shouldn't a vacant lot be buildable?
December 17, 2009 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Are there un-buildable lots? I have read up on a similar question but that was about how expensive the known-to-be-buildable lots are. My question is if I see a lot listed that is "virgin" vacant never had a srtucture on it, how likely is it that no one could build on it?

In my case, I found a vacant lot in a location I like up in the hills in Los Angeles, California, and would like to put an offer on it. But everyone keeps asking uncomfortable questions like, "is it buildable?", "is it on a fault line?", "are there utilities nearby?", "how deep is the bedrock?", "why hasn't anyone built there before?" and other such questions that it seems would take thou$ands to investigate.

Maybe my question should be, "if I find out I can't build, can I at least use it for picnicking and camping? Or build a little storage shed on it?"
posted by markhu to Home & Garden (13 answers total)
What use is it zoned for?

Sometimes, if land is valuable, the city has regulations on lot size versus house size and since the only people who want the land want to build a big house on it, nobody buys it.

If a lot is twenty feet wide, and you have to have ten feet between your house and the lot line, it's going to be a pretty small house.
posted by goethean at 12:58 PM on December 17, 2009

Are there un-buildable lots?

Yes. Smart/devious people often buy up neighboring plots, attach a permanent covenant on them, and them let them go. Free protection of their quality of life & property value.
posted by tad at 12:59 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check with the city planning office. They'll be able to give you a definitive answer.
posted by desjardins at 1:06 PM on December 17, 2009

Best answer: Yep, the city planning office can tell you what you can and can't do with it. Regardless, if you can't build, you should be able to camp/picnic on it.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:14 PM on December 17, 2009

The city planning office is only one of your stops. For example, do you have legal access to the land? Is water available of such quality and quantity that it can support the normal use of a structure?

Land near mine is "landlocked" - no right of access - and it would cost the owner a fortune to remedy the lack of an easement he'd need even for camping.
posted by jet_silver at 1:21 PM on December 17, 2009

Jet, this is completely an aside, but what prevents the owner from getting an easement by necessity to access the property?
posted by craven_morhead at 1:24 PM on December 17, 2009

The seller must disclose to you details like the ones you are asking about. This is a good reason to get a real estate professional on your side in this transaction, to ensure that you get full disclosure.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 2:02 PM on December 17, 2009

LA County or LA City?
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:10 PM on December 17, 2009

When I was in high school I did a bit of volunteering in the land use ... area.

I cannot tell you how often some idiot bought a mangrove island and was later pissed to 'discover' he couldn't build on his land. Worse were the discoveries made after being cited by a federal agency for violating, well, laws.

Just because you buy land doesn't mean building on that land is legal.

But looking more directly at the word 'possible,' in many of these cases the answer was clearly no, unless what you wanted to build was a chickee or temporary structure.

I know next to nothing about the geography of your area, but I encourage you to make no assumptions, and get everything in writing. Sellers of worthless plots of land want your money, not necessarily your good will.
posted by bilabial at 3:10 PM on December 17, 2009

Lots of land in the Hills has geology problems like a slow land slide or earth movement. It may not be readily apparent to a lay person just eyeballing the plot. These kind of problems can be mitigated, but that can be so expensive that no building you put on the land afterward will ever pay back the investment. Additionally it can take years to prove to the city that the problem has been solved and its now safe to build. The best thing to do after you've asked the seller point blank if there are any geology reports on the lot is find a geologist familiar with the local area and ask them to take a look, odds are if its a really nice lot with a big problem then they've heard of it before.
posted by Long Way To Go at 12:21 AM on December 18, 2009

Best answer: You'd probably want a geotechnical engineer, rather than a geologist. They can give you a better idea of the costs involved in building on a lot with subsurface issues. They may be able to tell you "absolutely not", based on background knowledge about the area, but proving that it is buildable can require a significant amount of testing or sitework. Generally any kind of earthwork besides regrading or minor cut and fill can eat up your budget really quickly.

My advice to you, if there are geology/subsurface questions about whether the site can be built on (besides the standard perk test), run away fast. If you decide to go ahead, whatever you spent on geotechnical testing will be worthwhile in the long run. They're going to be a small fraction of the potential costs you can incur if you start digging and find something you didn't expect.
posted by electroboy at 7:41 AM on December 18, 2009

Response by poster: Here is some selected fields from the report:

Zoning: RE11-1
Zoning Information (ZI): ZI-2129 East Los Angeles State Enterprise Zone
ZI-2407 Proposed Hillside Area (Zoning)
General Plan Land Use: Very Low Residential
Plan Footnote - Site Req.: See Plan Footnotes
Additional Plan Footnotes: Northeast Los Angeles

Assessor Information
APN Area (Co. Public Works)*: 0.152 (ac)
Use Code: 010V - Residential Vacant Land

Additional Information
Airport Hazard: None
Coastal Zone: None
Farmland: Area not Mapped
Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone: Yes
Fire District No. 1: No
Fire District No. 2: No
Flood Zone: None
Hazardous Waste / Border Zone Properties: No
Methane Hazard Site: None
High Wind Velocity Areas: No
Hillside Grading: Yes
Oil Wells: None
Alquist-Priolo Fault Zone: No
Distance to Nearest Fault: Within Fault Zone
Landslide: Yes
Liquefaction: No

Economic Development Areas
Business Improvement District: None
Federal Empowerment Zone: None
Renewal Community: No
Revitalization Zone: None
State Enterprise Zone: East Los Angeles State Enterprise Zone
Targeted Neighborhood Initiative: None
posted by markhu at 3:47 PM on December 18, 2009

Response by poster: I ended up paying a "pre-building planner" company $500 to research it for me. Their report gave me a clear picture of some issues like the sewer being uphill from the property, and the sidewalk improvement requirements. Also I learned that the back taxes owed on the property were about 80% of its asking price. The neat thing about it was that it was surrounded by about 3 or 4 other empty lots, so it felt bigger than it was. Of course that only lasts until the neighbors build up. The bad thing about it was that it was the steepest lot of the group. After all that, I decided to take a pass and not pursue it.

FWIW, here's the name of the company. They seemed to do a good job researching it. I have no affiliation other than a satisfied customer.

Before Construction Inc
Toll Free: 1-877-364-8224

The lot was at 1484 Ave 57, Highland Park, CA 90042
posted by markhu at 2:51 PM on July 16, 2010

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