Dear PoPville – Buying land from a neighbor?

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“Dear PoPville,

Have a question, but its a multi-parter. 1) Is it possible to buy land from a neighbor if he has a lot, and I have a little (if he’s willing)? 2) We live in Capitol Hill, so not sure if the historical neighborhood designation matters? 3) If possible, how do you value land in something like this, is it simply the value of the current lot/ square feet * the actual for sale part? 4) How do you approach your neighbor about something like this? “Hey I got a great business opportunity for you?”

In our case we would like to buy about 375 sq feet from our neighbor. His lot is probably around 1500-1600 sq feet(estimate), sans house. He does not have access to the alley. (Doing the math as I suggested, the cost per land is about 350 dollars per sq feet-(going by the tax assessment for our lot)- That would put the price of the land at about 130,000…which is insane. If that is the case then this is a moot point. We want to offer the neighbor 12,000-15,000. Too much, too little?”

30 Comment

  • way way to little, the first number was much closer.

  • Can you really subdivide a city lot like that?

    • yes. but I would advise the buyer to be careful with a lowball. Rather, just plant the seed and have the neighbor think about it. Chances are it will be in the 30-45 range, but it is worth it if you’re talking about a yard when you don’t have one.

  • I don’t know anything about the legality or process of doing something like this, but your “offer” sounds like highway robbery. 375 sq ft is roughly the size of three parking spots (actually a little bit more). Depending on your neighborhood, you’re planning to offer him a price that’s roughly two-thirds to a quarter of the price of one spot. If I were approached for such a deal, I would want about 70-90k if I lived closer in on the Hill, and 45-60k if it was further out.

  • So why is it ok for your land to be worth so much, and your neighbors not?

    Also, it isn’t as simple as “buying 375 sq/ft” from him. You would have to legally subdivide out of his parcel and into yours which is going to require a surveyer and attorney as well as fees etc with DCRA, which even for a small job like that is gonna cost you a few thousand dollars.

    You can find exactly what his lot is assesed at online. Type in his address and it will tell you what his lot is assesed. If you don’t want to pay for it, then don’t waste his time. I wouldn’t even respond to the inquiry of someone asking to buy my land for pennies on the dollar of its assesed value.

    Land, especially in place slike downtown DC (and other urban areas) is frequently more valuable than the structure sitting on it.

    • Yup. Thousands of dollars in legal fees just to subdivide the lot so neighbor could transfer title. Then all the closing costs and transfer taxes. The cost to your neighbor already probably exceeds your 12-15k offer before you even talk about the fair market value of the land.

      On your own terms, I think the point is moot.

  • Too little, what would your neighbor be gaining by selling @ a rate significantly below tax assesment? First figure sounds more realistic than the $15k.

  • You can find his actual lot size and assessment very easily at

    But for pete’s sake, get a real estate agent. The fact that you’re asking all these questions and have no idea where to start indicates you’re not going to get very far on your own.

  • Can DCRA chime with with the process for purchasing part of someone’s property? I’m sure it’s a lengthy process, but it is doable given some of the ridiculous cuts I’ve seen.

    It would be interesting to understand the steps involved.

    • ah

      it’s a recorder of deeds issue for the actual purchase and recording the new lots.

      The DCRA issue is whether the lots are consistent with the zoning regulations. For example, if the OP buys 375 sq. ft., is the remaining lot buildable or consistent with the zoning laws? And of course the purchaser needs to make sure he can use the land as planned in compliance with zoning laws.

      • Good catch, but I’d still like to hear what the process is.

        Do you need a hearing, etc?

        Are there restrictions where the land *can’t* be subdivided?

  • That seems like a lowball offer. I wouldn’t sell any piece of my lot in Capitol hill but think 50,000 sounds better

  • In order to convey title there has to be a Lot & Square designation on every Real Property.To do that you would have to subdivide an existing lot. For this you need a real estate attorney and the cooperation of DCRA.
    The first will cost you a bunch of $$$, the second may not even let you do that.

  • I would be SHOCKED if someone accepted $40 a square foot for land worth about 200-300 square foot.

  • What do you want to do with the land? Plant a garden? Put in a patio? A parking spot? A playground? Build an addition on your house? I think a property owner would consider that. Plus, for simple usage, i.e. a garden, you might just make an arrangement and not need to purchase.

  • If you’re actually serious about this, seems like the first step would be to ask your neighbor if he is at all interested in conducting such a transaction, given an appropriate price. He may very well not be. If he says he is, then worry about the bureaucratic hoops you’ll have to jump through. If, after that, you’re still interested, then (unless your neighbor is not interested in getting fair market value for his land, which seems unlikely) you would probably need to hire a professional real estate appraiser to value the land. Assessment valuation are often divorced from reality…although maybe not in the direction you hope for, and almost certainly not to the extent you’re talking about.

