construction: sloped / hillside land in Los Angeles


hi all! long time lurker! i have questions about building a home on a los angeles hillside. the price of undeveloped lots are really attractive to me.

been reading (but haven't spoken to anyone yet) about building a contemporary / modern 3 bedroom home (~2000 sqft?) and also about building on graded land.

i'm wondering what the costs are at each step? i think i understand the high-level steps but am completely ignorant of a few major questions:

(1) the costs and the specifics for financing the land purchase

(2) estimated time for when I will be able to move in once we purchase the land. 

or perhaps the better question is whether this is even possible for me given the cash constraints (lets say I have 300K in cash for this entire thing).

any input or referrals is greatly appreciated!


- inspection: soils, utilities, 

- purchase land (30% down?)

- architect (10% of total costs?)

- expediter

- permitting

- foundation / structural component

- construction

Feb 23, 18 1:17 pm
Non Sequitur
  1. If the land is cheap(ish) and unbuilt, there is a problem and likely that solving it won't be cheap.
  2. Site work is likely to be in the high 6-figure range, likely millions, depending on conditions.
  3. Triple what you plan on paying your architect.
Feb 23, 18 1:24 pm

If you have to ask, you can't afford it.

Feb 23, 18 1:24 pm

Generally, from homes to large scale developments, people buy land with cash/alternative sources to traditional loans.  Loan interest on land is way higher than loans on the capital improvements on said land.  Plus the land is used as collateral in the loan to make it a less risky venture.  Even after this, it is typically expected that some of the capital improvement money comes from the developer as downpayment to the loan.  So, without knowing your scenario at all, a good rule of thumb is, if you can't buy the land outright, you don't have enough money to build on it yet.

Feb 23, 18 1:30 pm

You think the recent mudslides and fatalities in the LA area might be a cautionary tale? Removing vegetation to clear a steep lot might be as destabilizing to the slope as a wildfire. And if your mudslide impacts a neighbor below you, you get to get sued by him as well.

Feb 23, 18 1:46 pm

i can buy the land outright with changes to my savings plan.

but now (from interwebz comments) i'm getting the feeling that buying the land and only having 300K in cash to work with might be really difficult to get what i want. i guess i'll poke around some more to see how far i am away!

thanks for the general feedback.

Feb 23, 18 2:37 pm

For actual Los Angeles BHO / Hillside lots, assume $500psf for hard cost (construction) only. Soft costs on top, and impossible to be any more specific w/o knowing program / finish expectations / site constraints (which could double that hard cost figure right off the bat).

As Non said above - if the land is vacant in LA, there's usually a reason. Working on a couple Hillside projects right now. Inevitably spend about x2 as many permitting-related hours dealing w/ LADBS/BoE...

Feb 23, 18 4:51 pm

ok, great thanks for the figures, i really appreciate it. i guess i wont know a starting point till i actually get together with engineers, architect. and of course that'll just be the starting point as far as costs go. i wonder how many times a project goes and the costs go down.........ha!


appleseed how of that cost are you spending on foundation/ shoring/ infra vs vertical construction?


We find foundation alone can eat up 1/3 (of a fairly conservative design) of the hard cost. That's without gratuitous number of piles, cantilevers, etc. Shoring is it's own beast and totally dependent on site, design, and how the BoE is feeling that day ;) If at all possible, limit the excavation to something that can be (on paper) demonstrable as 2:1 - eliminate temp./perm. shoring requirements wherever possible.


We find foundation alone can eat up 1/3 (of a fairly conservative design) of the hard cost. That's without gratuitous number of piles, cantilevers, etc. Shoring is it's own beast and totally dependent on site, design, and how the BoE is feeling that day ;) If at all possible, limit the excavation to something that can be (on paper) demonstrable as 2:1 - eliminate temp./perm. shoring requirements wherever possible.


Buddy of mine did one for 1k sf house in on roughly 25 degree slope and spent 150k just shoring up the lot which was a bit larger than average SFD lot.  He had to put in a lot of retaining walls.  He recycled the tear down house foundation so no extra money there.  And about 200/sf vertical costs.

The number you should be targeting is the price where you can go vertical.  Really depends on yr product, soil, slope.  Thats yr real lot price.  

Agree w everyone else about things taking much longer from plan check to construction.

Ask around talk w lots of contractors, engineers and get a range of numbers.  If you find someone good pls let me know as Ive been looking for a good contractor in this field too

Feb 24, 18 2:03 pm

i will pass you my notes!


Im guessing the soils condition plus slope and general liquidity of the lots market will drive the leverage a bank would be willing to offer, your personal balance sheet aside.

Maybe ask around to some construction oriented regional banks familiar w this space

Feb 24, 18 2:11 pm

thanks for the guidance!

we moved from ny this past year and still bank with big banks, wondering if anyone has experience with a regional bank or a credit union in the LA area? i can just start cold-calling and ask if they even have construction loan products.

Feb 24, 18 3:02 pm

If I own a pice of hillside land and want to wait to  build a permanent dwelling what are the laws around building a deck so we can at least enjoy the view? Are cantilevered decks similarly complicated and expensive as a house? I would assume its not as the deck would weigh much less. Thanks for a response, new to the forum and this read has been very interesting.

