Learn to evaluate the risks and rewards of subdividing land into residential lots. In this first of three articles on the subject, a developer and real estate lawyer provides landowners specific items to evaluate when considering whether or not to subdivide land. Come back for the next articles in this series that provide insights for landowners based on the author’s real world experiences with the subdivision process, as well as a hands-on description of the steps landowners should take when subdividing land.
Very interesting read. I am looking at some desert land in both NV and AZ. They are between 40-80 acres each. My budget seems to afford places that either have an old well, or power at the lot line, but not both. Which utility do you feel is initially more critical to have of the two? I know adding a solar system or having power brought in is very cost prohibitive, so my thought was to go with the power on the lot. I figured I could always have water trucked in and stored in a tank since the properties are easily 2WD road accessible. I figure that buying property with an old well may be worthless and not worth the price increase of the property. And I have been reading that drilling a well is a gamble. Thanks in advance for some insight.

This has got to be one of best articles out there about land investment. Thank you so much for the advises. I live in San Jose, CA and I am also looking into buying land myself to build a residential home on. I’m somewhat skeptical about it as i’m very new to this whole process and afraid i might be stuck on a parcel that is not build-able or would cost too much to develop. The parcel i’m looking at is currently zoned “commercial”, however, the surrounding area is heavily residential so i wonder if this was a city’s mistake. To avoid troubles down the road, I plan to hire a professional for all the permitting and developing advises/estimate (if you know anyone in the Bay Area that provides this type of service, could you please refer?) but I just don’t know how much i can completely close my eyes and just sign wherever i was told by the professional. Any advise will be much appreciated.

Land Agents have Expertise: True land professionals know how to price and market properties effectively. Any agent you are hiring should be able to clearly articulate their strategy for selling your property. A good agent will employ multiple prongs for engaging prospective buyers, including advertising in print media (when appropriate), on the internet in key places people look for your type of property, and other avenues such as signage or word-of-mouth. Good agents have a proven formula for attracting the attention of quality buyers. I have my own multi-point system that I use for each listing that generates results.
Very good question, Trevor. We plan to do a blog article on this subject soon. You are pretty much on the mark with your example of 25% of the final to-be-built home’s value as a rough guide to a lot’s value. You’ll see that some markets use different valuations (even within the same city or region), but in many markets an estimation of the value of the lot generally can range from around 20% of the home value (for more rural or lower price point homes) up to around 30% or more (often for higher end communities or for urban/infill areas with less lot supply and higher home prices). Of course for some lots/properties these rules simply don’t apply, like oceanfront lots or land with other unique characteristics.

I’m so happy that you mentioned to send out letters to your neighbors that say you are planning on selling your place. My sister had the worse time trying to sell her place. She put ads online and in the newspaper, talked to real estate agents, and tried other methods. It wasn’t until she sent letters out to her neighbors that she got a response. All in all, don’t give up! You’ll find someone to buy your place one way or another!

Always offer to ‘show’ the property to prospective buyers. It’s an obvious step for home sales, but some people neglect it for land sales because they believe there isn’t a lot to really show. That’s the difference between a strong seller and a poor one. To be a successful salesperson, you’re always selling. You want to show the buyer the property lines, and then, lead them out to see the neighborhood, local businesses and other aspects that could seal the deal.
Very interesting read. I am looking at some desert land in both NV and AZ. They are between 40-80 acres each. My budget seems to afford places that either have an old well, or power at the lot line, but not both. Which utility do you feel is initially more critical to have of the two? I know adding a solar system or having power brought in is very cost prohibitive, so my thought was to go with the power on the lot. I figured I could always have water trucked in and stored in a tank since the properties are easily 2WD road accessible. I figure that buying property with an old well may be worthless and not worth the price increase of the property. And I have been reading that drilling a well is a gamble. Thanks in advance for some insight.
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Hi Dave, thanks for stopping by. You’re right – it’s very hard for me to give you any concrete opinion on this (because there are a lot of factors to weigh with any piece of vacant land). I’d say if you’ve looked at all the potential downsides and established that there won’t be any issues from that end… and if you’ve got a fairly decent idea as to what the property is currently worth (and you’re buying it for a price that is significantly BELOW that number), then sure – there probably is a fair chance that you can make money on it.
As for whether the seller will accept a lower offer – you’ll never know until you make the offer and wait for his response. It could obviously go either way, but my philosophy is usually to err on the lower side – because unless he’s got other buyers waiting in line (which I doubt he does), you can always come back with a higher offer later if you really want it that badly.
If you need to find a buyer fast, our company is in the land buying business. If you've got time to wait for a few months, then get it posted on your standard online sites (don't underestimate Craigslist!) and consider hiring an agent. If that doesn't work out or you don't feel like waiting, we've got a network of buyers at Landmark Property Buyers.

