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Building? What you need to know before selecting a vacant stand

There is no user manual for all aspects of homeownership, from moving, to taking occupation and to maintaining and understanding common and uncommon defects. Albert van Wyk has more than 38 years’ worth of building experience and has put all he has learned into a concise, easy-to-use reference book entitled, The Proud Home Owner. He has granted HomeTimes exclusive access to republish portions of his book to help homeowners make better decisions around buying and selling, as well as maintaining their properties.

So you’ve found a vacant standbuilding plans and house

Make sure about the zoning of the stand (what you are allowed to build on the stand). The seller must point out the boundary pegs to you, or if he is not sure, insist that a land surveyor locate them for you. I have experienced that a neighbour has built over the boundary and then moved the boundary pegs to suit him.

Make sure that you know what the building lines are of the stand. These you will find in the title deed document. These building lines are the limits to how far you may build from the boundaries.

Some stands on feeder roads will have large building lines which will restrict or limit your plans.site-selection

If needed, you can apply to the local council to have a building line relaxed. This can be a cumbersome exercise as you have to get all the neighbours on all four sides of your stand to sign the plans before submission, to show that they give their approval. In some cases, your application will not be approved as the town council has guidelines which will not be changed, even if your neighbours agree.

Check for servitudes over the property, such as where electricity cables or sewerage pipes, stormwater pipes or water pipes cross the stand.

This information will also be in the title deed. You are not allowed to build in a servitude or plant large trees there; not even a swimming pool! This land ultimately “belongs” to the party in whose name the servitude is registered and they can come and dig it up at any time and they are then not responsible for restoring your garden or paving.

I strongly suggest that you get a copy of the title deed and make sure about any limitations or restrictions on the property before you sign the contract to purchase vacant land.

The conditions which are in the title deed override any council regulation. For instance, the building line is 5m on the street side. The council cannot relax it to 3m until the condition is changed in the title deed.

Make sure of the zoning of the adjoining stands and the stands across the road as it could be that they are zoned for shops, churches, schools, apartments or offices. Do you still want to stay there?

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Make sure that the soil is good for foundations. Clay or sand is not good foundation material and it will cost more to construct reinforced foundations. The soil must be classified by an engineer before the building project is enrolled by the NHBRC.

Albert says: “It’s nice on the mountain but be prepared for extra costs when the stand is in a rocky area. Foundations, sewer, water pipes, electrical cables and your pool will cost more”

If you are in doubt about the condition of the soil have a test pit dug (1m x 2m x 2m) and have the soil analysed by a laboratory.

When the stand is lower than street level a lot of stormwater could get onto the property and you must make provision for this. When the adjoining stands are higher than yours, a lot of stormwater could also drain towards your stand and you can be subjected to flooding. If the stand is in a low-lying area, look at the vegetation. The area could be water logged or near a marsh area. Look out for rubble which is dumped on the site.

Carefully consider the pros and cons of a stand that is on a slope. Invest in the services of a land surveyor in order to be able to make maximum use of the slope. An interesting house can be designed by an innovative architect when given the correct levels of the stand.

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When the property is close to a river or small stream, make sure that you know where the 50- and 100-year flood lines are. You will not be allowed to build below the 50-year flood line and, in some instances, below the 100-year flood line either. I would suggest that you stay above the 100-year flood line, especially with global warming causing heavier storms every year.

Consider the following before you decide to purchase a property:

  • Is it near public transport?

  • Is it close to schools and your work place?

  • Is it close to highways? What about noise? Do you want easy access?

  • What do you see from the stand? Homes, squatter camps, factories, mountains or trees?

  • If need be, go back to the stand during peak-hour traffic or when school comes out.

The different types of soilsoil-in-hand

Clay/heaving soil

Expansive soil (clay) is in most cases the reason for foundation failure. It is possible to build a solid house on this type of soil but it will be at a high price. Determine how much clay is in the soil because even 5% content will need specially designed footings.

Sandy or collapsing soil

This is good soil for gardens but not for foundations. In its dry state this soil looks strong, as if it could sustain heavy loads. However, when this soil gets wet, the grains will separate and the open-grain structure can no longer sustain the load and it will collapse under the pressure. Foundations for this type of soil must be designed by an engineer.


To build on a stand with dolomite will always be a high-risk venture. However, a well-designed foundation will minimise the risk.

Design the housedesign-your-dream-home

Choose an architect whose work you have seen and whose style you like, or can be associated with. An architect is also an artist and many have their own preferences of designs. He should also be able to design the house to suite your budget. Establish a clear picture in your mind of what the house should look like when it is completed.

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“Dream” about the details (colour, furniture, curtains) and then focus on that end result and in doing so, have a clear picture of the new house in your mind. Gather pictures from magazines of what you like, and also of what you do not like. This will help the architect understand exactly what you want.

Plan where every piece of furniture will be placed and ensure that everything will fit into the various rooms. The position of the windows or sliding doors should be kept in mind. Do not have unnecessary openings or doors in a room. You need blank walls for furniture to stand against as well as for decorations to hang on. Compare the inside measurements of the new house with those of your existing home. Draw your furniture to scale on the plan and remember to think about where you want electrical plugs, as well as light fittings and light switches.

Compare the built-in-cupboards and the kitchen units with another house. No woman will ever have enough cupboards! Check the positions of the doors in the rooms and the way they open.

Take an imaginary walk through the house and remember that the most active link is between the kitchen, dining room and entertainment area, and these areas should be laid out in a very practical way. Ask the architect to give you 3D renderings of the house.

Your personal lifestyle will determine the design of the living area.

Do not accept a design you are not entirely excited by or satisfied with. This is your home, so insist on getting what you and the family want and need in order for you to be happy. That is the reason why you are building a house – to get what you want.

Try not to make any changes to the plan during the construction period. This could delay the project and will cost you a lot more than what you expect.

Albert says: “Make sure you know exactly what every symbol on the plan means”

Ask the architect to explain the plan to you, because every line and detail is important. Not everybody can read a balance sheet or write a computer program or know the law, nor does everyone understand a building plan. So do not hesitate to ask for clarifications and explanations regarding anything on the plan that you are unsure about.

I would like to offer a story to illustrate this: I was constructing a home for a client who went away on holiday for six weeks. When she returned we had progressed extensively and the first floor slab had already been placed. She walked into the house and instead of excitement, which I had been expecting, she exploded with anger! Eventually I gathered that she hated columns and there were 10 columns on the ground floor alone. When I showed her the small circles on the plan, which she had signed and confirmed that she was happy with, she said she had no idea what those were. She had not realised that those circles represented columns!

Next time: How to use the 3, 4, 5 formula to mark the corners of the house

For more, and to order your copy of The Proud Home Owner, click here, or visit Gauteng Home Inspections if you’re building, buying or doing maintenance


Review overview
  • Jeff 2nd February 2017

    What should I keep in mind with regards to adding utilities to vacant land?