Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Warning: Long Post Ahead

I am a Civil Engineer, and as part of my job I design residential subdivisions (not the one we are buying in).  One thing you want to look at before signing a contract to build, is the subdivision plat, and if you can, the subdivision construction plans.

Specifically, look for Easements - "a right to cross or otherwise use someone else's land for a specified purpose".  You are generally not allowed to build any structure (pool, shed, deck, etc) on an easement.  These are generally:
Utility easements - where a utility  (water, stormwater, sanitary sewer, gas, electric, etc) has permission to access an above or below ground pipe or line they have on your property.
Drainage easement - where the land is graded to allow proper drainage of a lot (may or may not include underground piping.
Access easement - where some has permission to cross your property to access their property (usually land locked)

First, a little about residential subdivisions:
Most subdivisions are built in phases.  The developer/home builder (HB) only pays to develop only a part of a larger planned development at a time.  This reduces their financial risk if the home buying market slows down.  They will add on phases once the previous phase is near finished.

With each phase, the HB pays a civil engineer (and/or engineering firm) to create lots to a size and general layout dictated by the HB.  The engineer reviews local municipality building setback requirements (how far the house can be from the property lines), utility requirements and existing easements on the site.  The engineer also creates a building pad (flat area on each lot) and grades the subdivision to drain stormwater away from houses and to the street and/or swales/ditches.

From this information, the engineer is able to create two sets of plans: the subdivision plat and the site layout construction plans for the builder.  The subdivision plat is a county recorded document that shows the subdivision with all lots dimensioned, all setbacks and easements and any green space reserves.  The lots are also numbered.   A Surveyor will set buried, Iron Pins at the corner of  the lots as laid out in this plan. This is a good drawing to look at to see the easements on your potential lot.

The site layout construction plans, or subdivision plans, are the plans turned into the city and/or county to get the construction permit to begin grading, adding utility work, and paving.  This is a good plan to look at if you want to see the easements and what is buried under those easements.  Keep in mind electric and gas are not generally shown, so if you are digging in the future, call your local Utility Protection Service and they will mark all lines for free.

Later, each lot will get a Plot Plan that shows how the house sits on each lot and where the utilities and easements are at.  But if you wait until you get the Plot Plan, it will be too late to change your mind about the lot, since you will already be in contract.

So, if you have future plans to add a deck, swimming pool or even fencing*, keep all this information in mind, since this could impact not only where you can put these things, but if you can.

*Fencing on easements is a gray area.  Lots of people put fences on easements.  Just remember, if you put a fence on an easement, the party that has been granted the easement has the right to remove/damage the fence and is not required to reinstall/replace it.


  1. I'm also a Civil Engineer - GREAT job summing up site development and what to look for when choosing a lot!

  2. Thanks! I also added your blog to the list. Looking forward to following your home building adventure.

  3. Loving your blog so far. I'm especially loving the fact that I can go back to the early parts of your process and follow your story. This is helpful because we are in the initial stages.

    I was wondering, is it illegal to put a raised bed garden on a "private drainage easement?" We have a lot with retention basin and this easement makes much of our yard unable to be developed. This is fine by me because I want to keep it as natural looking as possible. But I'd like to grow some tomatoes at the back of the lot.What might be the repercussions of doing so?

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback.

      I wouldn't go so far as to call it illegal. But it would be a violation of the terms of the easement if the drainage easement was established for the purpose of above ground drainage. If you block the drainage path, this could cause flooding in either your's or your neighbor's property and the neighbor could come after you for damages.

      There may be a way to plant the raised bed garden and not hinder the flow from stormwater. You should have someone familiar with drainage and grading look at this for you.