Site Selection

Finding a Lot For Your New Home



Wild fire, wind, flooding, tornadoes, earthquake, hurricanes, winter ice, or summer sun-which is of more concern where you're thinking of buying? Or is it the CC&Rs, the building codes, or the price? Every one of these should be taken into account when you select the lot for your new home.

But, above all, location-length of commute to work, suitability of schools, neighborhood, distance to shopping, and taxes. Some lots are special because of the view they offer. Other locations may be important for personal reasons.

In this article several additional aspects of lots are considered, aspects that are easy to overlook in the enthusiasm of getting a new home.

Subdivision Constraints

Whenever you buy a lot in a subdivision, the CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions) can be crucial. They restrict what you can do on a lot, even what kind of house can be built on it. You'll have to sign a document acknowledging that you agree to abide by the CC&Rs before you get title to your lot.

When you're looking at a lot, the sales agent may not tell you that there are any CC&Rs. You should ask and get a copy if the lot interests you.

At other times agents may make a big thing of telling you how great the CC&Rs are, how they really add value to the property. What they may not tell you is that no CC&Rs are worth the paper they're written on if they're not enforced.

Before you buy your property, carefully read the CC&Rs. There might be some constraints, or lack of them, that would make the property unacceptable to you. As a final step, check with other homeowners in the same subdivision and see just how effectively the CC&Rs are enforced.

The House and the Lot

Visualize how the house will fit on the lot. Usually there are local constraints, either CC&Rs or ordinances, on the amount of front, back and side setbacks required. Consider the driveway and the front walk. If you want a garden or an RV pad between your house and the adjoining one, is there room?

If there are, or will be, houses on adjacent lots, check how much privacy you'll have. Wooden fences, common in the western states, might be all you'll need. When the adjacent house has two stories or when it's above yours on a hillside, neighbors may have a great view of your back or side yard-and into upstairs bedrooms.

In coastal areas there may be persistent on-shore winds, especially in the afternoons. These are often strong enough to be downright annoying, particularly when you have to fight them for several months every summer.

Lots with great views can have a similar problem. They often sit on a bluff overlooking a scenic river valley. The problem is that such views are often just where winds blow almost constantly. Strong winds blowing against windows cause noise and, when the winds are continuous, the noise can become depressing. (These considerations can be a constraint on what kind of siding you are going to have on the house because vinyl siding can rattle in the wind.)

If you've already decided on a floor plan, check the orientation of the house relative to the sun and the street. The street usually dictates how the house will sit on the lot. One school of thought is that the kitchen should face east. North-facing kitchens lack sunshine all of the time, while south- and west-facing kitchens get the summer sun when you may not want it. Sometimes reversing the plan will make the arrangement acceptable; other times you may decide that the lot and the house you want just aren't compatible.

If you pick a lot for its view, find out what protection, like CC&Rs or local ordinances, you have to prevent someone from building in front of you and blocking your view.

Hillside Lots

Hillside lots are attractive because they often include a view. You can expect to pay a premium for these lots in two ways:

1.0 The price will be higher than comparably sized lots.

2.0 You'll have to move more dirt and pour more concrete than normal.

If the lot is remote, there are other considerations that we'll discuss later. A builder can give you some idea about the extra cost.

Hillside lots are a real danger in areas where wild fires may occur because fire races up hills and can be uncontrollable. A more subtle problem is that fires may not destroy your home but, because they destroy the vegetation, they increase the likelihood of mud slides the following rainy season.

Some areas are known for the number of houses that have slid down the hills over the years. If you want to build there, be sure to have an engineering study done to find out if it's possible to anchor the house and what the costs will be for doing it.

Ground Water

How can you tell if ground water is present? If the lot hasn't been graded clear of vegetation, be suspicious when you see a heavy thicket of greenery. Ask to see any engineering reports made on the lot or the subdivision. Talk to neighboring property owners to see if they've had water problems during the rainy season.

The presence of ground water will often mean extra expenses for foundation and drainage. And, if not taken care of properly, it can be a source of problems later on.

Grading and Drainage

You'll need adequate drainage from the lot. If the lot is below street level one of two things are needed:

  • A sump pump to get the water back up to the storm drain in the street. Sump pumps are noisy and cause maintenance headaches when they're in the crawl space.
  • An easement so that a drain line can be run across an adjacent downhill lot to a street below. Check to see if the easement exists.
  • Also, check what happens to water from an adjacent lot located above yours. If it runs on to your lot, ask what's being done about it. If you're not satisfied, find another lot-or you may be faced with a lake in your yard when the rains come.
  • Another concern you should have with the lot is the steepness of the driveway into the garage. Steep driveways have two problems: 1) if there's an abrupt change in slope, part of your car will drag and 2) in icy or snowy weather you may not be able to use your garage, particularly if it's facing north.

