Government Sales of Public Land

Administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

Black and white photo of a pioneer family on their Nebraska homestead
Homesteading Pioneer Family In Nebraska. PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Contrary to bogus advertising, the U.S. government does not offer "free or cheap" land to the public. However, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, does occasionally sells parcels of publicly-owned land under certain conditions.

The federal government has two major categories which it makes land available for sale to the public: real property and public land.

  • Real Property is primarily developed land with buildings, usually acquired by the federal government for specific purposes, such as military bases or office buildings. Persons interested in buying real property should contact the General Services Administration (GSA), which is the federal agency responsible for selling developed surplus property.
  • Public Land is undeveloped land with no improvements, usually part of the original public domain established during the western expansion of the United States. Most of this land is in the 11 Western States and Alaska, although some scattered parcels are in the East.

Government Land Fast Facts

  • The U.S. federal government no longer sells land to the public for less than the property’s appraised fair market value.
  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) occasionally sells developed real property or undeveloped (raw) publicly-owned land by either direct sales or through competitive bidding at public auctions.
  • Most undeveloped public land sold by the BLM is located in the Western States and Alaska. Developed real property, including buildings and utilities may be located in any part of the country.
  • Under federal law, the BLM is required to hold most land and real property in public ownership, unless its disposal is deemed appropriate by the agency’s land use officials.

Not Much Public Land for Sale

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for the sale of surplus public land. Because of congressional restrictions enacted in 1976, the BLM generally retains most public lands in public ownership. However, the BLM does occasionally sell parcels of land where the agency’s land-use planning division finds disposal of surplus is appropriate.

What About Land in Alaska?

While many people are interested in buying public land for homesteading in Alaska, the BLM advises that due to existing land entitlements to the State of Alaska and to Alaska Natives, no BLM public land sales will be conducted in Alaska for the foreseeable future. 

Homesteading in Alaska, as well as throughout the entire United States officially ended on October 21, 1976, with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. In Alaska, however, a 10-year extension was allowed since it had only recently become a state and still had very few settlers. After October 20, 1986, now new homesteading was allowed on federally owned land in Alaska.

The last homesteader in the entire nation to receive a homestead requiring cultivation of the land was Kenneth W. Deardorff, who received a homestead patent on May 5, 1988, to 49.97 acres of land on the Stony River near Lime Village in southwestern Alaska.

Alaska represents the final chapter in the American Homestead Era that began in 1862, five years before Alaska even became a territory of the United States. Nationwide, over 1.6 million homesteads were granted in 30 states, helping hundreds of thousands of families reap a rich economic harvest through receiving “free” federal land as homesteads.

No Water, No Sewer

The parcels sold by the BLM are undeveloped land with no improvements (water, sewer, etc.) and are usually located in the western states. The lands are generally rural woodland, grassland, or desert.

How the Land is Sold

The BLM has three options for selling land:

  1. modified competitive bidding where some preferences to adjoining landowners are recognized;
  2. direct sale to one party where circumstances warrant; and
  3. competitive bidding at a public auction.

The method of sale is determined by the BLM on a case-by-case basis, depending on the circumstances of each particular parcel or sale. By law, the lands are offered for sale at fair market value.

There is No 'Free' Government Land

Public lands are sold at not less than fair market value as determined by a federal appraisal. Considerations such as legal and physical access, the highest and best use of the property, comparable sales in the area, and the availability of water all affect the land value. There are no "free" lands.
By law, BLM must have the property to be sold appraised by a qualified appraiser to determine the current market value of the property. The appraisal must then be reviewed and approved by the Department of Interior's Appraisal Services Directorate. The minimum acceptable bid amount for a parcel of land will be established by the Federal appraisal.

Who Can Buy Public Land?

According to the BLM purchasers of public land must be:

  • United States citizens 18 years of age or older;
  • corporations subject to the laws of the United States or of any state;
  • a U.S. state, state organization, or state political subdivision authorized to hold title or property; or
  • entities capable of conveying and holding lands or interests therein under state law. 

Some federal employees are prohibited from buying public land and all buyers are required to submit a Certificate of Eligibility and may be required to submit articles of incorporation or other documentation.

Can You Just Buy a Small Home Site?

Many people are looking for small lots or parcels suitable for building a single home. While the BLM does occasionally sell small parcels suitable as home sites, the agency will not subdivide parcels of public land in order to facilitate a prospective buyer’s wish to acquire a home site. BLM determines the sizes and configuration of parcels for sale based on factors such as existing land ownership patterns, marketability, and costs of processing.

What if You are the Low Bidder?

Winning bidders on public land sold by competitive sales or at public auctions are required to submit a non-refundable deposit of no less than 20% of the bid amount before the closing of business on the day of the auction. In addition, all sealed bids must include guaranteed funds, such as a cashier’s check or money order, for no less than 10% of the amount of the bid. Balances of the total sale price must be paid in full within 180 days of the sale date. The public notices of the sales will contain detailed information on the requirements, terms, and conditions applicable to the sale.  

How BLM Land Sales are Advertised

Land sales are listed in local newspapers and in the Federal Register. In addition, notices of land sales, along with instructions to prospective buyers, are often listed on the various state BLM websites.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Government Sales of Public Land." ThoughtCo, Feb. 2, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 2). Government Sales of Public Land. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Government Sales of Public Land." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).