New Construction — does that property even legally EXIST?

This post is not legal advice. For legal advice, consult an attorney in person and not via a blog.

I recently had the opportunity to submit an offer on behalf of a client for a new construction home. The price was right and the clients really liked the house. However, in preparing the offer it quickly became apparent that the developer had yet to record the short plat used to create each of the new parcels that contained the new construction (there were a total of three new parcels, each with a SFR).

Before I go further, and in case anyone is wondering “What’s a short plat?”: Generally speaking a short plat is the division of an existing legal parcel of land into smaller parcels. Depending on the jurisdiction (e.g., King County, City of Seattle, City of Bellevue, etc.) a short plat can consist of up to 9 new parcels. A short plat must be approved by the jurisdiction in which the property is located. Once approved and recorded, the short plat creates the new legal parcels of land.

So what’s the big deal in buying a property BEFORE the short plat is approved and recorded? Well, in that instance you’re buying property that is not yet a legal parcel. If for some reason the short plat is not approved or recorded, then you could be in for a real hassle in terms of paying taxes or dealing with the city or county in regards to your property. To be perfectly frank, I don’t know exactly howthat might play out, but I do know it would be a pain (and if you have to hire a lawyer, expensive). On the other hand (and perhaps a title insurer or escrow agent will weigh in here) its possible that the transaction would not close until the plat had been recorded.

But there is at least one other issue as well: A short plat can create additional legal interests (such as easements) in or restrcitions on the property. If you commit to buying the property before the short plat is recorded (by signing a purchase and sale agreement, which certainly can happen before the plat is recorded) you may be in for an unpleasant surprise. For example, what if you discover that you have a shared driveway?

The bottom line: Be careful in buying property that legally does not exist when you sign the purchase and sale agreement. At a minimum, any purchase and sale agreement for property that does not legally exist should include a contingency allowing the buyer to receive and approve the recorded short plat before closing.