Ah, the ancestral homestead…all that space and freedom to do as you darn well pleased on your own land.

Pretty, isn’t it…

Nowadays, buyers and renters are looking at the high cost of housing and thinking “Hmmm, vacant land…”  Well, don’t expect to buy land and plop a modular home on it – or even an RV.  In my area, buying vacant land is not always a cheaper solution to the high cost of housing.

Land.  I remember seeing movies about the ‘olden days’ when people could get land for free.  The government was actually handing out parcels of land…for free.  There was such an abundance of land (still is, in fact.  Drive, fly or take the train across the United States, you’ll get an idea just how vast and empty our nation is.) that people were encouraged to homestead.  Move out West and leave behind grubby city living.

What did folk look for in land back in them olden days?  Land needed to have access to water, flat areas for farming, grassland for grazing, trees for shade and for lumber.

Homesteading meant that you’d camp on the land and begin to create a ranch or farm.  Grow your own food, raise livestock and have some way to trade or pay for things you can’t grow.  You’ll need to build a barn for the animals, sheds for tools, a house for the family, bunkhouses for the workers.  Add an outhouse and maybe a lean-to for storing the grain/hay for the animals and you’re done!

Oh, wait, we forgot about water!  Need a stream close by or you have to dig a well.  I have heard about people who dug a channel all the way to their place from a stream that wasn’t on their land – hoping no one would notice.

What do we need today for our very own homestead?

Generally speaking, we need electricity, gas, water, telephone, sewer, TV/cable and internet.  And, if you are one of the nouveau riche, you’ll want to start a boutique vineyard or raise goats and maybe try your hand at making goat cheese!   In fact, here’s a recipe to help you get started!  http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2010/02/how-to-make-goat-cheese-recipe.html

Aren’t these baby goats adorable! http://www.BabyGoatFarm.com

Here’s what you need to know about buying land – wherever you choose to build, the city or county will want to make sure the land can support you living there.  Is water available?  Is there sewer available?  Is emergency access available?  Is the ground stable?  Was the property created legally?  In other words, someone can’t just sell you a piece of their property without jumping through hoops of fire.  Lots can’t be split willy-nilly, you know.  There are rules for this sort of thing, many rules, lots of rules, an over-abundance of rules.

OK, how to look for vacant land.  First, research, Research, RESEARCH!  Yes, it’s back to that.  Research is always the first step of any major purchase – it seems that people will do more research on a vacuum cleaner than property!

Naïveté has no place in this business.

What does it take to build a house on vacant land?  You’ll find loads of information via the city’s website.  Info on the process, the applications and the fees are frequently online.  Some of the dinkiest towns have the most informative websites!

Go to the City or County and ask a Planner about the applications and the fees associated with building a house, in general.

You might be astonished how complicated it is.  And how expensive.  Just because you own land doesn’t guarantee you have any rights to build on it.  Sometimes the property comes with the guarantee, but very often it does not!

Let’s pretend, first, that the property has no guarantees – in the County of Santa Clara, a property with a house ALREADY ON IT might have no guarantees that you can do very much to the house – more on that later.

Now then, you are looking at a property listed for sale.  What do you need to know?

1.  Does the property listing say anything about approval to build?  Something like BSA or Site Approval?  Call the County/City to verify info and find out what it would take to build for this particular property.  They’ll need the address, if there is one, or the Appraiser’s Parcel Number (APN).

2.  Ask the County/City if there are any project files associated with the property.  Any information is public record so you can look at the file and see what current/previous owners have attempted to do and what you might have to do.

3.   Is the property in a Design Review area?  This means that any house design has to meet certain rules – such as color of paint, amount of windows, height of building, landscaping, roof material and also the location of the house on  the site.  Will the house be visible from the valley floor?

4.  Is a well required?  Sometimes the listing will say so, other times not.  If the house is in the City, it likely has City water, if it’s in the County, perhaps not.  If the property has access to a shared well, that information will be in the Legal Description of the property (part of the Title Report).  If you have to dig your own well, then be prepared to pay thousands of dollars – first to find the water, then to dig the well, then to test the water quality and the water quantity.  The well must provide a required minimum amount of water in order to sustain a home.  In our local Chesbro lake area, someone drilled 4 times before finding water.

Drilling a well in West Virginia http://www.wikipedia.com

5.  Is a septic system required?  Again, if the property is in the City, then you might be able to hook up to the sewer system.  Find out what those fees are.  If that’s not possible, then you’ll need to have a soil percolation test done to see if the soil can handle a septic system (how quickly does water percolate through the soil).  Septic systems have a tank to hold the ‘solids’ (you can guess what those are) and lines out to a leach field, where the fluid leaches into the soil.  Leach line design is laid out by a specialist in the field.  Some areas will allow a tank without the leach lines as long as a contract of sorts is signed that the property owner will have the tank pumped out regularly.  Also some areas allow alternative types of toilets, such as compost or incinerator potties, rendering leach fields unnecessary (and reducing the overall cost of building on that land, yay!).

