What Are Setbacks? 11 things (2024) You Ought to Know

Buying a home or a piece of property comes with a lot of rules and regulations. – and one of those regulations is a setback limit.

Setbacks determine the areas on your property where you can build structures or extend parts of your home.

At first glance, it might seem a bit unfair that the city, or homeowner association, can determine what you can and can’t do to your property.

But there are some good reasons for regulations like setbacks.

In this article, we’re going to talk about setbacks and everything they include.

Homeowners may not be able to build in these restricted areas, but there are still a lot of great ways to utilize the space, and in some cases, the limits can be modified.

Keep in mind that you should be presented with a property’s setbacks before purchasing a home–the size of these areas can impact a home’s value.

1. What Are Setbacks?

Setbacks determine how far away a structure can be built from a property line (homes and detached structures have different setbacks).

Each municipality has its own standards on setbacks, but if you have a home in a residential neighborhood, chances are your property is going to have these limitations.

In most cases, homeowners are able to build structures that can be anywhere from 10 to 25 feet from the property line.

However, the shape of these areas can vary from property to property depending on the layout of the home (or building) and if there are creeks, power lines, or underground cables.

When a homeowner is getting the approval to build a structure, checking the setbacks will be one of the first steps.

Setbacks are the reason you don’t see anyone building casitas (or other structures) that press against sidewalks or curbs.

Owners who don’t abide by the restrictions, even though they own the land, can face large fines.

2. Who Sets Setbacks?

Setbacks are established by local governments.

Buildings have to follow zoning restrictions, building codes, and ordinances.

These rules are placed in order to ensure the community is uniform, the environment is safe, and underground piping or wiring is protected.

In addition to the setbacks placed by local governments, the community’s homeowner association will also have a say on what can and can’t be built on a property–so many hurdles, right?

Even if you’re planning on building a new detached garage that’s within the appropriate building zone, your HOA can put a halt to it.

Before you buy a house, it’s important to know setback regulations and what the homeowner association can restrict.

3. What Determines Setbacks Requirements?

So, we’ve answered the questions of what are setbacks and who establishes them.

But how are setbacks determined?

Here is what local governments consider when establishing setbacks.

bulletNatural bodies of water

bulletSeptic tanks




bulletNearby houses or buildings

bulletTraffic safety

bulletAccessibility to the structure

bulletSunlight and ventilation


Allowing homeowners to build structures wherever they want on their properties sounds nice in theory, but it would cause a lot of issues.

Neighborhoods, especially compact neighborhoods, have piping and wiring that runs underneath each other’s properties.

If the city isn’t able to access these underground pipes and wires, it could make solving problems and responding to emergencies much more difficult.

Additionally, designated building areas ensure that no structure blocks traffic signs or a neighbor’s access to natural light.

Local governments also like to create aesthetically pleasing communities, which drives up the value of homes and attracts more buyers.

They use setbacks to ensure neighborhoods look well-structured and uniform.

So, that’s how setbacks are determined, and once they are established, there are very few circumstances that could change them.

4. Why Are Setbacks Important?

Let’s talk a bit more about why setbacks are important.

Yes, they ensure that the local government and property owners can access underground piping and septic tanks, that traffic signs or direct sun access aren’t blocked, and that a neighborhood appears uniform, but there are a few other beneficial factors.

Setbacks provide a border of privacy between neighbors.

Without having buffers, people could extend their homes and build structures that are just inches away from one another–unless your neighbors are family members, no one wants that to happen.

More space between houses prevents homeowners from having to deal with annoyances like someone smoking cigarettes in the backyard, loud music, and other pesky disturbances–of course, a 25 to 50-foot buffer might not eliminate all of your issues with your neighbors.

Setbacks are also important to keep your house safe.

If a building was too close to a river during an intense rainy season, well, it could get swept away–whoops!

Likewise, homes that were built right along the road would be more susceptible to being hit by vehicles.

Think of a setback as your own little buffer between your home (and detached structures) and the rest of the world.

5. What Are Standard Requirements?

Standard setback requirements vary from county to county.

But, in general, local governments use the same determinants to establish appropriate building zones.

Even if counties have different setback requirements, the differences would be extremely minor–especially in communities that have been recently developed.

For example, the setbacks in County A might be 20 feet from the property line, while the setbacks in County B are 25 feet from the property line.

Sure, every foot counts, but it’s not a huge difference in the grand scheme of things.

It’s also important to note that more remote communities will have very different setback requirements.

The regulations in a compacted neighborhood with several busy streets are going to be much stricter than in a neighborhood with spaced-out homes and few streets.

So, if you’re in the market for a new house, talk to your real estate agent about standard setback requirements in your area to ensure you find what you are looking for.

6. What’s the Difference Between Setback Lines and Property Lines?

Setback lines and property lines are related to each other but quite different.

Property lines refer to the outermost limits of your property–all the land that you own.

Everything within your property line is yours, and it cannot be used by anyone else.

Setback lines refer to the furthest point you can build accessory structures from your home.

When you think of property lines, think of the amount of land you own.

