The Homebound Journal
Building
What to look for in a vacant lot

What to look for in a vacant lot

An Interview with our VP of Construction Services, Ceci Clarke

Custom home building can be overwhelming. At Homebound, we are working to change this reality through knowledge, technology, and efficiencies of scale. As you consider building your own home, perhaps for the first time, there are likely a thousand questions you have and even more you don’t know to ask. That’s where we come in.

In this session, we sat down with our own Ceci Clarke, VP of Construction Services to tackle one of the most important and intimidating parts of the process: Lot Assessment. Ceci has broken down lot assessment into 6 digestible parts: slope, lot intelligence, “dirt”, restrictions, site features, and home features.

Slope

The dotted line represents the grade before construction while the solid black line reflects the grade after. The hatched form between these two lines represents the ground that must be “cut” from the lot in order to build.

How important is slope when building a home?

It’s very important — it can impact price, design, construction time, and more. There are benefits and disadvantages to choosing a lot with significant slope so you’ll have to consider what’s important or preferable to you. For example, a home located on a slope, which we see frequently with our California customers, often has the benefit of elevated views. One functional disadvantage is that, depending on design, you might not have a home where walking in and out onto grade — like a yard or other features — is possible.

What will it affect in the homebuilding process?

For building, a hillside property makes construction more difficult — both in terms of access and staging as well as establishing your foundation. There are code requirements related to building adjacent to slopes that require a deepened or more substantial foundation system. Structural steel or a floor framing diaphragm upgrade may be required and the cost can sometimes be substantial. We’d caution away from slope if you’re working within a very limited budget. You certainly don’t want a majority of your investment to be unseen.

Lot Intelligence

Before you assess your lot based on your “dream home” requirements, take note of the basics first:

Size: Aside from any intentions for how you use your lot — like having a sports court or other feature — the first thing to look at is width and depth. A narrow lot is going to limit the architecture of the home. If you already have a home design in mind, the width and depth of the lot is important to check. Your architect will assist with this as part of their services.

Accessibility: Access to the site can impact construction itself — increasing labor and equipment costs. There are other issues related to access that can make a site unbuildable. For example, the fire department may require a minimum width for your driveway and may have limits on the slope of the drive. If the drive is long, for example, a fire truck may not be able to do a 3-point turn to get out and in some municipalities, this is required to build. Meeting these kinds of criteria can be expensive rendering a lot unbuildable for your budget. In some cases, if access for fire defense can’t be created, you may not be able to acquire insurance and in fire or hurricane-prone areas, you’ll want to confirm with your broker that the lot is, in fact, insurable.

Utilities: It’s best if a lot has been previously developed. This means that it’s already been serviced by utility companies. New services can be expensive and take a fair amount of work and time to apply for, engineer, and get approved. In addition, some utilities may not even be available for the property. In some cases, there are alternative ways to provide utilities — like septic systems instead of public sewer, a well instead of water service, propane tanks instead of natural gas service, etc. These systems can be costly and, in some cases, prohibitive. For instance, sometimes, the requirements for septic systems in environmentally sensitive areas are onerous — exceeding $100k.

Size, accessibility, and utility information are key but there are some less obvious considerations. Ceci said that just like buying a home, you should vet things like neighbors, power lines and noise. She suggests spending a little time at the lot to get a feel for these things and to identify other factors like:

  • Trees — Some trees are protected. You can’t remove them. You can’t build near them. If the trees are protected, is there enough space to build your home?
  • View corridors — Adjacent properties may have protected view corridors which would limit where you can place your home.
  • Height Restrictions — Some areas have height limitations which could mean you may not be able to build the home you want.
  • HOA’s — Some HOA’s have restrictions on what you can build — size, style, etc.
  • Local Ordinances — Some municipalities have limitations on the size of the home and it’s footprint. These limitations are usually related to the size of the lot.
  • Flood + Hazard Zones — Check to see if the property is in a hazard zone. One, it may limit what you can build. Two, you may not be able to get homeowner’s insurance.

