How to Build Your Own House – Lesson 2 – The Building Lot – Part IV

A. What to check with local government agencies

The city government will normally govern you if you are building within the city limits. If it is outside the city limits, the county government will govern it. Even if you are in the county, if you are near a city limits, check with the city to make sure they do not have jurisdiction over the property you want to build on. This has happened to students: they would be in the county, outside the city limits, and they would do everything according to the county government, only for the city to create a lot of complaints because the city was regulating certain requirements on the property. The county didn’t even tell them.

1. Office of the Tax Advisor

If the property owner does not have a survey, purchase a copy of the tax plan from this office. Check the property tax rate for the area.

2. The Planning Department

At the Planning Department, if they are doing their homework, they can tell you about future plans for your neighborhood and/or surrounding area. This is good information because you may not want to live next to a future fertilizer factory or a new 4 lane highway that is being built in the near future.

3. The Zoning Department

At the Zoning Department, you will learn critical information such as the minimum size home you must build on your property, how far you must build from the street right-of-way, and how far you must build from your neighbor’s property.

You may have a dynamite 1,000 square foot house plan, but there are many areas, due to zoning, where you cannot build a 1,000 square foot house.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people spend thousands of dollars designing their dream home. Then they go to the zoning department and based on the zoning they find out the distance from the street, called construction line, is, say, 30 feet. Tea setbacks o The distance you must build from your neighbor’s property line is 15 feet for side yards and 20 feet for backyards. When they now see the only legitimate place to build a home, based on zoning, they are shocked to find that there isn’t enough space on their lot for their dream home. Your only option is to request a variance to cross these lines. These variances can be very expensive, time consuming and are often denied!

If you don’t take a look at these things, don’t worry. Your future neighbors will be at the property nights and weekends with a tape measure, checking it out for you! If it’s wrong, they’ll get a court order to stop construction on your house. I tell them that in the city of Atlanta they are wasting taxpayer money by hiring inspectors – the neighbors are much better at this than the actual inspectors.

I remember a builder in Atlanta who built four houses in the million dollar price range. He was nearing completion when he requested a variance to build along the construction line or, in other words, closer to the street. He played the game that forgiveness is easier to get than permission. What he didn’t realize was how powerful the neighborhood committee was in this area. The county’s final decision, “Tear down the houses.”

The frustrated builder threw up his hands, returned the houses and subdivision to the bank and moved out of state. The bank came up with a very ingenious solution. They demolished a house and spent $350,000.00 to move the entire street. The remaining three houses were then the correct distance from the street.

I know this is hard for you to believe, but even I make mistakes. In the 1980s he was building a luxury home in an old part of Atlanta. The house was sold and was almost complete when we did what is called an “as built” lot inspection. It turned out that one corner of the house crossed the construction line by less than a foot! Except for the survey, no one would have ever known about this crime. To avoid any title problems, lenders will want to correct these problems.

Unlike the good old days when you went to the zoning department and they signed something that small, you had to apply for a variance. It took three months and a good sum of money to apply for this variation. Not to mention the new owner was supposed to be moving out already.

At the dissent meeting, there were two powerful neighborhood committees with several hundred people saying, “Make him tear the house down.” They were very serious. His logic: if you give this builder a variance, you are setting a precedent for all future builders to be allowed a variance. Fortunately, I got the variation, but believe me; You don’t want to get caught up in this type of situation.

Some people will build the house up to a building or parting line. They don’t think about a roof overhang, a porch, a deck, or any step. In many areas, no part of the structure may cross these lines.

A. Construction line and setbacks

The construction line is the distance from the right-of-way of the street. This can be confusing for a new builder. The street pavement may be 24 feet wide while the right-of-way may be 60 feet wide. Remember that the construction line is the distance from the right-of-way, not the curb of the street.

Also, do not assume that you can measure from the center of the street to find the edge of the right-of-way. Sometimes the street is not in the center of the right-of-way. The best thing to do is to have your surveyor, when surveying the lot or updating a previous survey, mark the location of the building and the parting lines.

b. Pacts Subdivision

If you are looking for property in a subdivision, check with the court to see if there are any covenants to the subdivision, which must be recorded, such as a deed.

