautiful features to a property, although they can be expensive to maintain. Growing up in the country, my husband remembers the work involved with trimming broken branches after a wind storm. The hanging, broken branches would be a safety hazard if ignored. The health of your trees should be checked by a certified arborist on a yearly basis, and after a wind storm.
Lastly, when considering a property, it is important to think about how you will physically take care of it. Will you be taking care of it yourself? How much will the equipment cost for you to manage the property yourself? Also, consider the cost of the equipment maintenance. Is this property manageable for you or your family to take care of as you age, become injured or sick? If not, is it within your current budget; as well as in retirement to pay for the upkeep of this property?
Consult Your Real Estate Adviser
Your real estate professional will be able to guide you through the land acquisition process before you buy. They will be a valuable resource for you during this process. The information given here are suggestions for which questions to ask and things to consider before you purchase your land.
Be sure to read: Land Acquisition – Part 1