“Dirt”

How does the composition of the soil affect structural and geotechnical engineering?

The type and condition of the soil is very important. The quality of your “dirt” determines how capable it is of supporting your home. If poor, it’s assigned lower values (geotechnical engineering) which means a more substantial or involved foundation system (structural engineering) will be required. Geotechnical engineers will provide your soils report.

Soil composition and structure will change depending on where you build. The geotechnical engineering will be much different on this sandy lot in the Bahamas compared to a compacted lot in California.

What is included in a Soils Report?

A Soils Report is generated by a Geotechnical Engineer after inspecting, testing, and researching your lot. The assessment not only takes into consideration and advises on your foundation design but also on components like drainage, pool design, and septic design (if applicable). The Soils Report also reviews potential earthquake faults, landslides, and other hazards. These are really cool documents with the geological history of the property, maps, information on borings, sections on the geological state of the lot, and other information. If you have one on hand already, flip to the RECOMMENDATIONS section to learn what you need to be concerned about.

You can track the entire process and all documents including your soils report within the Homebound Homeowner Portal.

Restrictions

What are setbacks and what do you wish people understood about them?

Setbacks are distances that you need to stay back from front property lines, side yard property lines and rear property lines. In addition to required setbacks, in some cases, the placement of the home is limited by the position of adjacent homes as well. To further note, setbacks are a good thing. It means that other homes built around you also need to observe the same restrictions so space is maintained between houses.

What permits are required, if any, for lot preparation?

Most work related to lot preparation requires a permit. The Soils Report, your Survey, and a Grading Plan (also called the Civil Drawings) are part of a permit submission.

How long will lot preparation take?

There’s no rule of thumb here. But, the added time is negligible if the lot is flat and has had a home on it before.

Site Features and Goals

How important is site design and what goes into it?

Your architect is responsible for both site planning — the layout of the site (how the building is situated as well as other site features) and the design of the home. Good site planning is the foresight to know what can fit — what’s comfortable and functional. How much space do you need on any of the sides — front, side yard, back? How do you see your life changing over time? Does the lot provide that flexibility?

This Homebound custom build was designed and positioned to optimize the viewshed of a beautiful California valley.

Do you take existing trees and vegetation into consideration when preparing a lot? How will these affect the future house?

Existing trees can also impact your design if you’re considering a change to the elevation of the lot — lowering or raising the grade. Trees need to be protected during construction. The equipment, materials, and traffic — trucks, cars, workers — can compact the roots. It’s best to put up fencing at the dripline (perimeter of the head of the tree). Trees should also be washed down to remove dirt that accumulates. Someone needs to be retained to take responsibility for the trees — watering and checking in on their health. Construction is stressful on trees. If other planting is being saved, a temporary irrigation system should be established and a gardener retained to maintain the vegetation.

Your Future Home

Homebound Ready Plan Rendering — Sycamore
Besides the size of the planned house, what else should homeowners keep in mind about their future home when selecting a lot?

Good architecture makes sure that your rooms are situated in the environment in a way that takes advantage of the property, natural light, views, and your lifestyle. In which rooms do you want to see the sunrise? In which rooms do you want to see the sunset? Just like with the site, how do you see your life changing over time? Does the lot provide that flexibility? Also, always ask yourself, will other people like this lot? You want to create value; the best asset is one that’s desirable to others.

How much does pre-construction and lot preparation cost? Is this included in the total price of the home?

The components that are required and costs that may be incurred to obtain a permit for a home as well as to provide the documents/information required to build a home include the following:

  • Plan check and permit fees
  • Soils Report
  • Survey
  • Grading Plan
  • Architectural Plans
  • Structural Plans
  • Energy Calculations — depending on municipality
  • Other engineered systems like HVAC, plumbing, electrical
  • Utility fees
  • Insurance policies
  • Taxes and developer fees
  • HOA fees
  • Designer fees
Buckeye Floor Plan — Architectural plans and drawings are including in the pre-construction costs of a home

The range can vary depending on so many factors with the most costly probably being the architecture of the home. Better plans mean easier permitting, optimal pricing, and faster construction.

