Site Preparation: The First Step to Constructing a Home

Woman pointing down the road with map

The home buyer has purchased the land. The architect or design-build firm has created the house plan including the site and floor plans. The building permit has been secured, and the construction crew is ready to build the home of the buyer's dreams. The very first step in this exciting process is to prepare the site for construction.

Site preparation1) involves making a parcel of land suitable for building a house. Depending on the site's characteristics, it can include a number of tasks and cost thousands of dollars.

Site Preparation Tasks

Reviewing the Land Survey

The land survey2) is instrumental in helping the builder prepare the site for construction because it:

  • identifies the property's boundaries and easements (such as for underground utilities);
  • determines how clearing or altering the grade will impact soil erosion and/or stormwater runoff; and
  • establishes the amount of area to cleared and graded.

It can also be compared to the house plan3) to determine the tasks that should be completed before construction begins.

Dirt road leading up a hillBuilding an Access or a Permanent Road

If necessary, an access route to transport equipment and materials or a permanent road should be constructed to ensure efficient and successful site preparation.

Obtaining Soil Testing

Soil testing4) determines the soil's ability to support the house and absorb water. Land surveyor on pile of soilIt is generally required5) to obtain building permits. However, a soil engineer may need to conduct additional tests to ensure that the condition of the subsurface soil is consistent with the condition observed during the initial analysis. If the soil's condition has changed, then it may be necessary to modify the house's plan.

Clearing the Land

Clear soil plotThe land should be cleared of vegetation such as grass, shrubs, and trees; stumps and roots; and other impediments like large rocks.

A land excavator6) removes trees and other plant life, digs up soil, and performs grading to prepare the site for the home's foundation. The machinery used for excavation can vary based on the lot's size and type of vegetation, but the most common options are backhoe loaders, excavators, or trackers with backhoe attachments.

The home buyer may want to keep some trees and/or retain some of the land's natural habitat7) for conservation and aesthetic value. In some cases, part of the property may be legally designated as a wetlands conservation area that must remain in its natural state.

Grading the Land

Some sites require grading8), which involves manipulating the soil to create a smooth landscape (either level or sloped) on which to construct the house. This process is essential for creating proper drainage9) and preventing soil erosion. Without effective grading, rainwater could flow toward the property instead of away from it. This could damage cinder blocks, cause water to accumulate around the house's foundation, cause interior flooding, and wash away vegetation. This kind of damage could require costly repairs and replacement of items.

Cut and fill grading involves cutting soil from higher places on the land to fill in lower places. Debris and topsoil are removed and existing sub-grade material (such as clay, gravel, or sand) accumulated during clearing can be used to level the site. In some cases, it may be necessary to haul additional soil to the site to create the appropriate grade.

Preparing for Utility Lines

Electric power line against the skyTrenches are dug to allow for utility lines/pipes—electric, gas, sewer, and water—to be installed and routed into the house and other structures like garages, guest houses, or workshops. If public utilities are not available, the site is prepared for a septic system and well.

Constructing the Footers

The footers10), which are concrete bases that provide solid support for the house's foundation, can be constructed during site preparation.

Site Preparation Costs

Several factors including the characteristics of the land and region of the country impact site preparation costs. Home buyers can take certain steps to reduce these costs.

Typical Costs

According to HomeAdvisor11), site preparation costs between $1,250 and $4,200. However, depending on the tasks involved, it could cost as little as $350 and as much as $8,000 to clear the land and prep it for construction. On average, site preparation costs $1.28 to $2.00 per square foot. Thus, it could cost as much as $40,000 to prepare a half-acre lot (approximately 20,000 square feet) for construction. Costs for specific tasks are listed below.

Trackers and bulldozers at excavation siteExcavation
Excavation costs vary greatly depending on the soil's characteristics; however, this process typically costs $1,300 to $4,500.

Land Grading Costs
If the home buyer works with a site preparation contractor, grading costs may be included in a price package. As an individual service, the average price of re-grading generally ranges between $0.47 and $2.28 per square foot. The price varies depending on the level of the grade and the site's location.

Tree and Brush Removal
Trees being harvestedThe cost to remove trees varies based on the number of trees as well as their size, condition, and location. It costs $650 (on average) to remove a single tree and $75 to $150 to remove fallen trees. It costs $500 to $2,000 per acre to remove trees from lightly-wooded lots and $3,000 to $6,000 per acre to remove them from heavily forested land.

Clearing brush—plants, shrubs, and less-dense overgrowth—from the land is usually less costly than removing trees because their surface area (above and below ground) is considerably less difficult to remove. Therefore, it generally costs $20 to $200 per acre to remove brush from a site.

Hourly Labor Costs
On average, it takes about eight hours to clear two to three acres of land. The typical labor rate under normal conditions for this task ranges between $110 and $245 per hour for a total cost of $880 to $1,960.

Land Clearing Equipment
Land clearing companies may charge equipment fees that range between $160 and $230. Rental fees for larger equipment like backhoes and excavators can cost $60 to $150 per hour. Many companies offer package deals that include equipment and labor costs.

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Additional Factors that Affect Costs

In addition to the land's condition, several other factors can impact site preparation costs.

Asbestos Removal
Some sites have structures that contain asbestos, which must be removed before the structures can be demolished. It typically costs $1,000 to $2,500 to remove this environmental hazard from structures.

Date of Last Land Survey
Although the timeframe12) varies among states, a land survey is generally valid for five to ten years from its completion date. If a new survey is warranted, the home buyer can expect to pay $500 (on average) for this service.

Fees and Permits
Home Owners' Associations may place restrictions on land use. This could require additional site preparation processes. Some municipalities may require a permit to clear land that could cost as much as $200.

Flooded land and dead treesFlooding Risks
Sites in areas that are prone to flooding or soil erosion require additional work during site preparation.

Proximity of Utilities
The distance of utilities from the site will impact cost because longer distances will require digging longer trenches.

Size of the Site
Many land clearing costs are calculated based on the site's size rather than a fixed price. Therefore, it costs more to clear larger pieces of land.

Three Ways to Decrease Costs

The costs to prepare a site for home construction can quickly escalate, particularly if unexpected problems arise. Home buyers can take the following steps to minimize site preparation costs.

Purchase land that requires less preparation.
The easiest way to avoid high site preparation costs is to buy land that requires less preparation, but this is not always possible or desired. In any case, home buyers should obtain multiple bids to find the most competitive prices. They might be able to use these bids to negotiate the price with contractors.

Schedule the work during the offseason.
Contractors may lower site preparation fees during the fall and winter months to generate business.

Big stacks of timberwoodSell the trees and soil.
The materials that are removed from the site may be re-usable. For example, some trees can be sold for firewood or timber. Some firewood companies may even remove usable trees at no cost. Soil removed during grading may be sufficient for planting so local garden centers and nurseries may buy it.

Site preparation is crucial for building a home that fulfills the buyer's needs and goals, withstands the elements, and complies with building codes. It can be a simple task that costs as little as a few hundred dollars or a more complicated process that costs thousands of dollars. No matter the cost, the goal is to create a site that will adequately support the house and its landscaping over time.

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