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But How Do You ACTUALLY Even Buy Land??? Caitlin’s Secret Side Project and A FULL Step By Step Guide

Guys. I have a confession to make. I haven’t been *totally* honest with you about my house-hunting journey. I have lied by omission! Here’s the thing: a couple of months ago, a reader named Christa commented on my first post and wrote, “This is why so many people in LA buy places in Lake Arrowhead or weekend desert cabins – they keep the apartment close to work, and buy something for their weekends.”

And that got my WHEELS TURNING. (Thanks Christa!) I’ve since tried – and failed – to buy an actual, existing, habitable home in LA…but while all this has been going on, I’ve also been exploring the idea of building something in Joshua Tree. The timing for a new build isn’t technically awesome right now (construction materials are at a premium – the world is knee-deep in quarantine-fueled home improvement projects), but since planning and permitting both take a while before construction can start, I figured I’d set some email notifications and keep tabs on the area in the event that something awesome comes up.

So while finding a fixer-upper in LA proper is still my goal, I’ve made early contact with a high desert contractor and I’ve enlisted Arlyn’s architecture-pro husband, Charles, to join my team as a draftsman if the right plot of land comes around. (Not to get too ahead of myself, I’ve also bartered with Julie for design help on my still non-existent future home in exchange for a place for her to stay while rock climbing.)

But since I’ve recently become the point of contact for “hey, can I build a house here?” questions in my friend group and since I’ve found that a lot of “how to buy land” posts pretty much begin and end with “make sure you do your due diligence!” and “talk to your county” (I WILL! BUT HOW?! WHO AM I LOOKING FOR?), I wanted to collect everything I know – what to google, who to contact, and what really matters – into one place where it can hopefully help some other folks take the mystery out of land-buying. (AND you can see some land that I looked at…so it’s basically like we’re shopping together, right? Like best friends, yeah???)

mario will be able to answer this question on his own by the time i’m done here!

Step One: Finding Your Land

There are really five main ways to find land to build on. This is my *personal* order of preference, but it’s worth noting that I’m a regular person and not a developer or someone with a vested interest in buying land quickly.

Drive Around

Very analog, but there are deals to be found if you have the patience to spend some time physically traipsing around! To speed up your search, pull up Google Maps satellite view and do some aerial overviews of your favorite neighborhoods or regions. Make notes of large, open spaces or undeveloped plots along with nearby cross streets. Drive out, get lost, and keep an eye out for ‘For Sale’ signs. This is actually how Joy (of Oh Joy!) found her home – she wrote about her process here – so y’all, THIS WORKS.

Redfin, Realtor, Zillow, or Other MLS Sites

At this point, I’m pretty loyal to Redfin. It’s where I found both properties I’m going to walk you though today!

me: “i’m only looking for land in joshua tree!”
also me: “maaayyyyybbeeeeee i’ll look for land in LA while i’m at it, i guess”

Down below I’m going to walk you through some of the language you’re going to want to keep an eye out for, but these sites make it super easy to set your budget and location parameters. I get real-time updates on land in my chosen areas that fit my requirements, which is fun and definitely not at all distracting.

If you’re just starting to look and you’re the same type of neurotic as me – you know, like, you need to see every single listing available in your price range – I’d also recommend kicking off your search on your state’s MLS (which, as I’m sure you can deduce, you can find by searching “(my state) MLS“, which will quell all of your fears and guarantee that you will 100% see every. single. listing. currently available on the market.

Land Broker

A land broker is a real estate agent who specializes in land sales. You can find one in your neighborhood by googling “land broker (ideal area)” (GROUNDBREAKING!) or you can make a note of any listing agents on Redfin, Zillow, etc. currently representing sellers. You’re going to want to avoid double agency (no one really wins when the agent represents both parties!) but it could give you a lead on some potential partners.

You can also totally work with a regular relator – the contracts and contingencies are fairly similar – but it can be nice to have someone who *only* does land deals guiding you through the process if it’s your first time.


DO NOT KNOCK CRAIGSLIST, Y’ALL. It’s a digital version of a ‘For Sale By Owner’ board in a coffee shop. Obviously, you’re going to want to do your due diligence – and yes, we are about to get into that, thank you for asking!! – but if you’re looking to make a deal without a ton of outside interference, this is your spot. You’re going to want a real estate attorney (at least!) to look over any agreement, but this is the best spot I’ve found to meet folks who are weary of paying out commission to real estate agents.

An anecdotal side note: I recently found a house that was listed for $539,000 being marketed on Craigslist for $475,000. It had fallen out of escrow 3 or 4 times and they were looking for a quick close, but it was 100% LEGIT. YOU GUYS. Craigslist is where it’s secretly at!

