I'm a first time SFH developer and I made a major mistake. Need advice

I just recently purchased some vacant land in my area with plans of building SF homes. However I made a crucial mistake in that I did not have the land surveyed or the soil tested before I made the purchase. Basically I saw a really good deal on land and did’nt do any of the homework.

Well now I’m the owner of land that’s labeled by the village/suburb as unbuildable due to a retention pond that resides on a portion of the land. However after doing a little research and calling the Army Corp. of Engineers I think I may have a way out of my dilemma. The retention pond in question is essentially dry (there is no standing water on the surface even after days of rain). Also there are several engineering and foundation methods to build properties on land used as retention areas.

So the question I have is how can I find an experienced land developer to discuss investment possibilities? I have been able to verify that this land can be developed but it will take some specialized methods to stabilize the foundation. Fortunately the land is in an area where homes sell for 600K to the million dollar range, so I know that there is value in developing the land but I simply lack experience to deal with the red tape in having land re-zoned. Also because the land needs some special attention it makes it harder for me to convince a lender to issue a loan for a project of this type. I would like to speak with developers with experience in dealing with different types of soil issues about investing in this project with me. I would be willing to negotiate a fair percentage of the profits. Can anyone give me advice on how to find and speak with potential developing investors?

Around my area, a lot of the “wetlands” are “protected” even if it’s been dry for 100 years. In that case, you have to have the Army Corp of Engineers come out and waste everyones time and money and not get much accomplished. I would get a topographic survey done first and foremost. If that doesn’t work for you, atleast present the developers with a USGS map with a 1:25,000 scale or 1:50,000 scale. A recent survey might help a developer get this land reclassified as something other than wetland. A soil test would be next to determine it’s actual building suitability.

You have to understand that a retention basin was specifically constructed to collect rain. Even if the surface is dry, this is a collection pond for a neighborhoods rain water. The soil in your area might rapidly absorb water, in which case a few feet deep would be a muddy pond. If this land is a big bowl cut in the earth, the only thing you’d want to put in their is a house boat. Of course, I’ve never seen this land so I can’t give you anything specific. Your just going to have to get done the things you skipped in the beginning and get a little creative if it doesn’t work out. Maybe a few drainage pipes and a couple dozen dump trucks full of dirt will remedy the problem.

Hi Danny, thanks for the reply. I should have given more specifics in that first posting. The land I own is not a wetland area, it’s actually a grouping of about 3 large lots located at the end of a cul-de-sac in a developed neighborhood. 2 of the lots are at street level while the third lot (the largest of the 3) is the actual retention pond which is much lower than the street (about 3-5 feet). According to the village the retention area is designated to collect water run off from the neighborhood during storms, etc… .

From the research I’ve been able to do it’s possible to reengineer the area to still accomodate water run-off for the neighborhood and still build stable foundations to accommodate homes in that section. Some of the methods include underground concrete or plastic pipes to distribute excess water deep into the soil. Other arrangements range from specialized concrete and foundation placements. My problem is that I don’t have experience with these types of construction and I’m not certain which one would be the most cost effective for my needs. Then there’s the issue of re-zoning the land and dealing with the village. I’m hoping to work with someone with the developing experience to know how to handle a situation like mine.

Okay, so this isn’t too far off from what I imagined. Althought I pictured a retention pond that was a 30+ foot depression on all sides that would soon become standing water of an actual pond. Typically a “retention” pond indictates standing water while a “detention pond” indicates temporary wet/ dry area for smaller amounts of runoff.

This probably isn’t too difficult to reengineer. I’d be inclined to designated a smaller portion of this third lot to a small detention basin fed by drainage pipes surrounding what would be the house. It sounds like this would be acceptable if the collection thus far has been minimal. You could also create a subsurface drainage field towards the back of the lots similar to a septic system’s leaching field or cesspool.

I think if you present some of the reengineering ideas along with the special foundation construction ideas to a developer, it should be an easy sell if the price is right.

You might also approach the developer as a partner basis. They will get a majority stakehold and you will get the experience on dealing with this type of property.

Bottom line, you will have to make it financially attractive in order to get a developer’s interest.


Because of past flooding problems in Texas, you can’t build until you show where the runoff water is going. It is not just that the water has to go elsewhere, but you have to show that it is not going to cause a problem where you are sending it. That may be the problem you will encounter. If that retention pond has been designated as the place for the water from the rest of the subdivision to go, then they will not let you build on it until you show where the water is going to go once you stop it from collecting on your land.

From my Florida and Texas perspective, (insert joke here) retention pond says mosquitoes. And that says challenge. Because if the water is still enough for an insect, (and it doesn’t take much) that means they didn’t build there for a reason. Here in Florida, we have those everywhere - but they install a “water feature” that circulates the water to keep it from ever being completely still.

But, that’s Florida and Texas.
If I were you and I didn’t want to gamble too much, (and I had more time than money) I would do two things almost simultaneously;

  1. I’d find the neighborhood developer, see what background they can offer about why the lots were never built on in the first place. Maybe one of the early owners can tell you. Ask around and see who knows what.

  2. This may sound a little of beat, but if you’re next to a college they are a perfect source of both free ideas and labor. Here’s how: you own the land and don’t know what can be done with it. If there is a college in the area/state that has an environmental group or they offer some classes on local building codes and construction requirements, tell them you’ve got a great place they can research on for free. Let them onto your property to test, experiment, learn anything that helps you find out more about what you have and what you can do with it. You may even be able to donate the land (get out of it with a write off - but I wouldn’t do that until you knew you couldn’t build on it and make some money).

This may sound a little far-fetched, but I know for a fact colleges are always looking for two things - generous alumni and free press. Use that to your advantage by making a donation (temporarily of course) of access to your land for as long as it take to find out whatever you need to to build. Who knows, from them you may even find a builder that is willing to experiment also.

Good luck,

Thanks for all the suggestions guys, I’m taking all of this in and trying to decide what to do next.