What’s a flag lot? A flag on a map looks very different from the view on the street.

I don’t really think that flag lot is part of common parlance anywhere outside of the domain of real estate and land development.  But it’s such a common condition—and such a simple concept to understand—that it’s kind of surprising most people don’t really know about it.  I certainly didn’t until I dipped my toe in the industry, and I’ve only briefly referenced it in the past.  But those who do learn will always remember, not only because it’s so rudimentary but because it creates consequences on real property that are unlikely to change without a legal action or a fundamental change to the landowner’s title—which is usually tantamount to a legal action.

It really is as simple as I’m letting on: a flag lot is a lot that has the shape of a flag.  But what exactly does flag-shaped mean?  It’s a strange analogy.  If one were to describe the general shape of a flag, it would inevitably require a flag itself in its full, natural, unfurled form, which, about 99% of the time, is a rectangle. (Thanks to Ohio and Nepal for providing some rare exceptions!)  And then there’s a quadrilateral protruding from one corner of that rectangle, representing the pole—a quadrilateral in the most liberal use of the term.  A flagpole is so much narrower than the unfurled flag that it’s practically a line.  Narrow though it may be, it’s still fundamentally planar; that is, it still contains both width and breadth, a distinction that is important when applying this shape onto a lot or parcel in subdivision and land development.

These features constitute the typical flag shape and thus characterize the typical flag lot.  The linked diagram illustrates it in its most basic form, juxtaposed with a more conventional lot.  As this diagram illustrates, the flag lot has very little street frontage; essentially, the “flag pole” is what allows access to the larger, more developable rectangle that is a certain distance from the road.  By definition—for it to truly operate as a flag lot—the “pole” portion should be too narrow to support a structure of any great value.  A home or other structure would have to fit in the “flag” portion of the flag lot, leaving the pole to provide an access driveway to the public right-of-way.

I wanted to provide an example of a flag lot through Google Maps, primarily because it’s the most prosaic and widely familiar online mapping tool in use at present.  The search for a good flag lot proved trickier than I expected, not because flag lots are rare—they’re a dime a dozen—but Google Maps no longer makes parcel lines easy to visualize.  Across much of the country, it is not possible to view lot lines, perhaps due to local or state-level privacy restrictions.  And even in those places where parcels are still visible, the lines are very faint and difficult to see, and the viewer has to zoom in considerably for them to appear—sometimes so zoomed in that the very essence of an entire flag lot isn’t visible within the browser window.  Fortunately, after much searching, I found an example near where I used to live: the postal address of Coplay, Pennsylvania:

There it is, front and center: 2145 Old Post Road (State Route 329).  It’s not a perfectly conventional flag shape; almost closer to the Ohio flag.  But the fundamentals are obvious: a larger quadrilateral that offers enough space for a home, then, protruding out of the southwest corner, a narrower “pole” shape that provides access to the public right-of-way.  Frankly the “pole” is wider here than in many flag lots, but it still fundamentally functions so that a parcel that is some distance away from a public road still has access to that road.  Without the “pole”, it wouldn’t be a flag lot, but then, it also would be a landlocked parcel, where the owner could only achieve ingress or egress by traveling through an adjacent parcel, which another person most likely owns.  Given these fundamental conditions, it should come as no surprise that flag lots are more common in rural or semi-rural areas, for the primary reason that rural areas by definition have lower density of infrastructure, including street networks, which means, if the parcels themselves aren’t inordinately large (to account for the yawning spaces between roads), the necessity for flag lot dimensions is simply greater.  In short, the flag lot as a surveying/subdivision tactic ensures access—and thus development—of property in areas where fewer ROWs put much of the land out of reach.

Once the concept is understood and the image of a flag lot becomes etched in one’s mind, they’re easy to spot on various parcel maps: tax assessment, surveying, subdivision, civil engineering, etc.  But what does it look like at the worm’s-eye level?  I recently happened to come across a few flag lots during a casual run, and it wasn’t out in farm country; it was in the intensely urbanized County of Arlington, Virginia—specifically, in the hilly, wealthy Arlington Ridge neighborhood.  Here’s an example at the end of a cul-de-sac:

If it’s not obvious from the photo, I’m standing on the asphalt that consists of the right-of-way at the end of the road.  The taupe home on the right has good frontage at the dead-end.  But what about that driveway protruding from the left half of the photo?

