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Determining if Land is Legally "Buildable"

Jan 13, 2008
The first question any potential buyer is going to have about a piece of raw land is: can it be built on? Almost certainly, the county's zoning for the parcel will permit some form of development, and very often, that means a single-family residence - with, possibly, a detached guesthouse. Given that the zoning permits a house to be built on a parcel, does this mean it can be built on - is it buildable?

The County does not usually say if a given parcel is buildable or not. Rather, the county will approve a site plan. The plan will detail the access (including emergency vehicle access), water source, sanitation, house size and design - the list goes on. This site plan will need to be extensive, drafted by qualified, professional engineers and architects. Sound expensive? Don't worry - it is. Count on at least $10,000 in expenses for surveys, engineers, land use consultants, and other professional services.

In addition to a detailed site plan, the county will require that the property pass a number of tests. If there is to be a septic system, the parcel must pass a percolation test. Soil tests must be performed to see if the land of the proposed building site is stable enough. Geologic tests might be required on surrounding hillsides. If the property lies in or just outside an earthquake fault zone, the county will require an elaborate test of the proposed building envelope - costing upwards of $20,000. Most parcels, however, are not in an active fault zone - but plenty are, especially those in the $200,000 price range.

Assuming the property isn't in a fault zone, the standard battery of soil, percolation, and geologic reporting will likely cost around $10,000 per home site. There are many other types of tests and reports that could be required, for example, biotic (e.g. endangered salamanders) and archaeological. A good ballpark figure for site tests and reports, then, should be around $15,000.

As you can see, it is often times quite expensive and time consuming to determine if a parcel of raw land is, in fact, "buildable." However, all of this is very necessary, to avoid what could be a catastrophe down the road. Imagine that a percolation test were not required - a house was built, and then it had endless problems with a backed-up septic system, creating a health hazard for the occupants of the property. Or, worse, the septic system's effluent ran into an underground stream, which contaminated the groundwater for the drinking water wells in the neighborhood.

While it may seem onerous to have to go through all these various tests - which to many probably seem like so much senseless bureaucracy - in reality, there are very good reasons that the government requires the land and the building project to meet so many high standards. It's good for you!
About the Author
This article was written by Seb Frey, a Real Estate Broker and Realtor in Capitola, California (Santa Cruz County). Seb runs the county's most-complete Real Estate web site, SantaCruzHomeBroker.com. Seb is fluent in Spanish, and works with buyers from all walks of life, helping them to buy or sell Santa Cruz real estate.
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