The first step in choosing a site is to become familiar with the area. A local real estate agent may be able to help. Before you meet with an agent, write down your preferences:
- General area you wish to be in, considering school district, city limits, proximity to mass transit, shopping or parks.
- Size of property
- Trees and vegetation
- View or proximity to water
- Orientation of the land to the sun and wind
- What you are planning to build
- Special uses, such as farming, gardening or tree nursery, small business or cottage industry, bed-and-breakfast, self-sufficiency
Ask the agent or local residents about local weather conditions, such as fog, warm or cold pockets, or strong winds. Ask about other local conditions such as annoying noises, night lights, roads that ice up, wild fire history, pest infestations, seasonal flooding or recurrent slides.
Check with the city, county or state department of transportation about road conditions.
Visit prospective neighborhoods at night, as well as during the day, checking for bright lights, neighborhood activity, barking dogs, or other nighttime noises. Also visit on weekends to see if there are vacation rentals nearby that attract a noisy crowd.
Find out about building restrictions.
- It’s better not to be surprised by zoning restrictions after you’ve fallen in love with a particular piece.
- Speak directly to staff at the local Planning and Building Departments. There may be more than one government with jurisdiction, a city department and a county department, for example. Also, you may be considering land in more than one county or city. Ask about the planning process (procedures that must be followed before you even apply for a building permit) and how long it usually takes. Get a copy of all planning and building applications for later study. Ask for any handouts available or website URL’s, so you will have the information in writing. Make sure you find out where to find the zoning regulations and which ones apply to the properties you are considering. (Zoning rules are usually found online these days, but not always.) For anything not in writing, take careful notes, including who told you what.
- When you look at property, take these references with you, so you can refer to the rules at the same time as viewing the land. For each property you are considering, get the assessor’s map and tax lot number from the real estate office or land owner. You will need this to find out what zone it is in. If this is not available, you can look at tax maps of the area at the assessor’s office, and you may be able to spot the property in the context of local roads, water, or other landmarks.
- Don’t depend on a real estate agent, attorney, neighbor, friend, or your own family for this data. Find out for yourself and, always, get it in writing.
Now, go ahead and fall in love with the property. Some aspects of the land to consider are:
- How well does it match your initial wish list, regarding size, view, location, etc.?
- A lot that slopes gently down from the road, with the views on the far side is ideal, from a design point of view.
- If the lot has a moderate or steep slope, it will be helpful to have a site consultation from a designer, architect, or designer-builder. He or she can find ways to fit the house into the slope, as well as to orient it to the views, sun, and weather.
- Problem lots are sometimes the great bargains. They may be underpriced because of their challenges. A lot may have steep slopes, blocked views, soil problems, or building restrictions, yet still be buildable. The solution is design!