Getting the Land
The first photo is looking northwest from about the center of the build site. The newly-constructed shared driveway is visible across mid frame. The second photo is the view to the southeast from the shared driveway, with the corner of the garage to our west just barely visible in the far right of the frame and the existing home visible to the east. Dimensions of the lot are 100 feet wide and ~260 feet deep.
This property was originally part of a ~3 acre site that belonged to the owner of the home to our east (visible in the second photo). In addition to the house, previous owner had built a garage on the west side of the property and was in the process of getting city approval for a minor subdivision to split the land into three separate lots at the time we came across the listing. The existing home and the lot with the garage had already been sold at this point, and our lot was .52 acre between these two properties.
With our initial drive-by, I was intensely interested. It was definitely the best that we had seen to that point after several weekends in the car and countless hours online. The north-south orientation was exactly what I wanted. There were beautiful mature trees all around and the street and neighborhood were quiet and relatively secluded. It was neither densely forested or a barren prairie, and it was reasonably close to work and downtown. Best of all, the property was bordered at the back by an abandoned railroad line and then wetland, so there were no backyard neighbors. It definitely stuck in my head.
What we didn't learn until our meeting with the seller's agent a few days later was that the land was still in the process of being divided, so the lot was not truly it's own entity at that point. As part of the subdivision agreement, the seller was being required to improve (pave) what was the existing gravel drive off the main road to provide access to all three lots with a truck turn around. Another requirement was that the sewer and water be revised to service all of the soon-to-be created lots. We were given a survey and proposed plan that suggested what the lot would look like once the development was complete and were told by the sellers agent that this work would take place “as soon as possible in the spring” (meaning the spring of 2004). What the agent failed to reveal was that we would not be able to get building permits until this work had been completed and approved, a fact I discovered on my own after calling the city to investigate the property prior to our decision to purchase it. That it was up for sale in advance of this seemed (and probably was) a little shady, but we were placated with the knowledge that the owner had been required to escrow 125% of the cost of the development work with the city which gave him a financial incentive to get things completed.
The second twist was that the sellers agent at first implied that the lot was controlled by a builder. The agent essentially tried to railroad us into contracting with a builder with whom he was affiliated for the construction of our house by conveniently choosing to discuss the details of the property within the context of this builders sales material and contract. After a few pointed and repeatedly asked questions, I did eventually get him to admit that the lot was not promised to or owned by a builder, but this was not information easily gleaned. (I often wonder if the seller he was representing had any clue about this tactic and how many potential sales of this same property were lost because of it). When it became clear a week later that we were serious about purchasing the lot and NOT contracting a home through him, the asking price went up by $5K with the statement of "the seller is being required by the city to pay more for the revisions to the sewer and water" . This was a blatant lie. The fees for that work had been established by the city and were known to the seller well prior to our negotiation, so basically this was just the label the seller or agent invented for the additional money we were going to have to pay to get the lot builder-free. We didn't argue because we still felt like we were doing the right thing and really wanted the lot by that point, but I would have felt much better about things if the facts had just been stated instead concealed with untruth. Unfortunately I believe this is a testament to the character of the real estate business in general. Add to it that the the sellers agent never returned phone calls and getting a straight answer out of him about anything was like pulling teeth, and that the agent representing us was uninformed and didn't specialize (or have experience?) in land transactions guarantees neither of us would look forward to doing this again.
The planned development wasn't finished and the subdivision wasn't approved until late summer which didn't affect our schedule, but we actually closed on the property before any of the work had even been started. This was not a situation we were thrilled with and a gamble to be sure, but it was also a risk we felt we needed to take to get what we wanted and it turned out to be a good one. That said, the moral of the story is to investigate everything for yourself regardless of who tells you what. Facts we discovered on our own could have had a huge impact on our project in any number of ways.
Now that all is said and done with the lot we're thrilled, but the entire land buying process was stressful and frustrating, and that's without even mentioning the financial component which is a subject unto itself. As I've probably made clear, the sellers agent was difficult to work with and the agent representing us was not the best choice so in hindsight we were at something of a disadvantage. Fortunately it all worked out fine, but if there's ever a next time, we'll seek out an agent to represent us who specializes in land and be certain to do our homework on whatever we're up against no matter how much we trust the person were working with. Our experience has been that more often than not, a "you can't do that" really just means that it's not the most profitable or convenient way for that person to do it.