Building on raw land is complicated, but you can do it yourself or with the help of a contractor if you choose wisely and prepare correctly.
First, choose a property in your ideal location. Then, find a suitable building location. Drill your well, install a septic system, or hook up to local utilities. From there, you'll need to clear the land and choose building plans.
In this article, we’ll go over the primary steps required to develop a piece of land. This article focuses primarily on building a house on raw land, but many of the same rules also apply to other kinds of buildings. We’ll discuss the process for self-builders, hiring developers, and off-grid projects.
We sourced the information used in this article from people who have experience developing small and medium-sized pieces of remote property.
Table of Contents
Choosing a Location to Develop
Where will you purchase your land? There are lots of factors to consider, both economic and personal. Some states, such as Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kansas, and Texas, have excellent property rights—and others, such as New Jersey and California, make it very difficult to build on raw land.
Property rights and law are essential to consider, but so are climate and geography. Most mild climates experience snowfall in the winter, which can greatly complicate (or halt) construction and make access difficult or impossible. Other areas are scorching during the summer, which can make life miserable without air conditioning.
Flatlands are best for building but also prone to floods. The mountains offer stunning views and clean air, but access can be difficult, and forest fires are always a threat. As you can see, choosing a location to buy property is always a tradeoff and worth careful consideration.
Always have a survey conducted when purchasing land and choosing a location to build on. A survey can inform you of your legal property boundaries, along with flooding issues and other factors that you may not have initially known or considered.
Building Codes and Permits
Residential building codes cover everything from energy efficiency to wall outlet spacing. Much of the requirements seem arbitrary and don't directly affect the safety of the building. Codes cover wall frame spacing, ventilation, fire suppression systems, and window insulation requirements.
If you work with a developer, they'll get most of the necessary permits from the county or city and follow all the necessary codes. Once the structure is nearing completion, a local inspector will show up and clear the building as safe and compliant—at which point you can legally occupy it.
Any violations will have to be repaired before it's legal for you to live in the house. Additionally, code compliance costs usually come out of your pocket—even if the builder makes a mistake. That's why it's essential to hire reputable builders and work with honest inspectors.
Issues with Building Codes and Permits
In many cases, people who want to use single-pane windows or live off the grid encounter headaches with codes, which don't allow them to construct the best house for their lifestyle.
For example, many codes require the installation of standard washer and dryer hookups—which aren't particularly useful if you intend to wash laundry by hand and line dry it.
Other codes ban single-pane and wood-framed windows, which prevent self-builders from using recycled materials. Vinyl off-gassing and fiberglass dust are growing health concerns, and codes can trap people in homes built with toxic materials that may negatively affect their health.
Codes exist primarily to keep people and scummy developers from constructing shoddy houses that pose a danger to themselves and others. But to skilled craftspeople, codes are a headache that limits construction to developers and increases costs.
Areas Without Building Codes
Unlike Canada and most of Europe, the United States has no national residential building code requirements. Regulations for private property are outside of the jurisdiction of the Federal Government and thus left to states and localities.
Some states do not have mandatory residential building codes. Others adopt a uniform code of some kind, like the International Residential Building Code, but leave it up to localities to choose whether or not to enforce it.
Others have a statewide fire, water, or electrical code but leave residential building codes up to localities. That said, it's always smart to follow codes as much as possible.
Let's use Texas as an example. Most incorporated towns and cities in the state require builders to adhere to the International Residential Building Code and the state's amendments, which delete certain requirements and add others.
But outside of the towns and cities in the unincorporated parts of counties, the planning and inspection departments usually have no authority to enforce codes. This means that, in many cases, you won't have to deal with permits or inspections.
The main exception in Texas is septic systems, which need to be permitted in most counties to prevent unnecessary pollution. But as far as building is concerned, unincorporated parts of Texas allow you to build pretty much whatever you want—or, at least, nobody will stop you.
This is the case in many states, as unincorporated counties sometimes omit building codes entirely and thus have nothing to enforce. Laws vary, so it's important to call the local offices and speak to a lawyer before building something yourself.
Before purchasing a property to build on, it's essential to make sure you can access it. It's shocking how often people buy a cheap part of the land in a remote area, only to find that they need to cross private property to get to it.
