Evaluating the Virginia Land Market

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Evaluating the Virginia Land Market
By

Bart Waldon

For anyone looking to buy or sell land in Virginia, it’s essential to understand the factors that influence property values across this diverse state. From the bustling urban centers of Northern Virginia to the rolling farmlands out west, land prices can fluctuate widely depending on location, land use regulations, site attributes, market conditions, and more. This article explores key considerations for researching, valuing, and navigating the Virginia land market as a buyer or seller.

Regional Variations in the Virginia Land Market

It’s hard to generalize about land prices and trends across an entire state as large and geographically varied as Virginia. In reality, the market conditions can look quite different whether you’re talking about an acre of land in Arlington County versus Appomattox County. Assessing the market comes down to research at the local level.

Broadly speaking, demand for land and real estate tends to be highest in urban and suburban regions of Virginia where the economy is growing. Areas like Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads have seen strong population and job growth in recent decades. Land prices in and around these metro regions have appreciated substantially due to development pressure.

More rural parts of the state, especially in southern and western Virginia, have experienced flat or declining populations. The land market in these areas is often stagnant or depressed outside of farms and forestland. Buyers may find discounted acreage prices compared to closer-in suburbs.

Drilling down to research county-level market patterns, development regulations, property taxes, and zoning rules is necessary to accurately assess a local land market. Connecting with a knowledgeable real estate agent active in that jurisdiction can provide important insights as well. They can help buyers and sellers set appropriate price expectations.

Factors That Impact Land Value

Pinpointing an exact value for a land parcel can be challenging because there are so many unique attributes to consider beyond just size or location. Here are some of the key factors that impact land prices:

Development Potential - Land with clear near-term potential for residential, commercial, or industrial development often commands the highest prices per acre. Sites already zoned properly for their intended use or located in growth corridors hold appeal for builders and investors. Raw land with no utilities or approvals sells at a discount.

Access and Frontage - Parcels with extensive road frontage or direct highway access are more desirable than landlocked sites with limited accessibility. Land along major thoroughfares offers visibility and ease of access for future development.

Improvements - Cleared, graded land with utilities stubbed to the property will sell for more than raw, unimproved acreage. Even basic enhancements like gravel drives, fencing, and storage barns can boost value for some buyers.

Surrounding Uses - Commercial or residential land near compatible developments like shopping malls, housing, or offices holds broader appeal to builders. Sites adjacent to nuisances like landfills or industrial parks will sell for less.

Natural Attributes - Unique features like mountain views, rivers, lakes, or forests can enhance desirability for many buyers. Waterfront parcels often command premium prices for recreational or luxury home development.

Market Conditions - Like other real estate, land values rise in times of strong economic growth and fall during recessions. Following market cycles and trends is key for both buyers and sellers looking to get optimal value.

Zoning and Land Use Regulations - Areas with complex zoning rules, restrictive densities, or lengthy permitting processes will trade at a discount. Land with straightforward entitlement pathways holds broader appeal.

Property Taxes and Assessments - Markets with lower property tax rates are more attractive for land investors and developers. High annual taxes directly reduce returns on investment.

Get to know recent sales of comparable sites to establish a value estimate, then factor in the attributes of that specific parcel. Unique characteristics like water frontage may warrant pricing at the upper end of the range, while a remote site with no utilities could sell for less than average.

Reading the Market Trends and Cycles

Making smart decisions as a buyer or seller requires reading the momentum and direction of the local land market. Are prices still rising quickly, stagnating, or starting to fall? Is the inventory of available sites expanding or contracting? What’s happening regionally with the economy and population growth?

These indicators can reveal whether it’s a seller’s market with high demand or a buyer’s market with negotiating power on your side. Here are signs of each:

Seller’s Market

  • Listings receiving multiple competitive offers above asking price
  • Low inventory levels, with high-quality land selling quickly
  • Median sales prices rising faster than inflation/income growth
  • Strong demographics and job growth fueling demand
  • Tight entitlement and development regulations limiting new supply

Buyer’s Market

  • Listings staying on the market for extended periods of time
  • Growing inventory levels and discounted “motivated seller” listings
  • Sale prices dropping below list price and appraised values
  • Slowing population and economic growth weighing on demand
  • New development adding to overall land supply

In a seller’s market, owners can often maximize value by capitalizing on the fierce competition and pricing aggressively. Waiting for the most favorable conditions to list can lead to bidding wars and optimal sale prices.

For buyers, a seller’s market calls for acting decisively on the best listings before they go under contract. Overbidding listing prices may be necessary to win deals, and contingencies like inspections may be waived more readily.

In buyer’s markets, investors and developers have more leverage to negotiate discounts, favorable terms, and flexible closing timelines. But waiting too long can mean missing out as markets eventually recover. Staying patient and opportunistic pays off.

