In real estate terminology, “unimproved” land is land without certain basic services, including electricity, telephone, street access, or the availability of water utilities.
Yet in many different listing services—including Zillow, Redfin, or MLS—the absence of electricity and telephone can often qualify a property as unimproved, despite its accessibility via paved or dirt road.
Unimproved Is Open to Interpretation
Unimproved almost always means there isn't an electric meter, phone box or natural gas meter on the property, so take this into account when quickly evaluating a listing.
When searching in rural areas, expect many unimproved parcels with varying degrees of access—and consider gates, easements, and proximity to services of all kinds. Each foot of development costs more money.
It’s best when searching to include all land so as to not miss a property with potential just because it's listed as unimproved. Properties listed as unimproved are often cut out of searches by people seeking parcels with utilities at the property line. Unimproved land may be within a few hundred feet of being connected to utilities and be listed at a significantly lower price.
Mistakes by listing agents usually involve not obtaining all available information about the land, including whether or not the land had been surveyed correctly in the first place. If the wrong survey is attached to the listing, or if the agent misconstrues the borders of a subdivision, the legal specifics of an unimproved property can remain ambiguous. The buyer will usually find out about the miscalculation during the closing process, at which point the sale can fall through, and bring embarrassment and bad reviews down onto an agent.
Another characteristic of unimproved property is that many remote land listings may stay on the market for years. Review the total number of days a property has been on the market and factor its chronology into your evaluation. The listing agent should be checking in on the property a few times per year to ensure that no squatters are living on the land, and that no illegal dumping or vandalism has taken place. The property’s owners may live far away from a rural area listings.
Considerations in Buying and Selling Unimproved Land
- Squatters and adverse possession: In many states, someone can occupy land against the interests of the owner (and without their knowledge,) and after a specific period of time, gain legal rights over the land itself. All would-be buyers should do a thorough, first-hand inspection to make sure no squatters are living on the property in question.
- Title insurance for unimproved land : Large subdivisions exist with dubious title and ownership history, and in some cases this can obstruct or prevent an owner from acquiring title insurance. It's a good idea to check with a title company for a legal description of the unimproved land.
- Unimproved land often has legal restrictions: Deed restrictions can be placed on a property which transfers with the land and can be expensive or impossible to change, and it doesn't mean that the neighbors will adhere to the rules, either. Buyers should be observant and comply with the restrictions or not buy the property.
- Getting utilities to the property line: Research all easements associated with unimproved land, gaining confirmation if any exist, or if they can be acquired in the future. To use the land for more than RV or tent camping, utilities must be brought onto the land. In other words, it must be improved.
Unimproved land can be a great investment, and the process of purchasing it requires its own genre of homework. All research into possible previous use and environmental hazards is time well spent.