Curious?  Here’s a link to Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe on How Stuff Works  http://videos.howstuffworks.com/discovery/36227-dirty-jobs-content-burning-toilet-video.htm

Envirolet Composting Toilet

6.  Is electricity on the property?  If not, how far away is electricity?  What will it take to bring power to the property?  Can you survive on solar/wind power alone?  Is that allowed in this area?  Contact PG&E and solar/wind power companies for more info.

 7.   Is internet service available?  Is telephone service available?  Find out and, if not, what will it take to get it?  Contact the local service providers for this one.

8.   Is natural gas available (another PG&E question)?  If not, you are likely going to be using propane gas – having a propane tank on the property.  Find out from a propane gas supplier how that works and how much it costs.  Some jurisdictions allow for all-electric appliances, but some don’t, so you’ll have to have propane on the property.

9.  How much land on the property is flat enough for a house?  Do you want a backyard?  Does the property have enough room for that?  How level is the property overall?

10.   Is there evidence of a slide?  Geologic disturbance?  If the property is in a slide or earthquake area you’ll be required to have additional experts provide reports on the stability of the soil and the building site.  You might not be able to build within 50’ of an earthquake fault, how does that impact your proposed building site?  I’ve seen properties for sale that I know are in a high slide area and the cost to build a house there will be very high, and that’s if the City Geologist even allows a house to be built!  The property is still for sale, though, and its ‘let the buyer beware’!

11. Get a copy of any Record of Survey for the property – there might be one for the property all by itself or along with the neighborhood or maybe there isn’t one but the one for the adjoining property has some interesting info that pertains to this property.  For instance, the driveway is on the neighbor’s property – well, that info will be on that Record of Survey and is important for you to know.

12. Speaking of driveways – is there a driveway for the property?  I don’t mean some gravel/dirt thing, but a full-fledged asphalt or concrete driveway?  Does it meet the requirements for Site Approval?  If not, is there a design for that and how much will it cost to build it?

Now, back to property with a house already on it.  Let’s say that the house was built in 1964 and is 1,700sf with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, has an attached 2 car garage and a big barn and sits on 4 acres, 1 acre of which is level.

This property was built before Site Approval was required and the property owners have done no improvements to the property since it was built – other than cosmetic improvements.

You want to buy the property and add 1,000sf to it.  Sad to say, but you will need to go through all the same stuff outlined above for an empty lot.  In our county, there is an Excel spreadsheet you have to use to figure out if your project will be considered a rebuild or a remodel.  Yeah, you read it right, an Excel spreadsheet!

Here’s another option:  You add 400sf to the house, convert the garage to living space and add a new garage.  You might not have to get Site Approval if your improvements don’t trigger the rules for a rebuild.

Oh, but guess what?  It turns out the house has some big foundation issues!  It was built on ‘fill’.  That means that some dirt was brought on to the property in order to create a level building pad.  Part of the house is on that fill area and is slowly sinking.  You buy this house and you’ll need to do some foundation work – jacking that corner of the house up and maybe adding new footings.  How much is that?  Yikes!

Foundation settlement crack http://www.insectapedia.com A very interesting and instructive site on how to spot/fix problems with your house.

Ask Planning what criteria triggers the requirement for Site Approval or Design Review – any of those things that can cause expense and delay.  Can you add a bedroom?  Two bedrooms?  Remodel the kitchen?  Add a barn?  Install a pool?  What is the threshold?  Make sure you don’t cross it!

If the property has a steep driveway, then it might have to be redesigned to current Fire Safety regulations.  I’ve seen private roads (some shared by 9 properties) that are in such bad shape, NO ONE has been able to build on their property or update their house significantly because of the cost of redoing the road or driveway.  I’m serious.

This road needs some work…

It’s not simply a matter of filling in holes and smoothing new asphalt on.  The road is too narrow, too steep and doesn’t have ‘turn-outs’ allowing for cars to move to the side and let a fire truck pass.  The County is saying they don’t think that the drive could ever be improved to their standards?  What?!?  So all those people who live up there?  Yeah, they’re screwed.  Sorry, this is such a sore spot for me; I tend to get very indignant about it.

So do you still want to buy vacant land?  I don’t mean to turn you off completely from the idea.  Just make the effort to find out what developing the land involves – maybe bring in a consultant to help you with the assessment – and you won’t be wringing your hands later 😉