How to Pick a Piece of Land to Build a Home

by Steve CookAugust 2, 2016

Selecting the ideal site on which to build your home is one of the most important decisions you will make in the entire construction process. Once you have made your acquisition, there is no turning back. The right decision will lay the foundation for the homeownership experience of your dreams that includes extraordinary appreciation in value. A wrong decision can turn your dreams into a nightmare of unanticipated expense and delay, and compromises that diminish your dream.

New homes under construction at end of cul-de-sac, aerial view

The process of buying and building on urban and suburban sites has become more challenging over the past 50 years due to environmental priorities and the urbanization of the American landscape. Land use constraints and zoning regulations can add significantly to the cost and time involved in purchasing land. While policies that set aside land for environmental and recreational purposes enhance the appeal of communities, they also reduce the opportunities and increase the cost of new construction.

Many families building their own homes already have a lot or plans.

Finding a well-situated perfect lot is not an easy task. Today individuals building custom homes compete with residential builders who are also looking for ideal sites; commercial developers seeking locations for shopping centers, office development, multi-family housing, health care facilities, and stand-alone retail outlets; and with local governments seeking to expand park and recreational spaces.

Setting your priorities

Architecture collage

Finding the ideal lot begins by deciding what you are looking for. Decide on the features you want and prioritize them to make it easier to make decisions when you winnow down your list. Here are some categories to consider as you compile your priorities.

General Area. Begin with the geography. How far away are you planning to move? Do you want to remain close to friends and family? How far do you want to live from your place of employment? Do you have a county, Zip code, town or city where you want to begin your search?

Urban, Suburban or Rural. Are you looking to move closer or farther to a city center? Are you willing to pay more for and wait longer for a lot closer to a city center than one located in an outlying suburb or rural area?

Access to Work, Schools and Community Services. How important are commuting distances to work, access to public transit, schools, shopping, recreation facilities, hospitals, church, open spaces? Is “walkability” important to you or not? Would you rather be five minutes away or is half an hour OK?  

Lifestyle. Are beautiful vistas and closeness to nature more important to you than the bright lights of a city? Do you want enough land to grow a garden or let your pets roam or would you rather not cut half an acre of grass every week?  

Locating sites

House and town plans on lawn (digital composite)

Unfortunately, there is no central database of lots for sale like the multiple listing services for existing homes. You will need to do some research.

  • Zero in on a general area that fits your priorities;
  • Consider getting help in your search by retaining a local custom builder or development contractor who may already have lots available or can find a lot to fit your needs. You’ll need one eventually anyway. See “Working with a Development Contractor” (link);
  • Work with a local Realtor who has access to the latest listings on the local multiple listing service. Some, but not all, lots for sale are listed on the MLS and sold by Realtors, just like existing homes. You can access local MLS listings yourself either through the MLS directly, through websites sponsored by local brokers or through the big national sites like Realtor.com, Zillow or NewHomeSource.com.
  • Check local newspaper classifieds online or print, the local Craigslist site and local bulletin boards at supermarkets and community centers.
  • Drive the area where you would like to build to learn the lay of the land and look for signs advertising lots for sale.  

Qualifying Your Site

New Home Construction Site

Don’t make a final decision on a site until you have thoroughly checked it out. Either you or your builder should work with a civil engineer to make sure you’re following the regulations for the jurisdiction where your land is located. They will find out what utilities service the property, if a road needs to be built, whether it needs a well and how it handles sewage, and if you need to worry about floods, landslides or other hazards. They can also help you get zoning approved and permits for construction.  

If you don’t have a local builder or construction contractor, this is the time to get one. Don’t settle on a lot unless you have reviewed the land with a professional to ensure that the house you want to build will fit on the property and be positioned properly. You look further for the right site or alter your plans to fit a parcel that you like. Changes are cheaper and easier to make early in the process.


Homes.com is the place to dream and discover your ideal home! Are you starting to get the itch to look for your first or next home, but don’t know where to start? You’ve come to the right place! Browse our real estate and lifestyle blog for home buying tips, mortgage guides, DIY ideas, interior design, lifestyle topics, general home inspiration, or just some homes fun. We are sure you can scratch that itch and find all the information and tools you need to help in your home search. Want to start looking at available real estate right now? Head to our home page and check out homes for sale or rent listings all over the country.

Happy house hunting!

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About The Author
Steve Cook
Steve Cook is editor and co-publisher of Real Estate Economy Watch. He is a member of the board of the National Association of Real Estate Editors and writes for several leading Web sites, including Inman News. From 1999 to 2007 he was vice president for public affairs at the National Association of Realtors.
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