For Your Information > Selecting Land

If you don’t already own the land on which you’re building, you’ll be purchasing it from a developer, builder or individual. You can expect that the first two have probably done a lot of the homework on issues like zoning and suitability, but don’t automatically assume it. If you’re buying from an individual, you will probably need to initiate the research to protect yourself.

Do I Buy Land First?
When should you buy land? That depends on what is most important to you— such as the location or the house itself. Desirable locations don’t stay on the market long. And desirability is in the eye of the beholder. A fantastic, scenic hilltop view may be more important to you than proximity to food shopping or an in-ground swimming pool. Many people balance a variety of factors depending on why they’ve chosen to build.

A general rule of thumb to start with is:
1) Decide what kind of house you want;
2) Select a builder who is capable and willing to build that design;
3) Have your builder review the site before you buy it.

Good builders should be able to tell you before you buy whether any unusual topography is going to result in higher costs to build. Both architects and builders may see opportunities to increase the individuality and future market value of your design by making other changes offered by a unique parcel of land. For example, hillsides may yield the possibility of a daylight basement. But they will also require effective drainage design.

Custom homes sometimes reach a higher value when placed on land that appears to be unwanted. Much of the new construction today is tailored for the mass market. There’s nothing wrong with that. Flat, unforested land is easy to build on and there are usually plenty of homebuyers who want an uncomplicated property. But that trend can yield opportunities to find unique parcels at a bargain price because there are fewer buyers. Coupled with value-increasing revisions to your house plan, you could create both a wonderful home and even better investment.

One of the benefits of building a new house is that you don’t inherit the problems that may be associated with an older home and the previous owner’s solutions. That also includes their hidden zoning violations. If the owner of an existing home has made improvements that violate zoning laws, the new owner becomes liable if it is detected. That could include correcting the mistake or paying a fine.

Many homebuyers think zoning is as simple as “residential”, “commercial”, “industrial”, “agricultural”, and “rural”. As long as you’re buying land zoned residential, you’re fine, right?

No. The reality is far more complicated. Even in small towns and rural municipalities, there can be well over a hundred zoning regulations. They start with those regarding land use, (residential vs. commercial for example) and extend literally down to very specific rules about the type and design of improvements the land owner can make to their property, such as how high your home can be. What may be in your view a common sense, needed change to your property, may violate zoning codes. Before you purchase land, understand the zoning.

Environmental Concerns
If you’re buying “scatter lot”, i.e., land that is not part of a subdivision, obtain an environmental report. You’ll want to avoid environmental hazards like underground chemical storage. If you’re buying in subdivision, the developer should already have a report and odds are the municipality required it at some point.

Are you planning to buy the land and build in one transaction? If so, then make sure the land you’re buying is compatible with your plan. Unusual lots that require extensive site preparation and excavation to break ground may extend your time to complete. The usual delays caused by cold weather and rain could even be longer. Make sure the terms of your construction loan allow for this, particularly if you have locked the rate on your permanent financing.

Do have the legal right to access the property? It’s not unusual for parcels to be “land-locked” with no legal access. Don’t presume that roads leading from a main roadway through someone else’s property to your property are legal. And don’t presume that you have a right of way. Whether or not you’ll receive a building permit depends on legal and physical access.

It’s also easy to become exclusively focused on your property. Make sure you understand what is permitted on surrounding properties, including the right to subdivide. You don’t want to be surprised by neighbors or future buyers with tastes and plans at odds with yours.


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