There it is: a separate carriage house at the end of the driveway and the larger home itself, both painted yellow.  The home’s lot has virtually no access to the street itself, beyond the approximately twelve feet that comprise the width of the driveway.  How can I conclude this?

flag lot in Arlington Ridge, VA

Easy—the home to the left of the driveway is right there, just feet away.  Thus, the pale green home (to the left of the driveway) and the taupe home (to the right) leave the access drive wedged in, like it’s the pole, leading to the flag that is the much larger portion of the lot where the yellow house sits.  The unusual shape gives the yellow home the appearance of being tucked away from the road, which many homebuyers might find desirable, though it also yields an unconventional lot configuration.  Essentially, the yellow house has virtually no front yard, and those front windows look out unto the side of the neighbor, right across that driveway.

Elsewhere in Arlington Ridge, the flag lot example is less sneaky, but it can reveal a clever way to put otherwise hard-to-develop land to good, economically viable use.

The sign in the yard is evidence enough: I’m standing on South Lynn Street.  The home in front is a conventional lot.  The home in back—up that steep hill—is a flag lot.  But that’s not all.

Immediately adjacent to those two homes is another pair: one in the front and another in the back, partway up that hill.  The photo below, isolating the two uphill parcels, should clarify:

symmetrical flag lots in Arlington Ridge, VA

Symmetrical flag lots!  The one on the left is shaped like how Americans typically write the Arabic numeral “9” (though not represented that way very often typographically); the home on the right is shaped more like a capital letter “P”.

symmetrical flag lots in Arlington Ridge, VA

The flag poles are wide enough for them to each claim a discrete driveway, but what if the “flagpole” was only 10 feet wide?  Chances are, only one of the parcels would get direct access; the other parcel would remain “landlocked” and would need to negotiate an access easement to share the driveway with the flag lot neighbor.  This strategy is also how a landlocked parcel must function if the parcel’s owner cannot negotiate a flag lot arrangement with a neighbor by purchasing the requisite land to form the access “pole”.  In such a case, it is strongly advisable to negotiate access as an easement, codified through covenant within the title.  After all, a handshake deal might work with two friendly neighbors, but when one of the two neighbors sells the house (especially the homeowner with street frontage), what if the new buyer isn’t so fond of the arrangement?  If it’s baked into the title, it cannot escape reference in the deed and will function as a term that carries over to the purchaser of the property.

If the hypothetical in the previous paragraph isn’t evidence enough, flag lots can easily become a prickly issue.

flag lot in Arlington Ridge, VA

This final photo series in Arlington Ridge handily provides empirical evidence of the problems that a flag lot poses.  I’m usually hesitant in this blog to scrutinize private residences to the point that addresses become obvious.  But I’ve already revealed my hand with a few of the other properties, haven’t I?  Suffice it to say, I don’t photograph anything that wouldn’t already be visible from the public right-of-way, meaning that Google Street View captures more or less the same images at 1800 South Lynn Street that I did.  That said, I won’t reveal any more than necessary, and in the photo above, once again in the Arlington Ridge neighborhood, the “1912” emerging from the light pole reveals it all.  To the left is a driveway, but it doesn’t service the home to the left; the wooden fence suggests it’s a separate property.  The driveway also doesn’t service the home to the right, outside the camera’s frame.  Instead, 1912 just goes back—way back.  In the photo below, I have crossed the street and am looking straight onto that same driveway.

flag lot in Arlington Ridge, VA

Neither of the two homes visible in the photo’s frame have anything to do with that driveway.  It serves a house out of view in the distance—another flag lot with an unusually long pole.   Google Maps suggests that the home sits on a lot that primarily rests behind 1914 (the property on the left), but it’s far back enough that it probably enjoys a front yard all of its own—a front yard that looks onto the back yard of 1914.

This third example probably demonstrates most effectively why flag lots, though still quite common, are often undesirable, and land developers therefore avoid them.  Numerous municipalities have included provisions within their subdivision and land development ordinances (often called SALDOs) that prohibit the creation of new flag lots.  (The old ones are grandfathered.) A home like the 1912 featured above is probably more secluded than is typical for a high-density community like Arlington County, but it comes at a price.  The most obvious drawbacks pertain to infrastructure.  In a neatly ordered, developer-designed subdivision, the notion of pretty homes all in a row, with similar setbacks from the street, isn’t just an aesthetic.  It’s more efficient for linking the various homes’ electric, water, sewer, gas lines to a common trunk.  Those outlier homes in the back require extra cost because they disrupt the unity.  Secondly, flag lot homes are not intuitive for an outside visitor to locate and can amplify risk if an EMS vehicle is trying to find the address in a rush.  More importantly for the homeowner, however, are those inordinately long driveways.  A home like 1912 has two to three times as much impervious surface as its neighbors, which can amplify problems of stormwater runoff, requires more money to maintain (both asphalt and concrete will deteriorate with the changing seasons), and, perhaps the greatest nuisance of all, an extra-long driveway is a massive expense when it comes to snow shoveling.  Northern Virginia doesn’t get a ton of snow, but a twice-a-decade snowpocalypse certainly isn’t unheard of.  Even without snow, icy driveways on slopes can be a tremendous hazard—something I’d imagine those two flag lots on South Lynn Street face every winter.

