Congratulations, you just bought your first home, which sits on a quarter-acre lot.
Yet some people don’t realize that owning acreage doesn’t mean you can build anywhere on your parcel of land.
Each property comes with preestablished setbacks, which is the breathing room between you and your neighbors. So your setback will govern anything that changes the footprint of structures on your property.
And as a homeowner, it’s crucial to understand where your property setbacks are and how they affect what you can build. We broke down everything you need to know about property setbacks below.
What is a property setback?
Your property setback essentially tells you the distance required between your house (or structure) and your property line.
“Property setbacks are the building and land use restrictions placed on parcels of property long before you bought it,” says Mike Powell, an engineer and certified home inspector in Tampa, FL. “These setbacks are put in place by city engineers when designing the parcels and common elements needed to subdivide the larger piece of land into smaller, more divisible units.”
Several factors can determine the setbacks on your property, including the type of building you own and its height and size. The shape of your lot and the intended use of a proposed addition also factor into setbacks.
So, for instance, the setback might differ for an attached garage versus a detached accessory dwelling unit.
And setbacks apply whether a structure is a new construction, an addition, or a remodel.
Why setbacks are important
Setbacks allow everyone to live comfortably within a certain proximity to one another.
“Setbacks ensure the functionality of the residence,” says Greg Covell, a Realtor with Re/Max Select Realty in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Here are the ways setbacks help you and your neighbors:
- Utilities: Setbacks allow for easy access to replace or repair utilities.
- Emergencies: Setbacks allow first responders like firefighters to have enhanced access in an emergency.
- Natural light: Setbacks ensure your neighbors’ homes aren’t impeding the natural light entering your home.
- Ventilation: Setbacks ensure fresh air can circulate around a house. And if you’re close to a major roadway, a setback ensures you’re not breathing exhaust.
- Sound: Setbacks help keep your house free of noise pollution from nearby roads and neighbors.
- Improve aesthetics: Setbacks ensure neighborhoods are designed and built with enough room for green space and sidewalks.
Setbacks also ensure structures aren’t too close to one another in case of a fire or natural weather events.
How to find out your home’s setbacks
Anytime buyers are considering a property that they plan to build on or add a structure to, they should always investigate the governing setbacks, says Denise Supplee, a real estate agent and founder of SparkRental.com.
“I had a sale pending the zoning approval of placing a barn outside the setback lines,” she says. “The zoning board gave a big no, and the property deal ended without a sale.”
So before you start dreaming of adding to your house—or building an in-law suite in the backyard—make sure you do your due diligence. The town or municipality you live in establishes the distance of a setback. The local planning department is a great place to start learning about where and how you can make improvements to your property.
Can a homeowner challenge setbacks?
The rules and regulations governing setbacks are in place to benefit the community and ensure everyone can live on their property comfortably with privacy.
But there are situations where a homeowner can request an exception. For example, if their property has a unique circumstance that requires them to build into the setback, they can request a variance from the local zoning board.
“Obviously, engineers are incapable of fully anticipating future use, so setbacks may change over time,” says Powell. “For instance, a railroad line that has been abandoned for over 40 years may have been given a setback. The municipality may allow a variance to allow construction of your shed in the former setback location.”
The process of requesting a variance may involve a public hearing, which allows your neighbors to speak about whether they support your request or not.
Just keep in mind that you will have to prove that your property and circumstances are unique enough for the local government to grant you an exception.
What happens if you build on a property setback?
Ignoring setbacks is equivalent to breaking the local laws and regulations, which means there will be consequences. And the repercussion of building on a setback is often removing the offending structure at the homeowner’s expense.
“If it happens to be a fence or a light structure, it may not be a huge problem,” Powell says. “If that building happens to be a reinforced concrete structure, the owner will have to swallow the expense of demolition and likely face additional fees or fines.”