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I want to build on 2+ acres. Should I hire an architect first or look for land first?

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April 11 2011 - Raleigh
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Answers (25)

This is a fascinating discussion, because so many have answered the question the perspective of what they do for a living - including me, I'm the Architect that Diane referenced in her earlier post.

Having read all the great comments, I'm now thinking that the real answer depends on your relationship to your living environment.  For some, it's all about the land - those folks might be less concerned about the particular house that goes on it.

Some are more internally-oriented; it's the house itself that matters, and the particular lot it's on isn't the prime consideration.

For others neither matters that much; maybe it's the school district, or price, or part of town that rules.

And for many, many families, it's the ease of buying a house that's already there.

Designing a house from scratch isn't for everyone - I get it.  But at least in our office, where we focus on great design for average folks, it's a very rewarding experience (read this: http://rtastudio.com/Practice/Client-Testimonials.htm).

It's the folks for whom all those above factors matter that I'm (selfishly!) interested in, because it's the synthesis of all these factors and more that makes a home a truly rewarding place to live.
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April 14 2011
I work in a rural setting selling land and homes. Homes are scarce so building becomes the answer for an average recreation, vacation rental, or primary home 3-5 acre parcels being the norm. Municipalities,utilities, permits, well, septic, driveway,land contouring, bldg. pad, fenciing and road encroachements to tackle and pay for is something we reckon with often. Truth is financing the project is key if you don't have at least 300K( for the land and improvements) cash in the bank sitting then, construction loan and permanant loans are required, those loans are really scarce.
Then count on 300K budget not being enough and overages could hit 42K-50k because change orders for your contractor, architect or engineer will come up.
My counsel to you if the present inventory of homes have been seen in your neck of the woods, please revisit them again with ideas of remodeling your favorite one. You will side step a good number of set backs compared to the zillion that building from the dirt will ask you to manage. May you live well and prosper in any event...
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April 14 2011
If you're looking for the land first, you need "A Land Guy" ( or girl).  When choosing an agent to help out, don't just choose the one that answers the call....choose one that has done what you're looking to do.

This person should know average costs of wells, septic systems (and explain the difference in the different ones typical for your area), and if utilities are available in general or if you have to bring them in.

They should look confident when they are walking properties, and know what to look for, such as potential home sites, potential problem areas, an idea of where the septic should go in realtion to the home (it "rolls down hill should come to mind..)

I see agents that try to do things they aren't sure of.  Of course everyone needs to start somewhere..., so if they have an experienced partner along, that should be okay as well.  I know enough to tell you when I don't know what I think we should know.  Wish more people were the same.

You should at least consult with an architect first, to get an idea of what you want and what they'll need in a piece of land.  Will your plan work great on a hillside?  If it has a basement it will!  Will you need a flat piece of land, for a small ranch home.... 

Good luck!
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April 13 2011
Profile picture for Pasadenan
Let's be realistic.  Very few people "love" a piece of land with no structures on it, especially not more than another piece of similar land.  And very few people can "afford" to be paying twice for housing costs for a two year period.  And very few people can deal with the stress, hassles and headaches of construction.  And very few people can effectively "wait" 2 years to have any benefit from a purchase.  And very few people can afford to pay a 20% to 30% "premium" for having it "new construction" as compared to quality existing.  And very few people can qualify for construction loans and have the cash required for the higher down payment.  And very few people have any real concept of what a "dream home" is.  And most people that are not in building design are not happy with the outcome once they move in as they are not good at visualizing flat drawings, and they are constantly thinking about some nit-picky detail after moving in because "they chose, and they could have had it different since it was 'new' and their 'design' and they could have had it any way they want".  (Even such minor issues as which way a door swings, or height of window sills, or length of roof overhangs...)

DON'T chose an empty property first, unless you already own it, or you are independently wealthy and the money doesn't matter to you!
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April 13 2011
Lets be realistic...you have to love the place before you can build your dream home.  Look for an area you love, check the availability of utilities, zoning, amenities. Check and compare prices and acreage with areas.  Once you found your place to live, then you find a good architect to build you your dream home.  Do not forget to do your do diligence study ,,,do not buy a swamp.  Happy searching.
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April 12 2011
Profile picture for Pasadenan
As far as moving onto a lot; the most common method of constructing the foundation is for the house mover to place the house on the property still on the steel beams used for moving the house, placed up on stacked wood piles.

