Buying an empty lot

8 cost considerations to help you turn vacant land into your perfect getaway

By Cottage LifeCottage Life


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In your search for the perfect vacation getaway, the most appealing property may turn out to be an undeveloped lot. The lure of inexpensive land can produce sticker shock, however, when it comes time to actually put up a cottage. Invariably, an inverse relationship exists between land cost and construction cost in cottage country. Highly serviced, accessible lots are more expensive than ones that can only be reached by boat or along an unassumed bush road. At the same time, construction costs are going to  be less per square foot for a lot that is easy to drive to and presents no complications for delivery of materials and access for tradespeople and their equipment.

The expenses to-do list below can help you get a handle on costs for the lot you’re considering; it’s excerpted from a book by Douglas Hunter covering all aspects of  cottage real estate, called The Cottage Ownership Guide: How to Buy, Sell, Rent, Share, Hand Down & Retire to Your Waterfront Getaway, published by Cottage Life Books. To order the book, click here.

What you need to do

  • Determine whether a lot is “finished.” This means some degree of utility service—electricity, water, sewage, land-line telephone—is directly available to the site. Often, it can also mean it is located on an assumed public road.
  • If a road doesn’t exist and utilities are not already available to the site, first of all find out whether it is even possible to connect to these services. Then decide which ones you absolutely want and determine how much you will be charged to hook up (if you can hook up at all). An electrical utility may provide free connection within a certain distance of the road, but then start charging hefty rates for the linear distance to the building afterwards. (When additional utility poles are required to bridge the distance, costs can be astronomical.)
  • If utilities are not available or are prohibitively expensive, figure out what you’re going to need to provide on your own (such as power, potable water, and a septic bed and tank). Check requirements with the appropriate authorities (for instance, the necessary size and setback of your septic system) and get estimates from local professionals on the costs involved. Water and waste can be big-ticket items. Spending $10,000–$15,000 on a drilled well is not out of the ordinary, and a septic system, depending on the size, style, and the site, can easily top $10,000.
  • Get a grip on your design costs. If you’re not working from scratch with an architect and intend to use stock plans, you still have to buy them and then ensure, either on your own or through your contractor, that the specifications satisfy the local building code and zoning regulations.
  • If you intend to have someone build the cottage for you, round up the local contractors, get references, and ask for a general estimate of building costs, based on what you envision in terms of square footage, winterizing, and foundations. You don’t need a finished set of plans. A good contractor will be able to tell you the sort of ballpark costs per square foot your dream getaway will command, before you get to a specific quote bid.
  • Even if you are determined to build the property yourself, you may want tradespeople for certain phases to speed along the work. Hiring framers is a common strategy for getting together at least the shell of the building. Find out who’s available locally and what they’ll charge. Be prepared to rely on hired help more than you anticipated. Getting the basic structure up and enclosed is a major hurdle, especially before winter sets in. Once you have a roof, windows, doors, and walls, you can work on finishing the interior yourself.
  • While it’s true that square footage drives cost, budgets for an individual project will vary tremendously according to labour (how much of the job the owner can take on, the logistics involved for tradespeople to access and work on the site) and materials.
  • Consider managing costs by building in increments. A basic cottage can be designed and built, with an add-on wing planned for a few years later. Just be sure that your expansion can be accommodated by the applicable zoning regulations.

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