Better plans may cost more but insubstantial plans that aren’t well-coordinated incur costs that tangibly impact a homeowner.”

Lot preparation, which can include demolition and grubbing, grading, drainage, utilities, slope stabilization, retaining structures, is usually part of the cost of building a home and should be included in the construction contract. These costs are minimal with a flat lot that has already been built on. The costs are highest for large, undeveloped properties.

What is the number one problem you run into with lot preparation?

There can be unknown subsurface conditions. In the Santa Barbara area, for example, you can encounter sandstone boulders that are the size of a Volkswagen! We’ve found underground streams, abandoned septic systems, buried pools, contaminated soils. The more you know about the history of the lot and the area, the better.

There’s usually discussion before starting a home about the timing of site work and expected weather patterns. Rain not only stops work on the site but the mud can also inhibit work for days after. The site has to dry out to allow access as well as to do work.

However, the most discouraging thing to encounter is rock that is so difficult to penetrate that special equipment is required. It’s expensive and, in most construction contracts, is a justifiable added cost.

This should provide some insight into lot assessment to help you understand more fully what goes into this process. When you’re ready, Ceci and our network of experienced builders are here to help you navigate it. Visit our website to connect with an expert today.

Ceci Clarke — VP of Construction Services

Ceci Clarke — Homebounds VP of Construction Services

Bio: Ceci Clarke is Homebound’s VP of Construction Services. She’s built more than 300 homes over her 36-year-long career, 11 of which have been featured in industry publications such as Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, and Town & Country. Since starting in the construction industry in 1986, Ceci has built more than $900M in product. In 2017, her firm became the first woman-owned luxury home builder in Southern California. We are so grateful to have her here at Homebound.

More information:

  • Ceci’s work — Check out this feature of one of Ceci’s notable builds in Arch Digest.
  • Protected Trees — Here is a list of native trees in LA county that are prohibited from cutting down. Be sure to check with your local experts on protected trees in your area.
  • How it works — Check out our process here.

What to look for in a vacant lot

An Interview with our VP of Construction Services, Ceci Clarke
Feb 12, 2021

Custom home building can be overwhelming. At Homebound, we are working to change this reality through knowledge, technology, and efficiencies of scale. As you consider building your own home, perhaps for the first time, there are likely a thousand questions you have and even more you don’t know to ask. That’s where we come in.

In this session, we sat down with our own Ceci Clarke, VP of Construction Services to tackle one of the most important and intimidating parts of the process: Lot Assessment. Ceci has broken down lot assessment into 6 digestible parts: slope, lot intelligence, “dirt”, restrictions, site features, and home features.

Slope

The dotted line represents the grade before construction while the solid black line reflects the grade after. The hatched form between these two lines represents the ground that must be “cut” from the lot in order to build.

How important is slope when building a home?

It’s very important — it can impact price, design, construction time, and more. There are benefits and disadvantages to choosing a lot with significant slope so you’ll have to consider what’s important or preferable to you. For example, a home located on a slope, which we see frequently with our California customers, often has the benefit of elevated views. One functional disadvantage is that, depending on design, you might not have a home where walking in and out onto grade — like a yard or other features — is possible.

What will it affect in the homebuilding process?

For building, a hillside property makes construction more difficult — both in terms of access and staging as well as establishing your foundation. There are code requirements related to building adjacent to slopes that require a deepened or more substantial foundation system. Structural steel or a floor framing diaphragm upgrade may be required and the cost can sometimes be substantial. We’d caution away from slope if you’re working within a very limited budget. You certainly don’t want a majority of your investment to be unseen.

Lot Intelligence

Before you assess your lot based on your “dream home” requirements, take note of the basics first:

Size: Aside from any intentions for how you use your lot — like having a sports court or other feature — the first thing to look at is width and depth. A narrow lot is going to limit the architecture of the home. If you already have a home design in mind, the width and depth of the lot is important to check. Your architect will assist with this as part of their services.

