How to Select a Home Building Lot – Unique Considerations for the Outer Banks

Aerial view of the Soundfront at Corolla Bay Community

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  The same can be said about what comes first, selecting your new home lot or selecting house plan.  While it is easier to select a lot and then find plans to fit the lot, it doesn’t always work the other way around.  If you have your heart set on a particular home style and plan then you must find a lot that will fit that plan.

Ocean or Sound

Selecting a lot in the Outer Banks revolves around two main location alternatives.  Ocean or sound.  The Oceanside is preferred by vacationers and investors.  The sound is preferred by year round residents or retirees.  Even on this barrier island, there are many lots between ocean and sound. 

What are some other items to consider before selecting a lot?

Consider the general characteristics of the land.  Is it wooded or beachy?  Generally, the sound side of the Outer Banks is wooded maritime forest.  The Oceanside does not have as many mature trees and is characterized by sand dunes and sea oats.

Seasonal Changes

How will the views change with the seasons?  The Outer Banks does have seasonal changes where deciduous trees lose their leaves.  The oceanfront appears different in the winter when the crowds have disappeared and the sky can be overcast and grey.


What other structures can be seen from the lot?  Having a view, especially a water view, is highly coveted on the Outer Banks.  Other views, of iconic structures, like the lighthouse, is also desirable to some people.  Some people prefer a sense of isolation without having any structures nearby.

Will the home you envision blend in with the existing structures nearby?  Generally, housing styles are similar in established developments and building a drastically different home would not be welcomed by other residents or there may be restrictive covenants in place preventing you from having a divergent design.


Is the lot large enough for the home you want to build?  A mansion on a postage stamp size lot will not do justice to the home.  The lot needs to frame the home you wish to build.  While the town and county have rules for setbacks and septic systems, the buildable area of a lot can be very different than initial appearances.

Sun Orientation

How is the lot oriented to the street or view?  Placement of the home on the lot is generally limited due to the size of most lots.  With this in mind, note the direction of the sun.  A western facing lot will be very hot in the summer and can make a pool area or deck hard to enjoy.  A southern facing lot will provide passive solar heat and extra light from the windows.  North facing orientation can be brutal with winds and nor’easters.  Eastern orientation is great for early morning light.  Where will interior rooms lie and what kind of lighting will the rooms have for how they are used.

If your house plan is designed with the primary family living spaces at the back (kitchen or great room) then these are the rooms you want sunlight in; the rooms with all the expensive windows.  These rooms should face more or less south to optimize the sunlight.  If your lot is on the south side of the street, great.

What if your lot is on the north side of the street? All that living space, all that glass, isn’t going to get any direct sunlight at all. If you have fallen in love with the lot, then you could select another house plan with the rooms oriented to take advantage of the sun. 

The sun orientation also impacts energy consumption. A southern exposure provides opportunity to take advantage of passive solar energy.  The easiest and least expensive way to keep heat out of the house is with proper orientation of the windows and doors. The easiest way to keep heat in is to reduce the number of windows. So, pay close attention to the number and location of windows in your design and the orientation to the sun on the lot. A properly oriented house plan will save a lot in fuel bills and provide more enjoyment of your house and your building site.

Are there any views to be maximized and what room will take advantage of the view?  Alternatively, if there is a poor view, how will the design and orientation of the home minimize it? 

Ideally, you should visit the lot during different times of day, week and seasons to get a complete picture of how the lot will appear.  The Outer Banks can vary significantly during different seasons.  Once you have found a lot that meets your criteria, you have to move outside the lot dimensions to the surrounding area.  Can something be developed in the future to take away your view?  What is the zoning in the nearby area that could drastically change the nature of the area?


Where will the driveway be located and will there be enough room for parking, deliveries and to turn around?  The Outer Banks is a tourist destination and weekend turnovers can have a lot of traffic.  Will you have adequate access to alternative routes to avoid the traffic or be able to get out of your driveway?


The natural contours of the lot should be considered and selected based on the needs of the house plan.  While fill and excavation can alter the natural contours, there may be restrictions on how much you can change due to budget or restrictive covenants in the community.  Is the lot flat, elevated or hilly?  An elevated lot is desirable on this barrier island due to storms and flooding. 

Are there any geologic elements that will affect the design or placement of the home?  A house placed on a slope will likely cost more to build than a house on a flat lot.  Owners of sloping lots can take advantage of that situation by including a “walk-out” basement in the design. The reverse floor plan is a popular choice in the Outer Banks, and the lower level is often used for additional bedrooms.  The steepness of the slope will partly determine how much excavation and/or fill is necessary to create the walkout. Sloped lots often require more gravel backfill material at the foundation.  A sloped lot may need expensive retaining walls to create a flat area for a driveway or to hold back soil at the walk-out.

