Thinking about building a mountain home in Colorado? Finding the perfect lot is the first step towards making your dreams of mountain living come true. If you’re planning to build a custom home in Colorado – especially in the mountains – there are many important factors to take into consideration when selecting your lot and designing your home. Depending on where you are from, some of these factors may be new to you. This blog is meant to give you a general idea of the most important factors to consider, but is not an exhaustive list or a substitute for a good real estate agent. We highly recommend you discuss these items with your real estate agent and do further research on your own where applicable. The time you spend on finding the perfect lot is time well spent, and you will reap the rewards for years to come.
An important note before we begin: for the purposes of this blog we are focusing on mountain homes, but many of these factors are important to consider throughout Colorado.
Location – How will you get there?
Colorado is filled with beautiful mountain towns. If you are building a vacation home in the mountains, consider how you will get there. How close is the nearest airport? Are there convenient flights available from your home town? Distance can be deceiving in the mountains, and traffic jams are especially common in the winter months when roads become snow packed and icy.
If you are planning to move to the mountains to live year-round and will need to commute to the office, it is especially important to consider commute times. Know that winter weather, road construction, forest fires and many other factors can have a significant impact on your commute.
Another important factor when selecting location is the availability of services and amenities. Where is the nearest grocery store? Doctors office? Restaurant? Consider your lifestyle and how important proximity to goods and services are to you. Living in the city these are things we take for granted, but in the mountains a ‘quick trip’ to the store could become a much bigger ordeal.
Snow Removal and Road Maintenance
It is important to find out who is responsible for snow removal and road maintenance in your neighborhood. In many areas, the city or county will plow the roads, or the HOA might have a contract in place for snow removal. Find out which access roads will be plowed, and if your driveway is included. If you plan to build in a more remote area, it is important to be prepared for the fact that you may need to plow your own way out after a big snow storm.
Snow and Architecture
When building a home in the mountains, never underestimate the influence of snow. Site placement is one of the first decisions your architect will make, and the orientation of your home and the driveway should take snow into consideration. In an ideal world, they will be able to situate your driveway to be south facing, meaning the sun exposure will help melt the snow, keeping your driveway from becoming packed with ice. If the site does not allow this, you will want to consider a heated driveway.
Snow will also impact the design and construction of your roof. Picture a traditional village in the Alps, filled with charming buildings with steep, high pitched roofs. There’s a reason those roofs are so steep! Steep roofs allow the snow to slide off, preventing significant snow load from accumulating on the roof. The weight of potential snow build-up on the roof is an important consideration when designing homes in the mountains. In the most basic sense, there are 2 options – a high pitched roof that snow will slide off of, or a flatter roof that is properly designed and reinforced to bear the weight of the snow load (which normally only makes sense if the snow load will serve as insulation for the home).
Zoning and Setbacks
No matter where you plan to build, it is important to be familiar with the zoning and setbacks for your lot. If your goal is to build a duplex, make sure your property is zoned for this. In general, if the zoning allows for a duplex, you could still build a single-family home on the property, but not vice versa. Some neighborhoods also have protective covenants or design guidelines that must be considered. Setbacks – which are the minimum distance from the lot lines to the structure – should also be considered, but their impact varies depending on the size of your lot. On small lots the setbacks can dictate the size and placement of your home, however on larger lots they have much less impact. The most important thing is to make sure you can live with the rules before you purchase the property.
Where Will Your Utilities Come From?
Will your home’s water be supplied from a city or community system, or will you need a well? If you will be on a city or community system, there will probably be tap fees. Tap fees vary greatly depending on the area, so find out what these will be in advance.
If you are in an area that requires a well, you will need to get a permit in order to drill. Find out where you will be permitted to use the well water. In many cases it will only be allowed for use in the house, you will not be allowed to use it for watering the lawn or filling a hot tub, though you may be able to purchase extra water rights for outside usage.
