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I plan to buy a small residential land (<1 acre) to build a vacation cottage there. Since I want to explore possibilities across different states, I am searching for possible options over the internet before personal visit. I am not sure about the factors to be considered for selecting the land.

  1. Can I simply build a house in a residential land, or I need some permissions for that?

  2. Are utility services always available for a residential land, or I should check it for a specific land?

  3. Should I request for physical postal address after construction, or is it part of the land registration?

In general, it is great if someone explain or reference the general procedure for buying a land and building a home there.

NOTE: I was not sure if this question well falls within the scope of this QA site, but I had no other alternative.

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I think at a minimum it would need to be zoned by the appropriate zoning authority for the purpose you intend. This is probably very state specific. I'd probably give one of the state's new construction licensing/inspection departments a call and ask them - they probably will be able to point you in the right direction. –  Aaron Jun 4 at 2:20
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Any construction that someone lives in will require a permit to build (including multiple inspections) and an occupancy permit. Most of these are administered by the county, so I would start with "Building Permits" for the website of the county the property might be in. –  BrianK Jun 4 at 3:33

3 Answers 3

My best understanding; I am not a lawyer nor a real estate agent:

You will almost always need a construction permit. The house will have to pass various inspections during the construction process, starting with approval of exactly what you intend to build where.

It's your responsibility to check what utilities are available. Municipal water may not be available, in which case you'd have to determine whether an adequate and potable well can be drilled (and if not, you probably can't legally build a residence on it). Municipal sewer hookup may not be available, in which case you'd need to build a septic field. And so on. You may be able to pay to extend some services to your property and foundation, but how much that will cost depends on how close they already come so you may need to think about alternatives (cell phone rather than land line, to take a simple example).

Generally, a buildable plot of land already has an address (or several addresses) assigned to it, whether there's anything built on that land or not.

Given the possible complications, I would NOT suggest you jump straight to building a house. You'll be a lot better off buying an existing house and living in it while you research what will be involved in finding, purchasing, and constructing on an unoccupied plot. For that matter, if you insist on building something new, depending on where you want to live you may find it necessary to buy a plot with an existing house and replace it.

Or just buy land with an existing house that meets your needs, or that can be adapted to meet your needs. Which is what most folks do.

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  1. If you are buying residential land then it is zoned for housing. You don't need a "right" to build there. You have the "right" after buying the land. But you need to offer the city/county building plans and make sure you meet their regulations. Now their regulations are all over the map. Some towns will have almost no care in the world about what type of house you build and others want to pick out the paint colors.

  2. You would check before buying the land. All of that information is usually in the disclosure. However when buying land you want to double check yourself with the city that you are in. If you are in a semi-populated area I would fully be under the assumption that all utilities are available. Then I would basically be calling the city to find out their demarcation spot. If in a more rural area I would be asking very specific questions about each utility (water/gas/electric/phone/sewer). I would get quotes about each that are very specific.

  3. Your lot is assigned addresses already. If building one house on a 10 acre lot they will have someone give you a single address from the allotment.

So basically you start looking for residential lots. You vet out the ability to get utilities at the price you want to pay. If you aren't afraid of losing lot you can even have architect draw up housing plans and submit to city to get feedback. Buy the lot you want. Submit formal building plans. Go through a series of inspections. Enjoy house after passing all inspections.

My advice:

  1. If wanting something in a rural setting then buy a trailer/RV and live in trailer while you figure out the exacts. An acre in a rural location usually won't cost you much. Get your plans and costs in place before starting. In rural settings there is no telling what can happen. It is just all over the place. You are nice to someone or slip someone $500 and next thing you know you have electric hookup in a week and no one cares about your house. I helped build a house 15 years ago in southern Missouri on a highway road... not one inspection. Owner's sister was friends with mayor. On the flip side you are relying on a lot more work to be done to hook up utilities. Get stuff in writing because I have seen people get bent over for initial installs.

  2. If wanting something in a more populated region get a local contractor that has built there. Often he/she will have relationships with the city that will make everything go much easier. You might pay a little more for this person but pay less at the end. Also you may want to call the city's permit office and asked to talk to an inspector. Often they will give you a list of contractors or builders. Some inspectors will flat out say I like these 2-3 guys. Some will tell you they play no favorites and need to be probed for their favorites. Basically your inspector needs to be your best friend until the house is done.

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There are many different rules in various areas of the US, but here are some broad guidelines.

Build

Just because some piece of land is in a residential area, it doesn't mean you can build on it. First you must determine zoning. This is a categorization that a locality places on land, regulating what can be put on land (one family houses, multiple family houses, commerce, farm buildings, dockage, etc.). It also regulates how big a plot of land is needed of a given type of structure or usage (1/8 acre, 2 acre, etc.). Finally, you need to check if there are restrictions on the land, such as not subdivision, farm only, open land requirements. There are many pieces of land in residential areas that you cannot build a house upon.

Next you may need planning authority approval. This controls where on a piece of land you place a building, how a house is accessed from a road, whether accessory buildings are allowed and where they can be placed, where sewage disposal units or fields need to b e placed, whether fencing or foliage screening is required. Some juriosdictions handle this as a separate process and some relegate this to the building department.

Finally, you must comply with building regulations, if the area has them. At very least, most jurisdictions have health regulations covering drinking water and waste water. Most have building standards covering foundtion, construction, electricity, and plumbing. You may have to submit plans in advance for approval and may have to have various inspections done during or after construction to ensure compliance with rules and standards. While there are national guideline standards that many jurisdictions adopt as regulation, there are a lot of local variations based on local conditions (such as climate) and practice.

Connect

Many areas of the US have utilities present on or at the edge of a given piece of property. Many do not. Vast areas have no central water or sewer service. If not, there may be an option (or a requirement) to hook into existing water and sewer. If so, you probably have to pay to run the lines to your property and then to any dwelling you build. There are often restrictions on how large a house you can connect.

If there is no central water and/or sewer available, you will have to install a well and a septic system. Each locale has rules about the type and positioning of these units. These usually require installation by a licensed practioner, and a certification of compliance.

Electricity similarly is available in many locations at property lines, but if not, you may have to pay to bring power to the site. Some locations have natural gas hookups for heat, but again, if it is not already at the proerty line, you may have to pay to run a branch line to your site. Otherwise, oil, electric, bottled gas, wood may be needed for heat.

Address

Most locals have pre-assigned addresses for each parcel of land, generally referred to by the name of the access road and a number that may be arbitrary or based on a measurement from some reference point. If a piece of land is being subdivided, a new address may need to be generated by the local authority. These are often done on tax maps controlled by the town or county.

In many areas, postal service is available to a mailbox at the roadside or to a front door (usually in city or dense suburban settings). Some areas have restrictions on mail boxes and do not allow street deliveries or require clustered boxes at the end of a road or other central location. In many places, post office boxes (P.O. Boxes) located in a local post office are the more typical way of receiving mail.

As others have suggested, the range of issues may make it advisable to enlist the aid of a local builder to learn about and navigate the complexities of getting all the necessary pieces in place.

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