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Your potential building site may or may not be buildable.

Be Forewarned: You may be heading through a vale of tears and sorrows or into one of the most enjoyable experiences of your life.

Different land professionals from different regions of the country define what may be called a "buildable site" differently.

To some professionals, a "buildable site" means the city, county, state in which the site is located will simply ALLOW you to build on it. Is it economically feasible to do? A lot of times it may be allowable by government agencies but just too expensive to develop !!!

Other professionals use the phrase "buildable site" to define a piece of land's characteristics. Language like, ``Very buildable, gently sloping, 1.18 acreage.'' may mean it's pretty to look at, but might be a nightmare when it comes time to install a septic system.

To a more experienced professional, a ``buildable site'' would mean the lot is ready to build -- feasibility studies completed, all utilities available at the site, sometimes even permits for services available.

Northwest Permit
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"Permit Process" with Guest Kelle Powell
Click here to stream audio

Tom interviews Kelle Powell, Regional Manager for Northwest Permit. Ms. Powell brings clarity to the increasingly complex permitting process by describing how to work effectively with building permit agencies. As a permit facilitator, she shares her depth of experience in technical problem solving to avoid glitches normally associated with the permit process.

 Visit Down Home Radio for the entire audio archive

Bottom line: Research the property.

Does the site meet every requirement at every level of government?

This research can be a trying experience and you may want assistance from someone who's familiar with the process to guide you. Ask all the questions a few times, a different way each time. Government employees are notorious for answering exactly your question and nothing else. If you ask the wrong question you may get the wrong answer.

Remember: It's not a government employee's job to engineer a solution to your problem. Their primary role is to hold you responsible for the design solution you present to them. Don't expect them to do your work!

There is no ``guaranteed'' way of determining if a site is ``buildable'' until the governing jurisdiction says it is. The different governing authorities have many and varying sets of criteria ranging from issues like minimum lot size to environmental impact.

First things first: Inquire with the county land assessor regarding legal status. Tell them where the site is located, and they'll provide you with a plat map of the property and legal description. Check if there's any easements of any kind recorded on the site.

If you have a difficult time moving forward on your property search, seek the assistance of a reliable Real Estate professional familiar with residential properties. In South King County, I rely on Shelley Propernick because she's not only familiar with our local issues but Shelley has created a consumer-friendly web site! Be sure to look for a professional with great credentials and a content-rich web presence.

Second concern: What is the zoning of the site?

If it's not zoned for what you want to build, what will it take for a variance, or to change the zoning? If it's zoned correctly, find a builder/contractor or survey/land planning company or realtor to get an idea of what may be some of the issues in order to build on the site -- too steep, heavily treed, flood plain, seismic zone. There could be many, many different issues with which to contend, or it could be a very desirable location.

Third concern: With the address of the property and legal description in hand, contact a title company and find out if there are any liens against the deed or if the site is technically or physically encumbered in any way.

If you don't have access both legally and geographically, you can't get building materials to the site!

Fourth concern: Go to the county or city planning department and ask them what needs to be done to make the site buildable.

``Buildable'' may mean whether the soil will perc, will not fall off a cliff, or will not experience flooding. Find out if a septic system is allowed! You may be required to tie into a public sewer system; otherwise, you'll install a septic system. A septic design specialist will determine whether it will perc. (A percolation test is a soil test to see how fast water drains through the soil.) If it percs, application to the county for a septic design approval will determine if the design is appropriate. After that you will incur the cost of installation per design and county regulations.

Where are the other utility services located? Utility services such as electrical power, potable water, fire hydrant, and telephone cable are necessary. How much will it cost to bring them to the site? Do you need alternatives like a water well or tie into a community water system? How much will utility hook-ups cost? Is natural gas or television cable available to the site?

Are any environmental studies required? Are there any wetlands, creeks, lakes on OR NEAR the property? What is your state's legal definition of a wetland? How far is the setback for your house from wetlands or waterways? What possible mitigation might be required? If the site is on or near a hillside, is it in a seismic hazard or landslide area? How much will the geotechnical analysis cost to prove that the site is stable? What precautions are necessary for storm water control?

Fifth concern: Is the site located in an area which constrains the design/build process in any way?

A city which is concerned about the aesthetic values in a historic neighborhood will usually require an architectural review committee to judge whether or not the design preserves the historical integrity of the locality. If these criteria don't appeal to you, then the site is not buildable.

Similarly, in most developments a set of ``covenants, conditions, and restrictions'' (CCR) will establish building standards to which you must adhere. Items such as brick veneer, tile roof, or landscape may be mandatory for every home. You may not be allowed to construct additional structures on the property or park recreational vehicles adjacent to your home. If the CCR's don't appeal to you, then the site is not buildable.

Key items to VERIFY would be:

  • legal description and property tax identification
  • zoning designation and requirements of lot size/setbacks
  • title search for legal or technical encumbrances
  • potable water availability and certificate of availability
  • sewer availability or approved septic system design
  • electrical availability and requirements of public utility
  • natural gas availability and requirements of public utility
  • fire protection availability and requirements of fire marshal
  • driveway accessibility and easement to site if necessary
  • storm water drainage and requirements of local authority
  • telephone and television cable service requirements
  • necessity of a geotechnical analysis
  • necessity of a sensitive area review
  • covenants, conditions, and restrictions for development

Some high cost items which may deter site development:


Sixth concern: Ask the building code enforcement department for a copy of their application procedure for a building permit. This document will outline the necessary information required by the agency having jurisdiction over issuance of a building permit. It will not entirely describe the criteria by which this information will be judged, but you'll at least obtain their guideline for application.

Most likely, there'll be a myriad of details to consider when compiling the information required to apply for a permit but that's not the point of obtaining a copy of these procedures. The point is to understand the issues which you'll need to address when building on this particular site. For instance, what if there's a building moratorium due to lack of water availability within the jurisdiction where the site is located?

Finally: Make your offer to purchase the property contingent on the site being buildable to your satisfaction. You may be very interested in the site but need some time to do your research. Don't lose your earnest money because you've failed to include this contingency with your offer !!!

Above all else, remember most professionals from whom you'll be seeking information are employed to protect and maintain the public's health, safety and welfare.

OBS Newsletter Signup Nothing is gained by an adversarial relationship.

These folks are bound by laws, ordinances, and codes which have been enacted by state, county, and city authorities. Their job is to inform the public and enforce the law.

As you work to determine whether your site is buildable, maintain a positive, proactive attitude. It's better to discover the "truth" about a potential site before the land is purchased, but it's no one's fault but your own if you've purchased the site before you did your homework.

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