Ron Denhaan, Realtor (949) 290-3263. Orange County real estate specialist.
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Canyon lots FAQ

Canyon lots FAQ - Building a home in the Santiago Canyons 

I put this FAQ together to help answer questions on buying and building on lots in the Orange County, CA canyons. The canyons include Silverado, Modjeska, Trabuco, Williams, and many smaller canyons within the Santiago canyons area. Building a home in the canyons can be a much more daunting task than it may seem on the surface because of the many restrictions. My goal is to have my Frequently Asked Questions page address some of these hurdles. 

Can I build on a lot that I would like to purchase in the canyons?

This is the big question that I get all of the time and it is a very complicated question to answer. Many of the answers below will help to address that question. Much depends on the terrain, the location of nearest utilities, the nearest fire hydrant, the number of trees on the lot, and many other factors. Have any building plans been included with the lot? Have tests been done on the lot? Are there any flat building pads on the lot? Is the lot extremely steep? Does the lot have road access or are there easements to get to the lot? Is the lot land-locked? It would clearly help to have as many of these questions answered before taking the next step.

I found a canyon lot for sale for $100,000 (or less). Can I build on it?

See first answer above and let's add that you get what you pay for. If you buy a very cheap lot, there are probably good reasons why it is so cheap. Much of that will have to do with how easy it will be to build. The lot many be on the side of a hill, have little to no road access, no close utilities, loaded with trees, or many other issues. Generally speaking, lots that are higher cost could be of a much higher quality and easier to build on. I would say that anything under $300,000 for a good-sized lot will have many issues in order to build. Lots that have prior grading. building plans, soil tests, and perhaps good-sized flat areas, will cost much more than many lots that are listed for $100,000 or $200,000 in the canyons, but they will usually be easier to build on.

Can I buy an inexpensive canyon lot, put a pre-fab home on it, and live cheaply in the canyons?

There is a reason why I put the FAQ answers in this order, and that is because these are the most common questions I get. The question here is often asked by younger people who are looking for an alternative to the high cost of houses in the city areas, so let me start with the answers. First, this is no longer the "Wild West". Maybe 100 years ago or more, the rules for building in the canyons were very relaxed and you could have a much easier time of just buying some land and building on it. We no longer live in this time-frame. Building in the canyons (or anywhere else in Orange County) is now highly controlled by the County of Orange, plus specific plans for the canyons. Second, you can easily buy a piece of land, but just plopping whatever you want on it is a "no go". You will need to follow all of the steps outlined below to determine if the lot is build-able and acquire all of the necessary permits, etc. I often come back with, did you want running water and if so, where will it come from? Were you planning on including a toilet in your home? Where will the waste go? Did you want electricity in your home? How will the power get there? Were you planning on taking down a few of those oak trees? Did you know you have to replace each one with eight others on your lot? These buyers soon get the message that there is a bit more to it than just dragging mobile home onto a lot. The costs to build could far exceed the initial cost of the lot. Please be advised of this and do all of your research before entertaining the idea that building and living in the canyons is an inexpensive alternative.

I would like to set up a remote family compound. Can I buy a large canyon lot (several acres) and build many houses on it?

Large and relatively flat lots are expensive in the canyons and becoming rare. Orange County is now very built out and there are few places where you can buy large areas of land. There are lots occasionally for sale in the canyons consisting of 4 to as many as 20 acres, but getting the lot approved for building will have many steps and take lots of $$$. If you wish to build multiple homes, you will need to buy a lot that can be sub-divided into separate, legal parcels. You are not allowed to build more than one home plus a guest house (or granny flat) on a single parcel. A guest house may be built on any single parcel and this is defined as a house without a separate address. Also. no stove is allowed in a guest house (although a microwave, hot-plate, and refrigerator, etc. are fine). A legal parcel has its own address. Some lots for sale do have more than one legal parcel, so assuming this is a good, build-able lot, you could build a separate home (plus optional guest house) on each parcel. 

I noticed that a lot I like is zoned as A-1. Can I still build a house there? 

Yes. A lot zoned as A-1 signifies that it is zoned as "agricultural", however, you may still build a home, plus an optional guest house on an A-1 zoned lot. Many other canyon lots are zoned as R-1 and this indicates that the lot is zoned for a single, residential home. FYI, the letter "R" followed by numbers higher than "1" does not indicate that you may build multiple homes (with separate addresses) on the property. It normally follows that an R-2 rating allows a single building divided into two residences (typically in the form of a duplex), while an R-3 or higher, permits multi-family units such as apartments or condominiums. As stated above, if you would like to build more than one home, it will require a lot that can be sub-divided into separate legal parcels. 

I would like to buy a large lot and set up my business there. I will need a warehouse or other buildings

Outside of residential, it may be a very difficult process to set up a commercial business in the canyons. I have seen a few examples of it but my feeling is that it will be much more difficult than building a house. Also, it will be tough (and expensive) to find a very large lot where this can be done. Call County planning to check on this. 

Are there specific building plans that I can reference for the canyons?

Yes, there are two: The Silverado/Modjeska specific plan and the Foothill/Trabuco specific plan. You can read them below.  These plans outline specific guidelines for building within the canyons. These documents may load slowly so please be patient.

Are the canyons controlled by a city or the County?

They are controlled by the County of Orange because the canyons are in unincorporated areas of the County.

Are some of the canyons more restrictive than others?

Yes, Trabuco Canyon is generally considered harder to build in than Silverado or Modjeska, because they have a more restrictive specific plan and a second board (for approvals) that you will have to go through. I have heard that this board may consist of people who don't really want to see much construction in the canyons, so it is another hurdle you will have to cross in order to build in Trabuco Canyon. Part of the reason for the restrictive specific plans is to keep tract home builders out of the canyons. I recall a lot in Trabuco that was designated as being along a "scenic corridor" on Live Oak Canyon road and either the board or the County did not want the lot to be built on, even though it was listed for sale in the MLS.

