The lure of free, unclaimed land brought many of the first settlers to the United States and out West. Gone are the days of trading five years of labor for a plot of farmland, but that doesn’t mean free land is a thing of the past. People just need to know where to look and what to do in order to secure ownership.
The Homestead Act of 1862 Spurred Westward Expansion
When the first colonists landed on American soil, people were already living here. All across the continent, Native American groups not only foraged and hunted for food, but some tribes planted crops and had permanent dwellings much like their neighbors across the Atlantic.
Unfortunately, once the United States government began making huge land grabs like the Louisiana Purchase, it had to defend its ownership. That required putting U.S. citizens on newly established soil. The Homestead Act of 1862 invited citizens from around the world to claim plots across the American West for themselves. Others followed the lure of oil and gold.
The Wild West was born as settlers made their way along the Oregon Trail, and along with others, displaced native people off their land in the process. As conflicting as our feelings of that might be, there’s no question there’s a romance to the idea of westward expansion. Fearless men and women braved unknown lands in the pursuit of the dream of making their fortunes.
Does the Same Opportunity Exist Today?
Many Americans toiling for low wages in crowded cities are searching for the same kind of opportunity. The promise of unclaimed land still sparks passion in modern Americans, but is it really available anywhere in the U.S.? Is it available anywhere in the world?
Unclaimed Land on U.S. Soil
Even back in the homesteading days, unclaimed land wasn’t free and clear for the taking. Like other sovereign nations, the United States government claims ownership of all the land in the country that isn’t owned by anyone else. Even land that people do own isn't safe from the government's reach. If it benefits the public interest, governments can reclaim ownership through eminent domain.
Every once in a while, someone will stumble onto a mapping error that ignores a segment of land, but even this land isn’t free and clear. If a plot isn’t a defined legal parcel of land, it can’t be owned by the government or by anyone else; it's typically too expensive to justify creating a formal parcel.
For the most part, states oversee their public land holdings, but there are a few exceptions. The federal agencies that oversee land management are:
- U.S. Department of the Interior.
- U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
- U.S. National Park Service.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- U.S. Forest Service.
This land is often reserved for:
- Wildlife conservation.
- Development of natural resources.
From time to time, the government releases portions of these lands for sale to the public. By law, they must be priced at or above fair market value.
Unclaimed Land Around the World
Most of the land around the world falls under the law of an existing nation. There are a handful of exceptions. Terra nullius, or unowned lands, appear randomly throughout the world. In most cases, establishing legal ownership would be too costly or inconvenient. That hasn’t stopped people from trying.
In 2014, a Virginia man, Jeremiah Heaton, traveled to Bir Twali, a stretch of unclaimed desert between Sudan and Egypt, and put a flag in the ground. Not surprisingly, the United Nations has yet to recognize his claim.
The same is true for Czech citizen, Vít Jedlička. When the Danube River's geography shifted, it exposed a stretch of land not previously found on any map. Jedlička rushed to claim it. While ownership was technically undeclared, it isn’t the same as being available.
Terra Nullius in Today's World
Generally speaking, that’s the state of t_erra nullius_ in today’s world. Some of the best-known examples include:
Marie Byrd Land. International treaties protect this incredibly cold and isolated part of Antarctica. Even if a settler could get there, basic survival would be a challenge.
Hala'ib and Bir Tawil Triangles. Situated between Egypt and Sudan, these small parcels of desert are caught in an administrative Bermuda triangle. The root of the problem? Mapmakers forgot to include them. Now, neither country will accept Bir Tawil for fear it will invalidate their claims to Hala'ib.
Random Islands and Other Oddities. Islands dot the oceans, though most fall under the laws of existing nations. Some of them are in contested territory. Canada and the U.S. both claim Machias Seal Island. Teeny, tiny Rockall could fall under the UK, Ireland or Icelandic law. That doesn't mean these places aren't up for sale.
Plenty of eccentric world citizens have purchased their own private corners of the globe. The challenges? It takes hard work and a whole lot of money to make remote places habitable. For example, Marie Byrd Land can’t support life on its own because it’s too remote for food delivery and also too cold for food to grow. Desert islands have no potable water, no docks for ships to land, no electricity and no air conditioning. It’s no wonder the UN is reluctant to recognize these places as sovereign nations.
Where Can People Find Free Land?
While there’s no unclaimed land in the U.S. – or pretty much anywhere in the world – there are several places where government programs donate land parcels for the sake of development, sell land and existing homes for pennies on the dollar and make land available through other nontraditional means.
Requirements allow for less of a do-it-yourself approach than Americans enjoyed in the past, but citizens can still get free land for development. Often this is to encourage more people to move into areas with low populations. Businesses, too! Deals can offer tax benefits that last for decades. Other programs encourage the redevelopment of neglected areas. People can also get free land through family and friends.
How to Transfer Property Between Family Members
In many states, it’s permissible to transfer property titles without payment. These arrangements are much more informal than those involving mortgage financing. To file a quitclaim deed, Minnesota law doesn’t even require the transaction to be registered. Most people do it just to keep records up to date.
