Buying Land

Buying the right plot of land is an important part of the overall process of building an earth shelter.  The story of my land buying saga can be found in this blog post, here on this page I am more focused on the tools and process of finding the best piece of land.


Real Estate AgentI am starting with finding a real-estate agent because you really need to.  As much as I dislike the system, there is no getting around it.   As they say in Detroit, “Hate the game, not the playas”.

Personally, I could not find a real estate agent who specialized in empty lots, probably not enough money in it.  I ended up going with someone who was at least living and working in the area where I wanted to buy.  I thought that the agent was driving around all day and might have some inside track on where the good land was, but nope.  I got no good leads from my agent.   She didn’t seem to have a good understanding of what I was looking for and only suggested a few small flat lots in neighborhoods of colonials.  I don’t recall our agent visiting any of the properties with us (except the last one after we made an offer), and probably couldn’t have helped if she had.   My agent was always apologizing for not being very helpful often volunteering to help with things like checking if a property had been perked or had liens against it, but (once I found out how) it was faster and easier to do that myself.   My suggestion is to ask your real-estate agent where to find all the tools you need from the list below… (they probably won’t volunteer the information, but they might tell you if you ask).

Generally speaking, Real-estate agents use the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) and key in some search terms like size of the lot and price range you are considering…  You can do this on the internet for yourself.  I found that the agent always wanted to give me a longer list (as if that were some how better).  When I did my own search, I spent a few extra minutes up front to enter search terms that excluded areas and lot sizes I wasn’t interested in reviewing, and that saved a lot of time over using her lists.   Most MLS searches also let you setup a recurring search so that a new list is generated each week (based on your criteria) and sent to your email.   You can read more about MLS in the next section.  However, it is important to note that, often, the MLS listings don’t actually tell you exactly where the lot is and you will need to contact your agent to get the specifics (this is just part of the information asymmetry designed into the real-estate process).  So, use them when needed, but don’t rely on them to help you find a nice piece of property.

Real-estate agents work out separate contracts with each client.  They typically say that 6 percent of the sale price goes to the agents (split 3% and 3% between the agencies, and then split again so your agent actually only gets 1.5% and his/her agency gets the other 1.5%), but there is no rule about this.  Your agent may want to charge 7%, 4% for him and 3% for the other agency.  This 1% increase almost doubles his interest in you (from 1.5% up to 2.5%).  Others may work out lower prices, like 5.5% just to stand out.   The seller can negotiate and see where they end up, but buyers don’t usually get much choice here.   However, your agent will want you to sign a contract with them so you can’t “see other agents” at the same time.   You can alter this contract.  For instance, you can set a time limit shorter than their 6 month default, “Find me something in 2 months or I get another agent”.  The main thing we changed was to add a provision that if we found a FSBO (for sale by owner) property on our own, we didn’t owe her anything.   She didn’t like that much, but I refused to pay her for property that was never in the system.  The compromise was that if she told us about the property before we found it ourselves, we would still pay her 1.5%.   As it was, she never gave us any FSBO leads and we ended up buying thru the regular MLS system, but I was glad to have that option in place anyway.

Keep your expectations low and maybe you will get lucky.

MLS The MLS (multiple listing service) is an internet database that real estate agents can use to exchange info about what properties are available on the market (it also lets them organize contractual unilateral compensation deals, etc.).  This is their main tool!   In the 1880’s, the MLS was on paper.  Agents would meet once a week to exchange info and contract offers, “help me sell my inventory and I will sell yours, we can split the commission”.   In the digital age, there is a data standard so all the agencies can work together with reciprocal access agreements in place.  There is a governing body that makes sure that real-estate agents with access are working in a way that benefits the community, for instance, low cost agents are usually shut out for undercutting the market.  There are also some restrictions on how much info your agent is allowed to share with you.  FSBO (for sale by owner) brokers can add listings if they charge a sufficient amount to discourage the idea, but other agents may choose to filter those out and never show them to potential buyers.  The full listings can hold hundreds of data fields, but agents are not required to fill them in completely and often strategically hold back key information.

Many of the data fields relevant to the real-estate search are also available to anyone with an internet connection.   The website is the official window on the MLS database.   Some Real-estate agencies have their own websites that act as a window to the MLS, for instance, here is the Coldwell Banker site, and here is the Century21 site.  They are not allowed to use MLS in their URL or as a search term.   However, they can setup their windows to show only certain data fields or ranges and can lay out the data to make the search tool easier to use.  Some companies end up making it difficult to do a land search, in which case, you could just try a different site.   Some sites filter out listings they don’t like, such as “For Sale by Owner” listings or listings in areas they can not sell.

Some listing agents don’t like to provide enough information for you to find the lot yourself.  They may just give the town or the nearest major cross roads.  But you might get other information, such as a GIS screen shot or a PID number that you can use to figure it out.  If you can’t, you will need to contact your agent who will contact the listing agent to get the info.  Of course this adds an annoying string of phone calls and possibly several days of waiting…  But it is all part of the real estate “information asymmetry” designed into the system.

Google Maps It is hard to believe that we got along before Google.  Google maps are very helpful in exploring properties for sale.  Instead of driving all over the place, I always explored with Google maps before getting in the car.   From the satellite perspective, you can see water features, forest features, figure out sight lines to nearby homes, look for nearby train tracks or garbage dumps or prisons, etc.   You can quickly key in directions to your work or church to see if the location is too remote.   When it comes to planning your physical trip, you can enter all your addresses into Google and shuffle them to find the shortest route.

