The first piece of land I tried to buy was so fringey I couldn’t even get to it.
It was three miles back along a dirt road, far from civilization. Sounds perfect, right?
Power and cable was already running to another house up on the hill. Even got cell reception.
Here’s the problem though:
This road is just too nice. So it had to get fringed.
There had been a dispute over the road’s location in the past. Apparently it crossed a neighbor’s land and he didn’t like it. Realtor and landowner assured me that was all settled now, so I made an offer contingent on the road being legal access to the property.
While the offer was in title, the lawyers found it was NOT a legal right-of-way. In fact, the landowner had gone to court over it several times and lost.
The judge proclaimed “The only legal way onto that land is by helicopter.”
So let’s talk about making an offer on land!
What To Look For
Obviously, this will depend on the person buying the land. I knew I wanted a permanent tiny modular home with as much acreage as possible. I wanted a great view, no noise, and either lots of trees or space to plant them.
Other things that are important to consider:
- Utilities. City water and nearby power are generally cheaper than drilling a well and installing a solar panel. Look at your power company’s “line extension policy” for details on how far they’ll stretch it.
- Zoning. Agriculture zoning is awesome. Light residential is OK. If it is zoned for development, chances are it will someday be developed.
- Geometry. Sometimes you’ll see a listing for a nice five acres of land at a reasonable price, then you realize it’s only 100 feet wide and 2000 feet long. A property closer to square will be more versatile. A well in my locale needs to be 50′ from the property line and 100′ from the house, so look into your utilities while you’re looking at shape.
- Slope. In Appalachia, everything is sloped! I built my house into the side of a hill, and that drove my construction costs up by at least $2500 I could have avoided by perching it at the top of the hill. If flat land is reasonably priced in your area, that will be even easier. Slopes above 15% will give you trouble for your driveway, for pouring concrete, and for delivering supplies.
- Landclearing. You need a lot of lawn if you’re going to have a septic tank and leach field. They can’t even run perc tests until the potential septic area is cleared, and you would not be wise to make an offer without having a perc test in hand. On the other hand, having woodland is amazing.
- Soil. Even a little rockiness to the soil can drive construction costs way up. Some contractors even told me if they encountered rock, they would just have to stop digging, because they don’t possess the necessary equipment or knowledge. If the soil is too mucky, you have to build an above ground septic system, which can cost $20k. My land is all clay, which is great for digging and holding its shape, but it creates a lot of mud when it rains on my excavations.
Making an Offer
Making an offer is difficult, because you should not sign the contract until you have as much planning done as possible. You should have researched building codes in your area, made a list of potential contractors, planned the basic footprint of your house, and done all your budgeting. You need to research every step of the process, so you can make sure you don’t buy land you can’t work with.
You’ll stomp around on the land, possibly with a real estate agent in tow, and decide you love it. Then you’ll need to start thinking numbers: can you afford it. Is there a good home site. Does it meet all the bullet points under “What To Look For.” Bring a measuring tape, a shovel (with permission), and a camera. Make sure you’re still in love with it a week or two later. Revisit after you’ve had time to think of all the things that could go wrong.
The land I bought was listed at $44,000 for 4 acres. The land with the failed right-of-way was listed at $20,000 for 20 acres. Beware of prices that are too good to be true! You have to read the listings for your area before you can even decide on a budget.
When you make your offer, you’ll meet with the real estate agent(s) and sign some paperwork. There are three very important things to consider in regards to this offer paperwork:
- You get to offer a price. I offered $36,000 and we eventually settled on $38,000. I basically offered 81% of list price and we settled on 86%. What to offer will depend on the market and the property and the buy and the seller! I think offering 85% is worth a try, and you can consider yourself lucky if you wind up at 90%. The seller gets a chance to counter-offer, and you can counter their counter-offer, and so on until one of you gets sick of it. I think as long as your offer isn’t unrealistic, you won’t be shooting yourself in the foot.
- You get to set contingencies! All offer contracts should have a space where the buyer can list contingencies. These are factors that must be met within a certain time frame or you get the chance to rescind your offer. Typical contingency time is 30 days but you can do this however you want! You make your offer, buyer and seller set to work meeting the contingencies, and when the time period is up you sign the contract! This means you must be ready to work on the contingencies right away.Make sure your contingencies include a successful perc test for X bedrooms (or city sewer availability), a successful well permit (or city water availability), right-of-way access, a clear title, possibly an engineer/architect coming to look at the site, and go ahead and just say “Site must be suitable for such-and-such a house.”
When my dad bought land, he made it contingent upon the neighbor (who was also the seller) letting him bulldoze a hill so the driveway would fit.
My seller made the sale contingent on them getting one more hay crop off of it.
Make your contingencies specific, and don’t be afraid to ask for things you already know are there! Just in case!
A realtor, even a realtor representing the seller, can help you with wording. But do your research ahead of time and make sure they’re not acting against your interests.
- YOU ARE ON THE HOOK FOR WHATEVER OFFER YOU MAKE. This third factor of making an offer is very important. As soon as you sign that offer, or a counteroffer from the seller, you will have to either sign a contract for the price you offered, pay a very stiff penalty, or back out on the basis of one of your contingencies. You may have to show proof. That’s why it’s very important to get a soil engineer or a county permit guy out there to look at your land.Related to this: The seller has a specified time period, usually just a couple of days, to respond to your offer before the contingency period begins. This part happens very fast.
While budgeting for your land, you’ll have to decide if you need a loan. If you do need a partial loan, I advise you to get that loan for the house construction rather than for the land. Construction price is not very negotiable. Land price is. Being able to pay in cash will help you get the best price – I’m quite confident it played a role in my deal.
If you can’t pay cash, well, I don’t have very much advice about the land loan process, because I ended up not doing that. I do know your bank/credit union can give you a letter saying how much they’ll loan you – first a pre-qualification, then a pre-approval.
My other advice is to contact your local farm credit union. If you’re buying acreage in the country, they’ll likely be able to help you with a better rate than your bank! Even if it’s not a farm!
Don’t get too attached to any of the land you visit! Be harsh, be critical, look for things that will hinder you. Even if you decide you can live with them, that you still love the property, you might be able to use the flaws as a negotiating point.