Land-Specific Sites

We’ve got Landwatch. There’s Lands of America. Maybe you’re a Land and Farm type? Or you could go Land Central. Perhaps The Land Spot? Can I interest you in some Land Elevated?

There are SO MANY OF THESE, but for the most part, they seem to lend themselves a little more to those looking to purchase a lot of acreage or those interested in a rural or homesteader life. If that’s you, great! If you’re looking for a smaller or more suburban parcel, I’d lean towards one of the earlier options.

Step Two: Decoding The Listing

OKAY, SO. Let’s say that you’ve found a piece of land in an area you love and at a price point that works for you. THAT’S GREAT! Let’s get in the weeds. (Metaphorically, but also…maybe literally, if you’re buying something that’s been sitting for a bit.)

There are four big, esoteric terms that are pretty specific to land purchasing. Let’s review!

Paper Street

it’s not an ode to taylor swift’s ‘paper rings,’ believe it or not

Paper streets are SUPER common. It means that while the road is outlined on city or county maps, it’s never actually been built. The bright side here is that you won’t need to get an easement from a neighbor to build a driveway or to gain access to your home. The bad news here is that you’re going to have to figure out how much it costs to build a road, which can be debilitating depending on your area’s requirements.


the cost for this empty lot + plans + RTI permits? a nice lil’ $595,000

Stands for “Ready-to-Issue.” These lots are sold at a premium and come bundled with architectural plans and permits that you’ll receive upon close of escrow. Another term to search for here is “shovel ready.”

You’re going to want to double-check permits with the city, obviously, but these take a WHOLE lot of pressure off of you. In LA, being shovel-ready with permits RTI adds at least six figures to the raw land cost. Pros: you can just get started with the build of your home, which is a real treat in a competitive market. Cons: if you’re the type to look into building a new home from scratch, don’t you want something that’s exactly how you imagined it?


not physically tho!

Instead of working directly with a bank or credit union, you’ll be able to work out an agreement with the seller directly. I’ve seen these offered at around 20-50% down and paid off over 5-10 years, but it’s totally dependent on the seller and your relationship with the seller. These are great if you’re just looking to get land ASAP, but they *do* make it a little tricky for those who will need a construction loan to build on their land. (You’ll be in a better case bundling your land + construction loan, WE’RE GETTING THERE, I swear!!!)

APN (+ Other Alphabet Soup)

Assessor’s Parcel Number. Every property you’ll ever buy – including homes – has one of these, but they’re SUPER important here. Alternative terms with similar meanings:

  • AIN (Assessor’s Identification Number)
  • PIN (Property Identification Number)
  • PID (Property Identification)

An APN is basically a long string of numbers assigned to your parcel for record-keeping and tax purposes. You’re going to want to make a note of the APN for any lots you’re interested in – it’s how you actually figure out the location in question. (Spoiler: you know that aerial view you see on your real estate site of choice? IT’S USUALLY WRONG. Woof! The APN will help you find the real one.)

Step Three: Vetting Time

Check Zoning

What to Google: Zoning (your city) | (Zone type from ad) (your city) | Land planner + (city) | APN lookup + (your city)
Who to Email for Help: The City or County Planner

3 easy, breezy steps!

If it’s not mentioned in the listing, you’re going to need to dig around for the zoning information. It helps if you have a vague idea of what you’re looking to build or house on your new property. Certain residential types ban ADUs, RVs, or livestock. (Want chickens? MAKE SURE YOU CAN HAVE THEM!)

You can typically find these restrictions with a bit of googling, but I am here to sing the praises of city planners. They were incredibly helpful in my own search – it was jarring to ACTUALLY see my tax dollars at work! – and they’re great at getting back to folks quickly. The bureaucratic process behind permitting takes a long time. A city planner responding to your email DOES NOT take a long time.

Email them the APN in question, tell them that you’re interested in purchasing the parcel and that you just want to verify that you can build to your specifications. It takes 3 minutes and it’ll clear up any early issues before you get your heart too set on a piece of land that can’t deliver on your dreams.

PS. Ask your planner about the long-term plans for the area. *Your* ideal lot may be zoned residential, but it may also be next to the future home of a highway or stadium. If that’s up your alley, GREAT! If not, you’ll dodge a bullet.

Look For Previous Permits

What to Google: Building permits (your city) | Building records (your city)
Who to Email for Help: The Department of Building and Safety (a Planner can also help you find the right contact if you get stuck or if you’re in a smaller town)

Los Angeles has a pretty neat, easy to use site called ZIMAS. (Zoning and Information Map…S??? Search? Maybe?) These vary across the US – I included the one for San Bernadino County up above – but yours will probably have the same general spirit and functionality.

a side-by-side of a previous listing you saw alongside a ZIMAS check

I like looking for permits early in the process – your local Building Department will have a complete record of submittal if you see that someone tried to build on the property for the long time and failed, it may just be worth moving on to the next place. (LOL DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO.)

no permits on this hollywood hills location, which is spooky!

