Concerned that you don’t know anything about the land buying process? We have helped dozens of customers with the process over the years, and have 50+ years of experience doing so.

Where to put your new home on your land

There are several considerations to keep in mind when planning where to build your new home on that dream piece of property you own. There’s one big thing to keep in mind, along with a few pitfalls to watch out for, as you start planning.

The view

Think about where you’ll spend most of your time in your new home. Front porch? Back patio? In the living room looking out the windows? In the kitchen preparing meals for your family?

Wherever you’ll be spending your time, there’s a good chance that you want to enjoy the best views. Make sure your home design and the placement and orientation of your home will take advantage of all your land has to offer. If you have to modify the design, turn it a certain way, or even start from scratch, it will be worth the effort.

Get some wooden stakes, a hammer, and some string, and lay out the basics of your home. Mark the porch and patio. Figure out where the key windows will be. Spend some time with it, and make sure it gives you the feel you want.

Access

How will you get from the main road to your new home? Over hill and dale? That’s OK—privacy is probably one of the reasons you bought that land in the first place. Just make sure you pick the path for the driveway that will be the least costly.

Whether your driveway will be packed dirt, gravel, or concrete, you’ll want to consider initial cost (think length and slopes) and upkeep (think best drainage and potential washout). Also make sure the connection to the road is in a place the city or county will allow. In many areas, you’ll be required to buy a permit for the approach where it connects from road to driveway and have it inspected.

Slopes

There are a few reasons the slope of the land comes into play. The first is drainage—will it be easy to maintain water drainage away from the house? If the house is too close to the bottom of a slope, water will tend to run toward the house, and you’ll constantly be fighting the combination of gravity and water.

The second is the cost to move dirt—the more dirt you have to move to make a flat spot for the house, the more money you’re going to spend. That cost is multiplied if you have to haul dirt in or out. Buying dirt isn’t too expensive, but the freight charge for hauling it is very expensive.

The third concern is foundation support—if you have to build up an area with fill dirt, you might have to modify the foundation design so your house doesn’t move around or settle too much during its life. That might mean piers or extra grade beams, both of which can add thousands to the cost of construction.

These are just a few considerations to keep in mind. There can be many others, depending on the situation—location of the property, zoning, utilities, and more. Make sure you take into account as many as possible before you decide exactly where your new home will sit.

To find land, look for the right community

If building your family’s forever home on your own land is something you’ve been hoping to do, it’s crucial to find the right plot of land.

But finding just the right piece of land is often the most difficult part of building your family’s dream home!

Sure, sometimes land is for sale and listed with a real estate agent, and you might be able to find it on Realtor.com or Zillow. Often, though, the perfect piece of property is sitting there with a “For Sale by Owner” sign on it, or maybe it isn’t even actively for sale (but you could buy it if you knew the right person). So how do you find that land?

You could drive country roads in the area where you want to buy land and hope to find what you’re looking for. In fact, that does sometimes work.

But what about the bank-owned land that isn’t advertised (but the bank would take pennies on the dollar to unload it)? Or what about those five acres that a family in a different state owns (but haven’t had the time to list)?

To find the right piece of land, you’ll need to be able to tap into the community of people who are always scouring central Oklahoma looking for just those types of properties.

That community consists of real estate agents, mortgage lenders, bankers, farmers, and everyday people who live and work in small communities around central Oklahoma.

They know the lay of the land. They know the families who live in the area, because that’s where they live and work. In the course of normal, everyday conversations, they hear and talk about everyday lives and situations—and sometimes, that involves talking about the land that a neighbor is trying to sell, or the plans that a relative has to split ten acres off the family land.

In order to find the right land, it’s very useful to find some point of entry into that community so you can also be aware of those opportunities. For a lot of families, that point of entry might be the builder they choose to work with.

Any builder who claims to specialize in building on your land should already be wired into that network. They should be able to help you find just the right land for building your dream home, because they know what you’re looking for and they have an ear to the ground to know what’s available.

The builder you choose to work with should have a land specialist who will go out of his or her way to help you locate, evaluate, negotiate for, and buy that piece of land you’ve been dreaming about. If your builder can’t, or won’t, help you do that, or acts like the thought of helping you find land is completely foreign to him, it’s time to find a builder who wants to help you out.

Finding land for your custom home

So you know you’d like to build a custom home on rural land. But what if you don’t own the land yet?

A lot of builders feel like finding your land should be your job—you can talk to them once you’ve found it. That’s not our philosophy, because we know it can be intimidating to try to identify potential issues with a piece of land when it’s not something you do day in and day out.