Feb 25, 18 12:15 pm

Piece of hillside land not pice!

Feb 25, 18 12:15 pm

^ In LA? 'hillside land' isn't nec. the same as something zoned Hillside, but the short answer is; you're likely going to find it to be cost-prohibitive, especially for a stop-gap measure. Planning / BoE don't give much exception to small structures (even if they'd otherwise be Accessory under a normal development) if an actual Hillside lot. Still encumbered with structural foundation issues / piles (re: 'cantilevered'). 

Possibly could mitigate some of those costs w/ a more conservative design (hard to know what you're envisioning), but Planning (and various Community / Specific / Overlay plans) will also weigh in heavily on the wildland interface issues.

Of course, this all assumes you're doing Permitted work...

Feb 25, 18 1:08 pm

$300,000 for a 2000sf new contemporary home on a hillside in Southern California is not even close to what you will pay per sf. Figure a minimum of $300 per square foot and up - likely closer to $400. 

Feb 25, 18 8:52 pm

Any contractor recommendations in the LA area. So many to choose from and we always like to go off of referrals. 

Mar 15, 18 5:03 pm

i'm no where near far enough along the process to refer anyone. but seems like there's a ton of geographic knowledge here..!

Mar 15, 18 6:51 pm

The process you're going through right now has always been something that I wished I could experience. Any chance I could pay you to be a fly on the wall during your whole project? xD

Mar 16, 18 5:20 am

Does anyone know the current approximate per sq/ft cost to construct on a hillside in Topanga Canyon? All utilities are at the lot. Septic passed. The slope is moderate to steep. I am also looking for a recommendation for an architect and contractor that have experience in hillside construction. Thank you!

Jul 28, 18 7:41 am

Currently building in the hillside with my construction team, can share any knowledge if needed

Jul 31, 19 6:13 pm
Non Sequitur

What does your architect have to say about it?


My architect specialize on it lol. Its a long process but we have done few already



Can I contact you for an opinion on hillside construction?Thank you!

Nov 10, 19 5:04 pm

Unfortunately, as a licensed Architect in California, I cannot advise you without a contract. 

Nov 10, 19 5:06 pm
Noah Walker

No, this isn't possible given your cash constraints.

Nov 10, 19 6:37 pm

update: nope, i didn't go through with the particular gargantuan task of actually consulting with engineers on a few plots of land i was initially looking at (and still eyeing).

i am not owed any help but no reasonable person is coming on to archinect to ask for complete plans to build a home. i dont think me (or anyone else participating) was looking for someone to draw up plans and post them as a few jpegs and take them to be built as-is.  perhaps the premise of my question is flawed; or the way i posed a poorly worded question; maybe i asked the wrong community.

i participate/lurk in forums/subreddits of different subjects/industries. i'm a casual follower of homebuilding communities. i asked a question that i couldn't find in my online search. it could be because its a dumb question. but it's not satisfying to have someone answer a question with blanket statements about it being impossible and no pointed criticism.

is building a home on graded plots expensive? i know it is. what makes it expensive? what about the foundation? what kind of complicated foundation system? are there best practices/techniques people use for slightly graded lots? i don't know any methods or techniques aside from other forums/blogs, which generally don't include graded lots. 

in any case, it is going to be expensive and likely cost prohibitively expensive. i am directly money towards something else so this will just be a dream of mine. for now.

Nov 10, 19 11:01 pm

I'm doing a 4000sf house for someone on a flat previously developed lot in san diego. The financial burden to the owner vs building the same thing in another state is significant. Our professional fees are about double expected and growing. Unexpected costs like private development of ROW or dedication of private property to the jurisdiction have a way of throwing off the cost expectations of an otherwise simple home.

Between the bureaucracy and the regulatory requirements, there are a lot of hoops to jump through that just get you the ability to build. A design process thru permits that otherwise should have been done in 8mos is now going on 2yrs. (We like to think we are pretty thorough & we have had jurisdictional surprises that are somewhat obnoxious.)

The actual arch/struct design is the easy part.

Nov 11, 19 4:41 pm

yup, that's seems to be the case.

by the way, my response above was meant to respond to a set of comments that now seemed to be deleted?

Nov 11, 19 4:52 pm

I think you will have to think the foundation and the building itself to be separate when it comes to deal with hillside projects. To put a guesstimate...depends on difficulties of your hill. It can cost 40-50% or higher of your building cost.

So if it cost you to build a $1mm house, try adding $400-500k to be safe. Again, it can go even higher

Nov 20, 19 10:48 pm
Air Balancer

30 caissons 55’ deep, gradebeams, steamwalls, retaining walls, geogrid walls,fire truck turnaround almost finished 7 years later $500 per sqft with no GC. Not for the faint hearted but it can be done.

Feb 14, 20 1:27 am
Chad Miller

How did you get the city to agree to a building permit without a GC, and engineered drawings?

Air Balancer

Owner builder can pull permits except for grading must be pulled by a class A licensed grading contractor. Of course there where soils reports, civil, geo, Structrual drawings approved by L.A. county. That process took 4 years.

Feb 14, 20 7:51 pm

Block this user

Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

  • ×Search in: