Stuff You Probably Ought to Know

Well, now you’ve done it. You just had to have that new land, and it was right at the very edge of what you could afford. The realtor said something about a setback, but you don’t see it that way. After all, this property is the key to the next steps in your amazing plan. There’s no way it could be a setback because it’s such a great step forward, right?

Yeah, uh, no.

That’s not what the realtor meant at all.

To put it in a sort of legalese, a setback is a distance from a curb, property line or structure within which building is not permitted.  A setback a building restriction imposed on a property owner.

A setback tells you where you can and cannot build something on your property, and local governments create setbacks through ordinances and building codes.  

But that all sounds so restrictive. It’s my property, and I can do what I want with it, right? It sounds like setbacks are just the government keeping the man down with more restrictions!

Actually, a setback can be your friend.

There are usually good reasons behind setbacks. For one, they keep property owners from crowding their neighbors. Nobody likes looking out their bedroom window only to see the brick wall of the guy next door so close that it’s within arm’s reach, and flowerbeds that wither away because the neighbor’s building blocks out all the sunlight.

Setbacks can help preserve wetlands. You don’t have to be a tree hugger to appreciate seeing ducks and geese flying overhead to a local body of water, woodland animals drinking from those same waters in the early morning mist, and the beauty of nature on full display.

Now imagine seeing a young fawn at sunset wobbling along behind her mother, walking along the edge of a marsh, only to have the silence shattered by some bozo on his front porch belching loudly as he crumples up another beer can and tosses it at the doe.

A setback can prevent that scenario from becoming a reality by limiting the areas in which a building can be located.

So what exactly is a setback? No, really. What is it? How about some examples?

Well, a setback can be a certain area in your front yard, the distance between the sidewalk and your property line, or the amount of separation between houses.

Imagine having so little room between the houses on your narrow street that emergency vehicles can’t get in. Or what if a water line breaks, but the utility truck can’t get to where the break is because the houses are so close together that they can’t get to it with the equipment to excavate and repair the damage?

That kind of water flow is not as much fun as opening a fire hydrant on a hot summer day.

Setbacks provide for green space in a community, and who doesn’t like some green space around their home?

And here’s a real setback bonus – they protect property by limiting the number of buildings that can fall on you in an earthquake, or how quickly a wildfire can spread to your house.

No, really.

Setbacks offer peace of mind! Plus, they help preserve your sanity by providing enough room for folks to roam around a bit.

So how do you find out what setbacks are mandated around the property you are interested in? The easiest way is to just check out the neighborhood. Typically, every structure in the area will have the same setbacks. It is applied fairly and equally, and helps keep sniveling and whining in the neighborhood to a minimum.

But not always. If your property has an issue or special circumstance, like a stream or really bad terrain that can’t be built on without extreme expense, and the only place to build is where a setback currently exists, an exception to local setback requirements, known as a variance, can be applied for.

But don’t get too excited about the variance just yet. Requesting a variance, and getting a variance approved, are often very different things. If the issue your property isn’t unique to the area, and many others in the area have the same issue, getting a variance approved isn’t guaranteed.

Also, setbacks remain in effect unless and until there is a change made by law or by some kind of special action taken by local government. Changing ownership has no impact on setbacks.

So, be forewarned before plunking down your cash on that dream property. Check out the local setback requirements and know what you can and can’t do with the property before committing your hopes and dreams to something that might never become reality with the existing setbacks.

That could leave you feeling like you’ve had a real setback…

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