BY SHANNON MONEO
Buying the perfect lot and building on it is challenging but possible — if you are prepared and know what to expect.
Early in the spring, a 14,000-square-foot lot bordering the Bear Mountain golf course sold for about $1.3 million. Like homes, the cost of bare land in Greater Victoria has been rising steeply, sometimes faster than houses, because of the limited supply.
In April, the Multiple Listing Service for Greater Victoria featured roughly 90 lots. Many were in the Sooke area or the Western Communities, excepting development-averse Metchosin. Lots are rare in Victoria or Saanich, but one option to acquire land includes tearing down old homes and starting fresh.
Another method that multiple buyers can use is to purchase a large parcel of land and subdivide it. There are also wait-lists for lots on the cusp of going public.
“It is more difficult to buy a bare piece of land than a home,” says Josh Kube, a realtor with RE/MAX Camosun and a partner in JAL Developments.
The difficulty can be ascribed to a few factors. Greater Victoria is hemmed in by water and mountains with lots of rock below.
“You have to blast the rock to pieces to put the services in,” Kube says.
He points to James Bay and Gordon Head, which were “taken apart” and replanted to create residential space. Tonier parts of town, like Broadmead and Dean Park, have retained their natural topography because they are high-end developments, Kube notes.
All price ranges are being affected by cost increases.
“In the last decade, the costs have almost doubled,” Kube says. The pandemic, inflation, supply/material shortages, labour constraints and the lack of land have coalesced to render the price of a lot to be on par with what an actual house and land cost about 15 years ago.
“It seems to baffle the mind,” says Paul Clarkston, owner of Clarkston Construction. He’s built over 120 homes in the past 20 years, many of them exceptionally stunning custom builds. His focus has been the Sooke area and points west to Port Renfrew.
Typically, it’s developers who build out lots, which is more profitable for them than selling the lots individually.
“To go on your own and source a lot and do it yourself is becoming more rare,” Clarkston says. But it can be done.
Accepting the challenge
If you want to be a homesteader, you’ll want to do some research before you buy.
If the land you want is oceanfront or foreshore, Clarkston says geotechnical and environmental studies should be done. In some cases, archeological studies are necessary. Tsunamis, earthquakes, flooding, falling trees and forest fires are some of the terrestrial considerations.
As well, it’s a wise idea to hire a reputable builder to look over the bare land. They can provide a realistic view of pitfalls and encumbrances.
“I’ve done it for countless people,” Clarkston says. He walks the lot, examines the surrounding area, addresses the challenges and highlights what’s invaluable.
And don’t forget sunlight and the value of a south-facing home during the long periods of dull skies.
Both Kube and Clarkston recommend a good realtor with credible and historical knowledge of the locale.
“Get someone with a finger on the pulse of the municipality,” Clarkston recommends.
Where is the nearest hospital or emergency clinic? What about schools, road infrastructure, public transport and other amenities?
When it comes to the approvals and regulations around lot development, Clarkston says every municipality is different, with each one having its own set of guidelines. Zoning requirements and official community plans must be adhered to.
Once a lot is purchased, plans and regulations have to be checked, verified and approved. In Oak Bay, municipal staff take eight months to issue the necessary starting permits. Langford, meanwhile, has a two-month timeline, Clarkston says.
Don’t overlook the value of a savvy lawyer, who should review land title documents and determine if restrictive covenants exist.
Preparing the land
Before bare land comes to life, it has to be prepared. Some lots require roadbuilding, levelling, blasting and logging. Services then have to be installed. If purchasing from a developer, services often exist or are roughed in. Notable are water, sewer, gas and cable lines, as well as storm sewers.
If buying in the core municipalities, most services are easily accessed. But moving farther from the core into Sooke, Juan de Fuca or the Highlands, thought has to be given to where the water comes from, if a septic field can be created and if gas lines run to the property. Wait times for these installations can be lengthy.
“Definitely prepare for a slower process,” Clarkston says.
Initially, getting the trades or services to do blasting, land clearing or framing can be slow. Then, delays will be layered on because of municipal time lags. It takes Clarkston a minimum of one year to build a semi-custom home on a new lot.
Clarkston’s final advice: “I tell my clients, anything average will lose its value quicker than anything spectacular.”
An ocean view or oceanfront property are finite commodities.
“It will always hold its value,” he says.