Study Your Land Carefully
Updated: Apr 14
Tim Rhodes RA. AIA
Rhodes Architecture + Light
You’ve found what looks to be a beautiful parcel of land. You love the location, the privacy, the trees and the light! The price seems like a steal. The views are enticing, and the land is advertised as “ready to build”. You are ready to build your dream home!
Not so fast. Discovering all of the potential requirements (and possible pitfalls) of building on that land is not necessarily simple. Realtors, including an agent who works directly for you, the buyer, are not Architects or even amateur land developers and may not understand the right questions to ask when approaching a land purchase. Knowing the answers and how to find them and the impact on the time, cost, and feasibility of building on the land is not a skill most realtors are trained in; they simply locate the listing, sell the land and close the legal contracts.
I know because I’ve seen many “land study” documents put forth by realtors that are incomplete, old and expired, or simply inadequate for even the preliminary planning of a building; the agent was trying to be transparent but was sometimes surprised when this was pointed out and we asked for more detail. Real estate professionals do a lot of hard work, handle many properties and (often anxious) clients, and usually endeavor, within their training, to disclose as much information as is available. In-depth feasibility studies are not part of their training nor in their job description. Most realty companies use small print to note that they are merely representing information that they have about a piece of property and that the buyer is responsible for verifying all information received.
So, where does that leave you and the land you’ve fallen for? The worst case, worth raising here, is that you will purchase land that you cannot build on it at all. Once you discover that you cannot build there, you will also likely then have to disclose the reasons the land is unbuildable (by law, in a real estate disclosure form) to any buyer you then try to sell your land to.
There are many varied and overlapping reasons that a parcel of land may be unbuildable. Zoning and building codes govern and limit what you can build on your land and the topography and land features may require significant setbacks or preclude building at all. Environmental features and even the plants and animals on or near the land can seriously reduce the location and area available to you. Your neighbors and their private restrictions may restrict what you can build and where. Many of these laws, restrictions and features are not visible or may require a detailed land survey, deep understanding of local codes and restrictions, and an accurate map or site plan before the limits and boundaries imposed are discernable. Many limits overlap and add to areas that are off-limits to development making the restrictions on your land cumulative.
My wife and I are thinking about buying land on which to build a future home on one of the islands near us in Puget Sound. My firm, RhodesArchitecture + Light does a fair amount of land study and guides clients in their purchases of land including very detailed feasibility studies for residential and commercial properties. A thorough study of unbuilt land can be complex, and a professional consultation may be helpful as you get serious about the purchase of a lot.
We’ve seen (more than once) land that was offered by reputable realty companies as “ready for your dream home!” that simply could not be built on at all or on which construction was prohibitively expensive. We’ve even been approached by two clients who had fully closed on their land purchase only to have to tell them, after tens-of-thousands of dollars of professional investigation, that they could not build on it due to slopes, environmental restrictions, a lack of utilities, or the local zoning and building codes. These were, to say the least, difficult meetings to have.
My firm just spent a year and (together with engineering and environmental specialists) about $120K studying one piece of commercial land near Seattle selling for $4M. You are looking at land with a $179K price tag. The question is always one of risk and return: “How much do I spend studying the land based on the asking price of the land and the level of risk I am willing to live with after purchase?”
Asking for at least a 90-day feasibility period in which to run down many of these questions and to find (or purchase services resulting in) documentation and answers you are willing to live with is always a prudent first step. Asking the seller’s agent, in writing, what studies have been done in the past, why those potential buyers walked away, and if you can have all paperwork from those studies is a great second step. A property that has been on the market for a year with multiple potential offers is a signal that there may be issues with developing the site for your dream home that lie below the surface.
Fully studying the land is complex.
Here are some of the questions you may ask of the land, many of which can be satisfied by information that you or your agent can access (and yes, definitely get your own agent so that you have an advocate who is working for you, is therefore a more trustworthy source of information than a seller’s agent, and is someone who can run the minutia to ground for you). You’ll probably save money working at your job while the agent is doing the hours of discovery work on the land. We are breaking these questions down into a few simple categories of information that you may want to have about your land. This is a large but not necessarily an exhaustive list of issues you may want to pursue and some of these questions will uncover other lines of pursuit.
There are more attributes, possibilities, and restrictions on a land purchase than you may realize; so please forgive the length here!
What is the Size and Shape of the Land?
Geographic + Physical Attributes
What is the Size of the Lot and how does that affect your Ability to Build?
