Where to Build?

How to Choose a Building Lot For Your New House

Frank Lloyd Wright followed the rocky landscape when he designed Fallingwater
Frank Lloyd Wright followed the rocky landscape when he designed Fallingwater. Photo by José Fuste Raga/age fotostock Collection/Getty Images (cropped)
You're building a house. Which do you do first?

1. Select a style and a plan
2. Select a building lot

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Both approaches have merit. If your heart is set on a Spanish style adobe home, a heavily treed lot may not make sense for you. Having an idea of the architectural style you prefer will determine the size and characteristics of your building site.

You may run into problems, however, if you select a specific floor plan too soon.

You can always design a home to suit a landscape, but you may not be able to alter a landscape to accommodate the specifications of predetermined house plans. The configuration of rooms, the placement of windows, the location of the driveway and many other design elements will be affected by the land you build on.

The land itself has long been the inspiration for truly great homes. Consider Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Constructed of concrete slabs, the house is anchored to a rugged stone hill in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. Compare Fallingwater with Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House. Made almost entirely of transparent glass, this unearthly structure seems to float above a grassy plain in Plano, Illinois.

Would the Farnsworth House seem as graceful and serene perched on a rocky hill? Would Fallingwater make such a powerful statement if it sat in a grass field? Probably not.

Once you have located a promising building site for your new home, spend some time on the building site. Walk the full length of the building site at different times of the day. If you are a follower of feng shui, you may want to think about the land in terms of its ch'i, or energy. If you prefer a more down-to-earth evaluation, think about ways the building site will influence the shape and style of your home.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the general characteristics of the land? Is it green and woodsy? Rocky and gray? Or, is it a vast open stretch with a golden hue? Will the prevailing colors of the landscape change with the seasons? Will the home you imagine blend with the landscape? Does the landscape suggest particular colors or materials you might include in the design of your home?

     

  • Can other structures be clearly seen from the building lot? What is the prevailing architectural style? Will your proposed home fit the overall context of the neighborhood?

  • Will the size of your proposed house be proportionate to the size of the lot? (You don't want to squeeze a mansion onto a postage stamp!)

     

  • Is there a street or road? Should the house face toward or away from the road?

     

  • Where should the driveway be located? Will there be enough room for cars and delivery trucks to turn around?

     

  • Where are the most pleasing views? Where does the sun rise and set? Which views would you like to see from the living areas? From the kitchen? From the bedrooms? Where should windows and doors be placed?

     

  • If you are in a northern climate, how important is it to face the south? Will a southern exposure help you save on heating costs?

     

  • Is the site flat? Are there hills or streams? Are there any other geological conditions that might affect the design or placement of your home?

     

  • How much landscaping will be required? Will preparing the land for building and planting trees and shrubbery add to your final costs?
    The waterfall views at Fallingwater may look idyllic, but for most of us, building on a rocky hillside isn't practical. You want the site of your new home to be beautiful, but it must also be safe... and affordable. Before you make a final decision, you'll need to consider a mind-boggling list of technical details.

    As you narrow your search for an ideal building site, don't scrimp on getting expert advice on home building. Your builder can put you in touch with consultants with the legal and scientific expertise to offer building advice. Your consultants will investigate the characteristics of the land and explore zoning, building codes and other factors.

    Land Conditions

    • Soil. Has the property been a victim of hazardous waste? Are there pollutants that may not be apparent to an untrained observer?

       

    • Land Stability. Is the property is subject to land slides or sinkages?

       

    • Water Drainage. Is the property located near a river? Are there hills or low spots which may make your home subject to water runoff? Err on the side of caution. Even Mies van der Rohe made a grievous mistake. He placed the Farnsworth House too close to a stream, and his masterpiece suffered serious flood damage as a result.

       

    • Noise. Is there a nearby airport, highway, or railroad? How disruptive is it?
    Zoning, Building Codes and More
    • Zoning. In five years, your beautiful views may be replaced by a highway or a housing development. Zoning regulations will indicate what may be legally constructed in the surrounding area.

       

    • Building Codes. A variety of ordinances will affect the placement of your new home on the lot. Regulations will specify how close you can build to the property line, roads, streams, and lakes.

       

    • Easements. Easements for electrical and telephone poles will limit the space you have for building your home.

       

    • Public Utilities. Unless the property is in a development of suburban tract homes, there may not be easy access to electricity, gas, telephone, cable television or public water lines. Sewers. If there are no municipal sewers, you'll need to know where you may legally place your septic system.
    Costs

    You may be tempted to skimp on the cost of your land so that you can spend more money on building your house.

    Don't. The cost of altering an unsuitable lot is likely to be more expensive than purchasing land that is meets your needs and your dreams.

    How much should you spend on a building lot? There are exceptions, but in most communities your land will represent 20% to 25% of your total building costs.