Finding the Right Property for Your Home
Why it's imperative to have an architect on your team when selecting the right lot for your future home.
Purchasing the right piece of land for your custom home is one of the most important decisions you will make during your custom home building process. The right decision will lay the foundation for success while the wrong decision could set you on a path toward unforeseen obstacles and costs. There are many details and nuances involved in selecting the right lot for a custom home. Being well prepared with the correct information and the right strategy can make a world of difference. For example, you will need to understand and consider many complex property characteristics, such as setbacks and easements, to determine if the lot you are considering will even accommodate the custom home you’re dreaming of. Also, you should have a clear understanding of the available options each type of property can afford you. Perhaps you’ve only been considering vacant lots. You may find that those are hard to come by. You’ll likely want to expand your search to include lots that already have homes on them. And, on the lots with existing homes, it will be important to determine whether or not you want to work with the existing structure or completely tear it down. Unfortunately, these considerations may not be the biggest hurdle when it comes to purchasing land. California’s housing shortage is having a dramatic trickle down effect on buyers. The shortage is creating unprecedented competition for a limited amount of buildable property. This means that time is of the essence when you are evaluating potential properties and, if you are trying to assess a property and learning as you go, you're likely taking too much time. Taking too much time and lacking confidence may make it difficult to compete with other buyers while the best properties are getting snatched up all around you. Given the obstacles outlined above, it is clear that residential home and property buyers need some help if they’re going to successfully purchase a property that will meet their needs. Architects have the knowledge and training necessary to fully assess any property and arm you with the information and strategy you need to swiftly conduct your real estate purchase with confidence and success.
All properties have their own unique set of opportunities and constraints that dictate what can and cannot be easily achieved. Often, conversations regarding lot selection revolve around the obvious features of the property like views, privacy, proximity to services and the quality of the school district or neighborhood. While these features are certainly important, they don’t paint the entire picture. One set of considerations that a buyer should tackle at the onset of any property assessment is the effect of property setbacks, height restrictions and buildable envelopes. Setbacks, height restrictions and other pre-existing limitations along with a property's topography will combine to determine the ultimate and allowable building envelope. Additionally, slope stability, soil quality, and other title issues like easements and right of ways, can further overlay to create more limitations on the buildable area of any given lot. In addition to the restrictions on the buildable areas and envelopes as described above, other essential elements needed for home building need careful assessment. The presence, or lack thereof, of site utilities on a property is just one essential element to consider. A careful accounting of needed water supply, sewer capacities, electric power requirements and gas lines to the future location of the home along with any necessary excavating, grading or trenching needed to supply these utilities, must be considered and often come with considerable costs. Further, adding site utilities, directing water drainage clearing trees and retaining soil to make room for the home, driveways and landscape features will require significant engineering and usually require costly and time consuming permits from the local jurisdictional agencies. All of these needed elements can add up to big bucks and great investments of time, so it is important to understand what may be required to ensure the lot you are considering has the right ingredients for your desired scope of work, timeline and budget. You may may find yourself in a situation where the lot that you are assessing seems perfect for your needs but also comes with some of the above requirements. It is important to identify all of these contingencies early on and factor them into your final analysis with careful due diligence, a good creative design and confident engineering strategies to mitigate cost and delay.
In an alternative scenario, perhaps you are assessing a lot and discover that the land has poor soil percolation values and therefore the property might not be suitable for a required standard septic system. In some cases, a property that has not passed a percolation test is buildable if you install a specially engineered septic system. These specialty systems may incur unexpected costs and may also require special permission and permits from the local jurisdictional agencies which could impact your timeline. Perhaps the property you want has dramatic views afforded by steep sloping site features. These slopes may need to be stabilized and could be subject to surface water that must to be expertly diverted. Problematic soils are common and stabilization and long term site water management may need to be counteracted with specially engineered foundations and grading efforts. These are just a few, in a long list of possible, scenarios you might encounter on your journey to finding the right property for your home. The good news is that there are seasoned and experienced professionals armed with solutions to a great many of these typical scenarios. An experienced architect on your team is essential. An architect's assessment and consultation will lay out the pros and cons of any property and provide you with the information you need to move forward with more confidence and speed. Architects are experts in the art of collecting and analyzing complex information and distilling this complexity into concise and actionable reports and design / engineering solutions.
When assessing potential lots for custom building there is a tendency in buyers to prioritize vacant lots. While the blank slate of a vacant lot may be appealing, buyers shouldn’t restrict their options to only these properties. As Chief Catalyst and Principal Owner of AB design studio, Josh Blumer, notes, “If a buyer comes along what appears to be a perfectly empty lot in an ideal location they should be skeptical. There is likely a reason why there isn’t already a development on that property.” Perhaps a long and expensive road will be required? Further, a previously undeveloped lot may not have convenient access to utilities and other services. While these scenarios aren’t necessarily deal breakers, they should be assessed against other properties that may not have these complications. Typically, properties with well-built structures and existing permitted residential development tend to face lesser challenges and may require fewer improvement costs. However, properties with existing structures will have their own set of challenges to overcome. Maybe the house is in fairly good condition and a remodel / expansion is possible, but the existing septic system needs to be torn out and replaced? Or perhaps there is such extensive rot and termite damage that the existing structure will need to be completely torn down. Both of these scenarios should be compared against the costs of what it would take to make that ideal vacant lot buildable. The takeaway here is that each property will have its own unique set of challenges and opportunities when compared to the purchaser's desired outcomes. What’s critical is being able to compare and contrast the challenges and opportunities of each and make an informed decision in an appropriate amount of time. If you are on the hunt for residential property, now is the time to leverage the skill and diligence of your architect. Opening up a detailed conversation about the ultimate goals of your home and conducting your property search with an experienced architect will create a clear process that will give you accuracy in finding and choosing the right property for your home.
