How to Buy City Land


Navigate through layers of municipal processes to purchase city-owned land. Local governments offer land through auctions and special programs. Determine your needs as a future landowner to pick the property and the program that best suit your goals.

Things You'll Need

  • Telephone
  • Pen
  • Paper

How to Buy City Land

  • Identify the characteristics you want in a city-owned property. Consider location, land use, zoning, geological features and landmark designation. Let your goals as a landowner influence what characteristics you seek--if you plan to rehabilitate an existing house into a rental property, you are looking for a different property than someone who is planning to build an office tower.

  • Determine the current and past land use of the property. Visit the site to verify if there are any occupied or unoccupied structures on the site. Remember that real estate descriptions online and in files do not always reflect the most current status of properties. Visit your city's property clerk office to determine past uses of the site.

  • Research the zoning designation of the property. Know that the zoning designation determines the size and shape of structures on a property and the types of permitted land uses. Contact your city's planning department or consult your city's zoning code to determine what is allowed on the city property you select.

  • Dig in the ground. Learn about underground streams, the specific nutrients in the soil and other geological features that could impact the types of structures that can be built and what kind of vegetation will grow on a property. Hire a geologist, if necessary, to analyze the soil.

  • Know the landmark designation of the property. Understand that landmark status is given to sites that have historical, cultural or architectural significance. The local landmark preservation commission must preapprove any changes made to landmarked properties.

  • Make a list of properties that meet your requirements and are within your budget. Factor in maintenance, demolition, construction, taxes and other costs beyond the purchase price of the property.

  • Attend a property auction--city and county governments offer seized and foreclosed properties at public auctions. Understand, too, that different municipalities have different rules regarding auctions. Call your local city planning department or city finance department to determine how to qualify as an auction participant.

  • Research city land programs. Remember, local governments have programs for different types of landowners such as first-time homeowners, entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations. Determine which program best suits your goals as a future landowner.

  • Buy a city property that meets your needs and fits your budget.

Tips & Warnings

  • Visit all properties you are thinking about buying in order experience the smells, sounds and other intangibles that cannot be determined by looking at a file.
  • Landmark designation can positively or negatively impact the value of a property, depending on the location, the economy and the planned use.
  • Past land uses that include toxic chemicals such as asbestos, lead paint and dry cleaning solutions translate into an expensive cleanup for you as a future property owner.
  • The Home and Family Finance Resource Center warns foreclosure auction participants that bidders at such auctions often do not have the chance to inspect the property, which translates to increased risk.

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