Make sure your property is adjacent to a public road or a road in a community that property owners have access to. This can be done easily—simply ask the realtor or property owner, or contact the local planning office and request access to records.
Water rights are often overlooked, but they can mean the difference between a useful building lot and a useless tract of land. Before purchasing land, inquire about water rights and if you're allowed to use the water above and below your land.
Water rights usually cover two separate kinds of water. These are surface water (rivers, streams, creeks, and lakes) and subsurface water (groundwater). For the sake of building a home, groundwater is usually more important as it's where your drinking water comes from.
If you have direct access to town utilities, this isn't as big of an issue. But there are lots of things you can do with water on your land, such as irrigation, so it's usually a good idea to secure a piece of property with full water rights.
Mineral rights are more complicated than water rights. In many areas, mineral rights to a piece of property can be sold—and once they're sold, they don't transfer to new owners. Mineral rights cover ore, oil, natural gas, and other substances that are usually found below the land.
Most people sell mineral rights to oil and gas companies, which allows them to drill and extract valuable substances from the land. Sometimes, long after valuable minerals have been extracted, people can re-purchase the mineral rights to their properties.
Floodplains and Flood-Prone Areas
Are you planning to build on a floodplain? If so, you could encounter some permit and code difficulties—and run the risk of losing your property after heavy rains.
Floodplains are areas prone to flooding, and they're almost impossible to distinguish unless you have a map of the area. It's important to determine if your property is in a flood zone, has different rules and regulations apply.
Choosing What to Build
What are you going to build on your land? If it's a house, you have numerous options to choose from. You can order standalone plans, build them from scratch, or hire an architect to put your vision onto buildable blueprints.
Additionally, manufactured housing is an option—and prefab houses are of much higher quality than they used to be. You can also purchase steel buildings, such as a large shop with living quarters built-in. Here are some of your options for building on raw land.
Developers vs. Self-Building
Developers, contractors, builders—call them what you like, but these are the people who come out to your land and build everything for you. You can hire a large developer to build a predetermined floor plan, usually for a fixed price. Or, you can have a custom home constructed however you want.
Developers and builders add a premium to the price. But they source all the materials, build the house, and take care of inspections, permits, and compliance where applicable. Self-building saves lots of money but requires extra care and attention to detail—not to mention skill.
How to Choose a Spot to Build On
Choosing a building location is one of the most important parts of the process. This will determine how easy it is to build your house, along with how bad weather affects the building.
Generally speaking, it's not smart to build on low ground adjacent to a river. Flooding happens everywhere, and a few feet of elevation can prevent your living room from turning into a swimming pool.
Finding a piece of flat building ground is ideal, especially if it's a bit above the lowest point of the property. Also, higher ground is less prone to becoming muddy, and the adjacent slope can be used as a septic leach field.
Also, consider road access. You'll need good year-round road access, so make sure to find a spot that's accessible by a road that never floods out or becomes impossible to plow during the wintertime. It should be close to utilities if there are any in your area as well.
Ask a builder for help if you need it. Local contractors have years of experience building houses in the right places—and repairing houses that aren't built in the right location. If you're lucky, you'll find good solid ground with road access and a decent view of the property.
Preparing the Land
You'll need to prepare your parcel of land for building. Unless you get lucky with a flat and clear piece of land, this process will probably involve heavy machinery. If you have a tractor or a skid steer, you're in good shape.
Clearing Brush and Trees
Preparing land starts with clearing it. You'll need to mark off your building spot, parking area, and clear access to the road so you can bring in materials. This required cutting down trees and clearing brush—some of which come with inherent hazards.
You'll need to be careful when cutting down trees for obvious reasons. Additionally, wear proper clothing and use machinery whenever possible to clear brush to avoid snakes and ticks.
Also, watch out for noxious plants that could be lurking in the underbrush. Parsnip, hemlock, poison ivy, and nettles are common on vacant land and can cause serious burns and poisoning. Not to mention thorns and allergic reactions to grass. Nature can be harsh.
But you don't have to be a botanist to clear land without issues. Just be smart and avoid burning, as fire can spread easily and also vaporize poisonous plants.
If brush is the issue, ask around and see if any of the neighbors have livestock. Goats can be an incredibly useful asset for clearing brush, as they'll eat anything, and they love poison ivy. A dozen goats can be fenced in for a few days and pick a house lot clear of anything that grows—noxious or otherwise.
