The low-down dirt on digging

5 musts before making a hole in your yard

As a homeowner, you may one day have a need to excavate part of your backyard. However, a big dig is something you should only begin after taking the proper precautions and notifying your municipal authorities. Whether your vision is an in-law cabin, swimming pool or bunker, do your research first and consult the right people before you put shovel to dirt.

Below are five requirements for going subterranean in your back yard.

Know your limits

For any big dig, you’ll first want to consult with your city or county’s Office of Building & Zoning (OBZ). Your property has features that will restrict the size and placement of your hole. This is called a “setback,” or the minimum distance from property lines, your house and other objects that a pool, for instance, can be placed. Setbacks are determined by your city or county, so requirements vary widely depending on where you live. Other setbacks are defined by septic tanks and septic fields, as well as Resource Protected Areas, represented by streams or lakes near your property. Inspectors from the OBZ will also know if there are any underground power or gas lines that you’ll want to avoid.

Schedule in advance

It’s best to lock in inspection appointments ahead of time, especially the first one. Local government offices can get backed up quickly, and whatever your project, you’ll at least need to schedule a building inspector to look at your plan before you file for a permit. Even if you don’t have a hard date for when the dirt will fly, call the OBZ to determine its next available appointment. This will give you a rough idea of how far ahead to call when you have that date set firmly.

Check what’s needed

Though no two places are the same with regards to required filings, the one doc that almost every municipality will demand is a building permit. Apart from the permit, it’s likely that you’ll need to also provide a plot plan, which shows key measurements and the placement of your project within the property. Other filings that may be required include an engineer’s drawing, information on the pump and electrical schematics, and dig specs for any kits you might be using.

Make a plot plan

This detailed diagram shows the OBZ your property dimensions and those of your project down to the very inch. It also determines whether you can build something to your desired scale and shape. You can hire a licensed architect or surveyor to draw up a plot plan, but it may cost you. Online services like can help you draw your own diagram for less money.

Apply for a permit

Now that you have the knowledge, resources and materials you’ll need to dig your big hole, it’s time to apply for a building permit! This all-important step is not free: according to, the average building permit costs $979. And it’s best not to move forward until you’re ready to go, because building permits typically carry a start-by date and expiration date, meaning your project must start and end within a certain timeframe. If you don’t start or complete your project on time, the permit becomes null and void and the fees you paid are lost forever. You can file for an extension but that might cost more money.

If you’re thinking about digging deep to make your homeowner visions a reality, go for it! Just make sure you do the dirty work first.





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