Purchasing Undeveloped Land

Can purchasing land that does not have any improvements be even more complicated than purchasing land with water, sewer and roads already constructed? Yes!

When a developed lot is purchased, certain assumptions can be made regarding the availability of utility services and the potential for development of that property. These assumptions can be verified by contacting local building officials and utilities. This process can be much more complicated in the purchase of raw land.

The following items are among the most important considerations in the purchase of any undeveloped parcel of property.


  • Any assumptions or representations regarding the zoning of a particular parcel of property should be verified with the local planning jurisdiction. This is particularly critical with the advent of growth management legislation. What might have been possible in the past or what is currently being done on the property next door or appears to be logical in light of land use policies may or may not be relevant to the proposed use of a particular piece of property. Further complications may arise from the fact that land use codes are currently being revised in many locations; the legal situation is likely to continue in a state of flux.

    Zoning questions and issues are generally handled by the county or municipal planning department.

  • A survey is the only way to determine the boundaries of a particular property. Always use the services of a licensed land surveyor and obtain a written report of the survey findings. Fences, trees, roads, power lines, and sticks with colorful 'survey tapes' may or may not indicate the boundary of a property.

  • Some of the natural attributes that make a piece of land particularly attractive for purchase and use are also likely to complicate the development of the property: Small Houses

    • Properties adjacent to the ocean, sound, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water may have special restrictions based on the Shoreline Management Act. For example, the building of bulkheads and piers, or dredging and filling, may be severely restricted even though other similar property owners may have built those types of structures in the past.
    • Areas that come under the protection of wetlands legislation are likely to have strict construction limitations. Please note: just because the land looks dry and there are no cattails or skunk cabbages growing there does not mean that it will not be considered by the local jurisdiction as a wetland.
    • Other site characteristics that are often restricted or regulated include land with steep slopes, lands with significant mining, mineral or forest resources, and areas with a history of seismic activity.
    • Special restrictions regarding the development, tree cutting and seasonal use may be in effect due to bird, fish and other wildlife protection legislation. For specific information, contact the applicable county's planning department and the Washington State Department of Ecology.

  • Private roads, long driveways or ferry and boat access are likely to complicate regular access to the property and add cost to the construction budget. Will it be possible to bring in a premixed concrete truck and pump? Are there extra travel charges? Would it be better to use an all-weather wood structure in order to avoid the extra costs of concrete placement in an out-of-the-way location? Can you just build a roadway or does the jurisdiction require simultaneous construction of "frontage" improvements such as sidewalks, planting strips, curbs and drainage systems?

  • The cost and availability of public utilities must be verified in detail. For example:

    • Electrical service may be possible but bringing the power in from the road to the building site may cost thousands of dollars. The reliability of the local power grid is likely not to be the same in rural areas as in more developed areas. Power outages are likely to be more frequent and voltage fluctuations greater.
    • The availability of water and the cost of piping, well drilling, filtration/treatment and the general reliability of local water source must be carefully evaluated. For example, a private well may be an excellent source of water, but obtaining water rights and permission to drill a well may be a major challenge. And, the successful drilling of that well can be problematic and costly. The proximity of good quality wells on neighboring properties may be a positive indicator of the ability to install a similar well on the property in question but it is not a guarantee of success. Planning/building departments require proof of water availability prior to issuing a building permit. Trucked in water, surface spring water and rain water collection systems may not qualify for the issuance of a permit.
    • Septic systems can be a very reliable and cost effective way of sewage disposal. Septic systems are usually sized according to the number of bedrooms in a residence. Permit processes are usually handled by the county's health department. Any existing septic systems must be pumped out and inspected prior to closing on the purchase of the property. For new septic systems, a percolation test or 'perk test' must be performed and inspected by the local health department. The preexisting perk test and/or septic installation permit may or may not be a completely reliable indicator of future issuance of such permits: watch the date, the permit might have expired and the rules for such systems may have been changed.
    • Telephone line installation may also be more costly and the availability of touch tone and single line service (i.e., versus party line service) may be limited. Cellular phone service may not be as reliable as in urban areas.
    • Piped natural gas service is usually not available in rural areas.
    • Propane gas tanks (with regular refill service) are usually available in rural areas. It is also possible to bring in small portable propane gas tanks and have them refilled from nearby gas stations or other propane suppliers. Such portable tanks are usually not large enough for use with regular propane furnaces or full sized propane hot water heaters.
    • Availability of cable television and specialty services must be verified from the local television cable company.

  • For those wishing to be completely independent of utility grids, oil and gas companies, etc., there are some fairly reliable systems on the market for the adventurous and creative property owner. Few of these systems are fool proof and most are harder to use than the city-slicker's ability to call his or her local utility company and demand service at all hours of the day or night. These alternative systems include:

    • Photo voltaic systems for power generation. Depending on the amount of electric power use and the size and complexity of the system, there are some relative affordable methods of converting sunlight into electrical energy and ways of storing that energy for sunless hours. Don't count on powering an electric stove, heat pump, arc welder, or even a refrigerator with such a system,. If you need some lighting, limited use of your personal computer and other low amperage usage of electricity, this may be one way of avoiding the power grid in remote locations.
    • Passive solar design features are an excellent way of minimizing the need for air and water heating resources. Passive solar design principals are also an excellent way to cool the house in the summertime and reduce the amount of artificial light needed during daylight hours when supplemental lighting might be required in more traditional structures. Remember, passive solar installations require an almost unobstructed southern exposure plus careful and expert design of the structure itself.
    • Composting toilets can reduce the size of a septic system, however, most county health departments will require a septic system for the gray water (i.e. drainage from showers, sinks, etc.).
    • Cellular phones can sometimes work in remote locations with a fixed directional antennae. Recent advances in electronics and changes in FCC regulations promise to bring other wireless communication systems onto the market in the near future.
    • Propane powered refrigerators are available and commonly used in many parts of the world and in most recreational vehicles, etc.
    • Gasoline and propane powered electrical generators are a good backup source of electricity; however, these generators are relatively noisy and rarely used as an ongoing power source. They are a good source of power for construction and when the power grid is down (a more common condition in rural areas).
    • Wood heat can be used for space and water heating as well as cooking. It may be more romantic than the flip of a switch, but its a lot more trouble. Recent restrictions aimed at protecting air quality may prevent the use of wood heat as a principal heating source and local regulations may specify stove features.

    Other alternative systems (some even more exotic than the ones listed above) are also available. All such systems require extensive investigation and careful assessment of the potential benefits and shortcomings.

    See also Topics: Producing Electricity at Home

    • County and municipal building, planning, health and soil conservation departments. Country Houses
    • State agencies such as the Department of Ecology, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Washington State Energy Extension Service (1-800-962-9731).
    • Local newspapers (You may want to sit down in the newspaper office and scan through several month's worth of news).
    • Local builders, architects and building designers.
    • Real estate professionals.
    • Trade journals such as Fine Homebuilding and The Journal of Light Construction.
    • Neighboring property owners who have recently developed their property in a manner similar to your plans. Please note: rules change and what might have been possible in the past may not be possible now.
    • See the consult question and answers on Q&A: Buying a Home, Q&A: Planning for a Home.