Buying Unplatted Land

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Buying Unplatted Land
Article Excerpt

In modern times, unplatted land is often the result of mistakes in the original survey. Can you buy this kind of land? What are the challenges? Learn more.

A deed conveying property from one person to another must describe the property accurately. In cities and towns, this often means using lot and block numbers based on the official subdivision map. However, in areas without platted subdivision, a deed needs detailed survey information.

Most of the land in Texas has been divided up into private parcels, but surveyors might have missed some spots here and there. Areas that are not part of any survey are known as “unplatted land.” It’s also called “unpatented.” A parcel of land sold today might include unplatted land that was accidentally left out of a survey. This situation can affect a homebuyer’s ability to get a mortgage and purchase the property.

A Brief History of Land Ownership in Texas

Land ownership in Texas began with Spanish land grants in the 1700s. Mexico handled land grants starting in 1810, followed by the Republic of Texas in 1836. When Texas joined the United States in 1845, its land was either owned by private parties, owned by the government, or unplatted.

Unlike many other states, Texas did not cede its public lands to the federal government when it became a state. This allowed Texas to maintain control over land ownership. The Republic of Texas formed the General Land Office (GLO) in 1836 to manage government-owned and unplatted land. The GLO is still doing that job today.

It is at least theoretically possible to trace most land ownership in Texas back to an original Spanish or Mexican land grant. A homeowner in Austin, for example, might live on land that is part of a platted subdivision on record with the Travis County Clerk. A developer created that subdivision, possibly by consolidating multiple tracts of land that were once farms or ranches. Those tracts of land might have changed hands many times for over a century. You might be able to trace ownership records for a home in Austin all the way back to the land grants that Mexico issued to Stephen F. Austin in the 1820s. The good news, for mortgage borrowing purposes, is that you almost certainly will not have to do that.

Map of Coahuila and Texas in 1833

Photo by Holley (Armstrong & Plaskitt) on Wikimedia Commons [Public domain]

What is “unplatted” (or “unpatented”) land?

Platted vs unplatted land: If land is unplatted (also known as unpatented or a land vacancy), it has never been granted to a private party or officially claimed by the General Land Office (GLO) for public use. Unplatted land is like a car without a title: the state government does not recognize who owns it. Platted land, on the other hand, has been located, measured, and submitted to local governing authorities by a surveyor.

In the 1830s and 1840s, a substantial amount of land was unplatted. This was partly because Texas didn’t have full control over all of the territory it claimed for several decades after statehood. No one knows for certain how much land is still unplatted today, as it is undocumented or vaguely documented by definition.

Any land that remains unplatted in the 21st century is likely to be the result of errors in the original surveys. A person may believe that they own 200 acres of land out in the country, but some small portion of that land was not actually part of the original land grant from the state, the Republic of Texas, or earlier.

statue of Austin land grant in 1823

How does unplatted land affect your ability to get a mortgage?

If a parcel of real estate includes unplatted land, that counts as a title defect. You need a title insurance policy in order to get a mortgage. Title companies might not want to issue a policy for property with this kind of defect. The good news is that you have options for how to deal with the issue. The bad news is that they’re rather complicated.

Finding unplatted land is rare in Texas these days, but it still happens from time to time. The vast majority of Texans live in cities and towns, but much of Texas’ self-image still involves living on a sprawling ranch under an enormous sky. These rural areas are where unplatted land tends to be found. In these areas, where property descriptions only use metes and bounds, it’s possible that an error occurred at some point in time.

open field with flowers and fence

Photo by GPA Photo Archive on Flickr [Public domain]

What can a homeowner do about buying unplatted land?

Dealing with unplatted land is a land owner’s problem. If you are trying to buy property, it shouldn’t be your responsibility to clear up the title. A full description of what a property owner can do in this situation could fill a book. The most straightforward method is for the seller to request a patent from the GLO by providing the following information:

  • Proof that they own the property, such as a deed or affidavit of heirship

  • A recent survey describing the unplatted tract of land, which they have previously filed with the county public records

  • One of the following:
    • Certified copies of every deed or other document conveying title to the tract, starting from the original land grant and continuing to the present

    • A title opinion letter showing the chain of title leading up to the present

  • A patent fee of $100

  • A filing fee starting at $25 and increasing by $25 for each deed or other document included with the patent request

The survey must come from a Licensed State Land Surveyor or the local County Surveyor’s office. This process can be quite expensive and time-consuming, but it’s quite rare to happen.

Start your purchase!

Finding homes on unplatted land, while rare, can complicate the mortgage process. However, you do have options for how to handle it as a buyer. The mortgage professionals at the Wood Group of Fairway are here to help. We work closely with experienced home title professionals, real estate agents, surveyors, and other essential home professionals. Your first step to buying unplatted land is to get pre-approved for a mortgage. Get started now by answering a few easy questions!