Vacant Land


In the areas of Boulder, Broomfield and Jefferson Counties that we cover, buying land on which to build a home can be a long, difficult, expensive and potentially risky proposition. This is particularly true of the rural and mountain areas of  Boulder County. If you have the money, you can certainly run out today, put down some cash, and own a piece of land tomorrow. However, it may be more prudent to verify first:

  • That you will be allowed to build on the property.
  • That you will be able to build on the location where you want to build.
  • That you will be able to build what you want to build.

Potential Risks With Vacant Land

If you want to be prudent and resolve these questions before you close on the purchase of a piece of land, it may take a year or even two to complete the purchase.  Certainly, the purchase of a building lot is not always such a complicated and extended process. But it is important to understand that you can easily spend several hundred thousand dollars on a lot only to discover that you can’t build on it, or that the building site that the county officials will allow you to build on results in a 50% reduction in the value of the land you just bought.

Because this is such a complex and high risk issue, and because the issues vary so widely from one piece of land and one governmental jurisdiction to the next, I can’t even begin to outline the issues you need to be aware of when buying a building lot in the area. As a minimum, you need to  understand that if you buy land in the area without truly expert assistance,  you are taking one of the more foolish gambles you’ve taken in your life.

Historical Background

If  you are considering buying a building lot or larger piece of land in Boulder County or elsewhere in the area, a bit of background will help  you understand the dynamics of our current situation.

  • State Law. You need to understand that state law prohibits landowners from subdividing their property into parcels of less than 35 acres unless the city or county in which the property is located approves the subdivision. For several decades, Boulder County has approved such subdivisions only under very special circumstances, thus restricting the availability of new building lots within the county’s jurisdiction. As a consequence, most of the building that has occurred in the area  has occurred on land annexed to towns and cities or on land in the rural or mountain areas that was subdivided prior to 1970. Once a parcel of land is annexed to a city, the city rather than the county determines whether and how the land can be subdivided and developed.
  • Preserving Open Space and Rural Areas. The reason that Boulder County has restricted subdivisions in the rural and mountain areas over the past decades is to try to preserve these areas in their current natural or agricultural state and to stop suburban sprawl. Both through direct purchases of land for preservation purposes and through regulations and practices to restrict growth and development, Boulder County and all the cities within it are       actively involved in efforts to stop or slow new construction outside incorporated towns or cities. In recent years, this led to efforts by the county to stop building on mountain mining claims, to city of Boulder regulations that resulted in lottery drawings for building permits where the winners draw 1/4 of a building permit, and to a referendum in the city Lafayette restricting the number of building permits that can be issued in a given year.
  • Limited Building Sites. The intended cumulative effect of all these efforts are that very few potential building sites are available, that the sites that are available are fairly expensive, and that the risks of running into trouble in your efforts to build are almost inevitable. The system is set up to discourage you and everyone else from building anything.

Minimum Recommendations

If you are determined to buy land to build on in this area, I would recommend the  following as minimum precautions:
  • Work with Experts. Don’t even consider doing this on your own. You need to be working with a real estate agent or an attorney, preferably both, who have substantial experience with buying land in the specific local you are interested in.
  • Purchase Contingent on a Building Permit. Make any purchase contract contingent on building permit approval by the relevant city or county authorities, and be certain to require that the terms and conditions of their approval must be satisfactory to you.
  • Purchase Contingent on Verifying Construction Costs. Make any purchase contract contingent on your being satisfied with building costs and the costs of bringing utilities to the property. I have seen cases where power poles were located on an adjoining lot, yet the cost of bringing power to the       property was $12,000. Foundations can be extremely expensive if you need to blast rock. And if the county requires that you build a $30,000 access       road, you may not have any money left to build your house.