Precision Consulting since 1978

The Musts

California Rural Homesite 


These are the things that you must have to live on the land. 


You must to be able to get there from here. Access involves two elements: (1) legal access or the legal right to get to the land and (2) physical access consisting of the roads or the route to get to the land. 

Legal Access

Usually, you have legal access if you front on a County or City owned and maintained road, or if your parcel has deeded access to a County or City Road. Access to some State Highways is restricted. Many lending institutions will require legal access as a condition of a mortgage. Your title company can assist you with evaluating your legal access. They can even insure it for you in many cases. A land surveyor can help you locate your legal access on the ground. Prescriptive access, or the right of many years of use, may be challenged or may be difficult to demonstrate. Prescriptive easements can only be perfected through agreement between the parties involved, or a legal action resulting in a judgment or court decree establishing the rights. Usually, prescriptive rights can't be increased, as might be required for subdividing the property

Physical Access

Now that you have the right to get to it, can you get to it? There are parcels out there with access easements that cross swamps (now called jurisdictional wetlands), canyons, and cliffs. If the access road is not constructed, make sure that it can be, and check into the cost. Make sure the access easement is wide enough. The easement should contain all of the cut, fill, and culverts needed to build the road. For a 12' wide road, it can easily take 20' to contain the earthwork. This is probably less important on old, established roads, where the cuts and fills may be established through years of use. Don't forget to consider your driveway. There are some doozies out there. Cut and fill slopes associated with the main access road may make driveway construction even more difficult. Look at surrounding properties that are improved and similar in terms of cut/fill slopes and lot cross slope. How well do they work? Don't forget that you may have to use the road during snowy or frosty conditions. A civil engineer or engineering contractor can help you evaluate driveway feasibility and costs. 


Some rural areas have treated domestic water available from a city, irrigation district, or utility district. Most rural parcels are served by ground water wells. Your REALTOR® or local water provider can help you identify the availability of treated domestic water and the connection fees and monthly charges associated with its use. There is certainly no assurance of a good well. I learned this the hard way. I recommend a contingency of a successful well or pump test of an existing well
before purchase, if possible. Should you use a witcher or a geologist to help determine the location of the well? That is difficult to say. I've seen both work and fail.

Many well drillers guarantee water but at a higher cost. Don't forget to check the water for minerals. You can also have the water tested for its quality. A water quality laboratory or water systems specialist can help you check the quality and content of your water. Some parcels have raw (open ditch) water sources. This water can be treated by a small system to meet drinking water standards under most conditions if allowed by the County. I tried treating raw water at my house and found that it was not working well. Now we subscribe to a bottled water service.

Check with the local Environmental Health Department for water source standards. The quality of such water varies and the opportunity for contamination is great. It should be avoided as a drinking water source if at all possible. Its great for irrigation, however! Following a number of devastating fires in California, there are now state-wide "fire safe" standards which sometimes require that you construct water storage as a condition of a building permit. Many people use buried tanks for this purpose. Check with the local building and fire departments for details. 


Some rural parcels can connect to public or community sewer systems. Check with your REALTOR® or local sewage collection agency for details. Most rural parcels will be served by individual septic tank/ leach field systems. All household waste water goes to a 1000-1500 gallon septic tank where solids settle and are pumped out every 5-10 years. The wastewater is then distributed through buried perforated pipe into level trenches filled with drain rock. The leach field trenches cover an area ranging from about 3000-10,000 square feet, depending on the soil capabilities. The leach field area should be kept devoid of trees and brush so that the roots won't interfere with the drain. Nothing varies more between parcels than the ability to support septic systems. Most environmental health departments require percolation and soil mantle tests prior to the issuance of a sewage disposal permit. If they don't, have the tests done anyway as a condition of your closing escrow.  

Believe me: every parcel cannot support a septic system! Parcels with numerous rock outcrops, swampy areas, water courses or ditches, and sparse trees and vegetation may be particularly suspect. A soils mantle test is usually one or more backhoe pits dug at least eight feet deep and observed by a civil engineer, geologist, or environmental health specialist. The soil can't have ground water or shallow bed rock. The soil should be reasonably able to absorb and filter water all the way down. Percolation tests are a series of tests to measure how quickly the ground absorbs water. They are usually run by one of the above professionals by measuring the drop of water in a post hole over time. Your REALTOR® can assist you in finding an appropriate professional. Once your system is in, don't forget to maintain it by keeping the leach field cleared of trees and brush, and by having the septic tank pumped when necessary. 

As time goes on, more and more alternative systems or variations on conventional systems become available. The most common variation on the standard system in 2012 is the filtered, pressure dosed system. This system can work where conventional systems won,t by using shallower leach field trenches over a larger area. The wastewater effluent is pumped through a filtration system and then dosed to the leach field through small spray heads that evenly distribute it to the leach field This type of system costs between 2 and 2.5 times as much as a standard system and electrical pumps must be operated and maintained.


Okay, so utilities aren't a must with some people. They are with me!  Of all the updates to this information between 1995 and 2012, there have been the greatest strides in enjoying the conveniences of utilities, even when utility wiring and infrastructure are near by.

Living off the grid has never been easier, with increased efficiency in solar panels and all other energy alternatives. Wireless telephone and internet services is still sketchy in the hills where topography, distance, and vegetation dampen signals. However, you can most likely begin your research by taking your cell phone out on your potential homesite and checking the signal. Satellite TV and internet enhancement are available anywhere the satellites are visible. Tree cover and topography can demonstrate limitations.

Obtaining conventional, hard wired electricity, telephone, and other utilities requires that your land be reasonably near existing facilities and that there be appropriate easements allowing the utility company to extend their facilities. No one can really assure you about utilities, except the provider. Your title company can assist you in identifying the availability of general utility easements. However, only the utility provider is familiar with the location and capacity of nearby facilities. Natural gas is available to a few areas, but most rural sites require propane (LPG) tanks. Cable television and fast DSL internet is available in some areas, usually close to towns or the more densely developed areas. Conventional TV antenna reception varies in rural areas, especially since the digital TV age, due to topography and other factors.