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oh joy builds a house: how we found land to build on!

Oh Joy Builds A House: How We Found Land to Build On / via Oh Joy!

Oh Joy Builds A House: How We Found Land to Build On / via Oh Joy!

First of all, thank YOU for your super kind words and messages after our big announcement last month on our very big, new personal project of building a house! I’ll be sharing the whole process from start to finish as we finish the house build in real time. For these first few months, I’m going to catch you up to how we got to this point in the first place. Then, as we get closer to the house being finished, we’ll ramp up to more regular updates into the nitty gritty of design and so much more! Today’s post is all about…how we found LAND to build on…!

So let’s go back to 2014 (OMG, it’s crazy this process started FOUR years ago!). We were ready to take a big leap and felt that building instead of buying a house could be for us. But we needed to find land to actually build on. Los Angeles doesn’t have a ton of open lots just sitting there. Typically people tear down old homes or whatever land is left is super small or tricky to build on (otherwise a developer would have already scooped it up). So here are the steps we went through to find land…

1. Location, location, location. In the same way that people go about deciding on neighborhoods to look for a house, those are the same factors we kept in mind for land. We wanted a neighborhood we loved and could stay in for a very long time, somewhere near good schools for our kids, and land that was big enough that we could have a flat yard for our kids to play.

2. Search real estate sites like Redfin and Zillow. Next, we did a basic search on real estate websites. We had already been previously on all of these sites looking for a house, so we just had to change our search criteria to allow for land. Some of these sites even have a category you can check for land only. Now, those sites will show land IF someone chooses to list the land. But a lot of land simply isn’t listed on a real estate sites.

Oh Joy Builds A House: How We Found Land to Build On / via Oh Joy!

3. Scour the earth and Google Earth (seriously!). Because not all plots of land are listed for sale, we then drove around looking for any area that looked empty. Since it’s hard to aimlessly drive around all the time, we relied on Google Earth to really search and looked for open areas of land from the aerial view in our choice neighborhood. It was through Google Earth that we first spotted the land we now own today. Once you find land in this way, you can certainly grab the address, visit the site, and see if it happens to have a for sale sign. In our case, part of the land was owned by one owner and part was owned by someone else. If you feel comfortable knocking on strangers doors, you can ask neighbors if they know who the owners are. But if they don’t know, you can find out from the city or county’s assessor’s office.

4. Visit or call the City or County Assessor’s Office. One part of the land we found had a “FOR SALE” sign! Sweet! But the other had nothing, and it wasn’t actually for sale. We needed both parts to make it worth even getting the land. For land that is unclear who the owner is, you can look up the address at the Assessor’s Office of your city or county. That can involve a phone call or a physical visit to the office. From there, you can contact the owner to see if they are willing to sell the land. The same thing goes for a house that may be empty or in disrepair and no owner is present living in the house.

5. Contact Land Brokers. We ended up getting in touch with a land broker who was listed as the contact for one part of the land. He had helped us to broker the deal with his client, but then he also ended up helping us find out who the owner of the adjacent lot was and negotiate a price with them as well. Just like finding a house and working with a real estate agent, you can find a land broker to help you find land from the beginning. They do the same thing that a house broker does and can help you find, put in an offer, and negotiate for land.

Remember what I said about land that is usually available in Los Angeles is often small or tricky to build on? That’s basically describes the land we got! We ended up combining two lots together that on their own would have been a bit too small for our house, but together would work. Also, because the land is on a hill, it’s more challenging to build on and therefore a developer never wanted to put in the extra investment into something they needed to sell and make a quick profit. However for us, since this is our forever home that we are building to live in, we were okay with something that may not be the quickest or easiest to build. Hence, why so many years have passed since we found this land and more which I’ll tell you in upcoming posts!

Oh Joy Builds A House: How We Found Land to Build On / via Oh Joy!

This is what our land looked like from street level. No one would have ever known there was land on top to build on if we hadn’t found it from above! Also, I wanted to share some common questions you guys have asked…

What’s the difference between building on Open Land VS. a Tear Down? Open land that has never been built on can be really hard to find, especially in large and densely populated cities. So often, people tear down old houses in order to build something new. The downside to tearing down a old house is that you’re having to buy a house in order to just get rid of it, and a house costs more than empty land. We didn’t even consider doing a tear down because we would not have been able to afford an existing house on top of the price of building a new one from scratch.

However, the benefits of a tear down versus empty land is that permitting tends to be easier on an existing house. Since the existing house has permits from whenever it was built in the first place, you can use those permits to help build your new house instead of starting from scratch if you keep some of the existing frames or walls of the house. It took us TWO YEARS to get permits for our project because of various reasons but mainly because we were starting from scratch with difficult land that has never been built on.

Are you building on flat land or on a hill? One thing you will learn about me through this journey is that for some reason, I never seem to be able to take the easy road :). We are building on a hill. We would have loved to build on flat land but that’s even harder to find in Los Angeles. While we love having a view that a hillside home brings you, building on a hill also takes much more structural and foundation work to get a flat area to eventually build a house on.

Oh Joy Builds A House: How We Found Land to Build On / via Oh Joy!

Here’s a flashback photo to right after we finally purchased our land in 2014! Ruby was just 2.5 years old, and my youngest, Coco, wasn’t even born yet and happily growing in my belly at the time. This is a journey for sure, but it’s fun to look and see that we’ve finally made it to the point of getting closer and closer to an actual house!

Check out my post over at Architectural Digest’s Clever where I interviewed a few friends from other parts of the country about how they found land…it’s cool to see how they approached it in different cities…

{Top photo by Lily Glass}


  1. Thank you for sharing, Joy. It’s so insightful and I’m happy that you and your family finally found a place to be your home!

  2. My house is on a hill too. #TeamHill lol .So I know exactly how you feel. There are definite pros and cons for sure. Thanks for sharing. All of this is so interesting. Can’t wait to learn more.

  3. This is awesome…challenging for sure, but I love the idea of developing raw land. Aside from levelling the hillside, did you also need to do any infrastructure work, such as connecting to sewage lines, paving roadways/driveways, etc.?

  4. Hi Genevieve,
    YES! All of that! I’ll be sharing every step in upcoming posts. The land was never built on prior but close to other homes so we have to do all of that!

  5. My house is also on a hill. We are currently adding 1,000 sq ft and it’s taken us two years but we finally have a big hole dug! I am learning that structurual engineering, grading and foundations are tricky, time consuming and expensive! We bought our house almost 10 years ago near LA in a small hillside city, with every intention to get to this point. I am so excited to follow along side this journey with you!

  6. Congrats, Joy! Thanks for taking us along on your family’s journey. Can’t wait to read more and celebrate with you guys via the internet! 🙂

  7. I was starting to wonder why I haven’t heard any posts about house hunting again. Congrats to you and your family!

  8. Joy, did your land already have all utilities/services connected? I’ve been tossing around the idea of building for years but it’s so daunting!

  9. Hi Jessica,
    No it didn’t have anything 🙁 There was no house on it before so we really did start from scratch.
    It can be a very overwhelming process, but let me know if you have any other questions!

  10. Thanks so much for responding! Wow, even more daunting. I commented over on Instagram but it would be so helpful if you did a post on costs. I know it ranges so much and there are so many factors, but even just to get an idea or a range for the various stages, architect, permitting, building, etc.


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