The contractor uses a plumb line to locate the stakes for the foundation; extends outward placing additional stakes outside the foundation area to string lines.  Then the footing trenches are dug, the forms placed, and the rebar and anchors placed and tied.  Holes are drilled in the sill-plate using the plumb-line for placement for the anchors.  (As an option, the anchors can be skipped and the drilling can occur later, using expansion anchors).

After the forms and rebar are all in place, the building inspector is called in to sign off on it prior to having the concrete brought in.  For pouring concrete with a building already there, it is easiest to hire someone with a concrete pump, and for them to coordinate with the concrete mixing company so that they will be on site at the same time.  With the pump, they can get the concrete where needed inside the forms without having to have truck access around the building.

After being poured and waiting the cure time, one simply calls the house mover back to finish setting the house.  They use hydraulic lifts, so they are able to bring the house down in place without it shifting.  One always allows a little extra tolerance so that the house doesn't get "stuck" when setting it down, and doesn't break something off.

One plans for crawl-space access in the foundation where the steel beams are placed, so that the steel beams can be pulled out from under the house after the house has been set down.

Of course, one digs for sewer line, and other underground utilities before doing the foundation.
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April 12 2011
Profile picture for the_country_hick
There might even be a cheaper alternative. If you have a house plan you want built and a local high school (or college) vocational educational program they may have a house building program. They could be able to build a house on site and then you would have to move it to the site. You would have to pay all costs of building up front (or at least over time as it was being built) and it would take most of a school year to get done. Up here there are 2 such places I could get this done at. The moving is expensive, so ask a house mover from the yellow pages what it would cost.

If you want a 3 story house this approach might not work (ask the instructor). For a basic ranch it sure would. This way you can get top quality construction is desired and potentially get all custom made cherry cabinets made on site at almost no labor costs.

Find out the total costs involved first. House cost, moving bill, well septic, driveway, electric hookup, and foundation. The foundation is most important here. Once the house is built and moved if the foundation is made off a few inches it can not be used.

Another option I would prefer if building new would be site built using foam blocks pouring concrete in them. This is very energy efficient, virtually no drafts, and still stand up to hurricanes. It can look like any house you wish. The only possible difference is thicker walls. Those make it quieter and add insulation and thermal mass. One manufacturer is quadlock. There are many others if you look. They claim it costs 5% more than normal construction does. But when you consider no termite troubles, no rot, cheaper energy costs and probably cheaper insurance it is not really much more expensive if at all. As energy goes higher it could be the cheapest and best way to go.
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April 12 2011
Profile picture for Pasadenan
I primarily agree with Diane and SoCal Engr...

But I'm going to offer a substantially different perspective than any of the agents suggested:

1) Building new is really primarily for people that are very picky and know what they want, or people that have extra money to burn, or people that have substantial building experience already, or all of the above.  It is not for a first time home owner at all.  If you don't already have an extremely clear idea of what you want, you are better off just detailing your requirements and doing a "search" as likely something that meets your needs and desires with little modification is already out there!  It is like the difference of having a dress or suit custom tailored to attend the Oscars, as compared to going to a department store and choosing something close, and having it "fitted" and "altered" to meet your specific needs.

2) Before even approaching an architect, get a low cost CAD program and draw up your "concept design" floor plan.  Don't get too "locked in" to it, as there will need to be substantial changes to make it work and to make it legal.  But this will at least give you an idea of how much space you want, and the relationship of the rooms to each other.  Sure, you can do it by hand to if you prefer, but it is easier to move things around and change your mind on a machine.  Some people prefer to do paper-cut-outs and move the pieces around.  Also decide what kind of exterior appearance you are looking for, and any preferences on roof slopes.

3) Check cost estimating books for approximate costs per square foot for various types of construction, and work out an initial budget.

4) Rather than doing a typical search of properties listed for sale, use a site like this to pan the area to find the kind of property you want with the orientation you want, with the slope you want, with the road access you want and any views you want FIRST!  Even if it has something built on it!  Even if it is not for sale!  Nothing prevents you from offering on something that is not on the market.  From the aerial and drive-by views, you may be able to determine if it is a reasonable location and if a property is presently under-utilized.

