Setback: distance between a house or a fence and the property line or boundary

Construction projects on your home and garden: These setback lines apply.

Anyone planning to build an extension to their house or erect a boundary treatment around their lot must observe the setback lines of houses, fences, and trees in accordance with neighbor law. What you need to be aware of and when it is a good idea to call in a specialist.

Neighbor law determines the setback lines

My house, my lot – my rules? Not entirely. According to neighbor law, your neighbor can have a say in certain cases, and for good reason. Because the aim of the statutory provisions is to ensure peaceful coexistence of property owners, says the Swiss Property Owners Association. The provisions of neighbor law are shared between federal, cantonal, and municipal law.

Basic rules, such as the prohibition of excessive noise, air pollution, and the deprivation of daylight, can be found in the Swiss Civil Code under articles 684 to 698. Setbacks between buildings, plants, and fences and property lines are determined by the cantons. The provisions can be modified in turn by the municipalities.

Distance of buildings from the property line

Anyone wanting to build an extension or undertake renovations must therefore abide by the cantonal planning and construction laws regarding distances from the property's boundary. Often, setback lines are also influenced by specific district and layout plans. The relevant rules appear in the municipal construction and zoning regulations. If you have any queries, you can contact your municipal authority.

Among other things, the distance requirements ensure that neighboring lots receive sufficient light. The gap is also an important fire safety measure. For example, the building code of the city of Zuric (PDF) states that buildings here must be a minimum of five meters from the property line. It is important to comply with these requirements for both new builds and extensions and renovation projects.

Reduce the setback with your neighbor's agreement

If a planned extension is closer to the property line than permitted by construction and zoning regulations, owners can agree a reduced setback entitlement with their neighbors. This right can be granted unilaterally or mutually and allows the prescribed setbacks and distances between buildings to be reduced.

As it is possible that the neighboring property could lose value in some cases, the neighbor can request compensation in return for their agreement. Once the agreement is entered in the land records, it is tied to the property and also applies to future owners.

Boundary treatments on the property line

Owners who wish to enclose their property with a boundary treatment such as a hedge, fence or wall must also comply with the setback lines. Other provisions may apply depending on the type of screening. For example, according to the Civil Code of the Canton of Bern (PDF), there must be a gap of at least 50 centimeters between a hedge and the property line. However, a fence or a wall can stand directly on the boundary with the neighboring lot and may not exceed a height of 1.20 meters.

If the fence only stands on your property, it belongs to you, and you alone therefore bear all the costs of it. If you want to erect the fence directly on the boundary with the neighboring lot, you must first obtain the neighbor's consent. If your neighbor agrees to the erection of the fence, the assumption is that it will be jointly owned, which also means that the maintenance costs will be shared equally.

Setback line for trees and shrubs

For many owners, planting trees and shrubs on their property is an integral part of creating their dream home. But cantonal regulations prescribe how close to the boundary and how high these may be. For example, according to the Civil Code of the Canton of Aargau (PDF), small garden trees and shrubs must be planted at a distance of one meter from the boundary, fruit trees at a distance of three meters, and large ornamental trees such as poplars at a distance of six meters. The aim of this, among other things, is to prevent them casting a shadow over the neighboring property or growing beyond the boundary.

Setback line for heat pumps

For economic and ecological reasons, more and more homeowners are opting for a heat pump as a heating system for their own homes. In this case too, the setback lines must be taken into account. Cantonal differences must be assumed. For example, in the Planning and Construction Act (Planungs- und Baugesetz – PBG) of the Canton of Zurich (PDF), a distance of 3.5 meters applies to small buildings. Due to the increasing use of heat pumps, however, the laws are likely to change continuously in the future.

Obtaining advice on neighbor law creates certainty

Breaching any of the above points can be time-consuming and expensive. The injured party can claim damages, and demand that the source of the conflict be removed and the action refrained from in the future. This can be avoided by adhering to setback rules and communicating openly with your neighbors, which in itself is a basis for good neighborly relations.

It is best to seek expert advice when undertaking bigger projects on your house and in your garden, both about your rights and responsibilities in neighbor law and about financing options. If you do so, nothing will stand in the way of your construction project.

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