Dear Steve,
We’re going to look at some vacant properties, which we are told are “flag lots.” How is a flag lot different from a regular subdivision lot with cul-de-sacs?
— Ratana

Dear Ratana,
Flag lots are so named because of the long, slender strips of land resembling flag poles that extend from the typically rectangular main sections of these lots — or the “flags” — out to the street. Each “flag pole” typically provides just enough frontage for vehicle access and is often shared by several neighbors.

Unlike the development of subdivisions, the land owner who practices this land-use strategy divides the property into several stacked individual tracts located behind the main road, often to avoid the red tape and expense of carving out new city streets and cul-de-sacs. Home lots with road frontage, you see, are often exempt from platting regulations.

As long as these lots are “flagged” to an existing artery, the owner or developer can escape most county or municipal supervision in many parts of the country.

But be cautious. Some flag lots, sometimes called “colonias,” should be flying a red flag. Because there’s no county or city upkeep on these often roughshod access roads, you and your fellow flag-lot residents may be held responsible for maintenance on them.

Sometimes, flooding or ground shifting can render them nearly impassable for residents, let alone emergency vehicles, contractors or school buses. And if your flag lot is undeveloped, you may have to pony up for the initial cost of extending utility lines (i.e.; water, sewer and gas) from the street. Because there are fewer zoning controls over home construction, the neighborhood character can be easily compromised by just one shortcut-taking yokel with a backyard dog-breeding operation or worse.

In areas where governing bodies are able to impose restrictions on flag lots, minimum-lot size requirements for home construction are often greater than for curb-site homes. For example, you may need a lot of at least 10,000 square feet, or 0.22 acres, excluding that “flagpole” section before you can build, compared to say, 8,200 square feet (0.18 acres), for traditional curbside lots. Some localities have also banned construction of second stories on flag-lot homes.

Of course, there are benefits to flag lots as well. They are cheaper than most subdivided lots. There is much less traffic noise, more nature and usually fewer design restrictions if you want to build that solar or wind-turbine powered house you always dreamed of.

But before signing anything, check with the governing municipality/county to see what restrictions or perils, if any, you face. Or to twist an old cliché, you’d better run that flag lot up the pole and see who salutes it — and who doesn’t.