It can be extremely frustrating and time-consuming to find that perfect piece of land to build on. There isn’t a single source where all available land is listed, unfortunately. You can find some on the Realtors’ MLS; there are several website (try Lands of America or LotNetwork); and some real estate agents specialize in land, but that’s usually in a pretty limited area.

And even if you do find a perfect piece of land, how do you know if it’s suitable for building your forever home? There could be title, drainage, zoning, access, or soil issues. How do you sort through it all?

After building hundreds of homes over the last five decades and building homes on our clients’ land for several years, we’ve seen just about every land problem you can think of.

We’ve built on land that required $70,000 just to prepare. We’ve built on land that was in a flood plain and needed to be built up with specially compacted soil (with an engineered foundation on top). And we’ve even advised clients not to buy a certain property because of the overwhelming expense it would take to get it ready to build.

A lot of issues with land can be identified before any money changes hands, if you know what to look for. And we don’t expect our clients to be experts in land development any more than they expect us to be experts in their professions!

We believe it’s part of the builders’ job to assess the land before their client purchases it. That way, they can pass on their insight to their client so that they can make informed decisions about buying a particular piece of land.

Many builders simply want you to find your land and let them know when you’re ready. Maybe they don’t feel qualified to give an opinion, or maybe they’re just too busy to help out. Either way, you want a builder willing to lend a hand, not just sell you a home.

Don’t get landlocked on your land

It seems odd, doesn’t it, to think of land being landlocked? But it happens more often than you’d think.

Before you buy that piece of land that seems perfect for your forever home, make sure you can answer this question: Can you access the land from the road?

That seems like a silly question, but it can create a big hassle if you don’t know the answer. One of my recent clients discovered in the process of purchasing a piece of land that there was no legal way to access the land from the road.

How does that happen? Typically, the bank that’s loaning you money will have people look at the title work and make sure there’s access to the land, among other things. But If you buy a parcel of land in cash, there’s no built-in mechanism like that to help you identify access to your property.

And whether you’re working with a bank or not, there can be any number of unforeseen issues with land title and documentation of easements and right-of-way decisions. However it happens, if you’ve purchased land that you discover is landlocked, the only way out is to negotiate an easement with one of your neighbors.

It’s much easier to prevent being landlocked than it is to resolve it, but it can be resolved. In the case of my recent client, the five-acre parcel she purchased was split from another piece and was situated directly behind that other piece in relation to the road.

Our client came to us before she had purchased the land, thankfully, and when we reviewed it as part of our normal process, we discovered the oversight. If we hadn’t, our client might have bought a piece of land that was useless. It might as well have been someone’s backyard!

But we were able to proactively solve the problem. We knocked on her neighbor’s door (the one whose property sat in between our client’s land and the road), and we asked about the property behind her. She told us the whole story, and mentioned that she’d always wondered how anyone was going to access that property.

We asked if she’d be wiling to grant an easement for access from the road to my client’s property, assuming we could do so along the edge where it wouldn’t be obtrusive. After some negotiation, we got her permission, and all of a sudden, the property behind her was once again usable for something other than growing grass!

Fortunately for our client, her neighbor was wiling to work with us. That’s not always a guarantee, so it’s in your best interest to make sure someone—the title company your banker is using, a knowledgable builder, or someone else who is experienced in these matters—is on your side to help you identify issues like this one before you purchase any land.

Make sure you really own that land…

Land title issues can be confusing. And a little scary sometimes. You’d think it should be pretty straightforward—and many times it is—but sometimes it’s not. And when there are issues with your land title, there are often issues and even delays when you’re building a home on your land.

What could possibly go wrong?

Recently, we began working with a client who was under contract to buy five acres from a family who owned ten. In order to establish the boundaries of the new piece, the seller had to hire a land surveyor to stake the new boundaries. The process unfortunately took more than a month, because the surveyor was backed up.

Once the survey was complete, the title company began creating the abstract and making sure the land title was clear for our client to buy it and build their new home.

There was one problem: the land our client was trying to buy hadn’t been transferred correctly to the current owner. It had been owned by a non-profit organization, which no longer existed under the same name. To make matters worse, there was a contract for the sale of the land between that organization and the current owner, but the deed had never been recorded.

Technically, that meant that the non-profit could claim ownership. They might not win the claim, but as long as there was a dispute, the land couldn’t change hands, and our client wouldn’t be able to build their home.

Fortunately, we found the person responsible for the non-profit, and he was happy to sign a new deed. If that hadn’t happened, our client would have had to wait at least another three months for the land title to be clear. That was time they didn’t really have.