How is the land Zoned and what is that zone’s minimum lot size for the construction of a house? What does the land’s zoning require for a single home? Are there zoning provisions allowing more buildings, mothers-in-law or BB+B’s? How big a house can you put on the lot? How is the size of your dream home limited by lot size and zoning? (See 2, below)
What is the land’s Topography?
Are there slopes? Can you build on them? What are the slope buffers and setbacks if there are slopes? What is the overall topography, and can this lend sizeable areas for the location of your home? Are you willing to build a house into steeper land-forms and how does this impact your house design? Are there valleys or low areas that may be defined as “riparian areas” (streams and rivers) or as wetlands?
How will you Access your land?
Can you get access? From where? What are the rules for access in the local jurisdiction? Can you build a drive? Parking? Is Fire Department access possible? If not do you need to fire-sprinkler your eventual home? Do you need to share a drive or road? If so, are there maintenance codes/covenants and dues? What is the cost of developing a drive, fire department access, and parking and turn-arounds that may be useful or required?
We worked with a client who was designing their dream home on a mountainside. The drive to access the house and garage had to be designed and built within specific slopes and widths and the access route necessitated blasting rock in places to create the drive. The client was surprised, after purchasing the land and siting their house at the perfect place for sweeping views, that the long drive would add many tens-of-thousands of dollars to the project. Surprise is not something you will savor after you’ve purchased the land and spent significant dollars on the required engineering and planning.
Are there ECA’s?
Are there ECA’s on the lot? (Environmentally Critical Areas could include steep slopes, landslide-prone areas, poor soils, peat underlayment, radon-prone areas, streams and lakes and rivers, larger bodies of water and shorelines). If there are ECA’s, have they been mapped and the limits (and setbacks/buffers) defined? If there are no studies of the ECA’s possible on the land, the local County or City GIS mapping could be a source of this information, but a full survey is probably necessary to define and plan around these ECA’s.
This is one of the largest pitfalls in this modern age. Environmental restrictions may require an understanding of the topography, boundaries, buffers required, flora and fauna now living on or near the land. You can walk a lot and fall in love with it only to later discover (with a full land survey including all boundaries, topography and definitions of water bodies, slopes, buffers and setbacks) that you do not have a suitable area of land on your 4.5 acres large enough on which to put a house, drive, septic system, and the required parking.
We see many parcels of land for sale around us in the City of Seattle that are on slopes that the Department of Development and Seattle’s current Land Use Code will prohibit all construction on. All Construction. Yet these lots sit, year after year, advertised for sale and often documented with “potential” house designs and site plans.
Understanding slopes, soils and the stability of land is often complex and requires a detailed knowledge of the land, topography, local and State codes, geotechnical and soils studies, and a detailed understanding of how the local jurisdiction permits building on them as a result.
Is the Land Defined? Is there a Full Land Survey Available?
Is there a land survey of the lot/parcel available from the seller and was it done by a registered surveyor? Is it only a boundary survey or a full land survey? Does the survey meet the local jurisdiction’s requirements for the basis for an Architectural Site Plan and permit application to build a house?
Ultimately, the only way to fully define the land is to hire a full (detailed) land survey. A survey showing all boundaries, topography, trees, utilities, (gas, power, electricity, water, sewer, storm sewer), adjacent property lines, access and roads, and even adjacent structures (if your view corridors are a concern) for your land may cost at least $3500-$7500 or more depending on the size of the parcel, topography, number of trees, ease of access, etc. A detailed survey is often the only way to have a legal basis for a full plan, design and an Architect’s Site Plan required for a building permit submittal.
A boundary survey that only shows the property lines and adjacent rights-of-ways is not a detailed land survey. Neither is a Parcel Map. These documents are, however, erroneously often proffered at sale as “site plans”. You have to know exactly what you are asking a surveyor to verify, record, and draw even to get a proposal for his or her services. It helps to have a knowledgeable Architect define the survey that is required by the land and by the jurisdiction when hiring a surveyor.
What Flora and Fauna Already Live on the Land?
Protected trees may limit your building area significantly and many trees require setbacks during planning and construction as large as those tree’s drip lines (the edge of the visible tree foliage diameter) or larger.
Plants living on the land may designate wetland areas and many jurisdictions require that wetlands be found, defined, flagged, surveyed and set aside along with significant wetland buffers around the edges of the wetlands. The type of plants and wetland designation resulting can increase the buffers required around the edges of a wetland.