When you think of setback lines, think of where you can build permanent structures.

Easy, right?

7. What Can You Put in Setbacks?

So, you can’t build structures in setbacks, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to these restricted areas.

Your options might be limited, but don’t let that stop you from getting the most out of your property.

Here are a few things you could do with your setback spaces.

bulletGardening and Landscaping

Homeowners can put their own personal touch on the landscaping of their setbacks.

Trees and shrubbery could be planted, or little pathways can be made–of course, if an HOA exists, certain landscaping has to be approved.

The space could also be used as a garden.

Homeowners just need to be mindful of where pipes are located.

If a pipe had to be dug up, it could ruin the garden.

bulletFences and Walls

Some homes aren’t built with fences.

In most cases, homeowners are able to construct fences or walls along their property lines; however, it is likely that local governments and HOAs will limit the height of the fence or wall and require it to be a couple feet away from property lines that meet a road.

Installing a fence or wall is a great way to enhance the aesthetic of a property and improve its privacy.

bulletOutdoor Furniture

Another great way for homeowners to get the most out of their setback areas is to utilize outdoor furniture.

Things like chairs, benches, tables, firepits, and other non-permanent items can be placed in setbacks.

As long as the furniture can be moved, the local government should have no problems with it.

bulletPlay Areas

Setbacks can be used as play areas for children and adults.

Play areas could include things like soccer nets, hopscotch courses, and putting greens.

If the items being used are not permanent and are not unreasonably tall, they should not be an issue.

8. Can You Change Setback Limits? (Setback Variance)

Local governments leave open a little leeway when it comes to setbacks–not always, but sometimes.

Changes in these restrictions are referred to as setback variances.

But who qualifies?

Well, unfortunately, if you have an average, run-of-the-mill lot without unique features, chances are you won’t qualify for a setback variance.

However, if your piece of property has an unusual feature, such as a river, hill, or anything else that reduces your usage of your property, you might just qualify for a setback variance.

Qualifying entails having the local government or zoning board come out to the property and assess the scene.

One downside to the qualification process is that if several other homes are impacted by the same unique feature, like a pond, the chances of being approved decrease.

But hey, if you think your property has an obstructive feature, by all means, apply for a setback variance–the squeaky wheel gets the grease, right?

9. What Happens if The Requirements Are Not Met?

Not abiding by setback requirements is a big no-no.

But what would happen?

Well, say you built a detached garage in a setback space.

If the local government, or HOA, caught wind of it, you would be forced to reconfigure it, move it, or eliminate it.

Depending on what you built, addressing the issue can be very expensive.

Oh, and not to mention, local governments can charge homeowners thousands of dollars in addition to demanding that the structure be altered or removed.

The risk is certainly not worth the reward.

You would be amazed by how quickly improper structures get reported by other neighbors.

If you’re frustrated by local regulations, just remember that when you decide to move into a community, you’re committing yourself to its rules.

So, do your bank account a favor, and play along!

10. Do Setbacks Affect Property Value?

When we’re looking at the question of what are setbacks, we have to talk about property value.

Setbacks are known for affecting the price of a home, and rightfully so.

The more severe the setbacks, the more likely they are to negatively impact the value.

Minor setback restrictions can be very attractive to buyers who are interested in modifying the property or to buyers who simply don’t want to be limited by the local government.

Because setbacks impact property value, it’s extremely important to consider them when purchasing a house.

Ask your real estate agent how the setbacks of the house you’re looking to buy compares with homes nearby–more severe setbacks could be helpful during negotiations.

For the most part, setbacks are not going to be a dealbreaker when purchasing a property, but they, without a doubt, need to be considered.

The last thing you want to do is purchase a house and make plans to extend it only to find out the setback restrictions are stricter than you were led to believe.

11. How Have Setbacks Changed Over the Years?

Setbacks have changed over the years, but what has been the cause?

Well, initially, automobiles were a big reason that property lots grew larger.

As suburban housing became the norm, so did spacious yards.

Zoning laws eventually came into play, requiring a certain amount of space between each home–there are several reasons for these zoning laws, from fire safety to appearance to keeping neighborhoods exclusive to certain socioeconomic classes.

Some local governments have chosen to reduce their setback regulations, allowing homeowners to build closer to the street, while others are steadfast with the regulations already in place.

Will setbacks change much in the future?

Most likely not.

In order for there to be drastic changes in current setback regulations, there would need to be drastic changes in the way communities and neighborhoods are designed.

Final Thoughts

So, now that we answered the question of what are setbacks, how do you feel about them?

At first glance, it looks like local governments are overstepping and telling homeowners what they can and can’t do to their properties.

Although there may be some truth to that sentiment, setbacks also do a lot of good.

They are a big reason why communities look as well organized as they do.

Without them, traffic signs would be blocked (increasing the chances of accidents), privacy would be minimized, and the local environment would be threatened.

Unless you live out in the boonies, you’ll likely have to deal with building restrictions.

So, all you can do is make the best of it and roll with the punches.

And remember, breaking the rules comes with a hefty fee!

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


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