As you venture into the world of land buying and owning, you’ll want to get familiar with common land use definitions and language.
In this blog, we’ll talk you through land use and what you may need to know.
Let’s jump right into it.
Why does land use matter to you?
Land use is how the land is characterized based on what it can be used for and what is built on it.
Almost every jurisdiction in the US regulates the use and development of land within its boundaries.
So, as a land-owner or buyer, you must understand the allowable uses of your property or you may be disappointed to learn you cannot use the land the way you would like.
One differentiating factor that is important to note as you buy and sell land is that land use is NOT zoning.
Zoning is how the government regulates land and is codified in local zoning laws or ordinances.
Land use is a more nebulous term.
It can refer to the way that people (landowners) adapt the land they own to suit their needs through arrangements, inputs, or activities.
Or it can refer to the way that a jurisdiction controls and directs real estate development within its boundaries.
As you can see, the two terms are highly connected because how the government regulates land can impact how individuals use the land.
Top five land use definitions you should know
For now, let’s focus on the land use definitions that are typically part of a zoning ordinance.
The land use definitions or districts spelled out within a zoning ordinance divide all properties within a jurisdiction into different categories (such as residential or commercial) that are separate from each other and typically uniform in their use.
Each category will have a set of allowable uses, or ways in which a property owner can develop or utilize the property.
Now, what does this mean for you?
At a high level, it means that you, as a property owner, are not generally able to develop your property in any manner you see fit.
For example, property in a residential district cannot typically be developed for commercial uses.
To help you understand how this all works, we have listed the five most common land use categories that you will see in zoning ordinances below.
We’ll break them down one by one to show you the different activities you may use land for after purchasing it.
Agricultural land use districts typically allow for growing and harvesting crops as well as raising livestock.
In most cases, agricultural land use districts also allow for typical residential uses (such as building a single-family home).
In our experience, agricultural land tends to be fairly flexible and most parcels of rural vacant land will fall under this category.
In terms of land investing, agricultural land can be one of the best returns on investments when farmland is productive.
Agricultural lands include a variety of different types of property like farms, ranches, homesteads, and hobby farms.
For clarity, here’s a breakdown of each of these agricultural uses.
A farm is land used for growing crops and rearing animals for profit.
There are different types of farms including crop farms, fish farms, dairy farms, poultry farms, and meat farms.
In all of these scenarios, farmers take the products they make on the land – whether they’re vegetables or animal products – and sell them for economic gain.
This is their livelihood and how they survive.
A ranch is a place where livestock is raised and grazed to produce meat and other products.
Typically, ranchers raise large animals in range conditions and the most common example is a cattle ranch (although you will find other animals on ranches as well).
Ranchers will herd livestock and help them graze so they grow larger for slaughter.
They will then sell them for economic gain.
So, like farmers, ranchers typically rely on their ranch for their livelihood.
Homesteads often combined many of the same agricultural land use elements as ranches and farms.
Homestead refers to a house and its surrounding land, which is typically owned by a family.
If you’re looking to purchase an agricultural property for the purpose of living off the land, you’re likely interested in homesteading.
What differentiates a homesteader from a small farmer is typically the philosophy.
Most homesteaders are looking to create a completely self-sustaining life by living off only what they produce.
Hobby farms are also agricultural land.
However, they are usually used primarily for pleasure or recreation rather than a means of making a living.
Still, the individuals who own hobby farms or ranches do use the land for an agricultural purpose, even if they are not motivated by profit.
The next on our list of common land use definitions is commercial land.
This is a category of land that you likely engage with on a daily basis.
It is defined as land designated for businesses, warehouses, shops, and other infrastructure related to commerce.
Commercial land is usually included in city planning because it is essential to the economy of a community.
If you’re interested in investing in commercial real estate, you’ll need to pay careful attention to zoning regulations.
This is because you can typically only use a property for commercial purposes if your land is located within a commercial land use district.
While there is usually a process in place to request a zoning designation change (called a variance), more often than not you’ll have to work with existing zoning regulations for any land you may want to invest in.
Thus, it’s important that you ensure that land is properly zoned for your desired land use.
Commercial land is also differentiated from other properties through taxation.
Tax rates are often higher for commercial property because the landowner is using the land to profit.
As such, the owner pays a percentage of the profit back to the municipality through taxes.
One final important thing to note is that land use is sometimes defined as “mixed-use.”
Property can be a combination of commercial, residential, and agricultural land use.
If a residential property has a small business on the premises, then it would be defined as mixed-use.
In this case, the small business would have to have numerous customers visiting the property in order to have this land use definition.
So anyone working from a home office would not qualify.
Different zoning designations have different ways of handling mixed-use buildings, but it is sometimes possible for a mixed-use building with commercial uses to be located in a district other than a commercial district.
Recreational land is used for recreational purposes such as…
Recreational land is often owned by a city or government entity (think of national parks), but it can be owned by private citizens as well.
Cities will add recreational land into their blueprints so that those in the community have a place to spend time.
This is commonly referred to as “green space” or “open space.”
Some cities have been even more intentional about adding green space back to their landscape or buying back old, abandoned pieces of land rather than allowing developers to come in and transform them once again.
Private citizens can also contribute to the recreational land of a community.
They may create sports fields, camping sites, or hunting land and then charge a fee for use.
They may also choose to keep their recreational lands entirely private for personal enjoyment.
In general, recreational lands are important to a community and attract permanent residents and visitors alike.
If you’re looking to purchase recreational land, you should always keep other zoning regulations and restrictions in mind.
It is especially important to check all zoning regulations if you’re seeking to hunt or build on recreational land since not all recreational land use districts will permit these uses.
One of the most common of the land use definitions is residential land.
As the name suggests, residential land is land where homes are built.
These may be single-family homes, manufactured (mobile) homes, or apartments.
When looking at residential properties, there are typically a few factors that are important for land buyers.
Proximity to local amenities
Accessibility to the property
Often, the types of animals and structures permitted on these properties can be restricted as well.
While dogs and cats are typically okay, pigs, horses, or other livestock are not.
If you’re looking to build any type of structure other than the home that already exists on residential land, you often need to have additional permits.
There are also often restrictions on the size of the building, how close buildings on your lot can be together, and the minimum lot size.
For more on building, you can watch our video below on how to buy land and build a house.
The final of our land use definitions is transport land.
This is land utilized for the structures that enable people to get from one destination to the other.
So, think about land used for roads, airports, train stations, and subway stations.
Transport land is highly important to the community because people need to get around in order to live, shop and enjoy their neighborhood!
Transportation land is often owned, planned for, maintained, and upgraded by the city, although it can also be owned by other entities, such as the county, state or federal government or a homeowner’s association (in the case of private roads).
These land use definitions are crucial to know when investing.
If you ever played SimCity as a child, you know land use parameters often exist in order to make land livable for all.
Land use impacts long-term activity patterns, zoning patterns, government regulations, land availability, public utilities, and telecommunication infrastructure.
It tells us about what governments prioritize and about human trends and movements in that given period of history.
Land use will continue to change and evolve over time.
As a landowner or developer, it’s up to you to maintain your knowledge.
For more information on buying, selling, or investing in vacant land, check out our other resources below.
We’re here to help throughout the entire land buying and selling process!
Additional ResourcesIf you are looking to buy affordable land, you can check out our Listings page. And before you buy land, make sure you check out Gokce Land Due Diligence Program. If you are looking to sell land, visit our page on how to Sell Your Land.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.