Land! Part 2: What to look for in land

This is part 2 of my 3 part series about buying land. If you haven’t read Part 1, you might want to start there.

Ok, so you’ve found some listings that seem promising. How do you choose the right land? Of course, the question to that depends on what you intend to do with the land. I guess most people buy land to build their dream homes, but I actually wanted land for what is generally called “recreational use.” That includes the things I want to do like: camping, shooting things, hiking, building siege weapons, small scale gardening, illicit cabin building, being left the fuck alone, and other fun stuff like that. Regardless of your intended use, the kinds of things to look for are probably similar; the specifics of what is or isn’t acceptable may be different for you.

Quick disclaimer: Some of what I talk about below touches on legal issues. I’m not a lawyer. I’ll tell you what I think I know, but it might be flat out wrong. Consult a real lawyer if you think any of this might apply to you.

What to look for when buying land

  • Location, location, location – One of the first things to think about is where you want land. How remote do you want to be? Do you want to be near a super market, near hospitals, near a school? Or do you really want to be in the middle of nowhere? If this is recreational land, you probably don’t want it to be too far from your place of residence either. What county or town would you like to be in/near? Availability may also vary depending on location, so if you just want cheap acreage (as I did), you might have to go where nobody else wants to go.
  • Price – It used to be that price was less of an issue when buying houses, thanks to “creative” lending practices. With land, lenders never got “creative” and they certainly aren’t today. Getting financing for land is difficult and expensive. You might have to put at least 50% down, maybe more, or they might not be willing to give you a loan for vacant land at all. Some sellers are willing to carry (provide private financing), but they’ll probably still want to see about 50% down. That means the most expensive land you can buy has to cost less than, at most, double what you can put down in cash.

    In addition to affordability, price per acre is a good indicator of how desirable (or undesirable) the land is. If you look at enough listings, you get a sense of how much a particular parcel of land should cost. If a piece of land is being sold at a price that significantly deviates from the norm, it’s worth looking into. It’s particularly worth being cautious with land that is particularly cheap for reasons that aren’t obvious.

  • Access – There’s a lot of cheap acreage out there. You can even buy entire 600+ acre sections for a few hundred thousand dollars. But good luck getting to them by anything other than a helicopter or parachute. There are two parts to access: getting to the general area, and getting to the actual land. The first part is about getting to the general vicinity. Is there a highway or paved road that’ll take you to within a couple of miles (at least) of the property? How far is it from a major highway? Are the roads kept clear year around? Is the pavement so torn up that you’ll be crawling along at 5 miles per hour?

    The 2nd part is about actually getting to the property itself. In the simplest case, the land is on a public road. But a lot of cheap land isn’t directly accessible, or you might not want that because you don’t want people to easily get to your land. Either way, it’s not unusual for parcels of land (especially cheap ones) to be near a paved road, but not be directly accessible from it. Ideally, you want what is generally called deeded access or an easement1, which means there’s a legally recorded way for you to get from a public road to the property it self. There’s also something called prescriptive easement, which is a right to use someone else’s land a certain way if you’ve been doing so publicly for a certain number of years2. In the context of access to land, prescriptive easements generally manifest themselves as dirt roads that lead to your property through other people’s land. It’s not legally recorded that you can use that dirt road, but if you can prove that people have been using it to get to your land for some number of years, it could be recognized in the court of law. Downside is, because it’s not written anywhere, you may have to go to court to protect or establish your right to get to a parcel of land (or you might be able to just keep using the dirt road for ever, you never know). Also, the spirit of prescriptive easements is to allow for continued use, and as such, I found an interesting California court ruling that denied prescriptive easement to access ex-Government land (i.e. there never was an implied right to access said land by any individual, therefore no continued access is granted –is I think how the logic went). One other thing to note about dirt roads is that, they could be really rough and inaccessible unless you have a 4WD.

