Building A Ground Up Home – A First-Timer’s Guide

Deciding to start from scratch on a home can be daunting if you’ve never done it before- but with the right site, team, and expectations, clients end up with a home that suits their every need to a T. Where to begin? We’ve compiled a list of tips from Workshop/APD managing director, associate Tyler Marshall and Westport, CT based luxury real estate expert Amanda Tarter to help demystify the process. Go into the process knowing what questions to ask in order to set yourself up for success.

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  • USE– How will the home be used? As a primary residence? Weekend, summer, or beach house? Is the lot residential and truly buildable? Are there deed restrictions? Size restrictions?
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  • VIEWS– What views are you working with and what will they look like in other seasons? When the leaves fall will you be looking into a neighbor’s windows? Are there adjacent lots that could hurt the view down the line?
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  • WETLANDS– Is the property considered wetlands? protected status means you cannot change vegetation and can’t build within a certain distance of wetlands, affecting siting, utilities and access.
  • FLOOD PLAINS– Is the property on a flood plain? This is not just a consideration for coastal homes- flood zones can also be affected by lakes, rivers and streams. This has implications for foundations, basements, building heights as well as landscaping.
  • GROWTH – Will neighboring lots fill up?
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PERMITS– Permitting alone can take 3 months on the low end, and up to 10 in some places.

APPROVALS– What kind of coastal, local and historic commissions and architectural review boards will you have to deal with in terms of rules and regulations and approvals? For example, in the Hamptons agricultural districts place restrictions on everything from aesthetics to lights. In Nantucket, the HDC has tremendous influence over what can be built. HOAs are not just for suburban subdivisions. Find out whether you will need approvals, meetings and comments from neighbors, and what rules & regulations will affect you once the home is complete.

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  • TERRAIN– What is the terrain like? A rocky, steep, or uneven plot could mean expensive excavation.
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  • UTILITIES– Are there utilities on the street? Water, electricity, and septic can be added but can become expensive depending on the terrain- for example, you can’t put your septic in the wetlands.
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  • SITE ACCESS – Where are the site access points/ easements? Will you spend the next decade battling with neighbors over the driveway?
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  • COLLABORATORS AND CONSULTANTS– The right architect, site engineer, landscape architect, structural engineer and builder are crucial.  The architect is typically the point person to navigate this, but consultant costs can add up and are affected by the site, size and complexity of the project. If you or your realtor has a relationship with a firm, you may be able to tour the property with an architect to determine feasibility.
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From Amanda Tarter, Realtor/ Buyer Agent, Michelle & Co., Westport, CT

  • LAND is not that easy to find right now, but it doesn’t make purchasing the right lot – at a number that makes sense for the project- less important.
  • A SEASONED AGENT can help find and assess both unbuilt properties and tear-down opportunities, and leverage relationships with builders to find unlisted properties
  • LOCATION is extremely important- you’re not only choosing your house but your surroundings and potentially your neighbors. Will your house stand out like a sore thumb in size and/or style?
  • TEAM – Finding and building the right team from the outset is extremely important- aside from a realtor who understands your needs (and dreams) you’ll need an experienced builder and an architect and designer to take you through the process.
  • TIMING -Understand the timeframe and plan for best and worst case scenarios. When you buy an existing home, you can close and move in as little as three months. A ground-up home could be a 2+ year process.

Tarter says “In the end, this is not a process for the faint of heart. It can be a lot of work, but is often worth it if you have the right team, timeline and budget. Budget and patience are key.”