Looking to buy or build a home? This is what you need to know...

Buying or building a house can be one of the most exciting things you ever do. It can also be the most stressful, heartbreaking and difficult thing you ever do. It all comes down to how prepared you are. Having worked in Planning and Zoning for years now I’ve made a personal check-list that I will use the next time I ever consider buying or building a house and thought I would share it with you.

First establish if the home or land in a subdivision

While this may seem obvious, a lot of times, especially in more rural areas it may not be obvious at all that the land is located in a subdivision. The legal description of the land is a good starting pointing to learn if it is. Typically land that falls in a subdivision will be identified by the subdivision name and the block and lot it is located in. For example, it may read like: Maryweather Subdivision, Block 2, Lot 16.

If the land is in a subdivision then there’s a handful of things you want to do:

1)      Look at the plat for the subdivision.

  1. The plat is the legally recorded document that split all of the land into the individual lots.
  2. It is where certain restrictions are placed that can affect development, establish easements and right of ways, issue sanitary restrictions (i.e. can the lot have a well or septic system) and so much more.
  3. The plat is a great starting part to learn what will actually be your land. It can be easy to assume that because there’s a road or a fence line, then that is your property line.

2)      Ask if there are any Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) recorded for the subdivision.

  1. This will be a separate legally recorded document that further establishes rules of the subdivision. Think of this as being the bible or rules for a Home Owners Association (HOA).
  2. CC&Rs can really throw a wrench in your plans if they are really restrictive and the HOA is active. So, make sure to do your due diligence here.

3)      If the subdivision isn’t part of a community septic system or culinary water system you will want to verify what kind of water your neighbors are getting through their wells. Additionally, you will want to make sure you can have a septic system.

  1. A lot of subdivisions were platted 20 or even 30 years ago and consideration was often not given to the viability of all the lots in being able to sustain a septic system and/or a well.

Generally good practices when looking to buy or build

Now that you've established whether the land is in a subivision or not the following are questions I would be asking:

1)      Does the home or land have developmental rights?

  1. Developmental rights mean you have the right to make improvements to current structures or add new structures. Sometimes land doesn’t have developmental rights and it is very important to establish that the land has these rights before proceeding with any purchase.

2)      Are there easements on the property? If so where, what for and what is the size of it?

  1. Easements are legally binding access rights on or across your land. Further easements eliminate your right to have any kind of construction in its path.  Utility companies often have what are called “utility easements”. This is where the utility lines run, either above or below ground. An easement allows them a legal right to use your land to access their utility lines for maintenance, upgrades or repairs. There are a variety of other easements though. If the neighbor’s house is located behind the one you’re considering purchasing then they may have a legally recorded easement that allows them to use your land to access theirs. These can sometimes be found on the deed, via a title search or visiting the local County Recorder’s office and look at records.
  2. Easements cannot have variances granted to waive them. Further, if you choose to build over an easement, if at any point your structure restricted the easement holder’s legal right to access the easement the structure could potentially be legally demolished without compensation.

3)      What are the setbacks?

  1. These determine how close to your property line anything can be constructed.
  2. An important note here, front-yard easements are often measured from the edge of the road right-of-way (R-O-W) edge. Even if your land goes to the middle of the public road, if there is a surveyed right-of-way or prescriptive R-O-W (this can be between 60’ and 100’+) then your setback measurement would be measured from the R-O-W edge.
                i.      So, let’s say your front yard setback is 45 feet, and the road right of way is 80 feet. Then you would measure 85 feet back from the center of the road (45 for setback + 40 feet for half the R-O-W = 85 feet) to determine the closest any structure could be placed to the road.
  3. There are also setbacks for the rear and side-yard property lines.

4)      What's the zoning of the property? And the surrounding property?

  1. The zone designation for the land directly affects what is allowed to be developed on that land. This can affect all of your plans because additionally, the zone can determine what is the minimum amount of land you will need to build on it. 
                    i.      For example, if you found 12 acres in the Agricultural zone in Caribou County you wouldn’t have developmental rights to build a house as the minimum land requirement is 40 acres for a house.
  2. The zone designation for the properties surrounding the house and or land may also have a big effect on how happy you are there.                                                               i.      For example, let’s say you buy land and build a house that is in the Low Density Residential (LDR) zone, but your back-property line abuts property that is zoned Industrial (IND). At the time you built there was nothing developed on that land, but five years later someone decides to build a manufacturing facility there. Due to the zone designation being Industrial you would have no legal recourse to stop the development of the land if it was an allowed use under the Zoning rules.

5)      Has there ever been a variance or conditional use granted for the property? If so for what?

