Tips: Purchasing a Lot


Preface by Matt Fajkus:

"Since the best architectural designs are often a direct response to their natural and manmade site conditions, lot selection is a paramount factor in the success of a project. In this piece, Paul describes key elements to consider before purchasing a lot, and the potential impact it might have on the architectural design process."


Let’s say you want to own your first home but you don’t want to drive out to Steiner Ranch and pick one off the rack. You’re a make your own stir fry, brew your own coffee kind of guy or gal. And these people, like ourselves, like to start from scratch. Architects require land the way that an artist requires a blank canvas. Enter, the vacant lot: a hand picked, personal plot of land brimming with possibilities. Land ownership is as exciting as it is difficult; property comes with many restrictions and considerations. It is important to learn these challenges before diving head first into buying land and building your dream home.

1. Where is it?

It is very important to look at the context of the property. Or as your realtor might say, location, location, location! What is the school district like? What are your neighbors like? Are they a Big Box retail store? Or is the property comfortably nestled in a little family neighborhood. These can affect resale value but more importantly they can affect your quality of life. You might want to live near the baseball park, but that also has its disadvantages. Something to consider, especially considering most families live in custom homes for years after they’re built.

2. What will limit your building size?

The first thing you should check in the city of Austin is the zoning requirements. By inputting the address here. And decoding the zoning code here.

It’s typically going to be easier to build a house on a Single Family zoned lot than anything on a Commercial Lot for you and your family to live in. Nothing is set in stone in the city zoning and it is possible to apply for a variance, but this process can take time and money. The goal would be to find a lot that is zoned already to your planned use. Zoning also can dictate the setbacks from your building. This will determine how far you can build from the street, how close you can get to your neighbors and how tall the house can get.

Once the city deems the land alright for your dream home, you need Nature’s approval. Look at the property. Are there any trees that can’t be cut down? Is the topography, or slope, too drastic for affordable construction? Is it in a floodplain (check here)? These are all important elements to consider. There are properties in Austin that look good at first but once you overlay the zoning setbacks and topography lines building a home would be challenging indeed.

3. What will limit your building style?

By now you’ve acquired your land, so it’s time to build the Frank Gehry titanium vortex of your dreams, right? Wrong! Once you buy a lot, there are now several parties that want to limit your creative, architectural expression. National Historic Districts are a managed by the Department of the Interior and can dictate the style of new buildings within them. They protect the character of the neighborhood. For example, can imagine then that if someone came into Pemberton and wanted to build an Apple-Store, it would be rejected by the commission. It just wouldn’t fit in with how they built in the early 1900s. In addition, there can also be homeowners’ associations that exist to project the character of the neighborhood, not just architecturally. They can tell you where to put your garbage cans, if you’re allowed to build a front porch, or maybe even paint color. These could all be headaches if you’re trying to build a new home, so it is important to check before you buy.

In short, building your first home can be a rewarding experience, but not without challenges. It’s a tough task to take on alone. What can make it easier is having an architect in your corner. Architects are trained to know these design challenges and can help you overcome them. They can also help you build the home you didn’t even know you wanted. Maybe before you buy, get an architect’s advice and see what they recommend. Plus, if they’re as familiar with the place as you are, it will be much easier for them to help you build it down the road.

Written by Paul Holmes.