Subdivision agreements may override city or county zoning. For example, city or county zoning may require building within 30 feet of the street right-of-way, while the subdivision agreement may require building within 40 feet of the street right-of-way. Get a copy of the agreements and read every word. You may be surprised with what you find.

4. The Construction Department

Go to the Building Department and ask if there is any reason they know you cannot get a building permit on this property. A student bought a lot and waited about a year to start construction. He bought his plans, put together his loan package, and applied for a loan. After closing on the construction loan, he went to the building department to get a building permit and was denied. It turned out that his property was in the future right-of-way of a new highway that the county was going to build. He paid off the construction loan, lost what he paid in closing costs, and didn’t build the house. This is just one of the reasons why he recommends that you get your building permit before you close on the construction loan. He knew it but he forgot: a good reason to use a checklist.

While at the Building Department, find out the fees and requirements for a building permit and pick up an application for a building permit.

For environmental reasons, tree removal is becoming highly restricted and regulated in many areas. Find out from this department if there are any requirements, fees and/or restrictions regarding the felling of trees.

EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] I would like to see all builders complete an environmental impact study. Check with the Building Department to find out if this is required in your area. For more information on EPA studies and housing recommendations, visit their website at

5. The Department of Health

A. Water Well Requirements

Check if there are any potential problems when installing a well. Find out about the water quality in the area and whether or not you will need a filter.

Note: Check with a local well subcontractor in the area for any potential problems when installing a well. Ask the well subcontractor what they think about the water quality in the area and whether or not you will need a filter.

b. Septic Tank Requirements

If you are going to have a septic tank, ask if there are any issues on this lot for a septic tank. Find out if the property has already been pre-approved for a septic tank.

6. The Department of Public Works


Just because you see a manhole cover on the street, don’t assume you have access to a sewer line. There have been many times in Atlanta when there was a moratorium on the sewer lines because the sewer plants were overloaded. Which means you couldn’t get a building permit.

You’ll want to look at the field drawings to see how deep the sewer line is on your property, but keep in mind that the contractor who installed the sewer line may not have buried it to the level shown on the drawings. It is best to remove the manhole cover on the property and measure the actual depth of the sewer line.

The reason why? Let’s say the sewer line is 10 feet below street level and the house you plan to build will be 15 feet below street level. If you didn’t know, most of these things flow downhill, not uphill. You could buy a sewer pump, but I’d rather not play with any sewer pump if I could help it. Similarly, if you plan to have plumbing in a basement, check that the sewer line on your property is lower than the basement floor level.

Regarding all these utilities, make sure they are on your property. Just because there is a sewer line 10 feet away on your neighbor’s land, and the county would be happy for you to connect to this line, don’t assume all is well. Your neighbor may want you to pay him $10,000.00 to cross his property!

Also check if fees are required to connect to the sewer line. Ask if there are any problems connecting at this time. Ask them if they see any trouble connecting in the near future.

b. Water

Consult the Water Department field drawing to verify that there is water on your property. Just because you see a fire hydrant on the street don’t assume you have water on your property. That water line can stop at the fire hydrant and getting it onto your property could cost you a lot of money.

Check the fees required to connect to the water line and purchase a water meter.

Ask if there are any problems connecting at this time. Ask them if they see any trouble connecting in the near future.

B. What to check with utility companies

1. Electricity

Check electrical service at the property and any fees required to connect to power lines and purchase an electric meter.

Ask if there are any problems connecting at this time. Ask them if they see any trouble connecting in the near future.

If your home site is more than 100 feet from the street, find out if there will be additional charges for this distance.

2. gasoline

Check the gas service at the property and any fees required to connect to the gas line and purchase a gas meter.

Ask if there are any problems connecting at this time. Ask them if they see any trouble connecting in the near future.

If your home site is more than 100 feet from the street, find out if there will be additional charges for this distance.

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