Wouldn't it be wonderful if the first plot of land you visited was the perfect match for you. No doubt this will happen to a lucky few. For the rest of us the process is long, sometimes fun and sometimes frustrating. Never settle for the first plot, always look around and compare. This section provides many great tips that will save you significant time, money, and frustration.
Finding the right location isn't always easy. One of your first considerations should be: how far do you want to be from your current location and your place of work? Is this going to be a weekend/holiday home or a permanent full-time residence? If it is a holiday home then you need to consider how long it will take you to get there, you probably wouldn't want to drive more than two hours each way every weekend. Your budget will also determine where you will be able purchase land; the more expensive land will be closer to bigger cities and towns.
If complete isolation is what you seek, and nary a neighbor you want to see, then buy no less than 5 acres. Remember that you have to pay taxes even on vacant land, so make sure that you can afford all of those extra acres that you may decide to buy.
It probably wouldn't surprise you to know that the majority of people would love a valley view, water features and a lakeside location. A desirable the view will cost more! Sometimes you may need to compromise, picking one or two 'must-haves' and leaving some degree of flexibility in your choices. When walking the land look for a natural spring. It will be indicated by a lush green surrounding, natural spring water will keep grass and vegetation green in winter. If you find a spring you can design a pond or stream after you buy it.
You may have worked with many different Real Estate brokers in the past when looking to buy or rent a home. You need to find out how much experience your real estate agent has with land, many specialize only with homes.
There is a big difference between selling land compared to a home. Many agents know nothing about the land that they are selling and rely solely on parcel surveys for reference. Talk to your realtor first and find out if they have walked the land in person. Land deals require much more research. Real estate agents do not make much money from a land deal. Ask about a buyer's agent agreement to protect your rights in the final contract signing. Disclosure of past issues with the land is a shady area. Ask many questions, get details before committing.
By using satellite imagery and GIS maps you can view potential plots without leaving the comfort of your home. Many parcel listings sound amazing on paper e.g.: 'build you dream home here, undisturbed woodlands' and 'what a great location to build, with nature all around' or 'the last parcel in a very desirable sub-division, complete with stone wall near a beautiful stream', another favorite is 'possible mountain views with some clearing'! We have saved ourselves huge amounts of time by going online and using free services such as: Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, and Local County GIS mapping databases. Ask your realtor for the exact address of the parcel and then view any maps and satellite imagery of that area online. You may be amazed to find that the parcel that has 'nature all around' is in fact located next to a huge power easement or railroad tracks or even near a landfill!! Save yourself time and disappointment! A little homework saves a lot of legwork.
If you have neighbors nearby, try and talk to them. Not just the immediate ones, but those that live on the same road too. They may tell you about any problems they may have had with any of your potential new neighbors! Google your neighbors, see if their names come up! Talk to the owners of the local shops and post offices. Eat in the closest diner to see what the locals are like. Find out at much as you can to ensure you are making a well informed land purchase
Research the geological features located on the parcel, such as rock structure, rivers and floodplains. Many realtor listings won't talk about areas such as wetlands and floodplains, as many will not know of their existence (especially if they haven't gone to walk the land in person). Wetlands are often insect infested in the warmer months; in general, you will find it very difficult to obtain a permit to build on designated wetland.
Floodplains present different problems. In some cases you may obtain a special building permit and insurance that enables you to build in a floodplain. Beware though, that floodplains don't necessarily become saturated every year. You may come across a one hundred-year floodplain; this only floods once in every one hundred years. A fifty-year floodplain will flood once every fifty years etc. Just because you know the location for several years doesn't mean that it doesn't flood! Check with the local GIS surveys, these will outline the existence of any floodplains on your parcel.
It is interesting to note, that more recently floodplains are becoming more and more 'flooded' on a regular basis. Global warming perhaps?
Rivers are always another great feature to own, but in general you may not get planning permission to build next to it. Many local counties require that you build at least 100 feet or more away from the water.
Look into the elevation of the parcel and its orientation towards the sun. If you are looking to install solar, then you want to ensure that any elevation around you doesn't prevent you from an all-day, sunny, southern exposure.
