[All images by BUILD LLC]
The housing market is back in full swing and here in the Pacific Northwest the real estate, architecture, and construction industries couldn’t be busier. While this is great for many of us, it also has its downside, as anyone searching for property can surely attest. With the demand for property much higher than the supply, there just isn’t much inventory out there and this situation has produced a couple of important observations:
1. New properties go fast, often involving bidding wars and escalation clauses on the purchase offers. We’ve even seen buyers waive the home inspection to lock-up a real estate transaction faster than their competition. Other buyers compose personal, handwritten letters to the sellers and appeal to emotion in hopes of swaying the sale in their direction. Some even take a more far-reaching route and solicit homeowners to sell property that isn’t even listed yet.
2. Properties that sit on the market for several days, weeks or even months typically have red flags (they’re still on the market for a reason). This isn’t to say that the real estate would be a bad investment necessarily, but simply that the property has an issue or two requiring further investigation to determine the best solution(s). Whether they are significant or not, these red flags have deterred other buyers.
While these factors create a challenging set of obstacles for potential buyers, it tells us one thing very clearly: buyers that have a strategy in place have a huge advantage over their competition. While outbidding the competition or composing a convincing letter can be successful strategies, most people don’t have an extra bag of money to throw at their dream house, nor do they feel comfortable gambling on good penmanship and a persuasive letter. That leaves potential buyers relying on a strategy directed at the second category, and that’s exactly where this cheat sheet comes in.
Vetting out a property and getting to the bottom of issues that have turned other buyers off is a successful strategy to filter out the challenges, find the diamonds in the rough, and better understand a piece of property that may soon be under ownership. In a typical market (when it’s not nearly this busy), architects typically perform a bit of sleuthing down at the building department for owners or even potential buyers. This assumes, of course, that the buyer intends to build a house or remodel an existing structure on the property in question. But in boom times (like in Seattle right now), architects typically don’t have the bandwidth to perform research on potential properties that may or may not move forward into design. Owners who are able to do this research (or a portion of it) at the building department have a tremendous advantage over other buyers. It allows owners to conduct the research on their own schedule, (rather than waiting for architects with overbooked schedules,) it allows them to research multiple parcels, and the research only gets more efficient the more educated the buyer becomes.
In the philosophy of putting power in the hands of the people, today’s post is a guide on how to quickly research property along with a cheat sheet of questions to ask at the building department. Obviously the resources, codes, and protocols vary between one building department and the next, but this guide should be a good baseline. So let’s get started:
VISITING THE BUILDING DEPARTMENT
Some jurisdictions require a prescheduled meeting to speak with a land-use planner or building specialist, but most allow architects and homeowners to visit the building department unannounced during certain business hours and speak with a planner for 10 to 20 minutes informally over the counter. In our neck of the woods, the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (the building department) offers a free 20-minute coaching session with a planner to address basic land-use and zoning questions. We recommend a quick review of a building department’s website to track down hours of operation and the protocols for Q&A sessions.
SOME ADVICE ON ETIQUETTE WHILE AT THE BUILDING DEPARTMENT
While speaking with a planner or building specialist, keep a couple of things in mind:
There are most likely other people in line behind you, respect everyone’s schedule and stick to the time limits.
The land-use planner or building specialist is there to help interpret the building code with you; they are not there to design your house or revise the building code to benefit your project.
Be nice at the building department and thank the land-use planner or building specialist for their time, even if you received unfavorable information.
SOME USEFUL STRATEGY WHILE AT THE BUILDING DEPARTMENT
Get the names of everyone you speak with at the building department (or better yet, get business cards). Direct contact information will come in very handy later when you may have follow up questions.
When asking questions and getting answers, note the applicable section(s) of the municipal code and building code. This information will save hours of time later.
Find out what resources are available at the building department.
+ Are previous surveys, plans, and permits documented in microfilm?
+ Is there a website for maps, zoning, and environmental factors?
+ Are their liens, violations or other legal issues on file with the city or county for the property?
+ Are there physical handouts listing the requirements for building permits?
THE PROPERTY RESEARCH CHEAT SHEET:
The following list of questions to ask at the building department is the product of 14 years’ worth of meeting with various building departments. It’s a great departure point for researching property for the first time and it should get some items on the agenda that non-architects may not know to ask. With that said, this list is neither comprehensive nor complete. There may be additional categories and further questions to ask, depending on the jurisdiction and/or property. Since time is typically a limiting factor at the building department, this list has been organized from most important to least important with critical items in black and less important (but still useful) items in gray. Right hand click on the image to view and print the 8-1/2″ x 11″ version.
This cheat sheet is most relevant for the initial research on a piece of property. Once design work begins on a project, there are a host of additional questions that an architect should direct to the building department. There may be some additional items that should make the roster and we’re always interested in hearing them, so hit that comments button at the bottom.
Happy researching and cheers from Team BUILD