By Diane Saatchi
A factor most people don’t consider before buying or selling a house can put a serious wrench in the process
If you liked reading about domestic waste [Domestic Waste. Really!], you’re in for a treat: Now, it’s time for clearing and re-vegetation.
What I mean by that is something you’ve probably never thought about: how much of your land was cleared to build your house, your outbuildings, and your lawn. And how much you may have cleared to make room for more lawn, gardens or a larger view.
There are rules around this, and most people don’t realize it. In fact, most people clear more of their land than their municipality allows, and when it’s time to sell, they have to remediate. Most real estate transactions require the property to have an updated Certificate of Occupancy (CO)— the document that certifies your house is in compliance with building codes and other laws — and without that CO, deals can get complicated and expensive.
Well... more complicated and expensive than they already were.
The rules around clearing aren’t arbitrary. Often, they have ecological roots (if you’ll pardon the pun). For instance, much of the land north of the highway in the Hamptons is a water recharge area, which provides groundwater for all of us. If you clear the land for a sprawling lawn that’s treated with pesticides, those pesticides seep into the groundwater.
Following that, it seems reasonable to institute rules about clearing. However, consider the other side: You buy a house that would have a water view if not for that one copse of trees in the way. Easy enough, you think. You’ll just clear that land and get a million-dollar view of the sun setting over the bay. But land bordering wetlands also has a set of rules in place, to protect the area from erosion and pollution. You can’t clear that copse, and suddenly that million-dollar view seems to be worth a lot less.
In the past, it was not unusual for owners to clear those trees anyway and pay $10,000 or so in conciliatory fees. But these days, towns take it more seriously. If you over-clear, it’s considered a crime, and you’ll be required to re-vegetate with specific, approved, native plants and pay a hefty fine.
You might wonder how anyone would know if you over-cleared. That all comes back to the CO. When you list for sale, a responsible real estate agent will check the most recently filed CO against the existing conditions and along with your attorney will advise what, if anything, will need to be done to bring the property to code. Where there are rental permits or registries, updated CO’s are also required.
If you’re still reading, I have a feeling I know what you’re thinking: How am I supposed to know whether my land is over-cleared? It’s simple. Have the property surveyed. Surveyors measure and indicate the cleared area. The amount cleared is shown next to the amount permitted. There is one bit of possible good news if the survey shows the property is over cleared: There is a chance the clearing may have happened prior to the current code. Your agent and/or attorney will be able to find out if that is the case. That’s one of the many reasons I recommend using a local lawyer.
If you have over-cleared, please re-vegetate before prospective purchasers see the property. Things usually don’t go well when buyers find out that the view or expansive grounds they expect to enjoy will not remain.
Re-vegetating doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the (illegal) lawn you love so much. Again, a surveyor can provide insight for your specific property, but because the amount of clearing permitted is a percentage of the total property, you have some flexibility. For instance, you can narrow the driveway, or plant borders of approved plants closer to your tennis court or pool house. Generally, as long as you put the approved plant materials somewhere, you’ll be in the clear. (Who knew there were so many puns to make about over-clearing?)
Making sure your land is cleared to code doesn’t seem urgent until you want to rent or sell it — which is when just about everything becomes suddenly urgent. Save yourself the trouble and put it to rights now. It’s never too soon to get your home and property in order. For some more items to add to your to-do list, please re-visit last April’s blog.
© 2018 Diane Saatchi