How to choose a block of land

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How to choose a plot of land 
There's a surprising amount you'll need to consider when choosing a plot of land.
[Image from Google Maps]

Assuming you’ve got your finances in order and you’ve settled on the general area you’re going to build in, it’s time to find the right plot of land.

To the untrained eye, there’s usually little to suggest that one plot is significantly different from the next. Menace often lurks beneath the soil, though - or in the nearby offices of local council bureaucrats, or other places you haven’t considered.

The particular plot of land you choose could easily make tens of thousands of dollars’ difference in construction and maintenance costs, and could also determine whether or not you can build the type of home you’re after. In the worst possible scenarios, it could even represent the difference between a stable, well-built house and one that’ll bring you grief and misery for years to come...

It might all sound a bit dramatic – but knowing what to look for when you’re hunting for a plot of land can make a tremendous difference.

 

What do I need to consider?

There are a lot of things to take into account when you’re choosing a plot. Some of them are only relevant in obscure circumstances, others may determine whether you can build at all. Many of these issues will be dealt with by builders, developers, solicitors or conveyancers, but it’s still worth understanding what’s involved.

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Size, shape, orientation and slope of the block of land

Got a particular house style or design in mind? It’s not normally a problem on bigger plots, but in suburban and urban areas, the width and depth of the plot will determine what sort of house you can build.

Likewise, if the plot is on a significant slope, either the land will need to be cut and filled, or you’ll need to build a house that takes that slope into account. It’s worth remembering that while these things might make your house more spectacular, they’re also likely to cost a fair bit more.

Depending on the angle of the slope and what's built on neighbouring properties, a slope can also reduce your exposure to sunlight - which in turn can affect how much light you get in living areas, and your potential to harness the sun both for passive solar heating and for collecting solar power. Where we live in the southern hemisphere a north-facing slope is ideal for solar access - a steep south-facing slope not so much.

Another thing to remember about sloping land or land at the top of a hill is that in bushfire prone areas, it’s likely to increase your BAL (bushfire attack level) rating (fire moves faster up a hill). This in turn has the potential to affect the materials you can build with, or force restrictions on how you build.

What to do 
  • Check the width, depth and slope of the block against the dimensions of the kinds of houses you would like to build - and consider how neighbouring structures and trees may affect solar access (now and in future). Check with the local council to see if there are any boundary setback requirements or other conditions that will determine where on the block of land you can build, and whether the plot is in a bushfire prone area.

 

Soil type

Different blocks will have different types and compositions of soils. One of the most important things to consider when you’re building is how ‘reactive’ the soil is – i.e. how much it’s likely to move, particularly in response to increased or decreased moisture content. This is called the ‘site classification’. It’s normally more expensive to build on more reactive soils, simply because special measures like deep pilings or specially engineered slabs are required to keep the house stable.

When you’re choosing a plot it also pays to investigate what the land’s been used for in the past. Nobody wants to buy a plot only to find out the soil’s loaded with DDT or some other noxious pesticide from a farm that existed there decades earlier.

What to do 
  • Get a geotechnical report on the plot. This will determine the composition and reactivity of the soil, and allow you to determine what sort of subfloor is required.

 

Easements, rights of way and access

An ‘easement’ is defined as a proprietary service that exists on someone else’s land – like an access road to a neighbour’s house, or an underground cable or pipeline that runs through your yard. If an easement exists only to service your needs (i.e. an access road) it’s said to be a benefited easement, while other easements that run across your property are called burdened easements.

In theory, telephone companies, gas companies or even your neighbours can knock down fences, gardens or buildings if you deny their right to access their respective easements. Easements on a plot will affect how you’re able to build, and you will need to understand what kinds of easements exist on a parcel of land before you buy it.

What to do 
  • Check with your solicitor or conveyancer to confirm that all easements, covenants or other restrictions have been properly identified. In some states, a vendor’s statement outlining these sorts of things is mandatory, but in others it’s a case of caveat emptor (buyer beware).

 

Existing roads and access to essential services

If you’re building in a newer or more sparsely populated area, you’ll need to take into account how and when basic services will be provided to the plot.

While this obviously includes roads (which you’ll need to get construction gear in unless you’ve got a very impressive helicopter), it also includes things like sewage pipes and water supply, electricity supply, natural gas, telephone lines and broadband internet.

What to do 
  • Arranging for the connection of basic services is normally taken care of by the builder. To clarify anything related to access or the provision of any kinds of services in remote areas, have a talk to the local council.

 

Restrictions on how you can build

Different councils can have very different rules, which can limit how you build. Depending on the council, there may be rules about what style of house you can build, what colours and materials are appropriate, where on the plot you can situate your house and even what kind of fence you can have (among other things).

Also, expect resistance from existing neighbours! If you’re pulling down an existing house to build afresh (or planning big renovations), there’s every chance that they’ll object for any number of reasons.

What to do 
  • Call the council for information on local restrictions, heritage overlays or other circumstances that may limit what you can build. Different councils also have different rules about the circumstances that require you to notify neighbours about plans to build. Find out what these are.

 

Proximity to public/crown land or commercial land

Is the block of land too close to noisy industrial sites? Will it be less safe if it’s right next to a suburban park or alleyway? Visit the site at different times of the day, both on weekdays and on the weekend and take in everthing that’s going on. This will let you know how much noise to expect – and also let you know if the neighbours rehearse death metal in their garage or have a motocross track in their backyard.

Property adjoining some crown land has the potential to be real blessing too - especially if it backs onto a nice bit of virgin bushland or an otherwise inaccessible river frontage.

 

Other things to consider

There are a few other important things to keep in mind when you’re looking for a good plot to build on. Some of these include:

  • How high the plot is above sea level – particularly a concern if you’re building in an area that’s prone to flooding.
  • What’s being built nearby – Nobody wants to buy a plot of land only to find out a truck stop’s going in next door. Check with the council, or use planningalerts.org.au or a similar service to keep tabs on nearby developments.
  • Privacy – nobody wants an entire apartment block staring into their bedroom window. Carefully consider what’s next door, what you’re building, and how secluded you can make it.
  • State of existing structures – planning on retaining parts of an existing building or structure? You’ll need to get it inspected to ensure it’s in good shape.
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