In a true catch-22 situation, if you’re in a more urban area and no one has tried to build on the property, you should take a second and figure out why. Is it actually accessible? Too small to make the construction costs worth it for developers? Or…maybe it lacks…

Utility Access

What to Google: You’re gonna have to get on the phone for this one
Who to Email for Help: I’m so sorry

AH. Utilities. The killer of hundreds of my isolationist desert dreams. So yes, while you can technically build anywhere if you’re able to drop cash on a well AND solar panels AND a septic system…that sh*t adds up.

An easy rule of thumb: If there are inhabited homes on either side of the property in question (in close enough proximity), you should be golden. If you see power lines in the background of listing photos, you can *potentially* hook up to those. If there’s a paved road in front of the property, you have a 50/50 shot at water. And a lot of rural areas don’t have city sewer systems, so you’re just going to have to budget for that one.

power line spotted!

Some notes: I know you have privacy dreams, the further back you put your home from the “street” – I say this as a lady looking at land off dirt roads – increases future costs of hooking up city utilities.

This is the opposite of a millennial solution – and honestly, someone should fix it! – but if you want to know if you can connect to services in your area, you’re going to have to hop on the actual phone with folks from Water and Power. You can’t do it online – you’re gonna need to provide the APN and you’ll have to pray that you’ll be connected to the right person who can provide a rough estimate. You will have to be very kind and it will take a lifetime. I KNOW IT STINKS. But once you have some clarity, you’ll be able to move forward, so it’s kinda worth it, right?

Road Access

What to Google: This is a straight-up call or email
Who to Email for Help: Bureau of Engineering

If your plot in question is off a paved road, YOU’RE LUCKY. Move along! If not…

Sometimes, you can just build a driveway. Sometimes, you need to build a full-on road. I learned this the hard way. Email the Bureau of Engineering and ask if the APN in question requires road frontage. Get clarity on how much frontage is needed, who’s responsible for the cost and for maintenance, and ask if it’s absolutely necessary (in a nice way).


But okay, let’s try this out in practice. I found this lot just up the road from the Stahl House (a very famous home in Los Angeles that you have definitely seen in TV/movies/advertisements) and it was only $65,000. The property line just touched the existing road, so I did some research to see if this could be a driveway-only situation.

The dealbreaker? This plot of land isn’t connected to that road. NOPE. Folks, that is a private road/driveway to a home that I’m sure is beautiful. This parcel being sold is landlocked and she needs A WHOLE LOT OF ROAD built. Do you see that stretch of avenue to the left? Do you see how it goes up in a v-shape before ending in front of the property in question? THAT’S THE ROAD someone would have to build to get access.

Moral of the story: double check your roads. ALWAYS. It’s not fun but it’s very important.

Other Miscellany

If you have a high-level knowledge of your area, you should be able to weed out some plots on site. Example: in Joshua Tree, it’s now illegal to cut down a Joshua Tree. If you’re buying a plot of land with nothing but vegetation, it’s going to stay that way. NO HOUSE FOR YOU. You’ll discover any glaring issues when you start your studies – the joy of your contingency period! – but it’s nice to be able to walk away up front without dropping a dime.

Also, make sure you get cell phone service. The odds of it vastly improving between the time you see your land for the first time and the time you close are NIL. Nobody wants to spend a day on a construction site in a dead zone! It’s not great!

Step 4: Finding Financing and Making an Offer

You have 4 options here.

  1. You can buy land for cash. If you’re hoping to get a construction loan to build your future home, this is a great option. Banks like when you own your property outright AND you may be able to use the value of the land to offset your downpayment.
  2. The owner can carry. Y’all work out something amongst yourselves.
  3. You can find a land loan. These are few and far between in the age of corona, but not totally impossible to find.
  4. You can make an offer with a long escrow period so you can secure a construction loan for the cost of the land and your future home. These are tricky (you’ll have to come up with full building plans) and sellers are hesitant to accept these types of offers (because coming up with full building plans takes a very long time!) but if something has been sitting for a while, you could give this a shot.

If you’re totally lost on where to even start looking for a land or construction loan, check out a local credit union or reach out to someone from your national bank chain. When I was trying to figure out financing for the hill house, I arbitrarily emailed a guy who seemed pretty high up in the real estate financing world at Bank of America (my bank of choice #notsponsored). He called me within 30 minutes – again, INSANE how people will really go out of their way to help you build a house – and although it wasn’t a fit for BoA at the time, he introduced me to several smaller banks who would help.

