How to do Land Research like a Professional
Let’s talk land research. If you’ve had your eye on becoming a land investor, you’ll know how fun the search can be. Then, reality sets in. What if the seller is lying? What if I misunderstand some aspect of the deal and lose my money?
The idea of buying a property based only on a couple pictures and a phone conversation with a seller can be scary. So before you spend your hard-earned money, do the same land research that professionals do for every purchase.
The 90-minutes you’ll spend researching that property could be worth thousands.
For those of you at the very beginnings of your search, we suggest saving this document for later. Then head over to our guide on Finding Your Dream Land to get you started in the right direction.
Getting Scammed: The Problem
That moment when you think you’ve found the perfect piece of land. It’s exhilarating! You’ve seen the pictures, read the description, and the price looks right. You can already imagine yourself building that vacation cabin, camping with your family, or just relaxing in an RV on weekends – enjoying the peace and quiet. The possibilities are endless.
We love that moment too!
Then, for most people, comes the doubt – don’t worry, that’s normal! Purchasing land can be a big investment. And since most people don’t know much about buying or researching raw land, they’ll typically proceed one of two ways:
Convincing Yourself it’s a Scam
This is an incredibly common reaction. Sure, there’s the disappointment of not being able to realize the dream of owning your very own patch of earth. But hey, at least it saves the trouble of getting into something you don’t fully understand. Or worse, getting scammed by a non-reputable seller, right?
– OR –
Moving Forward with Blind Confidence
You contact the seller, ask a few questions, and decide whether the seller seems reputable or not. If the seller seems trustworthy, you move forward with the deal. This can be a HUGE MISTAKE!
Beyond an intentional scam, even reputable land dealers can make mistakes. Some land dealers can have dozens of parcels for sale, spread across several different states. Maybe they get their counties confused and tell you that you can drill a well, when really, they are thinking about a different property. Or maybe they have a document about hunting regulations for the area, but they haven’t checked on the accuracy of that document in several years. County regulations change all the time.
Either way, by the time you figure out that something is wrong, it could be too late to do anything about it.
Early in my land investing career, I bought a property that did not have legal access. To help me learn what to say when a prospective buyer asked about it, I found a similar lot owned by a big land dealer. When I anonymously sent him a message, asking if the property had legal access (when I knew that it didn’t), his response was: “Yep, I’m pretty sure it does.”
Getting Scammed: The Solution
Luckily, doing your own land research is easy. With 1 piece of advice, 3 phone calls, and only a few minutes of your time, you can ensure with great certainty that:
- You get the exact piece of property you want
- You can do exactly what you want with your parcel
- And, most importantly, it will be very difficult to scam you.
Ready for the big secret? Ready to know how professional investors do their own land research? Here it is:
VERIFY EVERYTHING YOURSELF
That’s it, that is the entire secret. At reading this, most people say “well…of course”. But when it comes down to it, most potential buyers aren’t sure what to do, so they take the seller’s word for it.
Now, let’s go over an easy step-by-step guide to checking everything yourself, like a professional investor. With these quick phone calls, you can verify that everything a seller tells you is accurate.
Land Research – Complete in 90 Minutes or Less
Step 1: Know Your Property
If you can’t drive out and see the property in person, here are a couple of steps you can take to get a better feel for the property.
Get the Picture
The first thing you can do is verify with the seller that the pictures you see were taken on the lot being sold – not just “in the general area”. While we strive to always have pictures of the exact lot you’re buying, this is a common money-saving tactic used by land sellers, and it can sometimes give a false impression of the property.
Secondly, you may want to verify the topography (the contour) of the lot, to check for a severe slope or ravine. Luckily, there is an easy way to do this using the free program Google Earth. Have the seller provide you with GPS coordinates (assuming there isn’t an address available) and put that into Google Earth. It will zoom in on your intended lot, and you can get a better sense of the topography of the lot. If you’re using Windows, simply hold down the middle mouse button and rotate around to change the viewing angle.
Get “Boots on the Ground”
Finally, if you feel you need more concrete information about the property, you can find someone on Craigslist or services like WeGoLook.com to go put boots on the ground, and report back to you. Tip: you can have them send you screen shot of their phone showing their location, to ensure they’re standing on the correct lot.
Step 2: Verify Ownership
Make sure the person selling you the lot is also the person who owns it!
