Setback Requirements: 7 Things All Homeowners Should Know

Before building a new shed or planning an extension for the home, it’s important to understand setbacks and how they may impact your plans.
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setback requirements

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Despite owning the property where you are building, there are many rules and regulations that affect the location, size, height, and even the shape of any structure or building added to the property. One of these restrictions is known as a setback or setback requirement, which gives the town or municipality the ability to dictate the distance from the property line that a home can be built.

These requirements also impact the placement of any accessory structures, like a shed, detached garage, or workshop. However, the exact property setback can depend on the shape of the building, the shape of the lot, the type of structure, and several other factors that are detailed below.

Related: Trees and Property Lines: 8 Things All Neighbors Should Know

1. Setback requirements influence the development of neighborhoods.

While the word ‘setback’ generally makes people think about an event that has halted progress towards a goal, the term is used differently when referring to properties. Instead, a setback or setback requirement for a property refers to the distance that the house or structure must be from the front, sides, and back of the property line.

This building restriction is intended to help ensure home security, privacy, a uniform appearance, and environmental protection, though the placement also allows public utilities to access plumbing, gas, electrical, or internet lines that may be running through the yard. However, the setback for residential buildings is often very different for commercial, industrial, or institutional structures, depending on the zoning laws in the area.

2. Setback requirements for main buildings are different from setbacks for detached accessory structures.

The setback requirements that are in place for the main house or an attached garage may be different than the restrictions imposed on accessory structures, like a detached garage, shed, or workshop. While the exact setback line differs from property to property and even from town to town, these restrictions help to protect your property and your neighbors’ properties from potential problems, like an oversize building that encroaches on the property line or exceeds a reasonable height for the neighborhood.

However, accessory structures are rarely built to the same size as the main home on the property, so they can fall under a different setback from the property line because there is little concern that a utility shed will be built large enough to completely prevent direct sunlight from reaching the neighbor’s windows or cause damage to an existing ecosystem. Always check the local regulations with the municipality or town permit office to be certain.

setback requirements

3. Special rules may apply when measuring setbacks for irregularly shaped lots.

Measuring the front, back, and side yard setback requirements isn’t difficult with a rectangular- or square-shaped property. Simply measure a perpendicular line from the edge of the property to the border of the setback area. Repeat this process on each side of the property to find the exact area where you can build. However, not all properties have neat, rectangular or square shapes.

Irregularly shaped lots need to be measured differently, but the methods for establishing the setback requirements for an irregularly shaped property can vary from town to town, so it’s important to verify the exact information with the permit office. For instance, the rear setback line for these properties can be based on the average lot depth, while the front yard can have a rounded or irregularly shaped setback line that matches the shape of the property line, but this isn’t a consistent method for all towns and municipalities.

4. Structure height also factors into setback requirements.

One of the main reasons for imposing specific setback requirements on a lot is to help prevent the disruption of natural lighting, clear ventilation, and increase sound insulation. By limiting the size of the building on the property, the town or municipality can ensure that neighboring buildings have adequate access to sunlight, fresh air, and a relatively private place to live, instead of always having to overhear the neighbors fighting.

Height plays a big role in establishing setback requirements because a taller building will block out more sunlight from surrounding homes and it will typically have a broader base to increase the balance of the building and provide better support during storms and high winds. Tall structures are imposing and out of place in most residential neighborhoods, so if you plan to add to an existing building or you are in the planning stages for a new building, keep in mind that setbacks can also restrict the height of the structure.

setback requirements

5. Some properties may be eligible for setback variances.

Setbacks are not set in stone, so if there is an outstanding situation, like a river, pond, or other obstruction that may impact your ability to use the property in a similar way as your neighbors, it’s possible to apply for a setback variance.

A variance must be approved by the local government zoning board and is typically given if the condition that is negatively affecting your ability to build is generally unique to your property. However, if the majority of the properties in the neighborhood share a similar issue, then it’s likely that the government zoning board will not approve a variance.

Related: 6 Things to Know Before Installing a Lean-To Shed at Home

6. Within reason, most municipalities will allow attached building features to extend outside of setback requirements.

The laws and regulations around setbacks are intended to benefit the community as a whole, so while they can be strict about certain things, like the height of a building or the placement of a home, there are some features that may be allowed, despite falling outside of the setback requirements.

Fire escapes, chimneys, balconies, decks, a front residential fence, porch, or backyard fence are all building features that most municipalities or towns will allow, within reason. Keep in mind that if the addition negatively impacts the neighborhood then you may be forced to remove it, so take the time to ensure that the plan is sound before spending the time and money to build a new balcony, porch, or fence.

setback requirements

7. If setback requirements aren’t met, homeowners can be forced to make expensive alterations to structures on their property.

If property setback requirements are not followed, it can cause significant problems. There could be the forced removal of the building or an expensive alteration to the structure to ensure that it complies with the restrictions imposed by the setback requirements. In some cases, homeowners can apply for setback variances in order to obtain permission to work outside of the property setback requirements. However, this is not a guarantee.

It’s best to contact the permit office to discuss your potential plans and get a permit for the work to show that the structure is being built according to local laws and regulations. Without a permit, there is the chance that the project may be interrupted or that the local government will force you to make alterations to the structure.