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Buying Your 1st House: Understand the Land

Updated on October 5, 2010
A house perched atop a gentle crown of land.
A house perched atop a gentle crown of land. | Source

Perhaps like so many other first-time homebuyers you’ve dreamt of a mansion on a hill. Or maybe you are looking for a sunny slope overlooking a golf course. You might be someone that’s fond of a walk-out basement. But no matter what type of home catches your fancy, you must be sure to first understand the land.

Beware of low lots, and any houses situated on them. Not only may they be prone to flooding (or, in fact, be IN a regulated flood zone), but also placing home foundations on low wet ground, former streambeds or natural drainage channels can be very risky and expensive. 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, home construction or slope stabilization recommendations to reduce your risk. On particularly questionable soils, fill, organic material or rock, you should probably also consider a structural consultant to offer recommendations on the bearing strength of these underlying substances.

The ideal site perches a home atop a gentle crown of land, so that the earth falls gently down and away from the house on all sides. On such a site, rainwater and ground surface runoff fall always away from the house and its foundation walls and basement, never toward them. Since the hard surfaces of driveways, aprons and patios rapidly sheet off rainwater, it is also important that they slope at least gently away from the house.

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 home 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. 

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