If you have created a land contract, you’ll also need a memorandum of land contract. This is, essentially, an abbreviated legal document that references the main contract created. This simply serves as a public notice that the buyer is interested in the property without you and the buyer having to disclose and record the entire land contract. Because the deed of the property will not be filed until you’ve received full payment on the purchase price indicated in the contract, this memorandum will be filed with the county and the city to serve as a record that the buyer is interested in the property.

Showing: Once a prospective buyer becomes interested in your property, they need a way to see it. Land professionals can do that in several different ways: by walking over it, using an ATV or UTV, or by SUV or truck. A potential buyer must see the property and all of its key features to truly decide if they want to purchase it or not. I find 90% of the time, if a property is well-priced that its location and features are generally what convinces the buyer to make the purchase. But to become convinced they must see it, all of it. Last week a residential agent asked to show one of my tracts that is nearly 300 acres. I told the agent I would be happy to show the property and that you have to be equipped to show the property. They asked, ”Do you mean, I would need a big truck?” This agent drives a Toyota Camry, and there are water bars on the property bigger than this car. You do not want to hire an agent that is unwilling or unequipped to effectively show your property.

These are the questions I ask myself before I buy any piece of vacant land. This isn't intended to be an all-inclusive list of EVERY possible issue you could ever encounter, but I’d say it covers about 95% of the potential concerns you ought to be aware of. Most of these issues come up very infrequently, but they are very important things to consider nonetheless. Remember, you don't need to be afraid of buying vacant land. You just need to be informed.


This issue can be overcome if you can establish a legal, recorded easement to the property. This can be done if one of the neighbors is willing to allow you access through their property – to yours. In many cases, a neighbor shouldn't be expected to do this for free, you'll have to give them a reason to help you (usually in the form of money). Again, this isn't an impossible issue to overcome, but it is definitely something you'll want to be aware of before you purchase.
Selling land is usually a more complicated process than selling improved property. When you sell a property with a building, its use and value is established by the building on it. Before buying unimproved land, most buyers want to investigate what they can do with it to determine what it's worth. At the same time, the buyer pool for land is usually smaller than the buyer pool for improved property. With this in mind, selling land quickly requires unique strategies.
My husband and I have a lot of land that we don’t need, so we have decided that we should sell it. We are very busy with work and our family, so I like the idea of selling it in a way that won’t take a lot of time. I like the idea you give of auctioning off the land because we will be able to find people that are wanting to buy real estate quickly. I imagine that it would be a good idea to look for a real estate company to help us do this so that it all goes smoothly. Thanks for the idea!
Planning Consent. This will be needed before development is begun, but who obtains it is a question for landowners. Embarking on the planning process at your own risk can pay off, but it is a gamble and we recommend that you speak to either a surveyor, a planning consultant or a planning officer at your local authority to get an idea as to whether or not an application for consent for development would be successful. Many such applications will go to appeal. Is the planning consent you obtain going to be the one developers need? This is why many landowners enter into promotion agreements or conditional contracts which oblige others to apply for planning, as they often have a greater chance of success on the right terms. Be aware though, that extensive price negotiations can take place once planning consent is obtained, and the actual net development area can be calculated. This will take into account any ‘extra’ costs such as wildlife surveys or ground investigations that are required as a result of the planning conditions.
I suggest you go to your local real estate clubs and get more buyers there! You know, its like if you wanted to find a job really quick. You can go to several head hunters, several temp to hire agency, and you can put all these people to work for you - for not a dime of your money. Thats what I call people leveraging. When your at home, you are going to have several people calling you back to tell you about offers they have for you and you can then cherry pick the offers and take the one that best fits you. Real estate clubs are full of people who want to find you buyers - these people are called wholesalers. And guess what, you can have as many as you need. I say, work smart not hard!
Hi Debbie – that’s an interesting question… I’ve never heard of that one, but I suppose I can see why you might wonder. I’d have to imagine any harmful chemicals from a cemetery would be in extremely trace amounts (nothing like you’d expect from a gas station), but at the same time… I’m not an environmental professional, so I’m really not qualified to give my opinion on it.

Curry encourages sellers not to position their home as a teardown because it narrows the market only to those looking to build new, when there might be other buyers who would be happy to renovate it. No need to touch an outdated kitchen or bathroom, since a renovating buyer will likely target those rooms for first projects, but a broken stair rail or damaged window should be fixed.
Pricing land can be trickier when compared to pricing a home.  Developed lots in communities may have a clear “market” price based on the recent sale of similar lots. Raw land, however, may have fewer “comparable” sales to use in determining your price. In addition, the price you ultimately can attract for a singular lot or undeveloped land can vary greatly depending on the buyer’s intended use of the property. For example, if a buyer feels that your acreage is appropriate for a high-end home development it likely will bring a higher price per acre than if a buyer only intends to build a single home on it.
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