Aerial view of land for sale

Old timers, such as grandfathers or kindly uncles, are fond of waxing eloquent about “the land.” And why not? It’s true what you’ve heard them say. “They're not making any more of it.”
When it comes time to choose the land on which to build a home, usually a carefully measured lot, the homebuyers, their architects and their builders spend a great deal of time analyzing every possible scenario of this property. While there are hundreds of factors that influence the long-term value and the joy a family has in their new home, there are three primary considerations that new home buyers can spend many sleepless nights hashing and rehashing. Conveniently, they all begin with the letter “S.”
What This Means for You — Finding the “perfect lot" is probably impossible, given the many factors involved. However, finding a great lot that allows a builder to construct a sound foundation, take advantage of sunlight and views and reduce the impact of erosion caused by water is certainly possible with a little research.
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The Soil

When considering a lot, the most basic element is the dirt. From fine clays and fine silts to coarse sand and gravel, soils have a mix of particles. According to these experts, “You can get a pretty good idea of the soil type by examining a handful of soil taken from below the topsoil, the dark, organic matter that’s usually no more than 6 to 10 inches deep. You cannot see the individual particles in soils high in clay. When squeezed, this soil feels smooth and can be rolled into thin shapes. Granular soils with more silt, sand, and gravel have visible particles that feel grittier. They will not hold a shape when squeezed.”
When it comes time to build, every type of soil has its own challenges, and employing a soil expert is suggested for this critical analysis.

High Clay Content 

This type of soil is one of the trickiest to deal with. This source notes “Soils with high clay content tend to hold a lot of water and drain poorly. Soft clays have limited load bearing ability, requiring foundation modifications. In cold climates, clay soils are prone to frost heaves, which can damage foundations, slabs, and piers that support decks and porches. Expansive clays expand when wet with enough force to destroy foundations and shrink when dry causing excessive settlement. Most non-expansive clay soils are fine to build on but will require more granular fill to be brought in for backfilling, reducing problems with drainage and frost heaves. Expansive clays require expensive engineered foundations.”

Granular Soils

Soils with moderate sand content - and thus more granular - are ideal for building and drainage. They have high load-bearing capacity and drain well. Lots that are pure sand are easy to excavate and build on, however they may need richer composition for landscaping and may require grading to avoid erosion.

Solid Ledge

This type of “soil” is one of the most problematic. The “Building Advisor” website notes, “Sites with solid or fractured ledge near the surface present problems with excavation, drainage, and septic systems. Blasting is expensive and carries liability if a neighbor claims that your blasting cracked their foundation. When possible, it is much less costly to leave the ledge in place and work around it.” 

Back patio of a home

The Slope

Many, if not most, future homeowners believe a nice, flat lot is the perfect choice for their dream home. However, in areas that are prone to heavy rain, this might not be true. This expert website notes, “A flat lot doesn’t always equal a perfect piece of land. There are problems that may come with that simple, smooth surface to curb potential flooding. Even with the best drainage systems, there is still the potential for water damage if your home is sitting at the lowest point in the neighborhood.” 
Home builders should be questioned about their thoughts on dealing with lot slope. This site continues, “There are three kinds of sloped lots, and this is a popular option because, depending on the direction and amount of slope, it may avoid basement flooding (and other water damage) much better than flat land. But sloped lots can also be steep for your wallet. It’s a general rule that you’ll pay an additional $10,000 in site preparation and other costs for every meter of fall.”
The three types of slopes are:

  • Side Slope
  • Up Slope
  • Down Slope

According to this expert, “Building on a side slope creates the opportunity for a walk-out basement with the entrance on the side or – more commonly – a side-entry basement garage. An up-slope lot has the house sitting higher than the approaching road or street, so you must walk up (often with stairs) to it. This site is ideal for a home with a front-entry garage.” 
A lot with a downslope, where the highest point is the street, is ideal for a walkout garage or basement with the exit/entrance in the rear. 

The Shape

The shape of the lot dramatically impacts the design of the house. This source notes, “Two lots with the same square footage may not both be buildable despite having the same area. A long narrow lot will not be as usable as one that is square. The shape of the lot impacts where the home is situated and the size of front, side, and rear yards. Homes on cul-de-sacs (pie-shaped lots) may have setback requirements (the distance the home is from the street) that allow for side yards but also mandate longer driveways.”

Other Considerations for Great Lot

Once these three primary factors are evaluated, there are still things to consider when choosing a lot for a new home. These include:

  • What is the direction the house will face? In colder climates, south-facing homes have a greater capacity for passive solar heating, and this means snow melts faster on the driveway and the house is warmer in the winter.
  • What is the zoning, building and development plan for the area where the lot sits? If the zoning is lax or non-existent, what was once a great view can turn into a non-picturesque parking lot!
  • What is the proximity to schools, shopping, work, and entertainment?
  • How much traffic will this homesite experience in the future? Busy streets are often deal-killers for resale plans. 
  • What are the amenities near the lot? Are the utilities underground? Is there a neighborhood swimming pool? Is high-speed internet and cable easily accessible?

There’s a Lot Riding on Your Decisions

In the excitement of choosing a new home style, size and other “visual” factors, some new homebuyers overlook the space on which the home sits — the lot. Making a checklist and working with a builder to evaluate the objectives for the home will help clarify the best lot for the size and style that fits the family, now and in the future.

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