Has electricity already been run to your street or lot? No matter how close it is located, there will be a fee to connect it. If electricity has not been run to your street, you will need to pay to have it brought to your property. Timing varies, so ask the utility company how long it will take them to do this, since it could affect your building schedule. Also find out in advance how much it will cost to bring electricity to your home; in some areas the fees can be quite hefty, so it is important to factor these costs into your budget.
Is there a community sewer system available, or will you need to put in a septic system? If there is a sewer system, find out how much you will need to pay to hook up to it. The size of your home including number of bedrooms, baths, etc. will determine this fee.
If there isn’t a sewer system available, you will need to put in a septic system. Before you close on the purchase of your lot, it is a good idea to make sure the land will be able to handle the septic system. To find this out you will need to do a percolation test (this can be one of the contingencies in the contract). Perc tests measure how quickly the land absorbs water, and are required to properly design a septic system. A perc test cannot be done in the winter and is best done in the spring.
Many areas do have access to natural gas. Again, there will be a tap fee to hook it up. Where natural gas is not available, many people choose to use propane, which can be delivered to the home.
Topography and Soils
Soils in Colorado can vary greatly, even within a small area. One lot might have excellent soil conditions while the lot right next door suffers from expansive soils, which increase the cost of building. Treasured mountain views often come hand in hand with steep sites. Steep sites may require extensive (and expensive!) excavation and fill. Once you start building, if the builder encounters rock formations as they are trying to dig the foundation, adjustments will need to be made, and the building cost will increase.
There are many unknown factors when building a home. The best thing to do is be as prepared as possible, but know that there are still unknowns. For example, a soils test can help you better understand what you will be dealing with, and may be required by the county or by your builder. However, to prepare for unknowns, we always recommend building a contingency fund into your budget for the unexpected problems that will inevitably occur at some point during the project.
Natural Resource Rights
Natural resource rights can include water, mineral, timber and access rights. Once you’ve identified the lot you would like to buy, find out if there are any 3rd parties holding natural resource rights on the land. Natural resource rights are more complicated than you might think, so it is important to educate yourself before purchasing your lot.
For example, even though your land has a river, stream or pond on it, it doesn’t automatically mean you own the rights to the water. If you live near a reservoir used for drinking water there may be restrictions on how you can use your land. Mineral rights are especially important to watch out for. If there is a company who owns mineral rights on your land, this means they could have the right to drill for oil on your land – whether you want them to or not. While this is an extreme example, it is important to be aware that these situations might exist, so you can avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.
Vacant land is taxed at a higher rate than residential properties in Colorado. Actual numbers will vary, but currently most non-residential land (including vacant lots) are taxed at 29% of their actual value, and residential properties are taxed at a rate of between 7% and 9% of their actual value. This means that once you build and your property value goes up, your taxes shouldn’t be much higher. If you aren’t planning to build any time soon, taxes can be expensive.
On the other hand, if your property has agricultural zoning status, you may qualify for lower taxes or other financial benefits. Each state has its own set of requirements, and you’ll need to ensure you continue to qualify based on how you intend to use the land. We highlight some of the financial benefits of owning a working ranch in this blog.
Logistics are a consideration when putting together your design team, especially when building a house in the mountains. Let’s say you plan to build in Breckenridge. Do you put together a team located in Breckenridge, or hire professionals from the Denver area? There really is no right or wrong answer. While all major second home markets in Colorado have an abundance of talented design professionals, there are also advantages to working with firms based in Denver.
Considering Denver based firms greatly expands your options, and in some cases, can be more cost effective. Flying in and out of Denver is often less expensive, and gives you the perfect opportunity to meet with your design team and visit Denver area showrooms. When site visits are necessary, your design team will come to you. At the end of the day, assembling a successful team is all about compatibility and communication. You will be spending a significant amount of time with your design professionals, so rapport matters. Make sure your personalities are a good fit and they are people you feel comfortable sharing your hopes and dreams for your new home with.
Even if you’re still in the process of finding the perfect lot for your mountain home, it’s not too early to start thinking about your team. Homebuilding is a team sport; the core team generally includes an architect, builder and interior designer. We recommend assembling your team early and including everyone from the start.