  • I think 15k would be a fair amount on an 18 month lease.

  • you’re prepared to offer your neighbor $12K for land you’ve valued at $130K? Really? I sincerely hope your neighbor reads PoP….

  • Probably simpler to enter into a lease agreement. Perhaps for as long as you own your home, or for an agreed upon term ie 25/50/100 years.

    • While this suggestion seems way more realistic than buying, I would be very hesitant to get invovled in financial transactions with neighbors, especially over land use. Seriously contentious disputes can get brewing between neighbors over the silliest things. I would not want to open up that door.

  • Your questions, my answers:

    1) Is it possible to buy land from a neighbor if he has a lot, and I have a little (if he’s willing)?

    Yes. If he’s willing. But see above — a number of posts point out correctly that he’d have to go through the legal process of subdividing his lot to sell any part of it to you.

    2) We live in Capitol Hill, so not sure if the historical neighborhood designation matters?

    Probably not, but that’s the last thing you have to worry about.

    3) If possible, how do you value land in something like this, is it simply the value of the current lot/ square feet * the actual for sale part?

    It’s what he’s willing to sell it for and what you’re willing to pay for it. I doubt the number is anywhere close to 12-15k. I’d guess the ultimate cost to your neighbor ultimately is what he could sell his house for with the bigger lot vs. what he could sell it for with a smaller lot, discounted to present value, with some allowance for what you’ll actually do with it (and whether he thinks that would increase or decrease his present enjoyment of his home).

    4) How do you approach your neighbor about something like this? “Hey I got a great business opportunity for you?

    You approach however you feel comfortable with it. But if you’re planning to offer 12-15k, I’d suggest you not be so insulting as to tell him it’s a “great business opportunity” for him.

    Not to be a smart aleck, but the value of the land to him is not a simple calculation of assessed value * % of lot sold. A big lot simply is worth more than a small lot on resale, because there aren’t that many big lots in a city environment, so they’re in shorter supply (and demand for them is greater) — something it seems the OP already understands, since he wants a bigger lot for himself.

    If OP wants to do something specific with the land, what I’d suggest is that he approach his neighbor with an offer to lease the land. That’s a straight-up contract between neighbors that they could figure out on their own: OP offers to pay him $X/mo, agrees to lay out the limited purposes for which he will use the land and terms about its use, and there’s a workable time period. Were I your neighbor and not using that portion of my lot, I’d be much more receptive to that offer than an offer to buy at a very low price, and one that comes with big bureaucratic/legal headaches.

  • andy

    You could say, “Dude, do you mind if I park my car on your backyard? I could pay you something for it, seriously. Let’s talk.”

    Think use or service, not property rental or purchase, and you might end up with a reasonable cost. Lease seems like a good alternative if that doesn’t work. I don’t imagine many people are interested in actually selling a slice of their backyard to create a less valuable parcel for themselves.

    • Depends. If the seller is old and maybe wants some cash but doesn’t want to move out of their house to get it, I could see it happening.

  • Ask for an easement to get access to the portion of his land for a specific period of time (3 or 5 years). You can negotiate a fair price. Have a civil engineer or surveyor create plans indicating the proposed easement. Lastly, the recordation fee is substantially less for an easement.

  • I did this a few years ago. You need to get a lawyer — a title lawyer in DC who will charge under 2k to do it for you. We actually sold a 40 by 5 foot strip of land and used the tax assessed value (just take the land value and divide by square feet). We had a one sentence contract – “I agree to sell and you agree to buy the strip of land, [rough dinensions] as indicated on the attached.” Then we attached a google map and highlighted the area. Then the title lawyers worked with the DC government to get a legal division of the property, which required a survey. Our bank did not care because we had enough equity in the house that it did not matter, but the seller’s bank will need to know. And then the price will affect the basis of the land, but no taxes will be sue for the sales price. We used:
    Alan Dranitzke
    Liotta, Dranitzke & Engel, LLP
    1666 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
    Suite 250
    Washington, D.C. 20009
    202-797-2354 fax

  • If you proceed with this be sure that in your dealings with the city about subdivision and zoning etc includes a discussion about your plans for the land once purchased to make sure your plans are do-able. It would be a shame to go through all this effort and expense and find you couldn’t complete your project.

  • This could likely negatively affect your neighbor’s ability to build additional structures on his remaining land due to zoning regs. For example, if he wants to add a deck, garage,etc in the future.

  • Unless you have a lot of time, $$$, and plan to be in that home for a long time, I agree with those who suggest you consider trying to lease the space or find some other (simpler) way to use that land. If you end up moving forward with this, please keep POPville informed of your adventures along the way.

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