Buyers ask: “are there building restrictions on that land?” That’s an easy one. My answer is always “yes”. Every parcel of land in California and Oregon has building restrictions.
What buyers really want to know is what are those restrictions and who governs those restrictions?
I mean, if you’re going to get in your car and drive somewhere to talk to someone to learn about building restrictions you need to know which government office to go to, right?
Which Office Should You Visit?
The best place to learn about building restrictions is the Planning or Building Department. But should you go to the City? Or the County?
- If the parcel is inside an incorporated City, go the City Planning Department or Building Department.
- If the parcel is outside an incorporated City, go to the County Planning Department or Building Department.
- If the “City” is unincorporated, then it’s not really a City, so go to the County Planning Department or Building Department.
So now you need to figure out if the city is incorporated and, if so, whether the parcel is inside or outside city limits. Maybe you know this already. But if you don’t, read on.
Four Steps to Determine If a Parcel is in the City or the County
Step 1: Look at the Advertised City
Make a note of the advertised address for the land. Usually it will consist of a street name and City name.
Step 2: Figure out if the Advertised City is Incorporated
Not all Cities that appear in real estate advertising are official Cities. A parcel of land might have a City name in the address for marketing or postal purposes but will not be inside the limits of an actual official City. An official City is one that is incorporated and has a City government. To find out if the advertised City is incorporated, do the following:
- Type the City name, and state, into Google. If a City.gov site pops up, then it is incorporated. If no City government pops up, then it is not a proper City.
- Search Wikipedia on the City name and state. If Wikipedia says it is an unincorporated community or a census-designated place, that means that it is not an incorporated (official) City.
For example, I have a listing for a parcel of land on Territorial Hwy in the Crow area near Eugene Oregon. Here’s what appeared when I typed “Eugene Oregon” into Wikipedia:
And here is the result when I typed nearby “Crow Oregon” into Wikipedia:
As you can see, Eugene is a proper incorporated City in Oregon while Crow is not.
If the City is incorporated, go to step 3. Otherwise, go to step 4.
Step 3: Figure Out if the Parcel of Land is Inside or Outside City Limits
Even when a City is mentioned in an advertisement for the land, and the City is incorporated, this does not necessarily mean the parcel is inside City limits. It’s possible that the mentioned City is just the closest one.
For example, my listing on Territorial Hwy is near Eugene. I entered “Eugene” as the City in the MLS and on all websites where I market land. Eugene is a proper City but that does not necessarily mean the parcel is inside City limits.
For your land you need to figure out if the parcel is inside or outside City limits because that will dictate which planning office you should visit.
Type the City name and state into Google Maps and it will show you the boundaries of the City. Check the map to see if the land is inside or outside those boundaries.
For example, when I type Eugene OR into Google Maps, with no street address, the boundaries for the City of Eugene appear clearly in red:
It is clear from studying this map, that the land I am selling on Territorial Hwy is outside of City boundaries.
Step 4: Go to the Correct Building or Planning Department
If the “City” is not incorporated, then the land will technically be in the County, not the City. There will be no City government and so no City planning department. No “City” will be placing restrictions on the land because the “City” doesn’t really exist. So, go to the County Building or Planning Department for information.
If the City is incorporated, and the property is inside City limits, go to the City offices.
If the City is incorporated, and the property is outside City limits, go to the County offices.
For example, in the case of the land I am selling on Territorial Hwy, that property is outside the limits of the incorporated City of Eugene, in a rural area called Crow, so the buyer would have to go to Lane County offices for information.
Cities are located inside Counties, which are located inside States, which are located inside the U.S. This nested relationship sometimes causes buyers to overthink it as they try to figure out which office to go to. So, let me clear up some issues:
- When Realtors say a parcel is “in the City”, what they mean is that the parcel is inside the limits of an incorporated City. Yes, Cities are geographically nested inside Counties…but forget that. If it’s inside City limits, go to City offices for information.
- When Realtors say a parcel is “in the County”, what they mean is that it is outside the limits of an incorporated City or the so-called City is unincorporated. Go to County offices for information.
Realtors Have Considerable Latitude in Choosing the City Name that is Advertised
The computer systems that Realtors use will not allow agents to enter the truth – that a property is technically “in the County” not inside the boundaries of an incorporated City. Menus pop up in the MLS and elsewhere demanding that the Realtor choose a City name gosh darn it!
Keep in mind that Realtors are sales people. So, if the land is in the County, midway between Cities A and B, and if City A has a better reputation or more expensive properties than City B, you can bet the Realtor will market the property as being associated with City A.
In the case of my listing on Territorial Hwy, it is located in a rural area called Crow outside Eugene city limits. So, I am advertising the City as Eugene. That’s because 1) Eugene is the closest proper City, 2) buyers with deep pockets from places like San Francisco have probably never heard of “Crow” Oregon but may have heard of my hometown Eugene (where the 60’s are still alive and well, living on the planet earth), 3) “Crow” is not an incorporated City, and 4) there are more eyeballs searching online in Eugene than in Crow. More exposure means a greater chance of selling the land and at a higher price.
I mean, where do you think the “city” name “BeverIy Hills Adjacent” came from? Realtors, that’s where. I’m just keepin’ it real.
Islands of County Inside City Limits
Sometimes there will be an “island” of County land inside City limits. This is weird because usually Cities are inside Counties, not the reverse. When that happens, go the County Planning Office for land on the “island” and go to the City for all other land inside City limits.
