W. Epstein Builders on How to Choose a Building Lot

Baby boomers are finding that Coastal southeastern North Carolina is a wonderful place to move once the family is grown and there is more time for leisure. The area has a lot to offer—beaches, waterways, golf courses, an easy life style and agreeable temperatures most of the year. With Wilmington and Myrtle Beach close by, there are plenty of restaurants, cultural events, shopping and entertainment within an easy hour drive. And it is because of this that many planned communities have been developed in the area. Each community is unique, which provides a wide array of choices for those looking to buy and live in southeastern NC. There are communities that are gated and others that are not; there are communities that are rich with amenities and others that offer a modest level of community features. There are golf course communities, waterway communities, and nature preserve communities.

However, what all of these communities have in common is a choice between buying an already existing home or buying a building lot. If your choice is to purchase a building lot, keep in mind that someday you will want to build on that piece of dirt, and all building lots are not created equal. Most people have some “criteria” when choosing a lot. For instance, it may be someone will only consider a golf course lot, or a pond lot, or a wooded lot or a marsh lot or a corner lot or a cul-de-sac lot. While these are personally important criteria, keep in mind there are other considerations that make a lot a desirable or undesirable building lot.

Bill Epstein, a builder in St. James Plantation and experienced developer/builder, suggests you get a builder’s opinion before you buy. But short of that, here are a few things to keep in mind as you select a lot:

First, it is best to shop for a lot just after a rain.
wet building lot
Take a look at the picture to above. This is a building lot 2 days after it rained. This is not the most desirable building lot in its present state, and in fact, would be disastrous to the homeowner if a builder did not “re-construct” the lot before building on it. Obviously, it has low areas where water collects and does not easily drain. A reputable builder that understands the importance of setting a house so water drains away from the house and driveway will need to bring in fill dirt to “re-construct” the lot so the house is not in a hole or lower than the road. Builders often factor in enough loads of dirt to fill an area after removal of trees, bushes & roots. But with a lot like the one pictured, the amount of dirt necessary to make this a good building lot can, and most probably will, run into the a fair amount of money. Dirt is expensive and the needed fill is actually part of the cost of the lot although many lot owners will “blame” the builder for the high cost of fixing a poorly developed building lot. Knowing that a lot does not drain well or needs many loads of dirt to raise the house for ample drainage, can be used to negotiate a reasonable price for a lot that is not “ready to build” upon.

Second, walk all around the lot and “feel” it with your feet. If it feels spongy, you may want to pass on the lot or at the very least get a soil test before you purchase. You want to know that the dirt is good and is stable enough to support the house. It is good to keep in mind that some lots near the coast were created from swampy land, and the dirt on these lots may not be suitable for building. Correcting for unstable dirt can be costly, but if you absolutely love and want the lot, this will give you a bargaining chip with the developer or lot owner. But before negotiating, it is a good idea to check with a builder first to get his take on cost to ameliorate the problem.

Third, this may seem obvious, but can be overlooked—consider the size and shape of the lot you want to purchase. Many lots in these communities are relatively small, and all lots have setbacks on all sides of the property. The area on which a house can be built, called the building envelope, equals the area inside the property lines minus the required setbacks for the lot. A typical example of set backs are 8 feet on either side and 30 ft off the front and back property lines. Often greater setbacks are required from golf courses, ponds or environmentally protected areas. A rectangular property often allows for more house options than a pie-shaped or irregular lot. Too many times, a lot is selected and purchased, only to discover during the design phase of building that the lot has limited the owners’ choices as to garage style and size of house. This is where a builder can advise a prospective lot owner on the limitations a lot will place on the design of the house.

And lastly, consider your lot budget. It is so-o-o very easy to purchase a piece of dirt. Relatively speaking, it is a lot less money than the cost to build the house. So try to bring some balance to the overall cost of your project. First, know what your budget is for the whole project—land and house. Then when you decide to purchase a lot, make sure there is an adequate budget left to build the house that you want. Pouring too much money into the vacant lot can leave you with too little money to build a house with the features you want and that reflects the cost of the lot. It is critical to remember that when you go to re-sell, especially in these planned communities, that most buyers, first and foremost, consider the house and its features. The location of the lot—be it on a golf course, pond, nature preserve or neighborhood—has value and is important, but most buyers will negotiate based on the house and its features. The lot the house sits on is but one feature. If the house size and quality do not reflect the price of the lot, reselling will most often be a great disappointment.

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