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Property Setbacks: What Are They and Why They Matter

Just because you own it doesn’t mean you can build whatever you want, wherever you want. 

Welcome Homes
/ Feb 3, 2022 / 3 min read
When you purchase land, you own the entire acreage of that property. But just because you own it doesn’t mean you can build whatever you want, wherever you want. Any structure you want to build on your property, be it a house, a shed, or something else, must be a certain distance from your property line. That distance is called a setback, and understand what it is and how it impacts your property is important. 

What is a property setback?

A property setback is a legal term for “no-build zones.” They tell you where you can and can’t build, and are typically a specific distance from your property line, other buildings, and/or public property. For example, a setback requirement might state that the new home you are building must be at least 35 feet from the front of and 15 feet from the side of your property line. 

These regulations apply to both new construction and remodeling or additions: anything that changes the footprint of a structure on your property is regulated by setbacks. 

As with most aspects of home construction, setback requirements differ based on where you are. Every local government has its own requirements for how far a structure must be on all sides from your property lines or other structures. 

Setback regulations also vary depending on whether a property is residential or commercial, and height and size the structure (including the square footage and length of the front, back, and sides of the building). 

Setback requirements also extend to attached and unattached structures like garages, sheds, and workshops. Since accessory structures are often smaller than a home, they have different setback requirements. 

READ: Everything You Need to Know About Property Lines

Why are property setbacks important?

Not only does setback requirements give your town, county, or municipality the right to determine how close to the property line a structure can be built, setbacks exist for a variety of reasons: 

  • Access to utilities: Uniform placement in a neighborhood allows for public utilities like gas and plumbing to be installed and easily accessible.
  • Building safety: When homes are separated by a safe distance, the potential for damage from natural disasters, falling trees, fires, or loose debris decreases.
  • Access to services: Regulated space between homes or streets allows first responders to have easy access in emergencies.
  • Natural light: By setting your home back from neighbors and other structures, your home has the opportunity to let in more natural light.
  • Beautification: Uniform setback requirements in a neighborhood are aesthetically pleasing and provide space for greenery or sidewalks.
  • Ventilation: Property setbacks ensure that your home isn’t too close to roadways or other homes so fresh air can move more freely and your home is far enough away that it won’t take in exhaust from passing cars.
  • Sound insulation: If your property is near a highway or public transit system, a setback requirement can provide enough of a buffer that you don’t hear sounds from that noisy environment.

Can property setbacks be adjusted?

Property setbacks can be adjusted. If your property has a particularly odd shape or has a body of water flowing through it, for example, you could qualify for a variance. However, you’d have to be able to prove that your situation is unique or means you can’t use your property in the same way your neighbors can. If your neighbors also have an oddly-shaped property or a pond in the middle, you probably can’t make the case for uniqueness, and thus won’t be granted an adjustment. 

To petition for an exception to the rule, you likely need to present evidence to your local government zoning board. If accepted, you would be allowed to build the structure without regard for some or all of the setback requirements.

Although property setbacks need to be followed, it’s not uncommon for local governments to offer some leeway. If there is flexibility to be granted, it will likely be for attached building features like extended porches, chimneys, or balconies (and not primary home structures). 

What happens if I ignore setbacks?

Much like with any law, if setback requirements are ignored or not met, there will be consequences. If you don't apply for and receive setback variances before beginning a project, you could face forced removal of the building, an alteration at your own expense, or pay large fines. Always check in with your local permit office to discuss plans before building anything.

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