Below is an example of an island of county inside San Bernardino City limits.
Parcels Near a Boundary
I have a listing for 99+ acres just outside of Riverside City in Riverside County California (in escrow). It is “in the County”, adjacent to City limits. The County has imposed rigid zoning on this land. However, there is talk that the City boundary could be expanded. If that happens, the acreage would then be “in the City” and the City could then substitute new zoning rules. For this particular parcel, a change from County zoning to City zoning might be welcome. However, I can imagine other situations where a change from County to City might not be a good thing, e.g., if County building codes are lax and City building codes are stringent. So, if you are considering a parcel near a boundary, bear in mind that boundary can change.
It is also possible for a piece of land to straddle two Counties. In that case, a prudent buyer would gather information from the planning offices for both Counties.
Cities and Counties with the Same Name
The map above shows an island of San Bernardino County inside the City of San Bernardino. The City and County have the same name. This can be a source of confusion for some buyers. Here are some other examples of that:
- San Diego City is inside San Diego County
- Los Angeles City is inside Los Angeles County
- Sacramento City is inside Sacramento County
- Baker City is inside Baker County
- Tillamook City is inside Tillamook County
So, for example, if a Realtor tells you to “Go down to the Los Angeles Planning Office” to get information, you will need to clarify whether they mean the City of Los Angeles or the County of Los Angeles. They are two different offices in two different locations.
Homeowners Associations Can Impose Restrictions Too
To figure out if there is an HOA and/or CC&Rs, the fastest way is to ask your Realtor. If your Realtor doesn’t know, here are some other tips:
- HOAs are most common with clustered housing developments. For example, if the land is in a gated community there will almost certainly be an HOA. On the other hand, if the land is large acreage in a rural area there is probably no HOA. You can usually tell if there is an HOA just by using your eyes, brain, and rules of thumb. But not always.
- Find a neighbor out working in their yard or getting groceries out of their car and ask them if there is an HOA.
- Search Zillow for nearby houses available for sale or sold. Check to see if the name of a development appears in Zillow ads for homes in the same neighborhood. Developments will have names like “Country Club Estates”, “Hidden Meadows” or “Sunrise Village”. Then go to Google and type in the development name and the abbreviation “HOA” to find contact information for that HOA.
- Ask the title company to research whether there is an HOA and/or CC&Rs.
As a buyer, you might assume that of course the seller will have a copy of the CC&Rs in his file so of course, the Realtor can get a copy from the seller. In my experience, however, sellers rarely have the CC&Rs in their files. Remember, this is vacant land, not a house, and many sellers never had plans to build so they are unconcerned with the CC&Rs. Some owners acquired the land by inheritance or bought it at a tax sale, so never had a copy to begin with.
You might also assume that of course the CC&Rs will be posted online. In reality, this is also rare. This may be because HOAs like to charge for a copy of their CC&Rs.
The good news is that after you submit an offer, and the seller accepts it, the escrow officer will order a copy of the CC&Rs from the HOA and provide a copy to you. But how can you get a copy of the CC&Rs before even submitting an offer? You can:
- Ask the Realtor for a copy
- Ask a neighbor for a copy
- Find contact information for the HOA online and ask the HOA for a copy. Pay the required fee.
Bear in mind that that the existence of an HOA does not necessarily mean that there will be severe restrictions on building. Some HOAs just collect a few dollars from all residents for road or gate maintenance and have very few, or no, building restrictions. Occasionally, HOAs may exist on paper but are now basically defunct for all practical purposes. In this instance, if you ask neighbors who is the head of the HOA they will shrug their shoulders and say they don’t know. That’s a good clue that the HOA is inoperative.
My point here is that if you’re someone who doesn’t like HOAs because you imagine a committee telling you that you that your house has to be painted one of the approved shades of beige, or that you can’t build that off-the-grid container home you were planning, remember that not all HOAs are the same. Some are minimalist or non-functioning HOAs.
Summarizing the Above
Use this table to figure out where to go to get information on building restrictions for your parcel:
|City incorporated?||Inside City limits?||HOA?||Where to get info|
|Yes||Yes||Yes||City and HOA|
|Yes||No||Yes||County and HOA|
|No||N/A||Yes||County and HOA|
But Wait, There’s More! Other Entities Can Also Impose Restrictions
In some geographic areas, there will be additional entities that also restrict building. One example is the Coastal Commission. The Coastal Commission is a state agency with quasi-judicial regulatory oversight over land use and public access in the coastal zone.
So, if the land you’re considering buying is near the ocean, check to see if it is in the Coastal Commission zone.
If the land is in a designated historic district, they can also impose restrictions. Building a new home on your land might be governed by the same strict design guidelines that control the renovation or remodeling of an existing historic buildings within the district.
Ask the Realtor, City Planner or County Planner if there are any other offices that might impose building restrictions on the land you are considering purchasing. Before contacting those offices, check their website for boundary maps to see if the land really is inside their jurisdiction.
It is amazing how many people and offices can tell you what you can and can’t do with your own land. Building restrictions exist on every parcel in California and Oregon. In fact, on some parcels, building is not even allowed. The Realtor and Seller are unlikely to have complete information about building restrictions. To learn what the restrictions are on a given parcel, first research the location of that parcel. Is it in a City? County? HOA? Coastal Commission? Historic District? Then you will have a better idea which office(s) to visit to learn more.