Since this book is about land, the use and management thereof,
you’ll find it a lot more fun if you can play along by owning some
land yourself, so that’s what I’ve dedicated this chapter to: you
being able to buy some land, even if you don’t happen to be
obscenely rich. (If you have disgustingly vast sums of cash,
you may wish to skip to the next chapter.)
It seems as if everybody wants some land, and those that already
have it want more. I suppose there are a few exceptions to
this rule, but not many, because even a monk needs a monastery.
That's why land prices are always high, and why some folks feel that
if they can't afford to buy land now, they'll never be able to in
Perhaps that’s why tax sales and foreclosure auctions are so
popular: the lure of getting something extremely valuable for a
price we can actually afford. Alas, tax sales may be a dandy
way for the state to collect its due, but the buyer frequently does
not end up with marketable title, and in similar ways, foreclosures
may prove to be far more trouble than they're worth. Both
methods are even more complicated than they look, and while bargains
do exist, so do many pitfalls await the uninitiated who haven’t done
due diligence. There’s also the fact that you have no control
over the location and type of property that becomes available for
After a time, we get the idea that, if we only have a limited amount
of money to spend, we need to accept land which is deficient in some
way; property adjacent to a land-fill perhaps, or without deeded
access, or with some other aspect that we wouldn’t consider if we
had other choices. We feel that we must pay some other cost in
lieu of the cash we don’t have to spend, in order to get an
Or at least that’s what a lot of people think; it’s the Hair-shirt
Theory, but it’s far from true. In fact, the best way to save
hot, steaming piles of cash on a land purchase is simply to find
someone whose plans have changed because, even in this day and age,
unwanted land still exists for those who know how to find it.
Here’s an example: Arlene met Bob at Woodstock. Together they
planned to leave New Haven as soon as Arlene finished her degree in
anthropology. They had an idea to move out into the country
and let their lives regress to the Stone Age. They'd live nude
except for animal skins, and make their living foraging for roots
and berries. After a few years, they'd write a book and become
famous. So, with some money from her inheritance, they bought
forty acres of wooded land in the Midwest with a really charming
cave, and began to fashion their future.
However, it turned out that Bob had uncouth personal habits, and
Arlene was quite a bit of a nag. Thus, it came to be that
Arlene and Bob gradually grew apart, and went their separate ways.
That was years ago, but Arlene still has that property. She
hardly ever thinks about it though, except when the annual tax bills
come in. Even then, the taxes on vacant woods seem so cheap
compared to her Atlanta condominium that she just pays them without
much thought. The price she and what’s-his-name paid for the
land back then wouldn’t buy her a space in the parking lot today, so
she doesn't view it as much of an asset.
I suppose you could say that Arlene’s lust for land has been fairly
sated by this time.
So you’re thinking, “That’s a great story Neil, and if I had the
rest of the morning to waste, I’d sure like to hear the whole thing,
but since I don’t, and since I don’t know anybody like you’re
describing in the area where I want to buy land…”
Bear with me a moment.
You can find people like Arlene everywhere. It’s
simple. But first, you’ll need a couple of tools.
Tools You’ll Need for Buying Land Very Cheaply
Tool Number One: A County Ownership Plat Book.
Each county in every state makes their real estate ownership data
available to private mapping companies who make maps detailing all
the land ownership in the county. You can usually find these
for sale in one or more of the offices in the county courthouse.
They tend to run $25-80.
Here’s a page from the appropriate county plat book showing the
Arlene Doosis 40:
Tool Number Two: Maps. It would be a nice idea if you have
plenty of maps of your area. I used to buy these on paper too,
and I have a large collection of them, but now I find that I can get
everything I need online and for free. As time goes by, my
paper maps are growing outdated and while I still appreciate them
for their aesthetic beauty (when applicable) their utilitarian value
is diminished, although there are times when old maps can still
offer insights into modern-day properties, as we’ll see later in
Let’s take a moment to discuss a few types of maps that are
particularly useful—and their limitations.
County Highway Maps:
Most states offer county maps on the internet which have been
prepared by their respective Departments of Transportation.
Their primary benefit for our purpose is that, in addition to roads,
towns and cities, many of them, particularly those from the more
rural states, show the PLSS grid, so they make a nice place to start
your search for any given property. If you have a legal description,
but no ownership plat, see if you can find one of these to work
U.S.G.S. 7.5-minute Topography Maps:
Accurate, beautiful and universally available, the paper versions of
these maps have been the basic tool of the real estate industry
throughout the last half of the 20th Century and the
Adobe.pdf versions you’ll find at
remain so today. Unfortunately, I must qualify that statement:
the accuracy of the paper maps was unparalleled, their only failing
being that they were only updated infrequently. Most of the
online versions currently available have been updated using
automation that apparently makes wild, and very frequently
incorrect, guesses. You can still rely on the contour lines,
as those rely on the old data, but many of the updated roads are
actually private driveways, abandoned trails, or simply some
misguided computer’s fever dreams. Even worse than this, not all
states’ maps show the PLSS grid, although as of this writing we’re
told that they all will someday. Luckily, many of the old
un-updated maps are still available online, and of course there
are the old paper versions.
This is the answer to a dream we didn’t even know we had.
Google Earth® is aerial photography of the entire globe that allows
you to zoom in and out and fly from one place to another. This
is not to be confused with Google Maps®, Bing Maps® or Yahoo Maps®,
all of which are nearly useless for our purposes here. You can use
GE to measure property with amazing accuracy, then define boundaries
with a drawing tool. You can work with a flat image showing
land as viewed from straight overhead, or tilt the screen for a very
realistic view of the terrain. Furthermore, it allows you to
travel in time to see what a given property looked like in the past,
going back to around 1995. GE is updated about every three
years in most locations, and the resolution improves with successive
Throughout this chapter, I've placed different views of Arlene
Doosis’ 40-acre parcel on several different maps, to give you an
idea of how much you can learn about a particular property without
ever leaving home.
This topography map tells us that the Doosis 40 has an elevation
range of about 140 feet from the high-point on the northern boundary
to the intermittent stream on the east side. However, it shows
no sign of any access road:
This time at least, the latest Google imagery isn’t much help.
We see that here’s a road not far away, but no indication of how to
access the property:
This aerial view from 1995 sheds more light on the situation,
literally, as the leafless trees allow us to see what appears to be
an old trail coming in from the west. That’s not to say that
there’s a legal easement, but it’s a nice start. Plus we see a
couple of what appear to be abandoned buildings that may hint at an
old well or other improvements: