A bit of earth: How to buy land in the county

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Photo: Robert Llewellyn Photo: Robert Llewellyn

If you think “groundbreaking”—as in the physical act—might be one of the more thrilling words in our language, you might need to get in the market for land. Selecting a site where you can build anew, on whichever hilltop you like best, is a welcome adventure. But, like all adventures, it has its share of mystery. How to go about purchasing acreage?

First of all, be clear about what it is you want to do. How much land do you need? Are you hoping to build a secluded cabin in the woods, or a big house near the road? Is it important that the property have good land for growing food or raising animals, or would you be happy with a nice view and a few trees?

These factors will affect the price. “There are a lot of variables,” says local Realtor Justin Wiley. “It varies based on location, whether it’s in conservation easement or not, whether it’s wooded or open, if it has mountain views, if it has water.” Open land is generally more valuable, which can be to your advantage if you’re not set on a big lawn or garden.

Get to know the piece well before you make an offer. “I’ve had clients that have camped on land,” says Wiley. “I’ve walked land for hours with clients who want to see every inch of it, and come back at night to see what the view is.” Think about where the sun rises and sets, where the prevailing winds come from, how things will change with the seasons and whether there’s a promising house site.

Consider, too, possible expenses (such as putting in a long driveway or running new electrical or phone service) that would significantly up your building costs. And what’s in the neighborhood? It’s well worth the time it takes to research what is nearby—and what could be there in the future. “Buyers will always want to know what the zoning is for the county,” says Wiley. “And what are the surrounding properties? How many division rights do they have? What could potentially be in the viewshed?”

When you’re properly in love with a certain parcel, it’s time to make an offer. Once you’ve negotiated a contract with the seller, you will typically enter a study period—a time to perform certain tests on which your purchase is contingent.

This is where things can get more expensive, which is why buyers don’t undertake these tests for a property they’re only casually considering. For starters, we’re talking a percolation, or “perc,” test—$500-800—to make sure you’ll be able to put in a septic field (assuming you won’t be connected to city or county sewage).

Then there’s the environmental study which, says Wiley, can be important for farm properties. Certified environmental consultants check for buried oil tanks or deteriorating farm equipment. At issue is possible soil or water contamination. Typically, all that’s needed is a phase one study, which can cost $400-2,000 depending on the size of the property.

Finally, Wiley recommends (in some cases) a new survey of the property lines, to check that the advertised amount of acreage is actually what you’ll get. “If [the existing survey is] a 20-year-old survey and no lines have changed, no piece has been sold off, then that should be sufficient,” he says. “But if it’s a 100-year-old survey based on the ‘old-oak-tree-turn-right’ type of description, then you’re going to want a new survey.” Brace yourself: This can cost up to $30,000 for a large property, though surveys of smaller properties are much cheaper—$2,000 or so.

As with any real estate sale, once the contingencies of the contract have been met and the closing takes place, you can pop the bubbly: It’s yours! Only in this case, nobody will hand you any keys.

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