Consider size, sun, terrain, view when choosing a home site

WASHINGTON — In most new-home communities these days, buyers not only have the opportunity to select between several floor plans and exterior elevations, they also get to choose on which lot to place their top pick.

Typically, buyers select a lot on a combination of three factors — size, foliage and view. But there’s much more to picking a home site than that.

Sure, square footage or even acreage, timber and panorama are important, especially since builders usually charge a premium for these attributes. But positioning the house on the lot can sometimes be just as important.

Indeed, Daniel Van Epp, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Newland Communities, one of the nation’s largest developers of master-planned communities, suggests that before you decide on the site, you should first look at how your home will receive sunlight, which is the main source of heat in every house.

“The orientation can make as much difference in your energy bills as building a home that’s meant to be energy efficient from the ground up,” says Van Epp, whose privately held company is based in San Diego.

Generally, the house should be positioned so the kitchen has an eastern exposure for natural light in the morning and the living areas face west to get the sun in the afternoon. But there are key regional variations. If you live in a hot or humid climate, for example, look for a lot where the longest side of the house faces north or south to minimize exposure to the sun.

Of course, not all building sites are suitable for solar applications. And since picking a lot is an intensely personal choice, here’s a short course on the things that you’ll need to consider:

— Size: The size of your lot will probably depend on cost. Here, the rule of thumb is the larger the piece of ground, the more you can expect to pay. But after that, buyers tend to base their decisions on emotion, and that sometimes leads to regrets later.

While a large lot may be appealing, think about who is going to tend to the grass, trim and prune your shrubs, and rake the leaves. If you’re someone who enjoys this sort of thing, by all means, go for big. But not only is it more expensive to keep a large yard shipshape, it will cost more to landscape. So be sure to include all this in your maintenance budget.

Large lots also are more taxing, as in property taxes.

From a purely investment point of view, however, nationally recognized architect and land planner Quincy Johnson says that, as a general rule, pick the smaller lot in a neighborhood of larger ones. All things equal, houses on small lots tend to hold their value and appreciate more rapidly than small houses on larger lots in the same subdivision.

— Terrain: Trees are nice, but remember that, in many places, they shed — and someone has to rake up or blow away all those leaves. But there’s more to the topography than trees.

For example, an uphill lot not only provides better drainage, it also displays a house more effectively. “Psychological studies have shown that people feel more secure when they look down at the street rather than up,” says the Boca Raton, Fla.-based Johnson.

Also, perspective will trick the eyes, making a house on an uphill lot or one that sits further back on the lot seem larger and more impressive. Conversely, one that is on a lot that slopes away from the street will seem somewhat squatty. At the same time, though, realize that the further back a house sits, the more expensive it is to build.

— View: What you see out of your windows is important, whether it’s water, woods, mountains or even an impressive skyline. But don’t let the current picture alone bewitch you. Things can change, and often do.

A water view may not be a water view later when the area is completely developed. And that stretch of meadow on the other side of the road may be a shopping center or gas station one day. So investigate the future of your area before making a final decision.

Here’s where Van Epp says master-planned communities, like the award winners that Newland develops, have it all over more conventional subdivisions. Whereas the parcel next door to the typical community may be unzoned or unplanned now, it will be someday, and there’s no guarantee the eventual use will be compatible.

Master-planned projects, on the other hand, are put together as a single entity, so “there’s a little more reliance on what you see is what you get,” he says. “Also, while master-planned developments tend to have a variety of different housing types, they are all compatible with each other. They all fit together.”

Either way, though, it’s a good idea to study the plan for the area to determine what, if anything, is penciled in, not just for next door but also down the road.

— Orientation: There isn’t much wiggle room in most subdivisions. Aside from “flipping” the floor plan — reversing the plan so what’s on the left is now on the right, and vice versa — a builder usually can’t position a house on the lot much differently. So if conservation is your bag, you might want to pick the lot first and the floor plan second.

Another consideration is your family’s lifestyle. If you or your spouse is a late riser, for example, don’t pick a lot where the sun comes streaming through the bedroom windows at the crack of dawn. Also try to take advantage of prevailing breezes.

Overall, though, Van Epp says buyers should focus on the lot first, then the floor plan: “The market value of the house is most affected by the lot, not the layout.”

— Location: If you need to make a fast getaway in the morning, consider a lot near the entrance of your new community. But if you have small children and traffic is a concern, go for one toward the rear.

Cul-de-sacs are out of favor with big developers like Newland because they suggest a less-connected community. “The whole art and science is back to a more grid-like pattern, which is more walkable,” Van Epp says.

Still, if traffic and privacy are important, consider a house on a balloon-shaped lot where there is no through traffic. But eschew the lot at the very top of the circle. Otherwise, every time a car comes into the oval at night, the headlights will be shining right into your living room.

Also consider the lot’s juxtaposition to parks, greenbelts, walkways and other amenities.

— Shape: Building sites come in many different configurations — square, rectangle, irregular and pipe stem, or flag-shaped — each of which has its advantages and disadvantages.

Flag lots are wonderful if they are situated on the water or in a rural setting, where the stem, or pole, provides an estate-like entry. But in a typical suburban location, you not only will be sharing your driveway with one or more neighbors, your house could be sitting in their backyard.

Van Epp says his company tries to avoid flag lots. Nevertheless, they are sometimes necessary to use the ground more effectively and not drive up costs.

Corner lots tend to be the most prized. But, then, they are usually more costly.

— Timing: The earlier you buy in the subdivision, the more choices you will have. At the same time, if you want to move into an established community or know exactly what’s going to be around you, buying later might be best.

In today’s master-planned projects, sites are created and sold to builders in sections that can range from as few as 20 lots to as many as 100. Sections are generally planned up to a year in advance, so it helps to know the delivery schedule and when the lots will be made available to the home-buying public.

Sometimes, the demand will be such that the builder will hold some kind of lottery to ensure the fairest distribution to buyers. But in most cases, Van Epp says being early and keeping in touch is enough to ensure the first pick.

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 30 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing finance industry publications.

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