Looking for land to love

This topic has no boundaries, so I’m just going to speak from personal experience and trust that you’ll find some useful, common ground. Do your research, identify your priorities, and keep your wits about you - there are no hard-and-fast rules and every person’s goals and realities are unique, so you must be prepared to think creatively and logically based on your own personal situation.

Q: So, how the heck do you find a good piece of land to build on?

A: What do you want to do on that land? The first part of the answer might be pretty simple, but you must pay attention to some details that may not be immediately obvious.

The most important consideration before proceeding with purchasing a property - and then choosing house plans that suit you and the land - is to ensure that the property is zoned for the use you intend for it. Always confirm, as early as possible, that the property’s zoning will allow for either residential or recreational development.

First steps?

Start studying real estate listings for land, and go look at land. Lots of it. Let this become a daily or weekly routine. This is your period of learning, and over time you'll come to understand the euphemisms that folks sometimes use to cryptically describe the plot of land they have for sale…”duck hunter's paradise" is another way of saying there's a lot of water. 

Be alert when looking at land that is low-lying or wet - from a practical standpoint, wet ground is more challenging and possibly problematic and usually more expensive to build on than high and dry ground, and in many jurisdictions a wetland will be overseen by a conservation authority that may have heavy restrictions on what can occur on the land, such as minimum setbacks from water. So, if there is a lot of water, and, for example, the setback rule is in place says that you cannot build within 100 feet of the boundary of a wetland or high-water mark of a lake or river, you could find that the remaining theoretical building sites are just not practical to build on. 

Always think about the bigger picture, don’t only focus on the beauty of the land. The ultimate, most important consideration before proceeding with purchasing a property , and then choosing house plans and specifications, is to ensure that the property is zoned for the use you intend for it. Always confirm, as early as possible, that the property’s zoning will allow for either residential or recreational development. If the real estate listing is through a professional real estate broker, they should have the land’s zoning clearly stated; if you are looking at a private sale, you may need to do some background research.

“Building site cleared and ready to build” might mean that loggers have stripped out all the big trees, or the present owner got ahead of themselves and cleared a building site before knowing what was going to be built. If this is the case, you might be able to buy the land for a better price, but you might be looking at 15-25 years before the land has healed and the smaller remaining trees have matured.

Be patient. After spending weeks and months watching the real estate land-for-sale listings, you will come to understand relative 'value', and gain an understanding about why one piece of land is more expensive than another; you'll come to intuitively know where prices are higher or lower, and why.

The more you learn the more confident you'll be, so that when the time comes that you see something that resonates with you at a price you can find the money for, you will be making decisions with more confidence. 

p.s. - you'll come to love whatever land you end up with, and as long as you’re actually allowed to build a structure, that the land is zoned to allow for residential construction, or at least a ‘recreational’ building (a ‘cottage’ or ‘cabin’) there is rarely a wrong choice.

Some basic guidelines to consider:

Begin your search online.

There are scores of websites devoted to land purchases. Mr. Google is a powerful resource. In Canada, your two go-to sites are mls.ca and kijiji.ca

In the U.S., start with Craigslist.com and MLS.com 

Quality of Life

Getting a good deal on the price is great. But one has to weigh other factors. Do you like the view? How far away is the supermarket, fire or police protection and other necessities? Will weather affect access?

Zoning and Density

Start by visiting the local building department, either on the city or county level. Research the zoning and density requirements that surround your potential building site. Understand how your building site will be impacted by nearby development, as well as in the community as a whole.

Past, Present and Future Use

What can seem permanent, may not be. A thick forest of pine, for example, can seem as permanent as the mountain itself. But beetle infestation has recently killed whole mountain ranges of forests across the Rocky Moutain states, turning evergreens into forever-browns. Wild fires are a growing risk, and can consume large swaths of forests, and potentially your home. Does your site have a past? Mining operations in a few areas of the country have polluted water tables.


Will you be on a well and septic system or will your building site have access to public water, sewer and electrical or will you have to build “off the grid?” The cost of these has to be factored into your budget. Density can affect the price of this as well as the quality of service.

Terrain, Soil and “Perc Test”

How deep is the top soil? If your site is on the side of a mountain, the views can be dramatic. But if it only has a thin coating of top soil, contractors will have to blast bedrock to excavate if you will want a basement. This will quickly increase traditional foundation construction costs. Also, if you are installing a septic system you will have to discover if the site will pass a “perc” or percolation test; there are technologies that allow for septic water treatment even on bare rock, but the cost of implementing them may be prohibitive.

Is Growth Managed?

Has the province or state you want to live in passed any kind of growth management act? A few have. Typically these plans delineate where growth will be channeled over the next 25 to 50 years, including community density, building plans, transportation growth and more. If there isn’t a state or provice-wide law on growth, the local city or county council could determine where growth will be allowed. Either way, you must make some judgment on whether you trust a community’s intentions with the property you will spending your money on.

Federal and State Lands

If you’re shopping for pristine land, look for areas that fall under federally protected land and wildlife rules. Even if land is privately owned, it will be subject to certain restrictions to protect endangered species. Critical habitats, including migration routes for eagles, spotted owls or bats, are typically exempt from large-scale developments, large power lines or highways.

Transportation and Traffic

Analyze the access to your building site (is there more than one road in?) as well as to the community as a whole. Ideally, you’d want well-maintained roads and highways with a regional airport within an hour or two drive. But you don’t want so much traffic congestion that it impacts pollution levels and noise.

Local Economy and Taxes

The health of the local economy will impact your land decision. Grinding poverty can have just as dramatic impact on the landscape as an influx of billionaires. Which way is your community headed? Research the current tax rate. A community needs some taxes to support infrastructure needs, such as police, fire protection and water and sewer. However, tax rates in some resort areas have been known to dramatically increase, which can be a serious threat if you are on a fixed income in your retirement years.

Medical Care

Ever sit around with friends and family and compare physical infirmities? This game of geezer poker is a precursor to all of us facing declining health in our latter years. So consider how far away is medical care, the size of the facility and the experience of its practitioners, before deciding on a parcel.

Community Covenants

Convenant-controlled communities limits what you can do with your own property. This seems intrusive at first glance. But it’s the only way for developers to tread lightly on the land and preserve their clients investments in the process. If there are no land use rules, your neighbors may invite every cousin to park an RV in their front yard — forever. Neighbors can be more than an annoyance; they can detract from the value of your investment.

Contingency Agreements

After finding a lot you are seriously considering purchasing, work out a contingency agreement with the seller. These agreements indicate to the seller that you are serious enough to put a deposit down (usually nonrefundable) while giving you enough time to determine if the property is a buildable lot. These contracts usually run from 30 to 90 days. If the seller does not agree to grant such a contingency, then there may be something wrong with the property that he or she is reluctant to share.