Want to build on your own lot in Chicago or the North Shore? Congratulations! It’s an exciting time for you and your family. But if you’re land shopping before you choose your builder, you may be making an expensive mistake. All lots are not created equal, and the location, features and regulations that apply to a particular lot may make it difficult (if not impossible) to build your dream home. Let’s take a look at the top seven reasons you want to consult your builder before signing the dotted line on a lot purchase.
The FAR Factor: “FAR” or “floor area ratio” refers to the ratio of the home’s total space compared to the size of the lot. Today, many townships—in an effort to control the amount of “bulk” you can build on a property—also have rules about floor area ratio, prescribing square footage as it relates to the building height.
For example, if a township determines that 5,000 square feet is the maximum size home you can build on your lot, and that you must count the square footage of any space above 15 feet, something like expansive attic space or even room over your garage and actually reduce the number of livable square feet available to you. Some townships are lenient and some are strict, but it’s better if you find out before you buy a lot where a specific township stands on FAR.
Other township considerations: FAR isn’t the only consideration when it comes to working with your individual township; other considerations include how much space you can cover with your roof and how much of your lot is covered with impervious surfaces. The township can dictate both of these things which can have a huge impact on your overall layout and design, so make sure you work with your builder to find out these nuances ahead of time. What you assume you can build and what you actually may be able to build can be two completely different things.
And here’s a hint; even if you’re remodeling your existing home and not building something brand new, the impervious surface ratio still applies. For example, we had one project where the homeowner wanted to build a home addition, but some previous (unpermitted) work they did adding to their driveway put them over the allowable numbers for the amount of impervious surface. We ended up needing to remove a large portion of the driveway addition to make the ratio work for the home addition.
Existing site improvements: It’s important that you understand a potential lot’s infrastructure and what it will need in order to be livable, and your builder can help you determine how easy or difficult it might be to build on your chosen lot. For example, does the lot currently have public utilities on it, or is it serviced by a septic field and well? If it’s the latter, what are the setbacks for these items and how will they impact your design plan? If you determine you want to bring public utilities to the lot, what is the cost/time associated with tying it into the municipal system? Getting answers to these questions will help you make a more informed decision.
Water tables & soil conditions: When it comes to a lot, you need to have a clear understanding of what you’re dealing with not just on the surface but also below. For example, some lakefront or swampy area properties have extremely high water tables, making it necessary to include waterproofing details when building the foundation. And installing a basement in this situation may be possible, but advised against. Additionally, if the soil is particularly sandy, the types of anchors that need to be used in the foundation may be different than in other soil conditions—which can drive up your cost and your build time. The most reputable builders, like Orren Pickell, insist on soil and water testing to ensure that any challenges are identified before building begins, saving you time, money and heartache.
Governing bodies input: Certainly, you must meet municipal and state building codes and zoning restrictions, but in some cases these aren’t the only groups that can impact your home build. For example, in an area with a number of architect-owned subdivided properties, you may be required to pass an architectural review of your design plans, where the architect weighs in on whether your home meets his/her standards and expectations—or even their opinion of what is attractive. In other areas, a historic preservation board may have a say about the style and details of new homes being built in an area. And in other areas still, design plans are reviewed by outside consultants for the township. Regardless, there may be a separate entity weighing in on your lot and home design plans; your builder helping you know ahead of time what to expect will make the process go more smoothly.
Setbacks: Setbacks are rules intended to keep your home a certain distance from the street and the other properties that surround you, and they will vary based on the zoning district for your lot. In regular rectangular lots, your front setback is measured from the road, while your rear and side setbacks are calculated from your property boundaries. For odd-shaped lots, special rules apply; it’s imperative that you and your builder understand what is allowed before breaking ground.
Setbacks also apply to “accessory” structures like standalone garages, pool houses or storage sheds—and the setback rules may be different than they are for the main building. The setbacks for the lot you choose will ultimately impact the size of home you can create and the size and layout of any accessory buildings, so make sure to connect with your home builder before putting down a non-refundable deposit on a lot.
What happens if the lot you choose has unique features—like a lake or an unusual shape that places limits on your building ability in a way that your neighbors don’t face? In situations like this, you can request a setback variance from your local municipal zoning board. Be aware that you’ll need to provide proof of your need for a setback, and that your desire to simply limit your building costs isn’t likely to gain you the variance—you must be in a truly unique situation (and be able to prove it) in order to have a good chance of qualifying for a setback variance.
Local code restrictions: Every town and municipality has specific local code restrictions that are intended to prevent health and safety hazards as well as ensure that you aren’t inadvertently encroaching on your neighbors’ ability to enjoy their property. Before beginning construction, your home builder is required to submit plans showing the building(s) to be constructed and receive a permit from the municipality or local government. If there’s a problem with a setback, height restriction or something else, it can likely be identified in the planning stage before permits are issued and construction begins.
Buying land or a lot is an amazing experience and oftentimes considered the first step in building your dream home. But it’s important you consult with your trusted builder before making your final decision. By relying on their knowledge and expertise, you’ll be able to avoid many potential surprises and time-consuming, costly issues and will help your entire home building process move forward more smoothly.