Accessibility: Access to the site can impact construction itself — increasing labor and equipment costs. There are other issues related to access that can make a site unbuildable. For example, the fire department may require a minimum width for your driveway and may have limits on the slope of the drive. If the drive is long, for example, a fire truck may not be able to do a 3-point turn to get out and in some municipalities, this is required to build. Meeting these kinds of criteria can be expensive rendering a lot unbuildable for your budget. In some cases, if access for fire defense can’t be created, you may not be able to acquire insurance and in fire or hurricane-prone areas, you’ll want to confirm with your broker that the lot is, in fact, insurable.

Utilities: It’s best if a lot has been previously developed. This means that it’s already been serviced by utility companies. New services can be expensive and take a fair amount of work and time to apply for, engineer, and get approved. In addition, some utilities may not even be available for the property. In some cases, there are alternative ways to provide utilities — like septic systems instead of public sewer, a well instead of water service, propane tanks instead of natural gas service, etc. These systems can be costly and, in some cases, prohibitive. For instance, sometimes, the requirements for septic systems in environmentally sensitive areas are onerous — exceeding $100k.

Size, accessibility, and utility information are key but there are some less obvious considerations. Ceci said that just like buying a home, you should vet things like neighbors, power lines and noise. She suggests spending a little time at the lot to get a feel for these things and to identify other factors like:

  • Trees — Some trees are protected. You can’t remove them. You can’t build near them. If the trees are protected, is there enough space to build your home?
  • View corridors — Adjacent properties may have protected view corridors which would limit where you can place your home.
  • Height Restrictions — Some areas have height limitations which could mean you may not be able to build the home you want.
  • HOA’s — Some HOA’s have restrictions on what you can build — size, style, etc.
  • Local Ordinances — Some municipalities have limitations on the size of the home and it’s footprint. These limitations are usually related to the size of the lot.
  • Flood + Hazard Zones — Check to see if the property is in a hazard zone. One, it may limit what you can build. Two, you may not be able to get homeowner’s insurance.

“Dirt”

How does the composition of the soil affect structural and geotechnical engineering?

The type and condition of the soil is very important. The quality of your “dirt” determines how capable it is of supporting your home. If poor, it’s assigned lower values (geotechnical engineering) which means a more substantial or involved foundation system (structural engineering) will be required. Geotechnical engineers will provide your soils report.

Soil composition and structure will change depending on where you build. The geotechnical engineering will be much different on this sandy lot in the Bahamas compared to a compacted lot in California.

What is included in a Soils Report?

A Soils Report is generated by a Geotechnical Engineer after inspecting, testing, and researching your lot. The assessment not only takes into consideration and advises on your foundation design but also on components like drainage, pool design, and septic design (if applicable). The Soils Report also reviews potential earthquake faults, landslides, and other hazards. These are really cool documents with the geological history of the property, maps, information on borings, sections on the geological state of the lot, and other information. If you have one on hand already, flip to the RECOMMENDATIONS section to learn what you need to be concerned about.

You can track the entire process and all documents including your soils report within the Homebound Homeowner Portal.

Restrictions

What are setbacks and what do you wish people understood about them?

Setbacks are distances that you need to stay back from front property lines, side yard property lines and rear property lines. In addition to required setbacks, in some cases, the placement of the home is limited by the position of adjacent homes as well. To further note, setbacks are a good thing. It means that other homes built around you also need to observe the same restrictions so space is maintained between houses.

What permits are required, if any, for lot preparation?

Most work related to lot preparation requires a permit. The Soils Report, your Survey, and a Grading Plan (also called the Civil Drawings) are part of a permit submission.

How long will lot preparation take?

There’s no rule of thumb here. But, the added time is negligible if the lot is flat and has had a home on it before.

Site Features and Goals

How important is site design and what goes into it?

Your architect is responsible for both site planning — the layout of the site (how the building is situated as well as other site features) and the design of the home. Good site planning is the foresight to know what can fit — what’s comfortable and functional. How much space do you need on any of the sides — front, side yard, back? How do you see your life changing over time? Does the lot provide that flexibility?

