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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ask the Builder: Buying land to build on? You need a checklist

This wooded lot is for sale. From all outward appearances, you might feel it’s the perfect one for you. Slow down!  (Tribune Content Agency)
By Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

Are you one of many who are thinking of fleeing bigger cities to get away from crime, pollution, higher taxes, never-ending traffic jams and a laundry list of other pesky problems? You’re not alone.

You might be one of the millions like my son and my son-in-law who now can work from anywhere there’s an internet connection. The paradigm of commuting to work has shifted farther than the ground does in an 8.0 earthquake. That dream you’ve nurtured for decades of living in the countryside is within your grasp.

That said, you need to proceed slowly when buying raw land or a developed vacant building lot. I maintain there are no fewer than 20, and maybe as many as 30, important things you need to consider. In the limited space I have here, I’m going to share some of the major dealbreakers that would make me walk away from what appears to be a dream lot. The other checklist items are in a document I created years ago. The link for that is at the end of this column.

Just a few years ago, I helped my daughter make a decision about buying a vacant lot in a small subdivision on Mount Desert Island, Maine. My daughter unknowingly enlisted a Realtor who had virtually no clue about the pros and cons of vacant land.

Don’t ever do this. We looked at no fewer than 15 lots. At least five hours and gallons of gasoline were wasted looking at lots that should have never been considered.

The first thing you need to do when considering a building lot is to make your own personal list of dealbreakers. In my daughter’s case, she wanted privacy and quiet. This means you don’t want your lot to be on a main road where giant trucks with diesel engines pass by every three minutes.

The same goes for tourist locations like Mount Desert Island that are overrun in good weather with tourists riding loud motorcycles. The wet-behind-the-ears Realtor should have never even considered five of the lots she took us to for consideration.

The size of a lot is much more important than you might think. If you’ve never built before, you might not be aware of zoning laws that create an unbuildable border of land within your lot. This no-build zone is created by the front, rear and side-yard setback lines. They differ widely from town to town and neighborhood to neighborhood. For example, a vacant urban lot may have setback distances of just a few feet. A rural lot may have a front and rear-yard setback of 60 or more feet.

In my daughter’s case, the modest home she ended up building had to be shoehorned into the leftover buildable area within her lot. The house had to be built at an angle to the road – and even then two small wetland areas were dangerously close to the house.

Wetlands, you say? Imagine looking at my daughter’s lot in the dead of winter when you can’t even see them because they’re frozen and under a foot or two of snow! You’d hope all the wetlands are clearly marked on the plat map; however, you should only hope for things you can’t control like good weather or international peace.

What about something as simple as compass direction? You might not think it matters much. Are you excited about the prospect of installing solar panels on your roof? Will the largest part of your roof that you can’t see from the road face south? That’s what you want to happen if you live in the Northern Hemisphere.

Consider my house, for example. I happen to thoroughly enjoy sunrises. I wanted the rear of my home to face east so I could enjoy them sitting out on my deck. The other advantage of this orientation is when I’m on the deck on a hot summer’s day, my deck is in the shade. Other neighbors of mine are sweltering in direct sunlight on their decks that face west.

What about city or town services? When I moved to rural New Hampshire 13 years ago I didn’t much think about trash pickup. After all, for five decades I just rolled my cans to the curb, and the refuse magically disappeared. You can pay extra for that service in my town, or you can drive your own stinking and leaking plastic trash bags to the town dump yourself. It’s a good thing I can hose out my pickup bed each time I get back home in the summer.

Have you heard about mud season? It’s the harbinger of black flies. I’ll never forget my first spring in New Hampshire. Fortunately, my house and the roads leading to my house from at least one direction are all paved. One early spring day, I went for a walk to the end of my street. When you turned south on the intersecting road, it was paved for about 100 feet. Then it turned to gravel.

There in the middle of the road was a warning sign: ROAD IMPASSABLE. The ruts in the road were about 12 inches deep. My beefy Super Duty ¾-ton 4x4 truck has only 8 inches of clearance. All the locals knew that if you were to venture onto the road and get stuck, only a farm tractor might get you out. No tow-truck company would ever venture into mud that deep. If you lived on that road, how would you get food for weeks at a time during mud season?

You’ll discover all sorts of other things to consider when you peruse my Land Buying Checklist. Type this into your browser. Don’t leave out the word go:

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