Pick Your Home Site
Considering building a new home? Not quite sure how to start? Let this architect guide you through the selection of your new home site.
The first question you might ask yourself is: How much land do I need? That depends, of course, on what you wish to build, and how much open space you feel you need around you. Beginning at the small-lot end of the spectrum, you may find in your community single-family townhouse-style residences that occupy a good bit less than 1/16th of an acre of land. (An acre is 43,560 square feet, or roughly 209' x 208'; one sixteenth of an acre is 2,722 square feet; the average home in America has about 2,300 square feet of floor space.) But smallish dwellings built as townhouses or other such 'zero-lot-line' homes — so called because there is zero distance between the edge of the house and its property or lot line —are typically built by a builder or developer and sold off to individual homeowners like so many slices of bread. If you want to control your own destiny, you'll need to purchase a raw lot or parcel of land upon which you can build your own home.
So, let's begin again with the small end of the spectrum for free-standing single-family homes on their own individual parcels or building lots. If built as a two-story (or what is typically termed a 'Colonial') structure, a 2,300-square-foot average-size American home can fit comfortably on a lot or parcel a bit smaller than 1/5th of an acre (8,712 sf), provided its side yards average only about 10 feet wide, and its front and rear yards are each just about 50 feet or so in depth. If built as a ranch, or single-level, structure, that same 2,300 sf home can fit comfortably on as little as about 1/4 of an acre (10,890 sf), again with side yards averaging only about 10 feet wide, and front and rear yards each only about 50 feet in depth. But what if the thought of neighbors only 10 feet away turns you off? What if you desire a more spacious back yard? Or what if the community you are considering has a minimum front yard setback requirement of 60 feet, or 80 feet, or more? The lot size you seek must therefore increase accordingly. Then, too, the lots you might preview may not be simple rectangles, but instead wedges, pie-shapes, tee-shapes, trapezoids or more complicated shapes. Such lots are typically less efficient at accommodating a variety of house shapes, sizes or locations, meaning you may end up buying more land just to accommodate the same basic house. You will most often find building lots in suburban subdivisions ranging from 1/4 to 1/3 to 1/2 acre and up, with more and more communities trending toward larger lot sizes. An increasing number of outer-ring suburban communities, in fact, mandate 1-acre or 2-acre or even 5-acre minimum lot sizes, often to preserve a more rural (or more affluent) character. Countering that trend are some older inner-ring suburbs that aim to increase density and population by encouraging cluster-homes, townhouses and other smaller-lot schemes.
Once you've settled on an approximate target size for your new home site, you must make sure you've examined all those factors that might force you to adjust that target size. First, check any local zoning or building ordinances, or subdivision homeowner's association regulations, that may restrict or alter how you can make use of your lot. The zoning ordinances may mandate minimum front yard, side yard and rear yard setbacks, constraining where you can locate your home on the lot. They may also limit how much of your lot you can cover with structures (referred to as 'maximum lot coverage') or paving ('maximum impervious area'). You may be required by one regulation or another to build at least a certain minimum size home. You may also be required to maintain certain grading (or earth-slope) minimums or maximums, or create swales (shallow earth or lawn troughs) to channel and direct stormwater runoff. All of these may further constrain exactly where your home can be placed, and at what size or shape. Local regulations may restrict you to only one 'curb-cut' (driveway), eliminating that grand horseshoe drive you envisioned, or may limit how much apron paving or outdoor parking you are permitted. You may be prohibited from removing certain mature trees from your lot, or forced to replant replacement trees for those you do remove. There may be limitations placed on which direction garage doors may face, or which exterior building materials are considered acceptable, or where fences or ancillary structures (such as garages, storage sheds, pool houses, greenhouses, dog-runs, gazebos, fire-pits, etc.) may be permitted, or how steep your roof slope (or 'pitch') must be. If you require a septic system, its size, location and layout may complicate your site design. You may be required to submit your home's design drawings or construction drawings to a local architectural design review board for approval before being granted a building permit. (Older, more historic — and pretentious — communities are notorious for making life exceedingly difficult for anyone attempting to build a new home or substantially alter an old one.)
So, what began as a search for a 1/3-acre lot upon which you could build your 2,300 sf dream Colonial may quickly turn instead into a struggle for an affordable 1-acre lot upon which you just might be able to make it fit, once all these other various constraints are met. But you're still not done; there are other things you must watch out for:
Beware of low lots. Not only may they be prone to flooding, but placing home foundations on former streambeds or natural drainage channels may be risky. Views may be lacking, and you might end up getting stormwater runoff from neighbors. If you are seriously considering a low lot (or any lot where the quality or stability of soils may be in question), it's wise to enlist a geotechnical consultant to test the soils and offer lot preparation or home construction recommendations to reduce your risk. On particularly questionable soils, fill, organic material or rock, you should probably also consider a structural consultant to offer construction recommendations as well.
Beware of steeply sloped or highly variable-slope lots. Usable yard areas, lawns, drives, walks and landscaped beds work generally well only within a fairly narrow range of slopes (from about 1% to 5% or so; or 1 foot of fall over a 100-foot distance, to 5 feet of fall over a 100-foot distance). If you can't 'flatten out' enough of your lot to accommodate all of the nearly-level spaces and functions you desire, then you'll require some far steeper areas, ramps, steps, retaining walls and the like. All of these tend to add cost quite quickly, and also tend to compound stormwater runoff and drainage issues rapidly.
Beware of any lot displaying wetlands or areas of excessive fill, dumping, organic matter or unusual soils. Wetlands may be Federally or locally protected, drastically limiting your ability to utilize your site. Areas of excessive fill may not have been properly placed or compacted, making such areas unsuitable for foundations without costly preparatory work. Dumping or organic matter can riddle the soils with pockets that cannot bear a structure's weight, also requiring costly preparatory work. Unusual soils, whether sandy or rocky or clay-like, may drastically alter the structural work required to insure your home's long-term stability.
Beware of overly large open fields or lawns. Unfortunately, those immense lawns we find so visually appealing we also find incredibly expensive to sustain. Over their lives, lawns gobble up more water, fertilizer and labor than just about any other component of a home site. Natural tree-stands, scrub growth and even relatively-well-tended landscape beds will all tend to consume less precious commodities and time than a vast greensward.
Finally, examine the community amenities that affect your lot. Are there sidewalks? Does the community provide and/or maintain trees in tree lawns? Is there street lighting? Are all your necessary utilities provided at your lot frontage? or will you have to pay to have any of them extended to your lot? What are all the required 'tap fees' or other such permit fees you must pay to enable you to tap into those utilities? What restrictions are there on construction equipment and vehicles entering or leaving your lot? or your subdivision? Learn to ask questions — early, and often, and until you get complete and (reasonably) satisfactory answers. Only if you enter the process of selecting your home site well-informed will you come out of the process satisfied.
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