What You Can Build Where: Understanding Land Use Categories

by Tim DeBellis 10/03/2021

Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

If you’re planning to invest in land, it’s important to understand land use terminology. Land use is a designation that determines what you can build or develop on a specific piece of land. Another definition of the term from Land.com is “the total of arrangements, activities and inputs that people undertake in a certain land cover type.” So what does this mean for potential owners? Knowing the difference between different categories of land use will help you make the best decisions when investing in undeveloped land.

Here are the 5 major categories of land use:


As you might guess, the purpose of residential land is to build residential homes. This can include any type of residential property, from single-family homes to condo complexes. Residential land use typically comes with some restrictions for the size and placement of the buildings. For example, there may be a height limit or rules that each building has to be a certain distance apart.


Commercial land is reserved for commerce. Office buildings, warehouses, retail stores and restaurants are all common examples of commercial land use. If you buy a parcel of land designated for commercial land use, anything you build on it must be for business rather than residence.


Examples of agricultural land include farms and ranches. Most land designated for agricultural use will also allow certain types of residential structures like a single-family farmhouse. However, agricultural land is set aside for growing and cultivating crops and keeping livestock.


Recreational land is where you can build parks, swimming pools, athletic fields and fairgrounds. This category can include a wide range of different developments as long as they are built with the intent of non-commercial activity. Recreational land might be owned by government bodies, like with city parks or private individuals who choose to make the space available for the community to enjoy.


Land designated for transport use is another category often owned and managed by cities, counties or other large entities. Transport land is where you can build anything facilitating movement from one place to another like freeways, railroads, airports and bus stations. Sometimes private landowners or homeowners’ associations might own transport land for their own private roads, but it’s more commonly maintained by local municipality.

Land Use vs. Zoning

One important thing to be aware of is that land use is not the same thing as zoning. Land use determines what you can use the land for, but zoning determines how the local government regulates what land can go where. City planners work with zoning rules in order to make the most efficient use of particular pieces of land. Zoning laws are why you often see residential areas clustered together rather than spread out in between businesses or farmland.

When you purchase undeveloped land, you’ll need to consider both zoning and land use in combination. Luckily, it’s fairly easy to search for properties by land use category. You’ll also find “mixed use” as an option which can have varying requirements depending on the specific property. Understanding these terms will help you make the best decision in finding and planning for your land investment.

About the Author

Tim DeBellis

Providing a low-stress and enjoyable real estate experience is just the beginning of the value I bring to the table for my clients. Drawing on over thirty five years of experience across a wide variety of industries, I combine my extensive knowledge and diverse set of skills with a life-long passion for real estate to help you successfully achieve your goals.

Achieving your real estate goals requires close collaboration with a knowledgeable and trusted agent coupled with a comprehensive support team. As your trusted agent, my primary objective is most importantly to understand your needs. From this essential understanding I then leverage my real estate knowledge and diverse set of skills acquired from working across industries including aerospace, higher education, healthcare, and management consulting, to design and execute a real estate plan that is uniquely tailored to your desired outcomes. I also bring with me the full capabilities, market knowledge, and global reach of the entire W Real Estate organization. The result is the most comprehensive and experienced real estate team dedicated to your success.

While I have lived throughout California for over thirty years, my husband and I, along with our two rescue dogs, have called Sonoma County our home for the past several years. My passion is and has always been residential home design. Additionally, I enjoy taking advantage of the local food scene, wine tasting, hiking the area parks, playing tennis, gardening, and simple backyard gatherings with friends.