5) Consider doing a "move on".  Check with the local building department to see if buildings are scheduled for demolition that may need a new location, that may be available "free" or at little cost.

6) If you find something you are interested in, get a soil report from a soil technician or civil engineer!

7) If you decide you are still interested in the custom-build option after searching for land and drawing up a concept of what you want, and determining you can afford your concept "budget", interview several local architects and talk with some of their clients.  Get pricing and schedule information from them.  DO NOT make any offers on any property until discussing it with an Architect or Civil Engineer!  (Unless you are buying it specifically for "location" and a "good price" and you absolutely don't care if you can build on it).

8) DO NOT hire a builder before the Architect!  You can't have the work "bid" if you don't have a detailed specification of what the builder is supposed to build!  You will have no clue what you are getting if you select the builder before specifying what is supposed to be built.

9) After reviewing your budget and the time required to build before you can move in, evaluate your priorities again to make sure that nothing existing will be just as satisfactory to you.

10) Before making an offer, have the architect modify your concept drawing taking into account site orientation, road location, property slopes, utility access and locations, existing trees, site drainage, etc.  Try to have the building save as many established trees as possible.  This may require a site survey, but it may be able to be done with an aerial photo.  Have the Architect create a rough cost estimate and design & construction schedule.  (Yes, you must pay the architect).

11) If it still works in concept for you, make your offer on the property; if not, move on to do something else.

12) If your offer is accepted, have the architect draw up preliminary plans for your review, comment, and modification.  Have the architect coordinate with the city or planning department on all zoning, building code, and planning/permitting issues.

13) Work out your financing for the project.  As mentioned, mortgages for empty lots and construction loans are entirely different than house purchase mortgages.  If you can pay cash, or "pay as you go", it may be preferred.

14) A real estate agent may be helpful when you are making your offer, or when trying to determine the availability of a property, but don't put the agent before the things required to accomplish your goal.

15) Figure out where you are going to live, and how you are going to pay for both living expenses and construction/purchase expenses concurrently during construction.  (Figure 2 years from time of close of escrow).

16) After your architect has submitted your plans to for building and planning department review, have the architect help you put the plans out to bid to a selected list of pre-reviewed contractors.

17) Review the bids; possibly throwing out both the low and high bids.  Make sure they understood your schedule and the specifications and that they will meet it without substitution.

18) Have your architect do "construction review" during construction.  The building department inspectors do not check for compliance with the contract documents; they are only checking for minimum code compliance.
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April 12 2011
Profile picture for SoCal Engr
I am not trying to sell you on agents I just think SoCal is being a little biased based on personal experience.

My "personal experience" is that the information provided by the REA (on utilities, where the water/sewer was on the street, the general lot boundaries, and just about everything other than HOA fee and price) were wrong.

I got very little information of import from the REA to really judge their ability to say anything useful about the land itself. My point is more to the technical aspects of looking at a lot vice an already-built structure. It's a completely different experience, and my experience says REAs (or, at least the majority) aren't prepared for it.
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April 12 2011
I would get an idea of square footage that you are wanting so that you know what minimum lot size you will need when searching for property.
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April 12 2011
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One piece of advice I would give is "Don't scrimp on buying the land".  The land is the most important part of the building process.  Scrimping on land is the number one mistake people make when building a home.  I would even suggest that you buy the best lot/land you can afford.

What would be the best value lot in the same neighborhood?
1.  Lake front lot for 250k?
2.  Golf front lot for 100k?
3.  Regular interior lot for 50k?

The best lot value would be the lake front lot, followed by the golf lot, then the regular lot.  The lake front lot would appreciate the better over the years compared to the the regular interior lot.  If you were to build on the regular interior lot...after a couple of years you wish you had bought that lake or golf lot.  You can always upgrade/change your cabinets, kitchen, bathrooms.  You can never change the lot.  Hope this helps.  Good luck.
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April 12 2011
I should also add that Sheri Moritz is well-known in the Zillow community for providing excellent advice here on the Advice boards. So although she has no reviews, for now, I suspect that she's also an excellent real estate agent who can help you.