Buying land does not give you the right to do what ever you would like on it. Some zoning requirements may not let you build a log home, add solar panels, wind turbines or a work trailer on the property. Some covenants even restrict you from pitching a tent. Check with local planning officers before you sign your contract. You should also use that opportunity to find out if there are plans to build any new major roads, supermarkets any that may take away from the privacy you seek. Some future construction plans may actually reduce the value of the property.
An easement allows another person to use your land for a specific purpose e.g. perhaps a power line. If an easement is mentioned in the deed, by law it must be respected, even if not currently in use. Be aware of their locations, as you will not be able to build structures or place fencing where an easement exists. If you disregard the easement or ROW and build, the town will make you tear it down, even if it is your house, be smart and check to avoid problems. A Right-of-way is an easement that will let other people travel across your property to access their own property. If you build too close to it, people may be driving across your front lawn to get to their house. Check ahead to avoid a costly situation.
Find out about the local shops and conveniences nearby. Ensure that you have clear access to main roads so that you won't be snowed in during the winter! Check to see if you have a local train and bus service to and from nearby towns or cities. Better infrastructure also provides more building resources and construction workers to be available to work on your project.
Take the opportunity to go and visit the parcel at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. You may fall in love the parcel in the mid-day sun and then consider it to be inhospitable on a dark, wet and damp afternoon. It always helps if you know the area well. We may not always have the good fortune of being able to visit parcels throughout the different seasons of the year. However you should try to educate yourself about the different areas in which you wish to purchase land several months prior to making any purchases.
Many parcels are not close to the sewage and water systems and will require that you install your own well and septic system. You may also find that there is no electricity running to your lot. These all are significant investments to keep in the forefront of your plans and budget. Some power companies will supply the first 100 feet of cable, after that its about $10 a foot, plus poles every 250 feet, and if you are really far back, you will require a pad transformer to be installed. If you choose to go above ground, pole to pole, the utility company will require 10' of clearing on both sides of the wire. That equates to creating a 20' wide cut into your property so that the trucks can service the poles properly. Most of that cost is on you. If you choose to go underground, all of the cost is on you, however then there is no need to cut in that giant 20 foot passage for them to access it. Weigh the options, both are expensive, you must choose one.
It certainly is nice to have a remote home in your own private mountain. You have to remember that building a driveway to get to your home can be a huge cost. Clearing, flattening out and putting a surface on a driveway (whether it be shale or cement), is not a cheap process! You may end up paying more for the driveway than the parcel itself.
Other expenses include: blasting away solid rock at the foundation site, the cost of building culvert if you have to cross any streams and the cost of putting water erosion measures to name but a few things.
We briefly covered some of the criteria required for land selection (in the section ‘Buying Land’). Our recent trials and tribulations relating to the approvals of our septic system have proved to be more difficult then we were initially led to believe! Let us share our in-depth experiences in this matter….
Our land lies within the New York watershed*. Simply put, the water in this area feeds the drinking supplies for millions of New Yorkers (ourselves included). This means that any water on your land is subject to very strict standards.
Link to the watershed area in NY state: http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/25563.html for other states we recommend that you visit your state Department of Environmental Conservation/Protection website.
*If you prefer the definition as created by the Commissioner of Health by Section 201(1)(I) of the Public Health Law, Appendix 75-A of Part 75 of the Administrative Rules and Regulations contained in Chapter II of Title 10 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of New York: “An area of drainage for a body of water that serves as a source of drinking water and for which watershed rules and regulations have been adopted by the commissioner”.
Read downloadable PDF called ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’ section 75-A.1 (b) for more definitions.
Many of us love the idea of owning a river, stream or other watercourses. However, contrary to popular belief, these pretty watercourses located on your land, don’t not entitle you to do ‘whatever you want to do’ with them!
When you making your land selection for purchase, make sure that it isn’t riddled with watercourses. The restrictions put in place by the DEP clearly state that you cannot build, nor disturb (that includes using any heavy machinery) any land that falls within a one hundred feet radius of any watercourse.
