S.A. "Sam" Jernigan doesn't regret buying a 20-acre lot in Grass Valley, Calif., for her dream house. But the process, she admits, is "not for the faint of heart."
"I'm an interior designer, and my husband was a Realtor, so we knew something about buying land," said Jernigan, whose husband recently succumbed to cancer. "Even so, we had delays, which cost money. You know that rule about adding 10 percent to your budget to cover potential problems? It's a good rule."
"Often, a lot isn't listed, but the owners or their heirs plan to sell," said Lake Bluff, Ill., homebuilder Orren Pickell. "We've put business cards in mailboxes and knocked on doors. Often, the best lots are the ones that are hardest to buy."
Carol and Michael Bilder found their New Buffalo, Mich., lot through a Realtor who knew its owner had died. They waited two years for the estate to settle before they could buy the lot, demolish the old house on it and hire Pickell to build a new one. Their house is slated for completion in December.
"It's glorious, on 200 feet of Lake Michigan beach," Carol Bilder said. "It took a while for the estate to settle, but we're glad we waited. They're not making lakefront land anymore."
Sometimes, a lot remains a diamond in the rough because builders passed it by.
"We got a great deal on ours because it had a low front section," said William J. Hirsch Jr., North Carolina architect and author of "Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect." "So we built the house at the back of the lot."
Not every lot is buildable, though. Before you buy, consider these potential pitfalls:
Can you get there from here? Unless you are the rare homeowner who commutes by helicopter, your lot needs automobile access.
Jernigan found an old aerial map of her lot that showed a rough-cut road. County officials told her the switchback-style road could become an entrance to her house, but could not serve emergency vehicles. She had to secure an easement for them.
Then determine how the future driveway will affect your floor plan.
"The house design starts with the garage, which is often the biggest 'room' in the house," said Hirsch. If the driveway/garage location denies you the floor plan you want, go back to square one.
Liquid assets. Equally important is access to community water and sewer lines. Lacking those, determine if your lot can have a well and septic field.
"Ask local well drillers how far they've drilled to reach water in your area," said Hirsch. "Consider making water access a contingency of the sale or requiring the seller to drill the well first. Otherwise, you may buy a lot without enough water."
To determine septic field feasibility, you need a percolation test. A contractor measures the absorption rate of the soil on the site of your proposed septic field.
In areas where hard soil prohibits septic fields, homeowners install septic holding tanks. This is the norm in Lake Geneva, Wis., for example.
In addition to water and soil conditions, tests can reveal all sorts of underground surprises. But, as Hirsch illustrates in his book, a test-hole dig may be fruitless. It only reveals what is below the dig, while a boulder or old washing machine lurks a foot away.
Don't take electricity and natural gas access for granted, either. Reaching these sources may be difficult and costly.
Solar orientation. "My parents were looking at a lot on a pond in Florida," said Hirsch. "I told them if they bought on the other side of the pond, they could have the sun at their backs while they sat on their porch, instead of glare from the pond."
Solar orientation varies by climate, he added. "In a warm climate, you want your living area in the shade. In a cold climate, you welcome the sun," Hirsch said.
Slope. Rare is the lot that is perfectly flat, and rare is the buyer who wants a perfectly flat lot, say builders and architects.
"Many of our clients want an English or walkout basement, so ideally the lot slopes from front to back," said Pickell.
The lot's slope dictates drainage of water.
"You can change the topography of your lot, but you can't change the neighborhood's drainage flow," Pickell said. "If an area is being rapidly developed and losing vegetation [which absorbs rainwater], you may have future water problems."
Drainage is one of the key factors gleaned from an architect's site analysis, Hirsch said.
"Many clients have told me they bought a flat lot," he said. "But the analysis showed it was not."
Wooded acreage. Wooded lots sell at a premium, but not every tree is a good one. And lot clearing is costly.
The Bilders called an arborist to identify the trees on their lot.
"It turned out most of them were scrub trees, so we removed them and plan to plant oaks and maples after the house is finished," Carol Bilder said.
An arborist can also alert you to local tree ordinances and tell you how to protect valuable trees' feeder roots from construction-vehicle damage.
Guidelines. A trip to your county or city offices yields a slew of rules that apply to your lot, from setback minimums to historic district guidelines. Scanning the Sanborn maps at your public library yields older data, like locations of burial grounds. A surveyor tells you the lot's dimensions and any easements or encroachments.
Subdivision covenants reveal neighborhood no-nos. If the seller doesn't have a copy, ask the homeowners association. Check the expiration dates; the neighborhood's no-fence rule may end in 2012.
Every region has quirky rules of its own too. In Chicago, a lot's development may be delayed because it is tagged by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey as possibly historically significant. Or the lot's soil conditions are problematic because it consists of Chicago Fire debris.
Beyond boundaries. Before you fall in love with a lot, look at the big picture.
"Sometimes, the best or worst things about a lot are not on the lot," noted Pickell. Is the adjacent property zoned commercial? Are property taxes lower in the next county? How is the school district rated?
"You have to love the approach to the property because you can't change what's beyond the surveyor's pins," said Pickell.
To learn about neighborhood nuisances, visit the lot at different times. That school next door is quiet during your Saturday afternoon visit, for example, but may have an outdoor bell set to ring at 7 a.m. every weekday.
Bottom line. "Do as much homework as humanly possible," advised Jernigan. "Then be nice to your county building department; don't make them your adversaries. Ours made the process easier because they gave us a checklist of things we had to do before we could get a building permit."
In the end, Jernigan said, building on her own lot was worth it.
"It took such a long time to find what we wanted and then deal with the delays, that I say I got an acre for every year I waited," she said. "But in the end, it's really gratifying."