What do you do when you don't know what you don't know? The seller, who happens to live next door, told them the ground in the area was good. Based in part on his statements the buyers didn't bother having a subsurface soils investigation done. They had no idea that could even be done.
Contrary to what some will say, you can not tell diddly about the soil without having the lot in question drilled. The type/size/age of trees or other vegetation won't tell you anything. The only ground you won't find permafrost under has palm trees growing up from it, as the old joke goes.
It wasn't until they hired a local company to excavate for the foundation and septic system that they discovered trouble brewing. Five feet down and no gravel.... 6 feet... 9 feet... 12 feet and still no gravel. Plenty of muck - wet clay that you couldn't build a dog house on, let alone a 2,200 sq. ft. house. Dig, dig, dig was the order of the day all the way down to 19' when they hit gravel... beneath 4' of water.
Having two test holes dug and examined would have cost $2,500. They are now facing a $30,000+ expense to bring in enough gravel to fill a 20' hole the width and depth of the foundation. We talked briefly about building the house on steel pilings but after looking at the plans we'll need roughly 25 pilings, which at $1,400 each plus a floating steel deck floor in the garage adds roughly $35,000 to the cost of the foundation.
They are understandably sick. I feel for them but at this point I'm not sure what can be done. They can't simply cut their losses and move on either as they paid, in my opinion, too much for the property. They could never resell it for what they paid and certainly not with the knowledge of the soil condition (at least in that spot). I'm not sure what options outside of litigation are available and even that's going to be a messy road to try and travel. The seller will simply hide behind caveat emptor as there are no disclosure requirements in the State of Alaska where undeveloped land is concerned.
If you're buying undeveloped land in Fairbanks or the Interior, have the property drilled. It could save you from making a very costly mistake which you could certainly end up regretting later.
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