Above-Ground Utilities

When a plot of land is being subdivided sometimes there will be a set of power poles running along one or more sides of it. Lots along those sides will then have the power and telephone lines in front of their houses.

Utility Boxes

Utility boxes are often forgotten when people look at a piece of property. In new developments with utility wiring run underground, the power company must put their transformers someplace. In some areas these may also be underground but, if they're not, they're an eyesore, especially if the box housing the transformer is in front of your house. Above-ground boxes for TV distribution amplifiers and telephone junction boxes, while not as big as power transformers, will also look better down the street.

You don't have much to say about where utility boxes will be located, but at least you can see where they are when it comes time to select a lot. Likewise, groupings of mail boxes furnished by the Postal Service aren't things of beauty and would be better placed away from your lot. When it comes time to sell, prospective buyers will see things like this.

Far-sighted land developers can do something to reduce the visual impact of these functional things. In some tracts subdividers build housings around utilitarian-looking mail boxes. These cosmetic housings improve the appearance of the boxes and have an impact on the perceived value of your property.

Traffic Noise

Traffic and traffic noise will affect the selling value of the property. Take the time to find out what future traffic patterns are planned around any lot you consider. Stay as far away from freeways as you can and at least a block away from what could become a major arterial.

Outside noise can come from sources other than traffic. Railroads, even those several blocks away, can generate noise you'd rather not have. Check how close the lot is to an airport, commercial or military.

Corner Lots

There are pros and cons about corner lots. You have one less abutting neighbor but you also have two sides of the house facing a street, making for more maintenance of lawns and shrubs; at the same time, your backyard becomes visible from the street.

These lots are favorites for people who cut corners, either on foot or on bicycles. It may take a fence to stop them (if allowed by local ordinance and the CC&Rs) and a fence may not be aesthetically pleasing to you.

On the positive side, a corner lot gives you two ways to access a street. For example, your garage can be facing the street in front of the house while the driveway to an RV pad can be on the side street.

If you buy a corner lot and the front of the house faces the same street as the garage, be sure the garage side of the house is away from the corner. You may have to reverse the floor plan to do this. There are several reasons:

  • It's safer to back the car out of the driveway.
  • The side of the house away from the garage is often more attractive from the street.
  • The garage side is where you're more likely to have an RV pad and garbage cans-items you'd rather not have on the street side of the house.

Lots and Headlights

While driving at night in a residential neighborhood watch where your headlights hit, particularly on high beam. When they hit the front of a house with sidelights around the door, there will be a flash of light in the entry. When they hit a bedroom window, special attention to window coverings will be needed if sleepers are not to be bothered.

Curving streets and intersections have the potential for this problem. When checking out a lot, see if cars coming from either direction will be directly facing the side or front of the house. If so, you'll need to be careful of window placement in bedrooms and entries.

While upstairs bedrooms won't generally get the full brunt of headlights, they will get some of it. And, if the street is on a grade, even they may not be spared.

There are three types of corner lots to watch for:

  • In a common four-way intersection, all the corner lots will have headlights swing across them as cars turn. Even houses on lots next to those on corners may be affected.
  • When the lot faces the end of an intersecting street, you'll have to be careful of the house plan you select because headlights of cars coming up the street will hit the front of your house. And you may have second thoughts, too, about the possibility of a driver who is inattentive and forgets to turn. In general, these are not the most desirable lots on the block.
  • About as bad is an L where both streets end. Houses on corner lots will face down one of the streets, with the same considerations as the previous situation.
  • A cul-de-sac is attractive for young families because the closed end can be a relatively safe place for the kids to play. But, for lots at the end, headlights will swing across the fronts of the houses as cars loop around the end of the cul-de-sac. You probably won't want bedrooms there.

    Zero Lot Lines

    Some subdivisions use zero lot lines, meaning one wall of each house is located on a property line. In some cases, two houses share a common wall, so that from the street the two houses look like a duplex. In other cases, each house is separate, with all houses in the block placed on the same side of their lots.

    If you consider a house on a zero lot line lot, be careful to understand all that it entails. There will be some definite restrictions on what you can do including a requirement that you use the subdivider as the builder of your new home.

    Country Lots

    When the lot you're considering is outside a metropolitan area, you need to remember water, sewer, gas, electricity, telephone, and roads. If you have to drill a well, you need a back-up plan in case the water you get is not potable. If you require a septic tank and leach field, you need to know the soil is suitable. The seller may be able to guarantee these things; otherwise make any offer on the lot subject to your approval of test results.

    But before you do that, find out what the utility companies will charge to get power, gas, and telephone to the lot. Also, find out what the costs will be to have a road extended to it.

    Easements

    Find out if there are any easements on the lot and, if so, what they mean to you. Sometimes it means you have to give up any use of part of your property; other times it means you can't use it for some purposes. Find out before you buy.