Step 5: Tests, Surveys, and Reports (Oh My!)

SO. Let’s say you found a place, you found the $$$, and you’re in escrow. What happens in the contingency period for land? WHAT GETS INSPECTED?

Well. IT VARIES, OKAY? And honestly, a city/county planner may be your best point of contact – they can refer you to specific documentation for your area that will clarify what studies and reports they need on file before they’ll issue a permit.

In the meantime, though, here are some things that may come up:

  • Surveys: In addition to clearly defining the boundaries of the property and making note of all easements, potential encroachments, and nearby service lines, a survey will highlight your building “envelope.” Your city or county may have certain requirements about how far your house must be from the sides of the lot or how far back it has to be…or it may have minimum/maximum size limits. A survey will clarify exactly what you can build and where.
  • Topography: In addition to telling you all the details about the elevations of the property, a topography report should flag any big environmental concerns.
  • Environmental Impact: If you’re going to need to remove a bunch of vegetation to start construction, you should make sure that it’s not endangered. (If it is endangered, this report will figure out how you manage ramifications OR it’ll prove that the whole thing’s a wash and that you should cut your losses and back out.
  • Soils: This one is HUGE in LA. Is your house going to slide down a hill? Do you need to drill 60 feet into the ground so that it doesn’t slide down a hill? SOILS KNOW THE SECRETS. It’s important everywhere, though, as it’ll determine what sort of foundation you need.
  • Crop & Timber Yields, Well Water Quality and Flow, Road Maintenance: These are more common in VERY rural areas, so they’re not necessarily in my wheelhouse (yet).


If your reports come back in the clear and your financing is secured, YOU DID IT. You bought improvable land! Congratulations on taking on a very big, very stressful multi-year project. I KID, I KID. It’ll be worth it.

But this is where I leave you (for today, at least!). Questions? Any land-buying and dream-home building folks out there want to tell me their story? (Or want to talk me out of building something?) LET’S CHAT IN THE COMMENTS, YEAH?

Opening Image Credit: Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp | From: My Secret Front Yard Is Finally Revealed

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2 years ago

I am SO glad I don’t have to do this.
But if I did, this would be most helpful.

2 years ago
Reply to  Margaret

My sentiments exactly. I don’t have the bandwidth for this. Backing away slowly. Kudos to you Caitlin for this post and all the effort you’re putting in. WOW

2 years ago

I’m early on in considering a land purchase for a project and this is SO helpful. Thanks for sharing everything you’ve learned the hard way to make it easier for us! Crossing my fingers that you’ll find something soon!

2 years ago

Caitlin. You are unbelievable. I am a 32-year-old single woman who has been a forever renter and the thought of doing like 1 step of this process makes me break out in anxious hives. GET IT GIRL. I can’t wait to see what you end up with!

i’ve been considering buying land and this is so helpful! thank you!

2 years ago

I love these detailed posts, thank you!

2 years ago

I have zero interest in buying land, but I am LOVING this series and I can’t wait to read the next post!

2 years ago

My husband and I bought land (5.5 acres) in January, and I agree with practically everything you say here! City planners, especially in rural areas, can be wonderful resources and are generally just happy you called/emailed to ask for their help rather than them having to fight you on the back end because you submitted a permit that they disagreed with. Our city planner literally got a change to a zoning ordinance passed by the city council after we started asking some questions because she agreed that the way it was written wasn’t reasonable (it just hadn’t been fully thought out when written). My other piece of advice is that if you’re already a homeowner, you may be able to finance your land purchase through a cash-out refinance on your current house – that’s what we did, and while rates weren’t quite as crazy low in January as they are now, we were able to significantly lower our mortgage payment AND get the cash to buy our land in one go. If we were talking about the kind of rates that are out there today, it would have been an even better deal! The other thing I would mention is… Read more »

2 years ago
Reply to  Jessie

I completely agree on this, especially accounting for maintenance and perhaps some insurances on the land you buy. We don’t plan to build for another year or two yet, but are so happy having our place secured in a community and location we love, even if it means a few $$$ every other month or so to have it mowed/bush hogged. We’ll be back down there again soon after closing in August and I can’t wait to tailgate with a drink or two! 🙂 On another note of financing, financing land is difficult. There’s really not bank leverage there, so unless you use your current house in the way stated above, also consider a HELOC on your current property to be paid of when you sell your current house. This leverages the capital in your current house to buy the new land and so on. The kicker is having the house to leverage in the first place. Don’t forget the tax deferral on your 401K’s for all you first time homebuyers using it as a down payment. I used that to buy my house nearly 10 years ago even though all financial advisors said not too, but have managed to… Read more »

2 years ago

thanks I will share it!!!