Good luck!
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April 12 2011
Very exciting. I'm jealous.
My lay-person's advice is to find the land first (probably by shopping here on Zillow AND by working with a local real estate professional). But before you buy, you should bring in an architect to advise you on whether the land will be appropriate for what you hope to build.
You can find Raleigh real estate agents here, and you should read reviews from past clients in order to help you choose. 
Looks like Patty McLaughlin, Buyers Advantage Group, and Tom Menges all have a lot of great reviews.
Good luck!
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April 12 2011
Profile picture for dianetuman
My friend, who is an architect, had this to say:

"I recommend hiring an architect as a consultant as early in the process as possible.  A good architect has the skills to help you prioritize your needs and wants, the knowledge to show you the benefits and pitfalls of a particular site, and the vision to show you how a home and a site can meld to make something better than the sum of the two.

Good home design is in great part a result of a thorough understanding of a site –the site (especially when acreage in involved) should "inform" the design of the house.  That's what Prairie Style was all about.

We've counseled many a client away from a site that would have cost them too much to build on, or would not have yielded the results they're hoping for.  We've also directed clients to sites they'd discounted because they couldn't see the  possibilities.

At this stage of the game, a good architect can save you far more than his expense in helping you make wiser choices about how and where to site your home."

Hope that helps!
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April 12 2011

I would look for the land first, it may very well affect the architectural design, even if you do a bunch of dirt work to change the land.  Assuming of course we aren't talkign about a bunch of generic flat lots with no trees and just room for a house.  Even then...buildings around might influence design.

unless of course you have a specifc design in mind with no room for change, then look for land that fits that.-   Ex...you won't build a house with a walk out on flat ground.  Sold a house that was built by an architect (for himself) - he did some very small things to "blend" with the surroundings that wouldn't have been found on a house plan-it was not the most expensive house ever sold but it was the most amazing. 

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April 11 2011
Hey... you, 
I have to disagree with SoCal and maybe he had a bad experience with a real estate agent but as you know from being here in Raleigh we have an interesting situation where you may see a small much less expensive house next to a house that is over a million and it's not just a matter of running out and finding a lot to build said house on.  As Tom said the land is going to be the hard part. A real estate agent can share values of homes around lots you are looking at, possible history with neighborhoods that may affect your end value, what type of features buyers in the resale market look for in the event you will ever sell the house, what features you would find in comparable priced homes and so much more.

I am not trying to sell you on agents I just think SoCal is being a little biased based on personal experience.  Many areas of the country are different than the Raleigh market which is one of the best in the nation with little if any availability of 2 acre lots.  When I was working on-site the builder I worked with was/is always looking for lots 2+ acres and they were/are nearly non-existent in Raleigh.  You will need to employ all the help you can find to achieve that.  If I thought it were an easy task I would have offered to be that agent to help you but what you are looking to do in Raleigh is pretty difficult no matter what order you try to eat that elephant.
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April 11 2011
Find the land first.  It will be much easier to fit the house to the land rather than trying to fit the land to the house.
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April 11 2011
Profile picture for SoCal Engr
I have gone through the process. I bought the land (which was actually ready-to-build with all utilities in place), interviewed and hired architects, went through HOA approvals and local permitting, and all the way through the process of interviewing GCs.

And then...

Tossed it all out the window because we found a better deal in a better location.

Life is unpredictable, but have a plan to follow - and then don't be afraid to throw it to the wind if things change.

Personally, the only thing an REA brings to the table is a potential list of available lots. None of what the REAs said added any value to our decision - but the architect was able to point out things that were make/break factors. Just don't expect them to do it for free - especially since there's no guarantee you'll ever build (re. us).

In my mind, the right order of events is...
1 - Have an idea what you want to end up with, especially where
2 - See if you can find some lots that could support what you want
3 - Have an architect look at the lots and make sure they will support the buildout you want

Other things to think about...

City or septic?
Utilities already in place, or need to be run? (Big cost delta)
Public roads and utilities, or house-in-tthe-woods.

All impact optiions and decisions. It's never a "hey, let's build" deal.