Tree reports, often required by your City of County, usually must be specific, include mapping of the trees, tree species, size, and a matrix showing the health of the trees. This is the area of expertise of a registered Arborist. Again, it is necessary to fully understand the local requirements for the tree survey and report in order to get an Arborist to provide a proposal and the complete services you will need when you apply later for your site development and building permit.
Are you going to be living with or near any animals? Protected species on or near the land may also restrict construction. In the Pacific Northwest, we have encountered bald eagle nesting sites within hundreds of feet of land we’ve studied that limited construction area and the time of the year in which any construction can be done. Salmon are also protected here, and salmon-bearing streams may also require significant buffers. Specific areas have specific protected species of which you should be aware.
Who and Where are your Neighbors?
Neighboring structures near the boundaries of the land may also require building setbacks whether the neighbor’s buildings were permitted or not. Some codes (fire codes, for example) and many HOA’s (Home Owner’s Associations or covenants on titles noting HOA’s) require that structures be spaced apart specific distances and may require other design restrictions and codes to be met to build on the land.
HOA’s and certain privately governed building communities can come with significant design restrictions such as building size, massing, height, view protections, requirements to use your land (or prohibitions of uses of the land) specific forms, materials and finishes, and can limit what you can do with and on your land. If you want to park a recreational vehicle on your land you many find that covenants in your title prohibit it. Private design codes we’ve worked within prohibited shed roofs, specific siding and roofing, window, and exterior trim materials.
Community “codes, covenants and restrictions”, when they do exist, often require specific drawings and exhibits that are then presented to, reviewed (and critiqued) by developers, neighbors, or board officers who are often not professionals and have no design background. Having to have your potential neighbors critique and allow your dream home design can be arbitrary and very frustrating.
Is there Environmental Contamination on this land or near it?
Past land use for occupations such as fuel oil storage, gasoline stations, or industrial uses may have left environmental contaminants such as hydrocarbons. Past dumping can leave you responsible for the cleanup of contaminants and even the soils on which these were left in the past (legally or illegally).
This is true even for adjacent land that could affect your land and its ground water and soils. This is an area to be aware of and if there are doubts, an environmental engineer is a necessity for the study and recommendations for mitigation and abatement of contaminants. If there are contaminants, often the seller is responsible for the clean-up (to a “no further action” designation by your State) so knowing what lies waiting on the land (or just below the surface) may make the difference between paying for abatement yourself or purchasing land that is already certified as clean.
How Does Your Local Jurisdiction Restrict The Land?
Zoning and Land Use
What is the Zoning of the land? Has it changed recently or is there any process underway to change it?
How your land is zoned by the City or County is critical to how you will be allowed to use it. Zoning restricts the use of the land (type of building use), and the number of lots or parcels your land can be divided into.
Zoning also restricts the size of structures, the location and number of structures, and how structures can be built on the land. What size of house is allowed? (And how is this measured: floor area or floor area ratio?) Are there restrictions on the overall house footprint? What setbacks from front, side, and rear property lines are required? How tall can your house be?
Can you build separate buildings for a garage, shop, mother-in-law, or for rental? Keep in mind as well that if you can subdivide your acreage and build four houses then your neighbors can too and one day you could wake up to the construction of a cul-de-sac next to your private redwood forest.
Are other types of building allowed on the land, or on close, adjacent land? Discovering that the land directly in front of yours and in view of your new home is being developed for an industrial building, a prison, or the storage of tires might cause much anxiety for many. It is a good idea to know the adjacent zoning and where the zoning boundaries lie.
Read the Title: Are there encumbrances on the title? Are there other covenants requiring easements that cross or restrict your building on the land (for example for another neighbor’s access (drive), power, utilities view corridors?). Other restrictions on the land that are noted in the title?
Does the zoning allow the subdivision of the land? Is the local land use code containing development requirements such as requirements that the land developer/homeowner requirement develop adjacent utilities, drives, streets, curb + gutters, utilities, other infrastructural improvements?
A small single-family residential lot subdivision we recently completed east of Seattle required drives, walks, curbs and gutters, handicap crossing ramps, and significant street and utility improvements by our clients that cost $50K to professionally design and engineer and $300K in construction costs to allow them to break off a second lot from their land for the construction and sale of one single-family home. Again, keep in mind that if you can subdivide your acreage your neighbors probably can too.
Is the land governed by other Land Use Codes and Restrictions?
How will you Design and Permit Your Dream Home?
Design, Land Use, and Permitting
What is required to be studied and presented for a building and land use application at the local (City, County or State?) jurisdiction?