  1. A variance may be granted to allow a deviation from the requirements for minimum lot size, setbacks, height limit and other items. If your house was allowed to be built by use of a variance it may restrict what can additionally be constructed on the property. Your local Planning and Zoning office is a good resource to determine if there has been one issued.
  2. A Conditional Use Permit (CUP) allows a use conditionally and may place additional restrictions on the use of the property. For example, in Caribou County a single-family residence is allowed in the Commercial General (CG) Zone by way of a CUP only. If the house is located in such a zone and required a CUP, additional restrictions may have been placed that limit whether you can add-on to the current structure or if you can build accessory buildings.

Things to consider when it comes to utilities and services

1)      Are there utilities on or near the property?

  1. The cost to run utilities can make any “great purchase” quickly worthless due to the cost of extending services. It’s worth a phone call to the utility provider to see what it would cost to extend services.
  2. Often in rural settings natural gas lines are not available leaving you having to utilize a private propane tank. If you end up needing a propane tank you will have to either buy or rent your tank as well as plan for how you intend to keep it filled. Additionally, this will affect what kind of appliances you use in your home as natural gas appliances are different than those that utilize propane.

2)      What is the method of sewage disposal going to be?

  1. Depending on where you build you may have to have a septic system. Further you may be required to have a nitrate reducing septic system instead of a standard septic system and drain field. Nitrate reducing systems typically cost more than a standard septic and can drastically affect your overall cost.
  2. If there is a community septic system you will need to know what your costs will be and what the capacity of the system is. It would also be helpful to know the projected life of the system. Sometimes these community systems can be older and in need of improvements that can prove to be quite costly to the users.

3)      How are you going to get water?

  1. This is an important determination as culinary wells have restrictions and often community systems do as well. 
                       i.      For example, Idaho Department of Water Resources restricts the use of a private culinary well to irrigating and maintaining only ½ (.5) an acre of land. If you have 20 acres, how do you plan to water it? Do you have a water right? Is it suitable for dry farming?
                       ii.      Additionally, community systems are often restricted to culinary uses only and cannot be maintained for even small size agricultural endeavors. It’s important to know and understand what the rules of use are on a community system.
  2. If you plan on having a private culinary well it’s going to be important to make sure you can get water. There is no guarantee that once your house is built that you will be able to hit water. It’s good practice to put your well in first.
  3. Lastly, when it comes to wells, just because there’s water doesn’t mean it’s going to be good water. Caribou County has several areas that the wells tap into water that is very high in minerals and very hard water. This may cause you to have to invest in an additional filtration system. Further, it can really affect the taste of the water.

4)      What are you going to do for phone and internet services?

  1.  In the more rural and undeveloped areas you're not guaranteed internet or even cell services and they can be extremely costly to obtain.
  2. You may have to shop around and consult with different providers to see what they can offer in your area. There are several areas in Caribou County where high speed internet isn’t available and the cellphone reception is poor.
  3. Adding a land line may be a viable option, but again may be cost prohibitive depending on what it will take to get the services extended to your property.

5)      Is there solid waste disposal available for your household garbage?

  1. Depending on how rural the property is there may not be a solid waste disposal option which would require you to haul out your own garbage.

Life Critical Considerations

1)      Does the County provide maintenance and winter maintenance for the road leading to your property?

  1. There are several roads in the County that do not have winter maintenance. It’s also important that you understand, just because you build a house does not mean the County will maintain the road. If the County isn’t going to maintain it in the winter do you have an alternative plan?

2)      Is there a flood plain or other geographic concerns on or near the property?

  1. Even if there may not be a recognized flood plain it is important to look at what the potential of flooding could be and if your house would be safe in the event of a 100-year flood.
  2. Abutting forested land can also create a potential fire hazard. Do you have a plan to create a fire break that would further protect your home?

3)      What's the areas fire rating and how much will that effect the cost of insurance on your proposed home?

  1. The cost of home owner’s insurance is directly affected by what the fire rating is for the house location. The further you live away from a fire station the higher your premiums will likely be due to the risk of total loss if a fire were to occur.
  2. If you plan to build in an area with a poor fire rating are there things you can do to decrease your risk of fires and potentially reduce your insurance premiums? Such things could include a sprinkler system in the home, fire break around the property and other measures.

If you’re looking to build in Caribou County, we have tried to make this process much easier than it has ever been in the pass. The County offers a Zone Certification for a cost of $25 that anyone can apply for. The Zone Certificate will help you know if the land has developmental rights, what the zone is and what the allowed or conditional uses are, the setbacks, if it is in a subdivision and if there are CC&Rs and may also determine if there are easements.

Author: JoAnna Ashley 
Caribou County
P&Z Administrator