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Buying Land: What to Look For (and Avoid)

Every dream home—especially those in rural areas—begins with the property it sits on. Learn what to look for when buying land for your own slice of paradise.

Land Grab 

Purchasing land can be one of the most expensive decisions you’ll ever make, and if you’re not mindful of the potential hurdles, it can set your dream of building a timber home back weeks, months—or even years.  It may be unromantic, but taking a methodical, rational approach to a land deal will help you find the right place under the right circumstances.

Where to Begin
As with any major purchase, identifying your likes and dislikes, needs and wants is a good place to start. This allows you to put emotion aside and think realistically. Be patient and look around. The more land you see, the better you’ll be able to discern what’s important to you.
    Once you’ve identified an area and your specific desires, however, it’s important to elicit professional help. Look for a real estate agent who specializes in land acquisitions in the area where you’d like to buy. Any good agent can help narrow a search, prepare you for what’s to come and question those things that may have underlying problems.

Potential Hurdles
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for big deals to fall through due to any one or a combination of issues ranging from verifying ownership to identifying easements on a piece of land. Other times, the pieces fall into place and what could have been big stumbling blocks turn out to be more like bumps in the road without much effect. Either way, it’s best to understand what may lie ahead.

1. Water. Access to potable (or drinkable) water is a major issue. Without a proven source of potable water on the land, you’ll need to conduct a well test that can run anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000.
    The other water issue is sewage disposal. If you’re unable to hook up to a public sewage system, you’ll need to install a septic tank. A perc test, which typically runs around $1,000, will let you know whether or not the ground will support a septic system.

2. Easement rights. An easement is the right to use another person’s property for a specific purpose. Road use and cut-throughs are common areas of misunderstanding and litigation between rural neighbors. Always have an easement in writing—never buy a piece of land with friendly understandings (known in legal circles as prescriptive easements) on such issues.

3. Natural resource rights. Whether it’s another person, company or the United States government, you’ll want to find out whom—if anyone—has mineral, oil, gas, soil, timber and other rights to the property. Knowing that a truck could show up and drive through your property to collect oil could easily sour the deal.

4. Zoning regulations. Depending on where the land you’re hoping to buy is located, zoning could be an obstacle to overcome. In many parts of the country, pressure from no-growth groups has made obtaining a building permit particularly challenging. Land that isn’t zoned may not be as attractive as it sounds, however. While you may be able to build your timber home without jumping through regulatory hoops, your neighbors won’t have to either. Who’s to say they won’t put up a trailer park, chicken farm or subdivision?

5. Eminent domain and condemnation. The war stories abound, but the best way to protect yourself from becoming a player in one of them is to research any area construction plans in the making—especially if neighboring property is publicly owned.

6. Adverse possession. Otherwise known as “squatters rights,” adverse possession allows for someone else to take the title to your property. Many times, encroachment goes undiscovered if property boundaries are vaguely understood—all the more reason to obtain a boundary survey.

7. Property owners’ associations and covenants. Covenants are created by subdivision developers to restrict various uses of land. You’re expected to know and understand any existing covenants that may pertain to the land you’re buying.
    If you’re interested in buying land in a subdivision or resort, make sure you see a copy of the property associations’ articles of incorporation, bylaws, operating rules and covenants, conditions and restrictions. Read them carefully, and if you decide to purchase a lot, be prepared to be an active member of the association.

8. Everything else. Property taxes and assessments, insurance, appropriate contract contingencies, title search, soil surveys, environmental liabilities, area permits and other issues specific to your land are all topics to bring up with your agent.

    The road to land ownership can be a bumpy one, and the list of considerations is long and can be daunting for the uninitiated. But the better you understand what possible scenarios may present themselves, the better equipped you’ll be to jump over the hurdles or step back and take another approach.


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