Thursday, December 23, 2004

Hunting for a spot to put it

Our quest for the perfect piece of somewhere for our new home started with the internet. Have I mentioned that I don't think any of this would have been possible without the www?
(Originally posted to 12/23/2004)

The on-line MLS listings are a quick and simple way to keep an eye on what's for sale in any given area, and the better search engines are an indispensable asset because they allow one to narrow a search using many different criteria. I cannot say enough about how useful this was.
We initially set our budget for land at a very optimistic $50K. I say optimistic because I think we knew even then that it was a slightly unrealistic hope that we'd actually find something in that price range, but we figured we would at least try looking at the cheap stuff first. Doing this also helped put dollar figures into perspective. It's hard to know what's reasonably priced and what not unless you've seen what's out there.
As they say, location, location, location. For us that meant proximity to civilization and S.O.'s job, hopefully keeping the commute equal to or less than his current 30-40 minutes. While we would have done it if the conditions were ideal, we wanted to avoid being too far out in the sticks. We (primarily me), wanted something with decent access to the amenities that a big city and its large inner suburbs have to offer. I've spent some time living urban and I love the convenience and diversity of being in the center of things. Nothing makes me crabby like not being able to get good imported cheese, great bread or gourmet ingredients when I'm on a cooking binge so as shallow as it sounds, reasonable proximity to good grocery stores and ethnic markets was pretty important. I certainly wasn't going to be picky about zip code or neighborhood cachet as long as a few basics were met. I always figured we'd have to be flexible and take whatever we could find that would work, which is not to say that we would have purchased just anything with good location. We wanted to be comfortable and in a place we liked, and it had to have at least a few desirable characteristics. All of this really amounted to a “I'll know it when I see it” kind of thing.
As far as evaluating prospective properties, I found the on-line city zoning regulations extremely useful during this time. A MLS listing usually always includes lot dimensions so those numbers minus the minimum setbacks and building height restrictions specific to the location give a good idea of the maximum footprint and height a house can be.
It turned into something of a game for me. Once I spotted a listing that looked promising, I'd investigate the city code and then play around with my design to assess the compatibility of our needs with that lot. We also spent a lot of time driving around looking since it's hard to get an idea of something from just a photograph, and neither of us have any sense of what a tenth of an acre, or whatever, actually looks like. Using these two methods, it was pretty easy to weed out what wouldn't work right away, which was most everything we saw.
There were a surprising number of city infill lots which was exciting in terms of general location and what we were vaguely hoping for, but most were just too small or in bad neighborhoods. We looked at some larger rural lots, but those areas are, for the most part, overrun with developers so they rarely panned out and what wasn't already spoken for always had too many negatives. I spent a lot of time on the phone during this period as well, basically acting as our own real estate agent, inquiring about the details of properties (more on that later).
Needless to say, this was a lot of work. If it wasn't for the garage problem our lifestyle presents, we would probably just have bought one of the increasingly common city lofts and been done with it, but fortunately for us, the reward for our efforts was more than we would have hoped. To say that we got lucky with the property we found would be a drastic understatement, but I believe there is something out there for anyone with a little (or a lot) tenacity.
I have to point out that there exists in this phase a potentially frustrating catch 22. You can't really design a house until you know where it's going to go, and you can't judge the appropriateness of a lot unless you have an idea of what the house will be. I'm curious to hear how others deal with this situation. In our case, we knew we didn't have the luxury of looking for land to suit the home because: A. there just isn't that much available, and B. we're definitely NOT in the cost is no object budget category, so the concession was made immediately that if the lot was suitably sized and otherwise desirable, we would adjust our design to suit it. Also along this line is the problem of cost. Fortunately by the time we actually started looking for land, I had a good idea of what we were planning to do and the amount of space it would require. We also had a good idea of what we could afford for the project in total, so it then becomes a guessing game and weighing of options to decide how many dollars you're willing to concede to land. Of course there are guidelines available out there that address this, but most of what I found seemed like it must have been written before the crazy real estate market (I'm increasingly hearing it called a bubble) came into being. Our experience makes me believe that in general, building something outside the mainstream practically necessitates a larger budget for land because there is so little to choose from in the first place. I hope this isn't the case forever.


Blogger kavyn said...

i found this part very interesting, i am looking for some land to build my dream modern home. i am in the process of looking for land. there are many things published on building modern house but not much guideline on buying the land for other than cookie cutter home.

11:09 AM  
Blogger splatgirl said...

Hi Kavyn!
Rereading this post, I still think the points I've made are about the best advice I can give. I had already started coming to accept the possibility that we could have been in for a years long search, and I still think we got SO lucky finding what we did so soon.
I guess the only thing I'd add is not to exclude the possibility of purchasing something with a teardown structure on it, and depending on where it is you're looking to build, these can come up fairly frequently. In the greater scheme of things, it's surprisingly inexpensive to demo and remove something and you never know what parts you may be able to find a creative re-use for.

1:56 PM  

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