Let's cut right to the chase, in this guide we will show you visually what to look for on Google Earth when buying land site unseen. The amount of information in this guide are secrets of the trade if you will. So join us and put on your detective hat, let's see what we can learn about a property just from Google Earth.
(If you don't have Google Earth, you will have to get it. There is an online version if you can't download the actual program but the pictures in this guide are from the downloaded pro version. It has a lot more features and if you're serious about land, get it. Use the app store or this link Google Earth)
Finding Your Land
A lot of land goes by legal description, meaning, it might not have a legal postal address. This is very common especially with more remote land. The county will often times provide you a legal address for mailing purposes after you build on the property. But until then, you will have to find your property on Google Earth with a different method.
If your land has an address enter that in Google Earth, if it does not, you will need the GPS coordinates. This usually is provided by the seller and looks like one of the below, if they didn't provide it we will show you below how to find it.
GPS: 34.54132, -106.62252
GPS: 37 25' 19.1°N, 122 05' 06°W
If you have nothing but an APN or address, go to the counties GIS system, this is a county parcel map they provide. You can enter the APN or address there and actually see the parcel boundaries. They always have a GPS tool that follows your cursor, put the cursor on the lot and write down the coordinates. With these coordinates you can continue back to Google Earth.
The first thing you'll notice is your general terrain from the satellite. Is it brown, green, wooded, swampy water, sloped..etc. This can take some practice to learn but let's go over a few of these because it's probably the most important step.
Brown vs. Green Land
This is deceiving, these images come from a satellite and don't usually capture the real truth from ground level. Pretty much everywhere has rainy season, dry season and even in some places snow. Rarely will you see snow when you zoom in, the images aren't great with snow so they will pick dryer periods of the year. Green looking areas are usually more lush throughout the year from grass or trees. Brown looking areas can represent desert or dryer areas. However, this can be the part that is deceiving.
Green areas can actually have barren trees and be very dry once you see the land. Brown areas can actually have very nice green pastures on the land, the satellite doesn't pick up those kind of details often times. Take a look at the image above to see what we mean.
There are a few tricks to figuring this out, importantly no matter what color the sky view is. Find a street view to verify, it gives you a nice walk around tour. You can even use the user images found on Google Earth. These are pictures tagged in that area by real people.
Trash on the Land
Some land regardless of where it is sold might not have the most accurate pictures or they might even be hiding this. While the pictures look great there could have been a previous owner that left all their trash on it. This can often be seen from Google Earth, once you zoom in check the land for junk or any unsightly things. Anything suspicious is best passed on because it could cost you time or money to clean it up. You could even start getting fines from the county. We won't buy anything that even remotely looks like something foreign is on it, that's how serious we take this step.
You may be exploring an area and see these wavy lines in the dirt like the image above. This can signify areas where heavy rain has cut away at the dirt and the next time heavy rains happen the water will rush into this area. While there can be some truth to that it could be very old and something that hasn't happened in ages. Most importantly these areas can still be buildable, especially if you already see homes on it.
Many people live in areas where you see these wavy lines, the county doesn't care often but you will want to elevate your land to avoid the possibility of heavy rains hitting you. As you can see in the image above there are areas of run off but a whole neighborhood was built right on it.
This may be something you choose to rule out but you could miss out on some great land by just shrugging it off. The run-off areas can be very smooth and wide once you get there, small dips in the area that look exaggerated on satellite.
Yes, there are flood zoned land, some extreme ones that are impossible to build on such as massive swamp zones. These are mostly on the east coast in places like Florida or in hurricane prone zones. People do build on high level flood zoned land but they pay a price. Home insurance based on FEMA flood zones can be very expensive, especially in zone levels 3 and above.
If you want to verify if land is in a flood zone check the FEMA map in this link: FEMA Flood Zones
A lot of land sold online, even through an agent on Zillow won't have all the Utility details. You never know how old the pictures are or sometimes land will just be sold as-is with Utilities: Unknown. There are a few tricks to this but they also can be hard to see for the untrained eye. You can try calling the county but we have found they often don't always know.
