Finding undeveloped land to buy using online tools

We’ve come a long way in online tools for buying houses, cars, boats, and other private properties, but when it comes to land, many listings have only a few snaps from the road, leaving no real ability to visualize scale, or other aspects one might be interested in to narrow down their search to finding undeveloped land to buy.

As I wrote in our last blog post we decided on a mountain plot with a view. Finding land in the mountains is not so difficult, but figuring out what kind of view it will have, in which direction, and what times of year that view will be visible is quite difficult. An additional difficulty we did not discover until our visit was how poorly maintained the roads to get to these plots can be.

My goal was to narrow down to three good plots to visit on our next visit to the US, with the intention of bidding and buying the most promising one, assuming it was acceptable. I’m very glad for setting the number at three, because the plot we thought would be our number one choice quickly became a “pass” when we visited.

Whenever desiring to buy something, I try to make lists of desirable traits so that promising options can be compared to the list.

Coming up with some land criteria

  1. Must be within a reasonable commute distance from Richmond, where my parents plan to retire. A three hour drive was our upper limit, any longer than that would make day visits unlikely and require an overnight stay.
  2. Must have an incredible view of the mountains. Living in Reykjavik we can see ocean and mountains in almost any direction, and we did not want to lose this feature. If the plot was without a view, we might as well buy something much closer to Richmond.
  3. At least two acres (.8 hectares) but preferably 3 acres (1.2 hectares).
  4. Cost less than 25,000 USD.
  5. A reasonable distance from IAD and BWI, the airports we would be flying into.
  6. Bonuses would be power hookups in place, perc tests finished (perc tests determine how many bedrooms a septic system can be on site), a pre drilled well, and proximity to a larger town or city.

Online resources we used for finding undeveloped land to buy

The first thing I did was make a Zillow account and try to find land that fit our criteria. I found a few places, but several did not have a realtor, and the few that did have a realtor did not respond to my zillow messages. I decided a realtor of our own from the area would be a benefit and went about finding one. I wanted to keep our business “in the family” so to speak, so I used a GLBT realtor listing to find a wonderful realtor who was extremely helpful. From the first contact she replied promptly, was friendly and professional, and was able to answer or find someone to answer any question we had. So let me just give a nice shout out to Christine Daley here.

One of the first things she did was to give us access to a website called Listingbook, a similar website to Zillow. It has a worse design and a clunky interface, but a nice feature Zillow lacked, which was to draw a custom border around the area that one wishes to consider. I setup a custom search to show only plots over 2 acres, under 25k, and around the Blue Ridge Mountain side of the Shenandoah Valley (the only mountain area within the driving distance of Richmond that we desired).

I was able to find around 10-20 listings that fit this criteria, but it was very difficult to narrow down further than that, because the photos were nearly all identical. Some trees, some dead leaves, every once in a while one of the listings would have a photo of a beautiful view, but it wasn’t always clear what time of year it was taken, where on the property, or even if it was taken from the property at all.

After some trial and error, here is the method I used to narrow to three plots of land.

Narrowing down the choices

  1. Find a plot on listing book that looks promising. This was the main photo on Listingbook.

    Image of our piece of land on Listingbook which is a great resource for finding undeveloped land to buy.
  2. Find it’s exact location using the text of the listing, as the pin drop on Bing (listing books map system) was rarely in the correct place. This often required using a GIS search to find the exact borders. GIS stands for Geographic Information System. Each county in the US uses this system to keep track of property lines. Listing book has the tax number, and then I could google GIS + county name to find that county’s GIS search site, which would give me the exact location and boundary lines of the properties. Often other useful information can be found this way like soil type, alternate aerial photographs, tax assessments or past sales. This is the Page County GIS service showing me the exact property boundaries of the plot based on the tax number in the Listingbook Entry.

    Land boundaries on the county web site.
  3. Enter that location to google earth (not just maps) and use the tilt feature to see the elevation and in which direction the land faces.  Here are several screenshots from google earth with the orange icon showing the exact location of the plot.
    Land outlines marked out in Google EarthView around our land as seen in Google Earth 

    Another perspective using Google Earth


    Third perspective using Google Earth

  4. Use the street view to explore the nearby streets and towns to see what the houses are like and what kind of stores exist in the nearest towns.
  5. Finally, any that looked promising, google the county it belonged to and nearest town for average incomes, school reputations, and other local information that might make a plot more or less interesting.

Step three was the most useful, as several plots were obviously at the base of mountains, one was near a town dump site, and a few were elevated but too flat. We were able to narrow down to 3 plots, which we asked Christine about, and she was able to contact the seller’s agent for any further information.

Our first choice was just over 4 acres, the largest of the 3, and as a bonus had a travel trailer that slept 6 that came with the property. We figured we could live in the trailer while building on the house, and then sell it after to recoup some of the property cost. The view seemed nice but the price was at our upper limit. Upon visiting the trailer was in much worse shape than we expected (complete with plastic snake on the ground that scared me half to death), the view shot posted was nearly impossible to find on the property, but the deal breaker was that the road to get to the plot was very run down and difficult to drive on just in the rain, so in the snow it would have required an all wheel drive vehicle. After the let down of our top choice being a lemon, I was immensely glad of having chosen two others to look at.

Our second choice was nearby and slightly smaller, but the road to get there was even worse, and after the fiftieth pothole and still two more miles to drive, we turned back without even looking at it in person.

The third choice was actually the first plot I ever saved on Zillow. There was a nice surface road almost directly to the road it sat on, and that road was well maintained, only .6 miles from surface road to property, and was a slight enough incline that even snow driving seemed doable. It was raining heavily, and we had our infant son with us, but the moment we pulled up to the plot and stepped out, we could already see the gorgeous view. We walked the plot and it just seemed perfect. The houses we had driven past on the way up were well maintained and in nicer condition than the surrounding ones at the first plot, the view was amazing, and the spot where the house would go was already relatively clear of trees. The short driveway and nearby surface road was a big plus, and the price was below our maximum. It also already had power hookup.

After getting home, we messaged Christine that we would like to make a bid on that property, but we made the bid contingent on it passing a perc test for at least 3 bedrooms. All of our offers were countered with full price, which was a bit annoying, but the perc test can cost around 1,000 USD so we considered that a discount and bid full price since it was still below our limit. The owners accepted and went about getting the perc test, which passed, and we now have the deed in a fireproof safe at a relative’s house in Virginia.

Land status: acquired!