Purchasing Land: What To Look For

It doesn't take long to realize that finding the right piece of property is the most important aspect of new home construction. In a development, restrictions and easements have already been sorted out, but if you are looking for a stand-alone piece of vacant land, you're on your own. Here are some of the factors you need to consider before spending your hard-earned cash on a pretty view that might be unbuildable.

THE PERC. No, we're not talking about coffee. But we are talking about percolate. If you are outside of a community, chances are that you will not be connected to city water and sewer; you will have to build a septic system for your own house. The septic system will be designed by a local civil engineer and probably approved by the county, but before the engineer knows what kind of septic you need he'll have to take a Perc Test. They will dig a big hole in the ground, fill it with water, then clock how long it takes for the water to seep into the ground. If the water drains too fast, you have too much sand. If it drains too slow, you have too much clay (or probably rock).

There is an acceptable tolerance, outside of which the perc fails. If one perc fails, they dig another hole elsewhere to see if there's any improvement. Sounds simple enough, but in New Jersey you'll spend about $1000 per hole. If the land doesn't perc, you may be able to find an alternative septic system, but you can be sure it will be very problematic.

Any wise buyer will make the purchase of the land contingent on the perc. Don't assume that just because you have a big piece of land that it will perc somewhere; this is not necessarily the case. The cost of the test is usually paid by the buyer. However, a motivated seller will perc the land for you, or even offer an approved septic system. This is a big bonus, and adds peace of mind, but the land will be more expensive as a result. In the long run, it's worth the extra dollars to bypass this big hurdle. The septic system will be designed to accommodate the number of bedrooms in a house, and you cannot add any bedrooms without redesigning the system.

Once the land is perced, that hole is the spot where the septic will be installed. If it's in the front yard, you cannot change the location without doing another perc. Also remember that nothing can be built on top of your septic field, nor can you plant any trees there.

SETBACKS: This is the space between the property line and the building, defined by the township. Nothing can be constructed in the setback, including your driveway. Some townships require more than 100 feet of setback from the road; setbacks on the front and back perimeters are usually larger than those on the sides of your property. On your survey, a dotted line usually defines the setback, and the space inside is called the building envelope. If the footprint of your intended house and driveway is wider than the setbacks allow, you may have to apply for a variance, or change the orientation of the building.

EASEMENTS: Easements are the rights given to other named parties for public or private use of a stretch of your land. This may include a gas main that runs through your property, power lines, railroad tracks, water mains, or a strip leading to a land-locked neighbor (this strip would be the "flagpole" of a flag lot). This easement should be clearly delineated in the deed, although common usage has been known to claim precedence over perceived rights. If you're the one who requires this easement for a flag lot, make sure it is in writing before you purchase this land, or you might not be able to access it.

WETLANDS: I used to think that wetlands looked like standing water with cattails and ducks. Not necessarily so... in fact, we almost bought three wooded acres of wetlands before a friend gave us a timely warning. In the state of New Jersey, wetlands can be a touchy issue, and the determination is made based on vegetation and soil content. If there's a little stream running through the woods, you might be in trouble. Just to be sure, we hired an engineer who dug a row of soil samples, each marked with a little flag denoting the edge of the wetlands. When he had finished, there was enough land for Ken and Barbie to build a dream house - in the setback, at that.

This little disappointment cost us $600, which is a lot better than the $110,000 we would have spent for a disastrous ruin of our plans. There are times when you might be able to get a variance to build in wetlands, but this can be a costly and time consuming process, with no guarantee of success. You could take your chances and build anyway, but if the township gets tipped off, they could stop your project at any point, or even force to to tear down what you have already constructed.

DEED RESTRICTIONS: These restrictions can be imposed by the former owner of the property, or the township depending on application. For instance, you might be limited as to what kind of house you can build; or what materials you can use. You might not be allowed to build a log home. Some restrictions limit the square footage of the house, or the use of the property. You may have to limit the height of your house, or even what type of fencing you can use. There might be a limit to the kind of livestock you can manage, or how many acres per horse. This has nothing to do with zoning, which is a separate issue.

MINIMUM ACREAGE: Townships have started battling urban scrawl by imposing minimum acreage on a building lot. Sometimes, the piece of land you are trying to buy is smaller than the minimum acreage. If the lot was subdivided before the law was passed, it is usually considered "grandfathered" and you should be able to build on it. Check with the authorities to be sure; you may have to obtain a variance to build on a "substandard" sized lot. Also, if you are purchasing a big piece of land with the assumption that you can subdivide later and sell off parcels, make sure these subdivisions will be allowed. Sometimes, even large parcels can only be divided once or twice by law, depending on deed restrictions, prec restrictions, township restrictions, or possibly land preservation issues.

CLEAR TITLE: If there is a lien on a property due to non-payment of bills or taxes, the title will be considered clouded and you might not be able to obtain clear title to your piece of land. There may be disputes about boundary lines, or adverse possession if you have an unwelcome long-term squatter. In most cases, a thorough title search will uncover any irregularities, and the mortgage company will require that you purchase a one-time title insurance policy against any future issues. This needs to be done before settlement.

WATER SOURCE: If you need to dig a well, consult with the local well driller. There's a pretty good chance that the driller will have a good idea about how deep he'll need to go. You will pay by the foot to drill a well, and it could add thousands to your budget.

When it comes to purchasing land, the old saying "Let the buyer beware" certainly comes to mind. If you do not thoroughly investigate your property with the township, civil engineers, or land use lawyers, no one else is going to protect you. A cooperative township office will give you access to the public records relating to your piece of land; if it's been perced in the past, those records become public. They may already have a file about your lot and block number, and a trip to the township office may enlighten you if there have been problems in the past. At the very least, you should have an idea what you can and cannot do with your land, before you make that big commitment.

Mercedes Hayes is a Hiawatha Log Home dealer and also a Realtor in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She designed her own log home which was featured in the 2004 Floor Plan Guide of Log Home Living magazine. You can learn more about log homes by visiting http://www.JerseyLogHomes.com

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