How To Tell If You Can Build On Undeveloped Land | askBAMLand

If you’re looking to buy undeveloped land to pursue a building project, you are going to want to know all of the limitations of the property before buying.

The way to tell if you can build on undeveloped land will be determined by your local county’s zoning restrictions, the access the property has to utilities, as well as any type of easements the land is affiliated with that could limit development.  

The prospect of buying undeveloped land offers a lot of opportunities to the owner.  You are often able to have full creative control over what you build and how you build it.  This is a luxury that most homeowners who opt for a pre-build residence do not have at their disposal.  You should, however, approach undeveloped land with caution, as there can very well be certain restrictions tied to the property that come with their share of limitations.  To highlight these limitations we are going to provide some examples of restrictions that can be associated with undeveloped land.

Throughout the United States, undeveloped land is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, various land trusts, real estate agencies, as well as private owners.  Before building on undeveloped land always consult your seller for a thorough background of the property.

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Factors For Successful Building

It’s easy for many aspiring landowners to look at an empty parcel of land and feel excited about all the possibilities for development projects and building ideas.  More often than not, that tends to be the case.

Having a piece of undeveloped land does come with a lot of freedom to pursue the building project of your dreams; whether it’s for setting up a commercial business or simply designing your home from scratch.  With that being said, there are some factors associated with undeveloped land that could stand in the way of your building project.

The last thing you want to do is jump the gun and start building without considering all of the factors at play, as they could end up greatly hindering your development.  So much so, that there have been instances of projects needing to be re-designed halfway through development or even demolished entirely.  In addition, building a project that violates certain development restrictions (big and small) could easily result in legal action by your local building department authority.

The good news is if you are willing to stay within the lines of the building restrictions associated with your vacant land, there’s no reason to scrap any ideas and ambitions you have for pursuing the development project you want.  Let’s take a look at some of the factors associated with building on undeveloped land.

Zoning Restrictions

The one thing that tends to cause more headaches for developers than anything else is the zoning restrictions associated with properties.  

The zoning restrictions of undeveloped lands greatly vary from county to county and can hinder your building process and even force you to compromise certain development ideas.  With that being said, zoning restrictions are not always as bad as they seem and they often can be pretty relaxed depending on the location that you are building in.

Your zoning restrictions will likely be determined by what exactly you are building and what the intentions of the development project are.  These are some of the most common zoning restrictions you may encounter.

  • Residential zoning restrictions - you may be limited by the height of your building, how many structures you are allowed to build, or how many subdivisions you are allowed to do on your property (if any at all).
  • Commercial zoning restrictions - the biggest limitations with commercial zoning have to do with the intent of your business and where it’s located.  Your local county may require that certain stores, bars & restaurants, as well as offices, be located a certain distance from schools and private residences.
  • Farmland zoning restrictions - farmland can tend to complicate a number of urban zoning violations and will likely not be allowed within certain city limits.  In addition, you will likely have to adhere to certain sanitary and environmental guidelines to be within the boundaries of your county’s zoning laws.
  • Industrial zoning restrictions -  tend to be among the most restricted, as pollution from waste, toxins, and noise tend to affect urban livelihoods.  With that being said, depending on the industry, you can find there is a multitude of zoning restrictions that deal with everything from maintaining a certain distance to city limits to strenuous environmental guidelines.

At the end of the day, zoning restrictions can vary greatly depending on what your end goals are for your development.  While in most cases you will find that these are mere obstacles in your building project, overlooking them or undermining them can result in severe consequences.

The best way to fully understand all of the zoning restrictions in place on your property is to consult your local country building department.  Be sure to have a clear layout and plan for all aspects of your development.  If the building authority for your county grants you approval to build, you shouldn’t face any more trouble moving forward.

Easements

It’s quite common to find vacant undeveloped lands with a type of easement that has been placed on the property.  As easement essentially entails that the rightful property owner has relinquished certain rights to their property either as a mutually beneficial gain with an affiliated party of the easement or for some sort of financial benefit like a tax incentive.

Where easements can tend to become a bit tricky is that landowners can often buy property without knowing that an easement is in place on the land or simply not understanding the full limitations of the easements. This sort of situation is especially troublesome for individuals who acquire property that have specific development projects they aim to pursue that are limited by the easement.  

This sort of scenario is most common with individuals who purchase land that has a conservation easement in place.  A conservation easement can often limit how much you are allowed to build on a property and what you are allowed to build.  In addition, a conservation easement can have strict regulations on whether you are allowed to divide your property into subsections for re-sale or alternative use.