Soil Conditions

Determine if there are any hazardous materials on the site that may not be apparent to the eye.  While the Outer Banks does not have an industrial history, it did have bombing ranges and left over munitions still may exist.  What was the lots history that may have exposed it to contamination?  Are there any naturally occurring elements that will cause issues?

Is the soil stable or subject to landslides or sink holes?  The Outer Banks is a sandbar that is constantly shifting.  If you are considering oceanfront property, what is the erosion rate in the area?  It can vary from one location to the next.  Was there any historical inlets nearby that make the area vulnerable to a reoccurrence?

While the Outer Banks generally has a sandy soil, there are variations across the island.  Soils will drain and retain water differently, and soils have vastly differently capacities to bear structural loads. In most areas, you’ll have to show the building department that your foundation is designed for the local soil conditions. 

Water Drainage and Flooding

The elevation and natural drainage capacity of your lot is extremely important; not only due to the frequency of hurricanes and storms.  Flood insurance can be costly and not being on the sound front or oceanfront does not remove all the risk.   If your lot is the lowest in the area, is it going to pool all the rain from neighboring yards and stay wet?  How high is the water table for your lot?  A lot located near a marsh may have more mosquitoes.


When you select your lot, determine if there are any noisy conditions.  It may be great to be near community amenities but not if the noise of children playing or swimming is going to bother you.  Wind generated energy is popular here but the noise from the turbines can bother some people.  A restaurant across the street may appear quiet during the day, and could be loud at night with patrons and live music. 


What is the zoning nearby and how may adverse construction in the future affect your site.  You can visit the building department to find out what plans are already in place for new construction in the town and how that could impact the lot you are considering.

Building Codes 

Each town in the Outer Banks has its own building codes.  They will determine where you can place the home on the lot; providing setback from neighbors, road and location of hardscape and landscaping materials.


Are there any easements on the property?  While it is common to have easements for telephone or electric, the location of the easement can dictate how you can use that portion of your property.  An easement across the center of the property will limit placement of the home or plans for a swimming pool. 


Is there already access to electric, tele, gas, water and sewer or will you have to bear the cost to bring utilities to the property?  This can drastically increase the cost of developing the property.  Recently, a friend purchased some acreage and decided to build completely off the grid, using wind and solar, rather than the burdensome expensed of getting power to the home site.

Most of the Outer Banks does not have public sewer.  Several types of private sanitation systems are used in the Outer Banks.  The traditional septic tank and leach field is most common. The different types can vary widely in cost, and not all towns will allow all types. The type of system will also be determined by the soil type and slope of the lot, and the available area for the system. A typical leach field system will require a large clear area for a primary and second field.


The lot you select should also take into consideration how close the lot is to work, shopping, health care and recreation or the other activities you enjoy or frequently engage in.

Quality of Schools

Even if you don’t have school age children, the quality of schools will impact the desirability of the finished home to future buyers. 


There are many delightful communities in the Outer Banks and each has their own style and rules.  Some have shared amenities, like tennis courts, pools, or marinas.  The shared amenities come with a cost.  The skill and management of the homeowners association goes a long way toward keeping the costs in check or failure can result in surprise assessments. 

Each of these communities will also have their restrictions and oversight.  Some communities will dictate what colors you can paint, what building materials are allowed to be used, and even what style of homes that are allowed to be built. 

Lots near community entrances have more traffic and noise but may offer easier access and proximity to all the action.

Corner lots may require more landscaping and yard maintenance.  If there are sidewalks on two sides, then a corner lot will require more snow removal (it does occasionally snow here) and additional edging to consider.  A corner lot exposes two sides of the home and will impact the design you select to have multiple facades that are appealing.  A corner lot may not be as private.

Lots on a T intersection may be impacted by headlights from nighttime traffic.  Does the homes design orient the bedrooms away from the street side?

Lots in a community are typically, an “approved building lot”. That means all surveys; soil testing, wetlands conservation, and site engineering work have been completed and approved by local authorities.

While raw land may cost less, you will have to spend money to complete the required tests, surveys and engineering work before you can get the land approved for building. Not all land gets approved for building so if you choose this route you’ll want to first get input from local real estate agents who are familiar with the area.

Contact Eillu for more information on buying Outer Banks Real Estate, building a custom home, selling Outer Banks Real Estate or to learn more about the Outer Banks in general, please check out our blog.

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