When it comes to creating your new dream home, inevitably you’ll need a piece of land to build it on. Every house in the world is located on a unique building site and no two are the same. The individual features of your site will have a serious impact on the final building, regardless of whether it’s a waterfront retirement lot, a few country acres, or a downtown property with a tiny buildable footprint.
If you’re currently evaluating several potential building sites or have already purchased a lot, there are a variety of site-related considerations to keep in mind when moving into the design phase, as you’ll see below. Thoughtfully balancing all these location specific nuances in a well-considered way will help your new home sit smartly in its context and contribute to a successful overall project. I would certainly recommend working with an architect to navigate the complexities of building a new home – an architect will help you get the most out of your building project, no matter what part of the process you’re currently in.
So what should you be thinking about when evaluating whether or not to purchase a potential building site?
The Initial Cost
This is an obvious factor in deciding whether or not to purchase a piece of land, and the value range will be unique to your own situation. As lots get bigger and begin to have better views and locations they will get more and more expensive. There are no rules on what you should spend, but generally I’ve seen building lots cost around 20% of the total construction cost for new homes. So if you’re planning to spend $500,000 to build a home, it would be reasonable to spend around $100,000 for a piece of land. It doesn’t make sense to build a million dollar home on a $50,000 parcel of land, or vice versa. Think about your total project budget ahead of time, because this initial cost will become a significant chunk. Also beware of hidden costs associated with aspects of the property addressed below; it may end up costing more than the list price.
A Real Estate Lawyer
Though obviously required in order to complete a real estate transaction, a real estate lawyer can also check the property ahead of time for any outstanding construction liens or unpaid property taxes, restrictive covenants and legal ‘right of ways’ that may be located on the plot of land. Imagine purchasing a new lot and finding out later that a neighbour has a vehicle right of way to the parcel directly behind yours, leaving much of your land unbuildable. Be sure to talk to a lawyer and have them look into the property prior to purchasing, they’ll help uncover any hidden issues.
Municipal Zoning & Bylaws
These will be unique to your local municipality and play an important role in determining exactly what is allowed/not allowed to be built on your particular site. You should be able to find the relevant information on your municipality’s website with some digging, or by calling the planning department. Zoning regulations and bylaws range from simple to complex, and typically become more detailed/restrictive/harder to interpret in large cities.
Zoning regulations govern the ‘type’ of building that can be built; such as a detached residential house, a commercial store, or an industrial warehouse, etc.
Municipal bylaws dictate detailed specifics like maximum overall height, floor area ratios, parking guidelines, etc. Bylaws may be difficult to interpret and can be hundreds of pages long, but a local architect can distill all the relevant information for you.
Also be sure to find out if your building site falls within any conservation areas, historical preservation districts or flood plains. Sometimes this isn’t obvious but creates another set of hurdles for your project and may limit what you can build.
How easy is it to physically get to the building site? Houses built on waterfront cliffs have amazing views but can be extremely costly to build when construction access is a challenge. There are typically a lot of materials and equipment required to build a home, so you’ll need a strategy to get everything into place. Remote building sites often necessitate that an access road or driveway be built first, which can be a costly endeavour in itself.
Common problems associated with poor site access are long winding driveways that get muddy or filled with snow drifts, steep or unstable slopes, large boulders and mature trees. When access gets extremely challenging, you may have to consider deliveries by boat or helicopter which will obviously cost a premium.
A site located on a high traffic downtown street may also have its challenges, such as shutting down lanes of traffic for large delivery trucks and cranes.
Soils & Grading
You may think all dirt is created equal, but the composition of the soils in your area may vary widely and impact how you safely build on them. Sandy soils have vastly different properties compared to clay or rock and impact the design of the structural foundation of the house. Choosing the most appropriate method will keep your house standing for centuries to come. An architect can coordinate with geotechnical and structural engineers to address this early in the project.
The grade or slope of the land will also play a role in your new house. The greater the slope, the more challenging the construction process, but anything is possible. Sloping sites also allow better water drainage, which can be a positive or negative depending on whether the slope is directed toward or away from the house.
These are all the important things that we take for granted every day, like electricity, natural gas, fresh water and sewage/waste removal. In cities and the majority of urban areas across North America, these services are nearby so it’s simply a matter of linking into them. As you move into more rural areas, these services can get be more challenging and costly to connect to and some may not even exist in the area. Alternatives for your project could include drilled wells for fresh water, solar panel installation, geothermal heat pumps, seasonal propane delivery and septic waste systems. These all have their own unique challenges (and cost) so its good to have an early understanding of what you’ll need to do.
