That’s a pretty lofty title and I’m aware that each part of the world, let alone jurisdiction, has its own approach to the building process. To that end, there is no way for me to get the process exactly right for every person in every part of the world. What I can do is tell you what I have learned over my 20 years as a professional builder and land developer. All tweaks and adjustments aside, this will be a good footing to start out on for anyone interested in the start to finish process of finding, developing, and building on raw land. For more information, check out my Be Your Own Contractor Training series as there is a ton of information in there about this and all the other aspects of contracting your own property. For the purpose of this article, I will assume that you have found a piece of land that you love and that you have made the purchase of said land. Now it’s time to start the development/construction process.
- Talk to Zoning. Hopefully you already checked out the zoning of your land before you purchased it. This is vital because some zones do not allow for residential development, while others may have limits on development that don’t match up with your needs. You need to learn more from zoning than just the construction restrictions. They will talk to you about other covenants and restrictions that the overseeing body may have on your land. Some examples are wildlife interface land, wildfire zones, and water rights restrictions.
- Sanitation. It is best to determine where your septic tank and drain field need to be before you start thinking about a well. This is because water can usually be found in several locations on a piece of land where as soil types, natural waterways, and surface slopes may restrict possible locations for a drain field and septic tank. Dig your test pits and have the required studies done; however, don’t install your septic system until you have done discovery work on the potential location(s) for a well.
- Water. Now that you know where your septic tank and drain field can go, locate your options for the well. Be sure to meet all setbacks and other requirements. Once you have a suitable location, you can move forward with both the septic installation and the well development. The first step of which has nothing to do with water or waste. It has to do with electricity.
- Electrical. You will need power for your home construction as well as for the installation of the septic system and the development of the well. After all, something has to power the well pump and the septic alarm. Bring in all of your utilities (power, gas, cable, phone, etc.) at the same time. This will save you money on trenching and backfill. In fact, if you time it right, you can cut all the tenches for the utilities: electrical, gas, cable, phone, septic system (lines, tank and field), and water lines all at the same time.
- Permitting and Recording. With everything ready to go, be sure to talk to the proper departments and acquire the correct permits. Sanitation may be handled by the local sanitation department or it could be covered by the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality). Don’t assume, make sure. Talk to the applicable inspectors/departments and find out about the inspection process. You will likely need to create some documents for them before you are allowed to break ground including an accurate and to-scale plot plan. You will then need a series of inspections from open trench to full cover and the installation of all electrical elements. Finally, the location of the well, along with flow rates, etc. will need to be recorded with the appropriate water resource management department.
- Building Department. This is probably what you have been most excited about all along. After all, your goal was a house, not a well and septic, I imagine. This part is pretty straight forward as the national code lays out the requirements for residential construction throughout the United States. Get a copy of the code and get to know it. Of course, if you plan to hire an architect and/or engineer, you won’t have to know the code nearly as well as if you design the home on your own.
Because the plot plan is so important and can literally make or break your approvals for development, I want to list the most common requirements of a simple plot plan (sometimes referred to as a site plan).
- Most plot plans are required to fit entirely on an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper so that they can easily be filed and recorded. If your property cannot all fit within that scale while still representing the detail needed, you may have to make it a two page document. The first showing the overall property and the second showing the development inset details.
- An accurate scale notation showing distances in 1 inch = X feet (or the metric equivalent).
- Accurate shape and dimensions of the entire property.
- The property owner’s name and mailing address.
- Township, range, section, and tax lot number(s).
- North arrow (pointing up is industry standard).
- Location of any adjacent public or private roads, access easements, and/or driveways.
- Location of all buildings. Draw existing buildings in solid lines and proposed buildings in dashed lines. Indicate the dimensions of the structures and show distances to the two closest property lines.
- Location and direction of all water courses and drainage ways. This typically includes everything from obvious streams and lakes to intermittent drainage channels and ditches.
- Distance of the proposed structure from natural waterways.
- Direction of downward slope.
- Location, dimension and capacity of existing sewage facilities (if applicable) including all lines, tank, and drain field.
- Location of all existing or proposed test pits for the septic study.
- Location of existing and/or proposed water well and water lines.
- Distance of proposed structure from septic system.
- Distance of well from septic system.
- Distance of septic system from natural waterways.
One final note about construction of the home itself. Let’s assume that you want to take your time building the home. There are some potential “normal/acceptable” stopping points to be aware of. For example, you could pour your foundation and slab and then leave it be for a while. Similarly, you could frame the home up, apply the roof and then let it sit awhile to strengthen your finances. After this, you could complete the exterior shell of the home (plaster to at least the second coat on both the exterior and interior) and then hold off on completion until a later date.
Keep in mind that taking a long time to finish the home usually makes it more expensive, so this may not be the way to go; however, it is an option if necessary. Another thing to keep track of is the total time that either your loan or the building permit allow for. If you go over a certain amount of time, you will pay penalties on your construction loan. Similarly, if you take too long in between inspections, the permit will expire and you will have to start that process over again and pay the permit fees all over again. Check with your inspector to see what the limitations are. Very often there is an 18 month maximum time allowed in between inspections. That’s ample time, and certainly not something you want to miss a deadline on.