If you're planning to build a “dwelling” of any kind on your parcel of land, there is one issue that may seem insignificant at first glance, but it has the potential to make or break a land deal. It's called a “Perc Test” – and if you're dropping some serious coin on land in a rural area, this is an issue you'll want to be sure about before you sink your money into it.
If you intend to hold onto a property for any length of time, beware of a super high tax bill relative to the actual value of the property itself. I haven't run across this issue very often, but for various reasons, there are some properties that have some ridiculously high taxes in proportion to the property’s actual value (for example, if a $10,000 property has an annual tax bill of $2,000, THIS IS TOO HIGH). In my experience, I've found that a reasonable annual tax bill usually falls in the range of 1% – 4% of the property’s full market value.
Since it is near the New Year, please allow me to use this illustration. Many people make a resolution to diet and exercise to lose weight in the New Year. They may buy a new piece of equipment and some new workout clothes. They go hard for a couple of weeks, and slowly excuses begin to interrupt the routine and eventually there is no real progress. Then the person can say, “I tried the Bowflex for a while, but it didn’t really work for me.” The truth is, they didn’t do what Bowflex recommends and therefore they did not achieve the desired result.
Use a title company if you are not familiar with deeds, deed conveyance and closing of real estate. I prefer First American Title and you can find them anywhere. They will handle the monies, title search, title policy, deed, recording of the deed and pro-rated taxes, etc. Fees will vary and you can certainly negotiate. Typically the seller pays for the title policy and the buyer pays for half of the escrow fees. You can always charge an extra recording fee to offset these expenses.
Say, the property is going to cost you $150 per square foot to build and you expect a return on your investment at 10 percent. So, 1,000 square feet at $150 equals $150,000; which means you expect to get $15,000 back after your expenses, including management fees and debt service on the property, and some reserve. "Although in today's market, the return on investment is less than 10 percent and more like 6 percent. Calculate the most you are willing to pay the seller based on the outcome of your cost analysis," Veissi advises. Once you have done all of the analysis and appropriate planning, he says, you still need a contingency. You can think you have it nailed down and all of a sudden something crops up, unsettling your plans, he explains.
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.
The way that we found it was by checking our local county tax assessor site and seeing that it was vacant and owned by a gentleman who lives out of state. It wasn’t on the market, but I asked our realtor to contact him and low and behold he is willing to sell (it was inherited). As soon as we were ready to make an offer, he stated that he wants to go forward with an independent appraisal to see what the value is since he does not live in the area, which I understand (he is also a realtor in CA).
Hi Seth – My brother-in-law and I are looking to get into real estate investing and have our eye on a piece of land (we want to start small, FYI). It is 1 of 8 lots, all of them are only 1,742 sq ft, for commercial use only, and the lot we are looking at is the end lot…My thought is, buy now and hold on to it for a length of time until a developer comes along and wants to buy all 8 lots. This would obviously need all sellers to agree to sell which I am not sure how tricky that would be. My question is, do you see any chance for money to be made here? The lot is in a great location and I honestly can’t believe nothing has been built there yet. More details: $16,500 for the lot, taxes are $1,087 / year which I know is a little high based on what you stated above but even so, after negotiations, I think we could get taxes down to 4%. I know it might be hard to say, ‘yes you will make money’ or ‘no, you won’t’ but just wanted any insight you could give.
I am looking at 95 acre property for hunting and camping listed at $132k in southerm PA, property will be timbered before sold and closest electric pole is approx 1/3 mile away from where i would build small cabin. I could use a generator since cost to run power would not be feasible. I am still interested but think the asking price is to much since this is not really a buildable property and has limited market value. typical buildable property with electric access is approx $2k an acre in the area. What should I offer? I was thinking possibly 95K?
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If your property and those around it have recently been rezoned, this could be a sign you can sell your property to a developer for a good profit. But nothing is set in stone. The next best step is to speak to your real estate agent, who will know what has recently sold and whether any developers are actively looking in your area. They can then assess your home to see whether it would be able to sell and some estimated figures.
Ideally, you should employ a realtor and real estate attorney that know what restrictive covenants there are and what you can and can’t build on that piece of property, says Veissi. "But you still may need to do some grunt work. Find out how the property is zoned." Zoning ordinances and regulations are laws that define how you can use the property. Depending on your needs, will you have to change the zoning? For instance, if the property is zoned for an industrial warehouse or office building and you want to build a retail outlet. Also, zoning ordinances will typically limit the total height of a building or require a certain number of parking spaces for a commercial building. Opposition to zoning changes by local residents or other invested parties can be fierce—time consuming and costly.
Hi Giselle – all of the properties I’ve bought have been SUPER cheap, so I’ve always just paid with cash. I have done plenty of seller financing when I’ve sold properties, but not so much when I’m buying. However, what you’re saying could certainly be a feasible way to get properties without taking out a hard money loan – you’d just have to find a seller who is willing to work with this kind of arrangement and then hold their hand to make sure they understand the process and that everything is being done correctly (paperwork, recording, processing of payments). There are a lot of additional moving pieces when seller financing enters the picture, but for the right deal, it could absolutely be worth all extra effort.
Hi Tracy – have you considered looking for properties that aren’t currently listed for sale? That’s how I find all of my properties (and this is something most Realtors won’t be able to help you with, because most of them are only looking at the properties currently listed on the MLS). I find these properties by sending out a direct mail campaign to the delinquent tax list in counties that are RURAL.
Maurice "Moe" Veissi, president elect of the National Association of Realtors says that the first step in negotiating a fair land deal is to make sure that it’s a clinical, not an emotional purchase. When it comes to a land purchase it is not unlike buying a car, he says. For example, would you purchase a new car without knowing what it is you want, what price are you willing to pay, and what the average purchase price is for the car you are eyeing?
If the property is part of a Home Owner's Association (HOA) it will most likely have even more stringent restrictions in place to help maintain the “quality” and formality of their neighborhood. The idea is to keep any bizarre behavior OUT of the neighborhood (e.g. – cars in the front yard, lawns nobody takes care of, houses that look out-of-place or aren't built to code).
There is swampy/nonbuildable property next to me that is landlocked by 5 residential properties. We are interested in purchasing it – yes, we want landlocked swampland. We spoke to the owner who said he wants to sell it at whatever the going rate is for vacant land. Prior to offering him a very lowball offer, we’d like to gather resources that show the property’s true “potential” so that we don’t offend him. Other than a printout of a map, is there something more official we can acquire that shows he is landlocked? Also, the tax record shows the property’s assessed tax value is 100k, which is definitely inaccurate. Is there a way to have that reassessed to reflect its true tax value? We heard through a neighbor that it is recorded as nonbuildable and he doesn’t have to pay taxes, but I have not been able to find anywhere to verifiy that. Thanks in advance for any advice you can offer!!!
Hi Eric – that’s a good question. I haven’t done much work in that part of the country, but I know that (as you mentioned) there are workarounds for both water and power IF you’re willing to pay for it. I guess it’s just a matter of understanding which one would be more expensive to sustain over the long term, and then you’ll have your answer as to which utility is more important.