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What to Look for in a Build Site for Your House

field of purple wildflowers | what to look for in a build site for your house

One of the joys of building your own house is that you get to choose the location of your property, the topography, and who your neighbors are. But for many homeowners, knowing what to look for in a build site can be something of a mystery. Few people have experience buying vacant land, and you don’t want such a major investment to become a major disappointment.

The team at Giraffe Design Build has decades of combined experience working with homeowners to transform vacant land into the house of their dreams. Here are some of the most important factors to consider as you look for a lot to build your new home.

Related reading: Should You Build or Renovate Your Ann Arbor Home?

Utilities and Infrastructure Considerations

One of the most limiting factors in buying a lot is the utility and infrastructure considerations that go along with a new build site. Ask the following questions before signing any papers:

Can you put in a septic field? 

If you’re building in a rural area, you’ll need a septic field. Consider these factors as you think about your septic requirements:

  • Grade of the property. Flat land is more conducive to a septic field than steep grades. You can often fix the grade, but that will add to the construction costs.
  • Soil type. Heavy clay can make it challenging to install a septic system.
  • Costs. Depending on different factors, you could end up spending $10,000 to $30,000. Be sure to get prices and know the costs before you purchase.

Are there any well requirements? 

You will rarely come across a site that you can’t tap for water. However, there are sites—especially on the eastern side of Washtenaw County—where you must drill for a well before you can get approval for any kind of home build project. This formality ensures that you can actually access water before committing to an expensive project.

How much land are you willing to clear?

Some pieces of land are heavily wooded and will require a good deal of clearing, adding to your costs and your project timeline. You may also need to level the land and fill it if it’s wet.

Is natural gas close by? 

Electricity is rarely an issue when you build a new home, but it can be prohibitively expensive to bring gas out to a build site. Digging a gas line to your house is charged by the foot, and it’s not cheap. Many subcontractors charge around $12 per foot. If the gas line ends two miles down the road from your home construction site, that will drive up your home build costs.

Ordinances and Zoning Laws

It can be helpful to check Ann Arbor zoning laws and ordinances to make sure the land is zoned for single-family dwellings. Also check to see what other types of structures can be built in the area. You may not want to build a new home, then discover a couple of years later that a gaudy commercial building is going up on a nearby lot.

Familiarize yourself with home building restrictions, such as the limits on the footprint of a new house. The City of Ann Arbor places a maximal limit on the amount of property you can cover  with a structure. This limit helps prevent excessive stormwater run-off and unsafe structural density in case of a neighborhood fire.

Some neighborhoods, like the Old West Side, have strict historical requirements. You won’t be able to put up an aluminum-clad, flat-roofed, Frank Gehry style structure. Check first to see if the neighborhood is bound by historic district guidelines

If you want to build a home near a wetland, you’ll have a beautiful piece of property for your build site. You will also have several requirements and restrictions to be aware of. Since wetlands are protected areas, you should familiarize yourself with the laws before you purchase property that you can’t build on. 

Similarly, ask about any limitations for the property before the purchase. We know of a man who bought thousands of acres, the entire north side of a lake. Sometime after the sale, he found out there was no place to access the property that the local township would approve. After 15 years, he still wasn’t able to build a house on the land.

Environmental Concerns

Whether you purchase land in Ann Arbor or out in the country, there are some environmental considerations you should take note of. Depending on the build location, there may be several issues to inquire about, but start with the following ones.

The dioxane plume 

If you have lived in the Ann Arbor for any length of time, you know something about the infamous dioxane plume. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Gelman Corporation dumped toxic chemicals into the groundwater, releasing a plume of dioxane that has been spreading underground for decades. 

Located in Scio Township and western Ann Arbor, the plume is slowly heading north towards the Huron River. If you plan to build on property near these locations, be sure you understand the potential impact of the dioxane plume on your new home. For most homes in the area, the plume is well underground and poses no immediate threat. However, if your property requires a well, do your due diligence to understand exactly how your family could be impacted.

Rural contamination

You can also run into contaminated soil in rural areas, especially if you purchase farmland. Many fields have been treated for decades with chemical products, and phosphates are now contaminating the soil. If you have young children, it may be wise to do some soil testing.

Environmental sustainability

Passive solar houses are in growing demand in the Ann Arbor area, and the right piece of property can provide virtually unlimited options for a sustainable home. If you have plans to build a passive solar home, look for a piece of land with a gently sloping hill facing to the south. This allows you to build the house nestled into the hill with large solar heat gain windows that face south, and a roof that slopes back to the north.

Location, Location, Location

Perhaps the most important set of considerations in buying a lot is related to the location itself. These are the questions that homeowners enjoy asking—the questions that inspire and enliven your dreams for your new home:

  • What do you love about a property’s surrounding neighborhood and community?
  • How close to the city or to downtown do you want to live? Do you want to be able to walk to Sweetwaters before work, or to Top of the Park in the evening?
  • What schools do you want your kids to attend?
  • What are your aesthetic priorities for the land itself? Do you want a forested piece of land, a partial meadow, or waterfront? If your property will be well-manicured, the original landscape of the lot probably has lower priority than if you want a natural-looking property.
  • Do you need broadband? Large swaths of rural areas in Michigan are unable to access the internet. You may need to rely on your phone’s data, you can use dial-up or satellite.
  • What are the competitive comparison values (comps)? If you want to build a $750,000 house in a neighborhood of $250,000 homes, it will be very difficult to secure a loan.
  • What’s an acceptable tax base? If you build in Ann Arbor, you could be looking at $10,000 – $20,0000 per year in property taxes. If you live in the country, the same home will be taxed at a lower rate and may be only $5,000.

Unlike the other factors, these are very personal considerations, and only you can determine what is the best fit for you.

Find Your Build Site with Confidence

Purchasing property to build on is as personalized as you are. Shaped by the location and the topography, every piece of land has its own charm, just as the house you build will have its own character. While your decision is a complex one, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. When you know what to look for in a build site, you can make an informed purchasing decision with confidence.

When you find the build site you’re looking for, start a conversation with us to see how we can design and build a house that feels like home.

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