Post details: Buying Acreage - Part 2


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Buying Acreage - Part 2

Professional Help

Turn to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service). Most states have an office in each county, or you can check your local phone directory's federal government listings for the office in your state.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service publishes a Soil Survey of your area. This large book, free for the asking, maps each area and evaluates how specific soil types will perform under various building conditions. The survey rates the soil in numerous ways, but the categories most important to the potential land owner are the building, sanitary facilities (septic tanks and absorption fields), and water management tables.

Local conservation officers will visit the site and interpret the charts for free. But since their maps only examine the soil to about 60 inches deep, a clean bill from this inspection means it's time to contact a geotechnical civil engineer to conduct a more in-depth analysis.

Check the yellow pages under "engineer." If geotechnical, or soil, engineers aren't listed specifically, try the "consulting engineers" listing and ask if the company has a soil or geotechnical specialist on their staff.

Geotechnical civil engineers offer many commercial development services. The most common residential service is soil boring, or taking samples from several spots on the proposed building site.

The engineer extracts a sample that runs at least 5 to 20 feet below the house footings. A rule of thumb is to sample at least twice as deep below the footing as the footing is wide to ensure that the soil can support the foundation. Analyzing the type of soil from 20 feet deep helps predict possible settling and water problems.

The testing and subsequent report for a residential property averages about $1,500 in most parts of the U.S. That may seem expensive, but sinking homes and backed-up septic tanks cost much more to repair.

Geotechnical engineers also offer a "phase one environmental assessment" that developers often use to satisfy their loan requirements. This report researches the land's environmental history by studying previous owners and previous uses. Any hint that your site once housed a chemical-related or toxin-handling commercial business, or the neighborhood dump, should prompt an environmental study.

From finding a more suitable site, to blasting out several layers of bedrock, solutions will often hinge on striking a balance between what you want and what you can afford. Targeting and studying the problem before you build helps avoid an unexpected crisis and unnecessary financial burden once it's too late to halt construction. It also shifts your role from victim of the problem to manager of the solution.

Who Else Can Help?

Here are still more sources for information on the soil, history, and previous use of a proposed building site.

- The nearest city engineer and building inspector. Their tenure generally indicates how much they know about the areas surrounding the city.
- Sanborn maps, probably available at the local library. Fire departments and insurance companies rely on Sanborn maps to indicate where companies store chemicals. Older maps can often indicate if a building that housed chemicals once occupied a specific site, possibly contaminating the land.
- City directories indexed by address. Back issues may be especially helpful.
- Geography instructors from local schools and state universities. Local landscapes are often their classroom projects and they know them well.

Better Homes and Gardens



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