Individuals often transfer property into a trust. For trusted deeds, Minnesota is just a bit more formal, but in many states, these deeds aren’t as secure as a warranty deed, the type of deed use to transfer property during a typical sale.
These deeds are relatively new and sometimes they’re quite complicated. When filling out a free transfer on death deed form, for example, Minnesota property owners have to contend with a variety of recent changes to state law. While transfer on death deeds keep real estate transactions as affordable as possible, they definitely require a lawyer.
Beware of Unscrupulous Sellers
Sometimes, an unscrupulous seller will use a quitclaim deed when selling a property they don’t own all the rights to. A warranty deed ensures the property’s title is free and clear of any encumbrances and protects the new owner from nasty surprises.
The Promise of Free Land in the United States
Rural communities have been hurting since the Industrial Revolution when more families stopped farming and started moving to cities where the lure of factory work promised a chance at a better life. That trend continues today and has left many rural communities in a financial bind. Fewer people means fewer property taxes. Some small towns can’t afford to provide street lights let alone fix cracks in the pavement. Those issues go a long way toward pushing away new residents.
To lure more people from the city back to the country, small towns began offering free land grabs for a price. The cost is official development. Often towns running these programs pair with a specific builder who agrees to complete work at a lower cost. This kind of arrangement comes with unique risks.
In the city of Fort Dodge, Iowa, for instance, the revitalization efforts resulted in new buildings that cost more than twice the value of existing homes in the area. They didn’t include basements, either, which was a problem for residents in a town that had been nearly wiped out by a twister 20 years earlier.
U.S. Towns With Free Land
Free land is available in the following U.S. towns:
- Lincoln, Kansas.
- Marne, Iowa.
- New Richland, Minnesota.
- Mankato, Kansas.
- Curtis, Nebraska.
- Manilla, Iowa.
- Osborne, Kansas.
- Osceola, Iowa.
- Plainville, Kansas.
- Elwood, Nebraska.
- Loup City, Nebraska.
- Flagler, Colorado.
Almost universally, these programs require an owner to build a new house by a professional builder. Modular homes are only allowed in certain cases. Mobile homes, tiny homes, yurts and other alternative lodging are not allowed for any of the programs. These requirements keep participation low, as building costs for a traditional home trend upward of $200,000.
Urban Homestead Programs
In addition, Urban Homestead programs are available in Buffalo, New York, and Boston, Massachusetts.
Applicants get access to free or cheap properties, but must prove they can bring them up to code. The best programs offer extra incentives to bring costs down. In Loup City, applicants who meet low-income guidelines receive up to $20,000 in down payment assistance. In Boston, buyers in the right neighborhoods can get up to $36,000 to help with renovation efforts.
All of these programs require a personal investment that can creep into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most consumers looking for free land just can’t afford it. Fortunately, there are low-cost alternatives in nearly every community just waiting for buyers to snatch them up.
How to Get Land and Homes for Next-to-Nothing
There are three remaining ways to get existing property for very cheap prices. The process varies by state and agency. Tax sales, seized property sales and secondary markets for tax deeds are legitimate methods for buying available land and homes for pennies on the dollar.
Buying Property Through Tax Sales
The majority of cities and counties in the U.S. charge property owners tax based on a percentage of the value of their homes, land and other real estate. Other types of special assessments are added to property tax bills as well, such as nuisance charges if a property owner neglects his lawn and forces the city to mow it.
If the owner doesn’t pay the property taxes and special assessments, the government places a tax lien on the property. The government then sells the debts to investors, either as tax lien certificates or tax deeds. Purchasing a tax debt can eventually result in property ownership. A lawyer can help complete these complicated deals.
How to Buy Seized Property
Government agencies sometimes seize property connected to crimes. They hold auctions several times a year to offload it. Buyers can find homes and land parcels for sale at deep discounts. Other types of seized property include vehicles, electronics, jewelry, clothing and appliances.
Bidders often have to register days or weeks ahead of time. They pay a fee to take part in the auction and receive a bidding number. Property may or may not be available for viewing ahead of time. Auctions may also require a specific form of payment.
How to Buy Real Estate for Cheap on eBay and Craigslist
Sometimes buyers find hidden gems on popular sites like eBay and Craigslist. Unfortunately, scams can be there, too. Consumers must do their due diligence when purchasing property on line These sellers often rely on quitclaim or tax deeds. Just as any quitclaim deed, state laws don’t always offer the same protection as they do to warranty deeds.
Ironically, a trusted deed might not provide those provisions, either. Potential buyers should perform title searches to ensure that property titles are legitimate and clear for ownership.
eBay and Craigslist deals might also include hefty fees for processing and paperwork. Sellers might also collect payment and then claim it was just a down payment. It’s important for buyers to closely inspect their contracts.
While the days of finding land that is free for the taking are over, there are still affordable options for people who want to own property. Whether it’s saving thousands of dollars on the land needed to build a new home or picking up an abandoned or neglected property at a steep savings, savvy prospectors can uncover a goldmine.