Al Swan - Realtor/Broker

  • (530) 524-5554
  • CA DRE # 00859047
  • Northstate REP

Purchasing Land 101 - The Basics

When you are considering purchasing land in California, especially if it is undeveloped and has no improvements (vacant or raw land), there are several basic considerations or factors that you should consider and research before making any commitments. Each of these factors will greatly influence the desirability and value of the land. Making sure that you have carefully considered and investigated each will save you a lot of headaches.

These basic considerations or factors include: Zoning, Access, Power, Water, Sewage Disposal and more. Many of these factors influence whether or not one can build a home on the property.  Although it may be your intent to not build a home (cattle grazing, hunting, etc.), you should still give them consideration.  If and when the time comes for you to eventually sell it, the fact that it may or may not be build-able, will certainly influence the value.


"What do you intend to do with the land?" A simple but very important question! Whether it is for building your dream home, multiple homes, a ranch, commercial building, retreat center, hunting, fishing, subdividing or whatever... you should make sure the local zoning laws will permit or allow you to do what you want to do. A personal visit or phone call to the local governmental planning & zoning department will provide you information on the type of zoning classification, the permitted uses and the general plan for a specific parcel. The planning & zoning department will want to know the assessor parcel number of the specific property so they can use it as a reference to check their files.  So be sure to have the county or city assessor parcel number to give them. In addition, if you are considering purchasing 100 acres or more, you may want to review the "Williamson Act" under "Categories".


"Is there legal access to the property?” Surprisingly, there are hundreds of properties that are sold that have no roads accessing them….and therefore are basically land-locked.   In addition, if a road exists on the neighbor’s property which accesses the subject property, you may not have a legal right to use it. In these cases, the only way to access the property is by helicopter. Unless you have your own helicopter, this can be very inconvenient. You want to be assured that there is legal access (ingress and egress) to the property. Regarding the situation where a road may not physically exist to the property, you will want to check to see if you at least have a legal easement across the neighbor’s land, so you can build a road to access the subject property.  If an easement does not exist, the only viable option is to negotiate with the neighbor to see if they would grant you an easement.  Typically, the neighbor receives compensation (money) in exchange for granting an easement.  A visit to the local governmental planning department may provide information on roads and easements affecting the property.  Also, road easements may be addressed in the deed to the property and the deeds of the neighbor’s properties. You might obtain a copy of the deed from the owner or a local title company.


"Is there electrical power to the property?” Do not assume that if there is a power line adjacent to or crossing the property that you can legally use or tie into it. Check with the local electric provider as to the requirements and costs. If the power is some distance away they can provide you information as to the options and costs of bringing power to your property. If public power is not feasible or desired, be sure to research the use of alternative sources such as solar, wind, generators, hydro and such.


Naturally, having a source of good drinking water on your property is nice! Check to see if there is a nearby public or community water system that you can connect to. If not, check to see what other viable water sources may be available…such as a well, spring, creek or river. If it is a public water system, research the costs of connecting to it. If you believe a well is a choice, you will want to know how feasible it is. Drilling a well can be expensive and sometimes you may not hit water, so you want to try to minimize the risk. Consult with a local well driller who has experience in the area. They can generally tell you how good the wells are in a particular area; if there might be any problems and the cost of drilling and installation. Also, check with the neighbors…..ask them how good their wells are (depth, production rate, and quality). The most viable source of water may be a spring, creek, river or other surface type water. If this is the case, check to see what it would take to collect, filter and distribute the water to your building site.  In addition, make sure you have a legal right to use the surface water!


Your research should determine what type of sewage disposal options are available. If it is a public sewer system, check with the local governmental agency to find out the costs of connecting to it. If a public system is not available, the only other viable option is a septic system (septic tank and leach lines).  Before a septic system can be installed, you want to make sure the soil is suitable for a system. Suitability can be determined through a perc or perk test, formally known as a Percolation Test. This test determines the rate at which water drains through the soil. If the property does not pass the perk test, than a standard septic system cannot by installed. There are alternatives, but they can be very expensive.  You will want to check costs of a  perc test and the installation of a septic and leach field. Again, a visit with neighbors may give you some information. Check with a local septic contractor who has experience in the area. In some cases you may want to spend the money to have a soils engineer visit and research the site.

Having assisted buyers and sellers in land transactions for over 30 years, I have gained experience and knowledge in the process of land acquisitions.  If you are in the market to purchase or sell any land, and would like assistance, please feel free to contact me.