Trees & Vegetation
Mature trees on a building lot are a lovely backdrop to look at, and tend to increase the value of a home. The right combination of trees can provide shade from the sun, privacy from the neighbours, beautifully framed views and add a relaxing natural quality to the property. Trees also require periodic maintenance when they get close to hydro lines and when their leaves drop in autumn. Growing roots can damage foundations and plumbing lines in their search for water underground.
Your local municipality may not allow cutting down mature trees of a specified diameter, or may require cash payments before approval is made for any removals. There may also be a requirement to keep construction equipment and vehicles a certain distance away (to protect the root system) which can restrict the available work area during construction.
If your new lot has plenty of trees that will have to come down in order to build, consider which ones can strategically remain so your property doesn’t have a ‘clear cut’ feel to it. I generally recommend keeping as many existing trees as possible and also planting a few young trees immediately after construction to make up for any that were lost – over the next 10+ years, these young saplings will fill out and enhance the property.
Sun, rain, wind and snow are the enemies of construction, and will slowly eat away at the building materials over time. Knowing the typical seasonal conditions of your site will allow you to choose materials and methods that can withstand the local climate.
Direct sunlight and its powerful UV rays will eventually wreak havoc on almost anything, but that same power, when harnessed, can be used to power and heat 100% of your home’s needs. Heavy rain and snowfall should inform things like roof design and foundation waterproofing, while coastal areas may need to consider the impact of hurricane force winds and the corrosive nature of ocean salt when planning their build. The more extreme the environment, the more robust the building will need to be.
What are you going to be looking out at for years to come after the house is built? A great view is a common selling feature for a house or property, but doesn’t have to be a necessity. When a beautiful view exists try to frame it as best you can, but you can just as easily block out any visible eye sores as well. The view at ground level may be mediocre, but what becomes visible when you’re 3 or 4 stories up? If you don’t want to look directly outwards at the neighbours, you can turn the view upwards to the sky or inwards to a tranquil courtyard garden.
The view from your home can be very carefully curated, so the possibilities are almost endless if you have a good understanding of what you’re working with from the start.
Unless its chirping birds and a babbling brook, noise pollution is usually a serious negative factor when considering a location for your new home. Sources are most typically busy roads and highways which bring the inevitable horns and sirens, but could also be nearby train tracks, local airports, or loud neighbours. Unwanted noise can be mitigated in many ways, but will rarely be 100% effective so it’s certainly something to keep in mind when evaluating a potential property for purchase.
I know you’re focused on a great house, but don’t forget about your cars. Some municipalities require a minimum (or maximum) number of parking spaces per new dwelling unit, and they take up a lot of valuable space. Will your car be on the street, in a driveway out front, or maybe a rear detached garage? What about people visiting? Where are you going to park the boat or the RV during the off-season?
When thinking about parking, also consider the future driveway. I certainly prefer some room to comfortably turn around rather than backing out onto a busy road.
Unless you purchase a few acres of remote land, you’re going to have a few neighbours in close proximity and they will have some influence on your property beyond your control. Great neighbours take pride in their own property which upgrades the entire street, increasing the value of your own property. Bad neighbours park old cars on uncut lawns and generally drag down values.
Spend an hour walking around the neighbourhood knocking on a few doors and introducing yourself – let people know you’re thinking of purchasing a property nearby and were just wondering what they think of the neighbourhood. Having a 5 minute conversation with folks in the immediate area will give you a great understanding of who lives nearby and they might have some valuable insights into the neighbourhood’s future.
It also pays to be on good terms with those who live nearby, because often you’ll have to collaborate on things like fencing, privacy, and parking and noise. Disputes can get ugly, and they’re simply not worth it.
Spend some time thinking about the overall neighbourhood you’re considering buying into – how will things look here in 10 years? 25 years? 50 years? Are there signs of new construction and families moving into the area, or are the homes for sale and falling apart? If you know that a new condo and a subway stop are being constructed around the corner next year, chances are your land value will increase significantly. If a foul-smelling pig barn is built on the farm next door, no one is going to want to buy your property when it comes time to sell. Get a feel for what’s happening in the immediate area but talking to locals and your municipal planning department.
There is no ‘right answer’ when choosing a lot to build your new home, but by looking at potential sites objectively you can start to understand the site’s true potential. At the end of the day any obstacle can be conquered and it becomes a personal decision that only you can make – ‘does this place feel like home’?
Good luck in your search!