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Choosing a Building Site


If you don't already own land, a licensed real estate broker who has experience with land sales is a great resource. They can research available land in the Multiple Listing Service and provide you with important details. We can refer you to qualified real estate brokers in your area to help you find land or use our in-house land specialists.

We recommend that you pursue land that has already been approved by the local authorities as an "approved building lot". That means all surveys; soil testing, wetlands conservation, and site engineering work have been completed and approved. While raw land costs less, you'll have to spend money to complete the required tests, surveys and engineering work before you can get the land approved for building. Not all land gets approved for building so if you choose this route you'll want to first get input from local land engineers who are familiar with the area. Ask for their opinion about the suitability of the raw land. Also, ask the town or city engineers in the building department for their opinion and input. It doesn't cost you anything to get initial opinions and input. Oftentimes the information that you uncover will help you make informed decisions about whether or not to pursue getting the raw land approved.

Even if a parcel of land has been approved for building, the cost for site work, blasting (if ledge exists), excavation, installation of the driveway, utilities, water, and waste treatment is a completely separate matter. Not all approved building lots are suitable for building if the cost for preparing the site is beyond your budget. When buying land, try to obtain estimates from excavation companies before the land sales transaction is completed. Oftentimes, we'll request that the land sale be contingent upon the acceptability of the site work costs.

Take your cues from the geography and the environment for a perfect blend. Will the house of your dreams suit the lot you want to buy? Sometimes blending the two can be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. How do you ensure a good match?

Before buying anything, certainly before finalizing any house plans, familiarize yourself with all aspects of the property. Remember that physical, environmental, and aesthetic factors, as well as local codes, can have a profound effect on the design of a house in relation to its site.

Study the Site

Examine physical characteristics. Note the overall dimensions of the site and its topographical features. Is any portion unsuitable for building? Check the grade (or slope) as well as the compass orientation. Study the soil composition. Does it consist of sand? Clay? Rocks? All of these factors will affect the excavation, bearing capacity, and the type of foundation.

Take note of environmental factors. Consider the climate in terms of typical temperature, temperature extremes, cloudiness, humidity, and breezes. Can the structure be oriented on a south-facing slope to optimize ventilation and solar benefits? Is the property in a flood plain or high wind zone? Building codes may require the floor to be as much as 10 to 12 feet above the mean high-water level. In high wind zone areas, shear walls (metal braces securing the walls to the foundation or slab) may be required if the house is located near the coast line.

Research legal requirements. With the help of your local municipal building department, check zoning laws concerning building height, size, materials, and distance from property lines. If you're building in a historic area, regulations regarding the exterior of the house might be extensive. Analyze your aesthetic desires. Select the views you want to see out of your windows -- and those you don't. Then think about what view of your house you want the neighbors, your guests, and passers by to see.

Energy Considerations

Technologies for alternative forms of energy continue to advance. As more homes integrate solar, wind, and geothermal systems, the cost of these products will continue to decline over time, similar to computers and cell phones. There is no doubt that, in the future, we will be purchasing less fuel and energy from the utility companies and producing it ourselves.

When you are evaluating land, consider the possibilities for solar, wind, and geothermal energy. You can wait before making your selection and installing a solar or wind energy system, because you'll already be on your utility's electric grid. In fact, it is a good idea to have a year's worth of electric bills so that you can determine your average cost and energy usage, as well as potential savings.

Deciding on how you will produce your home's heat and cooling (gas, oil, geothermal, etc.) must be done during your planning stages.

We can help you explore your options for both "passive" and "active" energy in both land use and home design.

Blend Site and House

After making sure the site is large enough for your needs and can accommodate future expansion should you want it, review all of the characteristics of your lot -- including local regulations. Keeping these  onsiderations in mind, use the following tips to analyze how the house you wish to build can be designed to blend naturally with the site.

Work with the existing contours. Take advantage of any natural slope or obstruction rather than trying to fight it. A rocky hillside can be overcome with a creative design, and may even be better than flat land for maximizing or minimizing views.

Incorporate existing vegetation. Trees and plantings can have a big impact on how you situate your house and on how it will look once it's built. The challenge of building a house in the woods, for example, can be met without completely clearing the trees, the very element that endows the landscape with character and beauty. Pastureland, however, is like a blank slate that gives you much freedom in choosing a design for your home.

Choose styles and materials suited to the region. Various architectural styles function differently. In exposed, windy areas like the Great Plains, for instance, houses tend to be low to the ground, set on basements, and protected by cultivated tree breaks. Try to use indigenous building materials -- tile roofing in the Southwest, for example. Of course, technology has made it possible to build any house style, with any number of materials, in any part of the country. However, for economic as well as functional and aesthetic reasons, it's wiser to take a cue from your surroundings.

Before You Buy Land

Just as a diamond needs a setting to become a ring, your home's value (both in dollar and pleasure terms) depends upon the land upon which its sits. If you are looking for a place to build a home, here are some critical elements to consider:

Buy land for yourself. This may sound obvious, but many people don't pick a lot for themselves. They buy with resale uppermost in their minds and may never be fully satisfied living in their new home.

What services do you need? If you are buying a developed suburban subdivision lot, expect streets with gutters, sewers, and easy hookup to water, gas, and electric lines. On the other hand, rural developments and country property may have only a few -- or almost none -- of these services. Make sure you understand what is available.

Trees have value. Ideally, you will be able to find building lots where trees have been left standing and terrain features, such as small rises or slopes, haven't been bulldozed flat. Many of the most satisfying home designs allow contours of the land and the surrounding environment to influence style, layout, and colors.

Make sure you can build. It's unfortunate when someone plans a dream house for their country acreage only to discover they are blocked from building because of Federal, State, or local regulations.

Before you buy land, check with county offices to see if Federal or State rules require an environmental impact study. You may have to prove your project will not negatively impact local animals, vegetation, or watershed. Soil and geologic studies may also be required in some areas.

Ask neighbors about the region. Purchasing a lot in an unfamiliar area can be risky. Put on your detective hat and check out these issues:

  • City or county agencies can tell you about the history of the parcel you are considering. Has flooding ever affected your lot? County flood officials will know. They also can tell you how rain runoff is handled. A small creek can become unmanageable after only an inch or two of rain if flow is restricted or rerouted by recent housing development.
  • Have any military bases or industrial plants ever contaminated the region's soil or groundwater? Get a report on local water quality from the region's water agency.
  • Is the lot located new the coastline? If so, the local building department will require high wind zone metal strapping and "shear" walls. This is a series of metal strapping and "hold-downs" designed to secure the roof to the wood frame, and the wood frame to the concrete foundation in the event of a major hurricane.