These factors all contribute to a tendency for flag lots to sell at much lower cost.  Though some potential buyers may like the quirky layout or the secluded feel, they represent a small subset of the total pool of buyers, translating to lower demand.  Furthermore, flag lots can weaken demand for the neighboring homes with good street frontage; not everyone wants to look out their back yard to see the front of another house.  It’s not wrong; it’s just atypical, and many people balk at the atypical.

The biggest saving grace of flag lots is that they help restore viability to difficult parcels of land, rendered accessible due to sparse road networks, or tricky topography, as is more likely the case in Arlington Ridge.  For this reason, rural areas are far less likely to shun flag lots.  It’s not just because rural areas in general show a greater aversion toward unnecessary land regulation—they do—but because the countryside has lower density, larger lots, and fewer roads in general, and rural administrators don’t want to squander the opportunity for someone to make good use of an otherwise difficult parcel, depriving it of a chance to boost the rural jurisdiction’s aggregate land value (and tax base).  A prevalence of flag lots should offer a clue that the supply of private land and public access routes might be out of whack.  The pros and cons that they provide are evidence enough that each municipality—or county—should decide what’s best.  In keeping with the parlance, it’s a matter of local concern. 

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19 thoughts on “What’s a flag lot? A flag on a map looks very different from the view on the street.

  1. Alex Pline

    In Annapolis we have our own unique version of flag lots where the pole fronts the water, not the street. It’s a way to provide waterfront access with the pole just wide enough for a dock.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Sounds like that ventures into issues regarding “littoral property rights”–a subject I have hesitated to dip my toe into for several years, though I have a potential case study out of Milford, Delaware.

      Without having any idea what your Annapolis example might look like, I have a vision that it isn’t entirely different from the weird angles used in lots clustered around a cul-de-sac, where they all squeeze to get their piece of road access, then widen to fit the house…shaped almost like a comic strip’s comment bubble. Of course, I’m presuming the shape of the water is like a bay or a cove. (Incidentally, it is somewhat common in Mississippi to call a cul-de-sac a “cove” instead of a “court”.)

      Reply
  2. DB

    Flag lots are very common in suburban New Zealand; have a look around there. Seems like they’re helpful in reducing the ‘roads to parcels ratio’ and likely making development more efficient in that sense. That said, they often result in bigger blocks and for whatever reason (likely privacy/security/lack of coordination) they don’t seem to often use the flagpoles as connections to shorten those blocks, or provide quieter walking/cycling connections away from the main roads.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for sharing. What is the best public-sector authority to easily view parcel maps in NZ? In the US, it’s usually the Tax Assessment Office. Google Maps is of limited help; it simply doesn’t always show it and seems to depend on state laws.

      I agree that flag lots are a good way to put otherwise fallow but developable land to good use, but they do create potentially acrimonious relations with neighbors. And I’m not sure the efficiencies gained in housing density help to overcome the inefficiencies in providing infrastructure to those homes that don’t fit in a good tidy row. And, of course, the issue of extra-long driveways, which probably isn’t as big of a deal in New Zealand, given that most of the country’s major urbanized areas rarely receive snow or ice.

      Reply
  3. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    The term of art where I grew up was lot-in-depth, which may be technically correct (the best kind of correct) but is decidedly esoteric. I more often hear panhandle lot in real estate parlance whereas flag lot seems to be preferred in zoning ordinances.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Maybe it really is a regional thing? As one of the other commenters here noted, some practitioners simply refer to it as the “rear lot”, which is generally the configuration that results from a flag/panhandle lot-in-depth.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      As one of my other readers noted, a more obscure alternative name for them is “lot-in-depth”, which probably characterizes what happened many times in your high-cost neck of the woods. Case in point, a home with an unusually large front or (probably) back yard can subdivide that “in-depth” yard, allow a second home to take the new lot in the back, which still has access to the main public road through a long skinny driveway. I’d assume this is more desirable as a back yard because otherwise the homeowner would willfully turn his/her property into the flag lot. The condition I’m describing is potentially what happened for the two/four homes on South Lynn Street in my photos.

