Buying Land – Buildable Lot

Dear Mr. Heldmann,

Your book, Be Your Own Contractor, appears to have one blatant omission. On page 17, you write:

“Is it a buildable lot? This is the most important question to ask when deciding to buy a building site, and your local building inspection department is responsible for answering it in the form of a building permit. They will only issue a building permit if the property can be considered a buildable lot. Be sure to check with your local building inspection department before you purchase your site.”

So, you’re saying that I should retain an architect, survey the lot, test the soil, design a structure, have the plans reviewed, and see if a building permit is issued for my dream house, all for a lot I do not even own.

My city requires a site plan, floor plan, foundation plan, details where necessary, elevations and other plans, all submitted by a licensed architect, before issuing a building permit for new residential construction.

Even if a lot is buildable, a permit might not be issued for the design I want.

I’m obviously missing something here, and your book does not appear to explain it.


Lot with a small building envelope

Hi Chris,

Buying land is one of the most important components in building a home.
Besides accounting for 25% or more of the total cost of building, all real estate boils down to location, location, location. It is important to know as much as possible about the process of buying land.

When I wrote “Is it a buildable lot” I meant, will the construction of a home will be allowed IF, and only if it meets all the requirements, restrictions, and criteria of the local building inspection department, zoning department, health department, etc.

Lots or building sites in general, even acreage, are deemed not buildable for any of the following reasons:
• Unsuitable for a septic system
• Water tables have been proven to be unsuitable
• NO water available
• Inadequate road frontage
• Too steep for safe construction
• In a flood plain
• Too small to qualify for a home site
• Possible endangered species habitat
• Zoning may not allow a residence there.
• Been used as a toxic dump site at one time,
• There may be some mineral deposit there that is hazardous, such as asbestos, radon, etc.

However, even if a lot is deemed buildable, it may not be buildable for you because, as you say in your second to last sentence, “Even if a lot is buildable, a permit might not be issued for the design I want.” In other words, it may be “buildable”, just not “desirable” for you, or for your project.

But someone can and probably will find a suitable house plan for that lot.

I found a “buildable” lot that was undesirable because it had so many “easements” and “setbacks” on it that the space left for a house (called the “building envelope”) was considered insufficient by other builders to build a house comparable to the neighborhood. (See survey above) With a lot of planning effort on my part, I made it work! The house sold in the framing stage!

Before you, as you say, “retain an architect, survey the lot, test the soil, design a structure, have the plans reviewed, and see if a building permit is issued for my dream house, all for a lot I do not even own”, you can talk to the building inspection department to find out FIRST if it is it is a “buildable” lot.

Then talk to them (You are NOT applying for the Building Permit at this time) as to what requirements or criteria that must be met for an individual’s house plan. (They are there to help believe it or not.)

They may require that the house face a certain direction. When a lot is a corner lot, this is often a point of contention. You may be allowed to apply for a variance.

They may require a certain percentage of the lot’s surface area be left permeable for proper drainage and you have plans for extensive paving.

They may have other guidelines for house design and/or house placement on the lot. Ask them!

Another source of placing restrictions on what you can and cannot build are “Restrictive Covenants“, also called “Deed Restrictions” because they are recorded with the deed when they are made by a previous owner of the land. They can be quite restrictive, and they are legal and binding as long they don’t discriminate.

Some examples of deed restrictions are:

  • What size house can be built.
  • What colors the house must be or not be.
  • Which way your garage door must face.
  • That you have to have a garage door.
  • Driveways must be of a certain building material.
  • What style of home must be built and/or what kind of siding must be used.
  • Many, many other restrictions are often found.

By the way Chris, the seller should provide a survey of the land at their expense. (There probably already is an existing survey.)

The seller should also provide you with a title insurance policy which insures that you will be buying property with what is called “clear title.” The seller should pay for the policy.

The seller should bear the cost of a soil analysis as well.

Chris, thanks for writing and helping me expand this critical subject matter.

Best of luck,
Carl Heldmann

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