Some Tips for Buying Land to Build a New Home

Some Things to Consider Before You Head Out to the Country

New owners running and celebrating in a large, grassy field
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Urban dwellers often idealize what it's like to live on acreage outside city limits, and there are indeed some advantages. Land costs drop in the country. The further away from the city you get, the cheaper acreage becomes. Add to that cleaner air, more space, and building a custom home to your own specifications.

But the realities of buying your piece of the countryside can cost you big time after closing. Obtaining a mortgage for your dream home might be tougher than you think, and a number of pitfalls can wait on the horizon for the unwary.

Consider these potential problems before you decide to dump urban living and buy land on which to build your dream home.

Wide open areas without trees shading the house are perfect settings for installing solar panels, which is a concern for many environmentally-conscious buyers who use green building materials.

The Drawbacks of Building and Living in the Country

Finding skilled craftsman who are willing to travel to your location might be difficult. Those who are willing will probably charge more to compensate for driving the distance. Transporting building materials and paying for delivery will also likely cost more than if you built a home in the city.

Modern conveniences are usually available, but they aren't always reliable in the middle of nowhere.

Going into town for groceries and other needs generally requires planning and long trips. And you could be stuck at home for days if it snows and rural roads aren't promptly and properly plowed.

Should You Rent Before Buying?

It might be a good idea to rent a home first before buying land and beginning construction, particularly if you're unfamiliar with the area or if you've never lived out in the boondocks before.

You can get to know the community and hear stories from local owners that you might not otherwise be privy to. At least try to spend a few weekends there, if possible.

Be aware of the pitfalls of this approach, however. All your neighbors might not be overjoyed to hear that you're planning to buy up that land behind their homes and erect your own palace there, obstructing their pristine views. You might meet up with some resistance—even organized resistance involving municipal and county authorities.

Resale value is often softer in the country than the city because the pool of potential buyers is smaller. Home prices tend to be more negotiable when demand is low and supply is high. As a tenant, you can try to time the real estate market and be ready to buy that parcel of land as soon as it becomes available.

Other Considerations: Zoning Requirements

Check with local authorities—including city, county, and state—to determine zoning ordinances in the area where you want to buy. Find out whether you can build the type of home you want before you commit to purchasing the land.

For example, a community within 20 minutes of Sacramento city limits doesn't permit construction of any structure on parcels smaller than 20 acres.

Ask about future zoning, too—whether there are plans to put in shopping centers or airports, or to change nearby land uses that could devalue your land.

Smells and Sounds

Realize that you might be trading exhaust fumes from city streets for the odors produced by pig farms. Some farm animals such as geese and donkeys produce squawks and brays that can travel for miles. Horses along country roads drop steaming piles of waste. It's not like anybody carries along a plastic bag and picks up after their horses.

Natural Hazards

Obtain a natural hazard disclosure and look for soil problems. A disclosure will tell you if the land is a protected habitat, which would prohibit building. Make sure the area isn't a known fire hazard, and find out if the fire department is supported solely by volunteers.

Many homeowners in the country maintain private ponds for fire emergencies.

Elevation Issues

Determine how likely the land is to move if it's located near hills. Some slab foundations can crack if the land is unstable. Find out if your parcel lies within the path of a potential landslide.

You might want to consider building a raised foundation, and make sure that you have flood insurance if you construct near a body of water.

Ask neighbors about the condition of their foundations if the land was once a swamp.

Easements and Restrictions

Obtain an easement and make sure it's recorded if access to your land is provided by driving across an adjoining parcel. Find out who maintains the roads and what your pro rata cost share might be for upkeep.

You'll also want to determine what rights neighbors might have to cross your land. Check to see if the boundaries are clearly marked.

Get title insurance. This will disclose easements and restrictive covenants or conditions. You might want to order a survey of the land as well.

Utility Services

Water is important, and not all water is potable. Sometimes water rights don't "run with the land," which would mean that you couldn't dig a well.

Find out the depth of your water table and determine the difficulty of digging. It could present a problem if the ground is mostly rock.

It can be costly to bring electricity, telephone, or cable service to the property if they're not already established nearby. Find out if you'll need to install a propane tank, and what it will cost to install a septic system if you can't hook up to a sewer.

Many homeowners in the country keep generators as backup for times when utilities fail.

Is a Structure Already There?

You'll probably want to get rid of any existing structure if there's one already on the property, but proceed carefully. Depending on the size of the structure or building, you might need a professional demolition contractor to reduce it to rubble and haul the debris off. This can be a considerable added expense.

You might also need local permits for this type of work, and you'll absolutely want to make sure utilities are turned off ahead of time if they're available to your location. The contractor will most likely take care of this for you, but double check to be sure.

Consider the Services of a Land Planner

A land planner is like a home inspector, but for raw land. You wouldn't buy an existing home without a home inspection, and it might not be wise to purchase land, either, without having an expert size it for potential problems.

A land planner will look for all these issues and can advise you as to whether any of them will affect the possibility of you building your dream home there—or even resale somewhere down the road.

Get an Appraisal

Obtain your own appraisal to determine an appropriate price before making an offer if you're not planning to finance the land purchase through a conventional lender. Financing would require a lender appraisal.

Keep in mind that comparable sales are sometimes difficult to find when you're buying land.

Getting a Loan

It's common to pay cash for land because getting a loan for this type of purchase can be tricky. Raw land can't be leveraged by a bank.

If you do get a loan—and there are a few lenders out there who specialize in and will touch this type of transaction—don't expect to be approved for more than maybe half of the purchase price. You might have more success if your land has utility access and is reasonably accessible by roadway.

Of course, a construction loan to build your home is something else entirely. In this case, the structure can act as collateral. Some financing will allow for subordination to a new construction loan.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the median cost of new home construction was $289,415 in 2019.

At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, CalBRE #00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.