With that being said, most other easements are generally more straightforward and relaxed.  A typical easement could entail an agreement of accessibility for public road access through your land or may involve the sharing of barriers such as fencing.

To make sure you are fully aware of any easements that are in place you should make it a point to inquire about this with the individual or organization you are dealing with.  If you find that there is an easement in place on your undeveloped land, be sure to fully understand any restrictions that are in place on the property and have the restrictions in writing before committing.

Utilities

Regardless of whether you are building a private residence, a commercial business, a farm, or an industrial facility, having access to some form of utilities is going to be a must.

The type of utilities you need will be greatly determined by your development project, which is why you want to have a clear idea of your building plans so that you can mold them to the utility access of your property.

With that being said, you should ensure that the utilities connected to your undeveloped land are even capable of delivering the results that your building project needs.  As always, consulting your city planning department to get an overview of your connection points is going to be essential.  Here’s what you want to assess when looking through your utility access:

  • Electricity
  • Gas
  • Sewage
  • Internet

While these are the most basic utilities that you will likely need to consider, there may be more complex services that you need depending on your building intentions.  Regardless, make sure you are aware of what utilities your development will require and make arrangements for your build to be adaptable to them.

Other Factors To Consider

Buying undeveloped land does offer a clean slate in so many ways to build and design from scratch, but as we just covered above, there can be some complications tied to these land parcels that could very easily be overlooked.

While in most case scenarios you will find that undeveloped lands offer up a lot of freedom, there are certain additional elements that can help you pinpoint your perfect plot of land and ensure you are drawing within the lines of your development project.

Let’s dive into some additional factors that you should consider that may influence what you can build on your undeveloped land.

Location

The first thing you want to always bear in mind when hunting down real estate is the location of your land.  This is such a crucial aspect of choosing a plot of land for many reasons but especially for determining what you can and can’t build.

What you will find is that certain locations favor losing building restrictions far more than others.  Here are some examples.

Urban Areas

Buying an undeveloped plot of land in an urban area -especially a larger city - will tend to be much more complicated than anywhere else.

Urban areas tend to have the most intense zoning restrictions for development, which can really complicate a build.  You can find that your local city has limitations on everything from the height of your building, the materials it can be made out of, to even the color of the building itself.

In addition, there are common restrictions such as having certain animals on your property, as well as building additional structures or homes on the land.

These restrictions and their intensity can greatly vary from city to city, but they can be overwhelming if not carefully considered when designing your project.  With that being said, consider the development you have in mind and choose your urban environment carefully when hunting down undeveloped land within cities.

Rural Areas

Acquiring real estate in a rural area is quite the opposite of an urban environment and comes with a lot of perks and often fewer obstacles. The undeveloped lands you have to choose from offer up the freedom to build more dynamic projects and with much more space to play around with.

Since many rural areas are not bound to the same zoning restrictions as properties located within city limits, you will find that a lot of the common development limitations most people deal with in urban environments don’t exist in the countryside.

It’s for this very reason that you will find a lot of industrial facilities and certain commercial businesses operating outside of urban environments.  What you should carefully consider is that you have adequate access to the utilities your project needs given that you may be far away from utility providers.

A great balance for finding the freedom to develop while having access to utilities is to evaluate undeveloped properties located within a small town or in the vicinity of one.

Land Surveying

When you evaluate undeveloped properties, regardless of whether you are dealing with a private seller or a real estate organization, you want to make sure that the property lines of your land are exact and legitimate.

If you are purchasing land within well-developed cities, it’s more than often the case that surveying has been done professionally and recently.  However, you should be aware of rural areas that may not have been surveyed in a while.

Even though the blueprint of your property may indicate the boundaries of your land are exact, you may find that the surveyor conducted their analysis of the property decades ago and that the results are not as accurate as they may seem.

It’s rare but not uncommon for a neighboring property owner to conduct their own survey at some point to find that there is some overlap between perceived property lines.  While in most case scenarios this ends up being a minor issue consisting of a very small of land, it could result in more than you want to offer.

This can particularly become an issue if their property line overlaps a certain development that you have built such as a home or other structure.  To be safe, it’s highly advisable that you conduct your own survey when reviewing undeveloped land to ensure that nothing stands in the way of your build.

About THE AUTHOR

Brittany Melling

Brittany Melling

We loved family’s outdoor adventures so much we started a land business just to help others buy their own land. We’ve sold to dozens of people from ATV weekend warriors to camping enthusiasts to retired truck drivers. Our inventory spans five western states. We’ve been trained by experience, land acquisition courses, and hundreds of hours meeting with county assessors and clerks, zoning officials, realtors, and land investors. We’ve answered hundreds of questions from people regarding the buying and use of land.

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