How Much for a Couple of Acres? I Don't Need a House on It.

After more than 25 years of selling country property, I still take a deep breath when I’m asked, "How much does it cost per acre to buy some land?" It’s difficult to give a short and informative answer.

When I first started selling real estate in the 1970’s and someone would ask me what a property was worth, my standard reply was, "Do you want to know what it is worth or what it will sell for?" The "worth" of a given house on the Coastside might sell for $450,000.00. Now put that same home on our peninsula and it will sell for $600,000.00. However, put the home into California’s San Bernardino Foothills and we’re looking at $275,000.00. Take that east into a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia and it’s $125,000 or into a mid-west framing community like Lincoln, Illinois and it’s down to $55,000.00, because there is little employment in much of this economically depressed farming community.

The other factor in San Mateo County is buildability. The Coastside is one of the last areas of San Mateo County to develop. While its history dates from the 1800's, Coastside development is recent. The governing bodies are composed of many different agencies, utilities and services that overlap from community to community. Codes, land use and planning, restrictions and limitations on new building, adding additions or any kind of development are subject to continual change each year. The property value is in the number of single family residences that can be built on a piece of property. Most of the acreage on the Coastside, not already developed is zoned RM (Resource Management) or PAD (Planned Agricultural Development).


All real estate values are weighted heavily by commute or travel distance from economic centers. The more diverse the economic base, the greater the value. This is one of the reasons the San Francisco Peninsula has remained so stable and pricey this entire century. While Telecommuting has some impact, commuting is only one factor and I will elaborate on this in a subsequent article.

  1. Distance from major roads is a large factor in development costs to create more than one parcel.
  2. "Close in" defined as accessibility to economic centers, for transportation, jobs and convenience of obtaining household and ranch/farm supplies. This is measured in time to travel the miles, rather that actual miles, i.e.: one property might be 10 mile from Half Moon Bay and take 15 minutes to get to it, while another might take 25 because of road access and condition.
  3. Ocean Front
  4. Privacy within the closer locations is highly desirable.
  5. Views with privacy and close in locations


In my experience, land rather than selling at price per acre, reflects price based on the number of building sites existing and/or the costs or probability of the sites being created if occurring. Within RM or PAD zoning, unless a subdivision was created prior to a specific date in April of 1947, or density credits are already created or can be purchased, there is little chance of subdividing most parcels today. And even when you find 5 or 200 acres, that is not dividable, while you can build certain out buildings (barns, workshops, etc.), there is very little chance you can build more than one home, (such as a second home for your parents, adult children, etc.), unless it is for Farm Labor housing. The general political climate on the Coastside is for limiting growth, so the odds of getting zoning changes, variances or other exceptions in these current zones is improbable.

Development of Homes, Structures and Rural Infra-Structure, Water

Although there are some small private and public water sources, water sources for the vast rural portion of San Mateo County are wells and springs. Springs, while valuable to the farm or ranch, cannot be used a domestic water source for development today. Any new development would have to drill a well that would meet current San Mateo County requirements of quality and quantity. I imagine at between one quarter and one third of all existing domestic water wells fail to meet that requirement. Wisely or not, many a Buyer is willing to forgo this requirement on an existing property, however development of a new dwelling cannot be done without it.

Sewage Disposal; Septic Systems

If you can gain adequate water as above, then you are yet faced with waste disposal. In my estimation, probably 50% of the existing structures for livingin our coastal corridor area, that do not have sewer service, could not be developed as such today. Due to the current required setbacks for septic tanks and their drain fields from property line, domestic water source, creeks, bluffs, driveways and houses, as well as the soil percolation and corresponding requirements. While the majority of these properties are in the areas developed in the 1920’s with small parcel development between 25x100 to 1 Acre designed for summer homes but now used for year round living, these factors do come into play on larger parcels also.

(Skylonda, Cuesta La Honda, Memory Lane, Dearborn Park, or other areas like Emerald Lake as a Peninsula example, which only gained sewer service within the last 15 years. However unlike Emerald Lake, which was surrounded by development, these areas are smaller, removed from populated areas and from each other and there is no economic feasibility in bringing sewer systems to them. Many have asked me over the years about alternate waste systems. To date the San Mateo County's position has been that they do not want to have the ability to monitor a "new or foreign system". They would work with a person that has the capacity to do both the required system and an alternate, unfortunately, this is also usually cost prohibitive to the individual, or they cannot meet the existing requirements)

Roads and Driveways

Often time the current road and driveway costs can cost more than the property itself. SMC (and the applicable Forestry or Fire Department) road and driveway requirements have dramatically increased.

Dated, Run Down and Multiple Improvements

  1. Value in very run down or functionally obsolescent structures exists beyond their apparent useable value, since generally there are more liberal codes for remodeling, rehabbing or improving existing structures and therefor less of a gamble in terms of the investment dollar.
  2. Multiple existing structures have value for the same reason. (If one wants to create a new home or structure they may at that time find the Building/Planning, Roads & Forestry Departments wanting more compliance from existing structures before they allow creation of a new one)

Now we are beginning to see how often it is easier and appears less costly to buy larger acreage than smaller.

Go Coastal With Ara!