Build Own Home Part 8

What To Verify With The Local Government Agencies

The city government will normally govern you if you are building within the city limits. If you are outside the city limits, the county government will govern you. Even though you are in the county, if you are close to a city limit, check with the city to make sure they have no jurisdiction over the property you want to build on. I’ve had this happen to students – they would be in the county, outside the city limits, and they would do everything based on the county government, only to have the city create a lot of grief because the city was regulating certain requirements on the property. The county didn’t even tell them.

Tax Assessor’s Office

If the property owner does not have a survey, acquire a copy of the tax plat from this office. Verify the property tax rate for the area.

The Planning Department

In the Planning Department, if they’re doing their homework, they can tell you any future plans for your neighborhood and/or surrounding area. This is good information because you may not want to live next door to a future fertilizer factory or a new 4-lane highway that’s going to be built in the near future.

The Zoning Department

In the Zoning Department you’re going to learn some critical information such as the minimum size home you must build on the 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, because of the zoning, where you cannot build a 1,000 square foot home.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen individuals spend thousands of dollars designing the home of their dreams. Then they go down to the zoning department and based on the zoning they find out the distance from the street, called the building line, is, let’s say, 30 feet. The setbacks or distance you must build from your neighbor’s property line are 15 feet for the side yards and 20 feet for the rear yard. When they now see the only legitimate place to build a home, based on the zoning, they are shocked to see there is not enough room on their lot for their dream home. Their only option is to apply for a variance to cross these lines. These variances can be very costly, time consuming and many times they are denied!

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

The builder, in frustration, threw up his hands, gave the homes and subdivision back to the bank and moved out of state. The bank came up with a very ingenious solution. They demolished one home and spent £350,000.00 to move the entire street. The three remaining homes were then the correct distance from the street.

I know it’s hard for you to believe, but even I make mistakes. In the 1980’s I was building a luxury home in an old section of London. The home was sold and near completion when we did what is called an “as-built” survey of the lot. It turned out that one corner of the home crossed the building line by less than a foot! Except for the survey, no one would have ever known about this infraction. To avoid any title problems, the lenders will want these problems corrected.

Unlike the good old days when I’d go to the zoning department and they’d sign off on something this minor, I had to apply for a variance. It took three months and a good sum of money to apply for this variance. Not to mention, the new owner was already supposed to be moved in.

At the variance meeting, there were two powerful neighborhood committees there with several hundred people saying, “Make him tear the home down.” They were very serious. Their rational – 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 variance, but believe me; you do not want to get caught in this kind of situation.

Some people will build the home right up to a building or setback line. They fail to think about the roof overhang, a porch, a deck or any steps. In many areas, no part of the structure can cross theses line.

Building Line And Setbacks

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

Also, don’t 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 he surveys the lot or updates an old survey, stake the location of the building and setback lines.

Subdivision Covenants

If you are looking at property in a subdivision, check at the courthouse for any covenants for the subdivision, which are required, like a deed, to be recorded.

Subdivision covenants may override the city or county zoning. For example, the city or county zoning may require you must build 30 feet from the street right-of-way, whereas the subdivision covenant may state that you must build 40 feet from the street right-of-way. Get a copy of the covenants and read every word. You may be surprised at what you find.

The Building Department

Go to the Building Department and ask if there is any reason they know you cannot get a building permit on this property. I had a student purchase a lot and he waited about a year to begin construction. He purchased 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 his property was in the future right-of-way of a new road the county was going to build. He cancelled the construction loan, lost what he paid in closing costs and did not build the home. This is just one reason I recommend you acquire your building permit before you close on the construction loan. He knew this but forgot – good reason to use a checklist.

While you are in the Building Department, find out the fees and requirements necessary for a building permit and pick up an application for a building permit.

For environmental reasons, tree removal is becoming very restricted and regulated in many areas. In this department find out if there are any requirements, fees and/or restrictions concerning the clearing of trees.

The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] 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. To learn more about EPA studies and recommendations for housing, visit their web site at

The Health Department

Water well requirements

Check for any potential problems installing a well. Find out about the quality of water in the area and whether or not you’ll need a filter.

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

Septic tank requirements

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

The Public Works Department


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

You’ll want to look at the field drawings to see how deep the sewer line is at your property, but be aware that the contractor that installed the sewer line may not have buried them at the level shown on the drawings. It’s best to remove the manhole cover at the property and measure the actual dept of the sewer line.

The reason why? Let’s say the sewer line is 10 feet below the level of the street and the home you plan to build is going to be 15 feet below the street level. If you didn’t know, most of this stuff flows downhill, not uphill. You could buy a sewer pump but I’d rather not fool with any sewer pump if I could avoid it. Similarly, if you are planning on having plumbing in a basement, verify that the sewer line at your property is lower than the basement floor level.

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

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


Check the Water Department field drawing to verify that water is at your property. Just because you see a fire hydrant down the street don’t assume you have water at your property. That water line may stop at the fire hydrant and to get it to your property could cost you a lot of money.

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

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

What To Verify With The Utility Companies


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

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

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


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

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

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


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