1. Is the property zoned for your intended use? Zoning is a type of ordinance that regulates the use of land throughout the county and predetermines what each parcel can be used for. Typically, zoning regulations are set and updated by the local planning commission and government.
Before you decide on a vacant lot, make sure it is zoned for the use you intend and that it is not subject to any additional zoning restrictions. Your real estate agent can help you with this, and you can also look on your local city or county’s website for the planning department, which often posts information on zoning rules. The local planning department will also be able to tell you about other regulations, such as the required setbacks for your home (in other words, how far your home needs to be from the property lines.)
The zoning regulations, along with detailed definitions of each of the county’s zoning designations, are outlined in Chapter 3 of Summit County’s Development Code: http://www.co.summit.co.us/DocumentCenter/Home/View/58
This document will tell you the difference, for example, between Rural Residential, Rural Estate, and R-1, R-2, R-3, and R-4 zoning designations. You can also call your friendly Summit County real estate broker for help.
2. What deed restrictions, HOA restrictions, HOA fee cover, and covenants will you need to abide by when you build?
It’s important to check the Owner’s Association for the development in which your lot is located to determine what kinds of rules and restrictions govern new construction. In some areas of Breckenridge, for example, you are not permitted to build a home smaller than an established number of square feet and your roof must meet a minimum pitch. Other neighborhoods have rules about the type of home (no modular housing allowed, for example) and the type of landscaping required.
Once again, as your real estate agent, I can help you locate the documents and/or the architectural review guidelines and restrictions that govern a particular subdivision.
Determine, before you purchase your lot, who maintains the road and removes the snow in the wintertime. Many roads are maintained by the town or county, but some neighborhoods share the cost of plowing out their small area. Still, other areas require the property owners to do this themselves. As your agent, I can help you figure out who shoulders the road maintenance.
If the land is designated “open space,” it has been set aside by the city or the county (or, in some cases, by an HOA), typically for parks or other open areas. It’s important to note that the “open space” designation can be changed, but it’s going to take a process of public hearings and, many times, some form of voter involvement.
In mountain communities especially, there is land managed by the federal land management agencies, especially the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM.) Of Summit County’s 619 square miles, about 80 percent of it is public land, managed by one of these two agencies. That means only 20 percent of land in Summit County is privately owned and managed.
3. Does the lot have “wetland issues?” Regulations for wetlands can exist at the federal, state, and local levels. And it’s not always obvious what constitutes a wetland. In other words, it doesn’t always look like a swamp. It may even seem dry for part of the year.
If you purchase a property that includes protected wetland areas, your building plans on the lot will be subject to regulations. A survey should map out the wetlands boundaries if there are any. Before that, you can conduct a preliminary search using the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) – or ask your REALTOR to do so.
You can also speak with your local or state environmental department. The US Fish and Wildlife Service Wetlands mapper allows you to enter an address and determine the wetlands issues that may be at play.
While these resources can be helpful in knowing whether you need to further investigate the potential wetlands, there really is no single map or resource that shows all federally regulated wetlands. The only way to know for sure is to order a Wetlands Delineation inspection and report.
Whatever you do, don’t mess with the lot until you know the wetlands designations and you hold any necessary permits or you could be fined.
4. Is the land for sale in a Flood Zone?
To begin determining if your land parcel lies in a flood zone, search for the property address at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Flood Map Service Center.
If you find that the lot does lie in a flood plain, consider that you will have higher insurance rates and you may have a more difficult time getting a loan. (Oh, and, also, your new custom home might flood.)
If you decide to go forward, undeterred, you may need to build the home a particular distance from the boundary of the flood plain, or you might need to make sure the home is elevated to a particular height. You may also need to have a special septic system, engineered specifically for the lot.
5. Is there an existing survey? A survey will show you the elevation of the land as well as the drainage patterns. Ask your real estate agent if there is a current survey on file, and know that you will probably need an updated one.
When you get a new survey, the surveyor will locate the boundaries, easements, and monuments on the property. Keep in mind that the cost of a survey can be negotiated when you write the purchase offer for the land. In other words, you can ask the seller to pay for this expense, an Improvement Location Certificate which can run from $500 to $800, and a Land (Boundary) Survey can run $1000-$1500 or more, depending on the size of the lot and the scope of work the surveyors are called upon to do.