Tips When Shopping Vacant Lots

By Liz, Project Manager

Easily buildable vacant lots around the Bay Area are becoming harder to come by which makes it critical to be a smart shopper. Whether you’re building your dream home or looking for an investment property, here are a few things to keep in mind when looking into the vacant lot market. Obviously, every city and property has its quirks but this is a good baseline. 

the low-down.

1. Understand the topography driven costs.​

Hillside vacant properties are relatively available in the Bay Area and for good reason. They can be a much more complicated project in both the design and the construction. Hillside properties typically have elaborate zoning requirements that can create hurdles for your architect to design around. Structural work will be greater in scope and cost versus a flat lot and should be anticipated. Site access can be quite difficult due to slope and vegetation. But when it's all said and done, you probably have a beautiful view from the peak you've situated in.

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2. Go into your local Planning & Building Department.

Know the city limitations of the property to make sure it's the best fit. A visit in-person can be the best way to get this information. This information gathering should range from site setbacks (especially with unusually shaped lots), height restrictions, design guidelines, lot coverage maximums. etc. We recommend requesting any and all property records and verifying/understanding any easements the property may have. 

A few questions to ask:

How does the City calculation gross square footage?

Are their liens, violations or other legal issues on file with the city or county for the property?

How long is the design review process and what does it entail? 
What type of work would trigger a grading/civil permit?
3. Location, Location, Location. 

And not in the way you think. Research the lot location and any environmental critical areas it falls under that will trigger extra steps in the permitting process that you may not expect. These can range from: wetlands, wildfire zones, wildlife areas, protected shorelines, potential slide areas, etc that can envolve state or municipal agencies not normally anticipated (i.e. CEQA, FEMA, etc.). These can all trigger possible design limitations, separate permits/fees, and professional specialty environmental reports. 

A few questions to ask:

Is there a known creek/swale (active or dry) on the property?

Is the soil quality known?

Are there any records of abandoned oil tanks on-site?

Are there any protected plant/animal species?

4. The longer it's on the market, the larger the red flag. 

This isn't to say every vacant lot under this circumstance is a lemon. But it's very often the case other buyers have done enough research to find something that made the deal sour. Be vigilant and keep your eye out for newly listed properties to keep your odds potentially better. 

5. Confirm the status of infrastructure.

This is usually on the listing itself but if not, do your due diligence. Getting water or sewer to your property can be an expensive feat. Perc tests should be planned for ahead of time if a septic tank is required. 

These tips are helpful for the initial research on a property and to get you feeling confident of what the future of your project potentially holds. Once you're ready for the design work to commence, there is still a bit of information the architect will need to research and fine-tune with building officials. 

Happy researching, folks. 

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