Preventing land title issues

The lesson? In this situation, there was no real way for our client to avoid this problem, since it started 30 years ago. But there are some things that they—and the seller—could have done to expedite the process.

When hiring the surveyor, the seller could have asked what the surveyor’s turnaround time was and searched for one with a one- or two-week time frame rather than five weeks. That would have at least turned the problem up sooner, thus shortening the length of the process.

The seller could have requested that the title company research the land title on the entire ten acres even before the survey was done. That would have brought the problem to light within the first week and allowed the solution process to start a full month earlier.

Of course, the owner of the land could have avoided the whole problem by making sure the title was transferred correctly back in 1985 when the sale happened. Hiring a title company to manage the transaction back then would have ensured that the title was clear to avoid problems a long way down the road that could ruin everyone’s plans.

These issues come up often enough when you’re a builder, but if you’re building a custom home for the first time, they can seem daunting. Choose a builder who can help you adapt to situations like this, so you’ll have guidance if there are any unforeseen land title issues.

Drainage, slopes, and hidden gotchas

house-on-a-slopeI’ve seen just about every challenge a piece of land can present when it comes to slopes and drainage issues you might have to deal with when building on your land. And those aren’t the only unexpected issues that can slow down a home build!

It can become expensive to fix unforeseen problems, and it might even get in the way of carrying out your home design. Here are a few challenges you’ll want to keep an eye out for.

Slope

When it comes to slope, I’ve seen both extremes: so much slope it took $70K in site prep to make the lot build-ready, and so little slope that a conventional septic system wouldn’t even function. Have you ever seen rainwater fill underground lateral lines and run back into a septic tank? It isn’t pretty.

Drainage

Drainage patterns on raw land can be tricky to plan for. Some patterns are so subtle, you might not even notice them until you watch your living room become an indoor swamp in the first heavy rain.

Other common issues

It’s possible that an excellent plot of land might have other difficulties unique to building a home. Maybe there’s no clear way to enter or exit the property. Or there might be dense tree cover where you want to build your home. There may be unexpected easements on your property.

How can you handle these issues? Make sure you check out the lay of the land before you build. Get a professional involved.

They may even be able to help you choose a building site on your land that will avoid some of the more challenging problems. In most cases, these issues won’t mean your home can’t be built; your builder will just have to get creative. And it’ll make your job easier if the builder you work with has experience with a variety of land issues.

Is your builder just a builder?

confused-builderYour home builder should have a track record that makes you feel confident that your home will turn out beautifully. But in order for that to happen, you need a builder who has more than just building expertise.

A home builder who can help you through the whole home-building process should have expertise in a wide array of disciplines. We’ve found a few non-building topics to be especially helpful to know about when building homes.

Land title issues

Is the chain of title to your dream land clear, or are there deed issues lurking in the background? If your builder isn’t familiar with these issues, do you know someone else you can call on for assistance?

Lending options, constraints, and procedures

You’ll need both a permanent loan and a construction loan to build a home on your own land. Not every family’s financial situation is the same, of course—make sure your builder can help you find the right lending relationship for your situation.

Land development requirements and costs

What particular issues exist on your unique piece of land? What hidden costs should your builder factor in from the very beginning to keep you under budget? Depending on your property, that could include issues with:

  • utilities
  • site access
  • easements
  • soil analysis
  • foundation engineering
  • flood zone requirements
  • permit issues
  • water availability (well or city water)
  • city requirements
  • zoning

Your builder has hopefully built more homes than you have. Make sure you’re working with someone you can trust to guide you through issues in any of these areas.

Design feasibility

The design that you and your builder create together should work for your needs and keep you within your budget.

Value engineering

Having the expertise to maximize what you get for your budget, rather than a “one size fits all” cost per square foot plan, helps you get the most bang for your buck.

Efficient building practices

Builders need to run an efficient operation to minimize wasted time and resources, both of which cost you money. What processes does your builder have in place to minimize the amount of waste in your project? It’s a good question to ask before you start building.

Completion systems

Your builder should be able to explain the procedures in place to ensure that you have a fully complete home to move into. There shouldn’t be any unfinished touches, however minor, when you move in. This is tied to how organized your builder is.

Service and support after completion

When choosing a builder, ask if he or she has a comprehensive system to make sure the warranty is taken care of. What kind of warranty service would you expect if the warranty itself is an afterthought?

There are many, many builders out there with the expertise to build your new custom home. That’s the easy part, as a matter of fact.

But as you can see, there’s much more to building a home than design and construction. In fact, with proper planning and efficient systems, the act of actually building the house becomes almost incidental. Make sure your builder has expertise in all of the topics above, in addition to home building, before you make a commitment.