This Homebound custom build was designed and positioned to optimize the viewshed of a beautiful California valley.

Do you take existing trees and vegetation into consideration when preparing a lot? How will these affect the future house?

Existing trees can also impact your design if you’re considering a change to the elevation of the lot — lowering or raising the grade. Trees need to be protected during construction. The equipment, materials, and traffic — trucks, cars, workers — can compact the roots. It’s best to put up fencing at the dripline (perimeter of the head of the tree). Trees should also be washed down to remove dirt that accumulates. Someone needs to be retained to take responsibility for the trees — watering and checking in on their health. Construction is stressful on trees. If other planting is being saved, a temporary irrigation system should be established and a gardener retained to maintain the vegetation.

Your Future Home

Homebound Ready Plan Rendering — Sycamore
Besides the size of the planned house, what else should homeowners keep in mind about their future home when selecting a lot?

Good architecture makes sure that your rooms are situated in the environment in a way that takes advantage of the property, natural light, views, and your lifestyle. In which rooms do you want to see the sunrise? In which rooms do you want to see the sunset? Just like with the site, how do you see your life changing over time? Does the lot provide that flexibility? Also, always ask yourself, will other people like this lot? You want to create value; the best asset is one that’s desirable to others.

How much does pre-construction and lot preparation cost? Is this included in the total price of the home?

The components that are required and costs that may be incurred to obtain a permit for a home as well as to provide the documents/information required to build a home include the following:

  • Plan check and permit fees
  • Soils Report
  • Survey
  • Grading Plan
  • Architectural Plans
  • Structural Plans
  • Energy Calculations — depending on municipality
  • Other engineered systems like HVAC, plumbing, electrical
  • Utility fees
  • Insurance policies
  • Taxes and developer fees
  • HOA fees
  • Designer fees
Buckeye Floor Plan — Architectural plans and drawings are including in the pre-construction costs of a home

The range can vary depending on so many factors with the most costly probably being the architecture of the home. Better plans mean easier permitting, optimal pricing, and faster construction.

Better plans may cost more but insubstantial plans that aren’t well-coordinated incur costs that tangibly impact a homeowner.”

Lot preparation, which can include demolition and grubbing, grading, drainage, utilities, slope stabilization, retaining structures, is usually part of the cost of building a home and should be included in the construction contract. These costs are minimal with a flat lot that has already been built on. The costs are highest for large, undeveloped properties.

What is the number one problem you run into with lot preparation?

There can be unknown subsurface conditions. In the Santa Barbara area, for example, you can encounter sandstone boulders that are the size of a Volkswagen! We’ve found underground streams, abandoned septic systems, buried pools, contaminated soils. The more you know about the history of the lot and the area, the better.

There’s usually discussion before starting a home about the timing of site work and expected weather patterns. Rain not only stops work on the site but the mud can also inhibit work for days after. The site has to dry out to allow access as well as to do work.

However, the most discouraging thing to encounter is rock that is so difficult to penetrate that special equipment is required. It’s expensive and, in most construction contracts, is a justifiable added cost.

This should provide some insight into lot assessment to help you understand more fully what goes into this process. When you’re ready, Ceci and our network of experienced builders are here to help you navigate it. Visit our website to connect with an expert today.

Ceci Clarke — VP of Construction Services

Ceci Clarke — Homebounds VP of Construction Services

Bio: Ceci Clarke is Homebound’s VP of Construction Services. She’s built more than 300 homes over her 36-year-long career, 11 of which have been featured in industry publications such as Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, and Town & Country. Since starting in the construction industry in 1986, Ceci has built more than $900M in product. In 2017, her firm became the first woman-owned luxury home builder in Southern California. We are so grateful to have her here at Homebound.

More information:

  • Ceci’s work — Check out this feature of one of Ceci’s notable builds in Arch Digest.
  • Protected Trees — Here is a list of native trees in LA county that are prohibited from cutting down. Be sure to check with your local experts on protected trees in your area.
  • How it works — Check out our process here.
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