Anything in an actual city neighborhood you can probably safely bet that it has available utilities somewhere near the land. Remote land can have power too, if they are found on the roads near your land. Look at the image above, they are hard to see but once you practice you will start to see them.
Using Google Earth, zoom in really close to your land. If you see those lines like the above photo and if more lines occur down the road you probably have power. You would still have to get the city to connect it, usually for a fee, but having power is a nice feature.
Street view on Google Earth is very important. This is where cars with 360 cameras drive around on the streets capturing images. While it's quite amazing how much of the earth they have already captured, not every single road is captured yet. If the land you are looking at doesn't have street view, it's still very useful to look at the areas that do near the land. With it you can see the general area, terrain, nearby homes and attractions.
To do this using the picture above, you will see that little man on the right hand side in the tools area. Right click and hold to drag the man over to a street, any area with street view will light up blue and you can place the little man on the blue lines. This will bring you to street level where you can travel forwards, backwards, left and right at ground view.
Figuring out if the property has water is best served using other methods, but it can be seen on street view at times. Raw land, especially in busy subdivisions with multiple houses near it will almost always have water. On a street view of the property these would look like a small pipe sticking up out of the land about a foot long. It's not the easiest to see as grass can cover them but we do see them a lot on street view.
Sometimes a water hold line will have a tiny utility bill that you are required to pay. Obviously if the land does have a water hold bill you have water hook ups, but some don't require you to pay. The best option to see if your land has water is just to call the county or local water department. Between the two of them they should be able to tell you if water lines are on the land, or at least nearby.
Remote land probably doesn't have water hookups so most home owners draw a well. While there is an upfront cost to this, it's worth it to have water without a bill for many years to come.
Sloped LandIf you want to see the slope of your land Google Earth has a very good advanced tool. This takes some advanced practice and you may want to search more advanced tutorials on Google Earth to learn this. In basic form you would want to get the camera very close to your land with 3D on. Direct your camera so it is close to ground level looking upward at the land in a profile view. Pick the tape measure tool and use the tab "path", click the option for "show elevation profile". Use the tool to put a path from the top of your land to the bottom. When done correctly it should look like the image above.
Sloped land can be very valuable because of views. Everyone likes to sit on the balcony and wake up to a beautiful view while having their morning coffee. Some slopes can be a bit extreme so it's a good thing to check. It will take a bit more construction if it's really sloped, things like a retaining wall.
Taxes, Zoning & More
After the steps above you have a pretty good idea what the land is like. It's time to get into the details of the land. You will want to find the county GIS system, google something like "Cook County GIS System", just use the county your land is in. It looks like the above photo.
In the GIS system search for your parcel with the address or APN. It will then show you the parcel and it's boundaries, but there are many other tools here. There will be links to the tax portal, recording history, land size, zoning and more.
With this method of research you are in pretty good shape to make an educated decision when buying land site unseen. There are always the possibilities of surprises, if you want to really get a hands on visual of the land there is one more method. Using craigslist, you can post an ad to find someone that will drive out to your land to take pictures. You will be surprised how many people that respond to these ad's. Everyone from amateurs looking to make a buck to professional drone operators will respond. For around $100 you can ask someone to drive to the land and take about 50 picture of the land, nearby things, roads, power poles and more. If you're willing to pay more, someone with major experience might apply such as a drone professional that works in land and real estate.
Last but not least, make sure the land has the uses you want. Call the county and ask about what you can build, if you can have animals, if you can grow crops, camp on it, use and RV or whatever else you desire. All counties have rules, if you want land for camping don't expect that you can camp on any land. Make sure it has what you want, this is easily known thought the county and building department.
We hope this article helps in your journey for exploring land from the comfort of your own home. Land can be a great investment and consider yourself lucky to know that.