How to Select a Building Lot

The site you choose will play a major role in determining how much you enjoy your new home, and how much it pays off as one of the biggest investments of your life.


Enlarge Image Your vision of the ideal building site is as important as the type of home you build on it.

Whether you're planning a home in the country, the suburbs, or the city, be sure to investigate the area thoroughly. Drive the general area and walk the neighborhood at different times of the day and week. Find out the current and prospective locations for airports, train tracks, and heavily-traveled highways, along with the sewage treatment plant and landfill. Evaluate the area's outlook for growth. Although a fast-growing area offers faster appreciation of housing and greater choice of subdivisions and sites, these areas tend to suffer from growing pains. Infrastructure, schools, and public services can lag population growth.

Unless you work at home, consider your commute. Take a test drive during the work week at the times when you would normally be traveling to and from your job. Distance to stores, churches, and health care services should also be considered. If you have children or anticipate raising a family in the future, be sure to investigate the area's school system. Even if you don't have children in school right now, the quality of the area's school system is an important factor in the eventual resale value of your home. Communities with good schools are good places to invest. Quality parks and recreation facilities can also enhance resale value, as well as your quality of life.

Take the time to research the real estate taxes in the area. A little digging will uncover any planned assessments or increases, such as those needed to build new schools in fast-growing areas.

Enlarge Image Imagine what the finished neighborhood will be like.

Once you've settled on a housing subdivision or general area in which to build, personal preference goes a long way in choosing a lot. A lot that is close to a subdivision entrance will have more traffic noise than a lot on a cul-de-sac, but it offers quicker access in and out of the neighborhood. Secluded cul-de-sacs offer safety for families with small children, but their design makes snow removal difficult, and their wedge-shaped lots can have narrow front yards. If a lot is narrow at the front, a home's width may require placement farther back on the property. That also means a longer driveway. However, if you're considering a backyard pool, garden shed, or other structure, wedge-shaped lots that are wider in back can provide additional space.

Corner lots have traffic on two sides and are typically larger, requiring more landscaping and yard maintenance. If there are sidewalks on both sides, you've got more snow to clear in the winter. On the positive side, corner lots allow a side-load garage. They also bring higher visibility to a home, so you'll need a design with street appeal on two sides instead of just the facade.

Lots at the end of a T-shaped intersection must contend with oncoming headlights from nighttime traffic. Homes on these lots should be designed to minimize unwanted light in living and sleeping areas. These lots, however, are generally lower in price.

Enlarge Image Make sure the plan fits the buildable area of your site.

Before proceeding, you should have chosen a house plan or have a good idea of the dimensions of the house you plan to build. Make sure the plan fits within the buildable area of the lot. Watch out for lots with rock outcroppings, embankments, or other physical characteristics that will reduce the buildable area. Check for unusual setback lines or utility easements. Easements usually run along one side of the lot, but in some cases there may be more than one easement, or they may be plotted through the middle of the property. Consult with your builder or developer to check the location of easements.

Your lot's relationship to the sun will play a major role in how your new home lives. With a southern exposure for the mass of windows at the rear of the home, a house benefits from solar rays during most of the day. An eastern exposure takes advantage of morning sun, while a western exposure captures the afternoon sun. Beware that western or southern exposures can make a backyard porch or deck too hot to enjoy. If you're building in a northern climate, remember that your front steps and driveway can be constant trouble in the winter if they do not have a southern or western exposure to help melt ice and snow.

If you're a gardener, look for lots with maximum sunlight for your backyard gardens. If you want showy landscaping at the front of your home, make sure it gets enough sun. Corner lots often provide a large side yard in addition to a front and back yard and can offer more flexibility for growing plants.

Lots in subdivisions benefit from the research and scrutiny of road, sewer, and electrical contractors. To satisfy creditors and public officials, a subdivison's developers and contractors must submit their property to a flurry of tests that ensure the land is suitable for houses. Acreage sites might not offer such reassurances, so it's wise to find out what lurks beneath the surface. Unstable hillsides, sink holes, and other problems can turn your dream home into a nightmare. The existence of bedrock under the topsoil can drive up construction costs. The price of a soil test is a bargain if the site you're considering has serious problems.

Scoping Out Land Use
Enlarge Image Be sure you understand the future use of the land around you.

If there is undeveloped land near a building site, it's critical to find out what is planned for it. Contact local government planning and zoning departments for information on land use designations, permit requests and approvals, and schedules of upcoming meetings relating to development in the area. Subdivision developers should know what's planned in the area, but they can't control what happens on adjacent land. That's a particular concern if you are considering a lot on the outer edges of the subdivision, where today's pastoral view can become tomorrow's strip mall.

When comparing subdivisions, consider how many sites have been sold at each. A market absorption plan discloses how long the developer thinks it will take to sell all of the lots and the number of yearly home sales needed to meet that projection. Buyers typically don't want to build the first home in a subdivision or select from a handful of leftover lots when a subdivision is almost full. Look at surrounding developments with comparable characteristics for an indication of how the subdivision is performing in relation to its competitors under current market conditions.

Enlarge Image Study all your options as you decide how much to pay for a lot.

Knowing whether you're paying too much for a lot or getting a bargain is difficult to determine. As a general guideline, buyers in a subdivision should expect to pay roughly 15-20 percent of their home's value for their lot. However, in some markets, this guideline may not apply. For example, a subdivison with the only available lots in a popular school district can command a higher price than a similar subdivision located elsewhere. Lots within a subdivision should be similarly-priced and only vary based on the individual characteristics. Views are probably the most important factor in determining a lot's value. Another major factor is topography. A gently sloping lot is ideal for a walk-out basement, one of the most popular features in today's homes. If the lot is flat, buyers have limited foundation options. Likewise, a severely sloping lot restricts design choices and might provide little usable backyard space. Remember that wooded sites, though highly desirable, may involve extra development costs.

When you do your homework, choosing the right homesite is a much easier task. But remember that even the best site has its pros and cons. The right lot is often a compromise. It's important to keep your options open and to understand exactly what you're getting as you narrow your selections and finally settle on a lot that is best for you.

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