Seattle Home Inspector's Blog


Work done in the middle of the night---some prefer the lights on---some off.


While most jurisdictions have setback requirements, it is typically beyond the scope of a home inspection to know what the requirements are for any given jurisdiction.  These setback requirements are different for rear yard, side yard and front yards.  They are also different for homes on corner lots or homes with streets or alleys on two opposite sides of the home.

In some areas “grandfathering” may also apply. 

Also “variances” may have been obtained.

When additions are added to homes these setback requirements have to be taken into account.  While I may not be able to determine the “exact” setback requirements for the home I am inspecting, there are some cluse that might make one question the location of structures on the property. 

At a recent inspection I noted that the addition to the home was "less-than-professionally" constructed, and that the addition was closer than 5 feet to the property line.  There is a pretty good chance that the addition was done without permits.  It would be a good idea in such a case for the buyer to obtain documentation that the addition meets jurisdictional requirements.  They might find themselves forced to bring the structure into compliance.

In the following photo it is not hard to see that this addition to the home is certainly close enough to the fence (property line) to most likely be out of compliance.  The red line is approximately 5 feet inside the property line and shows how much of the addition might need to be removed.

In older neighborhoods it is common to find homes that would today be considered too close to the property line---but these sorts of variances and grandfathering are rare in newer developments.

Setbacks from property lines 

The methods of construction appeared to have been done “in the middle of the night” as they say---and quite possibly in the dark as well.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Seattle Home Inspector


The Human Rights Campaign   QR code for Charles Buell Inspections Inc


WA State, Home Inspector Advisory Licensing Board

Comment balloon 39 commentsCharles Buell • February 10 2012 09:38AM


Wow..that is FAR off....I see sometimes a bit of being off on property lines, but what were they thinking??

Posted by Kristin Johnston - REALTOR®, Giving Back With Each Home Sold! (RE/MAX Realty Center ) about 7 years ago

But they're just making MAXIMUM use of their property :)  You just never know what you'll see next do you?

Posted by Liz and Bill Spear, RE/MAX Elite Warren County OH (Cincinnati/Dayton) (RE/MAX Elite 513.520.5305 about 7 years ago

Charles: Indeed, Midnight Remodel... The guy I bought our 2nd home from was kind of the same. A real do it yourself kind of guy. I had a few issues with the county and the city that I inherited and had to fix. Great reminders, buyer beware.

Posted by Rene Fabre, Marketing in the Digital Age (First American Title) about 7 years ago

Charles -- you are assuming that the fence is on/near the property line.  Probably so.  Great way to illustrate the problem, and how it will create problems for the potential buyer, if the seller can't produce the permits/variances.  In which case it will create problems for the seller being able to sell it, as that problem will have now been made manifest, and will have to be disclosed ongoing.

Posted by Steven Cook (No Longer Processing Mortgages.) about 7 years ago

Aw ... what's 5 feet? The fence actually made it handy to create a space to corral toddlers.

Posted by Cynthia Larsen, Independent Broker In Sonoma County, CA about 7 years ago

Kristin, I had one not too long ago where the building was actually over the property line---everyone knew---everyone just ignored it :)

Liz and Bill, perhaps so :)

Rene, all it takes is one party to make a stink and these things can become a real mess.  Fortunately due to the openness of this structure it would not be a difficult fix to remove the offending portion.

Steven, for sure.  While it is not visible in the picture the neighbor's house was approximately 5 feet from the fence so I am making an educated guess that there might be a problem :)

Cynthia, you would have enjoyed the fence too in terms of corralling kids.  The fence boards had been attached with screws that stick through the face on this house side about 1/2"---dozens of injury "points" :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 7 years ago

I have a relatives house that is exactly on the property like, there's not even enough room to put up a fence. Doesn't make sense to me.

Posted by Eric Michael, Metro Detroit Real Estate Professional 734.564.1519 (Remerica Integrity, Realtors®, Northville, MI) about 7 years ago

Charles, like you state, in New Tecumseth, the township was much more lenient in days gone by.  Very few variances are granted now...

Posted by Chris Smith, South Simcoe, Caledon, King, Orangeville Real Esta (Re/Max Chay Realty Inc., Brokerage) about 7 years ago

Wow, although it may not be too great of an issue at the moment, good luck trying to sell the house like that

Posted by Bud & Beth McKinney, Cary/Raleigh/Apex NC - The Team That Cares, RE/MAX United (RE/MAX UNITED) about 7 years ago

Eric, property line encroachments are very common in older jurisdictions---pretty rare in newer ones.

Chris, yes---same here.  They make you spend a ton of money to apply with no guarntees that it will be given.  Most figure out other approaches.

Bud and Beth, these land use issues can get really messy.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 7 years ago

Love your "less than professionally done" line - you are very tactful indeed!!  LOL  But lots of good reasons for a buyer to be very wary when things like this are observed....

Posted by Nancy Conner, Olympia/Thurston County WA about 7 years ago

I once worked on the design review board of a subdivision and as such had to make sure all building plans complied with setback requirements. The average person out there may not be aware that there are such requirements on most lots, so this post is really useful. Hopefully, most inspectors should catch a setback problem, but if not, potential buyers need to be aware it's something they should watch for.


Posted by Mel Ahrens, MBA, Kelly Right Real Estate, Customized Choices for your Real Estate Needs (Kelly Right Real Estate) about 7 years ago

Nancy, I have been known to use "less than professionally" in my reports :)

Gretchen, I agree but I am sure that most inspectors would argue this is outside the scope of a home inspection :)  Even I would not want to be held to the fine details, but something as egregious as this one should get a notice.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 7 years ago

Eek, what were they thinking? They obviously were not thinking!