      Either way, this isn’t likely to happen much outside of extreme high-cost areas, where homeowners may recognize that there’s more yard than they need, and doing this gives a sudden surge of cash while offering them relief in the assessed value of their property for taxation purposes. Even Arlington County, as expensive as it may be, isn’t quite stratospheric enough that happens very much.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      yep, and also, as I learned from some other commenters, it has the additional name “panhandle lot”. With so many nicknames, it’s almost like it’s trying to dodge some controversy!

      Reply
  4. Carl Ford

    The house I grew up in had a neighboring flag lot. The owner of the flag house and my father didn’t get along so well, and the neighbor tried to claim all of “his” driveway. So my dad requested that the town surveyor (who lived about a block away) verify the property line. He easily found the steel spike, located approximately at the upper left corner of the red rectangle drawn around our property. As a witness to the event and as an occasional smart-ass, I immediately volunteered to build a fence on our property line, rendering his garage unusable. 🙂

    https://snipboard.io/tTwb9i.jpg

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Sounds like the perfect storm of issues that I would expect from a flag lot situation. Fundamentally it would have been entirely within your right to build that fence. To make that angle, your neighbor had to cut into your property, which–judging from the pavement or gravel–you clearly generously allowed him to do!

      Plenty of places–mostly urban ones–have outlawed flag lots altogether. Yet, as one of my other commenters has revealed, they are more popular than ever in super expensive markets like the SF Bay Area. Over there, it wouldn’t surprise me if people are selling their back yards to build another house through government incentives (to relieve the housing shortage) and to cut back on a big back yard that they either don’t need or can’t afford when it comes to paying annual property taxes.

      So, regardless of the prickly situations they create, flag lots ain’t going nowheres.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for sharing. It definitely looks like most of the flag lots in the first two photos were front people who had huge back yards, so they finally found a way to cash in, while deciding that looking out at the front of another house from their back yard isn’t such a bad thing. To each his or her own.

      I imagine this constitutes a sort of alternative approach to ADUs (accessory dwelling units), which are the proverbial “granny flats” used to help increase housing supply in terminally unaffordable areas. They are controversial though.

      Lastly, I’m still mystified by the final aerial photograph, which seems to show completely landlocked parcels that have now “flagpole” giving them access to the right of way. What are the homeowners supposed to do in these instances? The only solution would be to include an access easement on the property with right-of-way frontage (the “front” house), but those create an albatross in the titles that subsequent homebuyers may not want to deal with.

      The biggest detriment to flag lots is the abnormally long driveways, which are inefficient, cost more to maintain, and are a nightmare to deal with in snowy weather conditions. But, needless to say, your neck of the woods doesn’t have to worry so much about that last factor.

      Reply
  5. GW

    Another method of access is to create a number of lots which are technically landlocked but are accessed by a private servitude. The servitude is usually given a street name and treated like a regular street, but is not constructed to public street standards.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for sharing. That makes sense, and it is probably often coterminous with an access easement, with the one difference being that the terms of a typical access easement only pertain to two primary parties: the property owner with direct road access (whose land will contain the easement) and the property owner who needs road access (who will negotiate the access easement with the neighbor to obtain road access). Meanwhile, a private servitude involves negotiation of shared access among multiple parties, but, as you noted, remains private land that does not need to abide by municipal road standards and expects no repairs or maintenance from the local government.

      I’ll admit I could be guessing on this, but I think your “private servitude” probably plays out something similar to what I’m describing.

      Here’s an example of something in the same vein near where I grew up: https://maps.app.goo.gl/jfNRiELvxkHwfAfe7
      Timber Hill was my first exposure to a private drive. I don’t believe this is quite the same as a private servitude that you describe, since these roads serve about 15 homes. But it’s clearly a private road (note the restrictive signs, and all the mailboxes right at the front entrance). Not sure if it began as a single piece of land divided by the structure of a flag lot, but it seems that a private servitude would–if it becomes complicated and large enough to justify the formation of a homeowners association–look something like this private community Timber Hill in southern Indianapolis. And at least one of these remote, upper-middle income homes has the structure of a flag lot as it connects to the private road.

      All things considered, I’m kind of surprised Google Street View has sent its little camera guy into the neighborhood, which must have happened with the authorization of the HOA.

      Reply

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