2 years ago

This is SUPER interesting…..I love learning things about US real estate (I’m Australian)…it seems very complicated.

Here (unless it is very rural/remote or a massive lot or super unusual) you just buy land the same way you buy a house – find one online, call the agent, make an offer – it’s not really a bigger deal than buying a house because it’s usually already subdivided/zoned so you know what you can build unless what you want to build is super crazy.

Keep up the search!!!!

2 years ago
Reply to  Rachel

Me too, Perth, Western Australia.
It seems super complicated! We have differing building codes city vs country/rural areas, but, man! This process is covoluted as!!!

2 years ago
Reply to  Rachel

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely situations where you can buy land in a simple manner like you’re describing, but those would be in subdivisions (neighborhoods) where a developer is doing all this work, then charging a premium for the land/finished house. If you want to build in a subdivision that’s being built, you usually work with the developer and a builder (some developers will even limit which builders you can use to their specific list) and then it becomes a lot simpler – you may not even need to get a loan until the whole thing is done since some developers and/or builders will buy the land you’re wanting to build on themselves and then sell it to you once the house is complete. If you’re wanting to buy outside of a subdivision, though, then you have to do all the legwork yourself unless a builder has decided to invest in the property as a one-off!

2 years ago
Reply to  Jessie

I should specify that I’m an American and what I’m describing is the case in America 🙂

2 years ago
Reply to  Rachel

I”m very confused by this comment. What you’ve described is exactly what is going on in this post. Caitlin is just describing all the steps but what she’s outlined is: find a piece of land (there are multiple ways people can list the land for sale), look it up in government records to find out what you can build on it, check with the utility company then figure out how to finance it. It’s not that complicated, it’s simply daunting to people who haven’t done it before.

I highly doubt buying land in Australia is as turnkey as you make it out to be considering Australia is a country which also values safety, environmental impact reporting, etc.

2 years ago
Reply to  QT

I can attest to the original comment – in Aus buying land is almost identical to buying a house. I don’t know about rural areas but there is no way anyone in a built up area would be responsible for building a road etc. Whether you buy land or a house all the searches (environmental etc) are carried out by a conveyancer – they are not carried out by the buyer. Having recently done this in QLD Aus this is the process: hire a mortgage broker (usually but not nesc) and get a loan pre-approved, find the land/house, make an offer, if offer is accepted mortgage broker secures finance, you hire a solicitor and conveyancer (often recommended by mortgage broker), they deal with all settlement matters, settle – usually within 30-90 days. Once you do the initial paperwork the process all happens with very minimal involvement from the buyer – I was quite anxious as I had expected to need to be much more involved! Also another difference here is that ‘buyers agents’ are very rare, the house is listed by the sellers agent and that is who you deal with.

2 years ago
Reply to  J

I have several family members who have bought various types of land in rural areas and only one, who bought in a ‘wild’ uninhabited area, had to put in a power line. There was a gravel access road.
It really is vadtly different(and easier) here.

2 years ago
Reply to  Rusty

Much easier! When I bought my house a month ago in Brisbane I was expecting it to be so much harder and way more paperwork. After the initial paperwork it just kind of happened without me.. apart from the times they needed large sums of money :’)

2 years ago

Good post! So much to consider, but every single one of these could be such dealbreakers. We’re building a custom house right now – like right in the middle of it/drywall is (supposedly) getting hung today. We got lucky and our major building materials were purchased before building material prices went crazy, but our builder told us that if we would have started a month later our engineered trusses alone would have cost double. Our front and back door (big custom glass doors) were COVID-backordered…normally come in 4 weeks, the backdoor arrived about 8 weeks after that and *hopefully* the front door arrives this week (2 weeks later). Of course that slows down everything else (siding, front porch wood ceiling, trim work, final grade excavation, driveway) getting finished. I’m right in the middle of the not-fun part, so take this with that in mind, but I really don’t think I’d recommend building now. Perhaps you’ve got this in your utilities check, but check internet access too! While there are cellular (good step there to check!) and satellite internet options available, they are not going to be satisfying at all for someone who is used to high speed fiber. Signed, A… Read more »

Jen W
2 years ago

Another tip — look for parcels with a trailer/mobile home on site. This 99% of the time means that you already have all utilities on site and generally have vehicular access. There are some gorgeous rural parcels with mobile homes on them that folks looking just for land overlook. We did this and just sold the mobile home after we closed on the entire thing.

2 years ago

I’ve loved following your real estate journey!

