What You Need to Know Before Buying a Lot

Evaluating land to build your dream home on can be a confusing and risky task but we're here to walk you through how to do it step-by-step.

There's two elements to elevating your plot - first you should evaluate the land-use/zoning code and second you should evaluate the lot for actual constructability.

We're here to help you so if this all still sounds overwhelming, we offer this as an a-la-carte service that we can perform in <48 hours. 

Land Use & Zoning Codes:

These codes are typically administered at the local level. You will need to search to determine your prospective lot's zoning jurisdiction. Once you've identified that you should be able to identify the locality's Zoning Map and Zoning Ordinance. These documents can typically be found on your town government's website but sometimes will require that you contact the town by phone. Once you have those documents you can proceed with the steps below.

  1. First use the Zoning Map to identify the parcel's zone. This will correspond to a set of rules regarding land use in these lots.

  2. Note on the Zoning Map if there are any overlay districts that may affect the parcel. Some examples may be flood overlays, historic districts or conservation districts.

  3. In the Zoning Ordinance, there should be a section dedicated to the specific zone that your parcel is located in. Read through this section and identify the following characteristics:

  4. Bulk Dimensional Requirements:

  5. Minimum Lot Size

  6. Minimum Front Yard Setback

  7. Minimum Side Yard Setback

  8. Minimum Rear Yard Setback

  9. Maximum Building Height

  10. Maximum Impervious Coverage, or Open Space Requirements

  11. Wetland or Floodplain Setbacks

  12. Screening (Landscape) Requirements

  13. Permitted Uses. Ideally the zone accommodates use as a single-family residences by right. If you are looking to build a multi-family, ADU or have some kind of occupational use then make sure to pay close attention to this section to ensure that your proposed use is 'by-right' and will not require a condition or variance.

  14. If you noted that the parcel is located in any of the overlay districts then proceed to the corresponding chapter of regulations in the Zoning Ordinance. I won't cover these special circumstances in depth but pay close attention to any requirements that may impact your build or the style of house you must adhere to.

Once you have this information you can narrow down the type of house that you want to build on the land. We are more than happy to help put together a list of plans that meet your zoning criteria or design a custom home from scratch to perfectly utilize your land. We can also help put together a site plan for your land.

* Note that many aspects of zoning codes can be very subjective. We recommend contacting the town or local Licensed Architect or Engineer to make final determinations.

**Most Zoning Ordinances have a chapter of word definitions that is worth paying attention to. For instance, the definition of 'Building Height' varies widely between jurisdictions.

***We strongly recommend that you read through the entire code in order to make sure that you don't miss any pertinent information.

Lot Evaluation:

Once you've evaluated the zoning code and determined that the house you want to build can be built on your prospective lot, the next step is to evaluate constructability and land development costs. These can be broken into two sets of criteria: legal criteria, and development costs.

Building Code:

  1. Most towns adopt the International Building Code. We design all of our plans to meet this but some towns have local supplements or different codes.

  2. It's important to note that different parts of the country will have different structural design criteria as a result of flooding, snow loads and wind loads. If you are building in one of these areas then it's important to involve a structural engineer. We are happy to work with them to maintain the integrity of the home plan.

Utilities:

  1. Sanitary Sewer

  2. Contact the town to determine if there is a Sanitary Sewer along the property. If so, they should be able to quote you a tap fee.

  3. If there is no sewer, then you will need to install some kind of septic system.

  4. This can be one of the most challenging regulatory hold ups in building your house so pay close attention when evaluating your lot. Contact the town for local regulations. They will likely require that you dig a pit with a backhoe to perform a soil percolation test. They may only allow this to be performed at certain times of the year. Depending on the output of the test, the lot may be unbuildable or require a very expensive and unsightly septic system.

  5. Your town code will likely restrict how close a septic system can be located to existing potable wells and groundwater. You will have to survey the location of neighboring wells and groundwater and ensure that your septic tank and leach field can be located in a suitable location.

  6. Electricity - Unless you're planning on going off the grid, this will be one of the most important and variable costs. Some lots have electric at the site already and only cost a few thousand to connect, while other sites can require the construction or new transmission lines and significant underground conduit which could cost up to $100k. Contact the local electric supply company for a specific quote.

  7. Internet - Check out the National Broadband Map

  8. Natural Gas - For some people this is a must have. Contact the local utility for a quote. In absence, you can install a propane tank. Check with the local building department for related codes.

Driveways:

  1. Determine the jurisdiction of the roadway that serves your lot. It may be private, town maintained or state highway.

  2. Contact that authority and determine if they have any regulations regarding curb cuts. Some may have corner restrictions, line-of-sight restrictions or limitations that will impact your driveway placement.

Land Clearing:

  1. Assuming that your Zoning review did not unearth any restrictions on land clearing, you will have to remove any existing trees or brush in the proposed building envelope and yard.

Grading & Drainage:

  1. This can be one of the most costly aspects of lot preparation. You want to minimize the cut/fill required to build your house. Make sure that your proposed building envelope will be in an area where water drains away from the foundation. Otherwise you will have to install a costly means of dewatering.

****Note that this guide is not meant to be an exhaustive legal process for evaluating land. Please contact a professional Architect or Engineer for a comprehensive review of land use before making an offer to purchase land.

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