According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately one in five Americans -- or 60 million people -- live in rural areas across the country. While rural areas make up 97% of the entire country’s landmass, urban areas house more than three-quarters of the American population; for decades. If not centuries, cities have attracted Americans searching for more excellent work opportunities, attractive amenities, etc. A much smaller percentage of the American population has sought the small-town atmosphere, proximity to nature, and relative privacy offered by rural areas. In recent months, however, this has changed. Evolving priorities, low-interest record rates, and access to remote work opportunities have all pushed Americans to the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though major cities were already shedding residents before 2020, Ben Popkin notes in an article for NBC News that “the pandemic accelerated population loss in some urban centers and pushed a move toward suburban and rural areas.” Popkin writes that remote work has allowed Americans to “resettle farther out from cities to take advantage of the lower cost of living, the higher quality of life and more access to nature and outdoor activities.” Of course, the shortage of available housing units has made buying a home anywhere in the US -- whether an urban or rural area -- somewhat tricky. Because of this, some prospective homeowners have chosen to build their own homes rather than buy an existing home. As such, we will explore the pros and cons of building a home in a rural area versus an urban area in this post. Follow below to learn about the challenges and advantages of residential construction in the country. Check back next week to learn more about the pros and cons of building in an urban area.
● There is no clear-cut cost difference between building in the country and building in the city. Cost varies depending on the region, build site, and many other factors.
● Financing a rural home build could be more complex than financing a home build in the city because there are fewer comps.
● Land-use restrictions are typically more common and more numerous in urban areas than rural areas.
● Rural areas offer more privacy, but cities offer more established infrastructure to support both a home build and the lives of residents.
● Accessing utilities is usually more challenging in rural areas than in urban areas, but various options are available.
● Hiring the right design-build team is vital no matter where you build your home.
Constructing a single-family home in a rural area can be simpler than building in the city and more complex. Access to the site, utilities, workers, and construction materials can affect how smoothly and inexpensively a rural home is constructed. If the building site is remote, difficult to access, and far from infrastructure, constructing a single-family home in the country could be more expensive and time-consuming than building one in the city. However, some rural lots are easily accessed, well-sited, and close to hookups. Some rural communities are also subject to fewer zoning and building restrictions than lots in urban areas. This makes constructing a home in the exact style and size you wish much easier. Below, we delve deeper into the challenges and advantages of building a home in the country.
While building a home in the country often means greater privacy for the owners, it could also mean restricted access to the building site. Remote sites -- such as those on a hillside, in a forest, or on an island -- might be too difficult to access by road. The roads that do lead up to your build site might not be stable or strong enough to support the load weight of the vehicles carrying in your building materials. This could require your contractor to airdrop construction materials. Homeowners should keep in mind that limited physical access to the site could also impact access to power lines, water lines, and other existing infrastructure. On the other hand, your site might only be accessible via a private road, the title of which is held by another property owner in your area. To access your build site, you might have to request an easement from the private road owner that encircles your property.
For those unfamiliar with easements and their impacts on California property owners, John Stevens J.D explains in his article “Law on California Property Easements” for SF Gate. Stevens writes that “an easement is a right to use land that belongs to another, as opposed to a right to possess the land of another.” The Golden State recognizes four different property easements, and all four could be applied to the scenario described above. Homeowners attempting to access their build site via another owner’s private road would likely request either an express easement or an easement by necessity.
The former “exists when a landowner voluntarily agrees to burden his own land.” When one property owner allows another to use his or her private road by written consent, he or she has granted an express easement. Stevens notes that “because such an easement is an interest in land, it must be in writing to be enforceable.” Property owners who wish to use another owner’s private road to access their build site might also seek an easement by necessity or an implied easement by existing use. Neither requires written consent from the private road’s owner.
The final type of easement recognized by California State Law is a prescriptive easement, but this kind of easement would likely not apply to the use of a private road solely during construction. John Stevens writes that “a prescriptive easement is created when a person uses the land of another, without the landowner’s consent, in such a way that the landowner should reasonably be aware of and does so for a continuous period of five years.” This type of easement usually applies to seasonal events such as flooding, heavy snows, or other occurrences that could limit a property owner’s access to his site by other means.
