How To Prepare Your Land To Build a House

a mini excavator digging land

Building a house comes with many challenges, and land preparation is one of the first major steps. The design of the house will depend on the environment around it, and a good builder should consider all external factors. This article will go through the main things to think about when preparing your land to build a house.

Site Design

You’ll probably want to hire and work with contractors, architects, and designers to achieve an overall site plan. You'll also likely need a land survey, soil tests, and blueprints for construction. The information you glean from this process will eventually develop into a list of tasks needed to prep the site for construction.

Some people prefer to be hands-off in this process, but you should consider having some part in making the decisions, especially if you're the one who's going to live there.

The initial vision may not come out exactly as planned once everything is said and done, but clear choices at the beginning will help your team work toward your goal. Do you want to be surrounded by trees? Are there other homes nearby? Is there a view that the home’s windows should face? What kind of wind and sun exposure will you have to deal with throughout the seasons? Where will utility connections go? Do you need a septic tank? These are important questions to go over before work starts.

Check Legalities and Permits

A good contractor will make sure the necessary building permits have been issued, or are in the process of being obtained. That said, it’s a smart idea to personally make sure everything is in order before you start pouring concrete, especially since idle construction days will still cost you money.

Double check things like setbacks and easements: setbacks are specific restrictions on where structures can be built according to property lines, and easements allow third party access to the land (usually for things like utility maintenance). There are many types of these restrictions and they vary widely between municipalities, so completing a thorough public records search of your property is highly recommended.

a contractor in a field with plans

Land Clearing

Once the building plans are in place, the land will have to be cleared. The cost of this will depend on the site you're building on. If you need to cut down trees, take out rocks, or level slopes and other extreme topography, the cost will be much higher than having to excavate and rough grade a lot that's fairly unobstructed.

Doing some of this work yourself will help alleviate some of the cost, even if it’s only a little, but make sure this is all part of your budget before purchasing land. You will need to “rough-stake” where the house will sit within the property lines, either yourself or with a professional. Then you can make any final decisions regarding building location before rough grading.

Excavating and Rough Grading

If your home plan includes a basement, the ground will have to be dug and excavated with heavy machinery. Some contractors prefer to pour the concrete for the foundation at the same time as the driveway, if you need one. Rough grading will create the layout for these components while also laying the groundwork for road access, electrical grid connections, and utility placement.

Often, rough grading is done at the same time as the excavation so the “fill and cut” are balanced. This means taking the dirt removed for the foundation and using it in the surrounding area to create an evenly graded surface. The surrounding land should have a slight slope away from the home to ensure proper drainage (rainfall should run downward from the home and not back into the foundation). Proper rough grading will set you up nicely for the final “finish grading” once the home is complete.

This step should also include drainage control and erosion prevention, not just for the future home but also during the building process. The work site is basically a pile of dirt at this point, and when it rains, land erosion can be a problem. You’ll need to ensure any adjacent road spaces are kept safe, especially for trucks and heavy machinery coming and going onto the building site. Waterways and surrounding vegetation must also be protected so no run-off contamination or pollution occurs from the job site.

an excavator digging

Removing and Reusing Debris

Any trees, vegetation, rocks and unusable dirt will need to be either taken away, re-used, or left on the property somewhere, depending on space restrictions. Have a plan ready for where all of the debris will go before things start to pile up. Topsoil can be reused once the house has been built and you're ready to landscape. It's usually set aside during excavation for use later on.

Other materials may be useful as well—cut trees can be future firewood, or integrated into the build somehow, dirt can be used to fill in low areas, and rocks can adorn the property if they have any aesthetic value. Paying to remove anything will be more expensive than finding a way to use what’s already there. Burning and burying debris are other options, but always check municipal laws before you start a bonfire on your property.

Make a Budget and Hire Pros

All of these tasks will quickly add up, so it's very important to have a budget in place before purchasing an area. You don't want to buy a plot you love only to discover it's too expensive to build on. That dream location may have to be ruled out because of too many rocks and trees, or you may want to sacrifice overall square footage to get a happy compromise.

If you are experienced with construction, you might be able to complete some work yourself, but hiring the right people is a major job in itself. You may want to act as one of the contractors responsible for organizing the team and facilitating communication throughout the process, but knowing how to take a step back to allow the experts to do what they do best can be just as valuable at times.

Always shop around and take multiple quotes from legitimate companies and builders. Be wary of getting quotes over the phone—professionals will want to visit the site to get an idea of what’s needed.

Get a realistic picture of what you can afford, and confront the costs of land preparation ahead of time. Then, get the right people onboard to prepare your land for your new home.