My husband and I bought 14 acres in the mountains near DC a few years ago. Did the financing through the seller which was great. We are building an off-the-grid weekend cabin and for now, we are happy to haul in our water and use a generator until we can deal with/afford a well and trenching electricity.

The most annoying roadblock is that we can’t get a street address. We are off a main road and built a long driveway back into our property. It’s given out by the county’s emergency services, and even though part of our property tax includes a tax for emergency services, they won’t give out an address – which means no fire or ambulance can find us easily. Very frustrating when trying to get equipment or lumber delivered when they require an address. The county will only give us an address if we have utilities or a habitable home (so running water, flushable toilet) or if we go through the long and expensive permitting process. It’s a very rural county so it’s been a little shocking all of the rules they have!

2 years ago
Reply to  Kristin

The rules are what keep it rural! If it were super easy to build, lots of folks would do it. It’s typically much easier to build in incorporated areas than in unincorporated county areas.

2 years ago
Reply to  Kristin

This is interesting. I’m wondering if anyone can speak to purchasing land for the tax benefit – I live in California and taxes are only going up!

If you don’t have an address, can claim residency in the state you have purchased non-addressed land?

2 years ago

Thank you, Caitlin! So much.
We’re just starting the journey of looking for land and this has been a huge help! Excited to dig in.

2 years ago

A few of my family members have taken a different land-buying home building strategy. I think this is a good way to go if you can’t pay cash for land and can’t get a bundled land plus construction loan. So you buy your land, taking all precautionary measures helpfully listed above to make sure you can actually build on it. Then you buy a used trailer home or similar so you can live on the land while you pay off the land loan. Obviously you need to make sure that the zoning etc allows you to park a trailer on the land. Another option is to quickly/cheaply build the garage first and live there while you get ready to build the house. Once you pay off the land, you can get a construction loan with the land as security. After you finish building, you can re-sell the trailer. Don’t buy a new trailer unless you want to keep it forever, they do not hold their value at all. But if you buy a used trailer and pour some of that design energy into fixing it up while you pay off the land loan, you can probably sell it for more… Read more »

2 years ago

It’s been a long while since we bought acreage in mid Missouri but one thing I remember about deeds is that sometimes mineral rights are deeded to a third party while the land surface is deeded to the property owner. We purposely avoided those situations because it seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

If you are looking for a Zimas type map in other jurisdictions try searching for (city name) +(GIS Map). GIS (Geographic Information Systems) maps will usually have all sorts of layers you can turn on and off to see the zoning, land use restrictions, APN/Parcel info, school district, sanitation info, etc.

I’m a commercial interior designer and I do a LOT of due diligence for our projects and these maps are a huge time saver.

2 years ago

Melody, yes! I work for a city and part of my job is working on GIS work for my department’s information, and it’s great to know that it’s put to good use. My personal goal is always to make information more accessible and understandable to the people that need it.

Reply to  Bonnie

I LOVE the GIS maps. I especially love telling people who’ve been in the industry for a while about them. They are always so thrilled to see ALL that information in one place. Of course now we are all spoiled and when a jurisdiction doesn’t have one it’s a downer.

Brooke K
2 years ago

I’m loving these posts! They are SO informative.

2 years ago

Caitlin… the name of your new book is:
Seriously, you’ve put in soooo much hard work! And the details. The laborious process of documenting everything and then putting it in an easy(ish) to read format.
Like, who does that?!
You’re a star and this info will be massively helpful to so many people.

BTW, I live in Australia and have zero interest in buying land here, let alone in the USA (Corona +Trump) … but… I READ THE. WHOLE. THING!
Boom! 😃

Melody Christensen
2 years ago
Reply to  Rusty

Doing our best to get rid of Trump, and then by. the grace of God Covid.

2 years ago


2 years ago

Wow, bookmarking this post immediately– it’s SO INCREDIBLY HELPFUL. One of my goals is to eventually have some acreage, but I haven’t been exactly sure how to look.

As for getting info about soils, there’s a great free tool online, the US geological survey soils map. It’s a bit tricky to use for the first time, but it’ll have all the info about what kind of foundations are recommended, land use, drainage, etc. I use it all the time for landscape clients and have found it to be really accurate: (Click on the “start WSS,” search by address, then draw a polygon around whatever specific area you want results for.)

2 years ago
Reply to  Lori

Omg this tool is great. Out of our 15 acres of land, it turns out we decided to build our cabin and outdoor “living area” on Very Rocky Land. Which we know because we’ve spent 2 years pulling rocks out of the ground. But according to this map, if we just went another acre over, it wouldn’t have been that bad.

2 years ago

If you haven’t heard the episode of The Daily about the “wildland urban interface,” please give it a listen before you start developing undeveloped land:

2 years ago
Reply to  Carrie

Great point Carrie! Thanks for bringing this up.

