will growing competition ever kill the land business

With all the new excitement over the land flipping business in recent years, sometimes I hear from beginner investors who are concerned about competition.

“Do you think all the new players in this space will saturate the market and make it impossible to find the deals?”

“With all the new land investing courses out there, do you think this business will be sustainable in the coming years?”

“There are so many new investors flooding the market with direct mail, do you really think there are enough motivated sellers to go around?”

First off, I’ll start by saying these are all valid questions. I remember worrying about the exact same things several years ago when I was getting started.

In my mind, I knew the land investing strategy was very special, not only because raw land is a very easy type of property to deal with, but also because most other real estate investors don’t recognize the opportunity and pursue it.

I remember having this nagging fear in the back of my mind…

“I better make a killing in this business while it still works. It’s only going to take a few competitors and there won’t be enough deals to go around anymore!”

I figured if hoards of new investors flooded the market, I wouldn’t be able to make low-ball offers and get acceptances anymore, because every seller would already have better options on the table. After all, this is a fragile business model that could easily get thrown out of balance, right??

Well… not exactly.

After seeing how the world of land investing works over the past decade, every year my eyes have been opened wider and wider to the incredible size and scope of this unique strategy.

The market for vacant land is a MASSIVE animal – far larger than most of us give it credit for.

In case you’ve never heard the numbers, I’ll share them with you here…

As of 2016, there were a total of 3,143 counties (and county-equivalents) in the United States. (Source)

Of the 2,791 counties that have been accounted for by CoreLogic, there are well in excess of 145 million parcels of real estate in the United States. (Source) This doesn’t include the hundreds of additional counties that still haven’t been reviewed by data companies like Black Knight and CoreLogic.

Of course, these numbers are mind-bogglingly huge, and it’s far more than any single investor could possibly reach on their own – but let’s take this a few steps further…

The Market for Vacant Land is Huge

When we’re talking specifically about vacant land, these numbers (i.e. – the property owners we’re actually going to target) start to shrink down a bit.

After doing a quick (and very un-scientific) search on ListSource – if we select all the properties in the U.S. that are classified as “Vacant Land” or “Agricultural”, there are more than 23 million parcels that fall into these categories.

ListSource screenshot 1

And keep in mind, this number STILL doesn’t come close to showing us the full quantity of vacant lots in the country, because this doesn’t account for all the properties that fall into other zoning classifications (like Single Family Residential), with an improvement percentage of ZERO (i.e. – properties that are zoned for a specific purpose, but haven’t been improved yet).

Unfortunately, the ListSource filtering tool doesn’t allow us to filter properties this way, but when we back into it (by filtering our list for ALL properties, in ALL states, with an improvement percentage of 1% – 100%) – we can see that there are easily another 20 million vacant lots (and probably more) we could add to this list of potentials.

ListSource screenshot 2

If you take every property in the ListSource database (138 million), MINUS all the properties with improvement values between 1% – 100% (96 million), we’re left with approximately 42 million parcels (or 41,826,180, to be exact) of vacant land, or vacant land equivalents.

A Closer Looks at the Numbers

Again, the calculations above aren’t perfectly precise – but the point is, if there are anywhere close to 42 million vacant parcels in the U.S… that’s a lot of real estate.

To give us some perspective, let’s think about how many units of mail are sent out in the average direct mail campaign.

If you’re using a delinquent tax list, it doesn’t take more than 1,000 letters or postcards to keep the average land investor VERY busy for a week or two. If you filtered your list properly, you should be walking away with at least two or three solid deals from a campaign of this size.

Alternatively, if you’re using a more general list of landowners from a data service, and you’re sending out a few thousand blind offers at a time… even if you do DOZENS of these campaigns over the course of a year, you’re hardly even scratching the surface of what’s available out there.

Heck, let’s go crazy. Let’s say you send out 100,000 mailers in the span of one year (an insane amount of direct mail that most land investors could never process without a full-time staff). Your marketing budget will be in the tens of thousands and at a minimum – you should be raking in hundreds of thousands per year. This is the kind of scale that will catapult a land investor into millionaire status fairly quickly.

And even so… reaching 100,000 landowners with your direct mail is a drop in the ocean of land opportunities. If our assumptions are even remotely accurate, that would be approximately 0.002% of all the vacant lots in the U.S., and remember – these are markets you can continue to hit again and again in the years to come.