One of the benefits of building a home in an urban area is that a larger supply and variety of general contractors, architects, and other design-build professionals exists in cities than in rural areas. In fact, there might be a shortage of qualified builders in your rural area. Writing for Iowa State University’s Department of Community and Economic Development in November 2020, CED Interim Associate Director Jon Wolseth provides one example. Wolseth writes that while demand for new homes in the country exists, the primary reason these homes are never built is “a lack of housing developers and contractors in rural areas.”
Examining data from Iowa State University, Wolseth found that nine counties across the state currently have “zero registered builders...specializing in single-family housing construction.” Unfortunately for prospective homeowners, Wolseth writes that the cost of construction can skyrocket when there are too few builders near a rural community. Conversely, “proximity of builders can lower the cost of construction” for rural homeowners. Before purchasing your plot of land, be sure to research local design-build firms with extensive pastoral single-family residential construction experience.
Access is a common challenge when building in remote rural areas, as partially addressed above. Before choosing your build site, make sure you can access existing utilities or set up your own systems. While developing your land might be less expensive in the country than in the city, connecting to utilities could add tens of thousands of dollars to your project’s final tally. Even if the previous owner of your build site claimed utilities were located “nearby” to the property, hookups could be yards -- or even miles -- away. Most homeowners will spend between $10,000 and $40,000 to bring utilities to their build site. In his article “What Does it Mean When Vacant Land Says Utilities Nearby?” for SF Gate, Steve Lander explains the process.
Lander writes that connecting to utilities involves two steps: “bringing the utility service to your parcel” and “continuing the line or pipe to where you plan to build on your location.” While many utility companies will extend their service up to a certain point, most will require the property owner to “bear the cost of extending the line beyond their distance” and likely charge a fee to connect. From water and gas to cell and internet service, most utilities are accurate. Of course, there are alternatives to traditional utilities. Lander writes that “many rural properties do not have access to a water or sewer system and use wells and septic systems instead.” They might also use propane instead of natural gas, “satellite instead of cable,” and solar energy instead of electric service. We examine these options further in our section on the off-grid potential of rural homes.
Thankfully, there are quite a few resources available to rural property owners. The federal government, California State government, utility companies, and other private companies have developed geographic information systems with comprehensive utility mapping. Most of these utility maps are available to the public for free. California’s Energy Commission maintains a series of maps on the government website which allow users to examine the infrastructure of different areas across the state. Interested parties can explore those maps here. Enter your site’s geographical coordinates if the property does not have an assigned street address. For more information about public utilities, property owners can also call their county’s Planning and Zoning Department.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, the RUS or Rural Utilities Service also offers several grants, loans, and loan guarantees to rural communities in need. The RUS provides loans and grants for water and environment programs, electric programs, and telecommunications to improve rural America’s infrastructure. Though these forms of aid are typically granted to towns with a population under ten thousand, some may be made to individuals, co-ops, or specific neighborhoods. Find out more information about financial and infrastructure aid offered by the RUS here.
Water availability is another concern for homeowners building in rural areas. If your home cannot be connected to city water, you might need to drill a well or rely on spring water. Unfortunately, the water from a well or spring might not be safe, and the supply might not be sufficient to support your property. Beth Ross explains in her article "What to Know Before Buying a House in the Country" for NOLO. Ross writes that "city health regulations typically require that the public water is routinely tested to ensure it contains no toxins or harmful impurities."
Because of this, city homeowners can "be pretty sure the water is clean and safe." However, the water from "a rural home's well or spring is typically untreated, and its quality can be uncertain." To ensure the water's safety, homeowners should have it tested.
If tests determine that the water from your site's healthy or spring is unsafe, "a filtration system might solve the problem," but you might also need a brand new well. Constructing a new well can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming, especially in areas with limited site access.
Even if you can sink a new well, the amount of water you use and how you use it might be regulated. Ross writes that while city dwellers "can typically use available water for whatever purpose you want...your good permit might limit what you can use your water for" in rural areas. This is especially common in rural areas of California currently experiencing drought. Beth Ross recommends that homeowners carefully read they're well permit before discussing any "water regulations with a professional engineer or attorney in the area." Another alternative or an auxiliary way to supply your home with water is through rainwater capture. However, homeowners should check local restrictions before setting up a rainwater capture system. Though such restrictions are uncommon, some exist in cities and townships across California.
