Selecting a Building Lot

and Siting Your Home

Buying a building lot and constructing a home can be a wonderful experience – especially if you’re well-prepared. In this guide we offer practical suggestions for assessing land on which you’re considering building and then siting your home properly on the lot.

Building Lot Selection

There are many considerations to keep in mind when buying land on which to build a home. Careful research will help to avoid potential surprises such as unexpected easements and restrictive zoning.

Having the right team can be very helpful. A realtor with extensive experience facilitating land purchases can provide guidance. If the property has not been formally surveyed, we recommend hiring a surveyor to clearly mark and document the property boundaries. A survey will also reveal any infringements on the property lines. At some point in the planning process, you’ll likely want to hire a local professional to help assess conditions on site and locate your new home on the property. Civil engineers, site planners, landscape architects and even local general contractors can provide valuable information about notable site features, driveway options, soil conditions, flooding risks and environmental regulations.

Additional factors to consider when evaluating potential building sites:

  1. Review potential sites in terms of your project goals.
    While this may sound daunting, it can be done at a high level, and still be a useful exercise. For example, if you’re set on Net Zero performance, then you’ll want a site with plenty of sunlight, and the possibility of orienting the home optimally to the sun. And if you’d like a slab foundation to make the best use of limited funds, then the building site should be relatively level. 
  2. Understand the likely costs for site development.
    Site development costs vary widely, and may include:
  • Land clearing – how extensive?
  • Driveway – what type? how long?
  • Utilities – underground or overhead?
  • Blasting – required due to ledge?
  • Drainage – issues with surface or groundwater?
  • Retaining walls – required to achieve design goals?
  • Excavation – for foundation
  • Well – if not on municipal water
  • Septic system – if not on town sewer

The cost of this work may range from $20-30,000 for a relatively flat, cleared site on municipal water and sewer, to well over $100,000 for a difficult site with a long driveway on a private well and septic system. If you have no idea about what the costs might be to develop a particular site, then we would recommend using $75,000 as a placeholder for the site work—and following up with a local general contractor or excavation subcontractor to obtain ballpark estimates for site work costs.  

  1. Research regulatory and permitting constraints
    Is the lot zoned for the intended use (single family detached residence)? Will the site be subject to special permitting requirements such as shoreland zoning or wetlands? Does a Homeowners Association have final approval on the design and finishes? 
  2. Understand the implications of the site for the foundation design
    Slab foundations are the most cost-effective, but they require a site that is fairly level. Full basements—either with or without a “walkout”—add considerably to the construction costs, but they also provide usable space on the ground level. On a sloping site, a walkout basement might be the only reasonable option. 
  3. Obtain an engineered survey of the site
    As we mentioned earlier, having a surveyor do a proper assessment of the property is essential. The seller of the land may already have an engineered survey with topo lines and key features. If so, that can be very helpful in assessing potential building sites on the land. If not, you may want to wait until after purchasing the site to invest in a site survey. A completed site survey is generally required before any meaningful home design work can begin.
  4. Talk with neighboring landowners, the local building department and anyone else who might have insights into the “buildability” of the land
    If the land will require a well and septic system, information from surrounding lots may provide insight into the depth and quality of wells in the area, and the type of septic system that will be required. Walking the land with a septic designer may reveal likely locations for the leach field, which could then inform the location of the house itself. Building departments and planning/zoning boards should be able to speak to potential regulatory hurdles. And local tradespeople may be able to provide useful anecdotal information about building in that location. 

Siting Your New Home

Siting a home properly on the building lot is one of the first and most important tasks of building a new home. The siting of the home will affect construction costs, the appearance and performance of the home, and even its resale value. Due to these factors we again strongly encourage all of our clients to engage a professional designer to assist with the process. Site planners, civil engineers and landscape architects are the professionals who most commonly do this type of work.

Siting your new home will involve several steps, including locating the building on the property, orienting it appropriately, and configuring the design to make optimal use of the site features. The more familiar you are with the property, the better prepared you’ll be to work with the site planner. 