I always took some printed pages with me because looking at them while standing on the land is a powerful combination.  Make sure you understand which way is north imagine how the sun will travel across the property.

Google Maps does provide some “GIS” like tools, such as their terrain map option.

GIS Maps

GIS Maps have many very useful layers, particularly the ones for soil type and lot boundaries

These GIS (Graphical information System) maps can provide layers of information, such as soil type or lot boundaries, that are very helpful.  I found some on my county’s website.  Do a search for GIS and your county name to find your own.   You should always explore the rich information before considering buying any lot.  I would usually look before bothering to drive out to a lot.

GIS Maps are very useful when searching for land. Click for the full screen shot.

Always look at “natural” layers like “soil type” or “watershed”.   I actually found the watershed layer to be a good pair with the topology layer because the rivers always run down hill.   The Soil maps go well with the additional info you can find in NRCS (USDA) soil maps.   The land use layer was also helpful.  You will also want to find areas that have been declared flood zones or wetlands or “Well Prohibition” zones.  GIS may also list public services, etc.     You could also display “parcel” annotation and features, which provides the lot boundaries, acreage, right of way, easements, etc.  The PID numbers can be used to find out who owns the plots, what they paid for it, what taxes they pay, any leans against the lot, etc.

Another cool feature of GIS is the historical aerial photos.  As you hopefully realize, google maps is not a live image.  Google maps just uses the latest satellite photos and updates them from time to time.  With a GIS system, you can look at older photos to perhaps see a different season or earlier time.  I was able to see aerial photos from back to 1940.  I could see what my property looked like when it was a corn farm long before it was subdivided.

NRCS (USDA) site

I generated a custom report for any property that I was seriously considering

The NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has a wealth of information on their website.  Follow the links to get to their “web soil survey” and this mapping application.   Go into the mapping application, find the lot your are interested in and use the tools to draw your AOI (Area of interest) on the screen…  Then you can generate all sorts of advanced reports on the soil type, usage, etc.  The maps are similar to what you find under GIS, except with much more detail.  The reports take that soil information to another level.

Property/Parcel lookup  Most counties maintain a website where you can look up any piece of property by the PID number (which you can find on the GIS maps).  This is the website for my county.  You can enter a PID number and find out a lot of info about the site.  You can discover who owns it (along with their address and phone number), what they paid for it (and the history going back), the tax information, school district, etc.   A near by link will lead you to well and septic information also.  You may want to look up the neighboring properties to see how deep their wells were or how much they paid and when…

Cellphone / Smartphone  These little gadgets are indispensable.   I used the mapping functions on my smart phone, I used them to find the directions/distance to the nearest 7/11 or Target store, etc.   Partially, this check was to understand the area, but I also made sure to test from the site (data and voice) to make sure that the reception was good.     You may want to make sure that you can’t get a cell phone signal, to each his own ;^)

100 ft measuring tape

Make sure your home will fit on the lot. Allow for what ever setbacks apply.

I usually took a measuring tape or at least a 100ft long piece of rope with me to each site.  I had a basic idea of how wide and deep my home would be and I would always make sure it would fit.   Don’t forget about “setbacks” that limit how close you can be to the neighbors.

Compass For a passive solar home, the orientation of the lot is very important.  You will want to check for “solar access”; that is check to make sure that the path of the sun is largely unobstructed, particularly the winter path.  Hopefully you have an idea of its winter path in your area, if not, you should look that up before you head out to investigate the land.  You will want to check the southern sky for buildings, trees, mountains or other obstacles.  If you lot is on a hill, you will want to make sure you are on the southern side of the hill (lots on northern slopes tend to be cheaper, at least in colder areas).  But you can’t really do any of that if you don’t know which way is north or south.

The Google and GIS maps should help, but it might still be handy to have a compass as a double check.  Never just believe your real-estate agent ;).

One final note on using a compass is to check for solar orientation…  Be sure to check your magnetic declination (<== the Wikipedia entry is pretty good).  The solar orientation is based on “True North”, the poles based on rotation of the earth as it orbits the sun…  Not the “Magnetic North” that your compass will point to.  The difference between these is the magnetic declination.  In Michigan, it is not a huge problem, but you should check the declination in your area…  This website, should help.  In Minneapolis, Magnetic and True North are nearly aligned, so magnetic declination is less than half a degree off.  But if you live in Maine, it could be off by more than 17°W.  Over in Seattle, it is almost 17°E.    It gets really crazy in Alaska or areas of Northern Canada.  Orienting your home by a compass would be a big mistake if your compass was off by more than 15°.

Magnetic declination changes as the magnetic pole moves around. Make sure your map/info is current.

Also note that magnetic declination changes a little each year as the north magnetic pole tends to drift around.  When I bought my lot in 2009, the magnetic declination was 6°W of “True North”.  Today I checked and it is 7.3°W.

If you got the magnetic declination off a printed map (it is usually printed somewhere on any decent hiking map), also check the date.  If it is more than 2 years old, you might want to check with a newer source to make sure it is still “close enough”.

Comments are closed