2 years ago

You are AMAZING! We have had 14 homes, I ncluding two custom builds on lots we purchased and one home we remodeled three times and you KNOW SO MUCH MORE. Part of it is California must be much more complicated than MI or IL. GOOD LUCK!

2 years ago

this is so thorough and helpful. i’ve been on the fence with house v land forever. always leaning towards land but daunted by all the unknowns – this makes it a little less scary. thank you!!

2 years ago

I’m so thankful that I already have land/a house, but I really love this series. Following along is so much fun and really informative. Good luck Caitlin! I’m really rooting for you.

2 years ago

I’ve never actually tried to buy land, but I’m laughing along with these posts, remembering how we first got the idea we could maybe buy a house in the SF Bay Area. I saw a For Sale sign on a 600SF fixer that did NOT have good bones or even a real foundation, possibly. But it was a block away from our rental in a neighborhood we loved. I decided we should get a construction loan and double the size to 1200SF for our family of four, by incorporating the very large garage at the front of the house. How hard could it be?! I had written about construction loans as a financial writer. I realized there must be a catch when I could not even get a real estate agent to show me the place. Next I spent a few weeks googling every empty lot in the town, thinking we should buy one and build a container house. When we finally enlisted a real estate agent we liked, she strongly advised us to focus on finding an existing, livable house that already had enough room for our family. After another year of looking and watching prices skyrocket (we had… Read more »

2 years ago

What a journey! You might want to consider offering your expertise as a service in the future, this is all such great info and isn’t readily shared. My husband and I bought our property in 2014 and are just now starting to install our HVAC, plumbing, electrical so it is quite a process. One big suggestion I would offer would be to seek out distressed properties or property owners if you are looking outside-the-box. Our county assessor’s website includes property tax info and liens, so if someone is behind on their taxes or is not able to keep up with city service payments they might be willing to accept a quick offer to prevent a bank or the city from foreclosing and taking their property for far less than what you are offering. This also happens frequently for people who have died and their estates are in probate, you can sometimes tell the place is empty but so sale sign in the yard. If you can find the executor of their estate and make contact (again found on our assessor’s website through county records which are public) and put in an offer before the parcel ever hits the market saving… Read more »

2 years ago

Your tenacity is extreme!! I cannot imagine doing all of this legwork, especially in the middle of this pandemic (when I feel like I have the attention span of a fruit fly). I am so hoping something turns up for you.

2 years ago

I love this post! My husband and I have also been looking for land outside of LA, including Joshua Tree. Have you looked at the many homesteader cabins out there? Along with the usual 5 acres, they often have, or have had, utilities. At least it’s a hint that utilities are nearby. I’m not sure how that would affect loan approval, as they’re not usually habitable.
We only recently got “serious” enough to contact a real estate agent about a particular parcel, only to learn that the area is “contaminated” (with what? we don’t know), but we would never get a permit to dig a well, which is a requirement to build, and hauling in water with a tank is not allowed. (hearing that something is “contaminated” is also a big deterrent!) We would not be aware of this without the help of the real estate agent, with 30+ years in the area. But thanks to your post, perhaps we can learn the ins and outs of the area as well – and go into a purchase with a bit more knowledge. Thank you!

2 years ago

Sent this to my brother who wants to buy land!! Amazing job!!

Melody Christensen
2 years ago

I heard that thousands of Joshua trees were destroyed by the recent fires. That may make more lots available to build on, as sad as that is. Such a beautiful area, have thought about buying land out there myself. Thanks for all your hard work.

2 years ago

It’s also a good idea to check to FEMA floodplain maps if buying land near a river or body of water when you check on the other environmental/soil concerns! Google FEMA NFHL viewer to see if the property is in a flood hazard zone.

Ashley B
2 years ago

Thanks for the shout out to planners! Most of us go into the profession because we’re passionate about building great communities and want to help!

2 years ago

I love these posts. They mix the stability of feeling well-informed with the thrills of a rollercoaster…but a VIRTUAL rollercoaster because I have no plans to ever ever EVER do any of this! It’s so awesome.