Is a geotechnical engineering study required to understand soils and slopes/slope stability? Is an environmental study required to understand wetlands, streams, or shoreline and associated boundaries and buffers? What level of land survey is required on which to base these studies? Is an arborist required to study existing trees, create a tree plan, and determine whether trees can be cut or must be retained?
Are environmental improvements or is environmental rehabilitation required for areas of the land containing streams, wetlands, shoreline? What do these improvements or rehabilitations require in appraisal, professional study and reporting and in mitigation?
We’ve studied land that had a small dry gully and found that the land contained a seasonal stream. The stream required a full environmental study by a professional environmental engineering firm ($8000.00) and the resulting stream, adjacent stream edges and significant setbacks or buffers from the water course and adjacent water plants and soils severely limited the areas where any construction (even a path or walk) could be proposed.
Are there trees on the land? Are you required to retain trees? If so how many and how is this determined? Are there specific sacred tree species that cannot be removed? Is there a caliper size limit over which you have to retain trees? Is an arborist required? How will you design and build around the trees that you want to save or must be saved?
What are local permit processes like? How quickly are single-family homes permitted? What are the fees for building permits, land use permits, fire department review, utility permitting?
How Will You Get Water, Sewer, Electricity, Gas to Your Dream Home?
What utilities are now installed on or near the land? What was the basis of the design of these utilities? How many bedrooms and bathrooms were assumed would be served? How large a new house is an option as a result of the utilities available? Will you need to budget the design and the installation of gas, electricity, communications, water, storm and sanitary sewer?
Is there water? A well? Is that well tested and approved by the local jurisdiction? What is the expected flow rate? Water quality? Are there required setbacks from the well for buildings and sanitary sewer or septic systems and are those defined?
Often the well has a very large setback from the drilled center point of 100 feet or more circumference and a septic system cannot be built in this area. Has a certificate of water availability been accepted by the local County/City permitting authority?
Sanitary Sewer. This is often a big and expensive issue. Is there a sanitary sewer system available at all? If so what is the capacity that you can access or add to?
If not, you are going to have to eventually construct a septic system. What are the soils like and how do they percolate sewage? How large a septic field (lateral field dispersing sewage into the ground) is required based on number of bedrooms/bathrooms you want to build and the local soils and jurisdictional requirements?
Where will you locate a septic field? A future field of the same size as the current field handling all sewage is also usually required. Where will these two fields be laid out? What type of septic system is required based on soils percolation and geology? Settlement tanks, pumps, grinders, equipment and the location and cost of that equipment? Permitting and local design costs? A licensed and locally knowledgeable septic designer/installer is a great resource to study this issue before you finalize the purchase you are excited about.
Storm Water. In many jurisdictions, the handling of your storm water is now codified in very large and complex sets of laws. Storm water includes rainwater shed by roofs, drives, walks, paving. Most paving (even gravel and many “permeable” pavers) are considered by modern codes to be impermeable and therefore to produce storm water run-off that must be collected, treated, stored, and often released at a slow, controlled rate. Many codes require that storm water is held (detained) and most now require a study to prove that the most sustainable method of storm water conveyance and treatment on site is applied. This is the professional purview of knowledgeable Architects and Civil Engineers and a feasibility study of the expected size, complexity, limitations and costs of the storm water system required is a good idea if you are not excited about being surprised by the design and construction costs of your storm water system after the land is purchased.
These are some of the critical questions you may want to understand the answers to as you consider putting your hard-earned money on a piece of undeveloped land. Land that is developed in the past, especially the distant past, may also require understanding these issues in order to foresee significant costs of design and planning, construction costs, and issues that preclude the development of the land in the way you’d like.
The good news is that as you define and understand the answers to many of these issues, you will be building a data base that is already detailed and may be sufficient to create a Site Plan for the planning of and permitting of your dream house. And you will have peace of mind as you sign the purchase agreement and pull significant funds from your savings account.
Rhodes Architecture + Light has experience in the pursuit of land and more than 20 years of experience guiding clients in their purchases of land including detailed feasibility studies for residential and commercial properties. Since we have designed many buildings (including many dream homes) on land we understand the implication of the questions and answers that you want to thoroughly understand as you approach a land purchase. We’ve been involved in land studies that required the understanding of very complex issues including zoning, shoreline, steep slopes, riparian areas and wetlands, protected flora and fauna, environmental contamination and constraints, and land that necessitated difficult access and building construction.
Let us know if we can help in a professional consultation as you get serious about and focused on a particular piece of land. If you need an Architect for a house or small cabin for that land let us know that too!