Rural homes might also rely on a private septic system if they cannot access the public sewer system. While septic systems allow a property to operate off-grid, they do come with their own set of challenges. Not only can septic systems malfunction if they are poorly maintained. They could also restrict the size of homes you can build and/or limit the number of habitable structures you can add to your property. Maurie Backman explains the differences between septic and sewer systems in the article "Should You Avoid a House With a Septic System?" for Million Acres.
Backman writes that "wastewater exits your home with sewer systems and is funneled through a sewer line to a treatment facility." The same wastewater travels from your home's plumbing system into a septic tank buried underground with a septic system. After the waste travels into this tank, "solids are allowed to settle to the bottom to form a sludge layer, while things like oil and grease float to the top of the tank to form a scum layer." Liquids drain out of your septic tank into what Backman calls a "drain field or absorption field" where wastewater is filtered through the soil. There are five common septic systems: conventional, chamber, aerobic, drip distribution, and sand filter. While installing a septic system usually costs less than installing sewer lines, septic systems are not as flexible as municipal sewers. Furthermore, homeowners must alter their site's landscaping to accommodate the septic tank and drainage field.
Many Americans move to the country for a lower cost of living, more privacy, better views, and greater access to nature. However, future development could threaten each of these if the buyer does not do their due diligence before purchasing their rural build site. Future development could not only block your views, but it could also impact the availability of and access to well and spring water on your property. Homeowners should first check the zoning ordinances that apply to the area they wish to build. In doing so, they might also research the maximum height restrictions of plots in their area. Plots of land in “rural zones” of California typically have fewer restrictions on the type, number, and style of structures built on the site.
However, it might be impossible to develop some of the lands around your property. In another article for NOLO entitled “Building on Vacant Land: Zoning Issues You Might Face,” Beth Ross notes that some land with a rural zone designation might also be in an “environmental zone.” In environmental zones, “construction on certain portions of the land might be prohibited, or you might have to maintain undisturbed animal habitat (such as existing trees or meadows) on the land.” Those who wish to preserve their views, privacy, and access to water might consider purchasing a building site near environmental zones.
While it is usually more challenging to finance a new house build than to finance the purchase of an existing home, financing a rural home build might be even more complicated. Barrett Barlowe explains in his article Build Your Own Home in the Country for SF Gate. Barlow agrees that "financing the construction of a country home can be tricky," noting that not only island expensive but "adding in the cost of construction can dissuade many potential homeowners from ever building." Lenders acknowledge the complexity and expense of building a new home in a rural area, often choosing not to finance these builds due to uncertainty over whether the project will be completed.
Traditional lenders might also avoid financing a rural new construction because few comps are available. Without enough comparable properties in the area, it can be challenging to determine the eventual value of the finished home. Because of this uncertainty, "traditional construction loans are expensive and difficult to obtain" for rural property owners. One of the few options available to rural property owners is to apply for a guaranteed conversion loan. Also called a "construction-to-permanent loan," this type of construction loan becomes "a standard home mortgage loan once the house is built and appraised. According to Miranda Crace in her article "What To Look For When Buying Land To Build A House" for Rocket Homes, rural property owners might also qualify for a USDA Rural Housing Site Loan.
Current property owners might know that property taxes can be much higher in urban areas than in rural areas. This is usually due to the many services associated with living in an urban area compared to those in a rural area. In an urban area, property taxes often contribute to water and waste treatment facilities, hospitals, fire stations, and public schools. Property taxes might be lower in rural areas, but infrastructure might also be less developed. From internet access to medical services, lack of infrastructure is essential when building or buying a home in a rural area.
Last on our list of cons when building a home in the country is that many property owners must clear and/or grade their land. In their 2020 article “Budgeting for a New Home: How Much to Build a House on My Land?” for Homelight, Evette Zalvino and Amber Taufen explain. Zalvino and Taufen write that “after the land has been surveyed, it is going to need to be cleared.” This typically means removing “debris, rocks, and vegetation [that could interfere with laying the foundation or building the home] from the area.” Rural property owners must level their build site to prepare for construction.
Of course, the amount you must pay to clear your land “is going to depend on the size of the lot, what kind of machinery is needed, how much work needs to be done, and labor costs.” According to Zalvino and Taufin, “the price of clearing a single acre of land can range from $200 to $6,875.” This could amount to more in 2021 because of labor shortages and shipping delays. Keep in mind that you must clear land not just for building but also for access. Taufin and Zalvino note that “you’ll need a road or driveway cleared, too, to get to and from your house.”