2 years ago

Another good resource is Beacon ( which has a lot of property information for various county and city governments. A few other things to check: divided lots – occasionally you’ll see what looks like a single lot being sold but legally it is more than one. Your city or county may require you to do a lot combination before you develop the land. Also look up sinkhole maps for your city/county. The bigger ones may have easements around them to prevent development, but many smaller ones do not. This is also good advice for someone buying an existing house – there is a decent sized sinkhole in my neighborhood that wasn’t discovered until the 1970s, approximately 50 years after the neighborhood was built. A neighborhood recently discovered her house was built on top of one when she tried to leave to go to work one morning and her driveway and mailbox had gone missing. Three months and a $25,000 home equity loan later (insurance didn’t always cover sinkhole damage) she’s finally back up and running …

2 years ago

Super informational! FYI, it might sound like bad taste, but maybe you will find some luck finding property in a burn area – where I live in Ventura, we lost about 500 homes in Dec 2017 to the Thomas Fire. Cleared lots went from anywhere between. 300-500k for hillside, ocean view properties. Those with money bought and some are turning a pretty profit on those lots. I wish I had purchased one of those lots back in the day!

2 years ago
Reply to  Kristy

That’s a good point! My neighborhood lost a bunch of homes in the 2017 Creek Fire (including ours, which is how I’m learning all this about building!) My neighbor is actually considering selling his buildable lot, Caitlin, if you’re interested in the San Fernando foothills then shoot me an email. It sounds like you’d be an awesome neighbor!!

2 years ago

My newspaper has trustee’s sales of real estate — I just noticed one that was in a really nice neighborhood. Does anyone know how these work? Did the owner’s not pay their taxes? Do you have to pay off any mortgage on it?

2 years ago

This is soooo helpful! Thank you!

2 years ago

Wow, excellent research, Caitlin!
My parents bought land and built a house but in those days it was much easier. Environmental impact, soil reports, water, septic and solar requirements have made it much more difficult and costly to do it now. My next advice: find a ramshackle hut with an electrical meter and muni water, and take it from there.
Don’t forget about Palm Springs/Coachella Valley.

2 years ago

I’m so loving this series! Couple of things to add, particularly for LA County. There are a lot of small, unbuildable lots in my rural neighborhood and we have to warn people off all the time, because realtors and owners may not be upfront about what you can and can’t do. – Beware non-county roads. The neighborhood has to pay to maintain these, and it can get expensive. – If you’re going to have septic and a well, beware of lot size. A well has to be 50 feet from a septic tank and 100 feet from a leach field in LA Co, including your NEIGHBOR’S septic and well. If you can’t meet those requirements, then you have to put in a closed system and your septic cost goes from a few thousand to over $50k. LA also recently changed the laws on setbacks between a house and septic, so if you’re on city water it may still be a problem. If the lot is too small, consider buying multiple contiguous lots. You can combine them later into a single APN. – Dropping a well is a gamble, if you have to do it then ask neighbors about their wells.… Read more »

2 years ago

The news we can USE! Bookmarking this post to use forever in the future; we’re having big time homesteading dreams and the thought of being able to eventually build our own net-zero, scandi-design-inspired bungalow is my current reason for living. Thank you so much for sharing all of these resources and knowledge!

Leigh Andersen
2 years ago

My lizard brain is full today, but as someone who hopes to buy and build in Joshua Tree, I feel like you’ve saved me hours if not days of research. Thank you, truly. This is amazing.

2 years ago

This is a great post and a super helpful outline of all of this information! It’s super hard to find things like this all in one place, so thank you. Super long but hopefully helpful comment ahead: I’m chiming in as an engineer who works for a city in Northern California in the utilities department providing water and sewer services and as someone who answers some of those phone calls you talk about 🙂 (Also a millennial who understands your frustration with phone calls – I’m constantly pushing for more things to be available online or at least for us to provide an e-mail address and not just a phone number.) A couple tips on finding information on whether water or sewer is available at your location: (1) If you’re already talking to your friendly city planner, they may be able to direct you to the best contact person to find out about utilities. You won’t be the first person who’s asked them. This may only work if your utilities are provided by the city, but it’s worth asking if you’re already talking with a planner. I often get e-mails from a planner asking whether service is available on behalf… Read more »

2 years ago

This is a great post. I am a rural Ohio equivalent of a city planner. I review all deeds in the county’s taxmap department, assign addresses, run the county GIS, review all new boundary surveys and proposed subdivisions, and am forever providing contact checklists (land surveyors, county/city engineering, township zoning, health/sanitary dept., etc.) for the intrepid land purchasers. Caitlin, you have hit on so many good points. “Paper roads” especially have led to so many crushed expectations. There are also so many seemingly unknowable curve balls. Sanitary sewer assumptions have also presented would be buyers with challenges (force main vs gravity main taps have very different price points). And subdivision covenants and restrictions may also provide additional guidelines beyond zoning for platted ground (these are likely found in the county recorder’s office). There is so much to know, and while Caitlin has hit on so many good points, please let me put a plug in for your public servants. Please just pick up the phone. It is my job to help you. I would much rather be in your initial planning steps than trying to help you salvage a no-win situation.

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