Finding Land

I wrote “How to Build” to inspire people to build their own home and a big part of that journey is to find land on which to build.

Whereas a home taps into our emotional state, land is usually seen in a more black & white manner. Both are a commodity, an investment to be profited from, but land is more often purchased with the purpose to “sit on it”. Land purchases drive the real estate market – the more you have, the better – and the speculation and churning over of land is what can change neighborhoods and raise property values.

So what can one do to get theirs as investors, developers, and even the city are clamoring for chunks of prime property? How can you get your own little slice to build your home and put down roots? Just like building your own house, securing land for a home stabilizes the market. But how and where do you find them? Are there any affordable options left?

The answer is yes, especially in Houston. Although the classic options of going into unattractive neighborhoods or moving further away from the city center are still good options, I can also recommend being on the look out for small or irregular shaped lots. Anything under 5,000 square feet is not attractive for developers as it is too small to build a profitable house to sell. Here are some resources:

HAR (Houston Association of Realtors)
This website is a great resource to locate properties currently listed on the market. You can even filter out to find out what properties have recently sold for. Just doing a search for land & residential lots under 1/4 acre costing $40K or less, brings up 250+ listings in Houston – with many even available within the inner 610 loop. Since these properties are in the marketplace, you will need to deal with realtors and should probably find your own representative to help navigate this complicated process. Properties can be purchased with cash or by qualifying for a lot loan through a bank or credit union.

Tax Auctions
Following the city property auction sites is another way to find property at a lower cost. The Harris County Delinquent Tax Sale is the monthly public auction of real estate for past due property taxes. The downside is that you do have to have cash in hand to bid and pay in full once the sale is finalized. Even though you purchased the property, you are kind of in a holding pattern. The previous owners have 2 years to pay the delinquent back taxes and fees at which point your money would be refunded. The process to register can be a bit tricky (more info on their website here) but to get an idea of what is out there, you can browse their current listings here.

Making Offers
In our digital age, it might seem strange to say “keep your eyes open and ask questions” but that also works. If you already live in the neighborhood and you have your heart set on a certain property, or you see someone start cleaning up a property out of the blue, say hello to the person on the tractor and ask if they know what’s happening with the land. They usually can give you the contact info of the owner or representative who might be happy to sell without having to deal with listing the property. Or if you don’t see anyone, research on HCAD can lead you to a contact.

This is how we secured our property: we saw the land get cleaned up, had a conversation with the person hired to do the work, made an offer to the owner’s representative, and were able to purchase the property without it ever hitting the market.

Even though these resources are specific to Houston, similar situations can be applied across the country. Check the real estate listing sites, research what your city has to offer, and keep your eyes open – your lot might be just around the corner.

Read more about my journey to homeownership in my forthcoming book How to Build: a House, a Life, a FutureThe story is a meditation on affordable housing, the student loan crisis, and what happens when a generation can’t afford to invest in their community.

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