Once the land is clear, you'll have to level it if you want to have an easy time building. If you're in a naturally hilly area, this may be impossible—but on flatter ground, you can level out the surface of your build lot with some pretty rudimentary machinery.
You can till it with a tractor or level out high spots using the loader of a skid steer. You can also hire a local or a company to do it for you. It doesn't cost much compared to the price of building on an uneven foundation.
Drilling a Water Well
You'll need to hire someone to drill a well if you don't have access to utilities on the property. A developer will usually take care of this if you ask—or you can contact a company yourself.
Water well drilling companies test the ground to find the best place to drill a well. Once a test hole is drilled, they can test the water for quality and production. Publicly available records can help give you an idea of how deep and productive local wells are.
In some areas, potable (drinkable) groundwater lies 20 feet or so below the surface. You can drill a well like this yourself if you're patient, but shallow wells are usually quite inexpensive to drill.
You should factor in a few thousand dollars to have a well drilled, plus the additional cost to have a pump and a tank installed.
Electric pumps are by far the most common for residential use, and they're installed with rubber-lined tanks to facilitate pressure for the house. Electric pumps have a sensor that kicks them on when the pressure in the storage tank drops below an acceptable level.
If you don't have electricity, you can buy a hand pump from Lehman's or purchase a windmill from companies like Aermotor in Texas.
Windmills provide off-grid water pumping and (when configured correctly) can fill a water tower or elevated tank for irrigation and home water pressure. They're reliable and last for decades, though they only pump water when the wind is blowing.
Septic and Sanitation
Installing a septic or sanitation system is one of the first and most important steps to building on raw land. If you have access to municipal sewers, this process is relatively easy, and a contractor or the city can take care of installing sewer lines.
But more often than not, remote properties have no access to public sanitation and need to install their own. There are different kinds of legal and safe sanitation systems that you can choose from, but a traditional septic system is the most common.
Perc testing, or percolation testing, is a process that must occur before installing a septic system. A septic installer will come to the property and test the permeability of your ground to make sure that the septic leach field is permeable enough to work properly.
Many areas will not issue building permits without a perc test, as your septic system needs to be functional before installing any drains or plumbing in the building.
Septic systems are simple, non-electric waste processing devices with several key parts. The septic tank collects wastewater from toilets and drains and stores it until a certain level is reached.
At the top of the tank, liquids overflow and get distributed across a large leach field, which drains the less harmful liquids across a large area to avoid high concentrations. Leach fields, when designed properly, cannot be seen from the ground and don't leak onto the surface.
Solids, which are toxic and cannot be safely drained into the land, sink to the bottom of the tank and get pumped out periodically for disposal. Septic systems of this variety are safe and effective, though they require you to take more consideration when dumping things down the drain.
A septic system cannot be installed near a water well, for obvious reasons. It's essential to place your septic system and leach field far from your potable water source and preferably far from creeks and rivers as well.
Cesspools are simply large metal, plastic, or concrete tanks buried in the ground. These tanks store everything you put down a drain and thus need to be emptied fairly often. This is an old system that's still used in some areas.
Cesspools are banned in some areas, as they're essentially ecological time bombs when left unmaintained. However, they're inexpensive and allowed in some states.
An outhouse is just a toilet on top of a pit. The pit, which is usually 10-12 feet deep, is lined with dirt of clay and allows liquids to leach into the ground. When build and maintained correctly, outhouses are a safe and somewhat sanitary option, but they're banned in some areas.
As with septic leach fields, it's essential to locate your outhouse far from the home and even further from the water well. Outhouses can contaminate a large plot of land—not beyond use, but you can't drink the water—so they must be in a suitable location.
Power Lines and Utilities
The location and accessibility of utilities is an important factor to account for when building on raw land. In urban and suburban areas, utilities are usually close by—but just because there's a power line on the street doesn't mean you'll get to use it.
First, determine what utility companies provide power, water, gas, and sewage to your area (if any) and ask for an estimate. Companies will charge you to install power if it's not already in the area. Water and sewage must also be considered.
But if you intend to live off the grid, you'll have to purchase and install your own self-contained power and water systems. Thanks to technology and a wealth of collective experience, it's now easier and cheaper than ever to have reliable off-grid power and water.
