A Checklist for Buying Land Property

By Tony Oldhand
That beautiful tract you just bought can turn into a real nightmare.

Fields image by Kimprebble from Fotolia.com

You just bought your dream acreage at a fantastic deal and now are ready to develop the land for habitation. Little by little, because you did not do your homework and did not read the fine print on the deed, your dream acreage turns into a nightmare. After your bank account becomes overdrawn, and you are in debt up to your neck, you finally decide to just chuck it all.

The First Nightmare: The Perculation Test

Picture this: You just bought the land, and apply for a septic permit with the county. The inspector tells you: "The land won't take a perc, you'll have to install an engineered field." You find out an engineered field costs 10 times more to install than a regular septic system. Begrudgingly, you pay the engineer and the installer.

Avoidance: Before buying the land, ask the seller if it will "take a perc" or if a perc test (peculation test) has been done from the owner. If not, make arrangements for a perc test (usually conducted by the county health department), such as who pays for it. If the land will not "take a perc", then a regular septic system cannot be installed.

The second Nightmare: Mineral and Logging Rights

The backhoe shows up to install the engineered field. A gentleman shows up a little while later, stating "Wait a minute, I own the mineral rights. How do I know you're not digging for emeralds? Stop digging immediately." After spending a fortune on a lawyer, you discover that many parts of America do indeed have precious gemstones, and owners of mineral rights have a right to mine them. Grudgingly, you have to buy part of the rights to install a septic system.

Avoidance: Before buying the land, ask the owner if all mineral and logging rights are included in the deed. If not, ask who owns the rights and then contact the owner of the rights to see they can be purchased and for what price.

Third Nightmare: Zoning Laws

Now you took out another bank loan, and purchase a brand new beautiful mobile home. When your about to set it, the zoning inspector comes around and states: "Sorry, no mobile homes allowed, site-built homes only." You re-read the deed again, and buried on the hundredth page is a small clause that states the zoning will not allow mobile homes, only site-built homes. You sell the mobile home at a loss and build a site-built home.

Avoidance: Before purchasing the land, talk to the local zoning board to learn about any restrictions that come with the land. "No mobile homes allowed" is a very real restriction on many parcels of land.

Fourth Nightmare: Liens and Encumberances

After you have been drained dry, you wake up one morning to the sound of backhoes. A gentleman is installing another septic system on your land. You ask him (politely, of course) what is happening. He states: "My great-grandfather deeded this land to my grandfather and it's been in the family for generations. I'm going to build my house here." After negotiating with him (politely of course) he allows you to live on his land, provided you buy the title rights for the your piece of the parcel on which your home sits.

Avoidance: Before buying the land, ask if there are any liens or encumbrances on the deed. If so, you (or the owner) will have to remove them. Buying title insurance is a necessity here. Before buying the land, ask a title insurance company for a policy. The insurance company will run a title search and determine if the owner is, in fact, the true owner of the land. According to Stewart Title Insurance Company (see reference 1), insurance companies inspect public records thoroughly for insurable ownership establishment.

Fifth Nightmare: Easments

You've resolved all the issues and finally have some peace. Then one morning you wake up to the sound of backhoes and a construction crew. You ask the foreman what's going on, and he states there is a telephone cable buried somewhere on the land, but nobody bothered to record it on the plat exactly where it is. There is a break in the cable. So now they have to dig around on your land to find it.

Avoidance: Before purchasing your land, ask the seller if there are any utility or road easements. If so, the owner of the easement does not need your permission to dig up the land. A road easement is usually in front of the property, and if the county wants to widen the road, it can.

Sixth Nightmare: Encroachment

You think your finally achieved some peace and quiet, but then you see your next door neighbor putting up a fence 150 feet inside your property line. You ask him (politely, of course) if he knows where the property line is. He says: "Sure, its' where the old red barn used to be." You ask to see his plat, and the surveyor's description states that the corner of his property is where the old red barn used to be, with an iron rod set. You go out there with a metal detector, and sure enough, there's an iron rod buried in the ground and covered over.

Avoidance: Surveyor's descriptions in the 1800s and early 1900' were a far cry from today. Back then, surveyors used subjective terminology such as "the northern boundary where Wilson's Creek runs." Before buying the land, ask for the surveyor's plat. If there is any subjective terminology, then the land will have to be surveyed using modern standards so that terminology is objectively stated--clearly marking exactly where the property lines are.

Seventh nightmare: Mineral Rights Revisited

After going through nightmares 1 through 6, you wake up one morning to the sound of backhoes, bulldozers, and dump trucks. The original gentleman, from whom you bought part of the rights to install a septic system, is there as well. You ask him what's going on, and he states: "Well, emeralds and sapphires have been discovered in the field next door, so I'm going to strip mine right here. But don't worry, I'll replace your grass after I get done, sometime, maybe next year."

Avoidance: Do your homework before buying the land. Ask all the questions about rights, liens, encumbrances, easements, zoning, and title insurance. Take a proactive approach and become an informed buyer even before you start looking for land. Perhaps even consult with an attorney that specializes in land purchases. For a reasonable fee, most lawyers will sit down with you and explain what you need to know.

About the Author

Tony Oldhand has been technical writing since 1995. He has worked in the skilled trades and diversified into Human Services in 1998, working with the developmentally disabled. He is also heavily involved in auto restoration and in the do-it-yourself sector of craftsman trades. Oldhand has an associate degree in electronics and has studied management at the State University of New York.

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