Lastly, check into construction-to-perm loans. When we bought, we needed to put 25% down because it was an empty lot. That also meant it was an investment, and treated differently on IRS reporting. Very exciting, and easy to get in over your head. Give me the right opportunity though, and I'd do it in a heartbeat. Nothing like those little touches that the mass builders just won't do.
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April 11 2011
I agree with Jim.  You may want to speak with a real estate agent and an architect to discuss your options based on the house you want as well as the feasibility of your plan before you get too far or spend too much money.  I've been an agent in Raleigh for the past 17 years and I was an onsite agent for a while and saw endless buyers come in with plans they had designed hopelessly looking for a lot. Depending on where you want to live in Raleigh you may have a hard time finding lots available to build on.  Most individual 2 acre lots are picked up by builders before they ever hit the market or are in areas that you may not want to build a new home because the surrounding homes are much older.  There are a few neighborhoods that allow for you to bring your own builder and plans but they must first be approved by the architectural committee and are in the higher end communities.  

Speak with an architect about the process of having custom plans designed, speak with a real estate agent about the availability of lots to determine what your options are in land not already in a neighborhood and speak with some of the builders in Raleigh to see if they possibly have the product you are looking for and at the same time you can be interviewing builders to determine what it will cost you to build the house you are looking at having designed and if it can be done within the price range you are willing to pay.  

Good luck!  Raleigh is a great place to live!
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April 11 2011
First, you might want to consider whether that is the plan you wish to follow.  There are areas where fine properties are selling for less than the cost to produce such a property.  But if you are confident in your current plan, you should probably interview architects first to evaluate general costs and concepts.  You should probably have your architect view the property you choose while you still have contingencies to void the transaction if the property will not be suitable for your concepts.  You could also hire a soils engineer or other professional during the contingency period, if necessary.  Some areas may have sub-soil conditions that would make construction much more expensive than anticipated.

Good luck!
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April 11 2011
As a builder, developer and broker for 30 years, the proper order is to find the lot first.  The land is the hardest thing to find. Once you have found a lot or lots that satisfy your requirements, then you have two important steps to accomplish:

1) Getting a builder who will usually have his own architect and who will give you the price to build on that lot.

2) To arrange financing for the acquisition of the lot, and the construction loan.  Some builders can finance it all for you if you have the end loan in place and a healthy down payment, and some lenders may do the same for you, but in the current environment you will need a strong credit rating, a substantial down payment, and unless you have a huge income, probably need to sell your existing home first.

Get to an experienced builder, and broker and lender and let their experience guide you.
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April 11 2011
I think you should: 1) decide what type of house, generally that you want, 2) then consult an architect to make basic drawings and they probably can give you a reasonable (+/- 15%) cost estimate, 3)then bring in a builder to get a better cost estimate and 4)finally engage a Realtor to help you.  The land you buy will be the cheapest part of the transaction.

Of course, you could also actually go in inverse order, which would be smarter.  A qualfiied Realtor can discuss what your initial expectations are, relatively price them, help you adjust them - budget - and then have the right contacts with builders and architects as needed.
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April 11 2011
Frist find the location or the land than the house. Where you build the house
is as important as the house you build. Build the house of your dreams and put it on the wrong lot and you probably not going to be happy.
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April 11 2011
SoCal has some good advise. I think you need to decide what kind of house you want ... wood view, on a golf course, waterfront, walk-out lower level and which direction you want it to face. It might take some time to find the ideal lot for your ideal house.

Talk with a couple of architects and get some house ideas and talk with a couple of realtors to see what is available on the lot side. Find an architect and a realtor you are comfortable with and listen to the suggestions both have to offer.

Godd luck on the house, it will be great!
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April 11 2011
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Can't really tell you which to get first, but you should know that not all lots are buildable, nor are all lots "build ready".

If nothing else, I would make any purchase contingent on review and approval by an architect. Some plot of lands, given the way they are laid out, will simply be much more expensive to build on than others. Having an architect (likely, at this point) on retainer would not be a bad idea.

Don't trust whatever the REA says. Not to say that they are going to lie, but they do not have the specialized experience to look at a lot and provide you with the same input an architect can (even without drawing up plans.)
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April 11 2011
 
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