Suss the Feasibility
the state or degree of being easily or conveniently done.
I spent a couple of hours on a recent weekend morning pulling at a thread of curiosity. A friend who knows I am an architect mentioned to me that his friend had placed an offer on a building in a nearby town and planned to convert the building (a former church) to residential units. A week or so later, I happened to drive past the building and the next morning it was on my mind. I found myself responding to the reflexes of a seasoned architect in the pre-design stage of a building design project. I couldn’t help it.
I didn’t view my weekend morning activity as work. It was self-induced, more a kind of fun intellectual exercise that would satisfy a stubborn curiosity that I tried to shake, but could not. It reminded me of a project a few years prior where, just before my clients were to close on a commercial real estate transaction, I discovered something quite serious. Through ordinary feasibility study I found that with only another $5,000 in construction costs put on the record via permits, the building would reach its 50% threshold of assessed value. From a business stand point, the implications of that fact would be catastrophic for my clients. They were intending to improve the building well beyond the $5,000 allowed before crossing that “substantial improvement” threshold of their particular situation. Passing that threshold, they would have become responsible for either flood-proofing the building, or elevating it out of the flood plain. It was an undisclosed (because unknown?) tear-down situation, far outside of their expectation and their budget. There was a tsunami coming from beyond the visible horizon and apparently no one had, to that point, realized it.
Another blog post should get born out of this post, one supporting the topic of flood regulations and sorting out the usual implications, myths and confusions. But this post has not that topic. The topic here is feasibility, as in feasibility study, as in a methodical process that a buyer of real estate should conduct, either by oneself or by a qualified, independent professional. By independent, I mean a professional who has no interest in the deal at hand; whose only interest is in sussing out the unobvious, latent regulations and forces that may be in play over a subject parcel of land, with particular focus on property improvements, either planned or potential, for the immediate, near or long term.
Really, when you think about it, the buyer alone has the motivation to seek such independent analysis and study. I don’t include the buyer’s realtor in that observation, nor a professional who was referred through the buyer’s realtor. It is the buyer alone who has the motivation to avoid purchase mistakes, because it is the buyer alone who would bear the burden of any such mistakes.
So there I was on a weekend morning, with my self-induced curiosity about a building that a friend-of-a-friend was in process of buying. It doesn’t get much more independent and objective than that. With just a little internet sleuthing I discovered that this building is itself in a flood plain and is therefore governed by local flood district zoning regulations which invoke “the 50% Rule”. It sits on the bank of a pond, and inside an AE flood zone, according to FEMA base flood elevation mapping. Given the super-storms of recent years, base flood elevation mapping quickly comes to mind in coastal areas. But perhaps not so much with small inland water bodies, where it nonetheless exists and is duly applicable.
I wrote an email to my friend, setting forth my partial feasibility analysis and offering it, by extension, to his friend. In its raw state I cautioned that my findings ought to be confirmed with town officials – something I do myself when I am “at work”.
Also, I indicated that the effect of the knowledge I was pointing out was only hypothetical (though highly likely), until a flood elevation certificate could be produced to state the elevation of the lowest floor, either by land use records or, if none exists on file, then by a licensed surveyor. If the lowest floor of the building is above the base flood elevation, then most requirements of the flood ordinance, such as “the 50% Rule”, will not apply. But now this starts entering into the topic of that earlier mentioned, un-born blog post…
Clearly, follow-up was in order; however, by others. My curiosity had been satisfied, with a good deed done, to boot (depending upon your perspective).
Excellent illustration of the subtle and often unseen potential issues often beyond the view of your average pedestrian looking at a property/structure, and why it is important to hire professionals. I had thought that the role of the architect was to see the ‘design potential’ in a structure.. but hadn’t, before reading this, seen it as seeing the ‘disaster potential’ also. A good read this morning Joe.
Thanks Eric! I’ve run across many people who bought their house only to discover “unfriendly” zoning constraints afterward. At a minimum, prospective home buyers should drop in or place a call to the local zoning office and do a bit of due diligence research. They may get a brush-off or an ear full, it all depends on the local official. In any event, it’s entirely possible to DIY your due diligence and feasibility study, if you know what to research and consider, but hiring a professional is a great way to be thorough about it.