Living 'off the grid' means that you generate and store your own power. It also usually means that you get your water from a well, and safely dispose of sewage on the property with a composting toilet or septic system.
Solar is the most common off-grid power system. Solar panels, located on the roof or in a field, generate power from sunlight and store it in battery banks for cloudy days and nighttime use. Solar panels are often used in concert with another system, like a generator or a wind turbine.
Small wind turbines are now available for integrating into off-grid power systems. Wind turbines are mounted high on steel poles and help supplement solar or generating systems.
Hydropower is a reliable and inexpensive way to generate off-grid power on a small scale, provided you have water rights and a stream with adequate flow. Usually, water is piped down from a high point on the property to the lowest point of the stream. It flows through a small turbine which turns and generates power.
Home generators are common installations in off-grid areas, and they can provide reliable power when other systems aren’t functioning. Generators like this run on diesel or gasoline, but may now run on cleaner natural gas and propane. These generators kick on automatically and produce very little noise, and don’t resemble portable generators.
Virtually all off-grid systems utilize a battery bank to store power. This usually consists of several large batteries wired together and connected to a charge controller, which regulates the current. An inverter turns stored DC power into 120-volt AC, which can be used for household appliances.
How to Choose a Foundation
Different types of foundations are ideal for different situations. One of the simplest foundations is a slab, which is just that—a concrete slab poured into a leveled mold, onto which a house is built.
Slabs are great for hard soil but require careful consideration on soft and wet ground as they can sink, crack. These foundations are very difficult to repair if they get out of whack.
Pier foundations, sometimes called post foundations, are a great option for softer ground and are much easier to repair. These foundations add a crawlspace under the house and support it using beams, which are usually cast into concrete.
Raft foundations are another great option for soft ground, especially in areas where basements are popular. But if you have a high water table, you probably won't build a basement, and a post foundation of some sort will work fine.
Skid foundations are great for sheds and temporary houses. Skids are like long wooden skis made of beams, and they provide support for a structure that just sits on top of the soil.
Home and Building Insulation
The insulating capabilities of materials are measured using an R-value per inch of thickness. The higher the R-value, the more insulating material is. For example, an inch of fiberglass has an R-value of 3.1 to 4.2, while an inch of wood sheeting has an R-value of 1.25.
Depending on your location, you'll be required (or advised) to use a certain value of insulation in your building. R-value requirements also vary based on the fuel used to heat your home. In south Texas, for example, walls should be insulated to R-13 in gas or oil-heated homes, whereas homes with electric heat should be insulated to R-19.
For our example, let's assume we have a gas or oil-heated home with 1-inch-thick plywood outer walls. Without drywall, the home would need R-11.75 of fiberglass insulation or 3 to 4 inches of fiberglass to meet the R-value. It just so happens that the perfect amount fits into a 2x4 frame.
In colder areas, such as Wyoming or Montana, you may need an R-value of 25 or greater to meet minimum insulation guidelines. This is where other materials, such as foam should be used. You can also use 2x6 frames instead of 2x4 frames, which gives you an extra 2 inches of wall space to work with.
Radon Testing and Abatement
Radon is an invisible killer that lurks in your basement. Many parts of the country, particularly areas in the center of the country between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, have a large amount of this deadly gas that occurs naturally.
Radon is the product of decaying radioactive minerals found naturally in the ground. It's a radioactive gas that, over years of exposure, can increase your risk of lung cancer and other illnesses. Thankfully, it's really easy and inexpensive to keep radon from infiltrating your house.
Homes built in radon-prone areas can utilize a simple vent system with a small fan that draws the gas up from below the floor and vents it above the roof. It usually looks like a simple PVC pipe coming up from the basement or crawlspace.
Are you looking for an untouched land to build your dream home, or do you have a plot to sell? Contact us today! We can help.
About THE AUTHOR
Cameron Scott has been in the land development industry for over 20 years. During that time, he has worked on hundreds of development deals ranging from 5 acres to over 100 acres. Most of his work has been in Utah and Texas, where he has worked for large, national home builders as well as local companies. He has worked as Land Entitlement Manager, Land Development Manager, and most currently as Land Acquisition Manager.Read more about Cameron Scott