Getting to Know Your Site

If possible, walk the property at different times of day, and ideally different seasons to assess the natural features. Questions to consider include: 

  • How does the sun move across the lot? What is the best orientation for natural light?
  • From which direction do the prevailing winds blow? 
  • Are there views or other notable features that you’d like to feature from the house? 
  • Are there level areas that would lend themselves to a slab foundation, or are the likely building locations generally sloped, which would suggest a full basement? 
  • What about surface and groundwater – are certain areas wet or subject to water flows, and therefore potentially problematic? 
  • Any rock outcroppings or evidence of ledge below the surface that could require blasting?
  • How might different possible sites be served by a driveway and utilities?

The answers to these questions will help to focus discussions with the site designer about where best to locate your home. 

House Placement on the Lot – Initial Selection

Assuming your property offers some flexibility in placing the home, there are several factors that will determine the optimal location. You’ll want to start with the most important considerations such as locations of the septic system and well. There might also be physical features such as wetlands, rock outcroppings, or the view. Physical site access may also guide your decision on where to place the home. For example, where the driveway starts, and where it can reasonably end up. 

Your completed site survey with topo lines will provide the information necessary to make a preliminary assessment of how important each of these factors will be in determining the location of the house. At this point, you can begin to refine the location based on these considerations.

Refining Your House Placement on the Lot

Ideally the location you choose will minimize the exposure of the home to bitter winter winds, driving rain, the baking sun, and blankets of low-lying cold air. Often siting a home part-way up a slope, rather than at the top or the bottom, can be ideal. 

The topography at the building site will influence the foundation type, and therefore the design of the home and the costs. It may be possible to shift the location toward more level or sloped areas, to better accommodate the design and budgetary goals. 

The driveway and utilities may also inform the house location. The farther from the road the house is located, the more costly it will be to construct and maintain the driveway. The location also affects the cost of bringing utilities such as power to the house, as does the choice between bringing the power in overhead or underground. 

The trees on site can be another factor influencing the location, especially if you’re planning to have a roof-mounted solar power array. As a general rule, trees should be located at least twice their mature height away from the house to prevent shading of the roof. 

You should also keep in mind any possible future structures or needs when siting the house. Are you putting off the construction of a detached garage until a later date? Have you located the garden areas? Might you one day build a barn or a shed on the property? Considering these future needs may help you to avoid regret down the line. 

Home Orientation on the Lot

Once you and the site designer have determined the optimal location for the home, you can focus on the home’s orientation. The orientation is the home’s relationship to the cardinal directions (N, S, E, W).

If you’re interested in optimizing the potential for passive solar warming during the winter and reducing the changes of overheating from late afternoon sun then it’s recommended that the long side of the house faces within about 20 degrees of due south. This orientation also works well for mounting photovoltaic panels on the south-facing slope of the roof. 

Home Configuration Considerations

Determining the configuration of the home goes hand-in-hand with optimizing the orientation. The configuration refers to how the various spaces within the home are positioned with respect to each other and the site.

How the sun travels across the site will also influence the home’s configuration. For example, do you prefer to have morning sunlight in the primary bedroom or in the kitchen—or in both? Are you planning exterior spaces such as a deck or screened porch, and if so at what time of day do you anticipate using them? And, are there spaces within the house for which direct sunlight is less important?

Next Steps

Siting a home on a building lot is as much an art as a science. While this guide offers you some guidance for planning your project, the siting is so important that it’s best done in collaboration with a local site planner. You and the site planner will work together to ensure that your home is sited to fit gracefully into the landscape, and support your project goals. 

Because purchasing land and a new home are the largest investments that most people will ever make, we suggest exploring all of the options early in the planning process. We hope we’ve been able to provide helpful context for understanding the various things that you should consider as you get started. If you’re looking for more practical suggestions for assessing the land on which you’re considering building, please reach out to us and we’d be happy to continue the conversation.

Unity is a New Hampshire-based home building and design company that combines modern technology and traditional craftsmanship to produce high quality panelized homes. We design and build prefab homes for the greater New England area including New York, New Jersey and beyond.