Counties and zoning restrictions
Regardless of where you live, there will be local laws restricting how you can use your property. You cannot build a house anywhere or open a business anywhere; it depends on the zoning laws.
Counties put zoning laws in place to protect property values. Building on a piece of land may, in some cases, lower the property value of the neighbor's land. Counties create laws to protect landowners from actions that may reduce the worth of their property.
There are sometimes also laws against opening a business in a specific area. If you start a business in a residential neighborhood, it may take away from the neighborhood's peace and quiet or attract too much traffic.
The laws are there to protect those who already own property in an area. Therefore, you cannot do whatever you want with your land after you buy it. You will have to make entirely sure that you can do what you intend before you buy a piece of land, or else you could lose quite a lot of money.
Check with multiple authorities
You may have to check with more than one authority to know for sure. If you rent a property, your landlord might not allow any changes you want to make - not even if these changes are legal under zoning laws.
There may also be more than one legal authority that can refuse to allow you to build a house in a particular area. Local laws, state laws, and, to a lesser extent, even federal laws may interfere with constructing something on your property.
There may be exceptions if building something is against zoning laws
If you are trying to build something in an area where zoning laws forbid it, you might be able to get an exception and go ahead with building anyway. Your neighbors might be willing to help you if they have no problem with what you intend to build. If you know your neighbors well, they might be willing to send letters arguing that you should be exempt from the zoning laws.
Ask the seller first
The first person you ask for information might be the seller of the property. They might know what you can build on the property and be entirely honest with you about what restrictions there are on the land.
However, they might not give you entirely accurate information about whether you can build anything on their land. It is not as simple as the land being either buildable or not buildable. A seller can sometimes legally get away with being somewhat dishonest.
You might be able to construct a house on the property but not the home you are interested in building. For example, a house that is either too large or too small might not be allowed.
Building regulations for land
If the property is outside of city limits, you should check the county laws first. State laws and federal laws might affect but are less likely to affect you.
Look up the zoning laws and find out what zone the property is in. Then, find out precisely what you are allowed to build on the land you are considering before buying it. Ensure you know what is legal to construct and not merely whether or not construction is allowed at all.
Sometimes you can find all of the information quickly with a google search. Other times, you might have to make phone calls or ask for this information at the library or somewhere else with information about the local laws.
Usually, the law will be clear, but there might not be any clear answer to your question in some cases. You will then have to call the municipal planning department to know whether your planned use for your land is allowed.
Make phone calls and ask questions
Since there is the risk of losing a lot of money buying land that you cannot use as you intended, you should call some local offices and ask questions. Even if you think you know all the answers, it is better to be safe than sorry.
You should know all of the information. Perhaps you want to build a house with four rather than two bedrooms - is that allowed in your area, and can you rent out the rooms? Can you construct a tiny home if you intend to do this?
Zoning laws change over time
Just because it was legal for a previous occupant to build on your property does not mean that it is still permitted today. Always check the laws and do not make assumptions.
Make phone calls - do not merely look at a single internet source and think you have all of the answers. Also, be aware that there could be other laws besides zoning laws that prevent anyone from legally building anything on the land you are considering.
Talk to a lawyer
If there are any local or state laws against construction that you are not yet aware of, a lawyer would know about them. A lawyer may also be able to help you if it seems like you cannot build on your property. If you have a good chance of getting an exemption, a lawyer will let you know.
Make sure the land you are considering is not contaminated
If you aren't careful, you might end up buying contaminated land, and then you could be responsible for cleaning it up before you can build anything on your property. If anyone stored industrial chemicals or farm chemicals on your land before you, it might be contaminated.
If you do have to clean up the land, it might be way too expensive. Know as much as possible about what you are buying first.
Find out if you can legally build a standard septic tank on your property
Usually, building a septic tank on your property is reasonably cheap. However, if the land you are buying is poorly suited for a standard septic system, you might have to build a more expensive non-typical septic tank.
Make sure that your property has passed a PERC test in the last couple of years because otherwise, you might have to spend a lot more to build a septic system than you expected. A PERC test is an investigation to see if it would be safe to construct a typical septic system on your property.
Get information for free first
Don't go straight to a lawyer that charges money to investigate your land for you. Talking to a legal expert should be one of the last and not the first steps.
Talk to the seller and to the seller's agent first. Ask them all of the right questions. If you are getting the answers you want, double-check everything with a lawyer.
Is it legal to sell a piece of contaminated or useless property?
Not all that long ago, it was possible to sell a very defective property and get away with it. Today, this is more likely to be illegal than before. It is still possible to get ripped off when you buy land, but it is now theoretically unlawful to sell one's defective property to an unaware buyer.
There are now laws dealing with "disclosure of defects" - you could sue a seller if they sell you chemically poisoned or, in other ways, defective land without telling you. The seller has to let you know about certain serious problems with the land.
However, these laws do not successfully protect the buyer in all cases. If a defect in the property is obvious and the buyer does not notice or care, the buyer might not be able to sue the seller for failing to disclose something that the buyer should have noticed.
Even if a piece of land is defective, it might not be defective enough to be covered by disclosure of defects laws. Also, even if someone breaks these laws, they might get away with it. A buyer might not go through the expense and hassle of taking the seller to court.
If you are planning to dig a well, make sure there is a good supply of clean water. You may have to worry about flooding, endangered species, and other environmental considerations, or soil that is unsuitable for building.
Before you can make the most of your land, you will need a sewage system, electricity, a well, running water, a driveway, and many other things. All of this is expensive. If you are building a modern house and not a cabin, it is going to be costly.
Ensure you have a realistic estimate of the total cost before you buy land and build on it. Buying empty property and building on it can be an excellent investment for many people, but don't underestimate the cost. The last thing you want to do is buy some land and then find you cannot afford to develop it.