  • Topography – If you’ve found some cheap acreage, and miraculously enough it’s accessible, there’s a good chance it’s cheap because of its topography. I found one 80 acre parcel going for about $60k, but it was literally a mountain peak at 6000ft altitude (well, and it was also inaccessible). I’ve also seen plenty of cheap acreage in essentially a ravine, with steep inclines. It depends on what you plan on doing with the land, but if you want to build, you might want nice flat bits (although you could also build houses half-burrowed on inlines and get nice insulation). Personally, I want to shoot on my land, so I wanted something that wasn’t completely flat (so that I could use an incline as a back-stop). The best way to assess topography is to walk it with your own two feet, but tools like Google Maps and Google Earth can help you get a rough idea.
  • Vegetation – Trees are nice. They’re nice to look at, give you shade, and can be cut down for fuel and/or profit. But too many trees packed too densely, and large portions of your land might be practically unusable (or at least invisible and inaccessible) without lots of work. Find whatever balance is good for you.
  • Utilities – If you plan on building a home on your land, you might want to think about access to utilities. Actually, the most crucial and hard-to-get utility is communication (phone, internet). Electricity you can generate yourself, through solar, wind or gas. Gas, you can usually just buy by the tank. Water, I’ll get to next. But communication access is something that’s hard to make-do by yourself. Phone lines are either there or not, and if not there, you’re out of luck. Cell phone reception also tends to be spotty in most rural areas. You might be able to get internet via satellite, although it might be slow and unreliable.
  • Water may not be an issue in some parts of the country, but it is in Northern California. If you’re lucky, you’ll find land already with a well, or if you’re really lucky, a natural spring. Otherwise, you’d have to drill a well, and there’s no guarantee that you’d find much water. The local realtor might have some anecdotal information about the water table in the area, and I’m sure well drillers would too. A good rule of thumb I heard (at least for Northern California) is that if there are big trees on the land, there’s probably some water. Also, Northern California has decent annual precipitation, but it all comes down in the winter and is very dry the rest of the year. In a place like that, a cistern to collect precipitation might supply enough gray water (but not drinking water) for the dry periods. That’s something I plan on experimenting with….
  • Zoning on a particular parcel of land may prevent you from using the land the way you want to. Some zoning codes restrict building, others restrict recreational use. Zoning codes differ by county, so it is best to find out what the zoning is, and then lookup what the rights and restrictions on those zones are. On the other hand, it may also be possible to have land re-zoned. For instance, I was looking at some land that was zoned as timberland that didn’t allow for homes, but since the particular parcel had little value as actual timberland, the realtor said it might be possible to have it rezoned.
  • Neighbors – It’s worth looking around a piece of land to see who and what’s there. Satellite view on Google Maps or Google Earth might show structures near by, but nothing beats putting your boots on the ground to get a sense of human activity. If the land is near a road, you can get a sense of how much traffic it gets. If you walk on the land, you can look for signs of human activity on the ground; beer cans, shotgun shells, maybe even piles of illegally dumped trash. While on the land, don’t forget to listen, either. You might hear gun shots, dogs barking, cars, trains, and such.

    Occasionally, someone from the neighborhood might even see you and give you a holler. Talking to people who actually live in the area can be insightful and interesting. People who live in the middle of nowhere can be a little weird, but from the few interactions I had, they seem to be nice and friendly. They might tell you about potential trouble (one lady told me about illegal hunters who shot her neighbor’s cow), the presence of water and other infrastructure (“I get reception with Sprint, but not the others”), the kind of people living there (“oh yeah, that’s where that crazy church camp was”), etc. On the other hand, if you’re looking for seclusion and privacy, make sure the area isn’t crawling with humans…

  • Neighboring land – Make sure to look at parcel maps of the area, and get an idea of who owns the land around you. Generally, land adjacent to government land may be desirable, since you can just step off your land and hike or ride into public land, and you’re also assured privacy (although, the government does sell land occasionally, so it’s no guarantee). If you want to find out who owns a particular parcel of land, all you have to do is look at a parcel map to get the APN, then talk to a friendly realtor who might be able to look it up for you. Many counties also have their public tax records online, and might even let you look up tax bills by APN (which is a useful way to see the assessed value of any land –although information about the owner may not be revealed).
  • Borders – I’ll talk about this in much more detail in Part 3, but it’s worth checking the property borders. Has the property been surveyed recently, and have marked corners? Are there fences? Are those fences actually on the property borders?
  • etc, etc… I’m sure there’s a lot more to look out for that I haven’t covered. A title report may uncover some things, or it may not. In California, the seller is required to give you a hazard/environmental report, but those reports only pull from public databases, and vacant land in the middle of nowhere can be filled with surprises nobody knows about.

