One of the first things that you will need to do when you decide to build a home is find a piece of ground to put it on. With enough engineering, pretty much any chunk of land can be built on. Ideally though, a site should require very little in the way of extreme intervention to make it buildable. The more intervention, the higher the cost and also the higher the environmental impact.
Clean Water, Electricity and Sewer are the ‘gotta-have’ necessities for any buildable site. Some people would argue that you also need gas, either propane or natural, but I’m not a fan of gas as you can see in my article on why I think it stinks. Finding a buildable lot with all three utilities isn’t always in the cards and if you find yourself liking a lot that isn’t fully equipped, there are alternatives.
Photovoltaic (PV) solar electric systems are a reliable and great way to make your own personal power plant. There are two kinds of PV systems; grid-tied or grid-untied, and they look exactly the same. The only difference is that in an untied system, there is battery storage for evenings or times when the panels aren’t producing electricity. A grid-untied system is more complicated and more expensive, but the technology is fairly mature, meaning that it’s not in outer space complicated or expensive.
If water is not readily available, a well is a reasonable alternative. I’ve seen water witchers do their thing and it is surprisingly accurate, but the only way to really know about the quality, depth and water pressure is to drill. Check with your local jurisdiction to see what the requirements for wells are and if there are restrictions, because some areas will not allow wells. If drilling doesn’t turn up water, be prepared to haul it or collect it, but mostly I would suggest reconsidering a site without easy access to water because the pain in the neck factor is big.
You need a way to deal with the stuff you flush and there are actually lots of alternatives to a sewer. The easiest is a septic system which is a big underground tank with pipes that extend into a drainage field. Sometimes though, a site won’t perc, meaning that the percolation (or drainage) rate is too slow to have a functional septic system. If this happens, an engineered system is in order. There are usually solutions that can be made to work, but they can get expensive and can also be unattractive. Another alternative is a composting toilet. Before you say ewww, they don’t stink if they are well maintained. This would need to be combined with a greywater system for sinks and showers.
Tip: Jurisdictions can be fussy about where and how you flush, so be sure to check with them first.
Sunshine rules. You need it for light, heat and electricity. Make sure that your site has it. Nuff said.
Ideally, your views work well with the solar orientation, meaning they are to the south. In a well built and high performing house, it makes the most sense to locate the bulk of the glass on the south side, where you can take advantage of free heat, light and electricity from the sun. See above.
When views aren’t conveniently located on the south, it’s best to carefully limit the amount of glass devoted to the view (for energy reasons) ..or go outside to enjoy it.
First, check to make sure the road (or planned road) into your site is legal. Then, check the weather and the lay of the land. Snow, rain, sleet, hail, mud, boulders and steep slopes can all make getting to your site difficult. Neighbors are a good source of info on this one, but it never hurts to visit the site in the crummiest weather to see for yourself. It may seem like a small detail, but getting in and out of your site easily is kind of a big deal.
A structural engineer once told me that the incidence of problems in homes due to soil issues is so much greater than the number of house fires, that he was surprised that people would buy fire insurance, but not get a soils report for their new home. I have to agree ..get yourself a soils report! It’s worth it. Soils come in all flavors and yours could be very different than your neighbors, so getting an analysis of your soil (geotechnical report) is the only way to adequately know the composition of the ground below. The load bearing capacity of the soil will affect the size of the building foundation, which can be welcome news if you find out the bearing capacity is higher than anticipated. It can also alert you to BAAAD things like water near the surface, poor bearing capacity (think high heels on sand), or soil movement (lansdslide anyone?) and recommendations for fixing problem soils. Any of these nasty things could cost you a lot more than the report itself.
Everywhere you build you are likely to find rules in the form of building codes, zoning regulations and neighborhood codes, covenants and restrictions (CC&R’s). Here’s what you do; go to your local building department and tell them about your project and what you intend to do. Then ask them if they have advice or suggestions (they will). Then, go to the zoning, flood, DEQ, and any other departments they tell you to and do the same. Finally, go visit your neighborhood rule people. You may run into some jerks and conflicting information along the way, but generally speaking the people who you will talk to want to help and give you the best advice they can. In case of conflict, keep checking until you are satisfied with the information. This can be a frustrating process, especially for the uninitiated, my best advice is to ask a lot of questions and to ease the stress, have a big heart when you talk to people.
Do you like the neighborhood, the neighbors and is it near the people and places you want to visit? Is it quiet enough for your tastes? Will you have enough privacy? Can you get deliveries? Are property taxes within your budget? These are just a few of the questions to ask about the neighborhood. Even though they aren’t specifically about the buildability of the site, the effect the neighborhood has on you should be factored into site selection because quality of life matters.
Finding a good buildable lot is not for the faint of heart. It takes work. Are you looking for a lot? What have you learned, what were the stumbling blocks? Share your comments or questions below and help others who are also on the hunt. I’ll be sure to respond to any and all comments.