When choosing a piece of land to build a home on, most people base their decision on the topography of the land. They can see how steep it is and what type of home would be the best fit for it. They can see how many trees are on the lot and if there is or will be a view. They can see that the south facing slopes are melted quicker than the north facing ones. When it comes to building on that lot, they should have a good idea of what they are getting in to, right? Unfortunately, while the topography tells us a lot of things it doesn’t tell us everything.
A couple components of the land that are easily over looked are the dirt and water. Sure, every lot has dirt and water, that is what you’re buying after all. But what kind and how much can have a big impact on the costs involved in developing that lot. Anyone that has ever tried to dig a hole in the Rocky Mountains knows there are a lot of rocks in the ground. But there is also sandy soil, a variety of clay and varying water tables. The make up of the dirt and water content in your lot will determine the type of foundation you need, the type of septic system if one is required, and the drainage requirements necessary. These components can drastically impact your construction costs.
So how do you know what type of dirt you have? How do you know if there is too much water on the lot? The best way to evaluate your lot is by getting a soils test. In our local market, a soils test is the responsibility of the buyer. It’s an inspection of the ground and therefore a buyer’s expense. Some lenders will require a soils test in order to approve a loan on the property. They don’t want possibly over valued land as collateral for their loan and neither should you. The topography of the land will impact the cost involved but you should anticipate $2000-$3000 and a timeline of several weeks. If the seller has had a soils test done in the past they may provide it to prospective buyers. Drainage through the lot may change over the years but soil conditions usually don’t. However, a soils report over seven years old may not offer any liability protection if building decisions are based on it.
A soils test is more frequently performed prior to the sale of a lot but it may not be the only part of the lot you want to inspect before hand. The Summit County Planning and Engineering Department requires a Slope Stability Analysis on any lot where building will disturb slopes that have a 30% grade or steeper. Wetlands can impact the ability to build on a lot. Any disturbance to wetlands requires approval by the Army Corps of Engineers and building around the wetlands may not be an option on all lots. Even if there is enough room for the house, there may not be enough room for a septic system.
By now you may be holding your head reeling from the amount of expenses piling up on a lot that you don’t even own yet. You need to realize that spending a few thousand dollars now may keep you from spending many more thousands of dollars on a piece of land that won’t work for what you want or one that will cost you thousands more to build on than you thought. If it turns out that the lot has good dirt and water, the expenses you incurred were expenses you would have had to incur to build anyway. Evaluating the ground before making a purchase is something every buyer of vacant land should consider.
Some of the information in this article was provided by HP Geotech.