A watercourse as defined by the Commissioner of Health is: “A visible path through which surface water travels on a regular basis. Drainage areas which contain water only during and immediately after a rainstorm shall not be considered a watercourse.”
Well…. we do appear to have several patches of water run-off on our land, which to the untrained eye appear not to be a defined ‘watercourse’. We suggest contacting your local DEP, so that they can clearly identify what they believe to be ‘official watercourses’. They have trained individuals who know what they are looking for. There is nothing worse, than building close to what seems just a water ‘run-off’, only to find out afterwards that it is so more than that. You will get more than a slap on the wrist; you could receive fines, be forced to remove the structure and who knows what else you could face?
Anyway, so back to your land purchase, once you have ascertained that it is in the watershed area and that your post-storm dribbles are in fact ‘defined watercourses’, and that you can’t build within one hundred feet of those, do you still have room to build your home?
Not so fast, I forgot to mention that you might need a well and septic system (that is of course, if like us, you have chosen to build away from the municipal water and sewage lines). The well and septic need space (we will talk about that shortly) remember, these can’t be located within one hundred feet of a watercourse either. Let’s add to our equation of total land required to build your home on: the well cannot be within one hundred and fifty feet of your septic system. Starting to run out of acreage? Well it doesn’t end here.
Let’s talk about septic systems here. Your septic system, (also referred to as the on-site wastewater treatment system) consists of a pipe that flows from your home into a septic tank. The size of the tank (usually buried underground) depends on the number of bedrooms in your home. Our home will have three-bedrooms, therefore our tank minimum capacity will be one thousand gallons and a minimum liquid area of twenty-seven square feet (refer to Table 3 from Commissioner of Health by Section 201(1)(I) of the Public Health Law, Appendix 75-A of Part 75 of the Administrative Rules and Regulations contained in Chapter II of Title 10 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of New York). Downloadable PDF ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’
A septic tank is a big concrete box, (it can be fibreglass or polyethylene), into which your wastewater remains until it settles into layers. The solids form a layer of ‘sludge’; oil and grease rise to the surface as a layer of ‘scum’. Sludge and scum remain in the tank, whereas partially decomposed waste and wastewater leave the tank via a pipe to a distribution box. The distribution box disperses the liquid into the drainage field. (REMEMBER the word DRAINAGE FIELD because we will be talking more about these shortly, especially since they do take up extraordinary amounts of square feet).
When new wastewater enters the septic tank, older wastewater gets distributed in the drainage AKA leech field. Additional soil is required at the drainage field; the amount depends on the rate at which the soil drains (this is determined during the percolation test), and the amount of permeable soil type vs. rock and less permeable soil located at your site. Are you getting concerned now, because you seem to have more rock on your site then soil and foliage? Also keep in mind that you cannot put your septic field in an area of ‘standing water’ or ‘wetland’ either.
The drainage field plays an important part in the absorption and percolation of your wastewater. The soil treats the wastewater by draining/filtering any harmful bacteria, nutrients, chemicals and viruses.
In addition to the pipes, septic tank, distribution box, drainage field and additional soil required, you may have to also purchase a pump or a float switch to help facilitate the movement of wastewater from the septic tank to the drainage field.
We will definitely need to use a pump or float switch. We recently discovered that if you have a suitable area (i.e. one that is large enough with at least nineteen inches of permeable soil) to create a septic system on your land that is at least two hundred and fifty feet away from a watercourse, and then you have to use that instead. (I know – we did mention that your septic field had to be at least one hundred feet away from the ‘designated watercourse’, so-be-it, there are rules that supersede other rules)! And this one can’t be found in the Commissioner of Health by Section 201(1)(I) of the Public Health Law, Appendix 75-A of Part 75 of the Administrative Rules and Regulations contained in Chapter II of Title 10 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of New York. (Downloadable PDF called ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’)
Unfortunately, that means that we have to dig a trench over eight hundred feet in length, to be able to locate our drainage field in the ‘designated preferred area’. How much will that cost? More! We have discovered though, that we can use the same trench as the one used to run our electrical line. The negative aspect here is that we will have to make a three feet wide trench to accommodate the required twelve inch distance between electric lines and sewage pipes.