How to Verify Ownership
First, you will need the Assessor’s Parcel Number (or APN) for the lot you hope to buy – be wary of any potential seller who will not provide this information. Once you have the APN, simply call the Assessor’s Office for that county (a simple Google Search should easily find you the correct phone number) and ask them who currently owns the lot associated with that APN. It’s that easy!
Verifying Ownership – Why Calls are Better than Websites
Many people try to go online to verify this information. Sometimes these sites can be accurate, but keep in mind that land sellers will list a property as soon as it is in their possession (it is a business after all!). The down side of this is that county offices move slowly. It can sometimes take weeks, or even months, for them to update ownership information on the website. This is why you’ll want to simply contact the assessor’s office directly.
If you’re anti-phone, you should also be able to find an email address for the assessor and send them an email asking them for the owner of the property. But again, they can sometimes get backed up, so having to wait a couple days for a response is not uncommon.
Verifying Ownership – Bonus
Want to make extra-double sure that the person you’re speaking with is the owner? Ask them to send you a copy of their recorded deed. If they own the property, this should be something they have readily available. So be wary of anyone who takes too long to respond, and never buy from someone who refuses to send you a copy.
Special Circumstances – Pre-Sales
Sometimes land investors, including ourselves, offer a special ‘pre-sale’ for a property. There are a few reasons for this:
1) The parcel is so new that they are still in the process of buying it, but have already started marketing to facilitate a quick turn-around.
2) The investor is testing a new area, and they want to gauge interest from customers before filing the final paperwork on a property.
In these situations, you can’t verify ownership right away, so it requires you to have a lot of trust in your seller. Feel free to ask the seller about the specifics of this pre-sale, and make sure that they are upfront and honest with information. While you may be asked to make a holding payment for the lot as a sign of good faith, never pay the remainder of the balance until you can verify that the change of ownership has been completed.
Step 3: Verify Zoning & Regulations
Make sure you can do exactly what you want with the property
How to Verify Zoning & Regulations
To check regulations, you will contact the county’s Planning & Zoning office. Again, a simple Google Search should easily find you the correct phone number.
If you are looking at a specific piece of property, you will again need the Assessor’s Parcel Number (APN). If you are just researching an area, then you can call and ask about the county or the specific neighborhood(s) you’re interested in.
They should be able to give you answers concerning everything you can do with a lot. This includes: hunting, camping, building, water rights & usage, etc. Also, make sure to ask if the property has an HOA or POA (property owners’ association)!
Verifying Zoning & Regulations – Additional Notes
One thing to note is that all Planning & Zoning employees are not created equal, so to speak. If you sense hesitancy in their answers, or their answers start with “Well, I think…”, don’t hesitate to ask if there is someone you can speak to with a more comprehensive knowledge of the area. You may even find that some employees are knowledgeable only on some topics (like camping or hunting). In which case you can ask to be transferred to a different employee to get information on building requirements.
Don’t be shy about pushing them to give you definitive answers on everything you want to know. The last thing you want is to invest in a property, then not be allowed to do what you want with it!
Step 4: Verify Taxes
Make sure the lot is free and clear of all liens & encumbrances
How to Verify Taxes
Once again, you will need the APN for the property you intend to purchase. From there, contact the County Treasurer’s Office. Ask them to verify whether there are any back-taxes owed, or liens against the property. That’s it!
Note that if there are taxes owed on a property, that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. Read the additional notes below for more information on what to do in that situation.
Verifying Taxes – Additional Notes
Many land sellers, including ourselves, will sometimes wait to pay the back-taxes until the lot has sold. This is a common business strategy that allows investors to hold on to their capital a bit longer for use in the business.
If you find that back-taxes are owed, that is not necessarily a deal breaker! Talk to your intended seller about it. They should be willing to readily admit that there are taxes owed, and that they intend on paying them before transfer of title. In addition, check their sales contract. Make sure that they guarantee the land will be transferred free and clear of all liens and encumbrances. While this will protect you legally, no one wants to contact a lawyer to fix a problem like this.
The most important thing is that the seller contacts you once the taxes are fully paid. Then make sure to verify this information with the county BEFORE transferring the title into your name.
That’s it! If you make the 3 calls above, you’ve have done more land research than 99.9% of buyers.