Posted by Ciara Brennan (Mass Homes Realty) about 7 years ago

Just plain craziness. Loved this posting by the way.

Posted by Adam Brett, The Adam and Eric Group, Fullerton's Finest (The Adam and Eric Group) about 7 years ago

I agree, constructed without a permit. With that privacy fence no one could see what was happening.

Posted by Carl Winters about 7 years ago
Checking for building permits is a good idea for any addition but especiallyy when it appears to be in violation of a varience Thnx for sharing
Posted by Marcia Kramarz, CDPE,LMC,CBR (Re/Max Executive Realty) about 7 years ago

Oh are so right! I've never heard the phrase"building in the middle of the night" but it certainly fits! *OUCH*

Posted by Russell Lewis, Broker,CLHMS,GRI (Realty Austin, Austin Texas Real Estate) about 7 years ago


In my area the side setbacks are 10 feet from the property line ... which wouldn't leave much of that addition!

Posted by Richard Weisser, Richard Weisser Retired Real Estate Professional (Richard Weisser Realty) about 7 years ago

Charles - build first ask forgiveness later is becoming an issue in some areas including ours ..... some local contractors are thinking they might just start doing it if the town does not crack down more on out of town contractors with this attitude.

Posted by Kathy Clulow, Trusted For Experience - Respected For Results (RE/MAX All-Stars Realty Inc. Brokerage) about 7 years ago

There is so much unpermitted construction in our area that I tell my buyers which structures are and aren't as we look at property. 

Posted by Marge Piwowarski, Phoenix AZ Horse Property, LLC (Phoenix AZ Horse Property) about 7 years ago

So what's a few feet among friends? That is just it! This neighbor would not be my friend and I would hate this!  

Posted by Sandy Acevedo, RE/MAX Masters, Inland Empire Homes for Sale (951-290-8588) about 7 years ago

I did not catch what the title meant until I came over and read thru! Yep, these are middle if the night construction techniques!

Posted by Cheryl Ritchie, Southern Maryland 301-980-7566 (RE/MAX Leading Edge about 7 years ago

Charles, not only is it encroaching, I think it may be bad Feng Shui as well!

Posted by Maria Morton, Kansas City Real Estate 816-560-3758 (Chartwell Kansas City Realty) about 7 years ago

Set backs are a problem so very often!

You can tell they did this one at night because the red extension cord is still over the roof and stretching into the back yard.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 7 years ago

Ah yes, setbacks, variances, etc.  Just some of the little words that make real estate so much fun!

Posted by Gabe Sanders, Stuart Florida Real Estate (Real Estate of Florida specializing in Martin County Residential Homes, Condos and Land Sales) about 7 years ago

Charles, this is probably a case where people think they can do whatever they want on their property. Even with a variance, they more than likely wouldn't approve building right up to the property line.

Posted by Michael Setunsky, Your Commercial Real Estate Link to Northern VA about 7 years ago

Ciara, they may have just not known any better as well----and were lucky enough to not get called on it.

Adam, thanks

Carl & Ceil---perhaps while the neighbors were on vacation?:)

Marcia, for sure

Russell, I am not sure where the first time this phrase got used but it was commonly used in relation to the removal of underground oil tanks----people would just remove them "in the middle of the night" as opposed to going through the legal process.

Richard, yes, the bigger the setbacks the bigger the problem for this addition.

Kathy, around here there is little "forgiveness."  They would not only bear the cost of building it but of "properly" taking it down as well.  Not a good can of worms to open.

Marge, they are not difficult to spot are they! :)

Sandy, they say fences make good neighbors---but this is pushing the concept

Cheryl, thanks for reading through

Maria---maybe so but I don't know much about that.  Are there feng shui inspectors?  Maybe a new ancillary service? :)

Jay,----taking power from the neighbors?

Gabe, lawyer fodder for sure

Michael, yes.  Once you get close there are all sorts of "material" changes that come into place for fire spread.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 7 years ago

While I do not discuss set backs with clients, I do mention looking up permits, especially when finding work done like you describe. 

Posted by James Quarello, Connecticut Home Inspector (JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC) about 7 years ago

Not too bad for a night's work ;)

Posted by Jason Sardi, Your Agent for Life (Auto & Home & Life Insurance throughout North Carolina) about 7 years ago

Jim, it is pretty rare for me to discuss them either---this was a pretty egregious situation.

Jason---perhaps a couple of nights :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 7 years ago

Charles: I can seriously tell you  that there ARE people out there who have no idea that a permit and cmpliance is required for an addition on a house. Those people are from another planet and they don't understand anything to do with life here on planet earth. How does a homeowner NOT know that there are requirements to adding on or building anything on a piece of property? No way--so therefore we can assume that they do know they have broken the law and I have no pity for them!

Posted by Paula Hathaway, REALTOR, LBA, ...The Most Informed Agent In The Hamptons! (Douglas Elliman Real Estate) about 7 years ago

Paula, as a builder I found people generally did know but often pursued the question of whether there was some way around getting permits :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 7 years ago

Hey, is that moss I see growing on the roof?

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) about 7 years ago

Indeedibly :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 7 years ago

But it's just a car port, shed thingy

Posted by Daniel Rogers about 7 years ago

Daniel, yup :)

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 7 years ago

Some people pull these shenanigans in broad daylight.  Ethical people get permits and walk through each step...

Posted by Paul S. Henderson, REALTOR®, CRS, Tacoma Washington Agent/Broker & Market Authority! (RE/MAX Northwest.) about 7 years ago

Paul, true enough---all it takes is a call from one neighbor and everything can quickly come to a halt

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 7 years ago