Know Your Dirt

Site Consultation for Developing Raw Land: Before purchasing land it is always smart to find out what you are getting yourself into. Would you buy a car you have never heard of without doing some research first? Probably not. With that in mind, it is usually a good idea to ‘kick the tires’ so-to-speak, when considering a vacant land purchase. But, unlike buying a car, where you can read consumer reviews and such online, information on a given piece of land may not be readily available. Additionally there are other factors to consider when doing your research. You may ask yourself: What are my goals? What do I want from this investment? Can this particular piece of vacant land be used to obtain my goals?

Many of the answers you may be able to find yourself, by simply having a defined sense of purpose. But the big answers will likely be elusive, like whether or not you can build what you want within the constraints of the property. Professional consultants are extremely helpful in this area.

A professional consultant can help you to make an educated decision when purchasing vacant land. Professional consultation is not free. But considering what it can save you in the long run, it is always a wise investment. Many people often brush aside consultation until it is required for the design and building process. You may spend plenty of money on design, not to mention the land itself, only to find out later that you have soil conditions on site that will prevent you from building what you actually want. The money lost at that stage can be tenfold the cost of an initial site consultation. Soils Engineers and Geologist are consultants who are very helpful when considering the purchase of vacant land.

Let’s start by understanding a few key definitions. Given the nature of the planet upon which which we live, our structures are placed upon foundations, which are supported by the earth. The earth, simplified, can be considered as soil or rock and or a combination of the two.

The application of the knowledge obtained from the study of soil and rock, along with the application of engineering principles in solving problems dealing with soil, is generally known as ‘Soil Engineering’. The term ‘Soil Engineering’ will often be used synonymously with the term ‘Geotechnical Engineering’ or ‘Soil Mechanics’. A Soil Engineer is a licensed engineer tasked with the evaluation of soil, rock, or other earth materials for the purpose of determining design parameters for a structure. A Soil Engineer is the individual who prepares a Soil Report, also commonly referred to as a Geotechnical Report. A Soil Report can be simply a basic background and preliminary report on a property, such as whether or not the site is buildable considering the condition of the earth materials present. It can also be a complete and inclusive design report providing all of the recommendations for a given project.

Often working together with the Soil Engineer will be a Geologist. Geology is the study of the physical material of the earth. A Geologist provides important information, and plays a definitive role in predicting and understanding natural hazards that may exist on, or beneath a plot of land. A Geologist typically develops a report separate, or in conjunction with the Soil Engineer, commonly referred to as a Geology Report. The information provided within the report plays an essential role in the formulation of design recommendations by the Soil Engineer. For example, a Geology Report may identify a potential landslide on a property based on certain historic data and current soil and rock conditions. The Soil Engineer can then apply that knowledge to develop design recommendations to repair the landslide, or avoid it altogether.

Now back to the goal. Most individuals who purchase vacant land want to build something on it, for example a house. With that in mind, now comes the difficult part. Finding vacant land that fits the Buyer’s needs. The real estate agent will handle that. Afterwards, the process should progress as follows:

The Buyer has found the perfect piece of land. But is it? He/she has an idea of what they want to build, a house. Let’s say it should be 5,000 square foot modern design. Prior to retaining the services of an architect, find out if the land is buildable. At this stage the Buyer would want to consult with the Soil Engineer and Geologist. The information and recommendation from the Soil Engineer and Geologist can help the Buyer determine if the land is buildable, safe, what should be avoided, and why. If it looks bad, or there is uncertainty, resume your vacant land search. Keep in mind though, that this is a general case, and that even a clean bill of health from the consultants does not mean anything will work on the site. A long way is still to go.

During escrow, and after one has an idea of the soil conditions on site, one may want to consider preliminary design. Now would be a good time to retain an architect for preliminary concepts. The architect can work with the consultant’s recommendations to put together ideas that meet what the Buyer wants. Additionally, the architect can put together some rough concepts to present to the local design review board, or homeowner’s association (if there is one), to get an idea of the feasibility of the project. if what is desired does not work on the selected property, one can still resume the land search.

Now that the land has been purchased, the real work begins. At this stage one should have a more confident approach for achieving one’s design goals.

Design will likely involve different professionals: the architect, structural engineer, Soil Engineer and Geologist. The design will have to be approved by outside entities, both government and citizen. Government entities would consist of the local Building and Safety officials, planning officials, utility providers, and in some cases, environmental health. Citizen entities would be the design review board or association in the respective neighborhood where the land is located. The design may have to be modified to comply with the requirements of such entities.

Additional input, in the form of calculations and design recommendations specific to architect’s plans, should be expected from the Soil Engineer and Geologist. The additional input is required because during the preliminary land selection process, the consultants only had a general idea of what was proposed. Now that the architect has a more exact design, Building and Safety requires consulting engineers to provide design recommendations specific to the architect’s plans.

The design stage can consume a lot of time and resources. It should be planned for accordingly. In some localities, the design process can proceed quite quickly. In others, it can be drawn out due to the various government agencies that have to grant approval.

This is the stage where the initial site consultation pays off. Can you imagine if this stage was reached, an considerable time and money were expended, only to discover that there are poor soil conditions on site, or, worse, a landslide that makes the site unbuildable?

Once the design is completed, and the appropriate building permits and approvals have been obtained, one can commence building. During the building process, the Architect, Structural Engineer, and Soil Engineer will be involved to monitor progress, and to ensure compliance with the approved design recommendations.

Once the building is complete, the Buyer can move into the home and enjoy, or sell it and reap the well deserved benefits. So as can be seen, the process involves more than just buying vacant land because it has great curb appeal and a view. Just because it has a view, great curb appeal, or is in a great location, does not mean that something can be built on it. When a Buyer finds a piece of suitable vacant land, consider the above, and by all means, consult a Soil Engineer and Geologist.

I have been a realtor and real estate land specialist in Los Angeles for the past 15 years, creating opportunities for land-owners and Buyers by brokering vacant land throughout the Greater Los Angeles area. I can be contacted at sales (at) westsideland (dot) com and information can be obtained from