Over the years I have worked with many clients on the purchase of land for a new house or someone looking to build a commercial building.
At some point I’ll have a follow up post that deals with the purchase of a commercial building, but today our focus is just on land, dirt, acreage, a place to call home. It could also be adapted for commercial use.
As I have worked with many people as well as my own family’s search for land in the building of our own home, I organized the many questions and considerations into five categories with additional questions within each category. It’s now time to share this information hoping it will somehow help you or your clients. It’s a living document, so as other questions arise or as you share with us, I’ll keep updating it as we go.
1. Personal: What is your gut feeling about this land?
- Dream – Can you imagine living on this land? Spend some time (an hour or more) sitting and walking around it and envision what it would be like living there permanently.
- Neighbors – who are the neighbors and what impact may they have on you and your lifestyle (or vice versa).
- Location – how will this location work into your lifestyle (school, work, church, shopping, and recreation)?
- Solar Orientation – where is the sun in the morning (east), afternoon (south) and evening (west). If the house faces the street, how will the sun impact the layout of the house? How will your design incorporate passive strategies?
- Weather Orientation – In Pennsylvania, most of our weather comes from the west or northwest. How do you see this land in the winter with primarily Northwest wind/weather or summer with primarily Southwest weather?
- Views – What is there to look at from your house? How would that affect the layout of the house?
- Access – How will you access this land from the street? Will it require a long or uncomfortable driveway?
2. Financial: Confirm that a lending institution would support this effort.
- Appraisal – Would an appraisal of the land with the house constructed be sufficient to support your construction loan/mortgage? A bank will generally loan you the money only if they determine that they could sell the house and property for the money at stake in the case of a default on your part. In other words, they would not loan you a large sum of money to build a new house in a neighborhood with property values far below the value of the house being built. You might want to inquire with your bank or with whatever lending institution you are considering.
- Budget – The price of the land is exclusive of the cost of the house. As you develop your overall budget, this has to be factored carefully into it.
3. Utilities: Confirm the availability of service and means to bring service to the lot or house.
I recommend contacting each utility company to get confirmation that they would provide service to the site. It seems obvious that they would, but there have been unusual cases when they would not or could not provide service to some areas. Also, it may be feasible to bring utilities to a site; however one must consider the cost of this effort and is it in proportion to the cost of the new house.
- Electric – determine location of nearest utility pole, cost of extending overhead service to house site and then underground service from a new pole into the new house. Also consider where the electric meter will need or be required to be positioned. Is this acceptable with respect to the appearance of the house?
- Gas – determine cost of extending a gas line over to house site, cost of service thereafter. Meter location? Natural gas or LP gas? Tank location?
- Water – municipal or well water? If it is a well, what is the likelihood of finding a well close to the house location that could serve a single family residence?
- Sewage – Is there municipal sewage? If not, review the options for on lot sanitary disposal systems. Are there other options, what is the cost of the system, etc. What if you decide you would like to build on another portion of this property far from the percolation site? What is likelihood of another area passing a percolation test for any type of sewage system?
- Telephone/Cable/Internet – this will likely fall into place once electrical service is resolved, however you might inquire about these services.
- Renewable energy sources – Are you considering solar, geothermal, or wind as alternate energy sources?
4. Legal: Confirm that there are no legal issues or ordinances prohibiting construction of a single family house.
- Zoning: I recommend a check with the zoning and code official to inquire if there are any things to consider before building a house on this site. There are too many items under this category to list here.
- Covenants: With open land it is unlikely that any legal documents exist that would prohibit or control the construction of a house, but it does not hurt to ask. If it is a development, can you build the type of house you desire in that neighborhood?
- Neighboring properties: What is the likelihood of neighboring properties being developed into a single family house or a housing development in your lifetime (i.e. housing patterns or development patterns of adjacent areas)? In other words, if you wish to live isolated, what is the likelihood of that remaining?
- Survey – If an updated survey cannot be provided as part of the land purchase, I would recommend that you have that service provided. I would want to know where the boundaries are exactly per the recorded deed. Also, I would want any utility information and easements (i.e. gas line) marked on the survey. I have stories where what was assumed as a boundary was actually far from the legal boundary. Make sure you know where the actual boundaries are located by getting stakes in the ground.
5. Soil: Confirm that soil will support construction of a single family house
- Satellite images – With Google Maps, Bing Maps and other services like this, it can be determined if a building was built on much of the U.S. within the last decade or so. There might be other historic aerial imagery out there but those tend to be of a very low resolution. A recent project of mine on empty lots showed houses on it within five or seven years of the date I was hired.
- Flood Zone – This might be a concern in your region. Research this or contact an expert.
- Mining map study – Contact a geotechnical engineer requesting map research of mining activity on the site. An answer to this will dictate protocol for the next item.
- Virgin soil – If there has been no prior disturbance of soil apart from any mining, how long ago did that occur? In my case mentioned above, we had to contend with the existing foundations of former houses since my project site was in an urban environment. My client had to invest considerable extra money to remove the existing soil down to the footing bearing and replace it with clean engineered soil. Some consider soil to return to a state of “virgin soil” after seven to 40 years. In the least, I would recommend a geotechnical engineer review the footing soil surface after excavation has taken place to confirm the suitability of the soil to support the foundation loads from a visual inspection. Unless there is some reason to suspect poor soil conditions, it is generally not customary to do any drilling and test borings for a single family house.
Do you wish to build a new house? Did you think you should consider all of these questions? Would you invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a structure only to place it on top of a huge unknown? Slow down, do your homework and better yet, call an architect. We’ll know how to answer these questions and the others you don’t know exist or thought to ask.
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