Illustration: Nick Dewar
Paulette and John Downs are avid gardeners who dreamed of having the space to spread out and enjoy their plants. So in the fall of 2003, they plunked down $125,000 for 6 acres in West Woodstock, Connecticut. The land, an old dairy farm, was already cleared, and it bordered a state forest, guaranteeing lifelong privacy. Over the next nine months, the Downses built their dream home, a contemporary version of an 18th-century saltbox. "I had a hard time envisioning what it would look like at first," Paulette says. "But now I would never trade it for a house on a small lot in a suburb."

Acquiring a parcel on which to build is as American as it gets, a birthright dating back to the days of land rushes and "Go west, young man!" The practice has clear advantages: Custom building means having total control over every aspect of a house, from the foundation to the flooring to the views. And fall is an especially good time to look at a parcel of land. With the leaves off the trees, you can easily see its contours and how close the neighbors are, lessening the anxiety of a sometimes nail-biting process. "You take a little more risk when you build your own home," says Gary Naeser, a custom-home builder in Washington, Pennsylvania, "but you end up with a lot more independence."

Still, fewer and fewer homeowners are taking that chance. Thirty years ago, one out of every three homes was owner-built; by 2004, the number had dropped to one in five. That's partly because the strong real estate market has gobbled up available property. But it's also because land today is subject to more regulations than ever, from wetlands restrictions to energy-efficient building standards, all of which add to the cost of doing it from scratch.

But don't despair. If you have the pioneer spirit coursing through your veins, you've probably already got some sketches stashed away in a drawer. You just need to make sure you do your homework before you stake that claim.

Survey Your Kingdom

When you find property you like, thoroughly inspect it in person by getting a survey of the land from the seller and walking the entire property. That will give you a sense of the lot's suitability for building—say, whether trees will need to be cleared or hills graded, or whether you're far enough off the beaten path that you'll need to dig a well, install a septic tank, or create new power, phone, and cable hookups.

You should also take a drive with a local, who can give you insider info—like whether your quiet forest paths are winter snowmobile routes, or which neighbors give out tomatoes in summer.
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