How to Buy a Piece of Land

Property bordered by water may be subject to wetlands laws.

Vacant land image by Yuriy Rozanov from

If you’re a first-time land shopper, the process of buying property may seem daunting at first, but look at it this way: People have been buying vacant property since the United States was settled hundreds of years ago. Back in the day, a buyer didn’t even have to be literate — just as long as he could make an “X,” come up with the cash and prove his identity. Rely on folks in the real estate profession to walk you through this experience so you don’t have to do it alone.

Step 1

Set a realistic goal. Buying a piece of land is the easy part — finding property that’s zoned to allow you to do whatever you wish isn’t. Decide if you want to house a trailer, build a home or use the land for your horses. State your objective immediately when you bring a real estate agent on board for your land-shopping expedition so you don’t waste your time and energy looking at plots that don’t permit whatever goal you’ve set for your property acquisition.

Step 2

Determine your budget. Whether you’ve inherited some cash, saved to buy a piece of land or you’re willing to put a down payment on property and pay off the remainder in installments, knowing how much you want to spend limits your search to just those properties within your budgetary range. Bracket your search: Decide on a middle ground and then, for example, shop for land that’s $10,000 over and under your budget so you have room for negotiation once you find just the right piece of land.

Step 3

Ascertain your risk tolerance. Rely on your real estate agent to help you circumnavigate property restrictions. If the area of the city, village or town you’ve targeted for your search is located on a flood plain, has been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency for environmental reasons, comes with restrictions that could stop you from using the land as you wish — e.g., there’s no road access, power or water lines — a savvy agent can save you from days of research. Additionally, he can advise you about whether the land is subject to liens or judgments. Of course, you can do all of this yourself by going to your municipal government’s assessor’s office or office of public records.

Step 4

Get the lay of the land. Find out about codes, covenants and restrictions if the land you have selected has already been developed. Ask questions related to the property’s restrictions — you might have to agree to constrain the size of a dwelling, abide by landscaping limits or even paint structures using an approved color palette. Challenge these types of covenants if you find them too restrictive by appealing to a zoning board, assessor’s office or other government agency. However, consider that it might be easier to buy land that won’t require you to jump through so many hoops.

Step 5

Research waterfront and wildlife restrictions that may apply to the land you intend to buy. “Properties adjacent to the ocean, sound, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water may have special restrictions based on the Shoreline Management Act,” advises George Guttman, writing for Guttman points out that property may be considered a wetland by the local jurisdiction even if it "looks dry and there are no cattails or skunk cabbages growing there.” Such restrictions can even include tree-cutting prohibitions if nesting birds frequent the area.

Step 6

Hire a land expert to survey the property if you want a second opinion. Ask an independent surveyor to run soil samples, double-check the plat of survey, walk off property boundaries and easements and double-check power, water, gas and sewer lines to make certain you are getting exactly what the property description details.

Step 7

Give the owner a nonrefundable deposit after negotiating the best deal possible. Keep this in mind: Time is on your side if the owner is eager to get rid of the parcel and you’re in no rush to cement the sale. Once you commit -- and before you close -- contact your insurance broker to arrange for coverage as you may have to bring the policy to the closing.

Step 8

Attend your closing, even if your attorney is also appearing, so you are privy to explanations of transaction details as the contract is being signed. Bring with you a cashier’s check for the remainder of the down payment less your deposit. Double-check the fees and taxes applied to the real estate transaction. Sign all of the pages requiring your signature and initial the others to complete the sale. If you intend to build on the property after closing, make sure the recorder of deeds has filed the paperwork. There’s usually a 90-day window to do so; therefore, don’t hire a contractor until you know your deed is recorded.

Items you will need

  • Real estate agent
  • Budget
  • Deposit
  • Down payment
  • Insurance
  • Codes, covenants, restrictions
  • Title company
  • Real estate contract
  • Deed


  • It's okay to negotiate for two pieces of vacant property simultaneously if they're equally desirable, are priced similarly and you're eager to strike the best deal.


  • Apply due diligence to your land purchase; you wouldn't be the first person on the planet to get in on a land-buying deal that's too good to be true. It bears repeating: Don't buy land you haven't seen.

Photo Credits

About the Author

Based in Chicago, Gail Cohen has been a professional writer for more than 30 years. She has authored and co-authored 14 books and penned hundreds of articles in consumer and trade publications, including the Illinois-based "Daily Herald" newspaper. Her newest book, "The Christmas Quilt," was published in December 2011.

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