From unparalleled privacy to fewer land-use restrictions, there are dozens of benefits to building a custom home in the country. We outline just six of the most significant advantages of building in a rural area below.
For decades, market watchers and researchers have argued that increasingly restrictive zoning ordinances have prevented lower-income families from achieving homeownership. Rural areas might offer an antidote, as they are more likely to construct multifamily developments and ADUs. Because rural areas are slower-growing than urban areas, zoning is often less restrictive. Mixed zoning – properties that allow commercial and residential buildings to exist within the same property – are more common in rural areas. This could allow homeowners who choose to build in a rural area to start a business from their homes and/or add an extra house for their children, elderly parents, or other relatives.
Better yet, it might be easier to get a permit for your build. In urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco, planning departments are often overwhelmed by the number of permits they receive each quarter. Rural areas with lower populations do not suffer from the same influx of applications. As small towns and rural areas look for ways to boost their economies, zoning restrictions are expected to ebb further. The EPA resource notes that “slow-growing and shrinking rural areas might find that their policies are not bringing the prosperity they seek” and argues that zoning changes could be a solution.
As mentioned above, permitting requirements are generally more lax in rural areas than in urban areas. Glenda Taylor explains in her article “Pros & Cons of Building a Home in the Country” for SF Gate. Taylor writes that “metropolitan areas can be sticklers about building codes.” However, “the rules are generally more relaxed in the county, especially if the building site is in a remote location.” You or your builder might “still have to follow regulations concerning minimum acreage for a house-building permit, and additional permits for well drilling and sewer.” As a benefit, though, you and your builder will have much “more leeway in house style, square footage, and exterior design preferences.”
One of the most excellent benefits of building in a rural area is the opportunity to operate off-grid. Once a fringe idea, off-grid properties have become increasingly desirable over the last few years – especially in California. As water and power become more expensive and wildfires become more destructive and common, operating off-grid becomes more attractive to homeowners. Unfortunately, many local jurisdictions still frown upon living off the grid. Even though nearly 10% of homes in California have solar panels, building a truly self-sustaining house in the city is near impossible.
In the same article for SF Gate, Glenda Taylor extols the benefits of off-grid living in the country. Taylor notes that “off-grid building is the extreme version of rural construction, and it appeals to a smaller crowd because it requires homeowners to generate all of their own power.” While developing wind, solar, and hydroelectric power systems are expensive, doing so is much more feasible in the country where one can legally create their own solar or rainwater catchment system. Regulations surrounding passive house construction tend to be less restrictive in rural areas.
In urban areas of California, there are seasonal building restrictions, height restrictions, and so many more ways in which neighbors and homeowners associations can interfere with your building project. We recently explained this in our article “How to Buy Vacant Land in San Francisco to Build a House.” In our post, we noted that “there are a number of seasonal building restrictions in San Francisco.” Writing for SF Gate in his article “What to know when buying raw land or vacant lots with approved architectural plans,” Jordan Guinn explains. According to Guinn, construction crews are only allowed to “grade hillside lots from approximately April to November, depending on how much rain” the city gets during that period. Other seasonal building restrictions -- such as those related to wildfires during high-risk months -- could impede swift construction of new builds in urban areas like SF.
Worse yet, neighbors can actually alter the architectural plans of the home you hope to build in urban areas like San Francisco. Guinn notes that in San Francisco, “there is a public process for neighbors to speak their minds” and impact where, how, and in what style a house can be built. This phase is called “the planning commission and entitlements phase.” Part of this process functions somewhat like a town hall. In the country, this is far less common. Those who hope to design a custom-built home with many unique features might be better served by a rural community with looser laws.
Lastly, with less restrictive zoning laws and more acreage, rural land owners have the option to expand further in the future. This is a clear benefit to the many American households that have become multigenerational in recent years.
At Element Homes, our team of builders, designers, project managers, and other professionals can help you build your ideal custom home in the country. From applying for permits to creating floor plans, our team knows what it takes to build a custom home in California’s rural areas. Whether you hope to build your new custom home along the Central Coast or in the forests of Northern California, we can guide you from your initial consultation all the way to move-in day!
Reach out to our team for more information and check back next week to learn about the pros and cons of building a home in the city.
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