OK – so there are several costs building up now, and the buildable area of land is shrinking, but it doesn’t stop there. Can you remember earlier, we talked about the area of the drainage field? When you summit your septic plan for approval by the DEP/DOH, you have to provide two locations. The first location will be the primary septic field. The second location is the reserve field. The reserve field is a back up, should your primary field fail in the future. However, you cannot disturb your secondary field that is to say, you can’t put anything onto it or do anything to it. So the real question here is how big a space do you need for your drainage fields? As previously mentioned this does depend on your soil percolation rate, amount of useable soil and also the number of bedrooms planned in your home.
We shall use our project as an example: We are planning on having three bedrooms; our soil percolation rate was measured at five minutes per inch. We had at least nineteen inches of useable soil, if not more. Our drainage field will have to be a minimum area of eighty by eighty feet, and so too does our reserve field. More details about percolation rates and absorption trench sizes can be found in Table 4A and 4B of the Commissioner of Health by Section 201(1)(I) of the Public Health Law, Appendix 75-A of Part 75 of the Administrative Rules and Regulations contained in Chapter II of Title 10 of the Official Compilation of Codes, Rules and Regulations of New York, downloadable PDF called ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’.
So, at this point you must be really worried about having enough space to build your home and septic, while still having and enjoying those ‘pretty designated’ water courses on your plot.
A table of required separation distances from wastewater system components can be found in the PDF ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’ Table 2.
Other important restrictions to note include ensuring that the designated primary and reserve fields are no more than fifteen percent in elevation or lower than the ten-year flood. As mentioned in on SECTION 75-A.4 point (1) of the PDF ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’.
When our engineer originally submitted our ‘Septic Application’, we also discovered that he had omitted putting accurate contours at two feet intervals (as determined by NY licensed surveyor) onto the plans and layout. Consequently our submission was initially rejected and we had to pay for a Surveyor to conduct and plot thorough elevations from our home, the proposed septic field sites, well, pump tank, force lines and interceptor drains. (This is not cheap either so get quotes, shop around, but do budget for this early in the planning process). Dome engineering firms will include this in the cost estimate. Get a detailed estimate to be sure. Our cost was over one thousand two hundred additional dollars!
One other lesson of note!! We purchased three adjacent plots. If you, like us need to distribute your home and septic system over one or more of your plots you will be required to apply for an easement. We decided that it would be simpler to file our lots as one. (Again, remember to budget for the filing and legal fees related to this). This was an additional six hundred bucks.
The PDF that we have scanned called ‘Wastewater Treatment Standards’ is quite difficult to understand. You will require a certified engineer to design and plan your system according to your house size, soil type and permeability rates. We absolutely recommend that you get accurate delineation of your watercourses from the DEP as well a ‘pit and perc test’ performed in the presence of a DEP official and an engineer. They must be able to confirm that you have at least nineteen inches of useable soil, as well as a percolation rate better or equal to thirty minutes per inch - PRIOR TO PURCHASING YOUR PLOT (so as to avoid disappointment at a later date).
That just about covers everything other than ‘storm water management’. So we should mention that too. We were under the told by our land seller, that you could clear one acre per plot for the home site, driveway, garden, septic field etc. However we were misinformed! (We were also told that we weren’t in the watershed area, but that’s a story for another day). If you clear more than one acre (it doesn’t matter how many plots you have apparently), you are required to file a ‘Notice of Intent’ with NYSDEC and prepare a ‘Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan’ - AKA - SWPPP. If you disturb more than two acres that occur on slopes of fifteen percent or greater or within one hundred feet of a watercourse a full SWPPP must be prepared and submitted to the DEP’s Storm water Design Review Section for review and approval.
There is much to learn along the way. Our best advice to contact your DEP representative, work closely with them, they will guide you and advise you about the best ways in how to pass your septic application. Also do get recommendations for a qualified engineer and surveyor to ensure that your submitted plans are to scale, properly annotated and designed. GOOD LUCK!