Zoning Laws

Building Considerations

Are you planning to build your dream home? Once you are pre-approved for a loan and have found a professional real estate agent you trust, you are ready to start looking for the perfect lot. 

Compare the qualities of several target neighborhoods by looking at schools, shopping, recreation and zoning. Make sure that the zoning regulations allow you to build the size and height of the home you want. Find out if there are use restrictions that would prevent you from developing your property as you intend. A visit to the local planning department will clarify your options for building. 

Consider what type of home would best suit your lifestyle. Create a checklist to itemize the "must-have" interior and exterior features of a house that you feel are absolute requirements. Make notations about yard size, paint, roof and window conditions for the exterior, and floor plan, room quality and condition of the appliances for the interior. Bring your lists to your real estate agent. Together you can look over the currently available properties that correspond to your needs.

Buying Property to Build

The ideal piece of land cannot be purchased without due diligence. Say you notice a lot for sale in a suburban area that looks like a perfect place to build your dream home. Buying undeveloped land can provide an opportunity to build a house that will meet your needs, but you will need certain information before you sign on the dotted line. 

Most suburban areas have zoning regulations which govern the type of structure that can be erected, the dimensions, and even the material used on the exterior. Historic preservation groups work with builders in many areas to ensure that any new construction fits in with the existing buildings. If you want to build out of the city limits, check the availability of public utility services and the cost of bringing those services to the site. Local planning and zoning boards can provide you with information about proposed development that could change your quiet country lane into a busy street. 

It is a good idea to consult an architect and a zoning expert to confirm that your vision will work on the property you have selected.

Easements

Every property has some kind of easement--utility, water and sewer or driveway easements which give access to landlocked parcels. As a property owner, you may be affected by easements at some point.

The easement in gross is the most common type of easement used by public utilities. These easements are often under or above the ground, so they do not consist of actual land. If a utility gains the right to an easement in gross over your land, it must pay you for the diminishment in value of your property.

Easements by prescription become easements simply through unchallenged use by the landowner for a specified number of years (usually 10-20). To avoid such an occurrence, the landowner must periodically make a formal objection to "start the clock over".

The most familiar type of easement is easement appurtment that allows access to public roads and is used to create driveways and walkways for subdivided parcels. This type of easement should be treated by both landowners (and beneficiaries) as actual land parcels to be described and recorded meticulously.

Keeping an Eye on Zoning Decisions

Zoning classifications are the most important tool that a local government has to control the way land is used in a community. Areas designated as residential may have further controls on housing density for single family homes, townhouses or multiple-family houses. There are usually areas set aside for industrial, commercial and recreational purposes. Zoning boards spend their time listening to requests for exceptions to these rules or hearing arguments from parties who want to change or bend the existing zoning regulations.

These zoning decisions have a major impact on the surrounding neighborhoods. Citizens' groups often get involved in testifying at hearings on proposals that could affect their property values or their quality of life. These groups help create interest about issues in the local press and work to educate their neighbors about matters affecting them. Developers who go before a zoning board seeking major changes are wise to involve the local neighborhood group in formulating proposals that will affect those homeowners.

Read the Fine Print

Many states require the seller of a home to fill out a real estate disclosure statement when transferring the title. The disclosure is designed to reveal any material defects in the home to the new owner. When buying a home, take the time to read the fine print of the disclosure form. 

Look for a section that asks the seller to indicate the material defects that exist in the home's major systems. Most forms will specify interior and exterior walls, ceilings, roof, insulation, windows, fences, driveway, sidewalks, floors, doors, foundation, and the electrical and plumbing systems. As the buyer you will want to know of defects in any of these areas. 

Sellers are required to note the presence of environmental hazards or zoning violations. They must disclose if there are any encroachments or easements, or walls or fences shared with adjoining landowners. Room additions or repairs made without the necessary permits or not in compliance with building codes must be noted. Sellers must disclose citations or lawsuits against the property. If any such conditions appear on the disclosure form, consult with your real estate agent immediately regarding how to proceed with negotiation.

Remodeling and Permits

Obtaining the proper permits when remodeling can be a critical element in the process. Many homeowners are unaware of the local building codes and zoning laws governing renovations. Disregarding these laws may result in fines, and in some cases you may even be asked to demolish the work that has been done. 

When remodeling you have to go through the process of obtaining the proper permits. Zoning laws protect homeowners and cover issues such as the size of setbacks (distance between buildings and property lines), the height of buildings and occupancy. State and local building codes deal primarily with life and safety issues (insulation, smoke detectors, plumbing, electrical wiring, etc.) In order to satisfy these regulations you must submit information showing the project complies with the laws. 

When plans do not conform they are sent to the Zoning Board of Appeals. There the homeowner, accompanied by an architect or attorney, presents his case at a public hearing. Usually the board tries to work with you in compromising with what you would like to do and what is best for the neighborhood.

The Zoning Variance

When you are selecting land on which to build your new home, be certain to investigate the zoning for that particular area. You might fall in love with rural acreage that just happens to be zoned for agricultural or recreational purposes. Since zoning uses are not interchangeable, you would need to apply for a variance in order to build a single-family residential dwelling on the land. This can be a challenging process! 

Getting approval to have the zoning changed on property requires that you first give public notice, and then request approval for a variance from the government agencies that supervise enforcement of the zoning plan. You might encounter resistance from neighbors or various local interest groups who oppose the zoning changes that would allow you to build your dream home. 

Your local planning department can tell you how a particular property is zoned and explain what you need to do to get a variance. Your real estate agent may be able to refer you to a local land use attorney who can guide you through the process.

Zoning In

Every city and county has zoning laws that define and restrict how property owners can use the land. The purpose of zoning regulations is to establish development standards and to ensure that the land is used for the common good. 

There are restrictions on both the type of structures you can build and how the property can be used. Common zoning categories are residential, agricultural, industrial, commercial and recreational. There are sub-categories such as single-family residential zones and multiple family residential zones, (areas where condo and apartment complexes are permitted.) 

Zoning ordinances also contain restrictions on the height and square footage of the buildings, the number of stories allowed and how close buildings can be to one another. They state what kinds of facilities are required for each form of use -- for instance, a residential property must have a driveway. Whether you intend to buy a new piece of property or improve one that you already own, zoning laws will dictate what you will be able to do with your land.

Shirl A Thornton
Shirl A Thornton
Real Estate Professional