Learn to evaluate the risks and rewards of subdividing land into residential lots. In this first of three articles on the subject, a developer and real estate lawyer provides landowners specific items to evaluate when considering whether or not to subdivide land. Come back for the next articles in this series that provide insights for landowners based on the author’s real world experiences with the subdivision process, as well as a hands-on description of the steps landowners should take when subdividing land.
Why Subdivide My Land?
Sub·di·vide (v.): to divide into several parts; especially: to divide (a tract of land) into building lots.
Successfully subdividing your land into residential lots can have many benefits, including providing a landowner both increased profits and flexibility. If you are buying or already have a large parcel of land for sale, or even a home lot that has “extra” land area, you may wish to consider whether subdividing your land can help you maximize your real estate resources, something that many landowners are evaluating in the current market conditions.
More Lots May Mean More Money
Depending on the situation and the local market conditions, you often can increase the total value of a parcel of land by subdividing it into smaller pieces –lots – that are then sold to one or more buyers. In essence, through subdivision the parts can be more valuable than the whole.
Save Some Land for Yourself
Another benefit of subdividing for homeowners who would like to liquidate some of their real estate without having to sell the farm (literally), is that they may be able to both cash in on a portion of vacant land and stay put on the rest. Holding onto some of their land can give that property time to increase in value as the surrounding subdivided land becomes developed.
In addition, landowners may more readily find buyers for smaller subdivided parcels that are more affordable than one larger piece of land. Try to understand the market’s needs. Completing the lot subdivision up front saves the purchaser the time, effort and risk of doing it themselves, increasing the salability – and often the value – of the overall property.
Evaluate the Feasibility of Subdividing Your Land
Subdivision concepts are common knowledge and practice among experienced professionals like home builders, land developers and real estate agents. In fact, subdividing land really is a fundamental part of all real estate development, but it is only one part of the overall development process.
Subdividing land also can be risky and costly if you are not thorough with your due diligence. Whether you own the land or are just evaluating a potential new purchase, the risk that a subdivision is not able to be done – or at least done in a way that makes financial sense – can often cost you money and valuable time.
There are a number of preliminary items that help you decide whether a subdivision is feasible. If you are a landowner or homeowner considering subdividing land into vacant lots, read on to learn more, and – as always – plan to seek the guidance of experts.
Smaller may be Simpler
So you think your land is a candidate for subdividing? You need to consider the size and scope of your plans, because there can be different degrees of difficulty when subdividing land and, to put it simply, these can align with the project’s size – the bigger the project in acreage and number of lots, often the greater the complexity.
If you are dealing with a single lot being subdivided into two or three residential lots, you may be able to handle this by working with a few real estate professionals that will help you in the process. Be thorough during your due diligence and planning so you can evaluate whether subdividing is feasible and makes financial sense. (More on this in a minute.)
Larger may be Complex
Once you get over about an acre in size and two or three lots, the complexity of the subdivision process can rise dramatically. The level of difficulty – and expertise needed — can be compounded if you have a site where lots will not front on an existing public road or where utilities and infrastructure must be built. This likely will require you to undergo municipal oversight (possibly even state or federal, for some situations) for the subdivision’s site design and layout, as well as construction of roads, utilities and other infrastructure. In this scenario, you basically are stretching the activity from simply subdividing a parcel to full-scale community and land development.
In short, the bigger projects are best left for the pros.
Guidelines for the Fearless Subdivider
If you are interested in subdividing a parcel to increase the value or use of your property, we wish you luck – and provide you the following recommendations:
Check for Restrictions!
One of the most important first steps before subdividing your land or land you wish to buy is to make sure there are no restrictions that will block your plans. Everything from ordinances, neighborhood covenants to deed restrictions may prohibit – or fatally complicate – your plans. Review these items carefully, plus order a professional title review (typically through a real estate attorney) so that you can understand whether there are any deal killing issues that apply to the property and prevent subdividing.
If you find items during your review that may be problematic, you and your attorney should evaluate them carefully to find a solution, or see if you are able to get title insurance that provides specific coverage to protect you and ultimately your buyers. But never ignore a tricky restriction or convince yourself that it won’t be a problem. Beware, even the pros can get into trouble if they become too wedded to their grand plans. You may get away with bypassing restrictions for a while, but doing so can cost you down the road – especially when trying to sell or finance the property. We’ll describe more of these real-world risks in the second article.
Understand Lot Layout, Sizing, Services…and the Market
When subdividing a parcel, make sure your proposed lot layouts and lot sizes are appropriate and will work not only legally, but for the market.
Selling lots is not like Field of Dreams, where “if you build it they will come.” You need to make sure there is a market for lots in your area and at a price that makes sense. Determine the size, layout and other requirements that are expected for new lots to be marketable. A good real estate agent with expertise in land can help you with this. You also may be able to get some advice from builders – reach out to the ones who are active in your geographic area and in the price range for new homes that would likely be built on your lots. Getting their input could be the key to successfully subdividing marketable lots.
Even if you’ve confirmed that there are no restrictions that forbid subdividing the land (or make it unfeasible), you and your experts also should research the local zoning, subdivision and development laws so that you can understand the layout and size limitations for your planned lots. Each county, city or other authority will have its own regulations that describe important items like current zoning requirements, minimum lot widths, setbacks (front, rear and side), buffers, building heights, required open space and other significant details that affect the size and layout of your lots.
You also need to confirm that each of your planned lots will be properly serviced. Most homeowners expect to face a public road (with adequate frontage) and have water, sewer, power and other utilities available. So be sure to confirm both that typical utilities are available for your lots and that they will have the capacity to handle the load from any new homes that would be built on the subdivided lots. Do your research and have your surveyor locate water, sewer, gas, electricity and other utility lines and infrastructure on your plan.
Many of these lot size, layout and service matters will be driven by the local requirements, but others will be driven by the market.
- If builders and new homeowners only want to buy 70 foot minimum lot widths in your area, you may not want to create a subdivision that results in narrower 45 foot wide lots – even if you can.
- Likewise, consider the negative effect of providing any infrastructure, utilities or other services that are less than normal for the market – so even if it is allowed by law, using a dirt road as your lots’ access will not compare well to a nearby lot on a paved road with sidewalks.
Evaluate these items carefully in advance and include the related costs in your financial analysis and budget.
Understand Impacts & Other Requirements
Another surprise to landowners attempting to subdivide their land is that the act of subdividing can raise any number of additional requirements and costs on your land. While your existing parcel may have been grandfathered so that it does not have to comply with some newer laws and regulations, undertaking a subdivision can trigger a new set of impacts and requirements.
These can include a requirement that you dedicate part of “your” land that is in the road right-of-way to the local government, causing you now to be working with a smaller parcel. Other rules may require you to build or improve roads, sidewalks, curb and gutter and even to plant trees. In addition, you also may be required to install water and sewer connections and meters for the lots, or to pay capacity fees, impact fees and other assessments when adding the new homesites.
You will need to keep items like these in your budget too, including contingencies for some which may not be known upfront.
We hope this helps provide valuable insight for landowners about the pros, cons and items to evaluate when considering subdividing your land. Check back soon for our second article in this series about Subdividing Land: Tips for Landowners from a Developer, where we will describe some real world issues that we have seen in subdivision attempts. Plus, the third article in the series will provide hands-on details about the steps to take if you decide to subdivide your land into lots.