People often ask us to check out a potential house lot or to help them site a house on their property.
Here is a check list of things to consider when purchasing a property. Below the check list is a more detailed explanation of why the answers to these questions are very important.
– Is the deed accurate?
– Is there a registered survey? Is it accurate?
– Does the survey show any wet lands, setbacks, restrictions, and if the lot is small, does it clearly show the building envelope on the plans?
– Is there city water and sewage? If not, is there a septic plan or has a licensed soil evaluator dug a test hole for a potential septic system? Sometimes there is an existing septic system and well. Have they been tested? What is the well water like in the neighborhood?
– Are there any potential problems with neighbors, liens, encroachments, pollution, etc.
– Do you know what the town/city has for codes, restrictions, and history on the property?
– Does the property have an entrance permit and will it qualify for one?
– Have you walked the lines to look for the pins and or encroachments by the neighbors?
– Will this be an expensive lot to build on? For example, is it on a steep hill, near wetlands, the ocean, or a lake? Will you have to blast? Will you need a long driveway? Will you be sharing a right of way with a neighbor?
– Is the property part of a subdivision? If so, do you have a list of the restrictions? How are they enforced or just as importantly are they even enforced? Does the association have a fund set aside for enforcement? Have you meet with people in the subdivision? What are the fees?
– Have a lawyer do a title search and never assume that the lawyer you chose to do the title search is also able to sell you title insurance. We hired a lawyer to do a title search and then asked about the title insurance. He said he doesn’t sell title insurance so we had to hire another lawyer to start all over and ended up paying twice.
– Have you considered hiring a general contractor and/or an earth work contractor to evaluate your building site and driveway? The driveway is very important but it is rarely given enough consideration. Will there be adequate space and turn around for delivery trucks, fuel trucks, fire trucks, party guests, etc.? Where will you push all of the snow in the winter? Will the driveway slope away from the entrance to your garage door? What will it be like in mud season? How much will it cost to provide proper drainage? Where is the sun and the shade and how will that affect the buildings and the driveway? Are there large trees that could endanger your buildings? What will it all look like when it is complete? The lay of the land and the way the buildings compliment it are at least as important as the style of the house, if not more. Site preparation is a major but often overlooked expense that greatly affects the square foot cost of building.
While it may seem like a lot of work to go through this check list, it is well worth it. Here are some examples of why you should never assume that what you see is what you get.
Is the deed accurate? Deeds are frequently inaccurate. Many people take a quick look at a deed, think it is completely incomprehensible, and assume it must be right. That is a huge mistake to make. Deeds are typed up by busy clerks in busy lawyer’s offices. It is very, very, easy to make a mistake when typing a deed and mistakes are very common. There is only one way to find out whether the deed is accurate and that is to spend a day researching the deed, each deed transfer in the past, and the neighbors’ deeds at the registry of deeds. Then, with the deed description, a compass, and ideally a GPS in hand, you need to walk the lot yourself and compare what you see to the deed.
Here is an example of one of the many mistakes we have found in deeds. We saw a property advertised with 600’ of shore frontage. The deed confirmed the 600’ of shore frontage but when we walked the lines, deed in hand, we calculated 400’ of shore frontage. We then researched the deed transfer history and discovered that the missing 200’ of shore was sold off 30 years ago but not recorded.
Are deeds incomprehensible? Yes and no. They should not be. Some deeds are vague but if you take a deep breath and dig in, you will find that it is absolutely doable to research a deed. If what you find is that there is almost nothing to go on then that too is valuable information. Maybe the abutting deed is better and will fill in the missing pieces.
Is there a registered survey? Is it accurate?
Unless you ask your surveyor to register your survey and pay the extra fee, you will end up with a survey for your records only. It will not be recorded in the Registry of Deeds and, in my opinion, has less value than a registered deed in the public records for all to see.
Is the survey accurate? That is a good question. It almost always is but the only way to know for sure is to ask if another surveyor has confirmed its accuracy. We bought a property, had it surveyed, and asked our surveyor to put extra pins near the area where we planned to put in a road. We didn’t want to risk putting a road within the required setback area. Two years later our neighbor’s property went up for sale and the prospective buyer hired a surveyor. Her surveyor sent us a letter stating that our newly constructed road was actually on her property, which meant that our survey was off by almost 50′. We called our surveyor. Our surveyor met with her surveyor and they agreed that our surveyor had made a mistake. Now what do we do? People make mistakes. Surveying is based partly on old deeds, which as we already know, may be inaccurate. We had no choice but to take a deep breath and figure out a solution. Fortunately for us, our neighbor was a gem. She agreed to sell us the property we thought we already owned. We also paid for all of the legal expenses. Our surveyor agreed to revise and to re-register our survey for free. The lesson learned from this is that if your neighbor has a survey and if it agrees with your survey that is a very good thing. You have nothing to worry about.
A seller does not have to guarantee that the lot is buildable, nor does the seller have to ensure that the property will qualify for an entrance permit.
Our realtor, our lawyer, and the town’s code enforcement officer all assured us that we should not worry about buying a certain piece of property because they were certain the State would have to give us an entrance permit, but our surveyor was not so sure. I called the State and learned that the only way to know is to apply for an entrance permit. Do not assume that because the property qualified for an entrance permit in the past that it will qualify for one now. Also, there are different types of entrance permits depending on what you plan to do with the property. The bottom line is that if the property doesn’t meet the increasingly strict requirements for line of sight, etc. the State will not grant an entrance permit. Permits expire and laws change so if you do get a permit, build the entrance right away.
Is there city water and sewer? Even if your real estate agent tells you there is and even if you know for sure that the neighbors and the people across the street have city water and sewer your property may be right on the edge of where they stopped the service. Yes, this too has happened to us. The real estate agent also gave us incorrect information about the zone. You have to call the person in charge for each department whether it concerns zoning, water, or sewer and ask for yourself.
The Neighbors Have you walked the lines to look for encroachments by the neighbors? Did you know that if you allow your neighbors to encroach on your property for a certain amount of time that they effectively own your property? Did you know that your neighbors can pull up your newly placed survey pins, build a structure on your property, fill it with aggressive dogs, and that if you tear it down you will get into trouble? The town won’t help you, the animal control offer won’t help you, the police won’t help you. Your only recourse is to try to persuade your neighbor to remove the structure or to get into an expensive legal battle. Did you know that neighbors may think that because they have a right of way to access their property from your property that they can use your property as a dumping ground for their stumps and garbage and that, again, you have no recourse except persuasion, a legal battle, or to simply clean up the mess yourself? They say a wise man learns from the mistakes of others and a fool learns from his own. This is your chance to learn from our experiences. All of the above things have happened to people in the past.
Before you get depressed, the solution is actually pretty simple. Mark your boundary lines very clearly, especially if you own a large woodlot in a rural area. Walk the lines at least once a year and remark them as necessary. Try to make positive contacts with all of your neighbors. We have had neighbors do all sorts of things. In the end though, we were much better off using our powers of persuasion than getting into a battle, legal or otherwise. Almost everyone responds to a positive solution, especially if you are willing to first forgive, then educate, and finally to accept the fact that sometimes you have to pay for the wrong doing of others in order to make a problem go away. You can’t avoid all problems but if you pay attention and do your homework you can eliminate a lot of stress.
If you are selling a property, make it easy for potential buyers and for your real estate agent. Consider making up a check list and providing all of the answers up front. Mark the lines and clear a path so they can comfortably walk around the boundary. Clean up garbage as soon as you discover it; this shows people you are paying attention and encourages your neighbors to be more respectful. It really does work.