Expecting to inherit land?

Fighting over propertyHere’s a problem our clients frequently run into: their dream piece of land is stuck in probate. This is a tricky issue whether it’s the land they are supposed to inherit or a piece of land they want to purchase. But we often see it with land that hasn’t been properly willed to a relative.

Probate is the legal process that kicks in when someone passes away without leaving clear legal instructions on how ownership should pass for their land. Verbal instructions to family just aren’t going to cut it in the legal realm. A well-crafted will created with a real estate planning attorney involved is the best way to avoid this situation in the first place.

Let’s say my Aunt Edna has told me she wants to give me her property after she passes away. We’ve had several conversations about it, and the rest of the family knows her intentions as well.

But if she passes away without putting that into a will, it’s up to a judge to decide where the land goes. He’s going to decide based on the law, not based on her statements. And if I’m not her only surviving relative, you can bet I won’t be getting all the property she intended to give me.

It might take the courts up to a year to decide what to do with the land, and if that decision is contested, that’s an even bigger delay before anyone can do anything with the land she left behind. All because my Aunt Edna’s intentions weren’t made out clearly in a will.

How can you avoid a mess like that? Well, if a family member owns property that you hope to acquire some day, make sure that family member’s wishes for that land are properly recorded in a will or trust prepared by a good real estate planning attorney.

That could save you months or years of time you wouldn’t get to spend enjoying the land. If you need a referral to a capable real estate planning attorney in order to make that happen, give us a call. We’d be happy to make a connection for you.

Don’t make a land purchase you’ll regret

Land surveyorWhen you purchase raw land, how can you know what it is you’re buying? We recently worked with a client who was under contract to buy what he thought (and what the seller honestly thought) was 2.5 acres of land.

But when we began the title work and had the property surveyed, we discovered that the seller only owned 2 acres. He didn’t own a half acre he thought had purchased years ago! That kind of thing happens all the time.

Another hiccup to beware of when buying raw land, or even a subdivision lot, is street right-of-way. Some properties literally include the street because the street right-of-way is in the legal description of the land.

Obviously, that reduces the amount of usable land on the property. The land is legally described as being bigger than it is in practical terms.

How do you protect yourself from these kinds of scenarios? It’s simple, but it’s often overlooked: get a survey done before buying the land! Realtors may or may not mention this to you as a buyer, because they know the title company has to do a survey as part of the mortgage inspection.

The kind of survey you need isn’t just a paper survey that shows a map of the property, though. Title companies will run a paper survey of the land, but that only involves looking up documents and compiling information. It doesn’t require sending anyone out to the land. And that doesn’t catch all the quirks you can find with raw land.

You’ll need to get a pin survey from a land surveyor to get an accurate picture of your land. This shows the property boundaries of the land itself. There’s no better way to visualize what you’re buying!

When your land surveyor investigates things like easements and encroachments while physically on the property, it’s easier to determine how much they will affect the amount of usable land on the property. From there, you can decide if it’s land you want to purchase or not.

There are many competent land surveyors in Oklahoma. If you want a recommendation, call Athena. She’ll be glad to help!

Do you trust the documentation?

DocumentationA while back, one of our clients discovered a pipeline on a property he had purchased, so he called us out to talk about what we could do about it. The pipeline was potentially dangerous as well as inconvenient, so our client wanted to figure out a solution quickly.

Often in situations like this, we’ll help our clients with a survey to learn about easements and other issues with their land. We’ll do this survey pretty early, too—right after we’ve written the contract, and way before pouring the slab. So this case was no exception.

However, when we searched for information on this house, we found something that even Ben Turner, with 50+ years of experience, had never seen before. There wasn’t an easement or a right-of-way on file for a pipeline on this land!

What likely happened is that our client bought the land from someone else who divided the land without recording the easement or right-of-way. It can be resolved, but issues like this one are why we request title work, as a builder, well before the banks typically do.

Banks file the title work because they want to know it’s an actual piece of property they’re providing a loan for, and there’s nothing weird about it (like a pipe without an easement on the property). But we order the title work instead of waiting for the bank to order it. This way, we can help our clients resolve situations like this one as quickly as possible and get back on track to build their home.

Even the title company can make mistakes when recording all the documentation associated with that land, especially if it’s been divided. It’s important for you and your builder to look for physical manifestations of potential issues, instead of just trusting the documentation that’s available. That way, you’ll have a head start on addressing any issues you may find.

If you want to read more about how we’ve handled other, similar situations in the past, check out this blog article or this one.