And let’s not forget, most successful land investors are operating at a MUCH smaller scale, and don’t do more than 10,000 – 20,000 direct mail units per year.

In fact… of all the land investors I know, I couldn’t name more than a few powerhouse players who come anywhere close to 100K units of mail on an annual basis.

The true number of potential investment opportunities is FAR in excess of what any single land investor (or for that matter, a thousand land investors) could cover on their own.

What To Do When Competition Shows Up

The funny thing is, even with all the opportunity out there – I’ve occasionally heard from a small handful of land investors (mostly in the southwestern U.S. and Florida) who have seen evidence of other land investors working in their territory.

For example…

  • Some land investors have received occasional blind offers from other land investors, offering to buy the properties they own.
  • Some land investors have received calls back from the recipients of their blind offers, saying things like,

“Take me off your list! I’ve already gotten 5 of these offers in the past few months!”

  • Some land investors have reported that their response rate in some areas has declined. For some mysterious reason, fewer people are responding to their direct mail campaigns and accepting their offers.
  • Just recently, I was talking with a seller from a blind offer campaign who had verbally accepted my offer and then emailed me a few days later to say…

“Would you believe I just received another offer for this property last Friday? After 15 years of no offers, this seems very coincidental, so I’m going to do some checking on the property on Monday.”

When I first started hearing about this (and even experienced it myself) – I was shocked. In all my years in this business, I had NEVER gone head-to-head with another land investor for a deal I was pursuing. This kind of thing was simply unheard of.

For a moment, it honestly made me wonder… could this actually be happening? Is the market really getting saturated with land investors? Have we reached the tipping point??

No. Here’s Why…

After doing some more digging, I discovered a few important details.

In every instance where someone was “bumping heads” with another land investor – at least one (and usually more than one) of the following issues were coming into play:

  • The land investor was using the exact same (or very similar) data service as several other investors in the area.
  • The land investor was using the exact same (or very similar) list filtering criteria as several other investors in the area.
  • The land investor was using the exact same (or very similar) blind offer template as several other investors in the area.
  • The land investor was sending direct mail in one of the same few counties where several other investors had publicly boasted about having success in the past.

When I took these factors into account, I realized what was happening.

We had a lot of land investors who were essentially using the exact same (or very similar) cookie-cutter approach, while focusing their efforts in the same, small handful of counties, in the same region of the country, at the same time.

They weren’t taking the time to be creative and:

  • Discover their own new markets
  • Apply their own creative approach
  • Come up with their own list filtering criteria
  • Use a unique letter template in their campaigns.

They were all copying the same material and going through the same motions without putting their own unique spin on the process.

Now granted, if they weren’t ALL doing the exact same thing in the exact same areas, it would be fine to go through these motions… but when you put hundreds of people on the same dance floor, with a finite amount of space to move about, it’s inevitable that at some point, they’ll start to bump into each other.

Why Competition Is Still Okay

Even after I recognized that a few select areas in the country were getting a little more attention than the rest, I realized it was still okay. The sky wasn’t falling.

In my experience, this kind of “competition” has been exceedingly rare in the land business, and even in the few unique cases where I’ve sent offers to a county at the same time as another land investor, I was still able to close deals.

Just because two or more land buyers may have some overlap in their direct mail campaigns, this doesn’t automatically mean everyone is going to walk away empty-handed.

Why?

Because when two investors are doing independent mail campaigns – they aren’t necessarily going to hit ALL of the exact same people. Chances are there will be some variation in the way they’ve filtered their lists (even if only a little) and the types of offers they’re sending out.

For example…

  • Person A may be filtering their list for all properties between 1 – 10 acres.
  • Person B may be filtering their list for all properties between 5 – 20 acres.
  • Person A may be sending their mail only to out-of-state owners.
  • Person B may be sending their mail to all absentee owners.
  • Person A may be structuring their offers based on acreage.
  • Person B may be structuring their offers based on assessed values.
  • Person A may be sending mail to all individuals, corporate entities, and trusts.
  • Person B may be sending mail to only individuals, but no corporate entities or trusts.

In all of these situations, there will most likely be some overlap, but there will also be a lot of NON-overlapping recipients too. The chances of two or more investors filtering their lists in EXACTLY the same way (even when they’re using the same strategy) is actually very, very low.