Can the County help me determine if I can build on the lot?

Yes, and I would advise that you contact County planning as your starting point. You can call them on the phone, but the help you will get over the phone will be minimal. It is better to go there in person and speak to a planner. OC Development Services phone: 714.667.8888 The address is 601 North Ross Street, Santa Ana, CA 92701. It is first come, first served, so get there early and plan on being there for a while.

What should I bring if I visit the planning department?

Bring as much information on your lot as possible. Bring the APN number or address of the lot, along with the lot size, and information on any tests that have been done, etc. The planner will walk you through the steps you will need to take and many of the costs. It is tough and overwhelming to go it alone if you are new to buying a lot in the canyons and have never built a home before. It is a good idea to contact a builder or architect that is familiar with the canyons and ask them to also be present at your meeting with County planning.

I spoke with County Planning and they said that I will need a retaining wall above the lot. Is this required?

In many areas of the canyons like Silverado Canyon, lots will have steep hillsides in close proximity. These hillsides are subject to rock slides and these slides could cause massive damage (or even death). The County may require a retaining wall in some cases for the safety of both the structure and occupants. 

Is a retaining wall expensive?

Depending on the width, height, and materials of the wall, the costs could really add up. I cannot quote any specific costs here, but as stated previously, the initial price of the lot can be deceiving because of all of the added costs that will accumulate. 

The lot I like is on the other side of the stream (from the road). How can I access the lot?

In this case you will need to construct a bridge over the stream area if there is no direct road access to the lot. This bridge will need to meet all code and safety guidelines and can be expensive. 

Will I need a lot of tests and permits in order to build?

Yes, there are a number of soil tests that will need to be done and a number of permits with the County before you can start construction. It would be best to contract a builder who is familiar with building in the canyons to help in this matter.

Are there utilities in the canyons?

Yes, there is public water and electricity. Whether they are in close proximity to a lot that you are interested in purchasing will have to be seen. Some have power and water close by. Other lots will have to have power and water brought to the site, and this costs $$$. There is no natural gas utility in the canyons. All homes are on propane. You can get these tanks refilled easily and cost is similar to having a home using natural gas.

Is there a sewer system in place?

No, all canyon properties use a septic system. If you buy a house in the canyons, it will already be on septic. If you buy a lot and want to build a home on it, you will have to have a septic system installed. 

Is a septic system expensive or complicated?

It can be. A law in the state of California states that septic systems within 600 feet of a water body will have to be retrofitted with additional treatment systems, which could cost approximately $45,000. You can read more about that here:

Are many canyon lots within 600 feet of a stream or water body?

I would say that most are. Silverado is the narrowest of the canyons and it's hard to find a lot that is not within 600 feet of a stream.

What if I need to remove trees on the lot?

According to the information I received from the County, each oak tree removed will need to be replaced by 8 others on the same lot. They can be smaller, younger trees, but you will still have to replace any you remove with 8 others. At that point, the County will appoint an arborist to come to the site to be sure that all regulations have been followed. I don't believe this applies to other species of trees, but check with the County of Orange to be sure.

What about zoning? Does a lot need to be zoned as R1 in order to build on it?

No, if a lot is zoned agricultural (A1) you can also build a home and a guest house on it.

What if some of the lot is within a flood plain?

You can still build on a flood plain as long as the foundation has a 3-foot rise above the ground level. You will also need flood insurance.

How can I determine if the lot or part of the lot is within a flood plain? 

As with many questions, call or visit the Orange County Planning department. They will provide you with a map of the property showing any areas that may be within a flood plain.

What about fire protection? are the canyons in a hazardous fire area and are there fire stations nearby?

A fire is far more of a threat in the canyons than in suburban areas because of the vegetation and wide-open wilderness. A fire in Modjeska Grade destroyed several homes a few years ago and I think this fire was the result of arson. The canyons do have several fire stations and the fire personnel take their job out there very seriously, so you may see them frequently on patrol. Many homes will be required to have a fire hydrant in proximity. If there is not one close by, you will have to pay to have the hydrant line put in. I recall a lot in Trabuco Canyon (on a street called "Hunky Dory") that had no close fire hydrant, so the cost to bring in the line was about $70,000. Again, to those who dream of buying a cheap lot and putting a pre-fab home on it, the required infrastructure, permits, a retaining wall, a septic system, replacing trees, etc, can quickly cause costs to skyrocket out of control. 

Can I get insurance in the canyons?

Yes, there are a few companies that will insure in the canyons, including California Fair plan (up to $1,500,000 in value). Their web site is here  

Can I get a loan to buy a lot and for the construction?

Yes, through US Bank for one. They have loans to purchase the lot and fund construction. Call me for information and for a loan advisor. 

If I buy a "fixer" house in the canyons and keep part of it, will it be easier to add on to or modify than buying a lot and building from scratch?

Yes. Generally speaking, if you buy an existing home in the canyons, you could keep one wall and all of the infrastructure like the septic system, and just add on to it. This should be an easier task than building a home from scratch, but check with the County for required permits, etc. 

Do these rules also apply to canyon areas in the National Forest like Holy Jim Canyon?

No. See separate FAQ for Forestry cabins, which are located in the Cleveland National Forest here.

I will add more to this FAQ as information becomes available. 




DRE# 01728866

Ron Denhaan, Realtor

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The comments and information on this web page are the opinion of the author only. The information is believed to be true, but it is not guaranteed. Potential canyon lot buyers are urged to check with the planning department of the County of Orange for all specific rules and regulations for construction of homes on lots on the canyons.