An Architect's House Site Selection Checklist

Finding the Perfect Site for Your New Home

Location

As anyone will tell you, the single most important criteria in selecting land is its location. But what are the factors that make one location better and more valuable than another? Some of the more tangible factors are listed below.

  • What is the general feeling and character of the property?
  • What is the general feeling and character of the neighborhood and surrounding properties?
  • Is the property located within an area zoned for residential construction? See city zoning maps.
  • Is the property located away from any undesirable type of zoning. i.e. industrial or heavy manufacturing? See city zoning maps.
  • Are properties contiguous with yours already developed? If not:
  • Find out if there are any current plans for potential development.
  • Determine if the future development could be detrimental to the value or usability of your site.
  • Are there any significant construction projects planned that may adversely influence the property? i.e. a major freeway or new development. Review city plans to expand arterial roadways, etc.
  • Do the adjacent properties have any nice features or potential problems that would affect or enhance the enjoyment of your property?
  • Are the values of the houses in the area commensurate with the value of the house you plan to build? These values can significantly affect your future home’s resale value.
  • Are there good views to the site (curb appeal)?
  • Are there good views from, or within, the site (around which to orient the house)?
  • Are there any objectionable noises in the neighborhood? Is the site beneath an approach flight path of an airport? Is it near a major road or freeway? Is there a busy fire station nearby?
  • Are there any objectionable smells in the neighborhood?
  • Are property taxes in the municipality reasonable?

Amenities

Does the site have any of the following amenities?

  • Privacy
  • Woods
  • Lake, ocean or river frontage
  • Lake Access
  • Scenic views
  • Interesting site features such as a pond or wetland, rock outcroppings, old ruins, or mature trees

Utilities and Services

Availability of utilities can be an important factor in the cost or practicality of building a house. For example, If city water is unavailable, a well must be drilled. This may cost $5,000-$20,000, or more. Similarly, if a sanitary sewer is unavailable, a septic system must be installed (there are many restrictions on location and size of these systems that could affect the placement of the house or even the ability to build a house – consult your architect or the local building department for more information). Are the following available to the site?

  • Water
  • Electricity
  • Telephone
  • Natural gas
  • Cable TV
  • Sanitary sewer
  • Storm sewer
  • Garbage collection
  • Snow plowing services

Zoning Regulations and other Restrictions

National, state, and municipal building codes, zoning requirements, and restrictive covenants can affect everything from the location of the house on the site, to the size, height, style, cost, number of garage stalls, etc. Understanding these requirements prior to purchasing the property can save untold headaches in the future. Some municipalities, Boulder, Colorado for example, are discouraging building in order to maintain their picturesque environment. The restrictions can, in some cases, preclude building altogether. Verify these requirements with your architect.

  • Is there a reasonable building pad (place to build the house) after subtracting the appropriate setbacks and easements from the property? Setbacks and easements are restrictions placed upon the property by the city that prevent building in certain areas. The most common are property line setbacks. These determine how close you can build to a property line. Easements are similar except they may fall anywhere on the property. For example, a neighboring property may have an access easement that allows them access across your property in a designated area. Or, a Utility company may have an easement to bring utilities across the property. Some common setbacks and easements are listed below:
    • Property setbacks (front, rear, and sides)
    • Wetland setbacks
    • Shoreline setbacks
    • Flood plain setbacks
    • Utility easements
    • Access easements
    • View or scenic corridor (neighboring or community property’s right to view through the property – construction may be restricted in this area)
  • Are there other regulations that restrict fencing or retaining walls around the property, location of pools and outbuildings, tennis courts, landscaping and the like? What about restrictions on home offices or granny apartments?
  • Is there a restriction limiting the size (area) of the house or number of stories?
  • Are there regulations governing trees that may be removed or other disruptions of the natural landscape?
  • Is the property within an historical preservation zone or otherwise restricted in the appearance of built structures?
  • Are there any hard pack or hard cover restrictions on the property. Many municipalities limit the area of the property that may have buildings, patios, driveways, pools, etc. This is to ensure rain water can absorb into the soil rather than running off the property
  • Are there height restrictions, and if so, how are they calculated? Some municipalities limit the house height from the ground to the top of the highest roof. Others limit the height from a datum line near the ground to the midpoint of the highest roof. The different methods of calculating house height can make a great deal of difference in the home design.
  • Are there any restrictive covenants on the property (some properties have restrictive covenants enacted by the developer or seller of the property that establish style, or minimum house sizes or values. Some may require acceptance of your proposed house design by a design review committee).

Physical Characteristics

What is the physical makeup of the site? These characteristics will affect the type of home, its location, and even its cost.

  • Analyze the topography
    • Is the property located in a flood plain?
    • Is the property reasonably buildable? i.e. the grade isn’t too steep, the soil is firm, access for heavy building vehicles is available.
    • Is the property appropriate for the type of house you desire. For example, does it have adequate (but not too much) slope for a home with a walkout lower level?
    • Has the site ever been built upon before? There may be an old foundation that would interfere with construction and cost additional money to remove. On the other hand, some structures, such as a ruin or clay tile farm silo, can be used as features of the new house.
  • What are the characteristics of the soils on the site (this information can be obtained by having a soil test performed):
    • Bearing capacity – is the soil adequate to hold up the house, or will soil fill be required?
    • Drainage – does the soil allow water to filter through it, rather than trapping it? Is there adequate surface drainage? If the land is too flat, it may not shed water well.
    • Percolation – if a septic system is required, the soil needs to have an appropriate level of permeability for the septic field.
    • Water table – is the water table level lower than the level where a basement will be placed? If not, building a dry basement will be difficult.
    • Was the site ever used for dumping or trash disposal? Although it’s unlikely, the site may have been an old waste dump with toxic chemicals still present (there are companies that will perform a toxic waste search of your area for you).
  • What are the climatic conditions?
    • What is the orientation of the site to the sun? In colder climates, it is generally best to orient the house towards the south for passive solar heating. The optimal condition exists when the views from the site are also southward, thus making larger expanses of windows desirable.
    • Which directions do the prevailing winds come from? From a heat loss standpoint, it is good to avoid large expanses of windows that face the winter winds.
    • What is the microclimate of the site? For example, if the site is located within a closed-in valley where cold air settles, it may be constantly cooler than the land outside the valley.
  • Is there automobile access to and within the property?
    • Would you have to construct a road to get to the property?
    • Verify automobile access within the site (if the property is small, is there adequate space for automobiles?
    • Does the automobile access use prime land – such as the area with the best view?).
    • Would a long driveway be necessary? The longer the driveway, the more it will cost to construct and maintain.
  • Are there any historical structures on the site that may preclude modification of the site?
  • What type of vegetation exists on the site? Is it suitable for your plans?

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