California has experienced a steadily increasing housing shortage for the last several decades. According to a 2018 report from McKinsey Global Institute, California ranked 49th among the United States in housing units per resident. This equates to a shortage of approximately 3-4 million housing units, with the majority of that shortage occurring in our dense cities and sought after coastal communities. As a result, many potential homeowners have made the decision to buy a piece of property and build their dream home on it, increasing the competition buyers face when purchasing land. Additionally, buyers in today’s economy face challenges, such as environmental priorities, that weren’t previously part of the equation. And, while policies that set aside land for environmental and recreational purposes enhance the appeal of communities, they also reduce purchasing opportunities creating even greater competition among buyers. That competition can come in the form of residential builders who are also looking for ideal sites; commercial developers seeking locations for shopping centers, office development, multi-family housing, health care facilities, and stand-alone retail outlets; and with local governments seeking to expand park and recreational spaces. The biggest hurdle when it comes to competing with these types of entities is that they all have a team of experts providing them with the critical information needed to quickly and confidently make a decision about a property purchase. That means that while you’re doing your best to get answers to all your questions, they’re signing contracts and sweeping up potential properties from right under your feet. How can you compete? The simple answer is, you can’t. Not alone anyway. In order to level the playing field you need access to the same information at the same time so you, too, can quickly and confidently make a decision about a property. An architect on your team stabilizes your competitive advantage making it possible to participate in negotiations that, if tackled alone, would be out of your league.
Finding the right lot for your custom home is one of the most important decisions you will make. Assessing an extensive amount of property characteristics, on multiple types of lots, can become a daunting task. And that daunting task can seem downright impossible when you compound it with an aggressive market. Having an architect on your team to quickly perform due diligence and make recommendations based on your goals will give you the information you need to make a confident purchase leveling the playing field on the competitive market.
Lastly, it is important to understand that it is not appropriate to build every type of home on every lot. The basic philosophy behind an environmentally sensitive design approach dictates that the land and surrounding climate, among other environmental factors, should inform the design. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why a sprawling Rural Tuscan Style Villa would be inappropriate in the middle of a metropolitan style urban setting or the towering mass, bulk and scale of a Spanish Colonial Ranch Home might look odd teetering on the spine of a narrow ridge. It’s critical to know how your priorities rank. Is your top priority the land and location of your home? Or, is it with the design of the home? This priority will play a role in determining which lot is the best for you so it’s important to incorporate this into discussions with your architect. Establishing priorities informs your property decision and your property informs your design. This is the basis for environmental design which is the foundational approach of many of today's best trained Architects.
In our next article we’ll examine how this foundation of prioritization and value setting lay the groundwork for outstanding design.
We recently worked with a Buyer and Realtor team to facilitate their successful navigation of the lot purchasing process. Along the way, we evaluated both the constraints and opportunities of the different properties under consideration, performed due diligence on those properties to better understand what was possible on each, educated the Buyer and Realtor team on the local codes and ordinances that would impact them and ultimately made recommendations based on the long term goals of the Buyer. Based on our recommendation, the Buyer was able to jump on an opportunity without hesitation and secured a property perfectly suited to their needs. We chatted with both the Buyer and Realtor about their experiences working with us and here is what they had to say:
“Often my clients are starting from square one without even having a lot picked out, only general ideas of what they may want to build. I highly recommend working with Clay, Principal Owner of AB design studio. Apart from being able to create and execute beautiful building plans, he is incredibly knowledgeable about the entire process from purchase to permitting; has extensive experience working with all the builders in town; and can basically answer any question or concern you or your client may have related to any building. If you're a REALTOR, he basically sells the land for you! --as long as it can facilitate the client's ultimate building goals. Clay and the AB design studio team do a wonderful job listening to client's preferences and provide realistic guidance on whether the desired outcome can be achieved based on budget, proposed land, and any other goals the client has.”
Kami Love, Residential Realtor - Santa Barbara Brokers
“What appeals to us about building a home is constructing something that reflects our own preferences, nuances, and sensibilities and that hopefully creates a lasting legacy to be enjoyed for years by our family and then by those that live there in the years to come. Specifically, we wanted a structure that had high impact visual appeal, that blended into the landscape, and at a high enough elevation would create the perception when the morning fog rolled in of a 'house in the clouds.' From the house we wanted a diversity of views and vantage points including the ocean, the mountains and the city below. Around the house we wanted a degree of seclusion. We looked at several properties that fit these criteria so, when it came to making a decision, we really needed to understand whether or not what we wanted to do was actually feasible. That is where Clay and his team came in. They performed drone surveys and due diligence pulling all the applicable reports and provided recommendations based on our goals. They even did a very rough preliminary design so we could really envision what was possible. The information they provided allowed us to confidently pull the trigger on a purchase.”
Joe Leveque, Home Owner - AB design studio Client
AB design studio specializes in site assessments and due diligence on all property types. Whether you're looking for an architect that works on single family residences, commercial buildings, multi-family buildings, mixed-use buildings, or anything in between, AB design studio is the expert for you.
Contact us today to discuss your master planning needs!