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Building Codes: What Are Survey Plats, Building Lines & Easements and Why Do They Matter?

Warning: This topic is very dry, but there might be information that you find helpful below. So if you have nothing better to do, please continue reading.

The idea for writing this article stemmed from a conversation I overheard between a homeowner and a permit technician during a recent visit to the city planning department. The permit technician was trying to explain to the homeowner that he could not build what he wanted, and that the hand drawn sketches he had brought in were not sufficient enough to apply for a permit even if he could build it. He looked very confused, and I found him outside later and asked him what it was that he wanted to build. After looking at his survey plat, I suggested a few alternatives that would be in compliance with the city regulations and still allow him the covered area he wanted in his backyard. There are many homeowners like him, especially first time homebuyers, that have never seen a survey plat or don’t know how to read one. There is a plethora of general information about this topic available online, but not as much that specifically relates to building patio covers and other backyard structures.

Using Your Survey Plat to Determine What & Where You Can Build

When you purchase a home, one of the documents that is included in the closing paperwork is a survey plat. This is a survey of your property, and is filed with the county to provide a legal description of  your property. There is a lot of important information on the survey plat, and shows where your property lines are, where your neighbors’ property starts, and where you are allowed to build. A survey plat is especially helpful when it comes to building a fence around your property, or replacing an existing fence, because it determines where the fence can go and who owns it. Also on the survey plat, you will find Building Lines and Easements (if there are any). Building Codes are regulations that are decided by your city, and determine what you are able to build, and how close to building lines, property lines, and easements you will be allowed to build.


Property Lines

The physical boundaries of your property, if marked, can become obstructed by surrounding development, plants, and other obstacles, and it can be hard to tell where the edge of your property is even when there is a fence around the perimeter. The property lines on the survey plat define the legal boundaries of your property. It is important to note that just because a fence surrounds your property, it does not necessarily mean that you own the fence or a portion of it. The property lines on the survey plat help determine who legally owns the fence between the properties.


Building Lines

Building lines are a specified distance from the sides of a lot that denote where a building or structure cannot be placed. Building lines are often called setbacks, because a building must be “set back” a specified distance from the property line. The city can make you tear down the structure and fine you if you have built something that encroaches the building line. So it is wise to discuss where all easements and building setback lines are on your property with your builder before starting any kind of backyard project. Some cities have exceptions to building over a building line, but these vary from city to city. For example, one city in particular will allow you to build a pergola over the building line if it is open air at the top and not a shingled roof. However, building lines are not always marked on the survey plat, so it is vital to choose an experienced contractor. The contractor you choose should also be well versed in your city’s specific building codes so that they can ensure your project meets the requirements, but also to know when exceptions can be made so that you are able to make your vision for your backyard a reality.

There are usually ways to work with the building codes and your city to build what you want in your backyard (or at least something close to it), but choosing the right contractor is paramount to a smooth permitting process!



An easement grants a person or organization a legal right to use someone else’s property for a specific purpose. A common example is a local utility company having an easement so that they are able to read a meter or even install a series of power-lines. Or, if your driveway overlaps your property line, you might rely on an easement on your neighbors property to access your garage.

Easements can also allow a neighbor to walk or drive through your property in order to get to their land. Easements can be specific or general. The thing to keep in mind is that easements determine who can use the property, and puts limits on what you can do with it. If you have an easement on your property, you are not allowed to build a structure that would block the easement or restrict access.


Building Codes

The building codes are determined by the city that you reside in. Building codes let you know what you are able to build and where, and many cities in this area use similar building codes. One example of a common building regulation is that all the posts of a patio cover must be inside the building lines, but the roof can extend slightly past the line. Some cities will allow you to build a structure past the building line, but only if it is not attached to the main structure (which is usually your house). Choose a company who not only specializes in backyard structures, but also one who is familiar with the city you live in, and who is well versed in the regulations and exceptions for your city. You definitely don’t want to be several weeks deep into the project before finding out that the plans you have already contracted with a construction company are not approved by the city! If a company comes out to your home for the initial consultation and doesn’t immediately ask to see your survey plat, that is a huge red flag. Do your research on the company you choose before signing a contract, and most importantly, read their reviews!!!


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