Competition Doesn’t Spell Doom for Land Investors

I know, competition sounds like a horrible thing when you aren’t used to dealing with it… but honestly, even if a TON of new land investors entered the market and actually stayed in the business, it’s going to be fine.

You can look at house flippers and house wholesalers as a prime example.

There are a lot more people working in the space for improved properties than there are in the space for vacant land. Many of these people are applying a very similar direct mail strategy and have a MUCH higher likelihood of stepping on each other’s toes – and guess what… they’re still getting deals too.

Direct mail works well for a lot of different real estate investing strategies, even the highly competitive ones. Land just happens to be a property type that very few people are pursuing… but even if there were a lot more folks in this space – it would still work.

Just because a handful of counties get more attention doesn’t mean the proven direct mail marketing strategies will suddenly stop working. It may require a stronger push and a bigger reach in each new campaign over time, but is that really such an awful thing?

Let’s not forget, most direct mail marketers would be drooling with envy if they saw us getting a typical response rate from a direct mail campaign to land owners. Land investors have always had it good (maybe even to the point of getting spoiled) and the opportunities will still be plentiful, even if we have to step it up a notch.

Remember What Has Always Worked

There’s another important thing to remember here. If you really want to avoid competition – it’s totally possible. You just have to follow the same timeless principle that has always worked.

Look where nobody else is looking.

There is one powerful skill that can help with this a great deal.

Learn How to Find Great Counties

There are thousands of good counties that are still largely overlooked, even by the land investing community. There is fertile ground all over the country, but A LOT of people will incessantly hit counties in the southwest U.S. (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Nevada, etc.)

I’m not saying these aren’t great places to do business, because they are – but the opportunity is so much bigger than this.

It’s important to take the time to understand what attributes make a great county for land investing (hint: it’s a very dynamic thing, with a lot of factors to look at). If you can become a true professional at this, you’ll find that there are many markets that fit the profile of what we need to see, some even more so than the southwest.

When you know how to identify a great market, you’ll find that these lucrative counties are everywhere. Just because a lot of people have had success in one small section of the country, doesn’t mean you need to limit your reach to those areas as well.

Abundance vs. Scarcity

Will growing competition ever kill the land investing business?

I think the answer is “no” – but at the same time, it’s also important to recognize that this question is coming from a place of fear.

For people who have never worked in this business or seen any success at it, it’s easy to fall into the trap of fear, skepticism, and the “scarcity mentality” – which holds many people back from true greatness in any profession.

While some people are sitting on the sidelines and asking “What if?“, there are a lot of people actively closing deals and raking in a lot of money. They aren’t putting fear in the driver’s seat. They understand what needs to be done and they aren’t wasting time – they’re doing it.

When you realize just how freaking huge the vacant land market is, you’ll come to grips with the fact that this opportunity is FAR larger than the potential for houses – because there is still a TON of land available, with a minuscule number of people actively pursuing it.

Case in point – I still get constant submissions on my buying website from motivated sellers who don’t have any other offers on the table. These people are desperate and they’re seeking me out – I don’t even have to send them any mail! They aren’t being tapped by any other land investors, which is verifiable proof that there is still an untold number of motivated sellers ripe for the picking – all you need to do is find them and give them an “easy button”.

The Price of Success

As I explain in this blog post, there’s one last thing to remember in all of this…

Many, MANY people who try their hand at land investing don’t stick to it.

It’s not because the business model doesn’t work (there are plenty of people who have proven otherwise). It’s because land investing requires a lot of careful planning, good decisions, a significant amount of work, patience and perseverance, and even a little bit of luck.

Land investing isn’t for wimps and just because a person buys a course or completes their first direct mail campaign doesn’t mean they’re going to stay in this business for the long-term. In my experience, the number of people who pay for education and/or get excited about this business is no indication of how many legitimate land investors are actually working in this market.

It pays to be patient and persistent in this business because there are many people who don’t have the stamina to make it through the initial obstacles (and believe me, the biggest and most difficult challenges happen in the very early stages).

So, am I concerned about competition? No, not really.

If my business was completely dependent on one or two of the highest traffic counties in the southwest… then yeah, I would probably have some concerns – but luckily, I’ve never spent much time looking in those areas, because I recognize that the world is FILLED with opportunities… and there’s no sense in feeling constricted to one region when there are deals all over the place.

About the author

Seth Williams is the Founder of REtipster.com - an online community that offers real-world guidance for real estate investors.

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