Estimating Carrying Costs

For buyers planning to hold land as an investment or development project down the road, estimating the annual carrying costs is an important part of evaluating deal viability. Carrying costs include:

  • Property taxes - typically the largest expense
  • Land maintenance like mowing, brush clearing, fence/gate upkeep
  • Liability insurance
  • Mortgage payments if financing the purchase
  • Management fees if using a professional property manager

Getting reliable estimates for these expenses will help determine if the project hits the target return thresholds after carrying costs are factored in.

Property taxes can be projected using the assessed value and millage rates published by the county assessor’s office. Insurance agents can provide quotes tailored to the specific property. Long-term land investors may consult property managers to estimate annual maintenance fees as well.

Accurately budgeting for the carrying costs and weighing them against the projected investment returns over the holding period allows buyers to make informed offer decisions. If the numbers don’t pencil out, it may be best to pass or negotiate a lower price with the seller.

Navigating the Complexities of Selling Land

For landowners ready to sell, it’s important to understand that vacant land brings unique challenges compared to selling a residence. Without a livable home, land parcels often sit on the market much longer awaiting the right buyer. Owners must continue paying taxes, maintenance, and insurance while marketing the property.

Land also requires significant upfront investment to maximizes value. Most buyers expect basic improvements like driveway grading, brush clearing, tree removal, and erosion controls. Simple enhancements like fencing, gates, and corner markers also increase appeal. Sellers who prepare the site for showings and inspections generally see higher prices and quicker sales.

But not every owner can afford hundreds or thousands of dollars of improvements, nor wait 1-2 years for the payoff. This has given rise to local land buying companies that purchase sites “as-is” for immediate cash offers. The price is discounted compared to full retail value but provides certainty and transfers carrying costs to the buyer. For older owners or those facing life changes, this path can make sense despite leaving potential value on the table.

Key Takeaways for Buyers and Sellers

The diverse Virginia land market presents opportunities but requires vigilance and preparation to successfully buy or sell. Both owners and investors benefit from thoroughly researching local market conditions, zoning rules, and recent sales of comparable parcels when establishing valuation.

Timing listings to match peak seller’s market demand or exercising patience for buyer’s market deals also optimizes outcomes. And sellers should know the unique complexities of marketing land when deciding between traditional listings and cash offers from local land buyers. Taking a strategic approach tailored to local dynamics is key in the Virginia land market.

Final Thoughts

Navigating the land market in a state as large and diverse as Virginia requires localized knowledge and research. While across the board generalizations are difficult, taking the time to analyze regional trends, sales data, property attributes, and market cycles pays dividends for both buyers and sellers. Land is a complex asset class with many influencing factors on pricing. But by gaining expertise for their particular area of focus, investors, developers, and existing landowners can all find success buying and selling land in Virginia. Thinking long-term while also seizing opportunities in real-time is key. With the right analysis and strategic approach, the Virginia land market offers promising possibilities for the future.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What regions of Virginia tend to have the most expensive land prices?

Generally the hottest and most expensive land markets in Virginia are found in Northern Virginia, Richmond, and the Hampton Roads/Tidewater regions. These areas have major employment hubs, above average population growth, and high demand for real estate driving up land prices. Expect steep prices for land in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudon County, Richmond City, Virginia Beach, and surrounding suburban counties.

How much research should I do into local market conditions before buying or selling land?

Extensive research is highly recommended before transacting in the Virginia land market. Land prices and demand can shift significantly from one county or city to the next based on local economic and demographic trends. Look at market reports for your target area, analyze recent sales of comparable parcels, and connect with a knowledgeable local real estate agent to educate yourself before making any moves.

What are some tips for saving money when buying land in Virginia?

For buyers looking for deals, consider searching in more rural and agricultural regions with stable or declining populations away from the urban growth centers. Look for parcels without access to utilities or needing clearing/grading where you can add value. Making offers during down real estate markets rather than at the peak also often yields savings.

Should I consider offers from local land buying companies or sell via traditional listing?

Selling to a local land buying company brings certainty of a quick cash offer, but often at a discount. Listing on the open market has more upside but comes with carrying costs during the extended marketing period. Consider your personal financial needs and timeline as well as the potential market value. Many sellers opt to get quotes from both traditional and cash buyers to maximize their options.

What resources are available to research the Virginia land market?

Helpful resources include county and city assessor sites for sales data, zoning/land use maps, and property taxes; local real estate agents to tap into area expertise; appraisers for valuation guidance; and public records to uncover restrictions or liens on properties. Virginia Tech and Old Dominion also publish insightful real estate reports for different regions of the state.

About The Author

Bart Waldon

Bart, co-founder of Land Boss with wife Dallas Waldon, boasts over half a decade in real estate. With 100+ successful land transactions nationwide, his expertise and hands-on approach solidify Land Boss as a leading player in land investment.

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