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  • Writer's pictureEric Burtzlaff, PE

4 Common Mistakes When Developing in Denver

“Saying that "Denver's housing market is hot" is the understatement of the decade or so. It's liquid magma hot, and that offers great opportunities for seasoned developers as well as new land developers.“

Denver has been breaking and setting records in regards to its housing market. With a large influx of population and huge breakouts in job markets, Denver has been one of the top cities for growth. That goes without saying that the need for more housing is at an all-time historic high. In fact, the high demand is making noise around the country showing an interesting once-in-a-lifetime scenario. Many, including developers, are seeing a great introduction to the Denver Housing Market.

With such high demand, volatility is expected for the market but even Raptor Civil Engineering has found great benefits from immersing themselves in such a hot market. While it’s not as intense as a ‘crucible by fire’, many developers can find themselves learning a great deal about the processes, lessons, and nuances for developing in Denver during this cycle.

“I've had a passenger seat on the ride for the last decade in Denver, and it's been amazing to see the triumphs our clients have been able to achieve. I've also had a front-row seat to many of those same developers making costly mistakes. In this article, I wanted to highlight a couple of mistakes I see developers make early in their project that create an uphill battle from day 1.“

Raptor Civil Engineering was raised from this booming industry here in Denver and has retained a great deal of applicable experience that many clients will find invaluable, especially if it’s their first time developing. From their own perspective, here are the top four mistakes that can happen when developing in Denver.

1) Closing on land before meeting with the City of Denver

For development, the first step that is considered is often the most nuanced and tricky. Closing on a property in general already has many factors and deadlines. However, when closing on a property that is proposed for development, there is another set of deadlines that one needs to work against. It is advised that when putting earnest money down on a property, no matter how good the deal seems - always schedule a concept meeting with the City and County of Denver before closing. This is important because the city ultimately decides whether or not the development can proceed into the next phases. With a knowledgeable civil engineering firm, standard pre-construction criteria can be identified. Beyond the City’s approval, a conceptual meeting for the proposed build can highlight the unique characteristics of the project. These characteristics can range from unique features to requirements. This initial meeting can be just what a developer needs to begin to formulate what their proposed project can actually be. Just don’t forget to reach out to the municipality or civil engineer when making moves towards closing.

“This is probably the most common mistake I've seen and it typically happens before our team is involved in the project. The client is so confident that they are getting a great deal and they rush a fast closing on the property. The City of Denver makes it easy to meet with their staff prior to closing on your property. A very conceptual sketch and application will get you in front of the planning/engineering staff in the City. In my opinion, this is a requirement before purchasing any piece of property!”

“My Advice: Denver can be 4-5 weeks out on concept meetings. Schedule a meeting with the City of Denver as soon as you have a viable site concept to ensure you don't have a time crunch with your closing date.”

2) No Geotechnical (Soils) Report

Conceptual meetings with the City and County of Denver are only just the beginning. As stated, it is easy for newcomer developers to rush land acquisition and miss evidence of possible project complications. Another common mistake developers make when building here in Denver is forgetting or foregoing a Geotechnical Report. This ‘soils’ report will give insightful data on the site conditions when building a new structure. This data will also help give direction and specific design recommendations or requirements in order to meet strict building code standards. This also can mean finding requirements that might create costly additions to one’s overall construction.

“Geotechnical Reports give your design team and contractor valuable information, but many developers don't realize the findings in the report can also negatively impact your ability to develop a site as you want. While Denver doesn't typically have the dipping bedrock concerns of the southwest metro area, it does have highly variable groundwater levels. Your geotechnical report can inform you about these levels. If your levels are too high (6 feet or shallower), it becomes very burdensome to construct basements as you'll need to do a 'permanent groundwater dewatering' plan and design. This involves storing water on-site or hard piping directly into the City's storm system. Smaller infill projects many times can not handle this burden/cost.”

Additionally, Colorado is home to a unique type of sediment and soil layering which in certain areas can create difficulties. Expansive clay, found all over the front range, can be problematic to developers due to its interaction with moisture. Identifying soil conditions will determine structural requirements later on during construction. So again, do not make this common mistake when developing in Denver, and be sure to consult your civil engineer for recommendations on geotechnical reports.

“My Advice: Don't put off your geotechnical report. Order one as soon as you start a deal.”

3) Forgetting the Land Survey

Another common mistake that happens when developing in Denver is having a proper land survey conducted on a property lot. Land surveying is done in order to identify lot boundaries and confirm dimensions of a lot such as square footage, grade, and slope, as well as more. However, even though a land survey sounds rudimentary it can also identify potential project-halting aspects and is incredibly important to have done promptly.

“A Land Survey is another critical piece of the due diligence process prior to closing. Many developers (like the geotechnical report) put this off until after closing or order the cheapest ILC they can find to 'check the box. If you are developing a property in Denver, even a single-family or duplex, you'll need a land survey completed. I generally recommend our clients also get title research done with their survey to ensure there are no easements/land rights that create negative impacts on their development. Buying a 'design level' survey with title research is a touch more expensive but can also save hundreds of thousands in cost through the life of the project.”

“My Advice: Don't skimp on or put off your land survey. I've seen projects become 'undevelopable' due to something the survey found. Order an Improvement Location Survey (ISP) or Land Survey Plat (LSP) with title research.

4) 'Going it alone'

Land Developers tend to be to themselves about new projects and that can result in not talking to the right consultants/partners early in their project. Civil Engineers offer a plethora of value and experience when involved early. Building a strong team that one can rely on for the pre-development phases and all the way through to final inspection is imperative.

My Advice: Hire a Civil Engineering Consultant with knowledge and experience in Denver as soon as you know a project will be moving forward.

Remember, Raptor Civil Engineering is your corner for all of your Denver development needs. We pride ourselves on offering experienced and reliable guidance for developers, builders, and more. Please do not hesitate to consult with us about any civil engineering development needs.

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