A lot of research on land can be done remotely. Most realtors these days can email you maps, there’s a lot of information online, and official records can be requested directly from the county. As previously mentioned, tools like Google Earth will give you a rough idea of the terrain, vegetation, etc. But at some point, you’ll want to go out there and see the land yourself, and walk around the property boundaries. Sounds simple enough, right?

Find out in Part 3.

1 – Legally, easements cover much more than just access. But that’s out of the scope of this post.
2 – Prescriptive easements are one of those grey areas of the law, and there are a lot of variations from state to state. Also, by nature, there’s a lot of uncertainty. It’s best to consult a lawyer if you have questions about prescriptive easements.

Land ho! (Part 1: How to look for land)

Yesterday, my offer for 60 acres of land in Northern California was accepted, which brings my nearly two year long search for land to a close, barring, of course, any issues before escrow closes.

Most of you might have some familiarity with buying or choosing houses, but probably don’t know much about buying undeveloped vacant land. When I started my search nearly two years ago, I didn’t know much about buying land either. I didn’t know where to look, how to look, what to look for, or even how to physically locate a piece of land. In the following 3 posts, I’ll share what I’ve learned in the process:

Part 1: How to look for land
Part 2: What to look for
Part 3: How to physically locate a parcel

How to look for land

Once you’ve decided you might want to buy some land, how do you go about finding land to buy? In my pursuit for land, I used 2 primary avenues: online, and directly through a realtor.

  • Finding land online is deceptively convenient, but surprisingly ineffective and unreliable. There are a lot of real-estate listings online, but many/most of them are tailored to houses, condos and apartments. They might let you search by the number of bedrooms and bathrooms you want, but not how many acres you want. I did find a couple of sites that listed a lot of land and offered search features useful for finding land, namely: and UnitedCountry. Most smaller realtors these days also have websites, but unless you know of a realtor in the area in which you’re looking for land, it’s hard/inconvenient to search in those smaller sites. And even if you know of a realtor in the area, they’ll only list a fraction of the land that’s available. So if you wanted to just look for land at a certain price point “somewhere in Northern California”, there’s no site that I’m aware of that’ll actually give you a comprehensive list.

    But let’s say you do find listings of land that seem interesting. Your troubles won’t stop there. The sites I mentioned earlier will provide a way to get in touch with a realtor for a specific listing. I’ve sent maybe 20 or so requests for information on listings, and rarely got useful responses. Some responded with brochures of property in their area that didn’t appeal to me. Some didn’t respond at all. Some snail mailed me brochures about their county. Only in 3 or 4 cases did a realtor respond to me personally, and specifically about the listing I was interested in.

  • Going through a realtor can also be ineffective/frustrating. Unlike houses, by definition, vacant land is spread out over a huge area, so it seems like realtors don’t have a very comprehensive grasp on what’s on the market. Even with access to MLS, they can’t seem to run a query like “vacant land over 40 acres for under $1k per acre in Shasta, Tehema, Lassen counties” (for reasons I don’t quite understand). And of course, many realtors don’t deal with land, so they can be completely clueless as well. On the other hand, I had a very good experience with a realtor in Burney, CA who spent an hour and a half with me looking at maps and telling me about the area, about zoning, about the market, what to look out for, etc. But she didn’t know about the land I ultimately made an offer for, even though it was only a few miles from the two she did list. In other words, they can be a treasure trove of information, but when it comes to actually finding land that matches a certain criteria, they seem ineffective despite their best intentions. Having said that, if you have a general idea of where you want land and have the time to just drive through all the towns in the area, one effective strategy might be to simply stop at every real estate office you see and inquire personally. It’s slow, and requires lots of driving, but is probably the surest way to actually get a comprehensive view of the market.

So, one way or another, you’ve gotten a list of land for sale. Now how do you decide what’s good and what’s not? I’ll talk about that in the next post.